“Live Not By Lies,” Part 4

This Nov. 11, 1989 file photo shows East German border guards looking through a hole in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down one segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File)

Rod Dreher’s magazine, The American Conservative, recently published a review of Professor Carol Any’s new book on censorship, self-censorship, and the Soviet Writers’ Union under Joseph Stalin. The review’s author, literary scholar Gary Saul Morson, makes an oblique reference to the “cherished causes and moralistic ideologies” of the present day, but apart from that does not draw too many analogies between the very concrete, horrific oppression described in Any’s book and “cancel culture” in 2021. How could he? No responsible scholar can describe the plight of Soviet writers such as Vladimir Mayakovsky or Alexander Fadeyev and then compare their fate to that of Jeanine Cummins, who received an astounding seven-figure advance for her novel American Dirt before being “canceled” by a handful of critics and a Twitter mob (the advance check failed to bounce, and American Dirt remains a bestseller that Amazon has not ceased recommending to me).

Dreher’s Live Not by Lies is not as restrained as Professor Morson’s review. The chapter on the parallels between pre-revolutionary Russia and modern-day America devotes a paragraph to the American Dirt controversy as an example of “soft totalitarianism.” It is just one instance of canceling that Dreher compares to the plight of Soviet citizens and eastern Europeans who were driven to suicide or unceremoniously executed or “unpersoned” under Communism. Dreher seems to count on his audience not fully understanding the details of Soviet oppression: on the one hand, he can control the narrative and make the parallels between cancel culture and Communist persecution as vivid as he likes while, on the other hand, ignoring the plain differences between the two that are obvious to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Soviet atrocities.

In one section, Dreher complains about “the way liberals today deploy neutral-sounding, or even positive, words like dialogue and tolerance to disarm and ultimately defeat unaware conservatives. And they imbue other worlds and phrases—hierarchy, for example, or traditional family—with negative connotations.” In this way, argues Dreher, progressives mimic Soviet distortions of language. But kids these days, he laments, have no natural defense against such distortion because they are not tutored in the horrors of Communism (despite the fact that 1984 is one of the few remaining novels many students actually know).  

This raises a question about Dreher’s audience: who are these cultural illiterates who don’t know the first thing about Soviet atrocities? Part of me doesn’t believe they exist, although polls about knowledge of the Nazi Holocaust (which is waning, apparently) would suggest that I’m wrong. So would the testimony of my college students, who (despite my undying affection for them) barely understand that the Cold War happened. Still, this isn’t exactly a deliberately hidden history that Dreher is uncovering, as the tone of his book often suggests. In 2021, there’s no progressive cover-up of Stalin’s crimes or Brezhnev’s oppressive foreign policy.

The idea that Stalin’s atrocities are “not widely known” is one perpetuated by commentators like Jordan Peterson, for whom the definition of “not widely known” seems to be, “Not as widely known as the Nazi Holocaust.” (There’s always a hint of resentment behind conservative complaints that Soviet atrocities are not as well-known as Nazi atrocities, as if the Nazis are getting a raw deal in history’s verdict that they, rather than the Soviets, embody pure evil. Such resentment is thankfully not detectable in Dreher’s analysis; he more or less just ignores the Nazis, as I discussed in my last post.) Dreher cites a 2017 Harvard Crimson editorial by Harvard undergraduate Laura Nicolae, “whose parents endured the horrors of Romanian communism.” In the editorial, writes Dreher, Nicolae “spoke out against the falsification of history that her fellow Ivy Leaguers receive, both in class and in the trendy Marxism of intellectual student culture.” Nicolae wrote:

Depictions of communism on campus paint the ideology as revolutionary or idealistic, overlooking its authoritarian violence. Instead of deepening our understanding of the world, the college experience teaches us to reduce one of the most destructive ideologies in human history to a one-dimensional, sanitized narrative.

