The word “totalitarian,” like all alarming political terms, is much abused in the present-day United States. Along with “fascistic,” “dictatorial,” and “tyrannical,” “totalitarian” is now tossed about regularly as a means of insulting another’s politics. But the misuse of the term doesn’t render it illegitimate in all contexts. It just makes it harder to recall what the word actually means.
In Live Not by Lies, Rod Dreher makes an excellent case that totalitarianism has just about arrived in the U.S., and he argues that there is vital wisdom to be gleaned in the lives of Christian anti-Communists who not only helped bring down the Soviet Union but also preserved their faith throughout their long, dark nightmare. Dreher, a Christian Orthodox writer and senior editor at the American Conservative, interviews several such dissidents or their families and distills their efforts into a few timely lessons: Preserve the memory of what is under attack; take religion as the basis of resistance; consider the family the primary fighting brigade; show solidarity with other dissidents; see the good in suffering; and, above all, “value nothing more than truth.”
Lies are the lifeblood of totalitarianism; to resist, therefore, is to hold fast to truth. In the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, from whom Dreher gets his book’s title, “One man who stopped lying could bring down a tyranny.” The quote is, interestingly, absent from the book. Perhaps this is because the work of the Christian dissidents profiled by Dreher seems actually to refute the point. To topple a tyranny, you need to foster a network or a culture of truth, requiring the commitment of families, friends, and fellow resisters.
Dreher is clear that what we face now is not the deadly totalitarianism of 20th-century monster regimes. It’s the “soft totalitarianism” of cultural institutions, universities, workplace bureaucracies, and big-tech behemoths that will drive you from the public square if you dissent from the prevailing radicalism. A totalitarian society, after all, is not defined by the looming threat of death. Rather, as Dreher writes, “it is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology.” He goes on: “A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality.”
Anyone who’s ever been admonished for asserting that, say, only women have periods or that looting and arson do not a peaceful protest make, can attest to the efforts of our radical reality tinkerers. And precisely because the new totalitarianism is so different in appearance from that of the Soviet Union, it goes unrecognized by most Americans, including conservative people of faith. What’s more, the soft totalitarianism Dreher describes is less overtly intimidating than it is therapeutic. “It masks its hatred of dissenters from its utopian ideology in the guise of helping and healing,” Dreher writes. “In therapeutic culture, which has everywhere triumphed, the great sin is to stand in the way of the freedom of others to find happiness as they wish.”
This sought-after happiness is a strictly individual and material matter. No longer do we see the good in pursuit of a common and transcendent purpose. In this way, Dreher argues, soft totalitarianism presents a greater challenge than the bloodthirsty variety. At least Communism sought to mold its victims to achieve a shared (but grossly mistaken) good. The unbridled autonomy of therapeutic culture presents a more radical break with the history of civilization than even the advent of socialism.
Soft totalitarianism thrives without opposition because we’ve been drugged into complacency by the high-tech comforts and hedonistic pleasures of the market state. This is also why, Dreher believes, we have welcomed into our lives the most extensive surveillance apparatus ever known, in the form of big data. The Christian dissidents with whom he speaks, men and women who risked their lives to evade the eyes and ears of the state, are flabbergasted at how we’ve signed up for the privilege of allowing Big Brother into our homes.
The present danger here—aside from the end of any quaint notions of privacy—is that big data functions as a propaganda arm for soft totalitarianism, excising the wrong messages from your user experience and funneling the right ones to you, all day every day. The danger coming down the pike is that it increasingly resembles an enforcement arm as well. Dreher notes that Twitter already considers the “misgendering” of trans people grounds for being booted from the platform, and PayPal consults the far-left Southern Poverty Law Center’s guidance in determining which organizations are so extreme that they should be denied service. “Consider how it would affect everyday communications,” he writes, “if social media and other online channels that most people have come to depend on—Twitter, Gmail, Facebook, and others—were to decide to cut off users whose religious or political views qualified them as bigots in the eyes of the digital commissars?”
For Dreher, much of our misfortune is the inexorable result of our free-market system. “These cultural revolutionaries found an ally in advanced capitalism,” he writes, “which teaches that nothing should exist outside of the market mechanism and its sorting of value according to human desires.” This is the only misstep in Dreher’s incisive and ultimately heartening book. Capitalism makes an expansive variety of goods and services available to an ever-greater number of individuals. And, yes, Dreher is correct that consumerism rivals religious faith as a motivating principle around which we organize our lives. But capitalism, advanced or not, doesn’t “teach” anything. In offering up its bounty of possibility, capitalism merely re-creates the larger dilemmas facing moral man: how to choose good things over bad, how to refrain from overindulgence, how to prioritize what is meaningful, and how to separate truth from what is illusory.
This is where religion comes in. One need not be a Christian to see the extraordinary value in the lives and works of those who marshalled their faith against the totalitarianism of the past. Those with whom Dreher speaks organized secret prayer groups and samizdat networks. They counseled the persecuted and contested the lies of the state by clinging to the transcendent truths of their faith. This was the best they could do while living under the boot—and it was magnificent.
It’s Dreher’s hope that Christians today—and people of faith more generally—model their lives on those of these brave men, women, and children and take a stand for truth against soft totalitarianism. He writes: “For many of us it will mean having to unlearn political myths that we have uncritically absorbed in a culture that until fairly recently thought and reasoned in broad Christian categories.” This is true. But to unlearn something is to learn or relearn something else. And relearning faith in the 21st century, while necessary in all the ways Dreher describes, might be the toughest challenge of all.
Karl Marx, as usual, was perfectly wrong when he said that religion is the opiate of the masses. Religion is a deep form of truth. And it is far more difficult to face the truth than it is to embrace lies. Lies are crafted to flatter and persuade. Living in truth, on the other hand, requires courage. Will we find the courage we need to face down soft totalitarianism? One Slovak dissident sees the matter squarely and gives reason to hope:
“The question is, which is going to win: fear, or courage?” he says. “In the beginning, it was mostly a matter of fear. But once you started experiencing freedom—and you felt it, you felt freedom through the things you did— your courage grew. We experienced all this together. We helped one another to gradually build up the courage to do bigger things, like join the Candle Demonstration.”
The lessons in Live Not by Lies are ultimately a roadmap to fearlessness. Take a step toward living in faith, family, solidarity, and truth, and you’ll find that fear gradually dissipates. Live in falsehood, and you’ll remain a coward before the mob.