This is my first post dealing directly with Rod Dreher’s new bestseller, Live Not by Lies, published last fall. I have much to cover, and I really only delve into Dreher’s introduction and first chapter in this post; I anticipate three more posts in this extended review. Dreher is the author of the influential Christian treatise The Benedict Option (2017), which, if you haven’t heard of it, click on this link to read a short summary. The book’s front jacket reads: “Today, a new post-Christian barbarism reigns. Many believers are blind to it, and their churches are too weak to resist. Politics offers little help in this spiritual crisis. What is needed is the Benedict Option, a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church. The goal: to embrace exile from the mainstream culture and construct a resilient counterculture.” That’s Dreher’s worldview in a nutshell.
In my last post, I examined the essay by Alexander Solzhenitsyn that inspired the title of Dreher’s newest book. One thing I hesitated to say about Solzhenitsyn in that post: he was a tremendous grouch. Like many dissidents from Russia and eastern Europe during the Communist years, Solzhenitsyn was not a lot of fun at parties. He was stubborn, austere, sanctimonious, critical, and—particularly as he aged—suspicious of anything with even the faintest whiff of the Communist culture he had fought against (so long as it emerged from the Left and not, say, from Vladimir Putin’s government).
I thought about this a lot as I read Dreher’s warnings about impeding totalitarianism from dozens of brave souls who endured Communist oppression. His introduction opens with such a warning, from an elderly woman who spent six years as a political prisoner in Communist Czechoslovakia. “[T]he old woman had recently told her American son,” writes Dreher, “that events in the United States today reminded her of when communism first came to Czechoslovakia.” In those days, a well-established communist elite seized power under the protection of the Red Army, which had recently liberated and occupied the small nation. What similar events had alarmed her about the modern United States? According to her son, it was the state of Indiana’s initial refusal to protect the religious rights of a pizzeria who would not cater a gay wedding. The pizzeria’s owners received a barrage of negative reviews on Yelp and attacks on Twitter. The pizzeria briefly closed, then reopened after raising $500,000 from supporters, then ultimately closed in 2018. Václav Havel would shudder if he knew.
I’ve heard similar alarm about America’s leftward tilt expressed by conservative immigrants from Cuba, Armenia, Poland, and other nations with a history of Communist dictatorship. Americans are soft; the Left is on the march; it sure looks a lot like 1917 out there; etc. I’ve heard these concerns from German immigrants, too, about the American Right. Violence in the streets, propaganda on the airwaves; comparisons to Weimar, etc. If there’s one thing we took away from the twentieth century, it’s that nobody should live through the onset of totalitarianism unaware. Thus, everybody is always certain that it’s right around the corner. (Does anyone actually still believe that “it can’t happen here”?) I remember carrying a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 around with me as a teenager. My employer at the time caught sight of it and knowingly observed, “You sure do see a lot of Big Brother out there these days.” This was in Iowa in 1995.
It’s not particularly sensitive or politically correct to say this, but here goes: the immigrants who offer these warnings are typically pretty grouchy. They have their own political resentments, their own agendas, their own paranoias. Because they have endured much, we give their testimonies a lot of credit (and we should). But if the U.S. interventions in Cuba and the Middle East have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t always take the word of expatriates as gospel, particularly when they move from offering testimony of their own experience (valid) to predicting the future (riskier business). Consequently, I view the entire premise of Dreher’s entire book with a fair amount of suspicion. A ninety-year-old Czech woman who endured years in a Communist prison cuts a very sympathetic figure. Such a woman has nine decades of lived experience that might constitute wisdom; such experience can also accrue political baggage, and possessing great wisdom is not antithetical to possessing a political agenda.
“The [son] said he had heard his immigrant parents warn him about the dangers of totalitarianism all his life,” writes Dreher. Until Indiana and the pizzeria affair, he had ignored them. Dreher continues:
It’s easy to laugh this kind of thing off. Many of us with aging parents are accustomed to having to talk them down from the ledge, so to speak, after a cable news program stoked their fear and anxiety about the world outside their front door. … But there was something about the tension in the doctor’s voice, and the fact that he felt compelled to reach out to a journalist he didn’t even know, telling me that it would be too dangerous for me to use his name if I wrote about him, that rattled me.
