Rod Dreher on Resisting Secular Ideology: Remember the Value of Suffering
The bestselling author discusses the rise of soft totalitarianism in the West during an Aug. 31 interview.
ROME — As “soft totalitarianism” coincides with an erosion of civil liberties, and a “woke”-fueled “cancel culture” leads many religious people and social conservatives to self-censor, bestselling author Rod Dreher, offers his own insights and solutions, culled from the experiences of those who suffered under communism in the Soviet bloc. In his acclaimed book Live Not By Lies — A Manual For Christian Dissidents, published in September 2020, he notes how these citizens recognized the seeds of tyranny in the West long ago, and have been trying to warn Westerners ever since.
Speaking to the Register in Rome on Aug. 31, Dreher discusses how today’s growing totalitarianism resembles but also differs from living under Soviet communism, what specifically the faithful can learn from those who suffered under such regimes when it comes to resisting it, and why reliance on today’s Church leaders is probably best avoided.
The author of The Benedict Option that called on Christians to embrace exile from mainstream culture to construct a resilient counterculture, Dreher writes a regular column for the American Conservative and is a convert to Orthodoxy.
If we start with just the timing of your book Live Not by Lies, what had you observed that prompted you to write it? What evidence had you seen of this growing tyranny that prompted you to write it?
Back in 2015 I think, I received a phone call from a prominent Catholic doctor in the U.S. We had a mutual friend, and he said, “Listen, I just have to tell somebody this. My mother is quite old, lives with me and my wife, she was born in Czechoslovakia and spent four years in a prison camp. … Now that she’s very old, she has been telling my wife and me that the things she sees happening in America today remind her of what it was like in Czechoslovakia when Communism came to power.”
So when traveling to a conference, and [meeting] someone who grew up in the Soviet bloc and who came to America to escape communism, I would just ask them, “Are the things you’re seeing happen in America now with cancel culture, things like that, does it remind you of what you left behind?” Every single one of them said Yes, emphatically Yes. If you talked to them long enough, they would express deep anger that Americans don’t take them seriously. So, I realized I had a book here and that’s what prompted it. The specific warnings from these people, these emigres, the consistency of what they had to say and the depth of the anger that no one was listening to them.
Whom did you speak to for the book, and how did you find them?
I dedicated the book to the memory of Father Tomislav Kolakovic, I had never heard of until I went to Bratislava, and I was just so amazed by his story. [When he fled] to Slovakia in ’43, he told his students, “The good news is the Germans are going to lose this war; the bad news is the Soviets are going to be running this country when it’s over. The first thing they’re going to do is come after the Church, we have to be ready.”
He knew that, and could tell instantly, the very clericalist, passive Slovak Catholicism was going to be no match for what was coming. So, he began to prepare his students. He would bring together these groups of mostly students for prayer, and intense discussion and analysis of what was happening, and they would decide.
Within two years, a network of these groups had spread all over Slovakia, and they had some priests who were going along with them.
They became the backbone for the underground Church. So I realized we are in a Kolakovic moment now in the West. We have to take advantage of the liberty we have now, the liberty of time and religious freedom, such as it is, to prepare.
And to create networks?
Yes, prepare ourselves and our families and our parishes spiritually, but make these networks now across confessional boundaries, across national and international boundaries. Now is the time, it’s urgent.
You talk about how the loss of organized religion and family instability has led the U.S. and other Western countries to be vulnerable to “soft totalitarianism.” Have we now moved past that with the response to COVID, and organizations like Black Lives Matter, as well as the Biden administration’s imposition of transgender rights and other secular ideologies? Are we now closer to a hard totalitarianism?
This is one thing the émigrés insist on, “Oh, it’s soft now, but it’s going to be hard soon enough.”
I do think that things are accelerating all the time. The way that the pandemic has been handled, people have become accustomed to being told what to do, being surveilled, having their data taken by the government. One of the most distinct aspects of this phenomenon is that the state is the least important part of it.
In traditional political theory, totalitarianism involves an all-powerful state that infiltrates every aspect of life, and that’s not what’s happening here. In the U.S. at least, wokeness has conquered, it’s been the successor ideology to liberalism, and it has conquered every major institution in American life, corporations most significantly.
The Russian author Elena Gorokhova once said of Soviet communism, “They lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we’re lying, they know we know they’re lying, but they keep lying anyway and we keep pretending to believe them.” Do you think we’re coming to that point where lies in everyday life, in culture in general, are becoming so prevalent people don’t know what’s true anymore?
Yes, it’s a system of lies and it depends on everyone acknowledging the lie, whether out of fear or out of real belief. This is where the title of the book came from. Just before he was expelled by the Soviets in ’74, Solzhenitsyn’s final communication to his followers was called “Live Not by Lies.” Vaclav Havel said something similar three years later in his famous essay The Power of the Powerless, in which he talked about the importance of living in truth. But Havel and Solzhenitsyn saw that the essence of the system was a lie or a series of lies, and the only way to defeat it [was] if enough people said, “I won’t believe the lie. I will not live as if these lies are true.” Then you would stand a chance. That’s what they encouraged their followers to do. We have to do the same thing, but it’s going to cost us and cost us a lot. That is the thing that so many of us aren’t prepared to pay that price.
