Two years ago, when reviewing “The Benedict Option”, I wrote, “Almost all Dreher’s critics accuse him of crying wolf or being a Chicken Little at best … Meanwhile, I’m saying that Dreher is underestimating his enemy, painting an overly rosy picture, and not being nearly alarmist enough.”
This is still true.
“Wait, what? Totalitarianism! Gulags!”
Let me explain; I
promise hope, this will be shorter than last time.
“Live Not By Lies” is a sequel of sorts to “The Benedict Option”, in what I’m sure will one day be called “Volume 2 of Dreher’s Benedict Option Trilogy.” It’s is a good book, you should read it, and Dreher is in general right about the soft totalitarianism, and if anything, not right enough. But I’m sorry to say that for such an immensely worthy task, this book falls somewhat short.
For one thing, much of the history section presented a skewed and inaccurate interpretation of the events leading to the Bolshevik takeover. I’ll discuss that later, but make no mistake: those aren’t mere minor errors of detail. Understanding the correct historical patterns and mechanisms of the social psychology behind how and why certain political ideas and groups come to dominate is absolutely essential if one is going to draw correct analogies and lessons and apply them to the present and future contexts.
Additionally, much of the rest of the book seemed to rely on his same old influential sources (e.g., Rieff) and to be a rehash and recycling of his previous blog posts. Granted, that’s tough to avoid when exploring a consistent theme about our times, day in, day out. But still, it had a phoned-in, scattered, and incomplete feel to it, a kind of airport-book version of “The Benedict Option”.
I’ll get to the criticisms in a bit, but to begin, the good news.
II. Progress on the sense of alarm, but not enough.
First, Dreher’s critics, while still far too blasé and insouciant about the end-game-level crisis racing straight for them, have at least started to acknowledge that something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear, but that some greater degree of consternation and freak-out is now warranted.
But they are still far, far behind the power curve on this one.
As a friend of mine put it, “The single biggest problem is lag-seriousness. We are always just at best about grim enough for yesterday’s battle.”
That is where “Dreher’s Law of Merited Impossibility” comes from. “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.” If it were possible, despite denials, and by pointing out a clear logical implication of progressive ideology – and even going so far as to supplement with the early appearances of those explicit proposals – to scare conservatives enough, early enough, to do whatever it takes to avoid it, then the impossible wouldn’t keep happening to them, over and over again.
But it’s almost never feasible to do this. It turns out this is the one impossibility. The frogs never jump out of the pot in time to avoid another scalding. The need is not to be grim enough for yesterday, but for today, so that tomorrow won’t bring your final sunset.
That puts Dreher in the position of a Cassandra.
Cassandra was blessed with the gift of prophesy, but also cursed such that no one would ever believe her. As the saying goes, many true prophets are not honored in their countries, but one could try to explain just how bad things are with a “Cassandra Score”. Given a prophecy’s accuracy, the test is one of avoidability.
The prophecy goes, “If you don’t stop it, then here’s what will happen”, and the Cassandra Score indicates whether you will. CS-0 means that people believe your warnings, are ready, willing, and able to choose a better destiny, and act to accomplish it. The Full Cassandra (CS-100) is that, like Cassandra herself, no one believes you up until the very minute the doom you foretold is actually happening to them.
The interesting halfway mark is the tipping point between barely averting doom and not being alarmed enough, soon enough, to be able to do anything about it. If one could nudge a CS-51 condition into CS-49, it would be an improvement of existential proportions and the most tremendous return-on-investment imaginable, and thus the most important task of advocacy imaginable.
That’s the best case scenario for Dreher, “The Flight 93 Religion.” Unfortunately, American Christians (and, more broadly, non-progressives of all types) are still at about CS-75. Despite all the plain evidence to the contrary, half of them still don’t even want any association with off-narrative dire warnings, and many try to conspicuously distance themselves from the “paranoid, alarmist” perspective.
But that’s pretty bad because Dreher is correct, time is short, the remaining way is long, and the hill is steep and well-defended.
Nevertheless, the good news is that it’s still about ten points better than it was five years ago. Even better, Dreher still leads his readers by the same gap and is also about ten points better than he was when he wrote “The Benedict Option”. But the trouble is, judging from “Live Not By Lies”, he’s still over 50 too.
In “Live Not By Lies”, Dreher seems to assume that something like faithful Christianity as we know it today is going to go through a profoundly difficult era of persecution, but still, its adherents having prepared for it, it will persist at some level despite intense suffering until, well, ‘deliverance’. Perhaps not in the Acts 12:3 sense, but then again, maybe so. How else?
There are theological lines of reasoning that argue that this must necessarily be true, and that furthermore, one ought to believe it must be true. However, if one is not fully confident in that logic, hoping for the best but at least willing to think about other possibilities, then there is no other good reason to take Dreher’s assumption for granted, and plenty of reasons not to.
That’s why even Dreher isn’t radicalized enough yet, because he doesn’t seem to fully grapple with the gloomy prospects for his tradition that is the clear implication of his own arguments about the overwhelming magnitude of the problem. That is: termination. Slow and steady and (mostly) gentle evaporation under the relentless heat of the sun until the last drop of water finally evaporates and the spiritual desert goes completely dry.
It would be like Travis telling the defenders of the Alamo that Santa Anna was sending a force in the morning that outnumbered them ten to one, that supplies were nearly exhausted, and reinforcements too far away to help. But with a tone of brutal optimism, “It’s going to be really rough boys, but if we’re tough enough, we’ll make it.” – “Um, rough? Well Travis, come hell or high water, I’m happy to make a stand and fight by your side. No rendirse! But to be frank, from the way you put it, I reckon it sounds like we’re all going to die.”
Cards on the table, I am on Dreher’s side on this one. It’s just that I think he just needs to “see the dark”, look a little deeper into the Lovecraftian abyss, and step up his game accordingly.
So I am in the meta-Dreher, meta-influencer position of nudging Dreher to CS-49. Also, there is some chance that by highlighting a much more dismal analysis, it will make Dreher seem more moderate and respectable by comparison, at the correct position of dialectic synthesis. “Dreher a paranoid alarmist? Oh, no, that’s nothing, have you read this other guy?” And I’m not even close to the real gloom; in some of the circles in which I swim, I’m the naïve optimist, and I suspect the others there have the better of the argument.
Alas, I am just some random nobody on the internet. But if I weren’t, this would also potentially have a high return on investment, because once Dreher gets to 49, I think the experience of epiphany might just radicalize him enough to become the coordination focal point he’s destined to be, and to bring the rest of his audience with him, to – with no exaggeration – their salvation.
III. The Lives
Now, before I explain why, let me get to the second piece of good news and commend Dreher for a wonderful second half of the book, which contained the inspiring and gut-wrenching stories of what it was like for people of faith behind the Iron Curtain to be the subjects of Communist anti-Christian oppression.
As I look over my notes, I see almost no comments or criticisms in that half. The testimonies speak for themselves. These harrowing and moving tales of triumphs of fidelity and perseverance in the face of the hardships and miseries of hard totalitarianism don’t need any gloss. The stories of these brave people deserve your study, and their memories your honor.
