Who am I? The question today haunts every society in the Western world.
Legions of people—especially the young—have become unmoored from a firm sense of self. To compensate, they join the ranks of ideological tribes spawned by identity politics and react with frenzy against any perceived threat to their group.
As identitarians track and expose the ideologically impure, other citizens face the consequences of their rancor: a litany of “isms” run amok across all levels of cultural life; the free marketplace of ideas muted by agendas shouted through megaphones; and a spirit of general goodwill warped into a state of perpetual outrage.
How did we get here? Why have we divided against one another so bitterly? In Primal Screams, acclaimed cultural critic Mary Eberstadt presents the most provocative and original theory to come along in recent years. The rise of identity politics, she argues, is a direct result of the fallout of the sexual revolution, especially the collapse and shrinkage of the family.
As Eberstadt illustrates, humans from time immemorial have forged their identities within the structure of kinship. The extended family, in a real sense, is the first tribe and first teacher. But with its unprecedented decline across a variety of measures, generations of people have been set adrift and can no longer answer the question Who am I? with reference to primordial ties. Desperate for solidarity and connection, they claim membership in politicized groups whose displays of frantic irrationalism amount to primal screams for familial and communal loss.
Written in her impeccable style and with empathy rarely encountered in today’s divisive discourse, Eberstadt’s theory holds immense explanatory power that no serious citizen can afford to ignore. The book concludes with three incisive essays by Rod Dreher, Mark Lilla, and Peter Thiel, each sharing their perspective on the author’s formidable argument.
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About the Author
Mary Eberstadt is an American writer and a Senior Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Her books include How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization; It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies; Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution; and the novel The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism.
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The Conversation So Far, and Its Limitations
In order to approach the "why" question, it is necessary, first, to take a step back in the conversation and ask a "what" question — as in, what points relevant to this book's thesis have been made about identity politics so far?
One early insight into the shifting sense of self appeared in a landmark work in which the phrase "identity politics," ironically, does not so much as make an appearance. With The Closing of the American Mind, first published in 1987, professor Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago produced a surprise best-seller. Part moral diagnostic and part cri de coeur, Closing would go on to influence a generation of critics struggling to pin down what, exactly, had transformed the great quads of the academy into places where increasingly aggrieved factions were abjuring Western civilization itself.
Bloom's dissection was controversial then and remains so. For one thing, the professor's erudition all but ensured that many readers who would have empathized with his argument did not read it (as Friedrich Nietzsche quipped of Immanuel Kant, he wrote for the common man in language that only a scholar could understand). For another, Bloom's critique of "vulgar" relativism in the academy was received frostily by many academics. Simultaneously, his extended attack on rock music, in particular, guaranteed that many readers, especially though not only on the left, would dismiss Closing as the midlife tantrum of a cultural reactionary.
But one need not sign on to all, or indeed any, of Bloom's other theses to find in his analysis of young souls an advance notice of what seemed to be a new rip in the human fabric. Citing Rousseau's Emile, in which the education of a student is undertaken "in the absence of any organic relation between husbands and wives and parents and children," as Bloom put it, Closing summarized the young as follows: "That is it. Everyone has 'his own little separate system.' The aptest description I can find for the state of students' souls is the psychology of separateness."
What Bloom discerned was not identity politics per se, but the antecedent without which they would not have been possible: the unique isolation of the late Baby Boomers and Generation Xers who were populating his college classrooms. And though this aspect of his argument does not seem to have been much noticed, Bloom repeatedly connected the solitariness of his students to a phenomenon experienced by more and more: divorce. "The most visible sign of our increasing separateness," he argued, and "the cause of ever greater separateness, is divorce. It has a deep influence on our universities because more and more of the students are products of it, and they not only have problems themselves but also affect other students and the general atmosphere."
Three decades ago, that is to say, a link between the country's devitalized homes and the aloneness of their emerging young residents was visible, at least to one perspicacious if perennially controversial professor.
The bridge between Bloom's observations and the identity politics to come arrived in the form of another word that did not appear as such in Closing: multiculturalism.
To some people, "multiculturalism" meant, and means, something as anodyne as the embrace of ideas and traditions different from our own. On campuses and elsewhere though, multiculturalism beginning in the 1980s came to mean something divergent and more virulent: the idea that all cultures have equal value — except for Western civilization, which has less.
Paradigmatic was the revolt on January 15, 1987, at Stanford University, during which some five hundred students led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson marched to the chant, "Hey hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go." Two years later, its "Western Culture" introductory humanities program would be replaced with the "Culture, Ideas, and Values" program with its "more inclusive works on race, class, and gender," as Stanford's archive puts it.