How can people be convinced to resist?
Of course, the most important thing is to commit to living in the truth, to prefer nothing to the truth. The book is written by a Christian for Christians, and we know what the truth is, and we have to train ourselves now while we’re living in relative peace to only put serving Christ as our most important thing, no matter what. Secondly, and this is the most key, we have to embrace suffering, the value of suffering. This is a long Church tradition going back to the early Church, but we’ve forgotten it now. That’s part of why we’re so vulnerable. This is a dictatorship, it’s not Orwellian in the sense that it’s not depending on the infliction of pain and terror to force people to conform. It’s more of an Aldous Huxley kind of totalitarianism.
Why do you say that?
We live in a soft totalitarianism that doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy. So you have people who are compelled to be quiet on pain of losing their job, because their opinions might make other groups feel unsafe. So we have to prepare ourselves to struggle and be deprived and lose status, to lose our jobs, to lose our freedom and maybe even lose our life. Unless we’re prepared to go that far, we’re not going to make it through what’s coming. This is the constant message of the dissidents.
Be prepared for the long haul?
Yes. A consistent story they all told [in the book] was the importance of [forming] small groups. I heard it over and over again. … It wouldn’t have occurred to me that’s what we needed to do, but they were emphatic, “Do that right now.”
Would you say that people need to also understand the causes of “wokeness” and the totalitarianism behind it? Would you say it’s linked primarily to a crisis of reason, which in turn is ultimately due to a crisis of faith, the loss of the supernatural, of Christianity?
Yes, I think you’ve got it. People need to understand that when we deal with wokeness, we’re not dealing with a political phenomenon primarily, we’re dealing with the religious phenomenon that manifests itself through politics. Just as the totalitarianism of the 20th century, Nazism and communism, were political, pseudo religions that moved to fill a hole in the souls of those people, that’s what wokeness is. It’s not a coincidence that in the US at least it is most powerful among the least religious generations in American history, the Millennials and Gen-Z. They’re searching for what everyone who is susceptible to totalitarianism is searching for: a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose and a sense of solidarity.
How do you think this totalitarianism might develop, how could it worsen, what do we need to be aware of?
In the U.S. what’s likely to happen is that the elites, by which I mean the government elites working with corporate elites especially, tech elites, will implement a social credit system. That is coming. It’s coming because the whole thing over vaccine passports is training us to accept this sort of thing.
But is this totalitarianism to the extent of Nazism or communism?
An important distinction needs to be made between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, because some people say to me, “Well, aren’t you being offensive and insulting to people who suffered from real totalitarianism?”
I explain that authoritarianism is generally a political system in which all political authority is concentrated in one leader or party, but the rest, outside of politics, don’t really care what you do, the government doesn’t care what you do.
Totalitarianism is an authoritarian system in which everything in life is politicized. For example, just this summer during Pride Month, every month is Pride Month, but on a double-plus special Pride Month, one of the big breakfast cereal manufacturers in the U.S. manufactured a special gay pride cereal for children, a breakfast cereal, and on the side of the box they had for your children to read while they’re enjoying their gay pride breakfast an exercise for kids encouraging them to think of their own pronouns. This was Kellogg’s, which is the major cereal manufacturer, and even breakfast has to be made part of the revolution.
This is exactly what they did in the Soviet Union. In my book I tell the story about how in 1924 the Soviet Chess Society tried to defend chess from the encroaching revolution, and they put out a statement saying, “We have to keep chess for the sake of chess.” The Commissar said, “No, no, no. After the revolution, everything must be for the revolution.”
Even now, after our revolution, cultural revolution, even breakfast cereal has to be part of the revolution, even children’s programming has to be part of the revolution.
Do you think that unless the Church or Christian leaders in general really stand up to all of this in a visible, united way, we’re going to lose? And can we win this battle when we’re effectively having our weapons taken away from us, the generals are deserting us before the battle has even properly started?
When we look at religious authorities, not just Catholic ones, but most religious authorities, Christian authorities, we’ll see the modern-day equivalent of the Slovak bishops that Father Kolakovic faced. People who either don’t think it’s a problem or maybe even some of the things that are happening, some of these bishops might think is a good thing. They’re progressives. In the U.S., some of the most pro-LGBT, pro-gender ideology thinkers are priests. So my general advice to Christians is don’t wait on your leaders to tell us what to do and don’t count on them. … We are facing a long-term grave crisis that’s going to end up with a lot of Christians going to jail and a lot of churches closed. But so many pastors and bishops don’t want to face it, so don’t worry about it.
If your pastor, your bishop doesn’t see the problem, won’t help you, don’t let that stop you, get together with other like-minded faithful, and even like-minded people from other churches. …Find them wherever they are and stand by them and make these connections right now. You never know when you’re going to need them to hide you out, to help you find a job when you’ve lost yours, or to stand with you in public and defend you when everybody else is against you.
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- secular ideology
- soviet communism
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- rod dreher