How Identity Politics Turns Us into Animals: A Review of ‘Primal Screams’ by Mary Eberstadt

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“Today’s clamor over identity—the authentic scream by so many for answers to questions about where they belong in the world—did not spring from nowhere. It is a squalling creature unique to our time, born of familial liquidation.”

MARY EBERSTADT

Introduction: Understanding Identity Politics as the Howling Result of Fractured Families

What do you do when you don’t know who you are? When you feel all alone? Or when you’ve lost your family? You scream. Well, at least that’s what animals do. They howl, like wolves. That’s exactly how Mary Eberstadt opens her book on the root causes of identity politics — by considering the behavioral traits of wolves. Despite common misconceptions, evidence shows that wolves neither live in isolation as “lone wolves” nor do they roam in “packs.” Instead, “Wolves are, in fact, intensely familial animals” (page 1). From the family lives of wolves to orcas, and even elephants and coyotes (later mentions in the book), Eberstadt explains that “The more human beings learn about the fantastically intricate social workings of nonhuman beings, the more some want to spare those fellow creatures suffering,” including “the pain of familial and habitat separation, and the dysfunctions associated with that dislocation” (4-5). In other words, if humans can understand that animals are created to thrive in properly ordered communities, in families, then doesn’t that apply to us, the human animal, as well?

Eberstadt certainly thinks so. In Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (West Conshohocken: Templeton Press, 2019), she draws a direct connection between the way the sexual revolution has destroyed the family, yielding millions of human versions of “lone wolves,” adrift and alone in our society, and the rise of virulent identity politics. Eberstadt is well-positioned to engage this subject as one of the preeminent thinkers and writers on the impacts of the sexual revolution. She is an accomplished essayist, holds the Panula Chair in Christian Culture at the Catholic Information Center, is a senior fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and is the author of related books such as How the West Really Lost God and Adam and Eve After the Pill.  In Primal Screams, her latest book, Eberstadt brings her sharp writing, researched conclusions, and career experience together to argue that the rise of identity politics, in the United States, and around the world, is a direct result of how the sexual revolution has destroyed the natural family, and along with it, good and necessary societal hierarchies and relationships.

Summary: How the ‘Great Scattering’ has Isolated the Human Animal

In the introduction, Eberstadt explains that this book is about “consequences,” that is, “some of the consequences—in particular, the political consequences—that have been visited on Homo sapiens since we made ourselves exceptions to rules that are part and parcel of the survival strategy of fellow creatures” (5). What are these political consequences? In a phrase, it’s the rise of identity politics.

Eberstadt begins by noting that the only thing we agree on as a society these days, it seems, is that we increasingly disagree — on everything. But rather than wade into the current conversation about our country’s crackup with further foreboding observations, she tries to put her finger on why “identity” is the main battleground on which the fights are played out. “How has the matter of ‘identity’ come to be the emotional and political ground zero for so many in the first place?” asks Eberstadt (6). Another way to phrase this question, as she suggests, is this: “Who am I?” (8). Eberstadt contends that “Whichever way one looks…a remarkable fact appears: the question of Who am I? is now one of the most fraught of our time. It has become like a second skin—something that can’t be sloughed off or even scratched, without excruciating pain to the subject. Why? That is the question posed by this book” (9).

The fact that so many people in society don’t seem to know who they are raises another question — how did this happen? Eberstadt coins an interesting term to describe the great communal disruption suffered by Homo sapiens over the last 60 years — the “Great Scattering” (9). The Great Scattering was (and is) the “unprecedented familial dispersion” driven by the “engine of the sexual revolution” (9). The rise of birth control, the rapid acceptance of premarital sex, the advent of no-fault divorce, the legalization of abortion, etc. — all products of the revolution — have worked together towards the end of destroying the “natural human habitat,” the family (10). Far from freeing us, Eberstadt understands the sexual revolution to have isolated us in identity-driven misery. Her thesis is clearly stated: “In short, this book argues that today’s clamor over identity — the authentic scream by so many for answers to questions about where they belong in the world — did not spring from nowhere. It is a squalling creature unique to our time, born of familial liquidation” (11).

