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Sexual Predators & Autistic Monkeys: Mary Eberstadt’s Primal Screams

2,339 words

Mary Eberstadt
Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics
West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2019

Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt is a onetime speechwriter for George Schultz, author of several books, sometime fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, and currently senior fellow at something called the Faith & Reason Institute. Eberstadt is apparently Catholic, or at least moves among a group of largely Catholic conservatives, the sort of pundits who write for such non-denominational venues as the First Things website, National Review, and Quillette. Earmarks of such “conservative” writing usually include a hand-wringing despair about lack of religion in public life, dissolution of the traditional family structure, and the ongoing explosion of perverse and transgressive behavior, particularly in matters of sex and gender.

All these issues are of concern to Mary Eberstadt. And like most conservatives of her stripe, she writes in circumlocutory fashion, generally shying away from any analysis that directly names the problem, at least when that problem is one of race or ethnicity.

Primal Screams is an excellent title for this book, because it tries to analyze the culture of temper tantrums and general misbehavior in today’s society, particularly among today’s youth and millennials. “Primal Yawps” might have been more precise (with a nod to Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” in Leaves of Grass), since what we’re really talking about here is the irrational, knee-jerk expression of inchoate emotions.

Eberstadt touches on some of the same issues that Heather Mac Donald does in The Diversity Delusion [1] [1]: the de-platforming of non-Leftist intellectuals and gadflies when they attempt to speak at universities (famously, these include Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Mac Donald herself); falsified campus-rape accusations; and the media manipulation of sexual topics through such movements as #MeToo.

Both Eberstadt and Mac Donald blame these trends on something called “identity politics,” but they can’t really define that nebulous phrase. They use it mainly as a catchall for stuff they don’t like. I would argue that identity politics are merely a byproduct of our Tantrum Society, which has its real origin in our culture of self-indulgence, permissiveness, and our fearful and false cult of “tolerance.” If you challenge any of these things, their defenders will automatically invoke an argument about somebody’s victim status or special needs.

And that’s where the “identity” business comes in: it’s just a pretext, an excuse used in lieu of argument. If a mad, feral, “homeless man” misbehaves in public and you complain, you might be accused of being “ableist,” because you’re failing to respect the crazy bum’s disability. If someone who likes to dress up as a giant opossum demands we all use the “pronouns” xie, xir, or xey when speaking about our furry friend, and we laugh and refuse to, we may well be damned as sexist bigots, or worse. (Something that actually happened to a friend of mine on Discord and Twitter: the very quintessence of identity-politics foolishness.) Such things go on because we tolerate them, and we feel forced to tolerate them because a victim status is being claimed for the mad derelict and the opossum “furry” of uncertain gender.

Eberstadt proposes that identity politics come out of the social dissolution of recent decades: put simply, the breakdown of the family. There are many aspects to this dissolution, and she counts off the more obvious ones. Illegitimacy is widespread, and single-motherhood is enshrined as a righteous thing. Families are smaller, often broken; children often have no siblings, or at least none of the opposite sex. Millennials and younger people have little ease or social experience with the opposite sex. This leads to such things as the “incel” phenomenon of lonely young men who indulge in online gaming and pornography, complain of being involuntary celibates, and seethe with hostility towards their female peers. (It is a measure of Eberstadt’s remoteness from the subject that “thot” and “white sharia” appear nowhere in the book.)

As a suggestion of how family breakdown leads to alienation and hostile behavior, Eberstadt cites some 1950s monkey studies by the psychologist Harry Harlow:

[Monkeys] deprived of tactile comfort and also raised in isolation from other monkeys developed additional behavioral aberrations, often severe, from which they never recovered. . . They were overly aggressive with their playmates, and later in life they remained unable to form normal attachments. They were, in fact, socially inept — a decision that extended down into their most basic biological behaviors.

