“A totalitarian state,” writes Rod Dreher, “is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is” (pp. 7-8). He notes that this should not be confused with an authoritarian state, which “is mere dictatorship” (7). Totalitarian states are driven by ideologies under which reality itself must conform. The thesis of Live Not by Lies is that 21st Century United States is looking remarkably like the pre-totalitarian cultures of Eastern Europe before their plunge into communism.
If that sounds rather doom and gloom, that’s largely the point. Dreher states that he was inspired to write the book after speaking with survivors of communism in Eastern Europe and hearing that their concern with how events seem to be replaying here in the West. The various interviews that Dreher conducted for writing certainly lend weight to the author’s argument. Even a historian who draws parallels between periods of time is not quite as convincing as someone who has witnessed the parallels firsthand, and Dreher attempts to establish his book a the channel through which their warnings can be heard.
While few today would argue that the West is in a good place, most will listen to the tales of terror under communism and conclude that such atrocities could never happen here. That incredulity is the prime bubble that Dreher seeks to burst. And perhaps such a hard totalitarianism may not be immediately before us, but he argues that a soft totalitarianism is already taking root.
What is soft totalitarianism, you ask?
Dreher notes that it is a totalitarianism that is not coming via overt violent revolutions nor enforced through gulags and firing squads. Instead, he warns:
Big Business’s embrace and promotion of progressive social values and the emergence of “surveillance capitalism”–the sales-directed mining of individual data gathered by electronic devices–is preparing the West to accept a version of China’s social credit system. We are being conditioned to surrender privacy and political liberties for the sake of comfort, convenience, and an artificially imposed social harmony.93
In other words, similar to Neil Postman’s observations, the dystopia is shaping to be much more like Huxley’s Brave New World than Orwell’s 1984. Indeed, he references Postman as having remarked that “Orwell feared a world in which people would be forbidden to read books. Huxley, by contrast, feared a world in which no one would have to ban books, because no one would want to read them in the first place” (88). This results in a much subtler form of control since it leverages comfort and ease as agents for the removal of freedoms.
This, in a nutshell, is the message of the book’s first half. For the second half, Dreher aims to make good on the subtitle’s promise. Each of these chapters seeks to explain how a totalitarian dissident can live in truth, rejecting the lies upon lies that are required to maintain a false construction of reality. The chapter titles themselves give a picture of the life that Dreher is setting forward: Value Nothing More Than Truth, Cultivate Cultural Memory, Families Are Resistance Cells, Religion, the Bedrock of Resistance, Standing in Solidarity, and The Gift of Suffering. He fills each chapter with stories of resistance under communist totalitarianism and applies their lessons. Most pointedly, he does this under a final section of each chapter called See, Judge, Act, which was the policy that Kolakovic, a priest, taught his Family (as explained in the first chapter).
While Dreher’s writing is clear and compelling, this is the kind of book that lives and dies by its argument. If you disagree with Dreher’s conclusions of what is to come, you will likely find the book a chore to complete, but if you agree with him and share his concern, it will be a difficult book to set aside.
I am in the latter category. Amusing Ourselves to Death (Postman’s aforementioned book) is easily among the most influential books I’ve ever read, and Live Not by Lies is, in some ways, a contemporary successor to Postman’s observations. Safety, health, happiness, and convenience are the grand virtues of our age, and freedom is gladly being laid upon the altar that they may be securely ours. To be honest, I pray that Dreher is wrong. I hope that a spiritual awakening will strike the West with might and power, but short of such a miraculous move of God, our world will only continue to blatantly reject Christianity in favor of the religion of secularism, which is really just a modern rebranding of paganism. And anytime that a lie gains power, the only threat that it cannot tolerate is the truth. As followers of Truth made flesh, we must always be ready to share in the scorn and suffering of our Lord.
I will leave you with one last quotation:
We serve a God who created all things for a purpose. He has shown us in the Bible, especially the Gospels, who we are and how we are to live to be in harmony with the sacred order he created. He does not want admirers; he wants followers. As Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God suffered with humanity to redeem humanity. He calls us to share in his Passion, for our sake and the sake of the world. He promises us nothing but the cross. Not happiness but the joy of blessedness. Not material wealth but richness of spirit. Not sexual freedom as erotic abandon but sexual freedom within loving, mutual sacrificial commitment. Not power but love; not self-sovereignty but obedience.
This is the uncompromising rival religion that the post-Christian world will not long tolerate. If you are not rock solid in your commitment to traditional Christianity, then the world will break you. But if you are, then this is the solid rock upon which the world will be broken.162-163