The introduction does quite a bit of philosophical and scene-setting heavy-lifting for Eberstadt in Primal Screams. After her introduction, the book is divided into two parts. “Part One: Primal Screams” is Eberstadt’s supporting evidence for her thesis. “Part Two: Commentary” includes published reactions and critical commentary from Rod Dreher, Mark Lilla, and Peter Thiel. In her first chapter, she surveys other relevant research related to the question of the rise of identity politics as one of, if not the, defining feature of the political landscape in the 21st century. She looks at Alan Blooms’ The Closing of the American Mind, which, while surveying life on college campuses, also noted that “the most visible sign of our increasing separateness…the cause of ever-greater separateness, is divorce” (20). Next up is the rise of multiculturalism, which Arthur Shlesinger argued caused to people feel “adrift in a vast, impersonal, anonymous sea” and thereby propelled them towards identity politics (22). Eberstadt also considers literature addressing the rise of the victim class, the advent of Donald Trump, the internet, racial flashpoints, and tribalism. All these, she argues, don’t quite capture the core of the issue, which she turns to in chapter two, “The Great Scattering.”

Here, Eberstadt comes back to her main thesis, which is that “Our macropolitics have become a mania about identity because our micropolitics are no longer familial” (37). Connecting it back to the sexual revolution, she contends that it erased the “givenness into which generations are born,” that is, knowing who your family is (38). She suggests that “an illiterate peasant of the Middle Ages was better equipped to answer that question [Who am I?] than many people in advanced societies today” (38). Why? Because the peasant knew who his mother and father were, was raised by them, knew his siblings, knew his extended family, and was, by all intents and purposes, raised within the social unit the human-animal needs to be raised within to be content and well-adjusted — the family.

The rest of chapter two considers how the sexual revolution has resulted in the “Gone Daddy” of fatherlessness (41), the “Gone Child” of divorce (43), the “Gone Parent” of assisted reproduction technology (47), the “Gone Siblings” of the shrining and splintered family units that do exist (49), the “Gone Family” of prolonged singleness (53), and finally the “Gone God” of the loss of religion as a cornerstone of societal and familial life (55). Eberstadt summarizes the aggregate effect of these losses, these “gones,” like so: “In sum, the diminution and rupture of the human family and the rise of identity politics are not only happening at the same time. They cannot be understood apart from one another” (61).

In chapters three through six of Part One, she marshals four more discrete pieces of “supporting evidence” for her case. In chapter three, she considers the “Mine!” in identity politics, which she argues encapsulates the “infantilized expression and vernacular” of the movement (64). Why do liberal college students make such a fuss about things like “cultural appropriation” or shout down conservative speakers? Eberstadt understands it to be a tantrum, stemming from the fact that something real has been taken from them — their families (69). Then in chapter four she considers “Feminism as a Survival Strategy” in a world marked by predatory men, who have flourished in the absence of strong families (71, 74). She argues that “women have been left vulnerable and frustrated” and that “feminism promises women what many can’t find elsewhere: protection” (75).

Moving into chapter five, “Androgyny as a Survival Guide,” she looks at the blurring of the lines between the sexes and societal understandings of gender roles. Here she argues for “a new interpretation of the scene, according to which transgender bathrooms and related controversies are manifestations of a bigger and more abiding story: how the Great Scattering has increased pressure to gravitate away from traditional masculine and feminine and towards a more ambiguous, androgynous mean” (82). In short, as women are told to be more like men in the workplace, men are penalized for displaying traits that could be seen as “toxic masculinity,” and therefore both retreat to the androgynous middle ground. “Ironically enough,” Eberstadt concludes, “androgyny spells the ends of the species” (87).

