One of the most fascinating details of Mary Eberstadt’s “The Fury of the Fatherless” (December) is the observation that the BLM movement has a Marxist vision of the family: “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.”
Eberstadt rightly stresses the missing noun: “fathers.” The politics of identity are shot through with the ideological erasure of paternity. Even wealthy kids from intact homes will adopt faux-radical cries against “the patriarchy.”
There are many causes of this crisis of Western paternity—all of which Eberstadt writes so eloquently about: the pill, no-fault divorce, abortion, the rush of women into the labor market that drove overall wages down and made the two-income family the new social standard. Yet I believe the most fundamental cause of the crisis of Western paternity is religious. Eberstadt touches briefly on this, citing the stark decline of Christianity, which she says begins around 1963. That date, interestingly, coincides with the start of the Second Vatican Council, which announced the Catholic Church’s new “openness to the world.”
By 1968, the world’s most eminent Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, was describing God as the “transcendent horizon” of our experience. Optimistically baptizing the modern therapeutic “self” distracted theologians from the proper object of Christian faith. It made theologians themselves turn away from traditional scholastic contemplation of the God who is “raised high beyond all things” toward a vision of God immersed within our own subjectivity and historical progress.
Theologians began describing God according to identity politics long before identity politics dominated the American political landscape. As if looking in a cultural mirror, theologians, and also pastors, began to speak of God as a woman, as the great “she-bang,” or they would counsel “queering” the Trinity, or they would radically predicate race of the divine essence.
Perhaps it is better to look at the social and economic factors, as Eberstadt does so well. But are we to think theologians and pastors bear no responsibility for exacerbating our crisis? If human fathers are only fathers by analogy to God as Father, as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, shouldn’t the theological turn away from divine paternity also factor into a social crisis that may be first and foremost a theological one? How many students since 1963 have been given a truly transcendent vision of God?
It seems entirely plausible to me that our crisis of paternity—from “lost boys” raging in the streets, to absent fathers, to the effeminization of the priesthood—is rooted in a turn away from God the Father. In this sense, our crisis is a mere repetition of that primal one: Lucifer’s irrational and absurd turn from the Eternal Father, whose being is goodness itself, causes a disintegration of the image of God in the creature. Our primal parents made the same absurd inward turn. Our return to sanity will begin only by the manifest grace and miracle of conversion. As always, O felix culpa, our only hope is to return to the Eternal Father who calls us back to himself in the Nativity of his Son. In this alone should we have hope of a cure.
C. C. Pecknold
catholic university of america
Mary Eberstadt’s December essay “The Fury of the Fatherless,” an abstract of her essential 2019 book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, is pivotal to understanding the forces currently shaping and reshaping our culture. The tribes clashing on American streets from Portland to Minneapolis, she explains, are a replacement of the tribes we used to be born into—sprawling families of siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins. These tribes gave us identity and taught us who we were and how to live.
Now, in what Eberstadt calls “the Great Scattering,” we are seeing the highest levels of family breakdown in recorded history outside of war or natural disaster and the mass rupturing of social bonds. This change has been cataclysmic, but few seem to recognize that it is the context for much of what is happening.
Identity politics, Eberstadt notes in Primal Screams, “is the screaming bastard child of the birth control pill.” There is a lot of truth packed into that sentence. The real privilege in our society is not primarily racial—it is whether you grew up in a home with two loving parents. So long as progressives refuse to reconsider any of the tenets of sexual liberation and decline to grapple with any of the social effects that have caused such devastation, they cannot be part of the solution. The sexual revolution may have given people freedom, but what it took away was far more precious: a sense of belonging, identity, and families.
Generations have been denied their inheritance. This way of life is now so scorned and foreign that many of the bitter, angry young people marching to the trendy tune of the latest Pied Piper do not even realize that their primal screams are howls of longing for the very things many of them claim to despise.
To understand our times, Mary Eberstadt’s scholarship on the revolution that transformed the West is essential.
Jonathon Van Maren
mt. pleasant, ontario, canada
Last year, as the intra-conservative wars simmered after Sohrab Ahmari’s fusillade “Against David French-ism,” the self-proclaimed “god-king” of a highly trafficked right-leaning online outlet blithely quipped: “The thing I want to conserve is American liberalism.” It is not entirely clear which political philosophy such a sentiment purports to represent, but it is certainly not the conservative tradition. It is certainly not the political theory of the American Founding.
