May 2nd 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Gearing up to ditch free-trade policy

EDITORIAL Post-covid19, create a national development bank

CANBERRA OBSERVED Keelty water report misses the point on water shortage

ENERGY Pandemic has exposed our overreliance on imports

CARDINAL PELL Locating the golden thread

CARDINAL PELL High Court practically shouts 'not guilty'

FAMILY Dismantling myths around family tax benefits

REFLECTION Covid19 and the Church past, present and future

OBITUARY R.I.P. Bruce Dawe: poet of the people

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Doctors of WHO let the covid19 dogs out

INDUSTRY POLICY The rise and fall of Australian manufacturing and covid19

ASIAN AFFAIRS Politics done by stealth in the UN: China and the WHO

HUMOUR Get them hug-dealers off the streets

MUSIC Farewell to an Aussie jazz legend: Don Burrows

LOCKDOWN TV CLASSIC Unique, unsurpassed: The Avengers





NATIONAL AFFAIRS Crucial to get Virgin Australia flying again

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News Weekly, May 2, 2020

PRIMAL SCREAMS: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics

by Mary Eberstadt

Templeton Found Press, Pennsylvania
Hardcover: 192 pages

Price: AUD$41.99

Reviewed by Lucy Sullivan

 “Anyone who has ever heard a coyote in the desert, separated at night from its pack, knows the sound. The otherwise unexplained hysteria of today’s identity politics is nothing more, or less, than just that collective human howl of our time, sent up by inescapably communal creatures trying desperately to identify their own.” (p109)

The primal scream of the title of Mary Eberstadt’s book is not the primal scream of the infant’s rage at the separation at birth of psychiatrist Arthur Janow’s Primal Therapy, popular in the 1970s, but is similarly deemed to be expressive of a deep-rooted, inescapable component of human nature.

Eberstadt’s proposition, and I don’t think it can be disputed, is that we are social animals, not just in terms of anonymous herds, but needing intimate long-term relationships in which we are known and loved just as what we are, and not for outer-worldly achievements, on a life-long basis. This can only be assured within the nuclear and the extended family, in which genetic similarity and, at the conscious level, genealogical knowledge and shared family narratives, no doubt support and ease its maintenance.

Eberstadt draws support for this thesis from ethnological studies showing that family, that is, consanguinity, underpins herd, pack and mob in all mammals. They are not random collections of individuals of the species.

One is reminded, too, of how prominent kinship diagrams were in social anthropology studies in the first half of the last century, providing a guide to roles and enacted relationships in the tribes studied.

The phenomenon of “identity politics” has grown and has more and more exercised the concern and analytical attention of thinkers in the United States over the last three decades. Its characteristics are disparate but can, the writer argues, all be seen to manifest a degree of panic over identity – “Who am I?” It also largely seems to be a student phenomenon.

The outraged identities are mostly sub-categories of race (African-American, for example), biological sex (including feminist, #metoo, incel (involuntary celibate), alt-right) and gender (transgender).

Here are some of the behaviours Eberstadt attributes to this panic of anomie, and are in defiance of what has been considered rational in the tradition of Western thought and culture:

  • Students refusing to allow or to hear the public expression of any views that conflict with their conception of the identity party they have chosen to adhere to, via “de-platforming”, violently attacking speakers, continuous repetitive chanting to drown out speakers, obtaining dismissal of staff who offend against their rulings.
  • Assuming the status of victims and, under threat, demanding “safe spaces”. The character of the threat seems nothing more than hearing something that offends or disturbs their sensibilities. To this end, “trig-ger warnings” are required for lectures that will mention possibly offending topics: slavery, violence, blood, war, criminality (even in law lectures).
  • Rage at “cultural appropriation” – non-members of an identity group engaging with cultural artifacts, styles, or rituals of the identity group – hence the damning of Joe Biden for once having blacked his face.
  • Rage at memorialisation of traditionally honoured public figures for having thought or acted “wrongly” in relation to an identity group: for example, slave owners who endowed universities (Thomas Jefferson); imperialists (Cecil Rhodes); Enlightenment philosophers who privileged Western civilisation (Hume, Hegel, Kant).
  • Condemnation of Western culture’s recent past for its condemnation of sexual deviance.


Eberstadt interprets this outrage and attempted censorship as symptomatic of “moral panic”. Behind this she sees the turn taken by the humanities, seen also in political correctness, against Western culture, in the 1980s. This turn served to legitimise multiculturalism, illegal immigration and globalism: all cultures are equal except Western, which committed the injustices students now rage against, and is a perpetual stain on “whiteness” (although the Western culture is the culture within which identity activists nevertheless operate).

Since the 1980s, numerous books have been written in the U.S. by academics and intellectuals tracing and deploring this development (for example, The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom, 1987; The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, by Mark Lilla, 2017) and offering social, economic and political reasons for its trajectory, such as the fears of an educated generation that faces a life of uncertain careers, declining wages, and social and political unpredictability.

But Eberstadt argues that its sources go much deeper, below conscious reasoning, arising from a true outrage of our own mammalian nature, which its sufferers cannot identify for themselves – namely, from the rupturing of sustained familial relationships intrinsic to the formation of identity, as a result of the dismantling of the nuclear family and the consequential loss of the extended family too.

