All the lonely people, why do they embrace identity politics?
When The Beatles released “Eleanor Rigby” in the mid-1960s, they probably didn’t mean it as a prediction. Performing near the start of the sexual revolution, The Beatles merely wondered, “All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
Ironically, the group anticipated an unexpected side-effect of sexual liberation and diminishing monogamy: the elderly dying alone.
“Eleanor Rigby” was strangely prescient of an epidemic of loneliness that afflicts our society today. Senior citizens are increasingly isolated, more than one-fifth of millennials say they have no friends, and scientists are even developing a pill for lonely people.
It’s significant that The Beatles released Eleanor Rigby in the ’60s. Author Mary Eberstadt might call it a case of foreshadowing, for she argues in Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics that the sexual revolution led to a national sense of loneliness and lack of identity .
Her book, released this month, makes the case that the sexual revolution led, surprisingly, to the rise of identity politics.
“Wherever any one of us stands in matters of the ‘culture wars’ is immaterial here,” she writes. “The plain fact is that the relative stability of yesterday’s familial identity could not help but answer the question at the heart of identity politics — Who am I? — in ways that many men, women, and children can’t answer it any more.”
In some ways, Primal Screams is a follow-up to Eberstadt's 2012 book, Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution. If the sexual revolution led to unexpected problems between men and women, how else has it affected us as a society? Primal Screams answers that question.
Eberstadt is a shrewd, thoughtful analyst of our culture, and scrutinizes her subject through a nonpartisan lens. She writes, “this book would not exist without the conviction that beneath the noise of identity politics lie authentic hardships, including antediluvian ones that have not been hitherto acknowledged.”
Primal Scream is, then, important for readers of all political and ideological complexions. But it’s especially significant for readers on the Right, who might be tempted to dismiss identity politics as mere snowflakery.
Identity politics is driven by race, class, corrosive multiculturalism, mentally fragile millennials, and tribalism, among other things. But the sexual revolution made the allure of identity politics much stronger, Ebsterstadt argues. The quest for identity is primal, not political, and the sexual revolution was partly responsible for the break-up of the family structure, which used to provide a sense of identity.
Children in divorced and non-divorced households, Eberstadt writes, “exhibit starkly opposed concepts of identity.” According to one study, children from divorced parents were almost three times as likely to agree strongly with the statement, “I felt like a different person with each of my parents.”
Other factors such as anonymous sperm donation and surrogate pregnancy have left children searching for truths about their parents. Smaller families mean fewer siblings teaching children by example how to behave.
Ebsterstadt gives specifics about how the search for identity manifests itself, and she reinforces the link she discerns between the decline of the family and our yearning for a social structure.
She argues, for example, that feminism has evolved from a civil rights movement to a survival strategy. “This is the deeper unrecognized allure of draconian speech codes on campuses and elsewhere: they promise to limit what men can do and say, in a world in which the old limits on male behavior no longer apply.”
As “the ethos of recreational sex blurred the line between protector and predator,” women sought an ideology that would protect them from male predation. “However unconsciously,” Ebsterstadt writes, “feminism is in fact expressing an overlooked truth here: today’s women have reason to feel concerned.”
This brings Ebsterstadt to a claim that androgyny in fashion, the blurring of gender roles, et cetera, gives women a safe space from male predation, and protects men from charges of toxic masculinity. The sexual revolution “has inadvertently subsidized androgyny by raising the penalties for traditional masculinity and femininity,” she writes.
Finally, in the #MeToo movement, women have bonded as victims of sexual assault. But how did we create a culture in which sexual assault is so prevalent? "It seems safe to bet that many modern men,” Ebsterstadt argues, “believe similarly that women are always and everywhere available and interested.”
This is an exaggerated claim, but her argument is supported by facts in such stories as the Aziz Ansari scandal, which weaseled its way into the #MeToo movement despite involving behavior much less egregious than, say, Harvey Weinstein's outrages.
The decline of religion plays a role too, but not the one you'd expect. Instead of dwelling on religion’s traditional constraints on sexual promiscuity, Eberstadt laments that we've lost the ability or inclination, once provided by religious faith, to see members of the opposite sex as brothers and sisters, rather than purely as sexual beings. Now, “another healthy bond between the sexes has been frayed.”
At the end of the book, Ebsterstadt includes commentary from varied sources — Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics — addressing the same issue from different angles.
Their commentary solidifies Ebsterstadt’s commitment to non-partisanship. She does write, however, that if something is to be done about America's identity crisis, it will have to come from the Right.
“No-fault divorce, out-of-wedlock births, paid surrogacy, absolutism about erotic freedom, disdain for traditional religious codes: the very politics and practices that have chipped away at the family, and helped to provoke the subsequent flight to identity politics, are those that liberals and progressives embrace,” she writes.
Whether or not you believe that the sexual revolution has had as much of a role in the rise of identity politics as Ebsterstadt claims, it’s difficult to deny that, amid fracturing families, people search for new identities to embrace.
All the lonely people are looking for a place to belong, and more than 50 years after the sexual revolution, The Beatles still don’t have their answer.