On this episode of High Noon, Inez Stepman interviews Mary Eberstadt, novelist, playwright, essayist, columnist, and author of several books, including her most recent, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics.
Eberstadt urges compassion for the “woke,” arguing essentially that many of us have been denied the natural family “habitat” to become psychologically healthy members of the species by family breakdown and abandonment of religion. She weaves together threads of sociology, statistical research, animal observation, and theology to paint a difficult picture of just how detached from a natural family life we have gotten in the modern age.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. My guest today is Mary Eberstadt. Mary is the writer who has had something to say in just about every single form of the craft of writing. As a novelist and a playwright, essayist, columnist, and author of several books, including her most recent that we’ll talk about today Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. Some of her other books include It’s Dangerous to Believe, How the West Really Lost God, and Adam and Eve After the Pill. She holds the Panula Chair in Christian culture at the Catholic Information Center. And she’s a senior research fellow at the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, DC. Her writings also appeared in a lot of places, including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Time, First Things, lots of others. One of the subjects though that Mary has been focusing on for years now combining research sites, psychology, observation, has been the crisis of I think meaning, place, identity that so many of us in this modern age seem to be facing. So you can keep up with that work on her website maryeberstadt.com. So welcome to High Noon Mary. It’s really great to have you here.
Thanks for having me, Inez.
So, your thesis in this latest book, which really goes to the heart of what you’re kind of identifying as, you connect it to identity politics, but it almost seems like more of an identity crisis, right? That seems to have an iron grip not only in our politics but on so many people in the modern age. And you identify the source of that crisis as really starting in the family or rather lack of family. Do you want to maybe lay out your argument for those of us who haven’t, or I shouldn’t say those of us because I have read your book. But for those of my listeners who have not read your book yet.
Yes, thanks, Inez. So I think identity politics is a subset of a much wider story. And that story is the identity crisis that is gripping not only many people in the United States, but people across the Western world. The question who am I has become a burning question for many people. And it has also spilled out into the streets as I argue in the book.
Now, why is it that in this moment of all moments, we seem to be confused about who we are? The book argues that we have lived through some radical social transformations that may seem very familiar, but that I think are having effects that are not familiar. I’m talking about the shrinkage of the natural family, the breakup of the family, the ways in which many kids don’t grow up anymore with a sibling of the same sex, a sibling of the opposite sex, or any sibling at all, etc.
Now, why does this matter to the question of identity? Because I think traditionally and in a way that is really primordial, we answer that question of identity in a relational way. If you were to ask me who am I, I would say well I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I’m a sister, I’m an aunt. I would point to these relational things. And I think that intuitively, that is how people answer the question of identity.
The problem is that since the sexual revolution, a lot of those ways of answering the question are off the table. So for example, is that person over there my brother? Well, it depends. If he’s my mother’s third husband’s son and they have split up, is he still my brother? Am I in any kind of fraternal relationship with someone like that? And that’s just one example of the ways in which our relationships have become very attenuated in the wake of these social transformations.
There is another side to this coin that I would also like to mention which is the decline of organized religion. This is also very important to the question of identity. Historically speaking and across cultures, people have tended to identify with a transcendent worldview of some kind. People have tended to believe in a divine order of some kind. And we live in a time of unprecedented decline, especially in the Christian churches. All of that is to say that another way of answering that question who am I has been taken off the table by the decline of religion because many people can no longer believe I’m a child of God. I am a creature in an ordered cosmos with a purpose.
So, we see in the decline of the family and the simultaneous decline of religion, that these relational ways of answering the question of who we are have frayed. And the result is I think a great deal of confusion. And as we can get into certain political ramifications of the search for self that are very new and generally speaking, very destructive of ordered liberty.
