Author and public intellectual Mary Eberstadt has penned a thought-provoking essay, “The Great Scattering: How Identity Panic Took Root in the Void Once Occupied by Family Life.” It reflects a theme in her new book, Primal Screams. “The Great Scattering” is worth reflection.
Eberstadt examines the ascendancy of “identity politics,” the almost obsessive focus on race, sex, “gender,” ethnicity, etc., as means of group self-identification. Proponents of “identity politics” justify it (and the whole range of “remediation” following it, including “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”) as demanded by the “victimization” of these group’s members. Critics dismiss it as opportunism and molly-coddling, the “protecting” of overprotected children still suffering the effect of helicoptering parenting that shields against the reality of hard knocks. Critics also ask whether the promise of a “colorblind” (or sex- or ethnicity-blind) society has now been replaced with a hypersensitive color (or sex or ethnicity) sensitive public policy that, while avoiding the “q” (quota) word, tacitly applies it to ensure that “outcomes” “look like America” (or at least their preferred demographic profile of it).
Rather than choose one side or the other, Eberstadt suggests both might be right because the problem lies elsewhere. Advocates of identity politics may be correct in seeing many people in those classes as “victims,” while opponents may be on target in insisting the problem does not lie in race or sex or ethnicity.
Maybe it lies in family ... or its lack.
“Let’s try a new theory,” suggests Eberstadt. “Our macro-politics have become a mania about identity because our micropolitics are no longer familial. …. Up until the middle of the twentieth century … human expectations remained largely the same through the ages: that one would grow up to have children and a family; that parents and extended family would remain one’s primal community’ and that, conversely, it was a tragedy not to be part of a family. The post-1960s order of sexual consumerism has upended every one of these expectations” (emphases original).
I think she’s on to something.
Eberstadt speaks about three factors affecting modern life: broken families, shrinking families and loneliness. We’ll consider each in turn.
First, broken families. Families “break” in America primarily in two ways: they either never get started, i.e., children are born out-of-wedlock, or families are aborted, i.e., divorce.
A child starting out in a single-parent household is already significantly disadvantaged. Numerous social commentators have noted the “marriage deficit,” particularly in the lower and working class families. A particularly invidious social policy which numerous writers in First Things have been repeatedly pointing out is the double standard operative among the college-educated and upper classes: while vehemently arguing for “autonomy” and sexual libertinism as social policies, their own marriage and family genesis practices are in fact quite traditional, i.e., they do not practice the toxic brew they preach.
Every child wants a mother and a father. Every child knows he comes from two people. And every child that is deprived of that reality suffers in identity formation.
The same is true of divorce. Adults interested in salving their own consciences speak of the “resilience” of children, babbling about how a child may even find it “better” to be in a divorced family. One of the most interesting comments in Eberstadt’s book was an observation by a child who shuttles between mother and father: “’I felt like I had two families.’” And that was not a compliment. Neither was the observation, “’I always felt like an adult, even when I was a little kid.’”
Second, shrinking families. Americans’ reproduction rate is falling below replacement level. But for immigrants, the rate would be even worse.
What that means on a human and personal level is profound. Kids today not only often grow up with an absent parent, but they also grow up alone. As Eberstadt notes, “… diverse findings show that being accompanied through early life by non-parental contemporaneous others gives children and teenagers a leg up on socialization—in other words, knowing who they are in the social order.”
Fewer and fewer are kids who have brothers or sisters. Forget about extended family: I had 11 cousins on my father’s side, but for youngsters today “cousin” is an increasingly alien concept. On the flip side, as the National Marriage Project has pointed out, the contact of adults with children is also diminished: the number of years American adults spend with children as part of their household is shrinking, and it’s not just a function of an extended life span.
Third, loneliness. “Loneliness studies” are the new booming field. The paradox, notes Eberstadt, is that “loneliness is a unique form of human poverty, abounding in societies awash in material wealth—places where, by the 1970s, divorce rates were rising, marriage rates were falling, and cradles were rapidly emptying.” I’ve recently been regularly passing an ad on a DC bus shelter, depicting an older man and announcing solitude can be physically devastating, “like smoking fifteen packs of cigarettes a day.” Newspapers report that, in Japan, people now begin to recognize the telltale tipoff of a certain smell coming from a neighbor’s apartment: decomposition.
Facing these social trends, Eberstadt rightly asks whether the drive toward identity politics, especially among millennials, is not a function of the human desire to “belong,” yet the modern incapacity to find belonging in that declining social cell that should provide the primordial context for belonging: the family. “No wonder the flight to collective identities based on gender, ethnicity, and all the rest has become so impassioned. For more and more people, Narcissus can no longer find himself anywhere else.”
Aristotle called man a zoon politikon, essentially, a social being. Catholic theology has echoed that sentiment. But we continue to live in a social dispensation that celebrates the isolated individual, pretending that social bonds are all purely contractual and essentially volitional: they exist at the will of the autonomous self as long as the autonomous self wills them.
The carnage of such “social” policy is all around us. The social instinct of man cannot be resisted and, if the family does not provide its basic sublimation and release, it will find an outlet elsewhere. Our identity politics may be such an outlet. The important point for Eberstadt is that identity politics may not just be a problem but a symptom—a symptom of a deeper social pathology.
Karol Wojtyła’s play, “The Jeweler’s Shop,” explores this identity problem, a problem caused by the experience of how we as human beings incarnate what should be love. The play speaks of three couples: Adam and Teresa, whose love extends beyond life (Adam leaves Teresa a widow), Anna and Stefan, whose life extends beyond love (they are estranged), and Christopher and Monica, the son and daughter of the two preceding couples. Monica is afraid of the commitment of marriage because of the “rift” in her parents’ marriage, and so hesitates to accept Christopher’s love. As Teresa, Christopher’s mother, reflects on the fate of love, she notes what their children’s experience of what should be love has brought about. “We have become for them a threshold that they cannot cross without effort to reach their new homes—the homes of their own souls,” she observes.
How has our culture impeded our children’s paths home to their own souls?
All views expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.