Living In Truth Part 2

By W. David Montgomery

The Emerging Soft Totalitarianism

In his book Live Not By Lies, Rod Dreher takes Timur Kuran’s observations about preference falsification a step further. Kumar cited the unexpected liberation of Eastern Europe from communism as an example of a benign “availability cascade” that suddenly and unexpectedly enabled the vast majority that hated communism to make their true preferences known. Dreher also bases his observations on the experience of Eastern Europe, using a number of interviews with former dissidents to understand how they were able to continue “living in truth” so that the benign availability cascade could happen.

Dreher sees an availability cascade operating in the United States in a less benign direction, as the Democratic party, media, corporations and communities have adopted the language and beliefs of progressive activists. His thesis is that they are creating a system of what he calls “soft totalitarianism,” in comparison to the “hard” totalitarianism of the Nazis and Soviets. They are accomplishing this by using their power over individuals’ communications, livelihood and reputation to narrow the bounds of acceptable thought and speech to the point that only beliefs endorsed by the progressive left are allowed.

According to Dreher, this “[soft] totalitarianism demands allegiance to a set of progressive beliefs, many of which are incompatible with logic…. Compliance is forced less by the state than by elites who form public opinion, and by private corporations that, thanks to technology, control our lives far more than we would like to admit.” He argues that our ability as a nation to resist these pressures has been eroded by addiction to electronic media, loss of community and pursuit of self-gratification. Moreover, “the consequences for violating the new taboos are extreme, including losing your livelihood and having your reputation ruined forever.”

Dreher explains his fears about emerging soft totalitarianism by recounting the reactions of former dissidents and political prisoners in Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia to current events. He begins with an ominous quotation from Solzhenitsyn:

There always is this fallacious belief: “It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.” Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.

Dreher quotes the reactions of a Czechoslovak immigrant and political prisoner to physical attacks on businesses that refused to give in to demands of gender activists. These brought back memories of how submission to communist rule was compelled in the same way; she was worried by the similar way that liberal elites in communist countries and in America were “untroubled by the assault.”

She and other emigres felt that in the United States

Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based on defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups…. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice….

Dreher finds support for this view from the conservative British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton: “any thought or behavior that can be identified as excluding members of groups favored by the Left is subject to harsh condemnation. This ‘official doctrine’ is not imposed from above by the regime but rather arises by left-wing consensus from below, along with severe enforcement in the form of witch-hunting and scapegoating.”

The direst development, one that turns the inconvenience of social ostracism into an existential threat to livelihood and reputation, is the rise of what Dreher calls “woke capitalism.” He writes that “The embrace of aggressive social progressivism by Big Business is one of the most underappreciated stories of the last two decades. Critics call it ‘woke capitalism,’ a snarky theft of the left-wing slang term indicating progressive enlightenment. Woke capitalism is now the most transformative agent within the religion of social justice….”

Woke capitalism is buttressed by the success of social progressives in taking over the fastest expanding department in corporate America – Human Resources (HR). Graduates of liberal arts programs whose inculcation in revisionist history and academic victimology make them unsuited for productive work are finding abundant employment opportunities in expanding HR departments, which Heather MacDonald described in her 2018 book The Diversity Delusion as “a social justice commissariat.”

One example of how “Big Business has moved steadily leftward on social issues” is the attack by leaders of corporations like Apple, Salesforce, Eli Lilly, and others on a religious freedom bill based by Indiana in 2015. This bill would have given some protection to businesses sued for antigay discrimination. Since then, lobbyists for national and international corporations have leaned heavily on state governments to pass pro-LGBT legislation and to resist religious liberty laws.

The imposition of progressive consciousness on employees may be the most shameful feature of soft totalitarianism. Dreher describes the plight of

an entry-level worker at a Fortune 500 firm, or an untenured university lecturer, suffering through the hundredth workshop on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and doing their very best not to be suspected of dissent…. I often hear stories from … white-collar professionals like academics, doctors, lawyers, engineers—who live closeted lives as religious or social conservatives. They know that to dissent from the progressive regime in the workplace, or even to be suspected of dissent, would likely mean burning their careers at the stake.

The activists of Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ propagandists, and rioting youngsters are relentless. Dreher writes that

[Their] gospel … depends on awakening and inspiring hatred in the hearts of those it wishes to induce into revolutionary consciousness. This is why it matters immensely that they have established their base within universities, where they can indoctrinate in spiteful ideology those who will be going out to work in society’s institutions.

We can see this in the Talbot Boys controversy and its explicit connection to the Black Lives Matter agenda. In Talbot County, Richard Potter of the NAACP, Corey Pack in the County Council and his daughter are exponents of that “spiteful ideology,” and the Democrats who seem likely to take power nationally range from tolerating to actively promoting it.

Social Credit

Dangerous pressure to conform arises from the increasing ability of American corporations to observe the most intimate details of our lives and to impose their will upon us by means of censorship and even deprivation of access to credit and markets.

The model for this kind of totalitarianism is the social credit system in China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses its universal surveillance system to observe not only activity of citizens on the internet but also their social activities, movements and associations. Higher social credit scores are based on conformity to the Party’s wishes, and give access to better shopping, travel opportunities, job advancement and other valued perks in a consumer society.

