by Rod Dreher, The American Conservative:
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.