I do not intend to provide a critical review of Eberstadt’s book, something which would take much more time and effort, and something which has already been done (such as this review by Carl Trueman). Instead, I wanted to offer a summary of the book’s main lines of argument and offer it as a very helpful book that gets to the heart of one of the root causes of identity politics. Like Eberstadt mentions, other factors contributed to its rise, such as real crimes and injustices committed against minorities.
Beginning in January 2019, my employer granted me a one-year research sabbatical. This has meant that I have spent very little time reading the news or writing opinion pieces. It has also meant that I have spent very little time on Twitter, that social media outlet which is very good for a few limited tasks (e.g. notifying people about a given matter, pointing them to good books and articles) and aggressively, noxiously bad for most other tasks (e.g. setting forth positions, debating ideas, reweaving the fabric of civil life).
Most importantly, it has meant that I have spent an extraordinary amount of time reading books, among the best of which is Mary Eberstadt’s Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (2019). In fact, it was so good that I outlined the entire book for my own benefit and will provide a very slim summary and response to the book in this post.
The significance of Primal Screams is that Eberstadt provides a compelling account of the wider story of which identity politics is a part. Many commentators have described and/or criticized identity politics, but in my opinion, none have sufficiently located it in the broader narrative of the West’s shared life. In sum, she argues that there are many factors giving rise to identity politics—including the fact that real injustices have been committed against minorities—but none of those factors are more significant than the Sexual Revolution.
The Great Scattering
Towards the beginning of the book Eberstadt sets forth the argument that people feel like victims today partly because we are victims. We are victims of a “great scattering.” We were born into a society in which traditional familial forms of socialization have dissolved. Instead of being primarily the member of a family embedded in a community of other families, and with a certain givenness characterizing life, people find their identity in erotic leanings and ethnic claims. In other words, they have a weaker sense of givenness than previous generations and must search for it elsewhere.
But what does Eberstadt mean, specifically, when she speaks of the dissolution of familial forms of socialization? Her argument is multi-layered, but six aspects of it are highlighted.
First, American families—white and black—have experienced an increase in divorce, single-parent homes, and out-of-wedlock births. Because of this, many children grow up with their father out of the picture. And, as James Q. Wilson has argued, this development is especially problematic because family structure is more important than race, income or class in determining future positive outcomes.
Second, as sociologists Norval D. Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt have demonstrated, children of divorced parents experience a fractured identity. They are torn between their divorced parents and even express the feeling that their personal identity shifts depending upon which parent is present with the child at a given time.