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When most people hear the word “totalitarianism,” they automatically think of gulags and concentration camps, namely things of the past in the West and in most of the world. However, dissidents of communist countries such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Czesław Miłosz, just to name two, saw that the West also had the potential to build a totalitarian society under the guise of liberal democracy and in the name of liberty.
And one of the voices proclaiming this in the wilderness is Rod Dreher, who in his last book, Live Not By Lies explains why he believes the West is currently living under a soft totalitarian system, different in means from the old totalitarian systems, but similar in spirit, and how to fight back, especially as Christians. Dreher sat down with El American to talk in-depth about Live Not By Lies, gender ideology, Critical Race Theory, and the current state of U.S. politics. The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Live Not By Lies begins with a great Solzhenitsyn quote. “Of course, there always is this fallacious belief: It would not be the same here; here, such things are impossible.” This reminds me of something that people used to say 10 or 15 years ago here in Venezuela, “We’re not Cuba. Things won’t be like that here, etc.” But what do you say to those who believe this kind of stuff that won’t happen in America or say when we warn them that it is just a slippery slope or a conspiracy theory?
Pay attention to history. There’s this book I talk about in Live not by Lies, by the Polish intellectual Czesław Miłosz called The Captive Mind. And Miłosz came to the U.S. from Poland. He defected in the 1950s, and he said that the people of Central Europe woke up one day to realize that the kind of ideas that in the recent past were only spoken of in coffee shops by obscure intellectuals were suddenly ruling their lives.
The kind of things that we think of as impossible under certain conditions could happen at a milder level. Look at what’s going on now with gender ideology. 15-20 years ago in the U.S., if you had said that the LGBT movement was going to get to the place where they are, with teachers teaching little children in school that they can be any gender they want, people would have thought you were, first of all, crazy, and second, they would have accused you of being a bigot trying to scare them into being against gay rights.
Now it’s everywhere, and people are wondering, where did this come from? Well, the seeds were planted over 20 years ago, and now they have grown into this monstrous thing that parents are only just now waking up to. Anything can happen, especially if you have an entire generation of young people who have been conditioned by the educational establishment and the media into leftism.
I was recently in Budapest. I heard a lecture from Eric Kaufmann. The research he had done in the United States showed people over the age of 30, more or less, still believe in old-fashioned liberalism, they believe in free speech and freedom of expression, freedom of religion, etc. But people aged 30 and younger, they don’t believe that at all. They believe in what he calls “cultural socialism,” the idea that there is only one way to think; these young people think that our typical liberties are harmful because they allow bigots and racists and homophobes to gain a space in society, and they want to eliminate that.
In Live Not By Lies, you present a comparison between classical Nazi or Communist totalitarianism and what you call soft totalitarianism, or to put it in literary terms, totalitarianism in the style of 1984 vs. Fahrenheit 451, or Brave New World. Can you please define soft totalitarianism?
That’s such an important question because some of the critics say ‘what do you mean with totalitarianism? Where are the gulags? Where’s the secret police? We don’t have that. Therefore, it’s not totalitarian.’ But I try to explain that authoritarianism is when you have all the political power monopolized by one party or one leader, but nobody cares what you do with the rest of your life. Totalitarianism is a form of authoritarianism, but where everything is made political.
So, there’s no escape from politics. I call it soft totalitarianism because we are experiencing the emergence of this sort of thing where everything has turned political, but it is not being imposed at the point of a gun by the state. It’s actually emerging quite naturally as the illiberal left gains control of every normative institution in American society.
They’ve also captured law, medicine, science, and even the military, and the intelligence services. There’s no institution left in this country, with the exception of political legislatures, that’s not controlled by the left. These people are totally intolerant and they do not believe even dissenters on the left who want to be tolerant should be tolerated because that’s tolerating evil.
But I call it soft because, again, nobody’s doing this at the point of a gun. It’s just happening. When enough elites who control institutions and networks come to agree on the same thing, they don’t need to impose it with a gun. They can just make it happen according to their own policies. Secondly, I call it soft because this is done with the idea of “compassion.” We have to shut down free speech because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of certain protected minorities. But it has become a source of commanding people to be silent for the sake of creating a healthy, peaceful society.
Now that you’re talking about soft totalitarianism, it seems that too many explanations focus on the institutional side of totalitarianism. But Hannah Arendt says that the heart of totalitarianism is the destruction of the private sphere and the will to change human nature. Do you think that the essence of totalitarianism can coexist with a Liberal democracy where there is no political persecution at the level of totalitarian dictatorships?
