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Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (Book Review)

November 20, 2019
By Scott Corbin

One of the lessons young writers are taught is that one of the keys to good writing is to repeatedly emphasize your thesis. This is typically taught in some variation of “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” The idea is that through repetition, reminder, and the marshaling of evidence, the writer is able to clearly communicate what it is they want to communicate to the reader. This leaves the reader with no doubts as to the central argument. While the idea is simple enough in theory, it is much more difficult to implement in practice (as this review endeavors not to demonstrate). 

Whatever literary faults Mary Eberstadt may exhibit, a lack of clarity around her central thesis is not one of them. 

Eberstadt, a past research fellow at the Hoover Institution and current senior fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., has spent the better part of her career displaying the folly and malignant wake of the sexual revolution. Her Adam & Eve After the Pill explores how the pill functions as a quasi-sacrament of the sexual revolution, ushering in the “already-but-not-yet” of sexual liberation. And in How The West Really Lost God, she explores unexamined aspects of secularization theories in the West, highlighting the ways in which the decline of family formation has led to a decline in church attendance. Highlighting the cyclical nature of family and religion, she charts how the decline of mediating institutions, especially churches, leads to the rise of social dislocation — and thus the rise of loneliness, depression, vice (be it substance abuse, internet addiction, etc.), and ultimately meaninglessness. 

It makes sense, then, that Eberstadt’s new book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, would focus on the question that animates human existence: who am I?

In Primal Screams, Eberstadt makes an a fortiori case, using the recent research exploring the social environment of animals, that the rise of identity politics goes part and parcel with the increasing dislocation of the family. As the family goes, so goes the rise of the identitarians. Whether it’s overly aggressive young elephants, maladjusted monkeys, or treed house cats, zoologists have concluded that things once thought to be innate to animals are acquired through social learning. It turns out animals are quite social. If this is the case for animals, how much more is it the case for homo sapiens, a rational animal? Eberstadt’s argument is that, inasmuch as society becomes increasingly hostile to the family, the rise of the politics of identity will follow.

The existence of identity politics cannot be limited to just one causal factor. The increased focus on identity can be attributed — convincingly or not — to a multiplicity of factors: globalization, multiculturalism, secularization, advanced technologies, capitalism, sexism, racism. For Eberstadt, however, these other factors, as helpful as they may be for understanding our times, fail to grasp at the primal nature of the animating question, who am I? The argument of her book is that “today’s clamor over identity—the authentic scream by so many for answers to questions about where they belong in the world—did not spring from nowhere. It is a squalling creature unique to our time, born of familial liquidation” (11).

Central to Eberstadt’s argument is what she calls the “Great Scattering,” that is, the sense of dislocation that has come to the offspring of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. By fraying the bonds of sociality that once governed human relations, answering questions like “who am I?” becomes much more difficult if one can’t also answer such as, “who are my parents? siblings? cousins? aunts and uncles?” Such questions are only more complicated when one introduces concepts like in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and other advanced reproductive technologies. 

To defend her thesis, Eberstadt focuses on four pieces of supporting evidence: the zero-sum game of competing groups, feminism as a “survival strategy,” the rise of androgyny, and what #MeToo says about social learning. Each chapter is stimulating in its own right, supporting Eberstadt’s contention that the rise of identity obsession has at least something to do with the sexual revolution and the resulting Great Scattering. While the subtitle seems to be promising more than it can deliver (the sexual revolution created identity politics?), Eberstadt is on to something. 

Eberstadt’s continued emphasis on the centrality of the family is important for helping Christians love their neighbors, helping policy wonks articulate policy that guides toward the common good, and offering a critique of visions of the “good life” that emphasize liberty — especially sexual liberty — as a means without an end. 

While Eberstadt’s thesis remains a sound, convincing argument for the importance of the family — an emphasis with which I wholeheartedly agree — one wonders whether the story is complete. There are legitimate questions one can ask about Eberstadt’s thesis, and which other more competent reviewers than I indeed have already asked, but one area I want to highlight is the relationship between family stability, religion, and secularism.

In short, it seems to me that the issues regarding identity are fundamentally religious, with the family serving as one flash point that signals a larger debate between what we could call immanentist religion and transcendent religion. For one, ultimate meaning is located strictly in the immanent frame, that is, meaning resides ultimately within the cosmos; for the other, meaning is ordered to transcendence, and primarily the God who stands above and beyond all creaturely reality.

This is why Steven A. Smith’s thesis in his important new book, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, deserves to be carefully considered by all cultural prognosticators when thinking about our current ailments. Smith argues that, contra the prevailing secularization narrative, the West has been in a dialectical tension between paganism and Christianity — understood as religion that is largely immanent (e.g. paganism and pantheism) versus transcendent religion (Christianity and other Abrahamic faiths). Smith does a careful analysis of the actual religious practices of paganism and, relying on the work of scholars like Kyle Harper, showcases how the transformation of sex was at the center of this revolution. 

With Constantine’s conversion, the rise of Christendom, and the official establishment of Christianity within the Roman Empire, the defeat of paganism seemed compete — that is, until the birth of the so-called modern age. 

Smith carefully shows how the modern age, and especially the late-modern world in which we live, bears striking similarities to paganism in antiquity with its immanentist religio — just with a different pantheon of gods. Lest we forget, the concept of the “nuclear” family, at least in the West, is a uniquely Judeo-Christian twist on male-female relations. Take away the brutal patriarchy, and our sexual revolutionaries would likely find much to commend in ancient Roman sexual practices. For all intents and purposes, the sexual revolution was no revolution at all; it was a practice in retrieval theology. 

For this reason, modernity’s turn to the self is explicitly theological. The superiority of the subject, the turn inward, moves the human person away from his final end, and with that, the elimination of “ends” or “purposes” at all. The moment the subject is placed at the center of his or her universe, meaning resides within. In this situation, the search for meaning is a creative endeavor in which the subject identifies for himself those things which are only then imbued with meaning. With this move, the dislocated self is free to pursue whatever god he or she so desires within the pantheon, whether it be aggrieved identity groups on the left or right. In this sense, our modern identitarians are radical Kantians. Or better, modern pagans. 

Returning to the question of family, in the relationship between the religio and the family, which is the cart and which is the horse? Eberstadt, both in this book and her earlier How the West Really Lost God, reminds us that the two are often in symbiotic relationship such that the decline of one means the decline of the other. In addition, Eberstadt is correct to highlight that, in terms of natural ends, the family is perhaps the key to human flourishing. Yet the question remains: is the dissolution of the family, the sexual revolution, the rise of loneliness — all of it — really the product of forces unleashed in the middle of the twentieth century, or is it a larger question about the decline of Christianity and the rise of a unique form of paganism, American style? In other words, are the crises we face centuries in the making? 

It is impossible to think about the decline of the nuclear family — the Judeo-Christian understanding of the male-female kinship bond — without thinking about the decline of the God at its center. What is needed in our cultural diagnosis is the hope of the beatific vision. Mary Eberstadt helps us to see more clearly the gnawing gap that is left vacant by the space that the family, the natural end of all creatures, once occupied. But natural ends are not enough. What is needed more than ever is a recovery of supernatural grace in the ancient war that has been raging since the Garden, when the good God, the final end of all creatures, created woman from man and proclaimed to all of creation that their union was good — nay, very good. 

Scott Corbin lives in Fort Worth, TX with his wife and three children. 

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