Identity Politics and the New Culture Wars: Causes and Effects

Matthew Stewart

Mary Eberstadt is an eminent chronicler of the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies, which she sees as destructive of healthy traditions and beneficent institutions. In a series of books, she has examined the sexual revolution’s consequences, first focusing on the effects on children of divorce, broken homes, and out-of-wedlock births (Home-Alone America, 2004); then on the social and gender role changes wrought by readily available contraceptives and the simultaneous (or consequent) loosening of sexual mores (Adam and Eve After the Pill, 2013); and on the sequelae for traditional religious practices and the decline of the church (How the West Really Lost God, 2014). The subtitle of her newest volume Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics announces unmistakably that she is continuing work in this vein. While the study periodically acknowledges that the rise of identity politics has been propelled by other causes, it is every bit the thesis-driven work that the subtitle indicates.

The reader is meant to understand the sexual revolution in a broad sense, including the loosening of traditional sexual mores, the removal of stigma traditionally applied to LGBTQ lifestyles, and probably not least the appearance of the pill and the ready availability of safe and effective birth control. What many would see as forces of liberation, Eberstadt sees as the primum mobile of negative feedback loops that continue to rend the social fabric. She coins the phrase “the Great Scattering” to indicate “the unprecedented familial dispersion” of recent decades, which includes “skyrocketing rates of abortion, fatherless homes, family shrinkage, family breakup, and other phenomena” that have undermined sustaining cultural traditions and left people feeling unmoored, dislocated, free-floating, poorly socialized. (9) “A great many human beings live,” she writes, “as if we are not the intensely communal creatures that we always have been; and systemic consequences of that profound shift are now emerging.” (10) In short, then, identity politics have emerged as a substitute for the grounded sense of self previously nurtured by family, with its comforting structures, its inculcation into rules, and its sense of belonging: “Our macropolitics have become a mania about identity, because our micropolitics are no longer familial.” (37) In back of it all is the sexual revolution.

While Eberstadt overplays her thesis (a point to which I will return), the book’s descriptive quality has much to recommend it, as does the author’s clear and inviting style. Significant elements of the contemporary scene are limned in chapters devoted to “the Great Scattering,” to the infantile nature of campus protests and other manifestations of the latest rounds in the culture wars, to the various turns taken by contemporary feminism, and to the broad-based turn towards androgyny. These explorations are set up by “The Conversation so Far,” a fair-minded and lucid review of important critiques of identity politics. Readers of this journal are likely to be acquainted with the works put under review, which originate from both left and right perspectives. Eberstadt does not dismiss their findings, but rather concludes that they do not describe the ultimate origin of identity politics. Thus, speaking of Mark Lilla’s recent manifesto The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, for example, Eberstadt concludes that his emphasis on hyperindividualism and the “pseudo-politics of self-regard” (his phrase), which he calls “the Reagan dispensation,” describes the “supply-side” of identity politics, but not its “demand-side,” which, to repeat, finds its origins in the rootlessness and confused sense of self caused by family breakdown. (25-26) Eberstadt avers that these pre-political root causes explain the astonishingly volatile hyperemotionalism performed during so many campus ructions and evident in innumerable social media boilovers.

The most successful analysis appears in the chapter “How #MeToo Reveals the Breakdown of Social Learning.” The author is clearly intrigued by the study of social learning in animals, discussions of which pop in and out of the book with greater and lesser success. Women have cause to fear men, and men have cause to be confused, for both sexes are suffering from deficient social learning. “The #MeToo movement,” writes Eberstadt, “exhibits in full what happens when great swaths of humanity are more socially illiterate than our forebears were, because the pool of those from whom we learn earliest and most naturally is diminished.” (91) Divorce, cohabitation, serial short-term live-in relationships, mixed families, smaller families—all these phenomena have deprived men and women alike of opportunities to learn healthy sexual conduct. Surveying the “grislier details” of men’s behavior in the #MeToo scandals, Eberstadt wonders, “Don’t they have mothers, sisters, and other women in their lives? How could they act this way if that were the case?” (95) Formative non-sexual relationships with women have gone missing, the model of a stable father has gone missing, while pornography has flooded into the vacuum, where it is sealed in place by a pervasive sex-without-consequences ethos. Voila an instrumental view of women, sometimes acted out in a bizarre, fetishistic, or piggish fashion.

