Lives Not By Lies serves two purposes and, in my assessment, succeeds at both of them. It sounds the alarm, warning people to wake up, to see that the enemy is already closing in on the gates. And, in the eventuality or even the likelihood that it is already too late to hold the hoards at bay, it conveys hard-won wisdom from those who have faced a very similar totalitarian foe and overcome. They may have suffered along the way, but they at least maintained their integrity. And in a similar way, we may not be able to overthrow the totalitarianism “out there,” but by heeding their counsel, and searching the scriptures for more like it, we can at least overthrow it “in here,” within ourselves. We can live with dignity, without regret. In a society increasingly drowning in fabrications and falsehoods, we, of all men, must and can live not by lies.
I grew up in the era of the Cold War. From my youngest days I was taught that the West was the bastion of democratic freedom and the Soviet Union the stronghold of oppressive totalitarianism. We knew who the enemy was, and we knew he was across the ocean, behind the Wall. On our fridge was a poster filled with names and faces of Russian Christians who had fallen afoul of that regime and been imprisoned. Each day we would pray for one of these strangers, one of these brothers. The fact that they needed our prayers reaffirmed the blessing of living in a country where we enjoyed old-fashioned liberal ideals like freedom of speech and the rights of the individual. It reaffirmed that not all men in all nations were so blessed.
I have often wondered what became of these Christians. How did they fare in their imprisonments? How badly did they suffer? How did their families survive in their absence? And today I wonder this: As they now look back across the Atlantic in our direction, what would they say to us? With all the recent changes in Western society, what counsel might they offer? How might their past experiences influence our present and future? Rod Dreher has wondered as well. Alarmed by what he sees as a growing number of similarities between modern-day America and Soviet-style communism, he carried out a series of interviews with people who lived under such regimes. Their answers to his questions gave birth to a new book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, and in it he means to prove that liberal democracy has decayed into something that is beginning to resemble Cold War-era totalitarianism and to suggest how Christians can respond and live with integrity.
The Coming Totalitarianism
Dreher believes that America has entered into a pre-totalitarian condition in which it may not take much for a fully-fledged form of totalitarianism to overtake the nation. This is unlikely to be the familiar “hard” totalitarianism of the former Soviet Union that depended upon armed revolution, government control, and distant gulags, but a “soft” form that will take on a guise of gentleness and concern for the marginalized. Compliance to its ideals will not be enforced by the state or a dictatorial strongman but by the small group of elites who forms public opinions and by the large corporations whose technologies have become deeply embedded in our lives. It will not be merely authoritarian, monopolizing political control, but fully totalitarian, demanding the conformity of every aspect of society to its controlling ideology.
This soft totalitarianism is based upon an ideology that has set aside the ideals of classical liberalism in favor of a new progressive creed. This creed, often known as “social justice,” diminishes individual identity in favor of group identities based on gender, race, sexuality, and so on. It understands identity groups to be in a state of constant conflict with one another, and believes justice involves taking power from the oppressor groups and giving it to the oppressed. This, it holds, is key to ushering in the long-awaited utopia. This creed, which spread first from the minds of philosophers to the halls of academia, has recently hit its tipping point and is quickly claiming dominance within America. In an increasingly secularized society it is meeting humanity’s need for meaning and purpose. The fact that it is utterly dependent upon lies—outright denials of what we see and know to be true (claiming that men can have periods, celebrating as “diversity” what excludes people of dissenting ideologies)—has not kept it from gaining tremendous prominence and popularity.
If a new form of totalitarianism is emerging, might we be able to identify its approach by studying past regimes? Drawing upon the work of Hannah Arendt, Dreher shows that many of the factors that prepared Russia and Germany for their twentieth-century totalitarian regimes seem to be present in twenty-first-century America: widespread loneliness and social atomization; a declining faith in hierarchies and institutions; a growing desire to transgress and destroy; ubiquitous propaganda and the willingness to believe useful lies; a mania for ideology; and a society that values loyalty more than it values expertise. There is another similarity: Just as it has most commonly been the intellectuals who have been the revolutionaries, sure enough, in our day it tends to be the middle-class, college-trained elites who are at the forefront of social justice thinking, messaging, and advocacy. “The twentieth-century totalitarian experience shows how a determined and skillful minority can come to rule over an indifferent and disengaged majority.” There is little reason that should not be the case today. The difference is that where under communism the goal was to seize the means of economic production, today it is to seize the means of cultural production, to own the ideas more than the dollars. And in this area social justice advocates have already made vast advances.
Dreher believes there are two factors that will play especially important roles in the rise and dominance of soft totalitarianism: the Myth of Progress that underlies the social justice ideology, and the rise of surveillance capitalism.