So, it’s interesting to me that you answer this question, or at least suggest that the causality would go in the opposite direction that I think at least I have an instinctive gut reaction about, which would be that there was a decline in religiosity, in church attendance, and that family breakdown followed that decline. That we’re following sort of the beliefs or the underlying ideas. Or perhaps I’m focusing in this case too much on what people believe or what ideology they subscribe to. Because you almost suggest that at most, at best, these things are kind of wrapped together in one. And even perhaps suggesting that in fact, religious decline follows family breakdown. But then what caused the family breakdown let’s say in the 1960s and ’70s, to begin with? What was the spark that lit off the sexual revolution?
Well, I think the main spark was technological. It was the birth control pill, which was a technological shock that then led to the de-stigmatization of contraception. And this had all kinds of effects on marriage, family breakup, fatherless homes, abortion, etc. Now notice that all of those things I just mentioned amount to acts of subtraction. That is they take people who would have been in the lives of other people out of their lives, literally. It’s a matter of arithmetic. So many kids now grow up without a father in the home. Many kids as mentioned have no or few siblings. And by extension, smaller and more attenuated extended families.
Why does this matter? I think it matters because as you know from reading the book, there’s a lot in the book about animal science. I find animal science fascinating. And there’s been a kind of quantum leap in our understanding of the animal kingdom. That is the animals besides ourselves.
We now know that they learn from one another. That a walrus for example isn’t born knowing how to be a walrus. A walrus learns how to be a walrus by watching its siblings, watching its parents, watching its extended community.
So my point is that when we take all of these people out of our lives when we weaken the primal bonds that have traditionally tied human beings together, we are reducing the number of people from whom we can learn. We are reducing the amount of social learning that’s going on. And I think we are seeing this very starkly now. I think the COVID epidemic intensified this. What we’re seeing is basically a kind of social breakdown that’s coming about because people are not being socialized in the way that human beings have developed to be socialized. They have few people to learn from, fewer than their ancestors had.
For example, how do you learn about the opposite sex? Nobody’s born knowing about the opposite sex. I think obviously and traditionally, people have learned by say looking at their fathers, or looking at their brothers, or their cousins, or their uncles, if you’re a woman. And vice versa if you’re a man. We have again, many fewer people from whom to learn that way. And one result is this identitarian clamor.
There’s a lot of talk, especially among conservative-minded people about how nobody saw the explosion of all of these sexualities. Transgenderism, non-binary-ism. All of these different kinds of identification. To me, that makes perfect sense. Because with fewer people to learn from in this very elemental way in the home and elsewhere, we should expect lots of confusion about things like what gender am I, what do I really want? How do I identify myself? Because the traditional ways of tying us into a community and telling us who we are have dissipated. And we’re now again, we’re seeing the compounded effect of all of that. Compounded since the 1960s. And it’s one of the signature features of our time. This burning desire to know who I am in a world where the answers to that question have been taken away from me due to social change.
You do really compare us to a lot of different animals in this book. I mean, you open it with the myth of the lone wolf, right? The idea that wolfs in fact do live and hunt in packs. And you continue using all these animal examples. I mean, are modern humans just in one of those sad animal commercials from PETA with Sarah McLachlan in the background, or are habitats being destroyed? But I guess the one difference of course is that we are largely at least to some extent in control of our habitat more than most animals. I mean, how do we keep ourselves and our habitat from going extinct I guess is my question. There’s no one to run the commercials about us to, accept ourselves.
Yeah, that’s a great point, Inez. Because if we were to run the experiments on other animals that humanity is running on ourselves, there would be outcry. And not only from PETA. If we were to take elephants for example out of their familial units and send them to the other side of the planet by themselves, there would be outcry, and there has been outcry. And that is why in fact elephants are no longer to be found in circuses. Because animal science convinced people that their need for attachment to their own was more profound than had been understood.
So that’s why I bring in the research about animals. Not to suggest that we are exactly like them, but to show that they are more familial than was previously understood. They learn from each other from birth in ways that were also previously not well understood. And when we disrupt those things in their world, animal suffering is the result.
We have disrupted our own habitat much more radically than we’ve disrupted most animals. And I think widespread suffering and confusion is the result. That there is a lot of suffering out there, especially among the young, is not something that people would deny. We’ve seen skyrocketing rates of psychiatric problems, especially in the Gen X’ers and the millennials. And it’s widely agreed that these are real problems. This isn’t just that we’ve gotten better at diagnosing them.
