Review: Live Not By Lies

Live Not By Lies, Rod Dreher. New York: Sentinal, 2020.

Summary: Drawing on interviews with Christians in the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, Dreher warns of a rise of a similar, though “soft” totalitarianism in the U.S., and outlines what Christians must do to live in the truth.

In The Benedict Option (review), Rod Dreher outlines how he believes Christians, having lost the culture war, must live. Live Not By Lies offers an even grimmer future, the rise of a “soft” progressive totalitarianism functioning by rhetorical and social control, utilizing the capacities already in existence for digital surveillance.

He draws on interactions with survivors of Communism in the Czech Republic and the former Soviet Union. His title comes from a statement by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in what would be his final message to the Soviet Union. Dreher writes:

What did it mean to live by lies? It meant, Solzhenitsyn writes, accepting without protest all the falsehoods and propaganda that the state compelled its citizens to affirm–or at least not to oppose–to get along peaceably under totalitarianism. Everybody says that they have no choice but to conform, says Solzhenitsyn, and to accept powerlessness. But that is the lie that gives all other lies their malign force. The ordinary man may not be able to overturn the kingdom of lies, but he can at least say that he is not going to be its loyal subject.

Dreher and his eastern bloc interlocutors recognize the same troubling trends around the suppression of truth, the attractions of progressiveness to the discontented, the loss of faith in institutions, and a combination of destructiveness and transgressiveness. He points to the safety and cancel cultures of universities that foreclose open discussion of ideas.

The second part of his work addresses how Christians ought prepare for the rise of progressive totalitarianism. He argues for the importance of cultural memory, particularly the memory of totalitarian regimes. He believes that the family and networks of small groups are critical to resistance. He believes that the church is the critical bedrock of resistance, although it is also important to stand in solidarity with others who resist. It was heartening to not see him reprise the strategic withdrawal into monastic-type communities of The Benedict Option but rather listen and draw upon the testimony of those who resisted in the urban centers of Czechoslovakia and the former Soviet Union

Perhaps his greatest challenge to Christians is to accept the possibility of suffering as testimony to the truth–not sought, but not avoided. Talking with those who suffered, he stresses both the challenge to suffer without bitterness, and the gift of suffering.

I think the two most important lessons of this book are that “it can happen here” and that Christians are woefully unprepared as yet. What troubled me in reading this was that Dreher’s apprehension of threats from the far left seems to have blinded him to threats from the far right. In warning exclusively of a progressive, Communist-leaning totalitarianism, I found him more or less silent about the danger of a fascist totalitarianism. In the “survival of the extremes” character of our parties, it seems increasingly that they are moving toward one of these two polarities. The culture war no longer is Christians versus the secular culture but rather these two polarities against each other, each using parts of the Christian community to gain political leverage.

Where Dreher gets it right is that both of these extremes are built on the lie of ultimate allegiance that no Christian can accept, with a whole host of other lies paving the way to believing this big lie. I believe he is right in recognizing how we may be seduced by lies from one extreme or the other. What I wish he had addressed is how we might be people who turn neither to the Left nor the Right but who are shaped by the narrative of the Gospel of the Kingdom. But in a culture where lying is endemic, the call to not capitulate to the lies and the community that sustains a people of truth is no insignificant thing. A Czech emigre friend told the author that writing this book was a waste of time because, “People will have to live through it first to understand….Any time I try to explain current events and their meaning to my friends or acquaintances, I am met with blank stares or downright nonsense.” I hope he is wrong.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Origins of Totalitarianism

the origins of totalitarianism

The Origins of  TotalitarianismHannah Arendt. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968.

Summary: A work tracing the rise of totalitarian governments in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany to their origins in racism and class warfare, reactions to imperialism, and the mechanics that distinguish totalitarian states from other kinds of states.

The Origins of Totalitarianism is on my “Ten Books I Want to Read Before I Die” list. After over a month of reading, I can check this book off the list, but I can’t dismiss it from my thoughts. It is long, the prose is demanding, and the ideas are critically important to our times. I certainly will not do the book justice in a blog-length review. But I hope I can give you a sense of what it is about and why I think the book is worth the effort.