. . .Even monkeys raised in cages where they could see and smell other monkeys, but were deprived of touching them, developed “autistic-like syndrome.” (p. 75)

Is this what the rise of Asperger’s cases is all about, I wonder? Are they just like monkeys who didn’t learn to play well with others when they were babies? Eberstadt only implies that. But the story is a cute illustration of what might result when children suffer from family dysfunction and social isolation. (And now when I look at the book’s title I can’t get the image of a screaming monkey out of my head. Primal Screams indeed!)

After discussing damaged families and autistic monkeys, Eberstadt segues uncomfortably into a talk about the #MeToo movement. She wants to make the argument that this trend — of young and middle-aged women coming forth to say they were sexually used and abused by men in positions of power — is a product of the same social alienation. To me, this is a bridge too far, and utterly silly.

Men behaving badly, as many noted at the time [October 2017], isn’t exactly viral news. But a great many men taking for granted the sexual availability of women, in one profession after another: that is new. (p. 76)

Oh please. When Eberstadt says “new” she doesn’t mean post-1900. She means the last thirty years or so. Apparently, she thinks Harvey Weinstein was a product of the late 20th century, and there were no Weinsteins in Hollywood with their casting couches — or on Broadway, or in Berlin — some 90 or 100 years ago.

You Can buy F. Roger Devlin’s Sexual Utopia in Power here [2]

It makes for a nice, pat argument, possibly persuasive to people who have little grasp of modern social history. But it’s shallow, it’s strained, and it shows once again that Eberstadt is very far removed from her subject matter. She does not seem to know anyone who was involved in a #MeToo-type scandal, nor does she investigate the political background and context of the movement itself. Describing itself as “nationwide movement against sexual harassment and assault,” #MeToo was entirely a media-manufactured trend, supported if not actually spearheaded by the Left-wing, Soros-funded Media Matters for America. [2] [3]

Most of the initial accusations were old news. The most famous of them, involving Ashley Judd and Harvey Weinstein, was about encounters that happened over twenty years ago. The real reason #MeToo popped up suddenly in 2017 was to attack President Trump. #MeToo was there to remind us, over and over, that Donald Trump been quite a Jack-the-Lad in his younger days, the sort of guy who apparently once said (in a dubious videotape, spliced and released just before the 2016 election), “grab ’em by the pussy.” It’s no coincidence that 2017 brought us both #MeToo and the pink Pussy Hat.

In the end, of course, #MeToo roped in so many notable Weinsteins and Epsteins that it was easy to forget that the original, oblique target was Donald Trump. However, the public was reminded of this fact in mid-2018, when certain interests attempted to derail the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court by spinning racy fiction about adolescent hijinks.

Eberstadt surely realizes all this, but she has a tenuous argument to make, so she treats the #MeToo movement as something genuine and new, with profound significance for society:

Reading the grislier details of the scandals, some wondered aloud, What’s wrong with these men? Don’t they have mothers, sisters, and other women in their lives? How could they act this way. . . ? The answer is that. . . many men lack exactly such textured, long-running, socially informative, nonsexual experiences of the opposite sex — just as many women lack them too. (p. 77)

I said “bridge too far” — but this is beyond that. It’s special pleading, getting the Harvey Weinsteins off the hook by implying they’re young men whose behavior is due to social isolation and too much internet porn and vidya games. If there’s one person who never needed to indulge much in online porn, it’s Harvey Weinstein. All the pretty polly he ever wanted was there for the taking, in real-life and 3D. He had no lack of interaction with the opposite sex, in or out of bed. He was, innately and compulsively, a sexual predator, doing what came naturally.

Eberstadt’s speculations on the #MeToo accusers are equally vacuous. She supposes that the women got themselves into trouble because they just didn’t know any better. They were like young women who walk through bad neighborhoods at night and get mugged and raped, because they lack common sense.