What is both terrible and true is that a month later you are probably going to forget all their names, forget the details of their persecution, and come away with the same rough impression and vague understanding you already have. This is that Christians had it really bad in a place where Christianity was once all of life but had been evicted, that some of them nevertheless stayed devoted, and others gave the last full measure of devotion. Others resisted, and some of them even lasted long enough on the road through hell to make it through to the other side.
Though, in a way, it was lucky for them there was the other side: that didn’t happen everywhere. If the Soviets had then what the Chinese have now, likely there would have been no interviews or happy endings. You can’t even forget a martyr’s name if you never got the chance to hear about his martyrdom in the first place.
IV. On Manuals
Now, you might wonder, why won’t you remember more? After all, you are supposed to have to picked up some of the tactics, strategies, techniques, and skills you and your co-confessionists are going to need in the coming dark times. It’s right there in the subtitle, “A Manual for Christian Dissidents.”
Alas, this is not really a manual at all, and regardless of whether Dreher is dropping some kind of Straussian signal with that, it’s surprising that few of his critics have noticed the problem.
An actual manual is more than just general rough guidelines; it has clear, specific, step-by-step instructions for how to accomplish some identified, well-defined task or troubleshoot typical problems. It cannot be a bunch of personal narratives, and, “Follow their lead; just be like them. Refuse to bend, like Benda.”
If one picked up, say, a survival manual, one would expect to emerge knowing how to start a fire and build a shelter. A beginner’s cookbook will at least tell you precisely how long to boil an egg.
What does Dreher tell us to do in an age of persecution? “Embrace Suffering.” “Choose a Life Apart from the Crowd.” “Reject Doublethink and Fight for Free Speech.” “Cherish Truth-Telling but Be Prudent.” “Cultivate Cultural Memory.” “See, Judge, Act.”
He doesn’t get much more specific. I think he believes he got more specific – “form small cells … read other books,” and the recitation of Solzhenitsyn’s Six Hard Rules on page 18 – but it’s not actually the case. “See, Judge, Act” is just a description of any rational decision-making process, and “Yeah, but this is Persecuted Christian decision-making,” doesn’t actually put meat on the bones. These are mostly motivation stimulants and abstract encouragements of the right general attitudes, but those do no a ‘manual’ make.
These are like ordering the military to “Be able to fight and win wars,” and then someone else develops the *actual* doctrine and writes the field manuals. These commandments, like the Decalogue itself, just raise a host of questions, “How much suffering? How far apart from the crowd? Which crowd? How do I identify doublethink? Fight for free speech how? Fight for hate speech too? Where is the line between prudence and paying so much lip-service I lose my soul?”
This in turn raises a question on a different level, “Could this book have been a manual?” The answer is no. That’s because it lacks a key prerequisite. I’m picking on the subtitle, but look at the title itself, “Live Not By Lies.”
V. The Lies
Live Not By Lies. Ok, but what lies? Where are the lies? “Publish Not With Lies”? That’s probably true, so one can’t give Dreher too hard a time for that, especially since, when supplemented by his blog, it’s not hard to figure out what Dreher thinks the Lies are. An easy one: almost anything progressives say about transgenderism.
But how is some ordinary person who needs an actual manual supposed to live not by lies, if the famous, influential guy writing the admonition feels just as compelled by circumstances and prudence to live by omitting the lies?
There should have been at least one page that went like this:
You as a Christian are going to be strongly pressured to “wear the ribbon” and to say the following things which do not accord with the truths of our faith, and in order to live not by lies, you must be willing to sacrifice, suffer if necessary, and never say …
Never say what, exactly? Yes, integrity in general is a virtue, but obviously Dreher is talking about the Big Lies.
But in his book, there is a surprising paucity of actual lies. Isn’t that something? First it’s strange, then it’s puzzling, and then when you solve the puzzle, demoralizing.
My take is the answer to the puzzle of absence is Dreher’s actual manual, the one you are supposed to figure out. The most critically strategic task is to preserve precisely this kind of room for maneuver: the freedom to speak the truth and to condemn the lies. If you still can, if there is still some crack open in the window of opportunity, then you must band together and stop your opponents from being able to impose their rival orthodoxy on you, which forces that absence and omission and uses that dominance to call your lies truth and your love hate.
If you can’t do that, if you missed your chance to make that stand, then like the Alamo, it’s only a matter of time.
As for absence, ok, there is one quoted lie, on page 210, “The message he found was this: The secular liberal ideal of freedom so popular in the West, and among many in his post-communist generation, is a lie.” The rest of the lies are there by omission.
Think about that for a minute. The manual is most specific when it tells you to reject, “the liberal ideal of freedom.”
Now, to be fair, maybe you should reject it, perhaps in favor of a better ideal and truer notion of ‘freedom’. Say, one which is not license or libertinism, but which derives from and is in accordance with the truth, and includes freedom from sin and damnation. True and proper freedom on earth being like the freedom in heaven.
But does “liberal freedom” strike you as Big Lie #1 right now? Probably not. To an American it’s more likely regarded as tragic that the traditional national ideal seems not to be working out lately. But it’s not like the threat of persecution is coming from the Old School Libertarians. Indeed, Dreher can mention this lie so freely precisely because it’s safe to do so. They wont get you canceled.
There is arguably one other lie, “Ye shall be as Gods”, but Dreher’s use of it doesn’t pass the Ideological Turing Test, so I deem it inadmissible.
Otherwise, without the list of lies one lacks a clear idea of the threat one faces, and so vague guidelines are all that are left and there is no possibility of a manual with precise instructions. But with the lies, the enemy hears his own name like the aliens hear a scream in “A Quiet Place”, and then come down on you like a ton of bricks.
VI. From whence the cascade
Well, look, no sense getting some bricks in the face if one can avoid it, that’s just being smart and prudent. Though, inconveniently, it’s Dreher himself who quotes Milosz to argue against this kind of seductive logic.
Better logic would be to say that one can reason that the intended audience probably knows the lies already, and knows that they have been weak, acquiesced, and lived by them. They know what they are supposed to stand up for already, and they know they have failed to do so. They know who their enemies are, and they know they have failed to resist them. You don’t need to list the lies to send a signal to all these people that, by the very fact of this book existing, knowing that it is being digested by so many other people, they are not alone, and they can act differently.
But what the audience still doesn’t know is what to do about it. Dreher may not know either. Notice: a thousand Benedict Option startups have not bloomed. The Benedict Option was criticized as crazy and alarmist, but again, the ugly, gloomy truth is that it’s actually the hopeful, optimistic, and practically wishful-thinking take on things. Most likely, there is no such option.
And anyway, the real trouble is with the anti-audience.
The anti-audience already believes Dreher is far more of a kook and Chicken Little than his Christian critics do, and just a continuation of “The Paranoid Style In American Politics.” To them, Dreher can get in the back of the line behind the McCarthyists, “Eisenhower was a Commie!” John Birchers, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and low-status judgment-day-is-just-around-the-corner-all-the-signs-are-actually-happening prepper types. They are once again proclaiming the first half of the law, “It will never happen.”
