I have been reading Rod Dreher’s dispatches from St. Francisville religiously for years now, and I eagerly awaited his newest book, Live Not By Lies. I became a regular reader of Dreher’s work around the same time I converted to Catholicism in my 20s, about a decade after Dreher had left the Catholic Church and converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church amidst the slow-motion train wreck of the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Dreher defies easy categorization as all great writers and thinkers do. For better or for worse, he thinks for himself. George Bernard Shaw famously said that progress depends on the unreasonable man who persists in trying to adapt the world to himself; Dreher’s monastic vision and willingness to speak unpopular truths puts him squarely in the Camp of the Unreasonables.
In Live Not By Lies, Dreher paints a grim portrait of soft totalitarianism in the United States and the West. Dreher predicts future suffering for orthodox religious people of all faiths who do not worship at the altar of America’s ascendant secular progressivism. Live Not By Lies describes what this looks like, in detail, because despite our great forgetting we have many in our midst who have walked the hero’s journey in their own time and place. Reading Dreher’s book is a way to learn from their example.
If you are reading this, you are probably an educated member of a WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) society who has survived the Year of Our Lord 2020 with your wits barely intact. If you are like me, you feel besieged by an illiberal menace at the extremes of American politics and a diminished sense of national unity. I feel that I can no longer ignore our degraded popular culture and loss of equanimity. Life feels psychologically dominated by what happens between our digital mercenary avatars on Facebook and Twitter.
You may even recognize this characterization of our present moment:
Western civilization is being forced step by step into a state of civil war by the rising assaults of a revolutionary movement…This movement centers in the universities and spreads outward into every institution in today’s society…by indoctrination of those who are open to indoctrination, and by terrorization of those who are not. Many observers are bewildered by the fact that the violence and terror have appeared suddenly in the midst of a scenario – written by the liberals – calling for a new society based on gentleness, tolerance and the humanitarian concern of everyone for everyone else’s needs. The violence, the obscenity, the unabashed totalitarianism have burst like a storm upon the calm of an afternoon tea party.
This passage was written in 1970, not 2020. The problem facing us, then, is not a new one. While reading Dreher’s book, I was reminded of Alan Jacobs’ writing in The New Atlantis where he describes the perils of our persistent psychological state of high alarm and collective amnesia. Dreher’s book is the namesake of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s masterful essay, written in 1974. In 1970, Solzhenitsyn and his family were living in fear in Moscow after many years in the gulag. In 1971, Solzhenitsyn survived an assassination attempt by the KGB, hastening his family’s exile to Cavendish, Vermont where he enjoyed Dartmouth’s libraries and Vermont’s natural splendor until the fall of the Soviet Union allowed for a return to Russia. In 1972, there were over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States, and hundreds of Americans were disappearing into the ranks of urban guerilla terrorist groups. In 2020, we arguably have a few thousand losers and violent radicals with no power and minimal influence, committing statistically insignificant spasms of political violence. They loot and set fire to business districts while a few paper tigers in city government cower in fear. Alarmism has a lot of narrative-market fit, and I fear that narrative has more power over us these days than the facts do.
Live Not By Lies catalogs the horrors of the present, where “despite its superficial permissiveness, liberal democracy is degenerating into something resembling the totalitarianism over which it triumphed in the Cold War.” Utilizing the framework provided by Hannah Arendt, Dreher argues that we live in a pre-totalitarian society. “A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is.” The Polish anti-communist dissident and poet Czeslaw Milosz describes how Western people misapprehend the nature of communism as rooted in authoritarian might and coercion. To Milosz, totalitarianism is instead rooted in an “internal longing for harmony and happiness that lies deeper than ordinary fear or the desire to escape misery or physical destruction.”
It is impossible not to see the ways that politics and consumerism have replaced religion as a source of harmony and existential purpose in popular culture. “Soft” totalitarianism today is represented by a “pink police state” with left-wing ideological conformity in our media, universities, and concentrated corporate power. Companies like Disney issue threats against heartbeat bills in Georgia while remaining silent on Xinjiang. Surveillance capitalism provides the killer app for preference falsification and self-censorship at scale. Massive social atomization completes the distinction between this present danger and the tribulations of the past, and makes us particularly vulnerable to rapid collapse. Ross Douthat’s weak form of optimism in 2016 should be contrasted with the scholars who see echoes of Bolshevism in the rationalization of violence by our intelligentsia and the rise of collective denunciation as a routine feature of American life. There is a very blurry line between alarmism and realism, and between optimism and naivete.
