Mary Eberstadt’s Primal Screams is a well-researched, cleanly-written book, full of evidence, theories, statistics, anecdotes, analysis.
Its thesis is arresting and compelling. Eberstadt claims we can trace the rise of identity politics to the “Great Scattering” that followed the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
When we as a culture decided against traditional sexual norms, we decided against the family. And when we decided against the family, we decided against all the traditional modes of identity.
“Who am I?” is a primordial question. Once we could say, “I am son of my father and mother, brother to my siblings, nephew to my uncles and aunts, scion of generations.
Identity wasn’t complicated because it was embedded in kin networks. Beyond those, location was an identifier (“I am an Ohioan”), and religion (“I was baptized as a Christian”).
Now what? Who’s the father in a home when the husband is on his third marriage, the wife on her second, and their kids are “yours, mine, ours”? Is the guy who moved in with Mom last month “Dad”? If not, how long does he have to stay before he is?
The collapse of the family provoked a reaction. If my family, hometown, and church can’t answer “Who am I?” I’ll I have to find another group to answer that essential question.
No one can dispute that the erosion of the family coincides in time with the rise of identity politics. Simul doesn’t entail propter hoc, of course. But Eberstadt provides several lines of evidence for the connection: the fury over appropriation, the aggressiveness of feminism, androgyny and #MeToo.
Above all, she thinks her theory explains the visceral energy of identity politics, which is “all panic, all the time, served up with more than a smidgeon of violence” (27). When protesters don’t engage in argument but cry, chant, stomp, shout, something deeper than politics is at stake.
It’s a compelling thesis, deftly defended. But the strongest part of Eberstadt’s book is its compassion. She takes the grievances of protesters seriously, because she’s convinced “that beneath the noise of identity politics lie authentic hardships” (68).
The SJWs and protesters don’t recognize their real hardships. But they are victims, primarily victims of the insane experiment in sexuality we’ve been carrying on for the past several generations.
Why are feminists today so vulgar, so masculine? Eberstadt suggests: “In a world where laissez-faire sex has made male companionship more peripatetic than before, some women will take on the protective coloration of male characteristics – blustering, cursing, belligerence, defiance, and also, as needed, promiscuity” (74).
Feminists feel threatened because they are threatened. Broken homes, recreational sex, the collapse of the family. Men are unleashed to be predatory, since none of the traditional constraints remains operative. Lacking male protection, women turn masculine, thinking, “we will rein men in by other means” (75; her emphasis).
What, she asks, made #MeToo situations possible in the first place? What’s wrong with these predators? “Don’t they have mothers, sisters, and other women in their lives?” (95). We might think that’s a rhetorical question, but it’s not. Many sexual predators have never had a normal, non-sexual relationship with a woman.
If Eberstadt is right, certain forms of opposition to identity politics will do more harm than good. If feminists are increasingly aggressive because they lack male protection, an aggressive response from a male pundit only adds fuel.
And if Eberstadt is right, the deepest response to the insanity of contemporary politics cannot merely be protest and argument. The fundamental response is to build and preserve families, to cultivate churches where outcasts can belong, to be fathers and mothers to the orphans of the sexual revolution.
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