And without the list of lies, their argument wins the day. It seems fully plausible and convincing. It sounds like this:
Oh look at these idiots going off again. Here we are, just trying to make sure love wins and hate loses. Our ‘radical ideology’ amounts to “Don’t be a bigot, help your fellow man, and keep your toxic hatefulness to yourself.” Everybody should be included, and nobody ought to be unjustly discriminated against. Simple, self-evident, human universals, really, do real, loving Christians really disagree so much with any of those? And because the white supremacist homophobes can’t think of anything else to say in response, the hide behind ‘Christianity’ as a pathetic rationalization for their simple irrational animus, and resort to inventing fantasies like gulags and torture rooms and KGB agents. Like *they’re* the victims! Delusional! What kind of creepy psychological problems do they have to really imagine that with all their wealth, comfort, freedom, privilege, and petty first world problems, that they are remotely spiritual kin with people who endured the worst suffering possible? Crazy!
Do you see the problem? It’s the ‘merited’ part of the law. Dreher wants to respond with the simple truth, “We’re not bigots, and we don’t deserve it.” The response would be, “Ok, let’s find out. What is it exactly that you are going to insist on believing or doing, that we would possibly think was worth throwing you into a gulag?”
He can’t beat around the bush with something general and evasive, “For being devout Christians.”
The response (at least from the rare one who knows anything about Christianity) would be as follows:
Look, we just think your religion is mostly a collection of mythological fantasies and superstitious prohibitions, but combined with a salvageable core of a worthy moral perspective that, like almost all ancient and traditional lines of philosophy, represents an incomplete and imperfect grasping toward the same ethical framework we now hold dear. That’s why Jefferson rewrote the bible, removing all those superfluous distractions. Following the actual bible seems kind of nutty and backward to us, but now that it’s in clear political retreat in terms of numbers and influence, and since most self-identified Christians don’t really seem to live like they take most of it seriously, we regard it as mostly harmless. So long as you keep it to yourselves.
So, nobody is going to throw you in the gulag for going to church. Or for believing Jesus is Lord, that he is the Savior of humanity and God’s only son, that he was born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary who in turn was immaculately conceived, that he performed miracles, made water into wine, multiplied bread and fishes, walked upon water, healed the sick, raised the dead, died for our sins, and was resurrected. That he saves his people by means of their repentance and confession to sin and commanded his followers to love each other and their neighbors and their enemies, and to spread his word and the gospel of the good news of their salvation to every soul.
Seriously now, is that not Christian enough or you? Are these not the central claims of Christianity? Is that not enough freedom to be a Christian?
And we aren’t going to do a single thing to anyone for any of that. Why would we even care? Maybe if proselytizing is done obnoxiously in an imposing manner and makes people feel unsafe and not included. But let’s face it, 99.99% of American Christians aren’t ever doing that anymore, so it’s kind of absurd to spook them, right? Now we will insist that you not discriminate against LGBTs, and not to teach people to hate them, and yes, you will indeed get merited punishment if you persist in doing so. But seriously, is Hate the hill you are choosing to die on?
As another friend of mine put it, “We do not want you to subtract from your faith, only to add to it. Just don’t be a jerk and you’ll be just fine.”
One simply cannot give this line of argument anything like an adequate response without getting right into the contrasts between what one believes and what one’s opponents believe, that is, between the truth and the lies. It’s a no-win situation. Without naming the lies, the progressives will suspect Dreher’s audience are closeted bigots. Naming the lies, open bigots. C’est la guerre.
Unlike in the Soviet Union, the progressives don’t see mere belief and worship as inherently threatening, and so aren’t interested in prison and torture for merely belonging to a faith, going to church, being a priest, and so forth. They look at ‘worship’ in “freedom of worship” in the same ’boutique’ manner that Fish explained as the way they look at culture in “multiculturalism”. That is, by definition, non-threatening to the imperialist program of imposing progressive orthodoxy on everyone, everywhere.
In other words, Fake Religious Tolerance, and Fake Multiculturalism. Fake, because it is precisely at the important friction points that the freedom or the multi ends. Now, as Winnifred Sullivan explained, whether genuine religious freedom is even possible in anything like our system is an interesting question, but the point is that one can’t have any coherent discourse on the subject real or fake tolerance, without identifying those points of difference.
Furthermore, to his Christian readers, the list of lies means something. They have to start drawing the lines, and it would help give them some idea of where to begin, and where to start stopping their own slippery slide down a sequence of compromises until they face suicidal evaporation like the Mainline Protestants.
VIII. Reverse ‘Fetch’
Now, the approach Dreher has taken has been to say that, of course it won’t actually be ‘hard’ torture and gulags, it will be ‘soft’ totalitarianism. Dreher would have given his argument much more punch had he marshaled the parade of horribles of all the “never going to happen”s that are definitely going to happen, probably soon. Without getting into the lies, he could still have collected in one place the likely sequence of escalation of oppressive state policies and mob pressures which will be brought to bear against Christian (and other) holdouts in the mopping-up operations.
They’ll penalize or dis-accredit private school, take away homeschooling, have child protective services yank your kids away if you try, mandate offensively heretical curriculum on core moral issues, kick your kids out of athletic competitions and related chances for scholarships, boycott your businesses, commercially excommunicate you as unhireable, and ineligible to use the internet or transactions system, give your kids abortions or sex hormones behind your back, take away your guns, allow the mob to walk right up to your front door and smash your windows with impunity, and if you try to defend yourself, you’ll be the one who gets arrested.
To his Christian readers, that parade of horribles will feel closer and more plausible and real, thus helping to raise their alarm to more accurate levels. Some may reject these claims at first, but as they start coming true, one after the other, he will seem nothing less than, well, prophetic. Cassandra was cursed, but Dreher can build a track record.
The trouble is, while all these things will happen, unlike in the Soviet system, they will never need to be ubiquitous or even common, so they can always be rhetorically dismissed as rare aberrations. No one is going to publish a ‘study’ with some nice scatter plots showing the increase in the persecution index. In the contemporary media environment, one hanged admiral – a pizza shop, a cake decorator, an expelled student, a heterodox professor – encourages millions of the others, to just give in and side with the strong horse, the cool horse. You only have to hang one or two admirals a year, (only after groveling apologies of course) and soon enough, the whole Navy has surrendered, concludes that those admirals had it coming, and that they “weren’t being smart.”
IX. The Riddle of Steel: Stalin is Strong but Status is Stronger.
If all those inspiring narratives are meant as a warning from which it is possible to draw clear lessons applicable to the current situation, then they fail. There is going to be more and more persecution of heretics from progressivism – which includes all traditionally religious or socially conservative people and many others besides – but it isn’t going to be that bad. In a way, it’s going to be worse.
Dreher’s subjects kept their faith despite getting hit with the big sticks. Our successors will simply abandon their faith, bit by bit, because otherwise they won’t be eligible for the carrots. The former can be suffered and outlasted. The latter is a Pied Piper who leads all the children away while their parents are helpless to stop it.
The thing about hard totalitarianism is the fact of brutal oppression is inescapably clear to everyone. Sure, it will be rationalized and justified, but that people know it’s there if they step out of line is half the point. And if one is not enjoying being on the delivering end, the common human psychological instinct is to resent such domination.
