Rod Dreher on the coming soft totalitarianism

Communism and Naziism were different from plain old run-of-the-mill tyrannies.  They were totalitarian, not merely authoritarian.

An authoritarian ruler is content with passive obedience.  Silence is enough to buy safety under authoritarian rule.

A totalitarian regime demands active and sincere support, without mental reservations.  Totalitarianism aspires to control not only your outward actions, but your inner thoughts.

The rise of totalitarianism in the 1930s and 1940s was new and frightening.  But after the defeat of the Axis powers in World War Two and the breakup of the Soviet Union following the Cold War, totalitarianism was seemingly defeated for good.

But the conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher, in his new book, LIVE NOT BY LIES: a Manual for Christian Dissidents, warns of the danger of a new form of totalitarianism.

The danger, in his view, consists of two converging forces: (1) the rise of what’s called “cancel culture” or “political correctness,” which seeks to punish people for unorthodox words and thoughts, and (2) the rise of surveillance technology, which gives the powers that be new tools for tracking down what you’ve said and thought.

You might say both fears are exaggerated.  Where is the equivalent of the Soviet Gulag or the Nazi concentration camps?

Dreher interviewed Christian dissidents who suffered under Communist rule, and they in fact see the seeds of a new totalitarianism in the USA and other Western countries.

It would be a “soft” totalitarianism, enforced by economic pressure and the pressure of public opinion.

People really do fear for their careers if they go on record as saying something unacceptable, even with the best of intentions.  It’s not just Christians or conservatives who suffer.  So do liberals or progressives who make a misstep.

It’s customary nowadays to search social media for things people may have said in the past that’s unacceptable now. 

Meanwhile high-tech companies such as Amazon offer services based on connecting everything in your life to the Internet.  This of course creates a record of everything you do. 

This information is sold to advertisers, marketers, bill collectors, insurance companies, credit rating agencies and anybody else with an interest in knowing about you, and also used to manipulate your mind.

It would be naive to think that your political and religious opinions are excluded from this, or that police and intelligence agencies don’t have access to this information.  We see a preview of what might happen in China’s social credit system.

I recommend Dreher’s book.  His fears are not exaggerated.  In fact, it is even broader than he makes out.  It is not just religious people and conservatives who are targeted.  Anybody of influence who is anti-war or anti-corporate is a target for cancellation.

And this is against a background in which the federal government asserts new powers to start wars, imprison whistleblowers, order assassinations and pressure social media companies to censor all those who depart from the official view.

I do not argue that you should be concerned about these issues rather than Dreher’s issues.  All these things are forces converging on the same outcome.

“Live not by lies” is a quote of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and much of the book is an account of the heroism and suffering of Christian dissidents in Russia and eastern Europe who refused to submit.  Except for Solzhenitsyn, I hadn’t known their names or stories of these heroes.  Their stories are a good warning against any nostalgia for Communism.

Bolshevism is an example of an ideology that originated among discussion groups of college students, then spread among an educated elite and then the urban masses.  What’s called “wokeness” originated the same way and has spread from college campuses to educators, journalists, entertainers and the personnel departments of large corporations.

The reason these ideologies spread is that people had lost faith in the old institutions because of their manifest failures.  Educated people had also lost faith in religious dogma, and the new teachings became a kind of substitute religion.

The new dispensation persecuted not only defenders of the old order, but also the old-time live-and-let-live liberals (people like me).  Dreher acknowledged that secular liberals such as Vaclav Havel were part of anti-Communist the resistance.  They’re also part of the resistance to cancel culture today.

The individuals in the English-speaking world whose experience most parallels the anti-Communist dissidents are Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning—two individuals who lived not by lies and suffered imprisonment and abuse for telling the truth.  Neither one, so far as I know, had anything much to say about religion one way or the other.

Dreher thinks totalitarianism is inherently anti-religious, but that is an oversimplification.  The first totalitarianism was the Catholic Inquisition.  Under the Inquisition, people were tortured and killed not just for what they outwardly said and did, but what they were believed to secretly think.  Prior to that time, other religions had persecuted dissenters and opponents, but all were satisfied with outward conformity.

I remember reading something by Lenin in which he justified the Cheka (the old name for the KGB) by saying it was as necessary for Communism as the Inquisition was for Christianity.  A religious totalitarianism is all-too-thinkable.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think Dreher himself is either authoritarian or totalitarian.  Although I am neither a conservative nor a Christian, I greatly respect him for his intellectual honesty, fair-mindedness, willingness to admit error and willingness to judge friends and foes by the same standard.

