Note from the editors of Public Discourse: This week, while our staff takes a week off between Christmas and the new year, we are showcasing past conversations we’ve had with leading intellectuals. Ryan’s interview with Mary Eberstadt was originally published on July 14, 2020. Enjoy!
Public Discourse is launching a new feature where we interview leading intellectuals to learn more about their work and what it means for the challenges we face today. Recently our Founder and Editor-in-Chief virtually sat down with Mary Eberstadt to discuss the current protests and riots, the Supreme Court on gender ideology, the sexual revolution, secularization, identity politics, religious liberty, social conservatives and the arts, Covid-19, her childhood in rural upstate New York, Trump, the future of conservatism, and more.
RTA: What are the protests and the riots really about? How do we distinguish legitimate concerns about real injustices in America from illegitimate attacks on America herself? Is that even possible? Or is the attempt at nuance here just another way of losing?
ME: The Church makes a useful distinction here. Anger can be a virtue when it’s righteous, i.e., aimed at correcting injustice. But it can also be an evil when it becomes vindictive; when it’s directed toward something other than injustice; when it becomes disproportionate; or when it wills the injury of adversaries, rather than their wellbeing. In those sorts of cases, anger becomes a capital vice.
Both types of anger, righteous and otherwise, were on display in the protests. Well-meaning people outraged by George Floyd’s killing marched peacefully. Hiding among them were people motivated by other kinds of anger—the kind that defaced statues of abolitionists, for instance, and of Mahatma Gandhi; the kind that spray-painted and vandalized churches and other public buildings.
And then there were actors motivated by neither kind of anger, but by sheer opportunistic criminality of the kind displayed in cities across the country. To make matters worse, a lot of the commentary on the protests and riots was flagrantly mendacious. Violence and mayhem were down-played by many in the media; police across the country were indiscriminately maligned; the inescapable dependence on law and order by everyone, most especially those in worst-off areas, was roundly ignored.
A meaningful conversation about race won’t issue from political opportunists in the media, or anywhere else. It also won’t issue from purveyors of elaborate lies about American history, like those involved in the 1619 Project. A helpful discussion would leave nothing off the table—including endemic fatherlessness that leaves millions of the young unsupervised and unprotected; the staggering black abortion rate, cynically ignored by liberals and progressives; and the importance of the black churches, Catholic schools, and Christianity for lifting millions of African-Americans and others out of poverty and into the pursuit of authentic happiness. An honest conversation would also include other subjects absent from today’s dominant memes—like rampant anti-Asian discrimination in universities and elsewhere; like the fact that the most integrated institutions in our country are exactly the ones that progressivism chronically attacks: America’s churches, and the American military.
These are the sorts of issues that should be front and center to improve the lives of real citizens—not a mercilessly punitive “cancel culture,” or hucksterish abstractions like “white privilege.”
RTA: We’ve experienced some significant losses at the Supreme Court this term. I’m thinking specifically about Chief Justice Roberts on the abortion case, and Justice Gorsuch on the Title VII case. It seems to me that in a certain sense the Title VII case is the worse of the two, as it reads gender ideology into our civil rights laws. And while that specific case was about employment law, the logic of the ruling could easily extend to education, healthcare, and housing law, just to name a few. What do we do, both politically and culturally to combat this latest form of Gnosticism?
ME: Unlike you, Ryan, I’m no expert on American constitutional law. But it’s intuitively obvious that the reasoning of the majority in Bostock is both dangerous and toxic.
It is dangerous to the citizens of this country, because it compromises their freedom by putting the majestic force of law behind a lie: that the most elemental distinction in all of nature is somehow illusory. The demand to assent to untruths may be tacit in the language of the decision. But it is already explicit elsewhere, and will become more so thanks to Bostock. Such social coercion subverts citizenship itself.
And the decision is toxic, of course, because of its inevitable ramifications. It will cripple female sports. It will expand exponentially the ability of biological males to intrude into private female spaces from spas to locker rooms to homeless shelters, and plenty else –- with all the potential for abuse, harassment, and anxiety that this delusional, revolutionary license implies.
RTA: As I survey your writing career, in the course of 15 years you’ve produced a series of books deepening and deepening your analysis of how the sexual revolution and the breakdown of the family explain so many of our current problems. This started with your first book, the 2004 Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs and Other Parent Substitutes, and then really branched out to more areas in the 2012 Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution. You then deepened and applied the underlying analysis to explain how the breakdown of the family and changes in sexual beliefs and behaviors led to secularization and the loss of religious belief and practice (How the West Really Lost God, 2013), religious liberty violations (It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies, 2016), and the rise of identity politics (Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, 2019).
These last three applications—secularization, religious liberty violations, and identity politics—all as the outgrowth of sex may seem hard for people to see if they haven’t read your books. Could you say a little bit about each, starting with How the West Really Lost God?
