I’m traveling in a few days to my 60th high-school reunion. I know what you’re thinking: Sixty?!! Why, someone as handsome and virile as you—30’s got to be more like it!
Thanks, but 60 is right. And for all the pain of the admission, that stark pair of numerals highlights the point on which this narrative turns; namely, that a whole lot has happened to these United States in the past six decades, altering more than the surface appearance of life; changing, in important respects, the very ways in which we look at things. The what-happened-ness I encounter in emails and observations from classmates is a consequence of developments hardly imaginable when we got our diplomas, 60 years ago, in an age still learning to accommodate Elvis.
Yes, I know—geezers are famous for head-shakes and looks of wonderment when it comes to surveying the deeds and thought patterns of successor generations. As Paul Lynde sang in Bye Bye Birdie, half a century ago, “What’s the matter with kids today?!” There’s some of that, undoubtedly, in our present perplexities. But there’s more. What’s the matter with acknowledging the sex that God assigned to you during your tenure in the womb? What’s the matter, furthermore, with saying “sex” instead of “gender”—a word formerly applied mainly when speaking of grammar? At a still more fundamental level, why shouldn’t you want to acknowledge God’s action in our creation? Because it’s unfashionable to believe in a God who seems connected to human affairs? If He exists at all? As a “He” or a “She” or a God Knows What?
This business of cultural accommodation gets complicated. I could go down, one by one, the list of mind-boggling notions to which our culture has assented or attached itself, sometimes over voluble protest, sometimes with a shrug of “Oh, well, can’t fight Progress.” Instead, more constructively, I yield to Mary Eberstadt, author and social critic, who in a new and valuable book comes to a new and valuable diagnosis. The book is Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (Templeton Press, 179 pp.). She says: “[The question Who am I? is now one of the most fraught of our time.” I interrupt to say, yes, Ma’am, that’s putting it mildly. She goes on: “It has become like a second skin—something that can’t be sloughed off, or even scratched without excruciating pain to the subject. Why?”
And we are off to the races. From the stands where sit people of many ages—not just my own contemporaries—the look of things is odd-to-distressing. Certain things that are, or used to be regarded thus, now look like things that were. “The engine of this transformation,” Mrs. Eberstadt writes,
is the sexual revolution, meaning the widespread social changes that followed the technological shock of the birth control pill and related devices delivering reliable contraception en masse for the first time. Not only in the United States, but around many parts of the world, the revolution has included the de-stigmatization of nonmarital sex in all its varieties, and a sharp rise in behaviors that were formerly rare or stigmatized or both. That list of particulars includes but is not limited to rising and sometimes skyrocketing rates of abortion, fatherless homes, family shrinkage, family breakup, and other phenomena that have become commonplace in the world since the 1960s.
What a lot of territory—the territory of life, as it happens. Life itself is changing, at least in the ways we think about it and impose new premises upon our understanding of it. Mrs. Eberstadt is rightly disturbed at the notion of identity politics—the demand for political recognition of internalized claims to autonomy. “Identity politics,” she writes, “is not so much politics as a primal scream.” It results from what she calls “the Great Scattering,” meaning the dispersion of the human communities whose suppositions and assumptions gave life its shape—starting with the family. The scream we hear—akin to the wail of a coyote separated from its pack—is, to the author, “the collective human howl of our time, sent up by inescapably communal creatures trying desperately to identify their own.”
Anyone who hears the wail—and who can avoid it these days?—hears the sorrow it bears: the tears, the strangled sobs, the unconcealed resentments. Ever meet a happy man-hater? An exultant one, maybe; an unregenerately spiteful one; just not a happy one. That would be in large part because males, the other half of the human race, and much exposed these days to censure and ridicule, have as a sex been ousted from their historic role as protectors, leaving the agents of their ouster as quarry.
“[M]any women,” Mrs. Eberstadt writes, “have been left vulnerable and frustrated. The furious, swaggering, foul-mouthed rhetoric of feminism promises women what many can’t find elsewhere: protection. It promises to constrain men in a world that no longer constrains them in traditional ways.” Ho, ho, try that one out on Catharine MacKinnon some day when you find her looking unusually placid.
It has not been amusing to watch the various #MeToo controversies arise and soak up so much of the culture’s emotional energy via #MeToo politics: the politics of identity; the politics of I’m-a-victim. There are evidently a lot of victims in our time, and no wonder. The origin of #MeToo isn’t the busy hands of Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose. It’s more than anything else the dissolution of careful arrangements requiring behaviors indicative of the respective natures of men and women and of the need to make their joint relationship work for the common as well as the individual good.
The requirements weren’t always followed, needless to say, but their value lay partly in just the remembered knowledge of How Things Were Supposed to Be. Women at fraternity parties sure didn’t go there planning to get blotto drunk—a point with which the hosts at the time were well conversant. They knew better, one and all. They knew that things, left to run any old way people want, tend to spiral downward, to general disadvantage and mishaps of one kind and another. I see I’m talking 1959 stuff. Must be my class-reunion mood. But it’s what Mary Eberstadt is talking, in essence, and it’s worth listening to.
Yes, “Who am I anyway?” It was in the old days as in these new times a good and dispositive question. The answer, Mrs. Eberstadt notes, was traditionally supplied from the deep well of religious understanding. It was, I’m a child of God. The reply came easily enough from the mouths of children and adults normatively furnished with knowledge of the Bible and the traditions of the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Who was in charge around here? God was in effective charge, for all that he declined the duties of a conscientious federal regulator: Do this, do that, don’t even think about what you’re thinking about, much less do it. The earth was the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. That pretty well summed it up.