So, the question is not is there extra suffering out there? The question is what’s causing it? And in Primal Screams, I’m trying to put forward an answer that I think has not been aired before, that really gets to the root I believe of what is ailing people. Again, especially the young who are carrying the burdens of these social changes more so than the generations before them.
Yeah. One of the things I really took away from this book, as somebody who is a conservative and on the right. I’m not saying that I’m a perfect example of this in any way because I still occasionally enjoy dunking on these people on Twitter. But is a little bit of compassion for some of these young people who seem completely confused, right? I’m talking now about TikTok videos where people are talking about themselves for example as dissociative disorder, and they’re talking about themselves as ‘the system,’ right? And they have different personalities within it. And it seems to me on some level kind of obviously fake. But I go back and forth on how sincere some of this stuff is. And you seem to be pointing to that even if some of the expressions aren’t sincere or are laughable, these sort of endless proliferation of pronouns and different identities, sexual identities like demisexual, which is apparently just normal human woman who wants to have a relationship with her sexual partners.
But you’re pointing to the fact that the pain behind this could very well be very real and the sort of dislocation of young people, particularly who really my generation was the first. And Emily Jashinsky and I talk about this a lot, that millennials were the first to truly grow up in the sexual revolution as default. Where it was no longer a revolution, it was the establishment, the sexual establishment were the ideas of the sexual revolution.
You seem to be urging a lot of compassion here. How would you recommend that we communicate? We I mean we on the right or perhaps people in the center who thinks some of this stuff is ridiculous and harmful. How should we go about communicating to people if as you say, they’re essentially wounded or not well socialized as a human-animal because of some of the absences in their lives?
Yeah. That’s another great question. I can only tell you what I try to do, which is to honor their suffering. Because I think that many among the young are in crisis. Psychiatric crisis, social crisis, personal crisis. And the problem is that they have been told the wrong names for what it is that ails them.
So, for example, if they’re fortunate enough to go to college, they might learn that the enemy out there is something called heteronormativity, right? Or the gender binary. They might also be told that their suffering begins and ends in one word like racism. Now I am not denying that racism exists. What I am saying is that it is not explanatory of everything that we see out there. Let me give you some examples.
Police brutality in the summer of 2020 kicked off demonstrations around the country. There were over 10,000 demonstrations in that summer, and some 500 of them turned violent. Again, a lot of well-meaning people and people who had legitimate complaints entered the public square during these demonstrations. But as they went on, we saw that something was going on there that had nothing to do with police brutality or racism. We saw for example people who were dining outside in city after city, having their meals disrupted by angry protestors screaming at them. What would that have to do with police brutality and racism? I think nothing. I think what we were seeing is a lot of disconnected young people who when faced with something as stable as a family dining out, really can’t bear it and feel the need to disrupt.
And the same was true as the demonstrations went on in residential neighborhoods. In Portland, in Washington DC, and elsewhere, where demonstrators would go shine lights into people’s homes in the middle of the night, just to wake them up. Again, this is getting very far from an explanation from police brutality. What we were seeing I think is this raw emotion, which rage was a big part. This feeling of deprivation, of not wanting other people to have the things that you don’t.
Again, I attribute that not to the kinds of anger to which it is ascribed, but rather to a primal lack in the lives of many young people. A feeling of being unloved and disconnected, which then gets translated into politics. That’s where this political energy is coming from.
And the problem is I think it makes young people vulnerable to political manipulation by politicians who on the left and right, who want to use this kind of disconnection for their own purposes. But fundamentally, what’s wrong with translating these primal rages into politics is that that’s not going to solve the problem for these people.
So that’s a long answer to your question, but I think that what we need to do is yes, reach out. Honor the fact that people are in a bad way out there. But try to talk to them about what really is the problem in their lives. Because I don’t think the problem is what left-wing politicians are telling them the problem is.
