Live not by lies! But who is doing the lying?
Rod Dreher on the truth about the Left and Right
“Live not by lies!” is both the message and the title of a new book by the influential conservative writer Rod Dreher, who famously urged “the Benedict Option” on Christians – to form thicker bonds of community and relationships in the face of a more hostile society.
The lies Dreher sets out to warn us about are those of the progressive Left. “The Western world has become post-Christian, with large numbers of those born after 1980 rejecting religious faith,” he writes in recently released Live Not By Lies.
“This means that they will not only oppose Christians when we stand up for our principles – in particular, in defence of the traditional family … and of the sanctity of human life – but will not even understand why they should tolerate dissent based in religious belief.”
According to Dreher, this “soft totalitarianism” – as he terms it – inherits it’s authoritarianism from ‘the Old Left’. “You will not be able to predict what will be held against you tomorrow,” Dreher quotes an anonymous Soviet emigre as saying.
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“You have no idea what completely normal thing you do today, or say today, will be used against you to destroy you. This is what people in the Soviet Union saw. We know how this works.”
Dreher draws on the great anti-totalitarian Soviet refusenik Alexandre Solzhenitsyn for the title of his book. “On the eve of his forced exile Solzhenitsyn published a final message to the Russian people titled ‘live not by lies!’ In the essay, Solzhenitsyn challenged the claim that the totalitarian system was so powerful that the ordinary man and woman cannot change it …”
“Said the writer, ‘Our way must be: never knowingly support lies!’ You may not have the strength to stand up in public and say what you really believe, but you can at least refuse to affirm what you do not believe.”
Solzhenitsyn’s defence of the ideal of transcendent truth has a powerful resonance for Christians. Dreher’s book gathers the testimony of many who lived through Soviet totalitarianism as a warning to Western Christians.
The shape-shifting nature of this ‘New Left’ – as pointed out by the anonymous Soviet emigre above – distinguishes it from the old-style Communist regimes. Soviet society did shift, from seeking to abolish the family in setting up the vision of new towns with non-family houses (as in Sotsgorod), to the classic traditional family emphasis of the Stalin era, including the punishment of homosexuals. But it was a relatively stable ideology, complete with the ideological police to keep it that way.
Here’s how Dreher describes the new hegemony: “In classic Marxism, the bourgeoisie are the oppressor and the proletariat are the oppressed. In the [present-day] cult of social justice, the oppressors are generally white, male, heterosexual, and Christian. The oppressed are racial minorities, women, sexual minorities and religious minorities. (Curiously, the poor are relatively low on the hierarchy of oppression. For example, a white Pentecostal man living on disability in a trailer park is an oppressor; a black lesbian Ivy League professor is oppressed.)”
“Justice is not a matter of working out what is rightly die to an individual per se, but what is due to an individual as the bearer of a group identity.”
This is a blunt caricature of intersectionalism – the linking of oppressed groups into a resistance – but it is true that there is an unstable set of relationships within identity politics.
In light of recent events, Dreher has found some more lies that we should not live by.
And as Christian scholar John Stackhouse discusses, there is a fundamental contradiction between post-modernism, the source and the erection of a giant meta-narrative of the oppressed. (His five part series is worth reading in full.)
Stackhouse’s suggestion is that Christians will find it worthwhile to take note of parts of what is put forward by advocates of both post-modernism and social justice – while standing firmly on the word of God.
In light of recent events, Dreher has found some more lies that we should not live by. These are the lies from the Right.
Responding to the Capitol riot in his American Conservative column on January 6, Dreher wrote: “The cult of Wokeness is very real to me, because of what my friends and contacts report. What this cult has done to the minds of those who have given themselves over to it is horrifying.”
“But in the past few days I am realising that I did not know how far the Trump cult had gone into conquering the minds of its adherents. I mentioned that over the weekend, I spoke with a friend who completely believes that the MAGA riot on Capitol Hill was actually an Antifa operation, and, of course, that Trump obviously won the election in a landslide. Nothing anyone can say can falsify what this friend believes …”
“It is clear to me now that the United States is in much deeper trouble than I realised …” – Rod Dreher
Dreher is having to revise his framework – although he believes the Left is more a threat than the Right.
“It is clear to me now that the United States is in much deeper trouble than I realised even a week ago,” Dreher continued in his American Conservative column.
“In Live Not By Lies, I write about how closely the US today resembles Hannah Arendt’s portrait of a pre-totalitarian society. I focused on the ideology that the progressive Left believes, and is putting into place in the institutions where they dominate. The mainstream media don’t see this, because they are part of it. But it’s real, and it’s happening.
“However, as I’ve said here in the past few days, and as I repeat again, the depth of the ideological capture of the Right by a parallel insanity is becoming clearer to me. It troubles me not because I think these people have any chance at taking and exercising power — remember, Trump, for all his bluster, did not change much — but because in their willingness to live by lies, they not only can mount no effective defense against the much more powerful Left, but they also will act to give that same Left — which controls the infrastructure of the United States — reasons to lean more heavily into soft totalitarianism.”
Some Eternity readers will want to reverse the poles, because they see the Right as more of a danger than the Left. This article is not the best place – in what started out as a book review – to resolve that issue if, in fact, it requires resolving.
For most of us, seeking to see reality through the lens of the Bible, we will see fragments of truth and lies in both ideological positions.
For example, it is entirely possible to see both abortion as a tragedy, and inequality on the basis of race as an injustice. It is possible to advocate freedom of religion and believe in anthropogenic climate change. Or not.
For Australians, Dreher’s book contains an echo of the late forties and fifties, an era when the Communist Party of Australia – a mass movement – did battle with the (mostly) lay Catholic “movement”. The struggle took place within the then powerful Australian Union structure.
The hard-fought battles within the unions stymied the Communist Party – at that stage, still a revolutionary party. The rigid Stalinist line of the CPA – which contained spies for the Soviet (as revealed by Mark Aaron’s The Family File, an examination of ASIO files held about his family) – also contributed to the decline of the movement. As did the crushing of the Hungarian uprising and the leak of the Stalinist show trials, both in 1956, for example.
Over-reach by the CPA in fomenting the 1949 strike by Hunter Valley coal miners, and exploiting it to create a revolutionary moment, was one of the parties most notorious defeats.
Today’s Christians – like the Catholic “apostolate” of the 1950s – have the task of positioning ourselves with regard to the ideological movements of the present.
The 2020s look like being an interesting time.
Live Not By Lies: A Manual For Christian Dissidents
Penguin/Random House, 2020.
Available at Koorong.