Identity Politics & The Great Scattering
Mary Eberstadt just published a great new book, Primal Screams: How The Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. Her thesis is that the fragmentation and dissolution of the family as an institution created a primal craving for a sense of identity among young people. In this essay for Quillette, Eberstadt explains her diagnosis:
Of all the issues that divide us, none seems as inimical to reasoned discussion as identity politics. Conservatives excoriate such politics as politically opportunistic theater, the acting out of coddled “snowflake” students. Liberals and progressives put forth an opposing grievance-first narrative, arguing that identity politics emanates from authentic wounds.
But what if both contenders have a piece of the truth? What if many identity-firsters today are claiming to be victims because they and their societies are victims—only not so much of the abstract “isms” they denounce, but of something else that till now has eluded description?
Let’s try a new theory: Our macro-politics have become a mania about identity because our micropolitics are no longer familial. This, above all, is what happened during the decades in which identity politics went from being a phrase in an obscure quasi-radical document to a way of being that has gone on to transform academia, law, media, culture and government.
Yes, racism, sexism and other forms of cruelty exist, and are always to be deplored and countered. At the same time, the timeline of identity politics suggest another source. Up until the middle of the twentieth century (and barring the frequent foreshortening of life by disease or nature) human expectations remained largely the same throughout the ages: that one would grow up to have children and a family; that parents and siblings and extended family would remain one’s primal community; and that, conversely, it was a tragedy not to be part of a family. The post-1960s order of sexual consumerism has upended every one of these expectations.
Who am I? is a universal human question. It becomes harder to answer if other basic questions are problematic or out of reach. Who is my brother? Who is my father? Where, if anywhere, are my cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews and the rest of the organic connections through which humanity up until now channeled everyday existence? Every one of the assumptions that our forebears could take for granted is now negotiable.
Eberstadt calls what has happened the “Great Scattering”. I know some of you readers are thinking at this point, feh, that’s just more social-conservative, traditional-family-values boilerplate. You’re wrong. I’ve never seen a cultural analysis quite like this.
Eberstadt looks at the statistics on family break-up (or never-forming), as well as social-science analyses, and correlates them with cultural evidence (e.g., popular music), and sees a generation or two whose primary experience of family is abandonment. The family is where we are first socialized. If we don’t start out in life with a stable, nurturing family, we are much more susceptible to all kinds of anti-social pathologies and habits of mind.
This is not to say that all people who get caught up in identity politics therefore come from broken family situations, and that all people who come from broken family situations are therefore destined to become identity-politics fanatics. Her point is that in general, we have become a society in which the family has been undone primarily by the Sexual Revolution, and that that unbinding of the primarily socializing institution has effects on our politics. Eberstadt says:
Wherever one stands in matters of the “culture wars” is immaterial. The plain fact is that the relative stability of yesterday’s familial identity could not help but answer the question at the heart of identity politics—Who am I?—in ways that now eludes many. The diminution and rupture of the family and the rise of identity politics cannot be understood apart from one another.
Eberstadt did an interview with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the book. Here’s what she said she wants to accomplish with the book:
Ideally, and for starters, conservatives and other critics of identity politics might come away from this book with a more empathetic understanding of where our national divisiveness is coming from. There’s a lot of collective anguish lurking under all the electronic flame-throwing, bizarre behavior on campus, and other manifestations of social unraveling and descent into unreason. If we’re going to ameliorate it, we need first to understand its fundament.
As for the liberal-left side of the spectrum, I hope readers will understand that this book is an attempt to understand identity politics from the ground up — that it takes such politics seriously, even if its analysis may challenge common suppositions.
It’s also to be hoped that some of those same readers might re-think the wholesale embrace of the sexual revolution and all its works. Within living memory, there have been men and women of the Left who did just that — among them, Christopher Lasch and other writers cited in the book. Maybe some liberals today might be persuaded to think twice by the data in Primal Screams about the revolution’s more pernicious consequences, such as the sharp rise in psychiatric trouble among the young, the role of pornography in divorce, the explosion of loneliness on a scale never before recorded, the rise in so-called “deaths of despair” that are plainly related to loss of love.
Partisanship aside, I hope all readers take home this thought experiment: If we urged on other animals the destructive behaviors we shrug at in ourselves, there would be public uproar about the suffering that would result — and rightly so. As J. M. Coetzee, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, explained, “Destroying the family life of highly social, intelligent animals leads inevitably to misery among individual survivors and pathological misbehavior among the group.” He was speaking about elephants, of course. But his words apply to humanity as well.