ME: First, a little context. I’ve experimented over the years with different genres: long-form essays, books, fiction, non-fiction, satire, columns, speechwriting, ghostwriting—pretty much everything but poetry and reportage. The subjects covered have been as diverse as that list suggests. So I wouldn’t want to give the impression that my work is “mono-causal”—especially since “mono-causal” is a dismissive term of art, typically invoked by people who don’t want to entertain ideas that might cause them to re-think.
That said, as you note, some of this work has indeed been dedicated to exploring one particular big subject, namely, the ways in which the twinned phenomena of secularization and the sexual revolution have changed the world.
There are several reasons for this focus, of which the most critical is this: there is widespread and fierce resistance to understanding the fallout of the sexual revolution. As a consequence, a lot of writing on the subject is suspect, and the phenomenon itself is poorly understood in our time. The revolution’s real impact on humanity seems destined not to be grasped in full for a long while—maybe not for hundreds of years. That’s why, here and there, I’ve been trying to break some ground that might force a more realistic assessment among thinkers of the future.
Consider for instance the question of Western secularization, taken up in How the West Really Lost God. Data of all kinds confirm that religious practice, particularly among Christians, shows a steep decline across the West beginning around 1963. This is just as the sexual revolution takes off in earnest—and as the book maps out, the connections between these two phenomena are not just coincidental dots on a graph; they are legion, and deep.
One of the revolution’s consequences is the atomization and shrinking of the family via unprecedented rates of divorce, cohabitation, abortion, and fatherlessness—all of which have continued to transform the United States and other Western societies for almost six decades. Familial atomization in turn has made religious practice more onerous for all kinds of reasons: from the logistical issues presented by broken homes, to more metaphysical quandaries—like the difficulty of understanding God as benevolent Father, in a world where many people have no idea what a benevolent father even is.
We moderns have bought into a seductive secular story—namely, that we’re smarter and more sophisticated than the people who came before us; that we’ve outgrown antiquities like God and Church and a transcendent code by which to live. This kind of self-flattering tale blinds us to the possibility that in some critical areas, the opposite may be true.
Yes, in many ways, the world has progressed both morally and materially. At the same time, people today are more unknowing about certain elemental matters than any of the generations that preceded us. As families continue to shrink and crumble, fewer and fewer understand what a robust kinship network even looks like. Wonder why Millennials are so uninterested in marriage and kids? Sixty years of rising familial illiteracy might have something to do with that. It’s like asking someone to take a test without having known what the homework was.
Similarly, as many people fall away from religious practice, they lose working knowledge of profound themes like sin and redemption, as well as other concepts essential to understanding Western history and civilization. So are Millennials staying out of church because they’ve thought through the deep issues, and come out on the other side—or instead because they’ve been deprived of understanding what those issues even are?
Like familial illiteracy, religious illiteracy might be a force unto itself that keeps people from faith, and for the same reason: anxiety over what is increasingly unknown.
The modern diminutions of family and faith exact a civilizational toll. It’s hard to believe we are better off in a world where many men will never know the joy and spiritual deepening of fatherhood; where many women reach middle age without ever having held a baby, let alone having loved and nurtured one from birth to adulthood; and where growing swaths of the population will never encounter many of the greatest treasures of the human patrimony—i.e., the art and literature and philosophy of Judeo-Christianity.
These are signature losses of our age. We need to understand them as such. In a commentary on my last book, Primal Screams, prominent liberal Mark Lilla remarked that, “conservatives are addicted to narratives of decline.” It was good of him to take the argument seriously. But what if the signature reality of our time is decline—religious and familial at once? That’s a radical idea. It demands radical analysis.
ME: It’s Dangerous to Believe offers a new explanation for the rise of religious-liberty cases. Many of these would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago—like the British preachers thrown into jail for quoting the Bible on the street; saintly nuns threatened with handcuffs for refusing to knuckle under about birth control; people losing their jobs for professing religious faith—even, as in another recent case in Britain, for leaving a crucifix on the dashboard of a delivery van.
What is the vengeful force behind these and related incidents of anti-religious animus?
It’s Dangerous to Believe argues that the fierce desire to protect the prerogatives of the sexual revolution has now given rise to a quasi-religious secular faith. This faith is replete with secular dogma that is non-negotiable by definition: abortion is sacrosanct; men and women are interchangeable units; biology isn’t reality; etc. It features the equivalent of secular saints, such as Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Sanger (which is why the former’s well-established trucking in pedophilia, and the latter’s racism, remain untouched and untouchable among the believers). This secular faith mimics Christianity in a hundred distorted ways. And it understands religious orthodoxy to be its ultimate adversary—because only religious orthodoxy stands in the way of this rival faith’s irrational demands. I took up these themes again in a 2018 essay.