Conservative analysts seemed first to observe that the negative fallout of the sexual revolution hit the most vulnerable strata of society the hardest. The poor, the marginalized, those struggling with other problems of their own or under the burden of oppression—these were the people least able to deal with the consequences of absent fathers, precarious mixed households, sexual jealousy, volatile relationships, and serial but short-term partnerships replacing stable marriages. But Eberstadt notes that the women “who have pioneered and built #MeToo” are “typically sophisticated careerists and graduates of elite schools . . . the female upper echelon of the meritocratic and other elite classes.” (97) And yet, these otherwise savvy and capable women, often “seem not to have been taught the most basic protective lessons.” (98) Such an observation still seems to require a good deal of procatalepsis, and Eberstadt is careful to indicate that her observation does not blame the victim. The men are engaging in criminal (or boorish) behavior and deserve to be punished accordingly. The women are undeniably victims of crimes, but their naivety often seems remarkable, as does the fact that for the most part they failed to come forth and report the crimes, holding onto the secret for months and years: “so socially vulnerable are these victims that they did not even know to stand up for themselves—until an international movement gave them permission to do so.” (98, italics in original)

In the case of male-female relations and the status of women, Eberstadt’s analyses and explanations stand up alongside her powers of description. Elsewhere, she seems to have discounted the overtly political causes of identity politics far too much in favor of the socio-psychological underpinnings that she ascribes as the root cause of everything identity. The formation of the new and artificial category “Hispanic” during the late 1960s and 70s stands out as just one example. The lumping together of otherwise disparate ethnic groups under this umbrella term, the modelling of the newly invented category on the African-American Civil Rights movement, and the insistence that it define itself on the basis of victimhood—all these were deliberate and strategic choices driven by ideology and the hope to gain political advantages. The Hispanic movement was consciously created by social activists. It is hard to see anything more than a tangential or tertiary role for the sexual revolution in the formation of radical groups such as La Raza, whose carefully plotted grievance politics won them governmental recognition, institutional status and, not least, funding both public and private.1

Although she describes herself as a woman who has never voted for a Republican, Meghan Daum proves more willing than Eberstadt to tread directly on progressive clichés and fourth-wave feminist shibboleths, repeatedly calling out the woke generation for its oversimplifications and propensity to rush to condemnatory judgment. Somewhere along the line, the newest version of progressivism lost contact with fairness and complexity. In a word, today’s SJWs don’t do nuance. Here is a sampling of head slaps dished out by Daum in her The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars:

  • “What many of [fourth wave feminism’s] adherents don’t seem to see . . . are the countless ways that women frequently have power over men: in the use of sex as a tool for manipulation, in parenting dynamics, in the ability nowadays to shut down a conversation by citing male privilege and dramatically dropping the mic.” (84)

  • “If the rollback of the [Obama administration’s] Dear Colleague Letter had come from a more palatable source [than Betsy DeVos], very few people would have blinked an eye. Because the truth is [Obama’s] policy wasn’t working.” (139)

  • “What would [Joan Didion] make of the ways in which the vacant fervor of glamorous activism has only grown more vacant and fervent over the decades?” (162)

  • “Why have we decided that prejudice against some groups is phobic—transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia—and prejudice against other groups is just prejudice?” (167)

One is tempted to add “or disregarded altogether” to complete the last sentence. One more quotation, this one in regard to a friend of Daum’s, a seemingly ordinary middle-aged, middle-class woman who by historical standards, and by comparison to hundreds of millions of women now walking the earth, would be regarded as living an extraordinary (privileged?) life, but who nevertheless is convinced that everything “sucked for women”: “My feeling was,” Daum writes, “that she and I must at some point have stopped living in the same world.” (173)

These examples should not mislead the reader into thinking that Daum has beaten a retreat to encamp with conservatives. This is not a red pill book. She remains mixed in her convictions, prone to “yes-but” thinking, interested in analyzing gray areas and acknowledging “nuance” (her favorite word in the final chapters). For example, she believes the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, but is suspicious of the “sloganeering” that attended the Kavanaugh hearings. It strikes her as “hollow and perfunctory,” and she recognizes that Dianne Feinstein cagily sat on Ford’s story, waiting to use her as a political instrument. Likewise, the author openly disavows the exaggerated statistics that are repeatedly claimed in regard to women’s experience of sexual assault on campus; nonetheless, she finds herself moved by certain testimonials that she hears at a University of Iowa Take Back the Night event.