If you read Dreher’s blog, you’re accustomed to such testimonials: anonymous sources, scared to go on the record, offering an insider’s perspective that both a) totally rattles Dreher and b) totally conforms to his vision of the world. He continues by offering the thesis statement of his book:
Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based in defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups—ethnic, sexual, and otherwise—and to think of Good and Evil as a matter of power dynamics among the groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideas of social justice.
You know, just like in Czechoslovakia in 1948! Except for a few minor details, and one major detail: there is no Red Army knocking at our door. There is no Soviet behemoth sucking all the air out of our geopolitical space. The hero of his book, the anti-fascist and anti-Communist Catholic priest Father Kolaković, is described as a visionary who knew as early as 1944 that Communism would overtake Czechoslovakia. “How did Father Kolaković know what was coming to the people of Central Europe?” asks Dreher earnestly, and then he ignores the obvious answer: the Soviet army was storming through the region!
To argue that a Soviet-style totalitarianism is around the corner in the United States, you have to argue that the conditions today are similar as in those nations which succumbed to Soviet-style totalitarianism in the past. And absent any historical analogues to the Great Depression and subsequent Second World War and Soviet invasion of eastern Europe, it’s difficult to argue that “elites and elite institutions” succumbing to Robin DiAngelo’s (admittedly obnoxious) “diversity consultations,” all because corporate HR departments constitute a modern commissariat, will somehow hasten the emergence of Soviet-style oppression in these United States.
Dreher gets around this issue in three ways. First, he acknowledges that conditions in the contemporary U.S. are nothing like those in eastern Europe after 1945 (even factoring in COVID-19 and all the attendant chaos it has caused). We will not be invaded by a Communist army; we will not even see anything like a dramatic or easily identifiable coup. He spends a large portion of the book, which I will unpack in more detail in my next post, explaining that we are less like Czechoslovakia in 1948 and more like Russia in 1891, when a deadly famine exposed the weaknesses in the Tsarist government (the famine is Dreher’s analogue for COVID-19). One or two more systemic crises, and we’re ripe for revolution.
Second, he makes the point that nation-states are rapidly being replaced by corporations in our everyday lives, that the function of the nation-state is being usurped by corporate entities, and so we should not expect to see totalitarianism of the Soviet model again.
Third, and most importantly, Dreher describes the emergence of a “soft totalitarianism,” a term he uses frequently but never defines in the detail it deserves. From what I can gather, Dreher is referring to the sort of socially enforced, non-governmental self-censorship that individuals engage in when they feel pressured to suppress certain unpopular or politically incorrect views—although when such behavior occurs in China, as when the state can rely on effectively brainwashed individuals to silence their own politically incorrect speech, Dreher does not hesitate to call it hard totalitarianism. In fact, throughout his first chapter, Dreher draws so many parallels between “hard” and “soft” totalitarianism that it becomes very difficult to tell the difference. They both aspire “nothing less than defining and controlling reality.” Both seek “not just to control your actions but also your thoughts and emotions.” They both establish power not through “might and coercion” but by insidiously infiltrating the elite strata of society and seducing the masses (whether totalitarianism emerges from above or from below is a point on which Dreher seems confused—on the one hand, corporate tech giants make the rules and establish the means of surveillance, but on the other hand, it’s a mass of college kids who swell up from below and impose their leftist ideology on the corporate tech giants, so….)
Here’s a concrete example Dreher gives of “soft totalitarianism”: he cites another immigrant from Czechoslovakia, who noted “a shift a decade or so ago: friends would lower their voices and look over their shoulders when expressing conservative views. When he expressed his conservative beliefs in a normal tone of voice, the Americans would start to fidget and constantly scan the room to see who might be listening. ‘I grew up like this,’ he tells me, ‘but it was not supposed to be happening here.'”
