What does the classical epic of Roman grandeur and imperial design have to say to Americans in 2021? On the subject of...
Hurricanes and Soft Totalitarianism
Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents
By Rod Dreher
I doubt I am the only one who has mixed feelings about Rod Dreher’s project. As his longtime readers know, Dreher is by turns provocateur and prophet. He is relentless in his criticism of the contemporary social justice and sexual liberation movements that continue to grow and morph around us. He writes as an Orthodox Christian and a social conservative. The “Benedict Option” is his proposal for preserving conservative and religious values in the face of an overwhelmingly hostile culture.
I share Dreher’s views about the degradation of contemporary social mores and the overextension of diversity culture. Like him, I think radical progressivism is a threat to the traditional family, higher education, and religious orthodoxy. Sometimes I cheer him for calling out the latest example of progressive overreach.
I also count Rod as a friend. We both grew up in south Louisiana, in and near Baton Rouge, where we have weathered our fair share of storms blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico. And I wonder if there isn’t something in him that resonates deeply with Walker Percy’s theory about hurricanes: the prospect of a disaster focuses the will in a way nothing else does, giving immediate meaning to life and even producing a certain kind of happiness.
As Percy wrote in Lancelot: “I knew a married couple once who were bored with life, disliked each other, hated their own lives, and were generally miserable—except during hurricanes. They sat in their house at Pass Christian, put a bottle of whiskey between them, felt a surge of happiness, were able to speak frankly and cheerfully to each other, laugh and joke, drink, even make love.” Rod himself admits that he is a “compulsive catastrophist,” and he does seem to take joy in predicting and chronicling the decline of the West.
It is only a certain kind of joy, though. Dreher is not actually happy about the state of Western culture. But he taps into a deep human desire to take dramatic, purposeful action in the face of emergency. Make a statement! Opt out! Change your life! Join a commune or monastery—go off the grid!
I understand and sometimes feel the appeal of this countercultural strategy. Yet I’m not sure it is precisely the right approach, or even the authentically conservative one, to the crises of the moment. Better: I think Dreher is correct about the need to live according to principle, but I would modulate and temper his response to the cultural problems we face. Maybe liberalism hasn’t completely “failed,” as Patrick Deneen has contended.
Dreher’s current project extends and in some ways radicalizes his argument about the Benedict Option. Dreher now identifies the cultural crisis as the rise of “soft totalitarianism” in America. Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents takes its title from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 essay, written immediately before he was arrested and deported to the West, calling for resistance to the lies of the Soviet regime. In like manner, writes Dreher, American conservative Christians must resist the social justice totalitarianism by not capitulating to the demands of woke progressivism.
This will probably cause us pain and suffering. Such suffering is unlikely to be physical, as in the Soviet Union. But it may consist of job loss, financial insecurity, obstacles to career advancement. We might even be “canceled”—that is, punished with social ostracism. Like Vaclav Havel’s fictional greengrocer, who refuses to display communist slogans in his window, Dreher maintains that we must resist pressure to capitulate on pronoun usage and other demands of the diversity enforcers. Because they wield growing power, living in truth probably requires “accepting a life outside the mainstream, courageously defending the truth, and being willing to endure the consequences.”
The second half of the book offers a plan for doing this. Living in truth will require “authentic spiritual leadership—clerical, lay, or both.” A dissident must “form small cells of fellow believers with whom she [sic] can pray, sing, study Scripture, and read other books important to their mission. With her cell, the dissident discusses the issues and challenges facing them as Christians, especially challenges to their liberties.” In other words, the Benedict Option. Additional steps that encourage resistance to soft totalitarianism include speaking freely and prudently, telling the truth, cultivating historical memory, supporting families, organizing with like-minded others, and accepting suffering as a gift.
There is much of interest in this book, not least the parallels Dreher draws between Russia prior to the 1917 Revolution and America in 2020. Taking inspiration from Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism, he observes that social conditions then were much like those today. People, and especially the young, felt atomized and lonely; they had lost faith in institutions and hierarchy; they wished to transgress and destroy; and they were vulnerable to propaganda. Traditional religious faith had waned.
Because of all these factors, early twentieth-century Russians were primed to embrace Marxism as a “political religion” in much the same way that Millennials and Generation Z are now embracing progressivism, socialism, and anti-racism in quasi-religious terms. Many smart commentators have noted this phenomenon, and it is worth exploring the observations of Josh Mitchell, Molly McGrath, David French, and Andrew Sullivan, among others.
But our predicament should not come as a surprise. Those of us who are followers of Eric Voegelin know that the “temptation to fall from uncertain truth to certain untruth” is a constant in human existence. As religion declines, people seek a place to direct their energies. The moral imperatives of progressivism offer just such a place. Dreher is right to observe that Christians must recognize that “they aren’t resisting a different politics but rather what is effectively a rival religion.” This explains why progressives value free speech so much less than do conservatives: dissenting opinions are not valid alternative views but a kind of sacrilege.