There’s a great reluctance, as you know Inez to look at the kinds of trends that I’m talking about since the sexual revolution and to ask whether they’ve left humanity better off or worse off. I think the empirical record shows that the answer is worse off, but I appreciate how much psychological, academic, and social resistance there is to hearing this message. But that doesn’t make the message wrong.
What’s the role of technology in a more modern way? You say that the sexual revolution was sparked by the technological advancement or change that the pill brought, right? It made sex without procreation a much more reliable thing than it had been in the past. Although of course, women had ways in the past as well to control their fertility. But the invention of the pill made it much, much more certain. And women could suddenly choose when they were going to have children to a degree that had never happened before.
I mean, what do you think about the increasingly digital way in which we live our lives? And how is that technological advancement interacting with the trends that you’re pointing to about family breakdown and withdrawal from organized religion? How is that technological change going to interact with … if the pill was able to spark something so fundamental in our culture if what you’re saying is true and we’re supposed to live in these extended natural families, that’s a very fundamental dynamic change in the way human beings have lived, just from essentially a pill. What will happen when we move online?
Sure. Well, the digital revolution is a revolution. And as to what it’s doing to human relationships, I think there too, the empirical record is pretty damning.
So, for example, we are told by studies that young people, zoomers, millennials are actually having less sex than the people in the generations above them were having at that age. And that might be true, but that’s not exactly a victory for human relationships necessarily if what’s going on is that the boys are all watching pornography, which is well-documented to interfere with human relationships on a massive scale. So certainly in that sense, in the sense of pornography, the digital age is a harder age in which to find real human relationships. So that’s one example of the way that it makes things worse.
But at the same time, as bad as I think social media, TikTok, etc., pornography all are for real-life connection. And I’m not alone. I mean, this is all pretty easy to verify. As bad as all of it is, it doesn’t entirely explain identity politics. Because identity politics actually predates the digital revolution. Identity politics, that very phrase comes from a manifesto that was published in 1977 by radical African-American feminists. And what the manifesto says is that we are essentially giving up. We’re banding together with people just like us because we don’t think other people in our lives can be trusted. We don’t think other people have our backs. And specifically, those feminists were complaining about the men in their lives and saying that going forward, they would go forward as this political collective of people bound together out of loyalty and common interest.
So that’s really interesting Inez because 1977 is as the first age born into the sexual revolution, is becoming adults. Right? So this is one of the first things that we see about that new world is that it has become a world in which the distrust between men and women seems to have grown, even from what it arguably is in the first place. So that’s a very I think sad document. It’s called The Combahee River Collective document. And it’s an expression of the loss, it is an early expression of the loss that many people are going to feel because of the changes brought in by the sexual revolution.
So bottom line is technology I think makes all of this worse. But in this case, we can’t attribute the problems I’m describing to technology, because the name for this thing identity politics came before the internet.
I wanted to ask you about the role of friendship here. Because you point to some more pathological expressions of essentially chosen family, right? Gangs, membership in extreme political communities like the one that you’re referencing in 1977, The Collective. So you’re pointing to all these negative consequences, but I’m wondering what role you think friendship plays in all of this. Because my family comes from Soviet Bloc country. And I don’t know if it’s Eastern European culture, or I think there’s some argument that this is perhaps a result of living under communism. But friendships tend to be very strong in those cultures. And people tend to form very deep attachments, but chosen ones to a select group of friends. What role does deep friendship play in all of this? And is it possible to find identity as a friend? In the way that you initially referenced, you said, “I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m an aunt.” Is it possible for us to forge chosen connections that are actually deep and meaningful as opposed to the pathological ones that you point to in terms of politics and gangs?
Sure, of course. And if anything, the situation I’m describing makes the necessity of friendship even more important than it used to be. Precisely because we don’t have in many cases those thick bonds with family members, with churches, or other religious communities anymore. So yes. By all means, that’s important.
When I was talking about chosen families, I was talking about this idea. Again, it’s a very modern idea. It’s a signature idea of our age, that a family can be anything that consenting people say it is. That I am related to people by dent of my saying so. To me, this is more evidence of the sort of breakdown of identity itself. That people think they can be volitional about something as primal as that. And that was the point that I was making about chosen families.
