Mary Eberstadt’s diagnoses of the failings of a God-free culture are highly respected. But despite the havoc wreaked she’s full of hope
“Who am I?” An illiterate peasant of the Middle Ages was better equipped to answer this question than we are, despite our 21st century obsession with identity questions.
That’s the argument of the US author Mary Eberstadt, whose 2019 book Primal Screams says the rise of identity politics can be explained by the “great scattering” of the family over the last five decades, and its replacement by what was once a marginal academic ideology.
A medieval peasant would have known which village he was from, who his parents, grandparents and ancestors were, what his religion was, and would have seen marrying, having children and grandchildren as a major source of fulfilment and security in life.
His life was full of “givens”, not choices, but since the Sexual Revolution of the mid-20th century, “every one of the assumptions he could take for granted is now negotiable”.
Family breakdown, divorce and abandonment, parentage based on technologies like sperm donation and surrogacy, and a host of other factors have changed all these “givens”.
“I really believe that when people in these identity groups call themselves victims, there is a deep truth in what they are expressing.”
In turn this has caused an “epidemic” of loneliness, psychiatric and behavioural problems, leaving young people scrambling for stability in life.
They fill this gap with “primal screams”: highly-charged new identities drawing on experiences of victimisation, couched in academic critiques of race, gender, politics.
Mrs Eberstadt spoke to The Catholic Weekly prior to delivering lectures at the Centre for Independent Studies, Australian Catholic University, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation and Campion College.
She said had a different take on identity politics to its other critics, who see its claims of victimisation as overstated.
“I really believe that when people in these identity groups call themselves victims, there is a deep truth in what they are expressing,” she said.
“It’s just that they are not victims of the abstractions that they’ve been taught to point to. What do I mean by that? I don’t think people are victims of [the feminist theory of] intersectionality, for example.”
She prefers to focus on concrete examples of how, for instance, family breakdown in recent decades has impacted women: the rise of fatherlessness and the decline in positive male influences, the ubiquity of sexually explicit media and the brutality of contemporary dating.
“Similarly, in the case of racism, of course racism exists. Of course the Catholic Church condemns it as a sin.
“So it’s not that racism doesn’t exist; it’s just that people are victims of things other than these abstract kinds of descriptions of oppression.
“If we want to talk about what’s oppressing minority communities, and not only minority communities, let’s look at what it means not to have a father at home? These are elemental things.”
Primal Screams builds upon Mrs Eberstadt’s ground-breaking 2013 book How the West Really Lost God, in which she made the case that decline in family life since the Sexual Revolution was a cause, rather than an effect, of falling rates of religious practice.
In both books, and across scores of interviews, essays and other works, she lays out the scientific, medical and sociological data – most of it compiled by researchers with no commitment to the Church – in support of her case.
“And the time has come for rollback of the idea that it doesn’t matter whether we join institutions in our life, whether we do the hard work of family formation. These things are not matters of indifference.”
She compares the well-established and growing body of evidence about the effects of family breakdown on childhood development, socialisation, ADHD and anxiety in children, psychological problems in adults, addiction – the list goes on – to the discovery that cigarettes cause lung cancer, and the massive roll-back of smoking across the world still taking place.
As was once the case with smoking, governments and communities have treated marriage and family formation since the Sexual Revolution as matters of individual choice.
“But what we are seeing across the western world is that they’re not,” Mrs Eberstadt said.
“And the time has come for rollback of the idea that it doesn’t matter whether we join institutions in our life, whether we do the hard work of family formation. These things are not, as it turns out, matters of indifference.”
Mrs Eberstadt says that Catholic teaching on the importance of the family to individuals and societies – especially since the flashpoint 1968 encyclical on contraception, Humanae Vitae – has successfully withstood the Sexual Revolution and now is the time to “go on the offensive” by witnessing to the goodness of family life.
“There are many mysteries in the Church, but the biggest mystery to me right now is why there are people on the inside who seem to want to run for the theological exit signs, just when we are seeing the vindication of Catholic teaching over and over and over,” she said.
“In other words, the Church defends the family as sacred. We see now in our social orders, or I should say our social disorders, that this is what happens when people walk away from that idea.”
Western governments should experiment with policies to help “put this back together”, Mrs Eberstadt added.
“I am not a policy person, but at a minimum I think every western government needs to be trying initiatives that would reward marriage, reward childbearing, and reward people for staying together.”
Instead, as Christian teaching increasingly cuts against the culture’s grain, subjects for vigorous but polite disagreement and tolerance by the State are increasingly leading to the forceful exclusion of the Church from the public sphere.
Mrs Eberstadt took up the subject of threats to religious freedom in her 2016 book It’s Dangerous to Believe, and had advice “for friends in Australia, where I know these religious liberty skirmishes are relatively new”.
“The good side of these skirmishes is that people are coming together: the difference between [different denominations] isn’t what it used to be,” she said.
“This is something we see across the US, where activists have successfully shut down, for example, some adoption agencies in the name of progressive ideology.”
“First of all, understand that standing down isn’t going to get you anywhere.
“Point two: and I can’t stress this enough … we’ve developed, or tried to develop a language to address them: You cannot attack Christianity without attacking Christian good works.
“This is something we see across the US, where activists have successfully shut down, for example, some adoption agencies in the name of progressive ideology. They go after indigent nuns, they go after things like emergency pregnancy centres.”
Beyond politics, Mrs Eberstadt’s work has a tragic dimension in which individuals mourn the loss of “phantom families” that could have been, but never were, because of the norms of the prevailing culture: children not born because of an over-focus on career; abandonment of children by their parents; siblings and relatives lost through divorce and family breakup.
“I’m only trying to capture reality as best I can. And if reality is tragic, so be it. But it’s only tragic if that’s the end of the story,” she said.
“And that’s why the need for redemption has never been more patent in my lifetime than it is looking at the scene today. Redemption is what the Church has to offer; it’s not what anything in the secularist orbit has to offer individuals.”