The book is written in three parts. Many focus on the third, “Totalitarianism” and neglect the first two, on “Antisemitism” and Imperialism.” The first part describe the rise of race thinking, particularly in the context of the nation-state, and how the Jews, as stateless persons were particularly vulnerable to racist attacks. This was epitomized in the Dreyfus Affair, in which a French Army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, of Jewish descent, was wrongly accused of treason and convicted, arousing latent fears about Jews in France, indeed fears about the motives of Jews in other European countries.

Imperialism arose, in Arendt’s analysis as economic expansion came up against national limits. Arendt writes:

“Imperialism was born when the ruling class in capitalist production came up against national limitations to its economic expansion. The bourgeoisie turned to politics out of economic necessity; for if it did not want to give up the capitalist system whose inherent law is constant economic growth, it had to impose this law upon its home governments and to proclaim expansion to be an ultimate political goal of foreign policy.” 

In turn, a form of continental imperialism arose, as an alternative to the existing parties characterized as “pan-Slav” or “pan-German.” This played into ideologies that led to decline of the parliamentary nation states, institutionalizing either anti-Semitism, or anti-bourgeois sentiment (even after the bourgeoisie in Russia was eliminated).

The third part describes the methodology of totalitarian movements eventuating in totalitarian states. Such movements substitute masses for classes, kept in subjection by an inner ring of secret police using methods of terror to keep people in line, using camps and gulags to destroy real and projected enemies. Propaganda plays a critical role in creating an alternate reality that followers of the totalitarian leader prefer to truth, particularly in engendering fear of an “other” who threatens the state. Arendt writes,

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” 

Arendt’s book concludes, in its revised edition, with a chapter discussing how loneliness and isolation of individuals serve as pre-conditions for totalitarianism.

The one thing I missed in her analysis was a discussion of how the disruption of World War I and global economic depression contributed to the conditions giving rise to Stalinism and Nazism. It seems to me that these conditions offered fertile ground for the use of racist and classist attacks, widespread dissatisfaction with the existing nation-state (which she does touch on), and the appeal of a strong leader.

This book has gone through a resurgence of interest in light of current political developments in the US. The language of tyranny and totalitarianism has been thrown around, but in reality we are a long way from Arendt’s description of governments that dominate every aspect of a person’s life through government-sponsored terror, secret police, and concentration camps (apart from the temporary interning of undocumented refugees and their children).

Nevertheless, there are concerning trends that Arendt observes in these totalitarian societies that are present in American society:

  • Nationalist organizations affirming one’s racial identity while portraying other “races” as a threat to the nation’s greatness.
  • Deep dissatisfaction with established political parties and systems.
  • The blurring of distinctions between fact and fiction, of truth and falsehood to uphold particular narratives of reality and the questioning of motives of any who challenge those narratives.
  • The increasing isolation and loneliness of growing numbers of people, confined to echo chambers of virtual communities, instead of being surrounded by robust local communities.
  • A growing focus on national political leadership, and particularly on finding strong figures who “get things done” as the critical element to a thriving national life, as opposed to local forms of government, voluntary associations, and private enterprise.

None of these of themselves eventuate in the totalitarian state of which Arendt writes. But these conditions could be exploited by leaders unafraid of using methods of totalitarian control to transform a democratic republic to a government that dominates every aspect of the human existence of its citizens.

I suspect the people of Czarist Russia and of early 1930’s Germany believed that a totalitarian state “couldn’t happen here.” Perhaps that assumption is the most dangerous of all. Arendt’s massive work traces how it did, and could. It persuaded me that it can happen here, and of the vital work each of us need to embrace in bridging rather than accentuating our divides, in protecting the institutions that help us separate fact from fiction, in renewing our neighborhoods and local communities, and in exercising deliberate care in those we elect to positions of power and trust.