‘Soft’ is totally different. People will still have choices, but if they choose ‘wrong’ in the eyes of the elites, then they will just be seen as weirdo losers and low-status pariahs, not martyrs. The flip-side of resenting domination is admiring, conspicuously affiliating with, and imitating the prestigious. People – your own fellow Christians too – will look at the refusal to pinch incense for Caesar the same way they look at a hermit’s refusal of all society. When you think about it, the hermit who could fit in if he wanted to is just persecuting himself.
X. Hardness Sometimes Also Meant Consolations
In some of the satellite states of the Eastern Bloc which hadn’t been made into true Soviet Socialist Republics, things were not like they were closer to Moscow, and the status of religious belief and practice was relatively more tolerated and sometimes a genuinely gray area. I suspect that many of Dreher’s interview subjects resulted from introductions made by the late Roger Scruton, but this is the main reason most of Dreher’s stories come from that part of Europe, and not further East.
The perception of dual loyalty would mean that you would be spied on, that your closest friends would be recruited to inform against you, and that you would hit an unacknowledged but hard glass ceiling in your career path, “Performance Assessment: A highly competent and reliable professional with unlimited leadership potential, but … does not adequately demonstrate he fully shares our values and commitment to progress. Pass over for promotion absent a critical personnel shortage in his field.”
And of course, you would never be told: a breeding ground for paranoia and self-doubt. Nevertheless, if you kept your head down otherwise, you could enjoy a normal life and even some measure of personal success and respect.
Sometimes, to remind people who’s boss, an ‘informant’ would be told to make up some baloney accusations and the local priest would get arrested and interrogated, maybe leaned on to make more false accusations of his colleagues. No one would hear about him for days. Then, usually, he was released with a stern warning to watch his back.
When he showed up again at services, what happened? His whole congregation would weep for joy and relief, hugs and handshakes for hours, invitations and offers of support. He would be a kind of minor hero, a kind of minor martyr, honored and dignified. There were thousands of such events in the second half the 20th century. That’s worthy suffering; inspiring, socially productive suffering.
XI. Live Hard
But what about someone who gets ‘canceled’ today? Most of the time, it’s the Big Meh, no welcoming arms and no heroic status in one’s reference social group. Without that, there is no utility in withstanding the suffering, because there is no power of example or remembrance. Today, if you are accused of ‘hate’, things are such that most of your fellows will feel obliged to act like they believe it, dump you like a bag of dirt, and avoid you like the roof over reactor number three.
Dreher and Benda like to use the example of “High Noon”. But try to imagine “Low Noon”, where, at the end, all the townspeople ganged up on the sheriff saying, “What the heck did you do that for, you psycho? Those guys didn’t deserve that! Now you’ve just gone and made trouble for the rest of us. Get the heck out of our town, monster!”
Four years ago, Bonald used the example of “Die Hard” to explain what this would be like. “Die Hard” is the archetype for the modern movie formula of a heroic fantasy of just one man against incredible odds. But the fact is, McClane is only ‘alone’ inside the building. Out there, in his society, in the movie audience, is a mass who shares his values, who is on his side, who wants to help him, and who is rooting for him to win.
On the other hand, McClane isn’t really outnumbered. Everybody outside the Nakatomi Plaza is on his side. If he can survive this ordeal, he’s going to be a hero. …
This is how it must feel to be a social justice entryist in an apolitical or conservative organization. On the one hand, she gets to feel brave for working in enemy territory like this. She’s outnumbered by institutional racists and sexists, but not really. History is on her side, like a vast audience, and she can almost hear it cheer as she takes down the bad guys’ careers, one by one. All the people who matter to her, all the people of her education and social standing, are on her side. If her quarrels ever get into the newspapers, she can count on the journalists to be on her side. Even if she gets fired, she needn’t fear rebuke from the consensus of the society that is most real to her.”
This is how it should feel for persecuted Christians, and this is how it did feel to those priests in some places behind the iron curtain. That’s what it takes to keep us going.
But instead of that, most churches today would try to distance themselves from such people and incidents, having completely absorbed their opposition’s definition of ‘scandal’.
Churches are organizations and their officials are public figures, and every public figure is unavoidably policed by the incentives of the prevailing opinion-management environment. As such, when you try to live by truth, when the progressives make you suffer, it will not be like some beloved local priest returning after some rough handling by the secret police. Instead your church and fellow congregants are likely to join in with your social excommunication and purging. Like Neville’s epiphany at the end of Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” you won’t be the hero, you’ll be the villain.
XII. Lost Causes
To throw this into even sharper relief, and to demonstrate the absence of a true ‘manual’, instead of ‘Christianity’, imagine that one is trying to preserve and propagate some even more unpopular views that, while one believes them to be perfectly true, are deeply hated by just about everyone. Any manual for dissidents necessarily works in general for any strain of persecuted dissent, and if it speaks to a particular kind of dissident, it is only because is it written in the language they are best able to comprehend.
Now, imagine a group of scattered people who were trying not to propagate Christianity and persevere as Christians, but as Confederates. Some kind of secret society that saw it all coming since Calhoun and had, against all odds, continued for two centuries to the present day, who believed in the lost cause as the right cause, hereditary racial slavery, and all the rest. What concrete advice does Dreher give that these people could use? What advice could anyone give them?
There isn’t any.
This hypothetical makes it easy for everyone to immediately grasp, at this stage in the game, that it’s an impossible task. The powers that be and 99% of society are fully committed and determined to thoroughly eradicating any remaining trace of those ideas and traditions. They can do it, they will, they are, they are almost done. Either the hypothetical Secret Confederates get nukes, or the protection of someone who has them, or (if they weren’t already extinct), their days are numbered. That’s it, game over.
XIII. Other Feet
The point is, the Soviet context is simply not the proper analogy for our situation. That ideas makes it seem like the familiar image of the Romans throwing Christians to wild beasts in some arena. But the right way to look at it is the other way around, once the Christians had won the upper hand.
The right context is something like Watts’ “The Final Pagan Generation”.
In late antiquity there were still sincere worshipers of Minerva and Apollo and Jupiter, continuing a religious tradition that went back, as it happens, about two thousand years. And then it ended. It’s a long story, and yes there was a fair amount of actual persecution as the shoe gradually moved to the other foot, but it wasn’t the key factor.
Gradually, there were fewer and fewer of these people, until there really was a last one. And when he died, the faith died with him; the chain linking 100 generations was broken, and the line went completely extinct. The last drop of water evaporated and the ground was dry. Now, no one praises Jupiter, because their great-grandparents praised Jupiter.
You might ask yourself, “What happened to the surviving children of the last pagan family?”
The answer is that paganism didn’t just disappear into nothing. It was replaced. By a rival religion, which had become completely dominant among all their society’s elites.
And so, the children? They converted. They lost their old faith, gave all that up, and they just went along with the new one. They raised their own children in the new faith, and so on down the line. And so, that was the end.
People of deep faith will understand what I mean when I say that compared to ‘hard’ oppression, this is worse. If you gave them a choice between sacrifice and torture but the propagation of their faith to their children on the one hand, or an easy life and “The End” on the other, some will actually choose torture. But they won’t get that choice.