In finance, we distinguish between that which is expected and that which is predicted. This is especially important in probabilistic decision-making. If I offer you a free and fair coin toss with a $1 prize for correctly guessing heads or tails, the expected value of each round would be fifty cents. And yet, you will never receive fifty cents for playing any given round of the game; you would be a fool to predict otherwise. You have to pick a side, and in real life, short-run bets and long-run expectations may diverge wildly. Perhaps we should have been more alarmed in the 1970s, just as the Russian people should have been more alarmed in 1916. Perhaps our past success is equally rooted in our institutional virtues and in dumb luck.
Consider the almost-nuclear annihilation of human life and the insane biowarfare experiments performed on American citizens in the 20th century. Or more recently, consider the investigative reports that show state-sponsored “gain-of-function” research might drive killer pandemics. How assured are we of our wisdom and technological superiority? Yuri Bezmenov’s description of the Soviet subversion of the Western press doesn’t seem so irrelevant when the nation’s leading newspaper cancels wrongthink or sends inconvenient history down the memory hole. I have been stunned to see fellow Ivy League graduates proudly sharing content from Russian propaganda outlets, or denouncing the “whiteness” of their fellow white and privileged Ivy League graduates. The right level of vigilance versus openness remains an open question for me. Things are getting better, but they seem more fragile and less evenly distributed every day.
Dreher quotes extensively from Arendt, who describes how “Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intellect and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.” In a recent wide-ranging and fascinating conversation between Coleman Hughes and Chloé Valdary, Valdary describes how circumstances raise up two different kinds of people:
My theory is that, as material conditions increase…become better…a lack of purpose, or a lack of the feeling of purpose, becomes more sensitively felt by a civilization, and this results in a mismatch in the sense that people are wealthier on the whole, but suffering from spiritual impoverishment. They come up with ideas to rectify that – but those ideas are material in nature, and therefore not able to actually meet the challenge. There is a total difference between the caliber of Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes and how they talk about the human condition, versus some of the figures who are writing in the NYT today about the nature of man and race in America. Even though the poets and writers of the Harlem Renaissance were dealing with far worse material conditions, they were in a way spiritually more advanced.
The willingness to take an unpopular position, with no guarantee of financial success…those who rise to the top in such a system are highly principled. Today, you look at the incentives to become a New York Times writer about race? Writing about whether black and white children should be friends or not? You write that, the mainstream journalistic institutions will accept you! It attracts a kind of person who is on average…less excellent.
“On Average…Less Excellent” might be an appropriate slogan for the American leadership class these days. But another important takeaway from Dreher’s book is that we possess total control over how we respond, even if our circumstances are not under our control. Our fundamental moral responsibility cannot be outsourced or ignored. Those who act courageously in the face of suffering and hardship might sacrifice their status or even their lives.
As Adam Smith famously said, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” In a sense, every nation is always in a pre-totalitarian state, because every human being has a pre-totalitarian heart. Dreher describes in remarkable detail how Soviet dissidents had to work mightily to create a zone of privacy, cultivate a rich inner life, renounce worldly success, and cultivate shared memory through simple and beautiful rituals like prayer, music, reading, art, and living room seminars over shared meals. Particularly notable is Patrik Benda’s description of his family and their participation in the resistance movement known as Charter 77. “In Charter 77, you had people of totally different worldviews and ideas joined together,” says Patrik. “You had, for example, democratic socialists on the one side and fervent Catholics on the other side. It was totally normal for me that as a small child, I was being raised in a community of people with very different opinions. So it shattered the bubble around me.”
In one of the most important passages of the book, Patrik offers his view of the United States from Prague: “When we look at what’s happening in America today, we see that you are building walls and creating gaps between people,” he says. “For us, we are always willing to speak, to talk with the other side to avoid building walls between people. You know, it is much easier to indoctrinate someone who is enclosed within a set of walls.”
