Magazine October 28, 2019, Issue

Fraying Families and the Roots of Identity Politics

A young woman verbally assaults a policeman during a protest on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., August 22, 2017. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, by Mary Eberstadt (Templeton, 192 pp., $24.95)

There’s a passage in the second chapter of Mary Eberstadt’s new book that effectively captures the point of the entire work. Eberstadt is discussing some of the insane excesses of modern political correctness: campus demonstrations, cancel culture, and so forth. “Such phenomena are indeed bizarre,” she writes, “if we examine them with the instruments of Aristotelian logic. But if instead we understand them against the existential reality of today — one in which the human family has imploded, and in which many people, no matter how privileged otherwise, have been deprived of the most elementary human connections — we can grasp in full why identity politics is the headline that just won’t go away.”

Like sheep, we moderns have all gone astray. Eberstadt calls this process “the Great Scattering.”

It’s an evocative image, and it rings true. Modern society does often feel like a purgatorial hinterland, in which millions of strangers coexist joylessly, bumping shoulders or even knocking boots without experiencing real intimacy. The problem, in Eberstadt’s view, is family, or rather the lack of it. Thick familial bonds are part of a human being’s “natural habitat”; without them we feel vulnerable, lost, and disoriented. Adopting the language of sociobiology, Eberstadt tells us that the human animal “has been selected for familial forms of socialization that for many people no longer exist” (emphasis in original). Growing up in broken homes, without a supportive kinship network, we struggle to form a healthy sense of self, and our moral maturation is stunted. Knowing who our people are helps us to know who we are.

This point about personal identity is critical to the book’s central thesis. Using Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal as a jumping-off point, Eberstadt notes that identity politics has gone off the rails to the point where even liberals are becoming alarmed. She undertakes to explain the origins of this malady, which in her view can be found in the sexual revolution. By destabilizing the natal family, the sexual revolution created an epidemic of existential angst, ripping us away from the natural communities that once helped us to understand ourselves. Social-justice warriors may look like a progressive fringe, but their fanatical rhetoric is best understood as the “primal scream” of a deracinated people who have never known “the givenness to which generations are born.”

In a series of chapters on unhinged activism, feminism, gender-bending, and the Me Too movement, Eberstadt traces a path from fragmented families to our contemporary political scene. Her analysis is compassionate and completely free of rancor, offering a refreshing break from the endless right-wing diatribes against “cultural Marxism.” To Eberstadt, social-justice activism represents much more than a crass bid for power. It is rather a “survival strategy” for the alienated. We can see this in both sexes, albeit in different ways. Without protective male relatives, young women become uncomfortably vulnerable and start grasping at other forms of security: crude mannerisms, traditionally masculine postures, and demands for punitive crackdowns on sexual harassment. Young men, for their part, need family to teach them how to conduct themselves around women. Without that training, growing numbers end up as embittered loners or sexual predators. Everybody loses. Meanwhile, the unrooted masses go searching for new communities that can satisfy their need for belonging. Political-identity groups are a poor substitute for family, but in post-sexual-revolution America, many people will take what they can get.

Longtime followers of Eberstadt’s work will be interested in the book’s political slant, since it fills out a picture that she’s been sketching in pieces for a couple of decades. Previous books have explored the sexual revolution’s impact on marriage, family life, and romance more broadly. Now, in Primal Screams, Eberstadt places American politics under the same lens. Drawing evidence from a wide range of sources (popular culture, literature, anthropology, natural science), she notices things that others might not, and her observations are worth contemplating whether or not you ultimately find her argument compelling.

To get the full benefit of this book, though, we should examine the questions it raises, as well as those that it answers. By stressing the connection between blood and personal identity, Eberstadt forces us to ponder the appropriate role of family in modern society. It’s a troubling subject, no matter where one falls on the political spectrum.

In comparison with our ancestors, modern people have clearly devalued familial bonds, while placing increased weight on voluntary associations. To the modern mind, impiety toward ancestors is a trivial offense (at worst). Many traditional cultures embraced forms of familism that contemporary Americans find offensive or wrong: arranged marriages, caste systems, or the practice of suttee (whereby a widow throws herself on her late husband’s funeral pyre). Nepotism, to us, is a form of corruption, not a salutary continution of the great chain of being. By contrast, we celebrate resourceful people who achieve at high levels despite humble origins.