XIV. Who Reads History From Whom
It wasn’t so different for Christianity when, among almost every high status European intellectual, it had gradually but definitively started going out of fashion about three hundred years ago and was eventually replaced with some variant of Socialism. Unfortunately, the inheritors of that new tradition were the ones who got to write the history books, which is why Dreher’s description of what happened in Russia could have come out of a Soviet schoolbook. Which it probably did, on its way into the mind of the Muscovite host who repeated it to him.
As another friend who grew up in the Soviet Union explained:
This is especially disappointing given that he is quoting liberally from Solzhenitsyn, who for all his faults introduced many people to many omitted facts and to the possibility of different narratives of Russian history. The funniest bit is Dreher’s acceptance of Soviet accepted orthodoxy on the severity of tsarist Siberian exile, derided by Solzhenitsyn in the “Archipelago”. The biggest single indication is that Dreher does not mention the February revolution. The February events have a much better claim to be called “revolution” than Bolsheviks’ October coup, which after all was initially limited to Petrograd and which they had to consolidate over years of bitter fighting; in late 1917, Bolsheviks lost miserably in the Constituent Assembly elections and, once it had gathered in Petrograd and the Bolsheviks saw that they could not force the assembly to implement their program, disbanded it by force (“the guards are tired”). Dreher is making much of the 1891-1892 famine, and it did loom large in the mythology of that time, but to say that “The great famine of 1891–92 had laid bare the incompetence of the Russian ruling classes” in the minds of Russian intelligentsia or that it caused the turn to Marxism would be a gross overstatement. Russian intelligentsia had held the view that the Russian ruling classes were hopelessly incompetent and evil for decades before that. Tzar Alexander II was assassinated by People’s Liberty operatives after many failed attempts – in 1881. The attitude of the intelligentsia, and the attitude of much of the Russian press, to the imperial government is rather comparable to today’s progressive attitude to the Trump administration, except the tzar’s government held incomparably more formal *and* actual real power. As for Marxism, Berdyaev writes in “Vekhi” that the intelligentsia had a curiously pragmatic approach to philosophy: it picked up whatever was (a) new and fashionable and (b) best appeared to justify their socialism (Russian socialism long predates the infatuation with Marxism) and assimilated it in the most superficial manner. Thus e.g. it was possible for Lenin to invent and successfully propound the completely un-Marxist theory of “bringing from without” of revolutionary consciousness.
Let’s go through some of the details.
Dreher’s “Why Communism Appealed to Russians” is, unfortunately, typical progressive mythological narrative (i.e., widely-swallowed propaganda) and mushy-headed nonsense drawing a line from “poverty and oppression” to the allure of Socialism. The material circumstances of various populations simply do not constitute the proper explanation for how that particular idea – or any idea – spread and came to dominate.
Socialism had been popular among elites and intellectuals around the world for generations, in the richest and freest places as well (perhaps even more-so), and in whether or not countries were involved in or on the winning and losing sides of various wars. Socialist-flavored revolutions were attempted in numerous places, and it just so happened that one had long-term success in Russia first, and with the capacity to become a genuine superpower and evil empire. (As an aside, I’m not a fan of alternative history, but my guess is that had it not sabotaged itself by going Communist, Russia would have become a superpower anyway after a period of growth of industrial capacity, and it would have stayed that way, given its ample natural resources and reserves of world class human capital.)
As my friend mentioned above, the brutal reputation of the last tzar’s regime was a fabrication concocted by their murderers after they were murdered, because the truth was that they were absurdly (and foolishly) lenient. The same pattern of light treatment and injudicious slaps on the wrist would later be repeated in other countries towards their own revolutionaries, most infamously in Germany.
XV. Stranger than Brutal
If our own past is a foreign country, the past of foreign countries is too weird and alien to grasp without extensive immersion in its particular history. We are taught to think of tsarist-era exile in Siberia as a retroactive extension of the Soviet gulags, but it wasn’t like that. Siberia was like their Australia: a far away place you could send prisoners of all kinds with minimal supervision and the understanding that it was really hard to get back. You might even hope they would try to take a go at making a life for themselves out there like colonists, because you needed to populate the vast, mostly unpeopled wilderness.
So “exile” at that time was mockable as a kind of Siberian summer camp. Many of the Bolsheviks who experienced it were practically unguarded and made many successful and attempted escapes. Stalin wrote of his enjoyment fishing with Tunguses, horseback riding, and of fornication (and procreation!) with 13 year old locals like Lidia Pereprygia. Brutal, I tell you.
One sees this kind of thing all over. Consider the story of President McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, described as an “Anarchist” which, until recently, used to fool people into thinking, “random, crazy lunatic”, but translates into true English as “extreme radical leftist”.
Get a load of this like from Wikipedia, “While some American anarchists described his action as inevitable, motivated by the country’s brutal social conditions …”
Well, it’s true, life was tough and hardly all rainbows and roses for everyone in 1901, however, The US, Australia, and New Zealand were about tied at that time as the most prosperous places on earth, with a higher quality of life for ordinary people than had ever been achieved in all human history up to that point. You know, ‘brutal’.
XVI. Off The Marx
In just a few pages Dreher admits that “Most of the revolutionaries came from the privileged classes.” That’s certainly true, but how does that fit in with the preceding “poverty and oppression” narrative? These people were well-off and hardly ‘oppressed’ (certainly not relative to the oppression of the system they were bringing into existence). One might expect them to either side with the privileged class, on the one hand, or, if they were such good-hearted people, to have carried such warm, caring sentiments into the new regime with them. Which they did not!
He says the rough aftermath of WWI inspired young intellectuals in Central Europe to embrace Marxism, but that is a few generations late. Spring of Nations? Bavarian Socialist Republic? Treaty of Rapallo?
Even progressive orthodox history speaks of the Socialist intellectuals across Europe who were disappointed that WWI didn’t cause the workers of that continent to unite in class solidarity against their respective oppressive ruling classes, and that the members of that class were instead characterized by higher nationalistic loyalties and patriotic sentiments. The people whose lives were “so hard and hopeless” and hardscrabble rural peasants were often the base of counter-revolution!
In the 1930s, before the rise of the communist regime, there were already strong forces in the culture that paved the way for it,” says Patrik Benda, a Prague political consultant, of his native Czechoslovakia. “All the artists and intellectuals advocated communist ideas, and if you didn’t agree, you were marked for exclusion. This was almost two decades before actual communism took power.
No bayonets needed.
To reduce the argument to a complete absurdity, try to compare the conditions of the Eastern Europe of a century ago to those in America today. On page 30, Dreher writes that here and now, “Relatively few people could be persuaded that Karl Marx has the answer to our problems.” I joked to myself in my notes, “Heh, perhaps as few as only a third of us.”
Turns out the joke was on me, “Only 57% of millennials believe that the Declaration of Independence offers a better guarantee of “freedom and equality” than the Communist Manifesto.” Yikes! Apparently almost half of the youngins have actually been brainwashed into thinking Karl Marx has the answer to our problems. Where did I get this interesting tidbit? Page 112.