These same quasi-religious passions and forces are also the unseen movers behind another signature force of our age: identity politics. Primal Screams looks beneath this familiar phenomenon to the deeper, tragic fact that it reveals: many people in the West are gripped by a profound identity crisis. Our post-revolutionary, unnaturally atomized way of life has robbed people of the usual ways of answering the universal question, Who am I?
Once upon a time, that question wasn’t a brain-buster. Today, though, secularization means that many people no longer identify themselves first and foremost as Christians and other religious believers do: i.e., as children of God. Simultaneously, the splitting of the family atom means that many people can also no longer construct stable identities as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, or uncles—because after the sexual revolution, most people have fewer and fewer of all these primal attachments. Some have almost none. Across the West, and increasingly in U.S. and other cities, for instance, singleton households have become a substantial minority, at times close to a norm. Marriage becomes ever later; children (and siblings), ever more scarce.
In this familial and metaphysical void, identity politics serves as a rough substitute for natural and supernatural communities. Unable to attach securely to family and faith, the atomized and disconnected find emotional satisfaction in political collectives instead. That’s why identity politics is re-writing elections and laws across the West.
And that’s not a good thing. To summarize one theme common to the last three books: many post-revolutionary men and women are living in ways that are profoundly unnatural for the ineradicably social creatures that we are; and many are suffering as a result, at times without even knowing the name of what ails them. This preoccupation, and the desire to do something about it, continues.
RTA: You’ve also written and seen to production a play based on your book The Loser Letters. Could you tell us a bit both about that book and about the experience of bringing it to stage? What does the social conservative world need to learn about the arts and the moral imagination?
ME: The Loser Letters is an epistolary novel written around a decade ago at the height of the New Atheism. First serialized online at National Review thanks to editor Kathryn Jean Lopez, it was later published as a novel by Ignatius Press.
At the time, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Co. were dominating the bestseller lists. They launched a great discussion, and learned ripostes were penned in response. I thought it might be an adventure to answer differently. Out popped a character named A.F. Christian, a twenty-something young woman in rehab who sends fan letters to the new atheists. In the course of these letters, her own backstory comes out—and with it, the deeper reasons for her attraction to godlessness.
The idea of a fictional treatment was appealing because so much of the writing about atheism had become predictable. It seemed intriguing to ask instead what about what might predispose people to atheism at a less cerebral, more experiential level. A.F.’s story suggests, contrary to the dominant storyline today, that ditching God and family has left many young people uniquely unprotected, and vulnerable.
A few years after the book came out, I met playwright Jeffrey Fiske, who had adapted The Screwtape Letters for stage, following a lecture he delivered. Jeffrey adapted The Loser Letters to bring A.F. Christian to life (which project he also directed). In 2016, thanks to the intrepid President John Garvey and others interested in this countercultural story, the show premiered at Catholic University’s Hartke Theater, and ran for two weeks.
It was thrilling to see The Loser Letters in 3-D, and it’s to be hoped that the future brings other theatrical collaborations. I’ve just joined the Board of a new, simpatico troupe called The Merry Beggars, headed by recent Columbia University acting grad Peter Atkinson, which PD’s readers might find of interest.
Maybe fiction is helpful precisely in the areas where public debate seems most stale, and stalemated—places where a story will seem fresh by comparison, and where reflexive dismissal of a given perspective is less likely.
RTA: What big lessons do you think we should take away from our response to Covid-19?
ME: One take-home is metaphysical. The entire world during these past few months has agreed that the most important fact of our time is something that can’t be apprehended with our senses. It’s something around 1/1000th the width of a human hair.
Talk about reality “seen and unseen”! Here is an astonishing, globally enacted example of the truth that reality reaches beyond immediate empirical evidence. And if a microscopic speck can transform everything about our lives, and upend the social status quo everywhere on earth, what does that suggest about the nature of reality itself? Might some of its other important aspects similarly elude our senses—yet still be susceptible to our reason, and thereby discoverable? Hat tip: Thomas Aquinas.
RTA: Where do you come from, and does that influence your work?
ME: I grew up in a series of villages and hamlets scattered across rural upstate New York. This fact, combined with having lived for three decades in the DC area, helps with code-switching. Stories filtered through the more-or-less urbane left-liberalism that’s so common around the Beltway can sound very different to working-class people who live in the foothills of the Adirondacks, the Mohawk River Valley, and related areas that I still think of as home. In a short piece for TIME written after the 2016 election, I described a little of what it’s like to see both sides of the red/blue divide.