Of course, it is possible to have strong families without throwing widows onto funeral pyres. Eberstadt is not recommending that we implement a caste system or reinstate primogeniture. She simply wants us to rethink the sexual revolution. In her preferred world, biology would push us forward toward marriage and family life, while traditional sexual mores would impose restraint. Tradition, in this vision, could be liberating, enabling us to build a thriving society without endorsing honor killings or submitting to tribal patriarchs.

That’s an appealing prospect, especially for religious conservatives such as Eberstadt and I. That said, it’s not entirely clear why this conversation should focus so exclusively on sex. After all, there are many stops along the road from Neanderthal caves to modern-day Manhattan. It seems obvious that modern people have become dangerously alienated, as evidenced by our chronic anxiety, crushing loneliness, and morbid obesity. Once we’ve entered the realm of “primal screams,” though, we’ll have to re-examine an enormous range of lifestyle changes that our ancestors have made over the centuries. Which elements of contemporary life should be celebrated, and which abandoned? Eberstadt draws freely on examples from the animal kingdom to illustrate her points. Wolves, she tells us, are not really loners, and juvenile elephants learn appropriate social behavior from their patriarchal elders (or not at all). This is interesting indeed, and there may be some salutary lessons here, but these analogies force the question: When do we not want to be like animals?

In many people’s minds, the sexual revolution is irreversible for broadly the same reasons that arranged marriages, primogeniture, and legally defined social classes are now unthinkable. These practices really make a great deal of sense if our priority is to maintain the integrity of the family within an ordered social whole. We’re not willing to adopt them, though, because we place such a high value on individual freedoms. In the United States today, young people aren’t expected to grow into their parents. Instead, we urge them to explore their own talents and interests, with the eventual goal of finding an occupation, spouse, and social situation suitable for them personally. In many ways, our highly diversified labor force requires that kind of testing and sorting. It’s also consonant with our social ideals; we think that people should have the freedom to pursue happiness. Rigid social classes and family trades would be an impediment to that goal, so we’ve largely rejected those. Now comes the rub: Wombs can also be an impediment.

Was it inevitable that a culture that celebrated self-made men would eventually have to wrestle with the conundrum of the self-made woman? It could be that the sexual revolution was unavoidable, once medical technology reached a certain point. For a time, the inescapable realities of female fertility provided a check on fraying familial bonds. Women of childbearing age had to be protected, in light of their unique physiological vulnerabilities, and that imperative placed natural limits on sexual experimentation. Then technology opened an escape hatch, and conservatives found themselves scrambling to articulate satisfactory reasons why young women should subordinate their interests to the good of the family, in a way that no one else was expected to do. When the matter is considered from that angle, it may be a bit myopic to blame the sexual revolution alone for Eberstadt’s “great scattering.” The sexual revolution itself may be the consequence of a lengthier process that has unfolded across centuries. As individual achievement takes priority over community and clan, people increasingly find themselves struggling to forge lasting human bonds.

We still need families. On this point, Eberstadt is surely correct. It may be, though, that relitigating the sexual revolution just isn’t fruitful at this hour of the day. Progressives can’t readopt traditional sexual morals, because they simply don’t believe in them anymore. To them, there really isn’t that much difference between traditional gender roles and the three estates of pre-revolutionary France. Given this reality, Primal Screams may serve conservative readers best by presenting us with an invigorating challenge. How can we promote a more traditional family model without relying so heavily on the negative argument? Readers less sympathetic to that argument will demand a more affirmative vision. They’ll want to hear how we can enjoy the benefits of intact families without sacrificing individual interests to an unacceptable degree. They’ll want to know whether it’s possible for every citizen to assume membership in a cohesive natal family while also enjoying a respected place in society at large.

Do we have answers to these questions? If so, we need to articulate them. If not, let’s generate some.

This article appears as “The Great Scattering” in the October 28, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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