Many women seem not to have been taught the most basic protective lessons — like not entering a boss’s hotel room at night. In fact, so socially vulnerable are these victims that they did not even know to stand up for themselves — until an international movement gave them permission to do so. They engaged in mimetic victimhood. (p. 80)

Goodness, how naïve. No, actually these women were taking advantage of a situation that they thought would be advantageous, and in many cases, they were right, just like 19th-century French courtesans or 20th-century starlets on the casting couch. If they didn’t complain, “stand up for themselves” later on, it was because they knew what sort of retaliation might ensue.

In the case of Ashley Judd, who did complain and say no, she lost out on a major role in Lord of the Rings because Harvey Weinstein bad-mouthed her [4] to director Peter Jackson.

This is a slim book, most of it a long essay full of Eberstadt’s impressions gained from newspaper articles, some tendentious arguments, and a few obvious errors that any fact-checker could have caught. For example, in her Introduction, she suggests that the white nationalist movements of recent years are themselves a strange outgrowth of “identity politics.” This would be an interesting theme to develop, but she can’t or won’t do that because it’s a subject she knows little about. She simply dismisses such movements as “frightening examples of racism.” She cites the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, but gets the date wrong, and apparently has no idea that the August 12, 2017 rally never took place, as it was canceled when the city revoked its permit. She vaguely recalls that “one woman was killed and dozens of others were injured in the ensuing riot” but doesn’t know or say that those rioters were not “white nationalists” but Antifa and other Leftists.

Obviously, she’s just writing off the top of her head. This is too bad, because the Introduction is the best part of her extended essay. It summarizes her core argument, which is about the “massive, radical, and largely unacknowledged communal dislocations” that have occurred over the past two generations. She calls this “The Great Scattering: the unprecedented familial dispersion, now sixty-plus years in the making with no end in sight.” This is a mystical, visionary notion, like something out of William Blake. Or it would be, if we could nail it down with some facts and visuals.

* * *

To fill out this slight volume, the publishers have engaged a few solons to expand upon Mary Eberstadt’s inspirational text. They are Rod Dreher, Mark Lilla, and Peter Thiel.

Dreher is appreciative and apocalyptic and thanks Eberstadt for having cited his book The Benedict Option (2017). His view of the future is much darker than Eberhardt’s and he literally sees us at the cusp of a new Dark Age, where if anything is to be saved, it will be through Faith and the Family.

Lilla, a self-described “liberal” political scientist, warmly accepts Eberstadt’s explanation of identity politics, agreeing that identity politics (whatever they may be) result from “the atomization and fragility of family life today.” But he rejects Eberstadt’s theory that this atomization is a byproduct of the sexual revolution. He regards both phenomena, along with identity politics, as “actually effects of larger, long-term historical forces. . . One effect didn’t cause the others; consider[ed] in historical perspective, they all happened simultaneously.” (I tend to agree with Lilla, although we’re both begging the question of what these “historical forces” are.)

Thiel’s critique is the least abstruse, and reads like a column in the Financial Times. That’s because his perspective is almost entirely an economic one. The strength of the family, in Thiel’s eyes, derives in great part from the financial conditions of the surrounding society and the prosperity of the family itself. Family formation requires some income buoyancy for the near term, and a sense of expansive viability for the future.

Thiel has his own notion of what identity politics are all about. For him, they’re the same thing as the “Diversity” fad:

Identity politics itself functions as a cheap substitute for economic progress. . . Adding “diverse” directors to corporate boards, “diverse” directors to film crews, and “diverse” undergraduates to elite campuses. . . is cheap. It is also easier, and less threatening to incumbent elites, than structural reform of a stagnant economy that left the middle class behind long ago.  (p. 114)

After all the foregoing murk, this summary from Peter Thiel is like a shaft of sunlight breaking through a cave. It doesn’t speak directly to Eberstadt’s concerns, but I rather doubt Thiel cares to understand them.

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Notes

[1] [6] Heather Mac Donald, The Diversity Delusion (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 2018.

[2] [7] As an example, see the Media Matters page here [8]. MMFA has repeatedly connected #MeToo and themes of sexual assault to discussion of Donald Trump.