Review: 'Primal Screams' by Mary Eberstadt

Youth use identity politics to cope with boomers' mistakes, family breakdowns

Students link arms during civil unrest in 1968 / Getty Images
September 1, 2019

In her new book Primal Screams, Mary Eberstadt manages the nearly impossible: finding something new—and worthwhile—to say about identity politics. It'd be fair to wonder whether we really needed one more take on the topic. Plenty already exist, many of them either to virtue signal or take swings at the easy punching bag that millennials are. But for all that's already been said about identity politics, there's one big question nobody's answered: Why do young people find it so appealing?

At least, no one's answered it to Eberstadt's satisfaction. Her own answer is one many conservatives—and most liberals—may find counterintuitive. Today's young radicals, she argues, are not continuing what previous generations of radicals started, but resisting it. Millennials and "gen Z" grew up with the results of a previous generation's rebellion: atomization, disorientation, and fracture. Against this backdrop, identity politics looks to many young people like a way to cope with boomers' mistakes, to build ties in a broken political world, and answer the perennial question "who am I?"

In particular, Eberstadt argues, today's activists unknowingly react against the ways yesterday's activists disrupted the family. The sexual revolution of the 1960s effected a "great scattering," in which it's become normal for families to shrink, break, re-combine, and break again—if they form in the first place. Thanks to widespread divorce and a trend toward smaller households, countless millennials grew up without a parent, opposite-sex siblings, or extended family.

The negative effects of family breakdown, Eberstadt observes, are becoming clearer to experts on animal behavior. Wolves only fight when their pack isn't family, orcas in the wild prefer living with parents, housecats only get stuck in trees because they haven't had mothers around to teach them to climb. Why wouldn't human behavior similarly depend on family?

In other words, kids today aren't just making up grievances. "Beneath the noise of identity politics lie authentic hardships, including antediluvian ones that have not been hitherto acknowledged." Family ties shape a person's sense of self and offer a sense of "givenness." Without those formative influences, many young people clamor to invent their identities and attach themselves to abstract political "communities."

This loss harms women and men alike, Eberstadt argues. Without protective fathers and brothers around, women resort to a coarse, brash feminism that promises strength and protection. Despite appearances, feminism "is not a juggernaut of defiant liberationists playing offense" but a "protective reaction to an environment of heightened risks."

"Today's women," Eberstadt explains, "have reason to feel cornered." Instead of learning from mothers and sisters how to treat women, young men increasingly take lessons from pornography, internalizing implicit messages that women are available to exploit. Meanwhile, the absence of fathers and other protective male family members leaves young women more vulnerable to that exploitation. Without the "social learning" that takes place in family settings, intercourse between men and women may be (in theory) freer than ever before, but each understands the other less.

Eberstadt's argument that today's activism does not simply inherit an unbroken progressive tradition illuminates many issues Primal Screams doesn't address directly. Take the swarm of campus controversies. Yesterday's activists called for free speech, which today's curtail. Yesterday's activists wanted their sex lives left alone, but today’s build rigid codes of conduct around "consent" and see personal sexual impropriety as socially harmful. Yesterday's slogan was "the personal is political," but today students create safe spaces to salvage a private sphere apart from political argument and intrusive academic bureaucracies (boomer-helmed, more often than not). Millennial activists' rhetoric may attack traditional norms, but their actions implicitly recognize the true problem is those norms' decay. On campus and off, they mean to reconsolidate what the '60s made diffuse.

Primal Screams is far from comprehensive, which admittedly is a lot to ask of a book that doesn't crack 150 pages. It only gestures, for instance, at ongoing epidemics of suicide and mental illness among young people, though it's easy to imagine how its argument could inform the issue. A bigger problem is that Eberstadt doesn't address current enthusiasm for race politics, either on the left or far right. Maybe allegiance to a racial group promises connections to the past and to people outside one's immediate social circle that now-absent extended family ties once provided. Such an argument might be worth making, since race is so important to today's identity politics.

Fortunately, Primal Screams gives us a head start in filling in its gaps. It closes with response essays by Rod Dreher, Mark Lilla, and Peter Thiel—all three of whom find something convincing in Eberstadt's argument, but expand beyond it. Dreher points out the negative effects of secularization and joins Thiel in noting "the role economics plays in social fragmentation" and family shrinkage. But it's Lilla, the sole liberal, who expands Primal Screams's argument the farthest. He argues that the sexual revolution and its effects are part of a larger story. As people around the world adopt western-style bourgeois preferences, and "given the speed of economic, technological, and informational change under contemporary capitalism, social institutions melt but they never resolidify into new ones." While Lilla sees this "liquidity" as inevitable, he does gesture at the possibility of a political movement that aims to "resolidify" social and economic ties alike.

All that's a good sign for Primal Screams. It’s the kind of book that should provoke discussion and be built upon. Without overtly prescribing anything, it balances sympathy with criticism and opens new avenues for conversation. If we see more books about identity politics in the near future, and doubtless we will, they will have to grapple with Eberstadt's argument, and take a look through the lens she provides.

Published under: Book reviews