She says in specific terms—nor do I care how rusty they sound or seem—“Secularization . . . means that many people no longer experience the opposite sex as those with a religious background are instructed to do—as figurative sisters and brothers, united in fellowship.” They’re all just autonomous units today, lacking mutual responsibilities. See where all this social slovenliness gets started—this carelessness with the welfare of others? When the walls of community fall, the local tenants, deprived of protections and guidelines, start circling each other warily, wolf-like.
There’s no sense to be made of it. Mrs. Eberstadt underlines “the irrational tone in public life—especially among the young.” It shouldn’t take a psychiatrist to prove things aren’t normal. Nevertheless, scientists and doctors of one sort and another point directly to what looks like a mental-health crisis on campus. “[T]he psychological state of young America, in particular, looks rockier than has ever been recorded before. It comes from disassociation with cultural and religious norms that served to explain exactly who we were and what, accordingly, we were to do about it.”
Well? Do we just wait for the nervous breakdown? Anyone who follows public affairs closely has the sense that we’re breaking down already. Look at the impeachment furor consuming all sorts and conditions: none with any notion I can discern as to how we escape without the infliction of further damage to national comity, such as it is; with the means of coalescing on some basis or another, in order that we might live together.
You will know if you spend much time in bookstores that publishers generally require authors or PR staffs to rig up problem/answer dropdowns for main titles not sufficiently alluring on their own: “The Tuna Fish Crisis,” “Homeless in Poughkeepsie,” “Vaping Made Too Easy,” that sort of stuff; nearly always accompanied by the teaser, “And What You Can Do About It.” A book of my own appeared with such a dropdown: not at my own instance, but what are you going to do? Americans want to fix things that need fixing. It is part of our heritage.
Mrs. Eberstadt’s emphasis is on how things got where they are, not what to do about them before further harm occurs. She confesses she is not prescribing. “Identity,” she says, “has become a forever war whose combatants now habitually turn on their own in a spiral of scapegoating and social destruction that no one seems to know how to stop.” We all sense the danger of putting our hands near a buzz saw with an inoperative off-switch. Mrs. Eberstadt has given us a first-rate, literate analysis, and that should be enough. Her readers can work solo or in concert at rediscovering the answer to the who-am-I question, so that the offensive howling and screaming may die away. That is the task at hand.
I would suggest—without suggesting a “what you can do about it”—that we consider how this business got started. It wasn’t suddenly, well, it’s no longer 1959: time for a good howl at the moon. If truth be known, something about 1959 must have been amiss—whether my classmates and I knew it or not—creating the conditions for radical overhaul of existing beliefs and thought processes. Our convictions, our arrangements must have been . . . weak; flaccid; dried-out surface things; unable to resist the mildest breeze.
One reason I say this is that I can’t recall, as one who was there when the new gusts began to stir formerly settled arrangements, that I noticed significant objection from universities and churches and other supposed guardians of the permanent things. What I mainly observed was puzzlement. Huh? What’s going on here? When a smirking Abbie Hoffman instructed members of the counterculture to “kill their parents,” we smiled. Aw, it was just rhetoric—as indeed was the case, except that no one bestowed upon it the rebuke it obviously merited for transgression of truth.
The softness at the core of mid-1950s civilization, so to call it, diminished the usefulness of tradition and prescription as guides along the weed-covered way. I would suggest that religious precepts deteriorated faster and more tellingly than did other linked markers of civilized wisdom. That would be in part, I imagine, on account of the ooey-gooey, be-nice-now-boys-and-girls manner in which religious training too often took place in the 20th century. The sky was supposed to be blue—all the time—and Jesus was our friend, certainly not our judge, with behavioral standards that got in the way of personal expression.
The sexual revolution faced comparatively few crucifix-toting exponents of the need for intelligence, not to say care, in appreciation of the divine gift of sexual difference. There was so much “me” in the revolutionary spirit! Desires were born. Once born, they required fulfillment. Right? Short-term fulfillment sufficed: as in the quick expulsion of undesired life from the womb. To the long term—the long, long, rock-strewn term, rife with mutual pledges and sacrifices, and the handing over of desires—less attention got paid. You weren’t likely to have a good time through sacrifice! In any case, the point of the thing wasn’t clear. Explain to me, please, how handing over desires and goals and aspirations to someone else is likely to make me a more satisfied person! It turned out that few cultural authorities were desirous of venturing explanations. They might have looked purse-lipped and prudish.
The sexual revolution knocked Humpty Dumpty from his perch; nor has anyone figured out the means of repairing him without alienating whole generations accustomed to seeing their whims, their desires, their instincts affirmed both by government and all the best thinkers of the day. We should not wonder that Mary Eberstadt refrains from devising and promoting a rescue mission. Her readers can surmise if they are so minded what is to be done, and by whom. In what she so intelligently gives us there is one hint. It is that howls of loneliness against the darkened sky can put into lonely minds the wish for something better. For the renewed unity of human hearts, drawn together in love? For jointness of aspiration and belief against challenge and suffering? For protective walls in place of the fenceless, unconstrained outdoors hardly anyone prior to our own time saw as natural or for that matter endurable?
It could be that big changes are advancing, unseen, even as we stew over changes none of us, in 1959 or earlier, could have foretold. Life, as we seem to learn daily, never sits still. It teems with surprises: some pleasant, some sad; not one of them inconsistent with the instruments of real and lasting joy. By that I mean love of neighbor. I mean love of the God who gave us neighbors to love.