My own position in regard to the excesses of the so-called Social Justice Warriors is much like that of an old-time socialist in regard to the Bolsheviks.  I’m in favor of their announced goals.  I’m not in favor of an imposed orthodoxy—even one I partly agree with—with punishments for those who get out of line.

I consider myself anti-racist and anti-fascist.  I am opposed to those who, figuratively speaking, think black people belong in the back of the bus, women belong in the kitchen, gay and lesbian people belong in the closet and transgender people belong in freak shows.

But these are choices.  I would regard an employer who demanded I pledge to be an “ally” of gays in the same way as, in the old days, I would regard an employer who demanded I sign an anti-Communist oath.

I think Communism—a centrally planned economy in a single-party state with absolute powers—is a terrible idea.  But if I sign an anti-Communist oath under threat of being blacklisted, what good is my pledge?  What evidence would there be I was telling the truth? 

I would have had to conform to the oath-giver’s idea of what Communism was, which would be different from mine.  The logic of loyalty oaths is the same as the logic of Inquisitions, an ever-increasing scrutiny of words and actions.

My other problem with “wokeness” is that it is highly compatible with militarism and corporatism.  Years ago my fellow blogger Alex Small linked to an article about the guards at Guantanamo Bay celebrating Martin Luther King Day, which symbolizes the problem.

You can, and do, have diversity and inclusion among torturers and plutocrats.  You can question traditional marriage or even the existence of mail and female without consequence, but woe betide you if you refute lies spread by the Central Intelligence Agency.


Living in Truth

Live Not By Lies by Alexander Solzhenitzyn (1974), an English translation in Orthodoxy Today (2004)

Live Not By Lies by Alexander Solzhenitzyn (1974, a different English translation for Index on Censorship (2004)O

Our Society Is Built on Lying and Breaking Faith by Ian Welsh.

‘Woke’ Tyranny

Postmodern Religion and the Faith of Social Justice by James A. Lindsay and Mike Nayna for Areo.  A long essay, but it’s a deep subject.  You don’t have to read it all at once.

A Witch-Hunt on Instagram, Instagram’s Diversity Wars Revisited and Knitting’s Infinity War, Part III: Showdown at Yarningham by Katherine Jebsen Moore for Quillette magazine.  A case study of good intentions gone haywire in a community of knitters.

Top Down White Penitence Is Shaking Up and Roiling the American Workplace by John Murawski for Real Clear Investigations.

The Truth According to Social Justice—A Review of ‘Cynical Theories’ by Jonathan Church for Quillette.

The Ongoing Death of Free Speech by Glenn Greenwald.

Other Forms of Tyranny

Political Correctness Is Destroying America (Just Not How You Think) by Jon Schwarz for The Intercept.

The Enemies Briefcase: Secret Powers of the Presidency by Andrew Cockburn for Harper’s Magazine.

All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama by Conor Friedersdorf for The Atlantic (2013)

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3 Responses to “Rod Dreher on the coming soft totalitarianism”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    And I see people both on the right and on the left looking enviously at China’s social credit system. It is a difficult sell, convincing people that it is important to defend the right of people to say things you disagree with. The modern filter bubbles of the internet make it almost impossible.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. sglover Says:

    Why do you pay attention to that lunatic Dreher? Does he explain how *exorcism* might fight the commie menace — he often talks about such Bronze Age superstitions with total credulity. If we purge all the homosexuals (their very existence is an endless burden for Dreher) will that keep the commies at bay? How do *demons* fit into all this? Dreher — nominally a literate adult — is never shy about citing them as a “cause” for whatever the problem of the day is.

    This is still the land of PT Barnum, I guess. Dreher’s a professional hysteric who’s managed to turn his galaxy of sexual neuroses into a career. But after a few decades on this planet most people learn to avoid the clinically insane when they ramble the town square shouting Leviticus.

    And if you buy his laughable pose as some kind of champion of ordinary (including non-white) working people, you’re letting yourself get conned. Lots of right-wing hacks and apparatchiks are trying to pull off that “rebranding” these days. But only suckers by into the act.

    Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      Rod Dreher is an admirable writer. He is a kind of conservative Christian version of the atheistic socialist George Orwell—in his willingness to take unpopular positions, in his willingness to admit mistakes, in his sensitivity to culture trends, in his honesty and in his willingness to criticize his own side.

      He regards marriage and parenthood by a man and a woman as normative—pretty much the same position that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton took 10 years ago. Agree or disagree, this is not monstrous. It doesn’t keep him from maintaining a friendship with Andrew Sullivan.

      I don’t agree with every single thing Dreher writes. I think it’s possible to learn from people I disagree with, people who are coming from a different mental place than I am. This is true of many writers I’ve discussed on this blog.

      Liked by 2 people

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