This makes his book relevant not only to social conservatives or religious Westerners, but anyone who sees the urgency in fostering a “solidarity of the shattered.” In our own small way, my wife and I have worked to bring friends from across our educational and military and professional circles around our dinner table for discussions across deep philosophical or political divides. Graduate students at elite universities and employees of some of the world’s leading companies have shared with me in hushed tones that they wish they could have more honest conversations like this in the real world. It grieves me to say that this is America in 2020; this is who we are.
Live Not by Lies is a wake-up call for those drawn to comforting and convenient narratives of social progress. But I felt most convicted as a person who perceives the same threats as Dreher, but is often too strategic about where I use my voice. I have in many ways been formed by Neutral World Christianity, and the desire to accommodate and be accommodated can prove tempting, because conflict is alienating and costly, and social status and respect is a helluva drug. Aaron Renn discussed this concept in the July edition of his must-read newsletter, The Masculinist. Without the prospect of advance, tactical retreat is just surrender on an installment plan. Even if Dreher is entirely wrong about America’s descent into soft totalitarianism, his call to reinforce one’s inner life, family life, and shared memory against the gaze of The Basilisk is both urgent and timeless.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Commencement Address at Harvard bewildered an elite audience high on the emancipatory arc of neoliberalism and confident in America’s superiority to the Soviet menace. He exhorted us to “rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era. This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but upward.” Speak the truth in hope and love; it will not be easy for your body, but it will be the only way for your soul.
Social and cultural change rarely occurs steadily. We seem to pass through short periods of renegotiation, which last less than a decade, followed by periods of greater stability, which last for several decades. So, it’s unsurprising that descriptions of the 1970s match up well with our current age. In fact, if you compare the early 1970s to today, things are actually quite a bit more peaceful today than then.
I too read Dreher with some regularity, but I find him to be increasingly shrill and unhelpful. Most of his examples of “woke capitalism” fall into the category of what David French calls “nutpicking.” Some outrageous person or event is held up as indicative of some broader trend.
But the evidence for the broader trend is often scant. From my perspective, as someone who lives in a deeply blue community near NYC, conservative white Christians are simply experiencing the mild discomfort that comes from being outside of the societal mainstream. Soft totalitarianism, after all, is nothing new. It generally describes what outside-of-the-mainstream people always feel in any society. The difference here is that this is a novel place for most conservative white Christians. And, yes, I agree that we’ve moved from a point where affiliation with conservative white Christian institutions was viewed as a neutral factor to the point where it’s viewed as a negative factor. But this isn’t a novel experience. I’m a gay conservative in my 40s. When I entered the professional world two decades ago, I elected to stay in the closet professionally. That’s because the management committees of large law firms were dominated by men born in the 1930s whose views on gays (and, for that matter, on working women) were hardly enlightened. So, I had to negotiate my way through a subculture in which my sexual orientation placed me outside of the mainstream. The tables have turned today: No one cares if you’re gay, but conservative white Christians (and Mormons) are often viewed with unjustified suspicion in the subculture of the managerial elite. And this is an understandably uncomfortable position for people who’ve historically viewed their religious affiliation as a net positive. Even so, I don’t see that conservative white Christians are enduring anything that’s materially different from what gay professional men experienced in the 1990s and early 2000s. Never mind that conservative white Christians overplayed their hand on same-sex marriage, and are largely suffering due to the backlash of that poor bet.
So, in a way, I’m sympathetic to Dreher’s cause. After all, I’d prefer that nobody be pushed to the margins of society without justification. But I wonder whether Dreher is the right person to champion this cause. In recent years, Dreher seems to be embracing a kind of illiberalism of his own, albeit a right-wing illiberalism. And he’s not alone. In the wake of Obergefell, a large number of conservative white Christians seem poised to declare our democracy a failure and to embrace a religiously informed authoritarianism that will restore conservative white Christians to the societal mainstream. So, critiques of illiberalism come off as a bit disingenuous coming from someone who himself embraces illiberalism.
