Book Review: Live Not by Lies by Rod Dreher: A Manual for Christian Dissidents
Communist totalitarianism is coming to America, and soon—but not in the form we expect. We won't have gulags and death camps, but anyone not submissive to the new regime will be an outcast from society in such a way as to force compliance. We have to prepare now if we're going to survive. That's the core message of Rod Dreher's new book, published September 2020, Live Not by Lies.
This book is effectively a part two to The Benedict Option, which I reviewed recently. Whereas The Benedict Option proclaimed our loss of the culture war and the consequences thereof, Live Not by Lies looks ahead to what's coming a generation from now. If Dreher's critics accused him of being too pessimistic before, they'll surely call him a full-on prophet of doom now. And yet, I'm going to accuse Dreher of not being nearly worried enough.
Throughout the book, he focuses on communist totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Bloc: U.S.S.R., Czechoslovakia, Croatia, etc. He begins by relating stories from people who survived communist totalitarian regimes in Europe, arguing that the signs of totalitarianism happening in America are here already.
The key difference, says Dreher, is that the old totalitarianism is hard, but the coming one is soft. That is, we won't see armed revolution, executions in the streets, and gulags. Instead, we'll see those who don't parrot the party line deplatformed, #canceled, and blacklisted from industry, unable to work or travel. Compliance will be rewarded with social esteem. We'll see the carrot more than the stick, and because we're so materialistic and hedonistic, it will be quite effective. As a nation, we're too afraid of suffering to resist.
Our nation's response to Covid-19 seems sufficient evidence for this. We've seen a nation known for its independent spirit sacrifice large swaths of our freedoms and rights if we can just avoid the suffering of an illness with a survival rate of something like 99.9%. A year ago, no one would have believed it. Yet it's inescapably clear at this point that Americans will do nearly anything for the promise of comfort and safety. We'll stay in our homes, stop going to church, lose our businesses, and let our grandmothers die alone.
Communist totalitarianism is appealing to many, Dreher says, because it promises a utopian world of equality and plenty, and does so with religious fervor. It should really be seen as a religion rather than a political system—a religion for lonely, isolated people who have lost faith in existing institutions and are willing to destroy and remake society. It's fueled by the progressive worldview—that we are on a Grand March through history from injustice to justice, from oppression to freedom, from old to new. To oppose this supposed progress is to be “on the wrong side of history,” and Progress requires removing such inconvenient people. This is the core of the progressive faith. Even “classically liberal” conservatives accept this dangerous premise of the Myth of Progress, Dreher warns.
Dreher argues that the enforcement mechanism today is woke “surveillance capitalism”. We have large monopolistic tech companies that know everything there is to know about us and seem eager to serve as the enforcement mechanism for the progressive elite class. They ban, shadow ban, and deplatform what they don't like in an effort to shape public opinion. The government doesn't have to censor us because the progressive elites can use Big Tech to do so instead. Dreher describes China's social credit score, and how the foundation for it is already here in America.
Dreher is correct in his assessment so far, except for one thing: why should we expect this rising totalitarianism to stop at soft totalitarianism?
“The technological capability to implement such a system of discipline and control in the West already exists. The only barriers preventing it from being imposed are political resistance by unwilling majorities and constitutional resistance by the judiciary. American culture is far more individualistic than Chinese culture, so that political resistance will almost certainly prevent Chinese-style hard totalitarianism from gaining a foothold here.” [pg 89]
Dreher spends the first half of his book warning about the signs of impending totalitarianism and trying to break through our “it can't happen here” attitude, but then walks right into the same trap himself! If soft totalitarianism is coming and may be already here in some form, then why would it not progress to hard totalitarianism? If we can be censored, deplatformed, and excluded from society, then gulags seem to be a logical next step. It'll start as imprisonment for violating overly broad “nondiscrimination” laws. We'll be jailed for not baking special cakes, for not using certain made-up pronouns, and for whatever they decide counts as a “hate crime.” If our enemies believe that we are evil and standing athwart the Grand March of Progress and they have all the power over us, why should they stop merely casting us out of society? When in history has the victorious mob stopped at merely gaining the upper hand? I absolutely expect hard totalitarianism to happen here.
Dreher is not worried enough. Did we not spend last summer watching opposing factions marching in the streets? Did we not see members of Antifa executing members of Patriot Prayer? Did we not see cities burned by Antifa and BLM, facing off against the police and the Proud Boys? Did we not see “autonomous zones” like CHOP and CHAZ popping up around the country patrolled by left-wing militia? Regardless of the eventual outcome of the 2020 presidential election, half the nation will believe it illegitimate. Our nation is a powder keg of class divisions deliberately stoked over the past few decades, and the violence has already started. It's a fractured dam that has begun leaking through the cracks and could burst at any moment. It seems quite possible that things are going to get real bad, real fast.
In part two, Dreher shifts his focus to how we should prepare and shape our lives in order to resist. The following long excerpt in which Dreher quotes Václav Havel, the president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism, is one of my favorite pages in the book:
“Havel knew that he was addressing a nation that had no way to rise up against the might of the Czechoslovak police state. But he also knew something most of them did not: they were not entirely powerless.
