Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents
“The main warning of Dreher’s insightful and provocative book is that totalitarianism can happen here—in the United States and the West.”
Whittaker Chambers in the introduction to his remarkable book Witness (1952) described the struggle between the West and communism as a conflict of faiths, a conflict of visions. Communism, he wrote, is “man’s second oldest faith.” “It’s promise,” he explained, “was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: ‘Ye shall be as gods.’”
Chambers saw himself as a witness for what he believed was the only answer to the communist challenge: “Faith in God.” In Chambers’ day, the West was fighting the “hard totalitarianism” of the Soviet Empire. Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative and the author of the new book Live Not by Lies, is, like Chambers, a Christian traditionalist who believes the West today needs to prepare itself to combat the forces of what he calls “soft totalitarianism.”
In Dreher’s view, “soft totalitarianism” is the progressive utopian vision that compels Western elites and elite institutions “to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice.” “Under the guise of ‘diversity,’ ‘inclusivity,’ ‘equity,’ and other egalitarian jargon,” he writes, “the Left creates powerful mechanisms for controlling thought and discourse and marginalizes dissenters as evil.”
One principal feature of the rise of soft totalitarianism is the “ideology of social justice.” Social justice warriors, Dreher explains, dominate academia, the media, the corporate world and other institutions. They demand “allegiance to a set of progressive beliefs,” including support for gay marriage, transgenderism, LBGTQ+ rights, and the need to eradicate “systemic racism” and “white privilege” from our society.
For today’s social justice warriors, it is not enough to passively accept or remain silent about their agenda; you must affirmatively embrace it or suffer the consequences, which can include ruined reputations, ended careers, social stigmatization, and worse.
The other principal feature of today’s soft totalitarianism, Dreher writes, is the ubiquity of “surveillance technology,” which enables “woke capitalists” (and possibly governments) to surveil your every move, learn all of your habits, discover your likes and dislikes, and to amass all kinds of personal data. And the digital companies are increasingly run by culturally progressive elites.
The greatest danger for the West, Dreher believes, is the merging of soft totalitarianism and political power in a “total surveillance state,” like Communist China. “China today proves,” Dreher writes, “that it is possible to have a wealthy, modern society and still be totalitarian.” He describes how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses the tools of surveillance to calculate and maintain a “social credit system, which determines who is allowed to buy, sell, and travel, based on their social behavior.”
The CCP is using artificial intelligence and gathering digital data to “create a state apparatus that not only monitors all citizens constantly but also can compel them to behave in ways the state demands.” China combines the worst of the worlds described by George Orwell in 1984 and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World.
The main warning of Dreher’s insightful and provocative book is that totalitarianism can happen here—in the United States and the West. The West today, he writes, is “living under decadent, pre-totalitarian conditions.” Our elites, he continues, “are under the sway of a left-wing political cult built around social justice . . . a militantly illiberal ideology that shares alarming commonalities with Bolshevism.” “We are being conditioned,” Dreher warns, “to surrender privacy and political liberties for the sake of comfort, convenience, and artificially imposed social harmony.”
What is to be done? The title of Dreher’s book is taken from Soviet dissident and writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s message to the Russian people upon his forced exile from the Soviet Union in 1974. The Soviet totalitarian system, Solzhenitsyn said, was founded on and is supported by lies. He urged his countrymen to “never knowingly support lies,” even if they lacked the strength to overtly oppose communism.
“Live not by lies” is the message conveyed to Dreher by the numerous “witnesses” from communist totalitarian rule that he writes about or interviewed for the book. It is truth, he writes, that defeats evil. It was truth told by the courageous dissidents of the Soviet Empire—Solzhenitsyn, Pope John Paul II, Vaclav Havel, Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, Lech Walesa, Fr. Kirill Kaleda, Alexander Ogorodnikov, Vaclav Benda, Silvester Krcmery, Fr. Tomislav Kolakovic, and many others—that helped bring down the Soviet Empire. Their stories are inspirational.
In practice, Dreher writes, “live not by lies” requires cultivating cultural memory, reinvigorating the traditional family, and forming and supporting intermediate institutions that stand between the state and the individual.
Above all, “live not by lies” requires recognizing that religion is the “bedrock” of the resistance to the totalitarian temptation—not the “feel good” religion of modernity, but the traditional religion that rejects cultural hedonism, nihilism, and the false gods of science and reason, and instead looks to sacred, transcendent values and accepts suffering and sacrifice; an otherworldly religion that rejects the progressive search for an earthly paradise.
Whittaker Chambers once wrote that when he broke with communism and became a Quaker and warrior for the West, he knew he was joining the losing side. Dreher recognizes that the culture war in the West is over—and conservatives and traditional Christians lost. Soft totalitarianism is upon us; Dreher wrote this, after all, for Christian “dissidents.” He noted that one of his Czech émigré friends advised him not to waste time writing this book. “People will have to live through it first,” his friend said, “to understand.” Dreher wrote the book, he says, “for the sake of his children and mine,” and to prove his friend wrong.