Finally, in chapter six, Eberstadt touches on the #MeToo moment in American culture. Far from just being about justice for women who have been sexually assaulted or abused, she suggests that the #MeToo “movement exhibits in full what happens when great swaths of humanity are more socially illiterate than our forbearers were, because the pool of those from whom we learn earliest and most naturally has diminished” (91). One key way Eberstadt sees this play out is that “many women have been socialized ideologically to believe they need no protection at all. But as #MeToo ironically demonstrates, that is a risky bet” (100).

In her conclusion, Eberstadt presents another memorable example from the animal kingdom. Poaching has, apparently, caused such a disruption to the ecosystem of elephants that many young bull elephants are being raised without the influence of older males. The effects have been extreme — “some young bulls have so lost their sense of elephant-ness that they have taken to raping rhinos” (104). Ending where she began, Eberstadt reasons from the lesser to the greater: If “destroying the family life of highly social, intelligent animals lead inevitably to misery among individual survivors and pathological misbehavior among the group,” as she quotes a Nobel Prize-winning author speaking of elephants, how much more does such familial and social unraveling impact humans, who are made in the image of God (103)? She doesn’t offer a solution, as she understands the “argument over identity politics and its origins concerns anthropology more than it does politics” (108). In other words, Eberstadt maintains the fundamental issue isn’t what to do, but who we are. And we don’t know who we are because the sexual revolution has destroyed our families — the most significant incubators of meaning and identity. Thus, identity politics is “not so much politics as a primal scream…the collective human howl of our time, sent up by inescapably communal creatures trying desperately to identify their own” (109).

Evaluation: A Convincing but Monocausal Case for Our Societal Shakeup

As I move into a critical evaluation of Primal Screams, I will provide both my evaluation and incorporate elements from “Part Two: Commentary,” since they function as evaluations of her work and arguments as well. At the outset, I would argue that Eberstadt makes a very convincing, if monocausal, argument — the rise and triumph of identity politics in the United States is best explained by the fact that no one really knows who they are anymore. And why doesn’t anyone know who they are? Because the sexual revolution has ruined our families.

The way that Eberstadt weaves narratives and studies related to the lives of nonhuman animals is particularly convincing. I trust that most Christian readers don’t necessarily need examples from the animal kingdom to convince them of the importance of families — God makes this clear enough in the Bible, particularly given that the second table of the law largely relates to familial relationships. That said, it is emotionally striking when you read accounts of how animals — whether wolves, orcas, elephants, or coyotes — suffer when separated from their families. I provided the quote about the elephants raping rhinos in the summary, but it bears repeating as it resounds as quite the striking analogy for our own deeply sexually-confused day and age. Eberstadt recounts that “the depletion of a critical mass of older males has given rise to rampaging behavior by young males — behavior that does not exist when older bulls are there, because their mere presence keeps younger bulls in social line…Some young bulls have so lost their sense of elephant-ness that they have taken to raping rhinos” (104). One would be hard-pressed to find a more apt, and stark, description of the outbreak of homosexual behavior in human society over the last two decades than that one.

On this point, of the connection of identity politics to the acids of the sexual revolution and ultimately the loss of religion, I share Rod Dreher’s appreciation of and assessment of her book. Dreher writes, “Until I read Primal Screams, I had not connected the destructive rage of identity politics with the terror quite understandably produced by the disintegration of society, of community, of family, and even, as we see now, of the self” (116). Underneath all of this, of course, is the loss of faith and the retreat of Christianity as a hallmark of American culture — the result of “gone God.” Dreher astutely connects this to the rise of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” which “teaches that God is a cosmic butler who wants nothing more than for all of us to be happy” (117-118). This type of faith, as expressed in mainline liberal Protestantism or progressive Catholicism has made a false peace with the sexual revolution, failing to realize it destroys the families needed to fill the pews of their dying churches.