Well, where do we go forward from here? Because even in my own life, I see a lot of what you’re saying to be true, right? I’m an only child, which I never minded honestly. But I do have, fortunately, I have two loving, married parents. I’m very fortunate in that way. But I also, I’ve said this on the podcast before. I’m not a member of a religious faith. I am an atheist. And I know a lot of people like that. And it seems to me that there’s no easy way back. Even if all of what you’re saying is true, there’s no way we can snap our fingers and return let’s say to the pre-sexual revolution days where a much higher percentage of people have intact families, have lots of siblings, and don’t question the role of faith and religion in their lives to the extent that people question it today. So I guess friendship was my sort of suggestion of how to start rebuilding some of these things. But on a larger scale than friendship, how do we start rebuilding a human habitat that does create well-socialized human animals?
Well, first we have to diagnose the problem correctly. And that’s why I keep at this work that in some ways is pretty thankless because people don’t want to hear it. But again, that doesn’t make it less true. To me, one silver lining is that every family in the Western world is affected in one way or another by all of these trends. And I’m not nostalgic for some golden age like the 1950s. I have never known a world other than this myself. So nostalgia is not an answer.
I guess I see it historically, that there have been times in human history when we have overindulged in things that were harmful for us, that we didn’t understand at the time were harmful. Or that maybe people didn’t care so much about the harms done to other people.
So, for example, the Victorian era cleaned up the gin alleys of London. A lot of reforms in the Victorian years came about because poor parts of London were awash in gin. Babies were drinking it, toddlers were drinking it, mothers were drinking it. And at some point, people just thought that was too much, that that had to change.
To take a very different kind of public health example, the same thing happened over a much longer period of time with tobacco smoking. When I was a kid, it was ubiquitous. I can even remember seeing people smoke in hospital rooms, as long as the oxygen tank wasn’t in there. That’s how widespread it was. And then over the course of decades, there was a public health campaign to make people aware that, “Hey. Over time, this stuff can cause harm to people.” And there was a really dramatic change again across the Western world in the consensus about tobacco. So that was another example of where given enough time and enough documentation of the empirical record, people came to change their minds about a pretty big thing.
I think that’s where we are with the sexual revolution. I think it has washed across the world. It affected tremendous radical change that we are only beginning to understand. And I really do believe that people will look back on this in 100, 200 years and say what were they thinking? What were they thinking about what it takes to be a thriving human being? And I think the people of the future will do that without finger-pointing at this person or that person any more than we finger point at previous smokers or unknown people in the gin alleys of London in the early 1800s. So I think it’s possible to do this kind of analysis in a way that doesn’t put people off or blame people for anything, but that tries to bring to light certain things about the way we’re living that would make our lives better if we were to change them.
That’s a final question to you. What do you think about some of the folks on the right who have, and you’ve pointed out, and these are kind of two unrelated questions. I don’t want to try to, but you have pointed out that these same dynamics exist in extreme forms of the right as well. The alt-right. That oftentimes, a lot of these ideologies can be essentially a replacement for meaning, for family, for religion. That’s definitely part of it. So do you think that a lot of these ideologies are essentially to use the internet lingo, they’re cope, right? Extreme feminism, extreme right-wing identitarianism, wokeism. Do you think that these are a psychological way of coping with loss that as you say is totally unacknowledged in society? There’s no public health campaign around pornography, or casual sex, or having children out of wedlock. Do you think that this is just a psychological response? What role does ideology actually play in people’s behavior?
In an essay that I published in First Things Magazine in 2020 called The Fury of the Fatherless, I try to get at this. And without naming names, I sort of walk through various parts of the identitarian right, and various parts of the neoracialist left, and make the observation that most of these people are coming from broken homes. Most of the leaders of these factions are themselves coming out of the environment that I’m trying to describe in Primal Screams.
