The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
It is commonplace, though surely justified, to lament the extreme polarization of public life. With the launching of impeachment proceedings during an election year, those divisions seem unlikely to dissipate soon. Related and in some cases underlying this division is the rise of “identity politics.” Mary Eberstadt describes this latter phenomenon succinctly: “For many Americans and other citizens, political desires and political agendas have become indistinguishable from the desires and agendas of the particular aggrieved faction with which they most ‘identify’—and the human beings outside those chosen factions are treated more and more not as fellow citizens, but as enemies to be eliminated by shame, intimidation, and, where possible, legal punishment.”´
For some decades, commentators have noted sociological factors related to this development, such as “solitariness” among young adults, “an increasingly emotive, irrational tone in public life,” and a culture of “hyperindividualism.” The contribution Mary Eberstadt makes in her new book is novel—an exploration of the “demand-side answer” to the question of why identity politics have become ascendant in the public square. In other words, the novelty of identity politics arises from an even more novel phenomena—a widespread retreat from family.
The book is framed by an analogy to wolves. Contrary to legendary perceptions, the introduction notes, wolves are “intensely familial animals,” and a lone wolf is more mythical than real. This is true for many species, which, we are learning, behave in “familial ways.” Ironically, while increasing numbers of humans believe a family can be defined by “whatever its self-appointed say it is, other animals do not.” In a striking passage, Eberstadt points out that misunderstandings of animal behavior may stem from studying captive animals separated from family ties. These animals appear to experience heightened anxieties, repetitive tics, aggression, and other atypical behaviors because they are in “forced packs” with unrelated animals. In such packs, “problems of dominance and hierarchies become accentuated.”
Now, she notes, we see some of the same phenomena in young people: “a marked rise in anxiety and repetitive behaviors,” decreasing life expectancy and self-harm. While some believe the “familial mutations” Eberstadt calls “the Great Scattering,” caused by the sexual revolution, are a net social benefit, the book points out these changes have “rained down destruction on the natural habitat of the human animal.”
This, she argues, explains much of the contentious, frantic, often irrational fights over identity on both left and right. Like the animals discussed in the introduction, “humanity does not gravitate to anonymous or ‘forced packs.’” More and more find themselves in such packs and alternative forms of identity have come to the fore to answer primal questions of belonging. These identities also provide a way to assert dominance and establish hierarchies in a rootless culture.
Eberstadt draws on these trenchant observations when she evaluates a common metaphor for our political moment—that it is an age of tribalism. The limitation of this insight is that: “Tribes themselves grow out of units of family and extended family.” Thus, perhaps “many people today are claiming to be victims because they are and their societies are victims—not so much of the ‘isms’ they point to as oppressors, but because the human animal has been selected for familial forms of socialization that for many people no longer exist.” Deprived of “the most elementary of human connections” of family, “erotic leanings and ethnic claims have become substitute answers” to the question of personal identity.
Eberstadt catalogs the trends contributing to the unprecedented weakening of family ties: absent fathers, identity crises in children precipitated by parental divorce or abandonment, legal facilitation of parents creating children with the express intention of never having a relationship with them, the disappearance of siblings incident to demographic collapse, a developing crisis of loneliness, and the decline of religious practice and religious affiliation (described effectively in her earlier book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization). Thus, “[o]ur micropolitics have become a mania about identity, because our micropolitics are no longer familial.” While some manage to dominate in this new milieu, many “are left vulnerable to the heightened stresses of the artificial pack in ways that would not have existed in the natural, albeit receding, pack of their own.”
She also effectively marshals a large body of evidence of a “great scattering”: childish insistence on recognition devolving into petty squabbles or bullying mob actions, increased vulnerability of women, “subsidized androgyny” resulting from increased “penalties for traditional masculinity and femininity,” and a breakdown in “social learning” that makes men and women increasingly incomprehensible to one another. Each item of evidence is supported by perceptive observations of pop culture, sociology, and politics.
The book concludes with three brief commentary chapters marked by a thoughtful engagement with the book’s thesis, even as each sees it differently. The commentators are Rod Dreher, whose most recent book, The Benedict Option, grapples with the options for families and coherent communities in the wake of the damage Eberstadt describes; Mark Lilla, a liberal critic of identity politics who nevertheless sees the trajectory the book describes as mostly inexorable; and Peter Thiel, a future-thinking entrepreneur who highlights (as summarized by Eberstadt) “commercial exploitation of today’s anxiety over identity.”
Dreher argues that what Eberstadt has described constitutes a civilizational crisis and that “for those who want to endure the Great Scattering, the Benedict Option is not a choice, but a mandate.” This Option is an intentional shift of focus by believers “to construct local forms of community” in which family and faith can be nurtured and protected.
Lilla charges Eberstadt with giving too little attention to economic explanations for the changes cataloged in the book and suggests her critique is just a “panic attack” caused by inevitable changes that need to be understood, but probably cannot be resisted.
Thiel points out that “identity politics itself functions as a cheap substitute for economic progress.” Thus, for “incumbent elites” trying to promote “diversity,” identity politics is “easier, and less threatening” than “structural reform of a stagnant economy” that has contributed to family weakness.
At the conclusion of the main portion of the book, Eberstadt returns to the lupine image with which she began. “The otherwise unexplained hysteria of today’s identity politics is nothing more, or less, that just that: the collective human howl of our time, sent up by inescapably communal creatures trying desperately to identify their own.” Rod Dreher notes that the great contribution of the book is to show how this understandable terror was “produced by the disintegration of society, of community, of family, and even, as we now see, of the self.”
If this book successfully reframes the discussion of identity politics and cultural divisions by retuning our attention to the source of conflict in disappearing families, it will do a great service. Even then, solutions will be very difficult to find. Restoring a family culture is the solution, but how to do that? That work of restoration will have to take place in the context of hostility from powerful interests that benefit from continued division. As Eberstadt notes, “The sexual revolution is bedrock—off-limits for revision, intellectually, morally, and politically.”
Families, however, can see in this challenging analysis a recognition that theirs is the most important work and perhaps a spur to uproot “the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King).
William C. Duncan is President of the Marriage Law Foundation.