Obviously I’m a fan of the book. Mary, who’s a friend, asked me to write a response to it, to be included in the appendix. My words are there, as are responses by Peter Thiel and Mark Lilla. In my short essay, I interpreted Mary’s thesis through a Benedict Option lens, and wrote about how the Ben Op should be seen as a project dedicated to re-forming those primal familial and religious bonds as a gathering-in — this, in opposition to the Great Scattering. Peter Thiel’s piece talks about the economic basis of the family’s dissolution — namely, that we created an economy that discourages family formation.
Lilla, a liberal, partially endorses Mary’s thesis. He agrees that the breakdown of the family has something fundamental to do with the rise of identity politics. He does not really agree that it’s the fault of the Sexual Revolution. Lilla says that the main forces driving this are bigger than the Sexual Revolution. The first, in his view, is wealth. He points out that newly-rich China is now undergoing many of the same social problems Mary identifies, but without having undergone a Sexual Revolution. The second, even bigger cause, is modernity itself — specifically, says Lilla, the phenomenon Zygmunt Bauman tagged “liquid modernity.” I talk about this in The Benedict Option. It’s the concept that the rate of change is so rapid in our time that structures, habits, institutions, and so forth melt before they can ever solidify. It means the dissolution of all permanent things.
I agree with Lilla that the phenomenon is not monocausal, but my sense is that he is mistaken to downplay the role of the Sexual Revolution. Christian sexual teaching is not easy to live by, but it generally provides for strong families, chiefly, I think, because it binds men to their mates, and thereby creates a stable home for their offspring. That’s the ideal. Obviously there was never a golden age of perfectly Happy Families. Still, the fact that this ideal caused some to suffer a loss of personal happiness (e.g., being stuck in a loveless marriage) does not negate the fact that as a sociological matter, it’s healthier in principle for children to grow up with a mother and a father in a stable bond than otherwise.
The loss of the stable family may not have been caused primarily by the Sexual Revolution — that is, economics and the overall speed of social change played roles — but the Sexual Revolution did eliminate, or at least greatly weaken, the institutions that could make it possible for humans to ride out liquid modernity without drowning: Family and Church.
In her fascinating 2013 book, How The West Really Lost God, Eberstadt proffers a theory of secularization rooted in the breakdown of the family. I can’t do that book justice in this space (read this interview to learn more), but her basic argument is that humans learn how to love and worship God in society — and that means primarily (though not exclusively) in their families. When we lose the family, we find it harder to hold on to God. And, in her new book — which is basically a sequel to the first — she argues that when we lose the family, we find it harder to hold on to Man.
As Sarah Ruden, Philip Rieff, and others have written, one of the most distinguishing marks of the early Christian church is that it rejected the sexual individualism of Greco-Roman society. Today, if a Christian family rejects the sexual individualism of post-Christian America, and lives by spiritual and moral discipline, they may have what it takes to resist a primary force pulling the family apart, and leading to social breakdown. If a Christian family does not have a strong relationship with God, in community, it will be much harder for them to resist the deadly currents of liquid modernity.
If social structures outside the family were stronger, breakdown within families would not be quite so consequential. Moms and dads can’t control society, but they do have significant control over the lives of their families — if they will assert it. There are no foolproof methods; human beings have free will, after all. I know families that were a hot mess, but who produced incredibly strong, morally sane Christian offspring. I know families that were ideal by any measure, who produced kids whose lives are a catastrophe. On average, though, it is better to live one way than another.
All of us ask of ourselves the question, “Who am I?” We live in a civilization that no longer offers any confident answers. Hence the “primordial emotionalism and fierce irrationality” (Eberstadt) around identity politics. It’s not just left-wing identity politics either. I will close by sharing a passage Eberstadt cites in her book, taken from Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle’s 2017 look at how the alt-right grows out of 4chan and online culture. Nagle writes:
The sexual revolution that started the decline of lifelong marriage has produced great freedom from the shackles of loveless marriage and selfless duty to the family for both men and women. But this ever-extended adolescence has also brought with it the rise of adult childlessness and a steep sexual hierarchy. Sexual patterns that have emerged as a result of the decline of monogamy have seen a greater level of sexual choice for an elite of men and a growing celibacy among a large male population at the bottom of the pecking order.
Eberstadt says that young men today have to figure out how to negotiate a culture that promises unlimited sexual pleasure as a birthright, but in fact results in the most sexually desirable males enjoying more or less a monopoly on sex. This, by the way, is a major theme of Michel Houellebecq’s novels. What kind of man is it who cannot find a sexual partner in a world of broad sexual liberty? What does he do with that sense of failure and rejection? What if he has never had a father teach him that manhood does not depend on sexual conquest? What if he has no religion to instruct him that chaste singleness can be a holy state of life?
How does he not give himself over to some kind of identity politics? Identity politics provide bad answers to the question, “Who am I?”, but if you’re lost and desperate, a bad answer may be better than no answer at all.