Consider, he said, the case of the greengrocer who posts a sign in his shop bearing the well-known slogan from the Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world, unite!” He doesn't believe in it. Be hangs it in his shop as a signal of his own conformity. He just wants to be left alone. His action is not meaningless though: the greengrocer's act not only confirms that this is what is expected of one in a communist society but also perpetuates the belief that this is what it means to be a good citizen. Havel goes on:
“Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.”
This costs him. He loses his shop, his salary is cut, and he won't be able to travel abroad. Maybe his children won't be able to get into college. People persecute him and those around him—not necessarily because they oppose his stance but because they know that this is what they have to do to keep the authorities off their backs.
The poor little greengrocer, who testifies to the truth by refusing to mouth a lie, suffers. But there is a deeper meaning to his gesture.
“By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.”
I love this excerpt because it demonstrates that simply standing for truth is a rebellious act in a communist totalitarian system. We might find ourselves in a world where the established order demands that we post a certain sign in our windows, or perhaps that we wear a special article of clothing. Everyone will secretly know that it's ridiculous, but we'll see everyone obeying anyway because it's easier to do so—no one wants to face retribution. Havel's story tells us that fighting back starts with standing for the truth and refusing to kowtow to the lie being pushed. We can shatter the illusion by refusing to play along. Havel also warns that it's not easy; there is suffering involved in doing what's right.
Dreher goes on to discuss the importance of preserving our beliefs and way of life, passing it on to our children. We have to cultivate cultural memory, focus on maintaining strong families, modeling good behavior, and passing these values along no matter the personal cost. Religion, Dreher says, is the bedrock of resistance because Christianity stands for truth above all else and connects us to something greater, giving meaning to our suffering. Through strong community networks and small groups, we can carry each other's burdens and all get through what's ahead. We're going to suffer, but suffering for truth is a Christian virtue; we Christians see suffering as a gift and a witness. This is why we honor martyrs. Living this way makes us well-equipped to stand for the truth.
This is all true, and good to hear. And yet, it left me sorely disappointed. Dreher offers these stories as a strategy for resisting totalitarianism, but where's the real resistance? Where's the fighting back? He's describing a half-hearted resistance: the refusal to cooperate. That's the first step, sure, but when your enemies are trying to destroy and enslave you, it's not nearly enough. It seems rather like telling a woman being attacked to close her eyes, go to her happy place, and wait for it all to be over. Can we not stand up and fight? Is passive resistance the best Dreher has to offer?
How do we stand for truth?
Live Not by Lies strikes me as a very confused book. Dreher is not pessimistic enough because he doesn't think hard totalitarianism will happen in America. At the same time, he's too pessimistic because he's already accepted that totalitarianism is going to happen here and we can't stop it. Dreher sounds like a man who has already given up: the best we can hope for is to survive and have our children live to see a better world so they can rebuild with the values we instill. His book is filled with stories of those who survived (or died nobly) under hard totalitarianism, but he gives no thought to how to adapt or apply these lessons to soft totalitarianism—even though that's what he thinks we will face. There are mixed messages here.
Perhaps because he dismisses the possibility of hard totalitarianism, Dreher excludes any talk of armed resistance. If hard totalitarianism doesn't happen here, it will be because we actively fight it off, not because we're special and immune. Surely there will come a time for armed resistance sometime between now and the gulags. When is that time? Perhaps the most distinct part of American culture is the extent to which our citizens are armed. We have more civilian-owned guns than we have citizens! We also have a much larger landmass than the Soviet-occupied countries that Dreher draws examples from. Surely these two factors will play a major role! This is a glaring oversight in Dreher's book—he warns of coming totalitarianism with little discussion of what makes America unique (beyond our individualistic culture), and how that factors in. I'd be much more interested to hear about how we can use our unique advantages to stem the tide of rising communist totalitarianism than stories about how Europeans kept their culture alive by surviving it.
The question Can we stop the rise of totalitarianism in America from happening at all? is a much more intriguing question than whether we could survive. Can we take back our institutions? Can we fight successfully as a minority in the culture war? Other groups in history have been quite successful standing for their own interests despite being small minorities. How did they do it? Can we learn from them? There's an opportunity for a strategic vision here that Dreher completely ignores. He assumes that being a minority in the culture war means certain defeat and persecution, but I'm not convinced of that. I think we still have options.
Dreher's central theme is that we should not live by lies, but stand for truth. He obviously sees lies being pushed on Americans today, providing the warning and forming the basis upon which this totalitarianism will develop. And yet... which lies? You'd think a book like this would name the specific lies that are being pushed and accepted. After all, how can we resist the lies and stand for truth without first pointing out what the lies are? Was he afraid of the backlash? Afraid he wouldn't sell as many copies? I have a pretty good guess which lies he has in mind, but it's still disappointing to find them omitted. Perhaps he doesn't think his audience is ready to hear everything he wants to say, and will publish a yet more dire book in a few years. I fear by then it will be truly too late to stem the tide.
Live Not by Lies provides a lot to think about, but at least to me, the book is far more interesting for what it doesn't say.