Primal Screams argues in part that the signature political movement of our time – identity politics – is rooted in the post-revolutionary erasure of self, brought on by the shrinkage and implosion of the family.
Pace conservatives who dismiss such politics as mere theater, I argue that the anguish behind identity politics is real. But its foundation does not lie in abstractions like “whiteness” or “patriarchy” or the “binary.” What the timeline and other evidence shows instead is that identity politics cannot be understood apart from the familial dislocations and fractures endured by generations of homo sapiens since the 1960s.
Divorce, cohabitation, fatherlessness, abortion, reduced family size: all of these phenomena have left post-revolutionary souls with fewer people to call our own – fewer people who can be trusted to do what families are supposed to do: have our backs, teach us, and love us no matter what.
And with that radical diminution of the family and its protections has come an unexpected consequence: humanity is ever more unsteady, and ever less able to answer the question “Who am I?” as it always used to be answered before – relationally, with reference to one’s place in the natural social order. Deprived of this elemental way of constructing identity, many people now flee, ever more frantically, to collective “identities” that are inferior simulacra for the real thing.
Twenty-five years ago, the brilliant scholar Leon Kass wrote a meditation for Commentary magazine on the hidden beauty and logic of the dietary laws of Judaism. He observed that these laws protected God’s people from physical harms – including harms that did not even have names until millennia later, when science would uncover them. As he further observed: “These remarkable customs not only restrain and thwart the bad; they also commemorate the true and beckon to the good. Finally, the dietary laws of Leviticus commemorate the creation and the Creator and beckon us toward holiness.”
Just so, omitting the word “dietary,” certain other laws were handed down from the earliest days of Christianity that drew strict boundaries around related forms of unbridled consumption. These rules were among the features that set Christianity apart. They also protected the followers of Christ from something that joins us to those earliest believers, especially today: the wreckage that would result from failing to recognize in those laws a shelter, in which our kind would flourish.
We were protected all along, in ways that we didn’t understand in full until now. The cataclysm that has ensued will take generations of rebuilding – and in order to find the right stones, we must first understand the cause of the blast. I hope that Primal Screams, by discerning in identity politics the pre-political cries of a wounded time, makes a modest contribution to that end.