That background influences my thoughts and interests perpetually. For instance, military service was common among my communities and in my own family. That fact left me permanently inoculated against the ideological attacks on U.S. troops and U.S. patriotism that are ubiquitous in academia and other circles of the liberal-left. One of the first things I noticed at Cornell University was the disdain for American soldiers shared by almost all of my peers, most of them upper-middle-class liberals and radicals who seemed never to have known anyone in uniform. There was also widespread suspicion and aversion toward Ithaca’s townies. In retrospect, that kind of contempt among the better-off was a harbinger of the wider class problems we see today.
To offer another example from politics, the debate over gun control might be more productive if everyone in coastal cities spent a month in a rural area where there are wild animals, and where burglar alarms are useless—because the nearest police department is forty miles away.
Most of all, though, the wild beauty of Upstate and its relative isolation were gifts for which I’ll always be grateful. From an early age, rural emptiness helped me to try and think without distraction. Equally inspiring is the region’s deep, haunted history—from the Iroquois Confederacy to central New York’s importance in the American Revolution; from the burned-over district that created several global religions, to the colorful boom years of the Erie Canal; from the rise and fall of manufacturing jobs to the ongoing tragedy of the opioid crisis. Thick and thin, the place is my touchstone.
RTA: What does Trump get about our cultural and political moment that previous GOP presidents didn’t?
ME: At some point in 2016, trying to understand how Trump had become the nominee, I watched the video of a campaign speech that he gave to a packed crowd in Wilkes-Barre, PA. This is an area very much like upstate New York: a Rust Belt, working class town struggling with globalization, job losses, the opioid crisis, family destruction, and other post-Sixties hardships.
Watching Trump talk to that audience was a revelation. He was doing something that hadn’t been done effectively in a long time: he was addressing those representative audience members as Americans—as fellow citizens and patriots of a great country. Not as backward problem cases. Not as bitter clingers or deplorables. Not as the red-necked trailer trash of Hollywood and other caricature.
No: Though his vernacular was often coarse, Trump was appealing to something elevated—the feeling that these men and women were just as worthy and valuable as the better-off, cosmopolitan people who look down on them, and who mock their beliefs.
People of the left didn’t understand Trump, at all—because until the shock of his election, they had no cause to reflect on their condescension toward rural, working-class, non-college-educated Americans. Trump got that liberal-progressive weakness, big time, and exploited it to the maximum. Such jujitsu remains his greatest political strength.
RTA: What’s your take on the various realignment debates that are taking place? What role should populism and nationalism play in a new fusionism? What concrete pro-family policies would you like to see?
ME: I have a lot of sympathy for the argument that a libertarian-first conservatism has failed America in ways that yesterday’s conservatives could not have foreseen.
It was a relatively unregulated Big Pharma, to name the most obvious example, that unleashed one of the worst avoidable tragedies in the history of the United States: the opioid crisis. And as you’ve observed as well, Ryan, corporate America has also turned out to be an untrustworthy ally in other ways. Large parts of it—the human resources cadres of corporations—have turned out to be punitive enforcers of sexual-revolution theology. Several decades of postmodernism and relativism in the humanities have done their work. Woke capitalism is the result.
But Robespierres in yoga pants aren’t the only sign that libertarianism unbound has hurt the public interest. The almighty dollar is also behind noxious social experiments like paid surrogacy; and the normalization of prostitution as “sex work”; and, of course, the pornography that ruins romances, and disables young men.
These examples point to something that isn’t often remarked upon: the “social issues” are often economic issues, stamped with the disordered idea that anything and everything can be bought and sold. Restoring moral boundaries on commerce is an urgent project for theorists of the future, especially social conservatives. After all, even the great Irving Kristol only gave capitalism two cheers.
RTA: What are you working on right now? What’s your next big project?
ME: At the Faith and Reason Institute, where I make my figurative home, Bob Royal and I are talking about resurrecting an idea of Michael Novak’s for a Catholic Academy of writers and artists, patterned very loosely on the Academie Francaise. We’re also continuing work on our secularization project, trying in various waves of argument to re-do the dominant narrative about how and why the West loses—or recovers—God.
Public speeches are scheduled in Uganda, Hungary, Australia, and Poland during the coming year. Virtual or otherwise, they’re welcome opportunities for some new thinking about the state of Christianity; about Western guilt in both religious and secular paradigms; about patriotism and nationalism in a globalized world. Also in the works are a couple of collections of writings from 2010-2020—one volume of essays and reviews, and another of speeches.
On another track, I’m trying via a couple of different genres to capture some of what’s been learned in a lifetime associated with the sublime and forbidding region of Upstate. Maybe reflecting on its present and past will put a new lens on what it means to be American these days, rooted in a particular place and time. Anyway, it’s exciting to hope so.
RTA: Thank you, Mary, for sharing so much wisdom with us. Readers who want more can find at it Mary’s website: https://maryeberstadt.com/