Yes, it’s happening now. We look to Stalinism for our models but in fact, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is the more accurate model. In Brave New World, people were happy to give their freedom over to the totalitarian state because, in exchange for it, they got taken care of by the state. All their needs are taken care of. They were given drugs to make them happy all the time. They could have all the sex they wanted. Their lives were totally managed to keep themselves entertained. They just didn’t have freedom. And the whole purpose of the totalitarian state in that book was to prevent suffering.
John The Savage is a dissident who lives outside society in Brave New World. He meets Mustapha Mond, who is the world controller for Europe, and Mond doesn’t want to torture him.
Mond just talks with him and says, ‘why don’t you want to live with us? We give you everything you could possibly want.’ And Mond says that what the state gives its people is ‘Christianity without tears’ because everybody is drunk to avoid suffering. And John the Savage says ‘that’s a problem. You people are all too comfortable.’ And John is not willing to surrender his liberty for the sake of comfort.
Well, this is exactly what we’re seeing happening now in the West. Young people are so terrified of discomfort, of anxiety, that they’re happy to surrender their liberties for the sake of having an authoritarian state take care of them and silence everybody around them who makes them feel uncomfortable. And people in the U.S. are starting to internalize this ethic. And that’s all you need for totalitarianism to work.
I remember when I was reporting Live Not by Lies. I was in Prague talking to Kamila Bendová. She and her husband Václav Benda were the only Catholics and the only Conservatives in the inner circle of dissidents led by Václav Havel. Well, Kamila told me that I mustn’t imagine that all the Christians there stood up. Almost every Christian did what everybody else did. They kept their head down. They conformed. They didn’t want trouble.
It’s really hard to find people who are willing to suffer for something and lose something like her husband, who was in prison for four years as a political prisoner. It’s hard to find people who will do that for the sake of liberty and truth.
There are fewer and fewer spaces of life in America where you can escape this stuff and live according to your ideals. Last summer in America, they had a children’s cereal box that had on the side “Choose your pronouns.” Can you imagine little children at breakfast being told by the cereal box to choose their pronouns? It’s almost a joke, but this is what totalitarianism means, where you can’t even sit down and have breakfast without the very basic things about human nature being questioned in the minds of little children.
You mentioned in Live Not By Lies that Philip Rieff predicted that liberalism would cause a cultural revolution based on hedonism and individualism. How has extreme liberalism achieved what communism couldn’t, which is precisely to make people deny basic truths?
Yeah. Philip Rieff was a real prophet. He died, I think, in 2008. But in 1966, as the sexual revolution was just getting started, he wrote a book called The Triumph of the Therapeutic. And he was not a religious person, he was a secular Jew. But what he saw was that at some point in the early 20th century in the West, we stopped believing in religion and as a source of transcendent value; we stopped believing that virtue was the thing that we should collectively be trying to achieve.
And instead, we started to believe that psychological well-being was the goal. And this was a really easy philosophy to sell to people in a consumerist individualistic society like the United States. In the 1960s, the whole idea of Marxist economics was completely discredited in the West, and the left turned instead its revolutionary argument not to change the economic system, but rather to change the culture.
And the way they did this was by talking about individual freedom. Now, most people are in favor of individual freedom, but it wasn’t freedom to become something. It wasn’t freedom to live for virtue. It was freedom to make your own rules up. But when that becomes the thing at issue, then solidarity becomes very difficult to establish.
This goes very well with the prosperous middle-class society where people place personal success and wealth, gaining status, as the highest goals in life. That seemed to work for a long time. But eventually, these people had children who could not accept even the idea that even a happy life has a struggle in it.
You mention cultural memory in Live Not By Lies as a way to fight back against soft and strong totalitarianism, too. While reading the book, I’m always imagining how to apply these ideas to Latin America. So what happens when the cultural memory of your country is actively anti-religious and you’re conservative? Because the ethos of many Latin American countries, such as Mexico, just to name one example, is built upon anti-Catholic ideas. What do you do in that case?
I think the best thing you can do is to dig deeper into alternative histories and form institutions, however small, to educate each other and your children in these histories. We have to reclaim our stories. This is something radical today because in many schools, certainly in universities, they don’t want to teach us at all. They want to forget all of this.
I remember once I gave a lecture about Dante and the Divine Comedy. I wrote a book about it seven years ago, I gave a lecture to an audience about this. And in the Q&A, a young woman stood up and said, ‘Why do you think that Dante is important? What could he possibly have to say to us? He was a privileged white European male.’ And I thought, ‘wait, is this a serious question?’ And I gave her an answer.
But after the talk, a professor came to me and said, that he could tell I was shocked by that question. But this is what they’re all being taught on campus: that there is nothing the past has to teach us because we today are at the pinnacle of human intelligence and achievement. And somebody like Dante can only bring us down. Well, we have to fight. We don’t have to think the past was a golden age where everybody was perfect in order to realize that there are some really great things from our past.