So you could say well, that’s just a wallpaper out there. Everybody’s from some messed up place these days and doesn’t affect what they do. I don’t agree with that. I think it very much affects the supremely emotional attachment that they feel to their groups, their identitarian groups. Again left or right, what we see is that what had been primal family loyalty has been taken into these groups. That’s why the protests say in the summer of 2020 do not look like civil rights protests or anti-Vietnam War protests, or even Occupy Wall Street protests. They look like raw emotion on parade. And the reason they look that way is that many people in these groups of identity politics feel as primordially attached to them as other people feel primordially attached to their families. So there’s been this displacement that I think also drives the extremism on both sides. Because if that is now your family, well you wouldn’t stop at anything to defend it, whatever it is. Whatever gender, or ethnic, or political identification you now call yourself.
So once more, I think what we’re seeing is that what people used to think were simply private apps, private things, are having profound public effects. And we are seeing this in our politics more and more.
If ideology is just sort of the cope, or the spinoff, or the rationalization behind a more primal attachment or rather malattachment, what about economics? Because there are parts of the right now that advanced, and certainly even parts of the I would call distant left, or the anti-woke left that trace a lot of our current moment and where we’re at to long-term economic trends. And some of those trends are intertwined with the help of the family, right? The idea that it’s very difficult to raise a moderately large family on a single income in a way that perhaps was possible in Detroit in 1953 for a lot of workers. What role has economics played in all of this? And do you think that that too, along with ideology and other explanations, is probably subordinate first to the breakdown of the family?
Yeah. I think it is subordinate, just because of the common-sense observation that people used to be a lot poorer than we are now. But they persisted in having families, and churches, and other robust social arrangements. So there is something else going on.
Now with that said, I do think the accumulation of student debt by young people has been one of the most serious social problems of the last couple of decades. And I really hear it when young people say, “I can’t get married, I have to get out of debt first.” That’s a real thing that needs to be dealt with by policies, and I think including experimental policies to see what to do about that.
But at the same time, I do think some of this hesitation about family formation and growing up, in general, is coming about for the reasons that I talk about in Primal Screams. I think it’s coming about because a lot of kids haven’t seen what that really looks like in their own lives. What would it look like to imagine a nuclear family? What would it feel like to hold a baby? I mean, understand because of the shrinkage of the family and the kinds of trends that I’ve been talking about, there are lots of young men and young women who have never even held a baby. So of course that looks more terrifying than-
I’m one of them by the way.
Of course, that looks scarier than a world in which you’ve been accustomed to that from early on, just because there’ve been so many people in your life that that would happen. So I think I’m all for again experimental policies. I’m not a policy nerd myself. I’m just a plain nerd, I guess. But I’m all for policies that would try to tinker with all these things to make the incentives for family formation more attractive, to do something about student debt which is crippling. But at the same time, I do think the root cause is what I was describing in Primal Screams. It’s all of these accumulated radical changes since the sexual revolution.
Well, thank you so much for joining us at High Noon. It’s been a really fascinating conversation. One of the things I’ve always found really interesting about your work is how you blend different disciplinary threads into this thesis, right? There’s a sociological angle to this. There’s a psychological angle. There’s a policy angle. There’s a theological angle, right? And you really are taking on this task of trying to understand not just what’s going on politically in our society, but what’s going on inside our own brains and hearts that is producing the politics that we’re all sort of engaged in, in the public sphere. So thank you. As you say, I hope it’s not too thankless work, because I think it has a lot to do in terms of the explanatory work about where we’re at. So thank you so much for joining. Mary Eberstadt, thanks for joining High Noon. And you can find Mary’s books anywhere that books are sold, I believe, right?
Yes. And also on my website, maryeberstadt.com has the books and also whatever I’ve been scribbling about lately.
So find her latest work at maryeberstadt.com and her books there as well, or on Amazon and other bookstores. In local bookstores, which is what we generally try to push on this podcast, just the over-reliance on Amazon. But you can find them there too and on Audible, and all the normal places. Thanks again for joining us, Mary. And thank you to our listeners.
High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.