Whether all of those who sought a more "inclusive" curriculum simultaneously wanted to jettison the Western canon is unknowable in retrospect. But the emblematic political theater at Stanford captured a zero- sum thinking that persists to this day in discussions of identity politics: the idea that the tradition formed by Athens and Jerusalem, Christianity and Western philosophy, was the designated enemy of "diversity" in the eyes of multiculturalism's defenders.
What happened at Stanford didn't stay at Stanford. Resistance to multiculturalism soon became a rallying cry for conservativism, one that united libertarians and social conservatives as other issues did not. Also downstream of that same eruption came a number of new books in the 1990s and early 2000s, assessing what multiculturalism and its emerging sibling, identity politics, would mean for the making or unmaking of the United States. Of these, three delivered assessments of identity politics that were especially prescient regarding the conversation to come.
In The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, first published in 1992 and then enlarged and republished in 1998, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. sounded notes that rang through other critiques written years later: that the separatism of such politics "nourishes prejudices, magnifies differences, and stirs antagonisms," thereby undermining a common identity.
Citing the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who argued that the political project of the left "should be for all human beings," Schlesinger also worried especially about multiculturalism's toxic effect on the left's traditionally universalist agenda. The "hurt-feelings standard," he charged, resulted in a "censorship strategy" that would, inter alia, "hand the free speech issue to the right" — a prophecy now enacted nightly on Fox News, among other venues where conservative voices routinely and correctly flag the stifling of expression out of keeping with progressive conformity, especially in the academy.
Vivid though his prognostications were, what leaps out most about Schlesinger's analysis in hindsight is that like Allan Bloom, he was troubled by what seemed to be an increasingly emotive, irrational tone in public life — especially among the young. Also like Bloom, he sought a root cause, ultimately identifying "world shrinkage" — what we would now call globalization — as the destroyer-in-chief. "The more people feel themselves adrift in a vast, impersonal, anonymous sea, the more desperately they swim toward any familiar, intelligible, protective life-raft; the more they crave a politics of identity," he observed.
Also ahead of his time, and also writing from the left in the 1990s, Todd Gitlin surveyed what he called The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars. While disputing the conservative analyses as overheated and ill informed, Gitlin emphasized nonetheless that "the campaign against PC [political correctness]" resonated for one big reason: because "identity politics and attendant censoriousness were real." The "triumph of identity politics," he wrote, meant "intellectual parochialism."
Twilight is also useful as a gauge of how powerful identity politics has become in the years since. In 1995, one could still say to a liberal-left audience, as Gitlin did, that "the Enlightenment is not to be discarded because Voltaire was anti-Semitic or Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Jefferson racist ... for it equips us with the tools with which to refute the anti-Semitism of a Voltaire and the racism of the others." It is a measure of the ferocity — and success — of identity politics since then that those would be fighting words to many liberals and progressives today.
In 2012, cultural critic Bruce Bawer published a book that was also insightful, illustrating both the programmatic march of identity politics through the institutions and the increasing incoherence of its academic jargon. The Victims' Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind explored the widespread rejection of classical learning and its supplanting by ideologies of identity throughout the academy. It also delivered an inside account of the dramatic intellectual transformation from the 1970s through the 1990s — the same years, inter alia, during which the first generations born after the sexual revolution were coming of age.
The Victims' Revolution is especially compelling for zeroing in on the literary embarrassments of these new "identity studies" — the indecipherable prose committed in the names of "women's studies," "black studies," "Aztlan theory," "male studies," "fat studies," and the rest of the catalog, ad infinitum. Consider the following incomprehensible example that appeared in the journal Diacritics, authored by one of the pioneers of "queer theory":
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
Yet the infelicity of the identitarian argot only raises the question once more: why, for generations now, have so many students — including the sort who are educated enough to attain entry into the most elite colleges and universities — been falling for this patois in the first place? What, exactly, in this awful cacophony is singing to them?
The next and most recent chapter in the developing conversation over identity politics began late in 2016. Just when it seemed as if the election of Donald Trump had rendered his supporters incoherent with triumphalism and his detractors incoherent with rage — thereby dumbing down political conversation for a long time to come — something different and more interesting happened. A genuine debate sprang up among liberals and progressives not only in the United States, but in other countries grappling with the same subject: identity politics.
Jump-started by a manifesto called The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, by Columbia University professor and liberal Mark Lilla, the ensuing discussion revealed even more clearly than before the struggles within the American left between the defenders and detractors of identity-first thinking. The purpose of Lilla's broadside was twofold: first, to denounce identity politics, sometimes called "identity liberalism," and second, to convince his "fellow liberals that their current way of looking at the country, speaking to it, teaching the young, and engaging in practical politics has been misguided and counterproductive."