By page 41, Dreher admits that “Intellectuals are the Revolutionary Class,” but he might have just said ‘elites’. Major historical events and struggles between groups are always and everywhere a phenomenon of disputes between classes of elites.
But then a few pages later he goes off course, “To be sure, neither loneliness, not social atomization, not the rise of social justice radicalism among power-holding elites – none of these and other factors discussed here meant that totalitarianism is inevitable.”
Unfortunately, when you are dealing with a replacement religion on the rise, and all the elites believe either in the latest edition of it or the version of it from ten years ago, yes it does.
XVII. Charitable Misinterpretation
With Chapter Three Dreher gets into Progressivism as Religion, but instead of accurate anthropology, we get the enemy’s version of the story about themselves, which is, as in all similar cases, slightly less than perfectly reliable.
He quotes Milan Kundera:
What makes a leftist (of any kind— socialists, communists, Trotskyites, left- liberals, and so on) a leftist is a shared belief that humanity is on a “Grand March” toward Progress: “The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March.
That is the ‘sales brochure’ version of the surface alibi, riding the wave of core, though vague, human emotional impulses. Not that people don’t believe their own cover stories. Bogus or not, they often do. People rarely know or understand their own true motives.
If one looks under the hood, one sees that what leftism is mostly about is “redistribution of stuff and status.” The political formula is a tacitly understood bargain to clients that offers, in exchange for political support, the use of state power to take from the enviable and give to those who envy.
What actually happened with the rise of Socialism is that when Christianity was no longer a meaningful obstacle, generations of talented people who could only move so far up the ladder of their societies sensed an opportunity to rise to the very top, but only by completely overthrowing the whole pre-existing order. Well, in that case, it’s been good knowing you, pre-existing order.
The stories and rationalizations they had to invent, refine, and tell themselves and their potential supporters in order to achieve that goal evolved over time. That’s where all the “oppressors and oppressed” and “power relations” stuff really comes from. But in the end just amounted to increasingly sophisticated and effective marketing for the same core formula, with the benefit of self-deception so thorough that the authors were the truest believers in their new faith.
XVIII: We Do It Too, Do It To Ourselves
Here’s another example of bad history:
The original American dream – the one held by the seventeenth century Puritan settles – was religion: to establish liberty as the condition that allowed them to worship and to service God as dictated by their consciences.
Actually, the Puritans immediately established a suffocatingly strict theocracy that did not tolerate heretics except by necessity, and in which ministers were public officials. Nathaniel Ward’s or Winthrop’s ‘liberty’ was the liberty to be a pious Puritan, and the lack of liberty to be anything else. If you were not a member of the church, you were officially a second-class citizen, and they would throw you out for anything. The Puritans did not give people freedom to make choices according to their consciences about living virtuously or not, see, e.g., Platform of Church Discipline (1648).
Most of this ‘liberty’ story was retconned in the late 18th century during the establishment of the popular mythology of American History. Once upon a time people like Rothbard thought that perhaps one day American society would come to be so confident and mature that it could replace the white lie mythology with the reality. No such luck. Instead we got a new religion that is just replacing it with a much more sinister and malevolent mythology. That’s how it goes. There is always a de facto state religion, and it will spread the myths it finds most useful.
I could go on with the history stuff, but the point is that it wasn’t enough of Dreher’s focus to give it the kind of scholarly attention it required. If we are going to learn lessons from history, it has to be correct history.
XIX. “Understanding the Cult of Social Justice”
Dreher does a good job in summarizing some of the claims of progressivism and “critical theory”, but he presents them as if they are to be taken at face value.
There is no such thing as objective truth, there is only power
Yes, you will hear this kind of rhetoric mindlessly parroted all the time, but it is by no means some kind of metaphysical principle consistently applied. It is little more than an opportunistic tactical pose and a weapon to be deployed only when convenient, just like any double standard. “Out truths are real, whereas your ‘truths’ are just useful lies you can shove down people’s throats and get them to repeat because you can intimidate and bully them into it.” The fact that one can’t tell which side is making that statement about the other is what gives that perspective its robustness.
Progressives believe in rule by (credentialed, prestigious) experts, a rule that is legitimated by appeal to superior knowledge of objective truth. Consider: “Reality-based community” or “Climate change is real. The science is settled.” None of that is compatible with the “no such thing” claim.
What about the “Myth of Progress”
It seems to flow naturally from the Myth of Progress as it has been lived out in our mass consumerist democracy, which has for generations defined progress as the liberation of human desire from limits.
No, just Christian limits. This is an important point, and I think one that Dreher resists or finds hard to appreciate, mostly because progressives usually want mandatory toleration for everything Christianity prohibits.
But progressives are not libertines and have their own comprehensive sexual morality that is in some ways even more restrictive than that of traditional religions. Is it not actually based on “live and let live,” “different strokes for different folks,” or the “anything goes with consenting adults” principle of volenti non fit iniuria, because in the progressive conception ‘true’ voluntariness and consent can only be valid in the absence of a whole host of pressures, undue influences, and power imbalances. Contra Dreher, this imposes all manner of limits on human desire, as one can witness watching any tribunal of sex bureaucrats on any American college campus.
The social and spiritual disaster of ubiquitous, free, inadequately gated hard core pornography everywhere on the internet might seem to a Christian to be both irreversibly entrenched and a ‘progressive’ development. But it’s a much more historically contingent and ambiguous case and, as the progressive schizophrenia on the subject of prostitution shows, there remains the possibility of a revival of the Dworkin-MacKinnon radical feminist perspective on the matter.
Transactions (in the broad sense) that are ok for less privileged identities are not ok for those more privileged, but there is too much fraternizing with the enemy, and it takes two to tango, so something’s got to give. Unfortunately, matters related to reproduction norms evoke volcanic passions, and primitive, pre-verbal impulses that are as powerful as they are resistant to any attempt at tidy intellectualization. Which is why sex talk always drives everybody completely nuts.
XX. Woke Capitalism
At the same time, Big Business has moved steadily leftward on social issues. Standard business practice long required staying out of controversial issues on the grounds that taking sides in the culture war would be bad for business” – now not taking sides is bad for business. … A powerful coalition of corporate leaders … threatened economic retaliation against [Indiana] if it did not reverse course.
Somehow I missed the reporting about all the progressives who screamed in outrage at this corporate interference in our democracy.
Still, the reason they were able to make these threats is pretty obvious: no one was credibly threatening back. In a ‘manual’, Dreher would tell his readers what to do about this, but he presents it as a fait accompli and new normal Borg against which all resistance is futile.
This may be close to true, but not quite yet. The state already insists (admittedly, not very well or consistently) that certain non-profits stay out of politics if they want to keep their tax privileges. It could start saying something similar to the profits too. Fortunately, Brian Armstrong of Coinbase has already written the model charter for such non-political companies, specifically in response to the fact that the pressures to go woke (thus go broke) were getting totally out of control:
XXI. Surveillance Capitalism
The real issue is the surveillance, and the power of modern capabilities. Without going full ‘technological determinism’, my impression is that the reality of software eating the world coupled with the constant tracking and surveillance by all entities with the wherewithal and reach is inevitable and unavoidable. It is in the basic nature of technological change that once the capability is there, Pandora’s Box cannot remain shut for long. We are already well past the tipping point on that one.