Further, Dreher has never really addressed the point that Jamie Smith made in his WaPo review of Dreher’s prior book. Smith noted that Dreher seemed to be complaining more about privilege lost than witness compromised. I don’t entirely agree with Smith on that point. Even so, it’s clear from Dreher’s writing that, in his view, a rightly ordered society is one that tilts in favor of conservative white Christians. In other words, he wants soft totalitarianism: He just doesn’t want to be on its receiving end. His most recent piece at TAC complains that Zazzle refused to make bumper stickers bearing an anti-abortion message. Even so, Dreher staunchly defends the right of conservative white Christian proprietors to make analogous refusals. Those commenters who point out this inconsistency are accused of “whataboutism.” But it’s rather clear that Dreher believes that conservative white Christians ought to enjoy legal rights and benefits that are not otherwise available to a religiously agnostic society. Thus hypocrisy makes it easy to dismiss Dreher’s claims, and likely accelerates the rate at which Dreher and his fellow travelers are pushed aside.
I’m far more persuaded by the approach set forth by David French and John Inazu, which embraces a pluralistic public square. But neither French nor Inazu have substantial followings. Dreher does. In fact, many view him as the chief spokesman of conservative white Christians in America. But Dreher is a repellent figure. When I read him, I rarely come away feeling greater sympathy for the position he advocates. In fact, reading Dreher generally makes me more confident in dismissing the very point he advocates. If I weren’t dispositionally conservative and hadn’t exposed myself to commentators like French and Inazu, reading Dreher would heighten my hostility towards conservative white Christians. That’s why it’s interesting that so many conservative white Christians have seemingly rallied around him.
Man, I am a straight, white conservative Catholic (although more conservative religiously than politically), and a reader of Dreher for more than 10 years, and I could not agree more with almost everything you said. Would upvote multiple times if I could.
I briefly came to a renewed respect for Dreher during the first half of COVID, as he was one of the few religious conservatives willing to tell the truth about the reality of the pandemic and the abject failure of the 45 Administration’s (non) response to it. At least Dreher has been willing to criticize the Glorious Leader, I’ll give him that. But the rest of it? No….
Yeah. Dreher hits the mark some portion of the time. In fact, I find his criticisms of left-wing illiberalism to be persuasive. But these apposite points are diluted by the petty complaints about the loss of conservative white Christian privilege. Obviously, if a conservative white Christian baker can refuse to write certain messages on a cake, then Zazzle can refuse to refuse to write certain messages on a bumper sticker. It is ludicrous to suggest, as Dreher does, that protections against compelled speech should only extend to conservative white Christians.
Dreher says in the second paragraph of his Zazzle post:
For the record, I think Zazzle should have the right to turn this
business down. I’m not like one of those “Bake the cake, bigot”
liberals. This is clearly a matter of artistic expression; Zazzle is
only exercising its right not to participate in messaging with which it
Did any of you guys actually read what he wrote? I mean, he says exactly the opposite of what you claim he said. Doesn’t that seem strange to you, like, maybe you don’t understand his point?
He’s not saying that white Christians should pull the levers of soft totalitarianism. He’s saying that Zazzle (and the left in general) is willing to characterize traditional Christian positions as “offensive or in bad taste.” It’s a marker. It’s an indicator of a cultural trend towards animosity towards Christianity. This is the point of almost all of Dreher’s posts, “heads up, things are changing, you will suffer, snap out of your comfortable complacent religion, prepare.” Dreher is always talking about how to survive the coming confrontation. I have yet to see any post of his extolling the victory of Soviet Christian dissidents in obtaining the levers of power in their societies. That’s just not the point or the goal.
If he actually believes that, then why write a whole article about it. That’s where Dreher loses credibility. He thinks that Zazzle should have the legal right to do this, but wishes that they would suffer social repercussions for doing so. I don’t think that anyone should suffer consequences for exercising legal rights.
I’m saving this review pretty much for this comment thread. Straight, white (hispanic), Evangelical and I find myself nodding in agreement way more with this comment than the entire review above. These times are disruptive and scary for so many of my evangelical brothers and sisters because of that loss of privilege. But something I don’t think the American Church considers is that privilege was purchased with debt. A debt built on the active and passive exclusion of The Other. The outsiders who don’t fit or carry enough Social Capital to fit with the mass of the church. More often than not, we are the church of the comfortably lost. This debt has come due. Scripture tells us this world is ugly, and will always be ugly. If there is to be suffering in this world, there is no body more equipped to stand in that gap than the Church.