How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics

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* Book: Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. Mary Eberstadt. Templeton Press, 2019.



Carl Trueman reviews :

"Whether as an atheist one goes with Sade, Nietzsche, and Freud, or as a Christian with Paul and Augustine, the answer to the current identity chaos is surely that human beings have a deep, dark, and destructive side that takes pleasure in dominating others, however defined, through sexual excess or cultivating feelings of superiority. It’s not just a need to belong that drives us; it’s also the need to assert ourselves, to feel superior, to negate others. Sex and violence have always been the obvious ways to do that, and technology and 300 years of expressive individualism—and the collapse of old forms of identity in their wake—have opened the way for our darker instinct to find public expression and cultural sanction.

This, in turn, goes to the heart of what Nietzsche saw as ressentiment, and it helps to explain why, as the traditional foundations for identity fracture and break apart, these new identities are emerging in the aggressive and snarling manner we now see. Whether we look at sexual politics or racial politics, and however legitimate the original grievances they seek to address, one obvious aim is to invert the old hierarchies in the quest to make “us” feel superior to “them.” The idioms for doing such are historically conditioned; the basic ambition is a function of the human heart.

What we need isn’t simply a sociology of identity but an analysis of the deeper psychological and anthropological dimensions of the human condition. The world of strong nation states, religious observance, and stable families was no Nirvana, as history demonstrates only too well. They too had their therapeutic aspects. The answer isn’t a return to the old ways of doing things; that would simply be to exchange one set of problems for another; it’s to confront what the poet Yeats described as “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

The above comments should be read as supplemental questions, not as major criticisms of Eberstadt. This is a good and helpful book, and the responses of Dreher and company are thought-provoking and constructive. It’s a good example of intelligent discussion in a world too dominated by the banal self-promotion, casual nastiness, and cheap identity politics of Twitter. And Eberstadt’s choice of “primal scream” is certainly a useful analogy, because it captures the irrational nature and intensity of identity politics.

But it also captures something Eberstadt doesn’t emphasize, yet which is essential to the modern political project: the therapeutic quality of identity politics. Identity politics is therapeutic politics because it allows any self-identified group to blame others for its misfortunes, to see its own weaknesses as a sign of its inherent virtue, and to foster thereby a feeling of innate superiority."