The Sexual Revolution, with the support of government legislation and welfare provision, achieved this dismantling over the last three decades of the 20th century. Familial identity has been occluded for the children of the sexually liberated generations by:

  • Divorce, often followed by serial re-partnerships, so that “relations” come and go.
  • Small families, often no siblings – the one close relationship that lasts a lifetime.
  • The reproductive technologies, with sperm and ova donation, so that natural parents are phenomenologically missing.


Eberstadt tags these lost iden-tity resources as: Gone Daddy, Gone Child, Gone Parent, Gone Siblings, Gone Family and finally Gone God – the fail-safe resource of love and acceptance by the family of the church, so eroded over the last half-century by conceited atheism and agnosticism and by secularisation. Intact, sizable families provide a ready-made network of support and commensality that may waver and thin but is indestructible and undeniable, unlike associations of choice.

Apart from their significance for identity politics, Eberstadt sees the loss of close non-sexual experiences of the opposite sex provided by parent and siblings as underlying the increasingly ungracious and random mating observable today – exploitative and violent on the one side, vulgar and aggressive on the other.

A surprising omission to me is mention of infant child care, which strikes at the bonding of child and family at the very start of life – at the child’s loss of unchanging reading of its identity in its mother’s eyes due to ever-changing carers. The rise in employment of women diminishes the degree of vigilance and support available for their children in their later years, and their ability to maintain the larger web of family relationships.

Eberstadt discusses feminism’s protests as contributing evidence for her thesis. But might not feminism be assigned a primary role in the Sexual Revolution in claiming for women the same rights to promiscuity and sexual freedom as men? This brought in its wake the normalisation of extra-marital sex, with the ex-nuptial birth rate rising from its centuries-long 6 per cent to over 30 per cent in a few decades (now 70 per cent for African-American women), despite the pill.

As marriages cracked under the media promotion of infidelity as the progressive norm, no-fault divorce was legislated. Feminists were able to claim single-parent benefits in the light of so many mothers being left without male financial support and unable or unwilling to meet the feminist goal of working life-long and fulltime in order to be equal to and independent of men.

It was also this goal of feminism that resulted (in Australia, at least) in the almost total withdrawal of income support for the intact family, and its generous award to the welfare-dependent, that finally drove married mothers into the workforce at the end of the 1980s.

Feminism preached promiscuity to women in the name of sexual equality, but soon the boot was on the other foot, with men expecting it and demanding it, as the rise of the #metoo movement has revealed.

Eberstadt laments the loss by young women of protectiveness from men, necessary because of men’s greater strength, that accompanied the dissolution of the family. The rituals that imbued this in boys and men were denigrated and rudely rejected by feminists, also in the name of equality of the sexes: boys must never hits girls; ladies first; opening doors for women; standing when women entered the room; giving up seats on public transport – not physically necessary but carrying a distinct message and training.


My assessment is that women who enjoy raising their children (the majority) and passing on family tradition had got men more or less where they wanted them to enable women to fulfill this also necessary task with ease and enjoyment; but feminist activism made them able to realise this vocation only in a diminished form and under stress.

There is a flavour to the protests of identity groups that puts in mind the student protests of the Vietnam War period, that other time when adults were sacrificing the young in their stead in an optional war of offence, not defence. The strong element of condemnation of their national forebears could be read as a displaced protest at their parental generation, which pursues its own hedonistic gratification, sexual and material, heedless of its duty of care to its children.

How relevant to Australia is all this? The phenomenon certainly exists in Australia. For examples, see the letter of Christos Christou (News Weekly, January 25, 2020) that describes the foul harassment of anti-abortion protestors by abortion supporters during the debate of the New South Wales decriminalisation of abortion bill; and the attempts to prevent the address of Dr Quentin van Meter at the University of Western Australia on the transgender issue in 2018 (also reported in News Weekly, September 8, 2018). But, unless it is being seriously under-reported by the media, it is nowhere near as pervasive as Eberstadt reports it is in the United States.

This does not mean it will not develop here. If Eberstadt is right as to its origins, we have all the conditions present here conducive to its development – it’s just that we lag a couple of decades behind the U.S. in these things. In the 1950s, Australians were shocked by the availability of divorce in the U.S.; in the 1970s, about the time of the advent of no-fault divorce here, a visiting U.S. pediatrician was adamant that the extended family was hale and well here, compared with in the U.S.; but, by the late 1980s, a country high-school teacher could speak of children being on their third set of parents: namely, their birth parents had split up, the parent the children stayed with re-partnered, this couple then split up, and the children stayed with the partner who was not their biological parent, who … and so on.

Eberstadt does not extend much hope for the immediate future, as the ideology of progressive liberalism that drove the govern-ment policies that created this crisis of youth is held sacrosanct, both morally and politically, in the so-called left-wing parties of the English-speaking world.

Do the arts express an opinion on the current plight of youth, the increasing prevalence of disturbance and suicide? When I saw Stringberg’s Miss Julie in London in the 1960s, it was all about class; when I saw it in Sydney in the 1980s, it was all about feminism; the drama critic of the Times Literary Supplement reviewing the National Theatre production of Miss Julie in 2018, saw it as about emotional deprivation.

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