Yes, all the big institutions constantly spying on everything you do for the rest of time is very creepy and disturbing. But if one is worried not so much about privacy in general but about persecution in particular, then from a more abstract perspective, there is really no reason to implicate ‘capitalism’ except as yet another mechanism by which powerful social coalitions can apply extralegal coercive pressure while circumventing the rules limiting direct state action.
If the state tolerates this, it is allowing an effectively collateral state to fill the power vacuum by abandoning the field of certain sovereign prerogatives. This is the real “parallel polis”, much like the mafia is a parallel government on its own turf when the official state is unable or unwilling to take it on. If the state does not protect its claim to a monopoly on all coercion, hard or soft, then someone else is going to pick up the coercion left lying around.
Then again, sometimes the state wants it that way. If the mayor needs an inconvenient opponent to disappear, he probably can’t ask his chief of police to get it done for him. But if he tolerates a Don, he can go to the Don. If the state is not technically allowed to persecute you directly, if it tolerates some persecutors, it can have them do the persecuting. In either case, when you pierce the veil, the rectified name for it is conspiracy. The tragedy is that the veil has countless defenders who will insist that if it didn’t come from behind the veil, no harm no foul.
XXII. Pocket Panopticon
Dreher is particularly aghast at the “smart speakers”, which is accurate and wise, but there are ‘smart’ everythings these days (your tv, your laptop, your thermostat, your fitness tracker, and so forth), and more to the point, everyone is voluntarily carrying around the greatest spying bug ‘smart’ device ever created: a phone.
It’s well known that most smartphones these days (and some of those other devices too) can be remotely instructed to turn on their various sensors and relay the information via the network all completely below the user’s awareness, and that they are never really “powered off”, sometimes even retaining some ability to detect and react to particular signals.
That’s why most governments don’t allow any of that stuff in facilities handling classified information, and some states intermediate public network spectrum in other facilities. If you are trying to keep a secret from a persecutorial state or society, you had better treat it like a Special Access Program, and unless you are incredibly skilled and/or rich, good luck with that. No ordinary person can do that for something as core and routine as practicing their faith.
Dreher thinks that people aren’t concerned with privacy anymore, but that’s not true, they still want to maintain control over who gets to see what information about them and when. But most of these same people still tend to behave in a totally reckless and naïve manner online, even at work, even when they have been told repeatedly that they are being watched and recorded.
Two decades ago, when we started to become aware of this problem, people guessed that a combination of (1) new cultural adaptations to avoid these hazards, (2) new generations being raised from birth to be familiar with the risks of the internet, and (3) an increasingly long track record of lots of people having their lives publicly ruined, would encourage people to “adjust trim” and be much more cautious and prudent.
Some people did just that, but, in general, it hasn’t turned out that way. It seems that the psychological effect of the way we interface online, the “Online Disinhibition Effect” – when it seems as if it’s just you and your screen in your own little virtual secret world – makes people feel too “alone and private” to keep their guard up. Unfortunately, if one assumes this isn’t going to get better any time soon, then one can only conclude that in a time of Christian persecution, ordinary people are going to slip up sooner or later if they touch networked devices at all, and if they refuse to do so, they will out themselves all the same. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
What that means is that there is no longer any possibility whatsoever of evading the notice of powerful people who are out to get you. From the perspective of any serious, capable, and determined state (cough, China) this is now a solved problem. There can be no secret meetings or clandestine samizdat printing operations or anything like that. Near the end of the book, Dreher advises, “Christians should educate themselves about the mechanics of running underground cells and networks while they are still free to do so.” As the Uyghurs would tell you, if they could, that ship has already sailed. The old mechanics are obsolete and no longer work, and there are no new mechanics.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t any room left for improvement if the state isn’t yet that unified or serious, as America’s is not quite yet. As an example, it would be legally (if not necessarily politically) feasible and straightforward to pass a law which required all digital devices with wireless communications capabilities or sensors to possess mechanical switches physically cutting off power to each of those capabilities and sensors, to have easily removable batteries, and for any “power off” or “shut down” mode to mean “actually and completely non-functioning” until turned back on. Simple test: if the government could not access it without a warrant, it gets a switch. Purism has been working on a Librem line of devices which have this capability, but that would always be a niche market easy to shut down or shut out. A policy which required this for everything now, however, would be hard to reverse later.
Yes, this would be a pretty bad development in the short term for law enforcement and the intelligence community, there’s no sense denying it. Every tyranny makes this argument, and they aren’t wrong. But the thing about a manual which instructs one on what to do to avoid persecution is that the skills and techniques are agnostic regarding whether the persecution in just (of traditional criminals) or unjust (of Christians). If there is any possible canopy under which one can hide from the empire, all kinds of scum and villainy will hide there too, and they’ve got even more money and motivation to do so. One simply has to swallow those consequences and tolerate some increased level of criminal activity, or give up. This is just an extension of the typical logic used to defend the concept of rights.
The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.
Few like to defend criminals, but if the criminals can’t hide, you can’t either. If, as seems to be true, that “Hiding Is Over” if a state really wants it to be over, then if let it get to the point that you need to hide, you’re going to be out of luck. The manual says, “Don’t let it.”
XXIII: Ideologically Monocrystalline
But who decides what crosses the line? … “It is not at all difficult to imagine that banks, retailers, and service providers that have access to the kind of consumer data extracted by surveillance capitalists would decide to punish individuals affiliated with political, religious, or cultural groups those firms deem to be antisocial. Silicon Valley is well known to be far to the left on the social and cultural issues, a veritable mecca of the cult of social justice.
Hard cases make bad law, but there is nothing but a hard choice to make about this undeniable situation. Either one embraces the principle of “they are private companies so they are free to do whatever they like and the state has nothing to do with it,” and accept, well, ‘extinction’. Or one says no, undermines the principles of free enterprise and private property, but creates a terrible state power that, eventually, can and will be used by ones enemies too.
On the other hand, all the undermining and regulation has already been done in every other possible way in every other industry and sector, especially all those rules insisting on equal treatment. Frankly, it’s bizarre to watch advocates insist on straining out the gnat of just this one thing that apparently crosses the line though it threatens half the country with political neutralization, when they are unable to summon up ten percent as much passion for having swallowed as many camels as there are pages in the Code of Federal Regulations.
Speech Is Special. You can’t argue to get it back once it’s gone. There can be genuinely free platform companies, or universally safe platform companies, but if companies are only free to the extent it is safe for our enemies to use the platforms to crush us, then crushed we will be.
One final point about technology. Dreher quotes:
The moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies.
Everyone on social media has a public, and thus Yuval Levin would probably call the consequences “the triumph of performativism.” Real talk: We just are not well adapted to it, and it (i.e., Twitter) is destroying us and our intellectual life, and we can’t stop ourselves. We may very well look back on this time and conclude, “Transparency was a mistake.” Today, most platforms increasingly insist that everyone confirm their real-life identity. The right answer might have been to insist on the opposite. “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It was probably better that way.