Never mind that an ideology can be both “revolutionary” and “authoritarian.” Dreher accepts Nicolae’s testimony wholly, taking it as an almost self-evident fact that professors at Ivy League institutions excel at painting a rosy picture of Communism. In the editorial in question, Nicolae cited the presence of Ché Guevara T-shirts and a campus Leftist Club who discuss the writings of Lenin and Marx in a contemporary context. She also cited an admittedly troubling YouGov poll: “only half of millennials believe that communism was a problem, and about a third believe that President George W. Bush killed more people than Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.” As anyone who has taught a college history course can attest, cultural illiteracy is a major problem: the majority of my students at a medium-sized state school had little or no notion of the Cold War, what it entailed, who constituted the various sides, etc. For many left-wing activists (and, I admit, for me from time to time), Communist history and imagery is the source of colorful memes and dark jokes, a fact Nicolae found alarming. (I have my own views on why such memes and jokes may be appropriate in certain contexts, and how the American right has facilitated in making such memes and jokes inevitable, but for now I’ll just concede that Nicolae has a point.)

But Dreher seems to misrepresent both Nicolae’s editorial and reality when he paints a picture of a major cultural institution like Harvard willfully disseminating false information about the brutal reality of Communist dictatorships. I don’t know whether Nicolae ever took a class with Harvard history professor Terry Martin, history professor Serhii Plokhii, Czech language professor Jonathan Bolton (who specifically works on dissident communities in the former Eastern Bloc), or any of the numerous fellows and professors of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, countless of whom specifically work on and document the crimes committed by Communist governments in the twentieth century. If Nicolae had attended Yale, she could have studied with Timothy Snyder, John Gaddis, Boris Kapustin, and any number of other scholars who have produced groundbreaking work on the realities of life in the Soviet Union and the wider Communist world. If she had attended Princeton, she might have studied with Stephen Kotkin, who is also a research scholar at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution and whose three-volume biography of Stalin describes Soviet crimes in nauseating detail. In my own education studying Russian at the University of Iowa, I received accounts of torture by the Soviet secret police from instructors who witnessed these crimes firsthand. According to Dreher, however, Harvard (“where the next generation of American and global elites are trained”) is “teaching those who aspire to leadership positions what it is important for them to remember, and what does not matter”: in short, students at Harvard are taught to forget about twentieth-century Communism. This is frankly insulting to the professors whose lives’ works are dedicated to uncovering and teaching Communist atrocities.

Dreher does cite the director of the Museum of John Paul II and Primate Wyszyński, Paweł Skibiński, as “one of Poland’s leading historians,” and includes a long quote from Skibiński warning against the influence of the West on contemporary Poland: “The thing is, now such tendencies [i.e., promises of freedom, particularly sexual liberation] come from the West, which we have always looked up to, and regarded as a safe place. But now many Poles start to develop the awareness that the Wet is no longer safe for us.” To sweep over the historical work of eastern European, Russian, and Eurasian studies scholars at the entirety of the Ivy League but to devote so much time to such a relatively minor historian, who happens to express anti-Western sentiments that coincide with Dreher’s, is something more than insulting.

As I noted in my last post, Dreher is often effusive when citing the testimony of contemporary eastern European scholars: everyone is a renowned this or a leading that. Many of these scholars, particularly those under the age of 60, are brutal in their assessment of the West and agree with Dreher’s thesis about soft totalitarianism. Here, Dreher’s instincts as a journalist fail him. He cannot seem to discern the very real generation gap that exists among Russians and eastern Europeans today.