Part memoir and part social analysis, the book is also a generationally driven jeremiad. Daum identifies herself forthrightly with GenX, whose activists she posits as tougher, more resilient, more understanding of complexities than the present generation of “wokescenti,” her coinage for today’s unforgiving purveyors of cancel culture. These are identity-politics Puritans whose reckless spasms of outrage evidently provide their lives with meaning. They are quick to punish, keen to punish severely, and uninterested in the mechanisms of forgiveness and restitution. She finds such types, of course, on college campuses (while remaining sufficiently astute to acknowledge the larger percentage of students who just want to get on with their work), and, what is more worrying in the long run, she finds their views now commonly expressed in dominant media and by that segment of the population which knows it is on the right side of history. By 2015—even before Trump’s election—the world had changed: “the only conversations that were allowed were the ones in which facts were massaged to accommodate visceral feelings of liberal outrage,” Daum concludes. (183) In an effort to push back, while teaching writing at the University of Iowa, she deliberately assigns material that she knows will provoke her students, including edgy comedy routines that she finds hilarious, but that many of them must find offensive. One imagines the rigid faces in front of her. Offense-finding has become a reflex for a certain set.

She also reports finding a significant amount of bad faith amongst the bien pensant, suspecting, for example, that a good deal of the gushing over Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015) exists because it is required rather than honestly felt. (My question: what percentage of white liberals finished the book? How many who love it even started it?) She also witnesses prevarication. When enough alcohol has been consumed, many in her cohort confess that they find accusations of gaslighting tiresome; Coates, overrated; and pussy hats, silly; but they have no intention of backing off their social media posts and public proclamations to the contrary. Maybe, then, we did have to invent that overworked term virtue signaling.

Daum sees a younger kindred spirit in Columbia University student Toni Airaksinen, who gains her interest on the basis of pieces she writes for the student newspaper. Airaksinen presents herself as a dedicated activist, but Daum finds that she also writes with a skeptical and independent mind. Some articles refuse to follow prescribed SJW channels; others refuse to accept woke shibboleths without asking a few questions; her Facebook posts link not just to acceptable left-wing sources, but also to pieces by libertarians, conservatives, and independents—enemies of the people, all, apparently, for Airaksinen is ostracized on campus and harassed online.

In an effort to break free from liberal groupthink, Daum spends hour upon hour watching “Free Speech YouTube” videos, where the likes of Glenn Loury, Camille Paglia, Jordan Peterson, Alice Dreger, and John McWhorter air heterodox opinions and broach political taboos. NPR, CNN and the New York Times are now joined in her world by The Rubin Report, Bloggingheads, and Quillette. Nearing addiction to these out-of-the-mainstream sources, she finds in them a willingness to speak science to ideology, and uninhibited challenges to oversimplification and left-minded groupthink. Here is the nuance whose absence she has lamented in progressive circles. “These videos,” she writes, “felt like a safety net, even a warm embrace.” (186)

Eberstadt and Daum are trying to clear up the bewilderment felt by all who fear the growing illiberal takeover of liberalism. They share a willingness to challenge received opinion. At first glance, Eberstadt’s work, written in a vein familiar to the academy, may seem to attempt a deeper dive into causes. Along with her analyses, Daum’s work includes personal essayism and ancecdote that readers may or may not find compelling. This element notwithstanding, her book seems to have located a wider variety of symptoms in the current cultural malaise (or derangement, a word she shares with Douglas Murray). She finds not one root cause, but “a tangle of roots” that feeds an era which “routinely brings out the worst” in too many people. (214) While she unfortunately seems to soften her criticism of the left in her brief final chapter, the conclusion does contain a skillful description of the nexus of social media and unformed, under-informed young activist minds. Anyone who teaches college or has paid attention to recent campus activism will recognize how well she has described the problem. When administrators cave in response to unreasonable group-related demands, when they cave to threats and fail to punish violence, when professors self-censor and cease to profess, they are all failing the next generation.

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