XXIV: Not Getting Religion
“The essence of modernity is to deny that there are any transcendent stories, structures, habits, or beliefs to which individuals must submit and that should bind our conduct”
He says ‘modernity’ but my impression is that he means modern, secular, leftist progressivism. But if you are not a progressive, ask yourself, do they seem like they aren’t interested in making you submit and binding your conduct? Do they lack for stories with unfalsifiable elements that explain why they are entitled to do this?
The progressives imagine that they’ve solved for objective morality. There is no “dictatorship of relativism.” The Jacobins are not libertarians “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” They have a perfectly well-defined concept, and it applies to you too, without any right to define a different one, because error has no rights.
XXV. Velvet Samizdat:
Perhaps nothing helps to highlight the contrast between Soviet-era or North Korean-style Communist oppression and the current circumstances in America than the irrelevance of ‘samizdat’. Yes, there is certainly a fair bit of purging and memory-holing, removal of items from curriculum as well as chilling, suppression, and intimidation out there for present-day writers and publishers who wish to go off-narrative.
But all of it has a mostly prospective, deterrent character. The robust strength of the current system of opinion management is perhaps in no way better demonstrated than by the fact that there is mostly no problem with actual eliminative censorship of the past, with preserving cultural memory, archives, records, and so forth. Because none of that makes any difference.
All the old books are still out there, accessible to anyone, instantaneously, in their own language, and free, and one doesn’t have to go back very far before most of them have the “currently regarded as problematic” volume knob pegged to eleven. Don’t even get me started on Greek philosophy! But almost nobody cares, and it goes unread, and even more unread than one would figure correcting for our increasingly post-literate society. The ‘soft’ system is so much stronger than the ‘hard’, it is nigh invulnerably, such that brazen, obvious, and easily-disproven falsehoods can be printed without any concern on the part of the authors or publishers whatsoever, who know they’ll win prizes anyway.
The counterarguments will be allowed to exist, just not allowed to make a difference. They will never get any attention, buzz, or amplification from prestigious, cool people, and so can be ignored just as if they had been censored. This is deeply demotivating; why even bother? In a way, it’s actually better when your enemies know you’re lying and know you can get away with it. Show’s everyone who’s boss. No need for samizdat, no point.
XXVI: Inheritance Subsidy
Dreher is particularly inspired by the Bendas and their commitment to turning their home into a sanctuary, place of refuge, and the ‘parallel polis’ of an alternative community.
But Vaclav Benda had advantages. The Communist takeover of his country was recent and had been widely predicted. That meant there was still a large population of people who had grown up in the old days and were formed by that previous order to be loyal to pre-existing commitments, traditions, habits, institutions, and, most importantly, to each other. That includes Benda himself. His activities depended on being able to rely on the remnants of that inheritance, along with the nationalistic perception of a brutally oppressive *foreign* occupation.
But pressure and time wears down all things, and another generation or two of persecution, combined with the psychological enervation from a fully indigenous phenomenon such as that in America, and it would have been impossible.
Benda also lived in a time and place where physical proximity was essential and common. Today it is like herding cats to bring people together, and so the internet is now where all the “private home” discussions are had. There are plenty of virtual Bendas and little digital salons out there. They are a great source of consolation and solidarity for dissidents, and the quality of gallows humor is top notch. But mostly these venues have proven to be impotent and incompetent for any other purpose. Probably the last old pagans gathered around to drink and talk about their plight, and to joke and complain about those darn Christians as they tried to figure out if there was anything else to be done. There wasn’t.
XXVII: Man and SuperBenda
If one doesn’t have a manual, perhaps one can imitate a model. But can the Bendas be models? A model provides an example that an ordinary person can feasibly replicate. But the Bendas put the extra in extraordinary. Inspiring cases of astonishing and, frankly, naturally elite people with incredibly strength of will who are one out of ten thousand are wonderful to hear. But if that’s what it takes, then any project which relies on typical people following in their footsteps is altogether hopeless. Consider:
The Benda family model requires parents to exercise discernment. For example, the Bendas didn’t ops out of popular culture but rather chose intelligently which parts of it they wanted their children to absorb.
I am somewhat less than perfectly confident in the capacity of most ordinary Christians to exercise anything approaching this level of judicious discernment, including the abilities to both choose wisely and intelligently and also to maintain the strict discipline and constant overwatch needed to keep it going, day in, day out. “Be Like Benda” is a tall order, and if we’re being honest, too tall for too many.
This is a different context from the one in which one would encourage sinners to try to live more like saints, or to imitate the lives of the holy family, as every little step in that direction is an improvement. As it is in horseshoes and hand-grenades, so it is in holiness: getting closer counts.
But when it comes to resisting overwhelming social pressures, one has to clear tall hurdles, and if one can’t, one cannot move forward. Imagine you are in the ocean near the beach and someone spots a man-eating shark. Michael Phelps is there and can out-swim the shark to shore, because he is an extraordinary man. We all admire his prowess and we can try to imitate what he does, but in our cases it won’t be enough. Phelps is going to make it, but we will be shark food.
That may seem gloomy, but the real strength of a prestige-based replacement of religions is that it is particularly adept at making sure nearly all the Phelps are on its side, in our case, helping the shark.
But in some ways people like Benda and all the rest of Dreher’s subjects were more ordinary for their time and place and only extraordinary in comparison to us. These were hard men and women, who had been toughened in the forge of a terrible era.
Perhaps there is someone in your family or close to you who had immigrated to a rich country after making it through those kinds of hard experiences. One only has to be around people like this for a day to know that they are made of different stuff from all of us. They are tempered steel, and compared to them, we are soft aluminum foil which any child can crumple. It’s just being honest to say that the disease of affluence means that the vast majority of us just don’t have what they have, and if that’s the rare right stuff it takes to make it, then we won’t. You can’t go to the moon with the random group of people who couldn’t get out of jury duty, but you can’t preserve a faith if you need astronaut-caliber adherents.
XXVIII. You May Have Lost The War, But The War Has Not Lost You
Near the end of the book, Dreher writes, “The culture war is largely over— and we lost. The Grand March is, for the time being, a victory parade.”
Dreher has repeated this over many years, and I have been reading a similar lines for two decades at least, and it probably goes back long before that. In a way it’s true, and, depending how you define terms, it’s been true before any of us were born. But in a way it’s not true, because there is a great deal of ruin in a culture. As much as has already been taken, there remains so much more territory left to conquer, and it’s odd to say one has lost a war when the battles never end and new fronts keep opening up all the time.
It’s more precise to say that if non-progressives keep doing what they are doing now, following the conventional rules of the game, then like the Pagan, what they are giving up is the capacity to hold ground. That means the best they can do is slow down the advance and retreat and retreat and retreat until, one day, they are on the beach, backs against the ocean.
The real trouble with “Live Not By Lies” is that the encouragement of the stories (which are inspiring) and the instructions of the manual (such as they are), are simply not remotely adequate to arrest the trend of the progressive progression, which ends in The End.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to end like that, and it is still not too late to choose a different destiny. The bad news is that it would require measures far more radical than 99.99% of Christians and other non-progressives are currently prepared to accept. The proper task of a prophet is to expand that acceptance by making them understand they don’t have any better options. At least, not if they don’t want to end up like the Pagans.