Mark Lilla, in his commentary, raises some fair points of critique, which I personally believe have merit as well. In short, he thinks the case is just too “neat.” He says, “This first thesis I accept: the vogue for identity politics bears some relation to the atomization and fragility of family life today. It is the second thesis—which traces that atomization back to the sexual revolution, that I find unconvincing” (124). Lilla argues this monocausal explanation suffers from the logical fallacy of “post hoc ergo propter hoc, whatever follows from an event is caused by that event” (124). While I think the case is strong that the sexual revolution is, quite possibly, the single largest factor that has led to the fracturing of families, I also believe Lilla raises an important cautionary question: how can we be so sure? Lilla suggests that the sexual revolution is, in fact, just one piece in a more “encompassing thesis” that also should include “wealth embourgeoisement” — that is the rise of the middle class — and the “liquidity of contemporary life” (124-126). Lilla argues that the unrest expressed in identity politics may be a “desire for a less liquid world more generally” and for more “stable institutions, more stable economies, more stable populations, even more stable genders” (127).  While I don’t find Lilla entirely convincing either, his cautions against a myopic and/or monocausal explanation, and his encouragements to consider larger, global factors are welcome.

Finally, Peter Theil suggests that “the crisis of our time is not just a crisis of the family. It is a crisis of the future” (130). I agree with Theil, but not entirely on his terms. His commentary focuses on the economic issues, but I would argue the real crisis of the future is a moral crisis, a spiritual crisis. And it is on that front that, for as helpful as the book is, I do find Eberstadt most lacking. Although a Catholic, she never connects the family back to the creator of the family, God. While she does touch on the importance of faith as a key feature of identity that has been lost in her section on “Gone God,” she never manages to bring it back full circle and connect the pressing question that she sets forward — “Who am I?” — to the true “I AM,” the one true and living God. Ultimately, humans must anchor their identities, whether as husbands and fathers, or wives and mothers, or sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, and friends, at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, where God brought reconciliation between God and man, and man and man, through the life, death, and resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ. After all, constructing our identity outside of union with Christ is merely a patchwork effort, one that any number of revolutions, sexual or otherwise, can undo in a blink of an eye.

Conclusion: How to Stop the Screaming

Overall, I think that Eberstadt largely accomplished her task. She successfully drew a bright, red line backward from the insanity of identity politics of the 2020s to the advent of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. She casts a troubling but compelling vision, showing how our fractured familial structures — brought about by the Great Scattering, which was powered by the sexual revolution — have manifested themselves in increasingly infantilized political discourse, feminism, androgyny, and the #MeToo movement.  In each of these dark eddies, there are isolated, lonely, human animals letting loose a primal scream in the form of a question: “Who am I?” It turns out humans, like all other animals, desperately need to grow up within their God-given, creation-ordered, familial structures to best answer that question.

The book is thoughtful, punchy, and an engaging and easy read. While Eberstadt doesn’t provide any specific policy solutions, the theological and anthropological solutions are obvious. To that end, readers of this book should walk away with a galvanized commitment to work for the renewal of the natural family in America. We need mothers and fathers in exclusive, permanent, committed, monogamous unions to raise and nurture any children they may produce. And we need married couples who want to have children! This will help produce children — the next generation — who know who they are because they know who their parents are. We need vibrant, thriving communities built around local churches. In short, we must work to reverse the “gones” — and bring back God, fathers, families, and the fixed nature of biological sex distinctions as the bedrock of society.

Ultimately, in order to know who we are, we must know the One who made us. To paraphrase the great philosopher and theologian Augustine, our hearts will certainly be restless until they find their rest in Him. It turns out the most fundamental solution to the sexual revolution and the reversal of the madness of identity politics has been at our disposal all along, in the form of the two greatest commandments. First, we must love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is the bedrock of our identity — as worshippers of the Triune God. Then, with rightly ordered affections, we must love our neighbor as ourselves. It is in these acts that we answer the question “Who am I?” and, Lord willing, find that we can cease with the screaming, the howling, and the fighting — and find rest for our souls and renewed hope for society.


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