I found this anecdote compelling because I actually related to it. Later, Dreher invokes Czesław Miłosz’s idea of ketman, “the Persian word for the practice of maintaining an outward appearance of Islamic orthodoxly while inwardly dissenting.” Who honestly can’t relate to that? As I noted in my last post, I have self-censored a lot in my life. Left-leaning though I am, I’ve frequently been in situations where I am the most conservative person in the room. I have held back, for instance, kind words about Mitt Romney or the complicated legacy of Ronald Reagan, whose presidency (I feel compelled to say—yikes) was an unmitigated disaster but who wasn’t wrong about everything, and whose role in ending the Cold War cannot be overlooked or easily dismissed.
I also know that I’ve looked over my shoulder to see who might be listening. I remember having an uncomfortable conversation with my dad in a Panera about the changing norms around the N-word (he knew somebody who had been fired for drunkenly using the slur on a business trip). My dad, a youngish Boomer, struggled to understand why Black people can use the word while White people can’t. I did my best to explain it to him. It was, all in all, an unremarkable Boomer-Millennial interaction. Except that whereas I dutifully referred to the N-word as, well, “the N-word,” my dad kept saying the actual word. So naturally, I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone could hear us and gently trying to discourage him from using the actual word.
The prohibition on the N-word is probably the closest thing we’ve got to a strictly enforced speech code in the United States. If you’re White, it is incredibly difficult to justify ever using it. Not coincidentally, as I noted in my last post, these warnings about impending totalitarianism always ultimately cycle back through sexual politics and gender identity and religious freedom to one specific issue: race. Why should critical race theory be the hinge on which one’s freedom to voice conservative views depends? What is it about this issue of race that raises the most fantastical alarms of political terror from the Right? It all reminds me of this fabulous tweet:
Let me close by being as forthright as I can: it is positively mad to believe that, in 2021, the possibility of autocratic totalitarianism from the Left is more tangible than totalitarianism from the Right. One literally has to believe that political power is absolutely downstream from cultural power and completely buy into conspiracy theories about Cultural Marxism to believe that Hollywood (which can barely make movies anymore), academia (which is crumbling), and social media (which, I admit, have tremendous power) will drive practicing Christians underground. As I write this, the Conservative Political Action Conference is taking place, with all the attendant kookiness we’ve come to expect from that mainstream event (Dreher is one of those who still insists that conservative media are outside the “mainstream,” and therefore lack the influence of, I don’t know, ABC World News Tonight with David Muir, whoever that is). The thought that Leftwing totalitarianism is around the corner in a nation that hosts and broadcasts CPAC on its airwaves is positively looney.
I’ve accused Dreher of American provincialism before, and it’s on full display in Live Not by Lies. For a book filled with the testimonies of expatriates and up-to-date information on the Chinese social credit system, Dreher is remarkably incurious about what has happened to eastern Europe since 1989. From Russia to Turkey to Hungary to Poland, the populist Right is flexing its totalitarian tendencies. Social media is far more likely to be weaponized in autocratic right-leaning governments against leftwing activists than by liberal left-leaning governments against rightwing activists (unless and until those rightwing activists turn violent). Meanwhile, right-wing radicals abroad mingle with reactionary Republicans here in the U.S., forming a frightening new international that has no leftwing equivalent. The Right is seeking and maintaining real political power in the world, and the Left is asking for your pronouns. Give me a break.
In my next post, I’ll examine how Dreher gets Russian history wrong. After that, I’ll examine his Christian politics. Eventually I’ll get to the points he gets right, which are actually…well, there’s a few. For more on Dreher’s inability to see the threat from his Right, read Will Cohen’s review from Public Orthodoxy. For a damning perspective on Dreher’s views on race and religious persecution, read Benjamin J. Dueholm’s review from The Christian Century. For a Socialist perspective on Live Not by Lies, read Daniel Walden’s review from The Institute for Christian Socialism.