Mary Eberstadt sees a strong connection between the rise of identity politics and the decline of the American family. Such a connection seems clear if one thinks about it, but the idea never occurred to me.
Both the family and identity politics provide a partial answer to this question: “Who am I?” The more one answers this question in familial terms, the less likely one is to answer it primarily in racial, ethnic, or gender terms.
Unfortunately, as Eberstadt shows, family ties have become more and more attenuated in the last half century. It’s not just the absence of fathers, though that’s certainly an enormous factor. Shrinking family size has meant the relative absence of siblings. According to Eberstadt, “diverse findings show that being accompanied through early life by non-parental contemporaneous others (i.e., siblings) gives children and teenagers a leg up on socialization—in other words, knowing who they are in the social order.”
Eberstadt also sees family decline as a major contributor to what some consider an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Loneliness abounds in societies plagued by high divorce rates, low marriage rates, and emptying cradles.
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 now elude many. The diminution and rupture of the family and the rise of identity politics cannot be understood apart from one another.
Anthropological evidence from every culture and era verifies that human beings, by their nature, live in families—just as coyotes and elephants and other mammals live in families, not just in random collections of individuals of the same species. Apart from the outlier that is the contemporary West, family has been an integral, unbidden demand of our kind, everywhere that human beings have been found. Its relational structure has provided the default ways of answering the question, Who am I? And now many people, deprived of a robust family life by post-1960s trends, can no longer figure out how to answer that question.
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.
Eberstadt’s article is hugely insightful. To me, though — and maybe I’m being too cynical or simplistic — identity politics is at least as much an expression of raw grievance and an effort to appropriate status and benefits as it is an attempt to answer existential questions.
Perhaps some of the same deep currents that led to familial breakdown have produced a society rife with grievance and efforts to gain status and benefits based on factors other than individual merit.
STEVE adds: Mary will be our guest on the Power Line podcast, coming out this Friday morning. Tune in—Mary gives a terrific interview about the book!
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