Source: Richard Kirk
“Live not by lies” was the challenge issued by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, upon his departure from the Soviet Union, to individuals still condemned to live behind the Iron Curtain — especially to those who were well aware of the suffocating mendacity that permeated communist societies. Rod Dreher’s book gives the same advice to Americans today, especially to Christians who are expected to mouth obvious lies or face social ostracism and economic devastation — punishments administered occasionally by leftist judges and government officials but most frequently by tech giants, woke corporations, and P.C. media sycophants.
Dreher was inspired to write his book by heroic dissidents who refused to bend the knee to communist tyrants and saw a similar tyranny becoming ensconced in the United States. These moral giants are astonished that the primary beacon of freedom during their years of oppression has become a society where speech and actions disapproved by secular elites are regularly squelched and punished. Religious freedom, for example, is being reduced to the freedom to gather in congregations where (at least for now) marriage is affirmed by a priest, rabbi, or minister, a freedom that doesn’t extend beyond meeting walls to how a baker runs his business.
Admittedly, the totalitarianism Americans face is not the “hard” Soviet variety of which socialist-sympathizing Millennials are overwhelmingly ignorant. Those regimes committed horrific crimes against political prisoners. To cite one example given by Dreher, a row of twenty or thirty priests were shot in the face, one after the other, as each affirmed his faith in God. America’s “soft” totalitarianism, by contrast, flourishes thanks to an unholy alliance of tech, media, academic, corporate, and political powers that are eager to punish anyone brash enough to express un-woke opinions above a furtive whisper. Under this soft totalitarianism, Americans are now compelled “to engage in doublethink every day. Men have periods. The woman standing in front of you is to be called ‘he.’ Diversity and inclusion mean excluding those who object to ideological uniformity. Equity means treating persons unequally, regardless of their skills and achievements, to achieve an ideologically correct result.” I might add to that short summary the lie that America is a racist country, that law enforcement and our judicial system are institutionally racist, and that America was founded in 1619 upon the bedrock principle of white racism.
The ascendancy of this soft totalitarianism has been in the making for well over a half-century and gained substantial momentum in the sixties and seventies with the rise of what Philip Rieff called a “therapeutic culture” within which “the great sin is to stand in the way of the freedom of others to find happiness as they wish.” Dreher further notes that this culture “goes hand in hand with the sexual revolution, which, along with ethnic and gender identity politics, replaced the failed economic class struggle as the utopian focus of the post-1960s radical left.” These “cultural revolutionaries,” the author adds somewhat surprisingly, “found an ally in advanced capitalism, which teaches that nothing should exist outside of the market mechanism and its sorting of value according to human desires.” My less pretentious translation of that sentence would be the following: Madison Avenue has promoted for decades the notion that nothing is more important than comfort, leisure time, and feelings of pleasure so shallow that “happiness” seems to represent an exalted ethical principle.
Clearly, this “live and let live” philosophy (if it ever was sincere) has been superseded by a doctrine of ruthless cultural and political conformity, since the happiness of “oppressed groups” requires a world in which using the “wrong” pronoun for another’s “gender identity” is considered the equivalent of a violent assault. Moreover, in today’s cultural calculus, unequal group outcomes are taken as prima facie evidence of racism, sexism, or a plethora of hateful “phobias.” Supercharging this morass of mendacity is the rise of “surveillance capitalism,” where privacy has been ceded to woke corporate entities in exchange for convenience, thus providing these leftist groups an unprecedented level of information about the lives of consumers. That same information is then used to shape the future actions and beliefs of those individuals according to the economic, cultural, and political whims of tech giants.
What is sadly lacking in modern American society, Dreher observes, is allegiance to a set of principles (especially Christian principles) that transcend the ubiquitous desire to be happy. He relates the story of a Hungarian woman who, after thirty years of Western consumerism, is now inundated with the same secular advice from associates that has become common in American culture. They urge her to divorce her husband, put her child in daycare, and get a job that will make her happy. The woman, however, doesn’t want to dismiss her maternal duties or end her marriage. Rather, “she worries that her friends don’t grasp that suffering is a normal part of life — even part of a good life, in that suffering teaches us how to be patient, kind, and loving.” The lady doesn’t want to “escape her problems,” but rather “wants them to help her live through them.”
One of the things that impressed Dreher in his conversations with the numerous anti-communist heroes was the soul-satisfying lives they achieved via faith, family, and moral integrity even in the midst of suffering. On the other hand, he despairs of a society where individuals have become increasingly isolated and reduced to Brave New World addicts hooked on feelings of well-being provided by the Conditioners in charge. Thus, his question directed to Christians is whether they are truly disciples of Christ (i.e., followers) or merely admirers — whether they are willing to suffer for their faith or whether their primary allegiance is to the gospel of wealth, comfort, and success (“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”) that’s proclaimed in numerous churches.
Dreher’s dissident models did not seek martyrdom, but they were unwilling to propagate and live out official lies. “Let their rule hold not through me!” By drawing strength from their families, meeting in small groups, and secretly printing and distributing forbidden literature, they were strengthened to avoid the fate of an inward-only dissenter who “eventually becomes the character he [constantly] plays.” A motto employed by some of these intimate groups (one that Dreher also adopts throughout his book) is the triple-injunction to “See, Judge, Act.”
Unfortunately, a grave failure on Dreher’s part to “See” and “Judge” correctly is contained in his repetition of an endlessly repeated leftist lie about “the US federal government’s [i.e. the Trump administration’s] failure to respond effectively to the Covid-19 pandemic.” Later, Dreher says, “Politics are so divided by rigid ideologies that it is difficult for the US federal government to get anything done” — a naïve late-September observation I trust the author wouldn’t repeat following the torrent of perverse executive actions the Biden administration has issued in just five months!
Fortunately, such errors in judgment are few in this work that provides poignant examples of moral (e.g., Vaclav Havel) and spiritual courage in the face of overwhelming state brutality and that identifies numerous fissures in American society (broken families, loss of historical memory, corrupt centers of power) that have prepared the ground for the utopianism that serves as the deceptive lure for a freedom-denying totalitarian culture. Accordingly, Dreher challenges Americans to see the clear signs of totalitarianism in their midst and to act positively to oppose its spread. In particular, he calls on Christians to resist living by lies by embracing true discipleship, a commitment that requires a willingness to suffer for one’s faith.