If we allow ideology to make us ashamed of who we are, of our ancestors, and our history, then we have surrendered to these people.
One of the most shocking things in Live Not By Lies is a quote from a man in Budapest who teaches English there. He grew up under communism and raised his kids around the time that communism fell. And he said that the strange thing is capitalism and democracy have erased more cultural memory in his country than even the communists did. And I found that shocking.
And he said that young people became far too interested in living for the moment, for the pleasures of the moment. They didn’t care about history anymore. They only could see the future.
And that reminded me of America. I quote in Live Not By Lies this 26-year-old young woman from California, a college graduate, and she said she’s a Communist. Communist. Why? She goes, ‘oh, isn’t it wonderful to think about a world where all are brothers and nobody has too much.’ The usual Communist propaganda.
The “Imagine” kind of communism.
Yeah, John-Lennonism, not Leninism.
So I said to her ‘what about the Gulags?’ and she had no idea. And the thing is, nobody had told her.
In my country, they’re constantly talking about the Nazis and the Holocaust, and that’s important. We have to remember that. But since the fall of communism, there’s been nothing but silence about the crimes of the communists. And that’s why you can look at all these young people today, 30 years after the end of European communism, and they think, ‘oh, yeah, communism is a great idea.’ and I think it’s no surprise.
You may remember the phrase of Sir Roger Scruton that says that conservatism is more of an instinct than an idea, and I’d add that it’s an instinct of gratitude for the past.
But you mentioned in Live Not By Lies that the essence of modernity and perhaps one of its most totalitarian elements is the denial of collective stories, habits, or beliefs; the denial of the idea that the past can teach us something about ourselves, that there are no unified myths and stories beyond the ones that we invent ourselves. But doesn’t progressivism also rely on its own myths like the myth of progress, self-invention, structural racism, and oppression everywhere, among others?
The greatest myth of progressivism is the myth that we necessarily make progress in history. We would be going towards some glorious future if we can only shake off the chains of the past—usually religion or hierarchy; things that are a normal part of every human society. Progressives believe that these are all invented by human beings and that the only purpose they serve is to oppress the weak and keep us from finding utopia.
I remember reading a big story in the New York Times Magazine — the Pravda of the American left — when gender transition for teenagers was just getting started. And the reporter went to a clinic and they talked to some young woman who worked in the clinic and she said, ‘just think about it. In the future, we can have 500 genders. You’ll be free to choose whatever you want and then think how happy we’re going to be.’ That’s insane. But this is what progressivism says: that the only thing keeping us from being happy and at peace is the oppressive institutions of the past.
That’s a very perverted idea of freedom, because it’s not freedom for excellence, for choosing the best, but the mere freedom of choosing. And the fact that you have more elections means for them that you have more freedom.
Yeah, you have more and more choice, but nobody knows what to choose. People don’t know what to do. They get scared.
It’s like being Venezuelan and going to an American supermarket for the first time a few years ago. It was like heaven and an incredibly anxious experience at the same time.
Exactly. The anxiety is an important part of it, because if you’re told you can choose whatever you want, but you don’t know what to choose, you’ve been given no criteria on how to choose. You’ve got to look somewhere for some sense of authority to tell you how to choose. And this is why this totalitarian idea has taken hold among young people, especially because they don’t know what to do with freedom. They’re afraid of it, and they demand it at the same time. So it’s a real paradox, but this is what is driving it. And they don’t want to be told that their choices are wrong.
And sometimes, as you mentioned in Live Not By Lies with the example of Poland or more recently with the 1619 Project of The New York Times, totalitarianism seeks to eliminate or tarnish the history and culture of a country.
But what happens when instead of eliminating the history, they pervert it or fit it within their narrative as it has happened in Venezuela? Just to name one example, we had this classic idea of Simon Bolivar, and the government has invented that Bolivar was a socialist, that Bolivar looked Indigenous. So what to do when they’re not wiping out the history but just perverting it or making it fit into the left-wing or progressive narrative?
You bet, next year he’s going to be transgender. Simon Bolivar, the first transgender [laughter]. When they can’t overturn a memory, a cultural myth or an archetype, they try to make it work for them.
Of course, we can’t imagine that history was something delivered in stone. Every generation changes its view on history. My grandparents’ generation grew up thinking that all of the Confederate generals were right. They lost the Civil War, but they were on the right side. Well, now nobody thinks that, and nobody should think that because they were fighting to preserve slavery.
So, standards of history do change. But we should always be suspicious and critical of those who tried to reinterpret history. For example, the 1619 Project we talked about in which The New York Times and now a lot of the educational elites are trying to rewrite the history of the United States to focus on slavery.