As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains in its entry on the subject, "Wherever they line up in the debates, thinkers agree that the notion of identity has become indispensable to contemporary political discourse." Like Schlesinger, Gitlin, and other critics on the liberal-left before him, the author of The Once and Future Liberal offered an explanation for the resort to such politics. "Thirty years of economic growth and technological advance that followed the Second World War," he argued, combined with new geographic, institutional, and erotic mobility, have led to a "hyperindividualistic bourgeois society, materially and in our cultural dogmas." Flush with prosperity and unprecedented new freedoms, we moderns went on to atomize ourselves: "Personal choice. Individual rights. Self- definition. We speak these words as if a wedding vow." By the 1980s, such hyperindividualism coalesced into a "Reagan dispensation," which prized self-reliance and small government over the collective — thus marking a radical break from the preceding "Roosevelt dispensation," emphasizing more communal attachments, including duty and solidarity with one another.
By embracing the politics of identity, this professor argued, liberals and progressives had unwittingly contaminated their politics with "Reaganism for lefties," resulting in the toxic consequences visible today: shutdowns of free speech on campuses, out-of-touch urban and globalized elites, and a political nonorder deformed into a "victimhood Olympics."
In effect, Mark Lilla's was a supply-side answer to the "why" question: identity politics became the order of the day because it could. That is, on the surface, an unassailable claim. But missing from that analysis — as from other analyses of identity politics, right as well as left — is the demand-side answer to the same question: why have so many people found in such politics the very center of their political being?
After all: that identitarianism is now the heart and soul of politics itself for many people, not only in America but elsewhere, is a visceral truth — as visceral as the footage of campus turmoil now seen with a frequency that would have shocked most citizens only a decade ago. What's singular about such politics, many would say, is exactly its profound and immediate emotivism, its frightening volatility, its instantaneous ignition into unreasoned violence. The author of The Once and Future Liberal acknowledged this reality indirectly in describing "a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity" — all true, as far as it goes. But the problem is that reality is far less nuanced.
When a mob of young men attack a seventy-four-year-old man and a middle-aged woman, sending the latter to the emergency room with significant injuries — as happened at Middlebury College in 2017, in the case of visiting speaker Charles Murray and Allison Stranger — something deeper is afoot than American individualism run amok. When debate after debate is preemptively shut down due to threats of violence on social media — as happened at Oxford University in 2014, among other examples, when a scheduled debate over abortion was shuffled around and finally cancelled — talk of a Reagan dispensation doesn't begin to capture the menace there. And consider these: $100,000 in damages from a riot over a 2017 appearance by provocateur Milo Yiannopolos at University of California, Berkeley; $600,000 spent in "security" on the same campus upon a visit by conservative Ben Shapiro; increasing demands by administrations that student groups inviting unpopular speakers fork over unexpected high sums, again in the name of "security." To ascribe these and related transgressions to overheated individualism is to miss what's truly novel about them. And frightening.
Contra Mark Lilla's otherwise compelling critique, what's happening on campuses and elsewhere today is not merely "a pseudo-politics of self- regard." It's all panic, all the time, served up with more than a smidgeon of violence. Even the phrasing "assaults on free speech" does not suffice to capture the gravity of the new menace — though of course these occurrences are that too. The point is that many of today's protests are not your grandmother's 1960s political protests at all. Often, they are exercises in dangerous collective hysteria, as more and more observers and firsthand participants now testify.
Writing after a 2015 lecture at Oberlin College on feminism that was mocked, jeered, and peopled by protestors whose mouths were covered in duct tape, for example, Christina Hoff Sommers commented on the "cult-like" behavior witnessed there. Charles Murray reported similarly of the attack at Middlebury College that he had never encountered anything like the irrationality and ferocity seen that day. Heather Mac Donald described a harrowing two days spent on different quads in California in 2017. The subject of her scheduled speech — the importance of adequate policing in the crime-plagued inner cities — tripped ideological alarms. As a result, at Claremont McKenna College, a mob of two hundred aided by megaphones and amplifiers prevented people from entering the hall; nervous administrators first moved her podium away from a window, then escorted her to a safe house via an unmarked police car. What she did manage to deliver of her talk was accompanied by chants, shrieks, drums, and poundings on the walls outside. At University of California, Los Angeles, following another speech on the same trip, screaming protestors stormed the event, and she had to be removed with a police escort.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Primal Screams"
Copyright © 2019 Mary Eberstadt.
Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Myth of the Lone Wolf,
PART ONE: PRIMAL SCREAMS,
1 The Conversation So Far, and Its Limitations,
2 A New Theory: The Great Scattering,
3 Supporting Evidence, I: Understanding the "Mine!" in Identity Politics,
4 Supporting Evidence, II: Feminism as Survival Strategy,
5 Supporting Evidence, III: Androgyny as Survival Strategy,
6 Supporting Evidence, IV: How #MeToo Reveals the Breakdown of Social Learning,
Conclusion: Thoughts on the Rediscovery of Self,
PART TWO: COMMENTARY,
About the Contributors,