Dreher reminds us that “[i]n recent years, the most obvious interventions have come from social media companies deplatforming users for violating terms of service….” Since the first installment of this column, Twitter did just this to the New York Post and the White House to prevent dissemination of a story about the Biden “family business.” With the information that corporations are now “hoovering up” from our online activities, Dreher suggests it will be easy for corporations to identify dissidents from the progressive agenda, even if they have not intentionally said one word publicly.

Private entities that now control access to money and markets are already using their ability to redline individuals, churches, and other organizations they deem to be bad social actors. Firearms manufacturers have had their bank accounts cancelled, and with the ubiquity of credit card and internet transactions, denying access to those instruments is close to a death sentence. In other words, dissidents from the soft totalitarianism will face all the consequences the greengrocer in Vaclav Havel’s parable suffered.

Several trends are making Americans frighteningly vulnerable to these growing pressures to conform to progressive ideology and praxis. Two that Dreher mentions are destruction of cultural memory and the loss of community.

Cultural memory

Preservation of cultural memory was an important way that peoples subjected by communist regimes were able to resist the pressure to pretend to believe and ultimately give in to communist lies. Remembering the real-life stories of national heroes who bore witness to the truth under communist rule can help future generations to resist the softer tyranny now overtaking the West. Dreher writes that “Totalitarians, both soft and hard, know this, which is why they exert such effort to control the common narrative.”

This is why the rewriting of history and destruction of monuments that provide a reference point for understanding how the American nation was formed are high priorities for the new totalitarians, and so critical to resist. Otherwise, the availability cascade created by repetition in media and schools of the falsified history of the 1619 project and the myths of systemic racism peddled by the progressives will take over. According to Dreher, “The persistence of cultural memory was the greatest weapon the Poles had to resist Nazi totalitarianism, and the Soviet kind, which seized the nation in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat.”

Society as a whole may already have lost much of that memory. Dreher observes “It’s telling that, in the year of 2019, the notion that one purpose of civics education might be to convince students that there is in fact something worthwhile in our political system seems to strike many members of elite institutions as faintly bizarre.”

Lack of Community

The disappearance of community and family ties makes 2020 Americans particularly susceptible to pressure to falsify and eventually abandon the beliefs that made us a nation. Dreher paints a familiar picture of this loss:

Americans attend fewer club meetings, have fewer dinner parties, eat dinner together as a family less, and are much less connected to their neighbors.… They spend much more time alone watching television or cocooning on the internet.

As David Brooks put it, “Over the past 60 years, we have given up on the Rotary Club and the American Legion and other civic organizations and replaced them with Twitter and Instagram. Ultimately, our ability to rebuild trust depends on our ability to join and stick to organizations.”

The coronavirus lockdowns have made this far worse, by increasing the isolation and reliance on social media that empowers totalitarianism. The loosening of family ties and of traditional commitments to marriage has left many isolated Americans without even the refuge in the home that anti-communist dissidents had.

Resistance

Dreher believes that the history of the liberation of Eastern Europe provides a guide for how to resist the soft totalitarianism of media and woke capitalism. He quotes Sir Roger Scruton, who helped Czech allies maintain their intellectual resistance, on the importance of “creating and committing to small groups—not just church communities, but clubs, singing groups, sports societies, and so forth…. We were saved by small communities.” It was in families and these small groups that cultural memory was preserved behind the Iron Curtain and dissidents found the support that prepared them to face the secret police.

Dreher issues a call to action: “the dictatorship of thought and word under construction by progressives is a regime based on lies and propaganda…. [They] corrupt one’s ability to think clearly about reality. Once you perceive how the system runs on lies, stand as firmly as you can on what you know to be true and real when confronted by those lies….”

That resistance to soft totalitarianism will not be easy. All of us who reject the progressive world view and agenda must be explicit and outspoken about our beliefs in order to resist this soft totalitarianism. We need not go out of our way to be offensive by bringing up controversial issues in every family or social gathering, but we must not shrink from stating our beliefs when others state theirs.

If we do this, we must “prepare ourselves to accept pain and loss….” If that means, in the first instance, that we will suffer some degree of ostracism, we must use that outcome to become stronger. We can also take it as a reminder to make ourselves part of communities that support each other in life’s trials and in speaking the truth. We will need this support to make the sacrifices and bear the suffering that refusing to accept lies, white guilt and perverted norms of behavior will entail when soft totalitarianism takes over.

Dreher once wrote about The Benedict Option, recommending that Christians form small intentional communities, like Amy Coney Barrett’s, to survive soft totalitarianism. His hope was that those communities would survive and eventually spark a new cascade to return to an open and tolerant society – as they did in Eastern Europe and Russia. Now he writes that

To recognize the value in suffering is to rediscover a core teaching of historical Christianity…. It is also to declare oneself a kind of savage in today’s culture—even within the culture of the church…. But to refuse to see suffering as a means of sanctification is to surrender, in Huxley’s withering phrase, to “Christianity without tears.”

His new book tells me that Dreher is no longer confident that these communities will survive, at least not in the way that the medieval monasteries and associated communities did. I believe that he now sees intentional communities as preparation not for survival but for martyrdom. Even so, as my friend Fr. David Thayer put it, “that is not a bad purpose.”

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