What's Tony Thinking

From Family Dysfunction to Identity Politics


Driving into town after the RSVP ride and a short stay in Vancouver B. C. we got off I-5 and onto surface streets. I said, “Seattle.” My companion added, “Land of lost.” This was prompted by the sight of young woman with easter-egg basket green hair, standing on a street corner, dishevelled and looking, well, lost.

I thought of this as I read a longish essay in the on-line journal Ouilette by the sociologist Mary Eberstadt. Her piece is, “The Great Scattering: How Identity Panic Took Hold in the Void Once Occupied by Family.”

Eberstadt’s thesis is that there is a correlation between family dysfunction and the rise of identity politics. Where people once answered the question of identity — “Who Am I?” — with reference to family, that is no longer a reliable point of reference for many.

Yet the identity question lingers. Eberstadt argues that identity politics provides an answer when family has failed.

Her essay is wide-ranging, some of the most interesting portions being her commentary on popular music. Here’s Eberstadt:

“In a 2004 Policy Review essay called Eminem Is Right, I documented how family rupture, family anarchy and family breakup had become the signature themes of Generation-X and Generation-Y pop.

“If yesterday’s rock was the music of abandon, today’s is that of abandonment. The odd truth about contemporary teenage music—the characteristic that most separates it from what has gone before—is its compulsive insistence on the damage wrought by broken homes, family dysfunction, checked-out parents, and (especially) absent fathers. Papa Roach, Everclear, Blink-182, Good Charlotte, Snoop Doggy Dogg—these and others have their own generational answer to what ails the modern teenager. That answer is: dysfunctional childhood.

“During the same years in which progressive-minded and politically correct adults have been excoriating Ozzie and Harriet as artifacts of 1950s-style oppression, millions of American teenagers have enshrined a new generation of music idols whose shared signature in song after song is to rage about what not having had a nuclear family had done to them.”

And on Eminem:

“Above all, there is the fiery emotional connection that generations of teenagers have found in rap superstar Eminem. It exists not only on account of his extraordinary facility with language, but also, surely, for his signature themes: absent father, inattentive mother, protectiveness toward a sibling, and rage. Eminem is the Greek chorus of family dysfunction.” (italics added)

A new school year starts this week. As school approaches and summer programs wrap-up, I’ve noticed grandparents (including us) stepping into the gap. But that’s the tip of the iceberg, and the kids that have grandparents around are the lucky ones.

Watching and interacting with our grandchildren I am struck anew by just how much love, support and adult presence kids need. They don’t raise themselves. As I say, it’s the lucky ones who have present and stable parents and extended family.

Many don’t. My guess is that our homelessness population has more to do with dysfunctional family backgrounds than it does with a shortage of affordable housing. At least some, perhaps many, of the homeless experienced families that were abusive or neglectful, ill equipping them well for adult life.

Some will probably wish to assign stable, loving family to the category of “privilege.” I resist thinking that being responsible parents is chiefly about money or power. Money does not a good parent make. But whatever we call it, it is clear to me that kids who have a solid, reliable, loving parents and family are so much better off than those who do not.

And as much as clergy, therapists, coaches and teachers try to provide re-parenting for those who have missed out or suffered parental neglect, it’s tough to play catch-up on this one.

More from Eberstadt:

“Wherever one stands in matters of the “culture wars” is immaterial. The plain fact is that the relative stability of yesterday’s familial identity could not help but answer the question at the heart of identity politics—Who am I?—in ways that now eludes many. The diminution and rupture of the family and the rise of identity politics cannot be understood apart from one another.

“Anthropological evidence from every culture and era verifies that human beings, by their nature, live in families—just as coyotes and elephants and other mammals live in families, not just in random collections of individuals of the same species. Apart from the outlier that is the contemporary West, family has been an integral, unbidden demand of our kind, everywhere that human beings have been found. Its relational structure has provided the default ways of answering the question, Who am I? And now many people, deprived of a robust family life by post-1960s trends, can no longer figure out how to answer that question.

“No wonder the flight to collective identities based on gender, ethnicity, and all the rest has become so impassioned.”

In an interview about her work Eberstadt made the following observation:

“Partisanship aside, I hope all readers take home this thought experiment: If we urged on other animals the destructive behaviors we shrug at in ourselves, there would be public uproar about the suffering that would result — and rightly so. As J. M. Coetzee, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, explained, ‘Destroying the family life of highly social, intelligent animals leads inevitably to misery among individual survivors and pathological misbehavior among the group.’ He was speaking about elephants, of course. But his words apply to humanity as well.”

A closing note: as a Christian and ordained minister, it occurs to me that the church seeks to answer the “Who Am I?” question at the baptismal font.

That is, in baptism we say to a child or adult, “By the grace of God and this sacrament, you are a child of God, a disciple of Christ, and member of the church.” Week by week the church re-enforces this identity, reminding those who hear that they are somebody, somebody special.









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