Those Russians and eastern Europeans who lived as adults in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s—many of the dissidents whom Dreher interviews—have lived under several different regimes (Communism, liberalism, illiberalism or what Viktor Orbán calls “Christian democracy”), and their perspective is generally balanced when they speak to Dreher. They have seen much and are not especially prone to alarmism. For their children, however, who came of age in the 1980s, ’90s, and 2000s, the world is one in which liberalism’s promise has turned into disappointment. They grew up looking to the West and liberalism for hope but then witnessed the decadent pirate capitalism of the Yeltsin era or the complex realities of membership in the European Union. This is the generation of Hungarians who support Orbán and Russians who support Vladimir Putin, who have watched their children either migrate to wealthier nations or flounder at home, whose memories are of second-class citizenship within the E.U. or the economic failures of the 1990s. Thus, Dreher finds numerous voices like this one:

Tamás Sályi, the Budapest teacher, says that Hungarians survived German occupation and a Soviet puppet regime, but thirty years of freedom has destroyed more cultural memory than the previous eras. “What neither Nazism or Communism could do, victorious liberal capitalism has done,” he muses.  

The idea that liberal capitalism has done more to destroy “cultural memory” than did the Nazi occupation or the Communist regime, which (in Dreher’s own account) literally wiped history books clean of politically incorrect material, is patently absurd. But Dreher eats these testimonies up. Nobody seemed to warn him that, if you travel to eastern Europe with the presupposition that the West is slouching toward totalitarianism, you will find literally thousands of eastern Europeans who agree with you. He assumes that their testimonies are grounded in genuine insight and not, as all testimonies are, grounded in complicated, contingent historical circumstances.

Meanwhile, extreme anti-Communists in governments throughout eastern Europe are rewriting the history of eastern Europe as I type these words. Every major anniversary of the Second World War is replete with instances of nations washing their hands of their complicity in either Nazi or Soviet crimes. The historiography of the 1930s and ’40s is complicated, to be sure, but in present-day eastern Europe it is violently politicized—not a state of affairs one should look to when determining, for instance, how the United States should deal with its own complicated history.

Indeed, despite all the statues being torn down, one could call the contemporary United States a model of historical reckoning. For Dreher, it is a token of faith that progressives want to “erase all memory of the past” (to quote one of the dissidents he interviews). Another dissident observes how, “in the Soviet Union, they killed all the people who could remember history.” Dreher cites the New York Times‘ “1619 Project” as an example of soft totalitarian revisionism, an ideologically sanctioned account of history that favors progressive belief over historical fact. But surely the “1619 Project” was additive, and did not attempt to subtract from American history. In its provocative (and mostly rhetorical) claim that 1619, rather than 1776, constituted the birth of America, the authors were not seeking to replace or erase the year 1776 or the Founding Fathers from textbooks. They were seeking to add the year 1619 to textbooks. They were seeking to round out our conception of American history, to complicate it, to make it truer.

Look at the study of history today in the United States and the rest of the West. Look at the Ivy League historians I listed above. As someone who spent a long time in graduate school, I can assure you: historical archives have never been fuller, richer, and more accessible. This is truly a golden age of historical memory and knowledge. How do I square this with my observation, above, that students today barely remember the Cold War? On this point, I actually agree with Dreher: there is something in liberal capitalism that abets forgetting, that devalues hard-earned historical knowledge. I will deal with this point of agreement in my final post in this series.

If, as Dreher contends, the United States is a pre-totalitarian society, does it more resemble late imperial Russia (a deeply conservative autocracy that succumbed to a socialist dictatorship) or the Weimar Republic (a weak democracy that succumbed to a fascist dictatorship)? This, critically, is a question Dreher never asks. The cultural and sexual decadence he (incorrectly, in my view) ascribes to late Tsarist Russia was ten times greater in Germany. Scenes of protest and mob violence were present in both nations, but particularly present in Germany. From its hollowed-out democratic processes to its suspicion of its own democratic institutions, from its fumbling leaders to its ideological zealots, from its weak-but-industrialized economy to its bursts of populism and resentment politics, Weimar Germany is a much closer analogue to the modern-day U.S. than is Tsarist Russia. And even then, the analogy is not perfect: there is no First World War looming over our immediate past. But if one were looking for signs of impending totalitarianism in the United States, one would certainly begin in Weimar, not Petrograd. The fact that Dreher doesn’t shows that, in Live Not by Lies, he was more interested in selecting the correct enemies (progressives, leftists) than in studying the history.

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