Ahmari was, of course, correct to call out French for embodying a morally neutered, proceduralist, values-neutral approach to the ancient art of politics. Phillip Muñoz, whose insights I first came to appreciate when he was an instructor for my Claremont Institute legal fellowship, evidently agrees (“More is Needed,” December): “French’s prescription for reinvigorating federalism is welcome as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.” Hear, hear. Pluralism, federalism, equality, neutrality—any and each of these appeals to the liberal order is manifestly insufficient for any conception of politics qua politics. The Founders understood this exceedingly well, as any cursory glance at The Federalist Papers would indicate. Lincoln understood it perhaps more clearly than any statesman in our history—indeed, the substantive pursuit of justice was Lincoln’s antidote to Judge Douglas’s empty pleas for “popular sovereignty” in the Western territories. One wonders whether those of the “liberal procedure is sufficient” persuasion might muster the courage of their convictions and suggest that perhaps Douglas was actually right.
Righteous self-governance is impossible without a substantive conception of the good—without a fuller understanding of man’s teleology, man’s role in the universe and the broader scheme of all things. Only then, Aristotle insists, might we develop proper insights as to why governments are instituted among men, and what those governments should aim to achieve. And the notion that those governments ought to envisage a moral impoverishment like “drag queen story hour” as a “blessing of liberty” doesn’t even pass the smell test.
Vincent Phillip Muñoz replies:
I appreciate Josh Hammer’s recognition that political life necessarily involves a “substantive conception of the good.” As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “Justice is the end of government. . . . It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”
That all politics is informed by a notion of the comprehensive good, however, does not mean that the political community itself ought to pursue it directly. Indeed, the wisdom of the Founders was to limit the scope of political life. Their teleology of freedom recognizes that an authority more sovereign than the state exists, and that our obligation to our Creator necessarily limits the state’s legitimate authority.
I read Bruno Chaouat’s “Colorblind and Tone-Deaf” (December) with great interest. While Schenker’s music theory certainly cannot be criticized for racism, as Chaouat rightly argues, it can be criticized for its narrowness. While quite useful for the analysis of music from the common practice period (ca. 1650–1900), it falls short in its analysis of music both before and after this time. Schenker prized the functional tonal works of composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Famous Renaissance composers such as Palestrina and Josquin des Prez, and great twentieth-century composers such as Stravinsky and Bartok, do not fit Schenker’s preference for functional tonal music.
Politics and political correctness have long been an issue in the music world. According to a lecture I attended by musicologist Susan McClary, Arnold Schoenberg saw his development of atonal twelve-tone composition partly as a political act that would promote equality between the twelve chromatic tones, just as he desired societal equality as a Jew. In the Soviet Union, music was interpreted politically according to the vague standards of socialist realism. Shostakovich’s 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was initially praised as a great work of socialist realism, but then viciously condemned as anti-socialist in an infamous Pravda article.
During the Cold War, the CIA secretly promoted and funded atonal music in Western countries in reaction to fascist and communist regimes’ preference for tonal music. As recently as 2012, the French composer Jerome Ducros was denounced as a fascist for criticizing atonal music in a lecture at the Collège de France. Fortunately, tonal music is slowly returning with the rise of minimalist composers like Philip Glass, whose music is much more easily appreciated by the general public.
Music should be judged according to its merit, not the ideology of its creators, as in the case of Richard Wagner. The same should hold true for musical analysis.
Bruno Chaouat replies:
I am very grateful for Jon-Erik Chandler’s response to my polemical essay on Schenkerian studies. While he is right that the Schenkerian paradigm is less useful for reading pre-tonal and post-tonal music (before Bach and after Brahms), it is my understanding that Schenker scholars have been able to adapt it to non-classical music, albeit with unequal success. Classical music rests on a certain degree of predictability, which post-tonal music has notoriously disrupted. As an analogy, we could imagine that classical mechanics is still important to study, despite the fact that new paradigms are more useful to describe the natural world in the wake of chaos theory, quantum mechanics, and so forth. Just as Newton remains a major milestone in the history of science, so Schenker remains instrumental (pun intended) in the analysis of tonal music.
Another example, from the realm of the history of the human sciences, would be the importance of studying structural anthropology and linguistics to understand post-structuralism. It is my conviction that intellectual and scientific history is best served when read dialectically, that is, in a dialogue between old and new paradigms. It is probably wiser to study the evolution of analytic methods rather than decree some models as outdated. Schenkerian analysis is not only an analytic tool; it also ought to be studied in the historical context of music theory.
As for Chandler’s point on the politicization of music, it is well taken. We are witnessing a new Zhdanovism, from the name of the Soviet ideologue and Party official who divided music and art into “bourgeois or anti-popular” on the one hand, and progressive on the other. The irony is that formalism (non-tonal music) was deemed reactionary, while tonal/classical music was promoted as attuned with popular values. We are seeing today the promotion of new forms of official/academic art in the name of a perverted notion of antiracism. As the French essayist Alain Finkielkraut wittily declared twenty years ago, “antiracism will be the communism of the twenty-first century.”