First of all, slavery is taught all the time. But if you listen to the 1619 ideologues, they would make you think that slavery is something we ignore. But the reason they’re doing this is really important. They’re claiming that the real founding date of the U.S. is not 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, but 1619 when the first African slave was brought to North America.
The implication of all this is that they look to delegitimize the entire constitutional order of this country. You had even left-wing historians saying, ‘come on, the 1619 Project is just not true.’ But they don’t care if it’s true or not. They’re making up facts to achieve a political end. And that end is to make people hate the founding of the United States, so they can overthrow the existing order and set up something Marxist.
But people today in America, the common people, they don’t see that. All they see is that if you object to it then you don’t think people should learn about slavery? Of course, people should learn about slavery. But what’s happening here is the appropriation by ideologues of facts and stories about American history.
This is the fault of my generation and the generation before us, my parent’s generation, for not insisting on strong educational standards, on thinking that ‘everything is good here in America. Everything will always be good here in America. We’re America, we are blessed by God. We don’t have to worry about it. This sort of thing only happens to other countries and other people.’ Well, guess what? The revolution is here today.
Your previous book, The Benedict Option, is quite famous for proposing that Christian communities somewhat apart from the secular world. And it’s also one of the strategies you propose in Live Not By Lies. Certainly, in the old totalitarianism creating these enclosed communities was pretty much a matter of life and death. But now, facing this soft totalitarianism, shouldn’t we seek to become the yeast of the dough and try to transform the world from within instead of isolating ourselves from it?
A lot of people who haven’t read Live Not by Lies think that I’m saying we have to head for the hills and hide. Pope Francis has said that we have to go to the margins to reach people with the Gospel. And I agree with him on that. The problem is you can’t give people what you don’t have. In the United States, not only among Catholics, but among all Christians, the level of knowledge of what Christianity teaches, what it is, and what it demands of us, is very low.
I remember talking to a professor at a conservative evangelical college, and he said, ‘Rod, 99% of these students come here and they’ve been educated or formed as Christians by youth group programs at their home Church. And these never give any doctrine. They never give any real formation. It’s all emotion. It’s all ‘Jesus is my best friend. Jesus is my buddy.”
What Bishop Robert Barron calls “dumbed-down Christianity.”
Exactly, it’s dumbed-down. It’s shallow, and they’re not prepared for the world. So, when they go into the world and the world says ‘what you Christians believe is mean, it’s bigoted,’ they collapse.
There’s this community that I talked about in The Benedict Option, that is really an ideal community for me. They are these Catholics in Italy who call themselves the Tipi Loschi, which is a slang word in Italian that roughly means ‘the usual suspects’ or ‘the wise guys.’
They all go to their parishes, but they have built a clubhouse for themselves. It’s a community of families who really want to be Catholic. They’re very Orthodox in their Catholicism, but they’re joyful. They come together to give their children the kind of education and the faith that they can’t get in parishes because most parishes in Italy are like in America, they want to just dumb down everything, don’t cause offense, and raise good conforming, middle-class Italians.
But the Tipi Loschi are different. They take their children on pilgrimages. They do charitable work in the community, charitable work. They have their own school called the Scuola GK Chesterton, and things like that. So they’re in the world, in their town, but they can go into the world to be faithful Catholic Christians because they also spend so much time together learning what it means to be a faithful Christian.
I tell you, when I go there, I think I want what they have because they’re so joyful. The leader is a guy named Marco Sermarini. He’s a lawyer in town, Just one of the happiest, most faithful Christians you could hope to be. He’s really my hero.
And I said, Marco, “how are you going to keep your kids here?” The city is called San Benedetto del Tronto. It’s only 50,000 people. He said, “we know that they have the freedom to go anywhere they want, and if they want to succeed in the world, make a lot of money. They’ll go to Rome or Milano or Perugia. What we hope to show them is that there is no substitute for the joy of Catholic life in community. So, they will choose to be here because we’ve shown them something really good and true and beautiful.”
I think that’s the only hope for us Christians. They’re in the world, but they figured out a way. They have the secret. They figured out a way to be faithfully Christian while living in the world Because they know who they are. When you meet these people, they’re so happy and they’re not paranoid and conspiratorial, but they’re happy because they know Jesus Christ. And they know him in the Catholic faith because their parents cared enough to form them that way and their community formed them that way.
Edgar is political scientist and philosopher. He defends the Catholic intellectual tradition. Edgar writes about religion, ideology, culture, US politics, abortion, and the Supreme Court. Twitter: @edgarjbb_ // Edgar es politólogo y filósofo. Defiende la tradición intelectual católica. Edgar escribe sobre religión, ideología, cultura, política doméstica, aborto y la Corte Suprema. Twitter: @edgarjbb_