Did the sexual revolution give birth to identity politics? In her new book, out today from Templeton Books, Mary Eberstadt make a compelling case that it did. The central claim of the book is that the Western family’s mass disintegration, caused by the sexual revolution, has left a gaping hole of identity that many people are trying to fill with racial and sexual demographics.
It is rare for a book in this day and age to make such a sweeping claim, yet with a truckload of data and evidence Eberstadt makes her case appear more and more plausible. She opens with a familiar but robust account of the parade of horribles that identity politics has wrought. Political correctness, clamping down of speech, societal disunity, in general just a breakdown of liberal norms are explored in turn.
But the main thrust of the book is not to condemn this new reality in which we exist, but to ask why and how it happened. Eberstadt finds the big bang of these troubling trends in the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. Abortion, birth control, and a general liberalizing of sexual mores led to a breakdown of the family. This breakdown has led to several generations of people in the West who struggle to attain any true sense of identity, and thus go looking for one.
“Who am I?” Eberstadt writes, “An illiterate peasant in the Middle Ages was better equipped to answer that question than many people in advanced societies this century. He may only have lived until age 30 – but he spent his days among family and in towns, practicing a shared faith, and thus developed a vivid sense of those to whom he was elementally connected…”
There can be little question that she is correct in asserting that in modern Western life those elemental connections are badly strained. And it does strike at the core question of “Who am I?” One piece of evidence she uses is a study that showed that children of divorced parents answered yes to the question, “Do you feel like a different person with each parent,” at extremely high rates. This slipping of self is a gateway to finding one’s true identity in something other than family and community.
In the absence of an assumed, and yes, imposed, identity, all manner of identities might and do flourish. We see this at work with a fundamental difference between transgenderism and homosexuality. Even when homosexuality was far more disdained in our society than it is now, the percentage of homosexuals was about the same. But with transgenderism, we see sharp spikes now that it is not only accepted, but applauded.
This is a kind of longing for belonging at work. It displays a search for a home that was once the family that now often becomes an invisible network of likeminded misfits who give people what they think they need. Central to all of this is the feeling of oppression, the validation of victimhood. Eberstadt pinpoints the beginning of modern identity politics as the Combahee River Collective Statement developed in the 1970s, on the heels of the sexual revolution.
I would place it later, but her argument that black feminists’ adversarial approach, even and especially towards black men, marks some kind of beginning makes sense. Eberstadt points out that their grievances were announced just as the black family was dissolving in ways that would soon be mirrored by other communities.
Critics, as Eberstadt well knows and addresses, will view “Primal Screams” as a justification to take back hard-won feminist victories, to put women back in the maternity ward and kitchen. As reasonable and rational as her insistence that this is not her aim is, it will likely fall on many deaf ears. In no small sense, this makes the work a very courageous one. It also proves her point.
The final three chapters are dedicated to short commentary about Eberstadt’s thesis by Rod Dreher, Mark Lilla, and Peter Thiel. This is an unconventional thing to do, perhaps the result of a desire to make the work more marketable. But it does good service to the book, with such a broad, “Mary explains it all” approach; their takes lend the ideas certain gravity. Dreher is particularly adroit in his focus on the loss of organized religion as an adjacent phenomenon.
“Primal Screams” is and should be controversial. It is also quite brilliant. I can think of few books in recent memory that eschew academic and journalistic orthodoxy in as cutting and well defended a way. Anyone interested in the roots of our current identity-driven dilemmas would be remiss in not reading it.