Dreher is also right to point out the corruptions of language we see all around us. Perhaps this is worst on college campuses, where superficially appealing terms like diversity do not encompass intellectual or religious diversity but only the currently favored categories of race, sexual identity, and gender. My current favorite is the Orwellian phrase “cultural humility.” Rather than genuine respect for cultural achievements—including our own—it actually expresses a neo-Marxist revolution against Western civilization.
To support his point about language, Dreher quotes a professor who recalls his life under communism: “The people who lived only within such a linguistic sphere, who didn’t know any other way to speak, they could really start believing in this way of using words. If a word carries with it negative baggage, it becomes impossible to have a discussion about the phenomenon.” This may seem to be the case at present, but we must try to have discussions anyway. At the very least, we must clarify the meaning of terms and call out their false or misleading implications.
Mocking the Woke
One of my reservations about Dreher’s project, then, is not that he has the diagnosis wrong. Rather, it is that in pointing out the corruptions of progressivism he is oversimplifying a complex phenomenon. There are multiple reasons, some legitimate, that young people are drawn to radical progressivism. “Wokeness” is easy to mock, but it must also be understood from the point of view of its proponents, even if they do not try very hard (or at all) to understand conservatives.
Precisely because wokeness is so easy to mock, Dreher’s response often has a reactionary character. He writes little about what is actually good in modern life and too much about its negative excesses. “To be modern is to be free to choose,” Dreher opines. “What is chosen does not matter; the meaning is in the choice itself. There is no sacred order, no other world, no fixed virtues and permanent truths. There is only here and now and the eternal flame of human desire. Volo ergo sum—I want, therefore I am.”
Now, we all recognize this sentiment. It is a description of what Dreher likes to call “liquid modernity,” borrowing a term from sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. But modernity is not only about the unfettered exercise of will and desire. All of us (even the most radical progressives) are fettered and disciplined because we seek goods that constrain us by definition: marriage, work, child-rearing, excellence at an instrument, craft, or sport.
And what we choose matters a great deal. Our actions are always judged by the standards of better and worse, success and failure, praise and blame. If there now exist multiple paths to personal fulfillment, something Dreher at times seems to lament, who among us is ready to give up our own capacity to determine the life we think best for ourselves and our family? It is precisely the liberal regime that allows conservative Christians to live and worship together, homeschoolers to educate their own children, classical schools to do the work of intellectual and cultural preservation.
There are ways of thinking about individuality and choice that are not so dark and that see the project of self-determination as a great gift. The task of conservatives, as I understand it, is to encourage individuality and choice within established traditions of life and conduct. Dreher rightly points out that this is difficult and that there are powerful forces within modernity that aim at diluting or eliminating all traditions. But here is the real task for conservatives: to infiltrate institutions or establish new ones; to serve as models for the young, in public and private life; to form stable families; to engage in religious life with joy; to question the world’s standards of value and to establish our own alternatives. I see all this taking place right now.
The truth is, I wonder how much I differ from Rod Dreher. Our real differences may be more matters of disposition and temperament than substance. He isn’t wrong that the cultural situation of conservative Christians is, in one sense, a lost cause. With a few notable exceptions, higher education has embraced an Orwellian social justice regime that allows for little dissent. Popular culture frequently appears debased—crude, ugly, and vulgar. There is much to lament. Sometimes the defeats are painful, and there are nights I fold laundry and say to myself, Maybe Rod Dreher has it right.
And yet: we possess a tradition of notable splendor and depth that has confronted dark times before. The resources for revitalization lie within this tradition, not in a rejection of it, as the “post-liberal” and “integralist” movements advocate. Sometimes I’m persuaded by the emergency preparedness that Dreher advocates—get all your supplies before the storm hits! But I think it benefits us most to take the long view. We must continue to do all the things that are worthwhile, not expecting to convert progressives or to win dramatic cultural victories. We have already lost many battles, at least for the time being.
But nobody is preventing us from doing what we know to be good. As Leo Strauss wrote in his essay about liberal education: “We cannot forget the obvious fact that by giving freedom to all, democracy also gives freedom to those who care for human excellence. No one prevents us from cultivating our garden or from setting up outposts which may come to be regarded by many citizens as salutary to the republic and as deserving of giving to it its tone.” And it will probably benefit us most of all to think of doing this daily work of maintenance and preservation instead of allowing ourselves the pleasure of anger, or thinking that we must have a hurricane to focus our minds and steel our hearts against those who are not our friends.
Elizabeth Corey is an associate professor of political science in the Honors College at Baylor University.
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