Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative and author of several books, including The Benedict Option (Sentinel, 2017) and the forthcoming: “‘Live Not By Lies!’: How To Resist The Coming Soft Totalitarianism” (Sentinel, September 2020).
Transcript of Rod Dreher’s speech:
Five years ago, I received a phone call from an American physician, who was rather alarmed. He told me that his mother emigrated to America from Czechoslovakia. When she was young, she served six years as a political prisoner because she was part of the underground Catholic resistance to communism. Now, as an old lady living with her son and his wife, she said to her son: “The things I am seeing in this country today remind me of when communism came to my homeland.”
She was talking about the growing intolerance, even hysteria, from the Left against anything that conflicts with their ideology. I knew that political correctness was a big problem, but this sounded exaggerated to me. Maybe she is just a frightened old woman, I thought.
But over the next few years, I began talking to immigrants from the Soviet bloc – men and women who once lived with communism, but who escaped to the West. I would ask them: “What are you seeing today? Is this old Czech woman correct?”
Over and over, I heard the same thing: YES! It really is happening here. We can feel it in our bones. Almost all of them are quite frustrated and angry that no American believes them.
I understand the skepticism. I was skeptical too when the doctor first called me. Today, though, after interviewing a number of these people, and spending much of the last year traveling throughout the former communist countries of the East to interview former dissidents and political prisoners, I am convinced that they are right. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said:
“There always is this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.’”
It is not only possible here in the liberal democratic West, but it’s taking form right now. People who lived through communist totalitarianism are trying to sound the alarm. They are trying to wake the rest of us up before it is too late. As Marek Benda, a Czech politician who comes from a dissident family told me last year in Prague: “The fight for freedom is always with us. Only one generation divides us from tyranny.”
The fight against the new totalitarianism is the fight of our generation. It is here. It is now. And it cannot be avoided.
Before we go further this morning, let’s define our term. What is totalitarianism?
In her classic 1951 study “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt examined both the Nazi and communist movements in an attempt to discern why they appealed to the masses. Totalitarianism makes every aspect of life political. It not only seeks obedience from the people, but it attempts to force everyone to welcome their own oppression. We have to internalize the ruling ideology, and make it our own. As George Orwell put it, the goal is for everyone to learn to love Big Brother.
Many of the conditions that Arendt saw as the seedbed of totalitarianism are present today, in our decaying liberal democracies. Here is a short list of Arendt’s pre-totalitarian signs that we see very strongly in our society:
• Widespread loneliness and social atomization
• Loss of faith in institutions and hierarchies
• A desire to transgress
• A rise in the power of ideological thinking
• The increased use of propaganda
• The value of loyalty – to a person or to an ideology – more than expertise
• The politicization of everything
As I see it, we have two basic things that distinguish us from pre-communist Russia and pre-Nazi Germany.
First, the all-consuming ideology among us is not racist nationalism or Marxism-Leninism, but rather a globalist, victim-focused identity politics, often called “social justice.” The revolutionary class is not the German volk or the international proletariat, but the “marginalized” and “oppressed” – the Sacred Victim. Like Bolshevism, social justice is a utopian political cult. It sounds like a political platform, or maybe a therapeutic management system, but the best way to understand it is as a fanatical religion.
Second, the technological environment today is vastly different from a hundred years ago, when the twentieth century’s totalitarianisms emerged. The most important difference is that we now render all human life and experience as digital data that is storable, searchable, and that can be exploited by surveillance states and the surveillance capitalists of Google, Amazon, and others. The People’s Republic of China, for example, now has the capabilities and the will to surveil and to control its own people to a degree of which that Mao, Stalin, and totalitarian tyrants of the twentieth century could only have dreamed.
Here’s why many of us have been very slow to appreciate the totalitarian nature of contemporary liberalism. It’s because the emerging totalitarianism is not going to be a version of the grim scenario imagined by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Rather, it is going to be more like the alternative dystopia imagined by Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World.” Orwell imagined a world much like Stalin’s Russia, where the state controlled society by fear, pain, and terror. By contrast, Huxley imagined a world where the state controlled the masses through managing pleasure and comfort.
Western people will surrender political power to a state, and to authorities, who promise to protect their therapeutic desires – especially maximizing sexual freedom. It will do this through some version of China’s social credit system, where one’s freedom in society is decided by an algorithm that rewards or punishes one based on one’s beliefs, one’s friends, and so forth. As in “Brave New World,” the most important values will be “safety” and “well being.” If religious and political liberties threaten either, then they will have to be eliminated. This is already happening within universities and other institutions that, in a very Soviet way, are stigmatizing dissent as pathological.
This is what the American social critic James Poulos calls the “Pink Police State.” The Pink Police State – which entails the government, academic and cultural institutions, as well as large corporations — is the form that the new totalitarianism is taking.
So, how do we resist? The good news is that there are people who retain living memory of communist totalitarianism. They have seen this kind of thing before. They are warning the rest of us that we are walking into a trap. We need to hear them.
You will hear today speeches and comments by my colleagues who will speak of the resistance in political terms. This is important. But let us begin by talking about the cultural resistance, without which political resistance cannot succeed.
First, we have to reclaim and defend cultural memory.
When the Nazis invaded Poland, their ultimate plans were not simply to rule Poland, but to destroy the Polish nation. The Germans sought to do this the way all totalitarians do: by controlling the cultural memory of the Polish people. They had to make the Poles forget their history, and forget their religion.
A young Polish actor, Karol Wojtyla, committed himself to the patriotic resistance. But he didn’t pick up a gun! He and his theater friends wrote and performed underground plays on religious and historical themes. These theatrical events happened in secret. If the Gestapo had discovered them, all the actors and all the audience would have been shot. Wojtyla and the theater company literally put their lives on the line to keep alive the cultural memory of their nation.
We have to do the same in our time. The globalists try to make the nations ashamed of their heritage, in the same way the communists did to the masses they wished to control. We have to refuse this! We do not have to believe in a triumphalist myth of a golden age. We only have to look around us with eyes of gratitude for the good and beautiful things that our ancestors have given to us – and defend them as our own.
I should add that the ideology of consumer capitalism also tries to disconnect us from our past. If we are nothing but individuals defined by our desires, it’s easier to sell us things. We of the Resistance must declare that some things are not for sale! As John Paul the Second said, man is not made for the market; the market is made for man.
Second, we must establish and defend solidarity. I am not talking specifically about the Polish trade union. I am talking about something more intimate: the bonds among small groups of people.
In every postcommunist country I visited, I heard the same thing from former dissidents: that the strong bonds of solidarity with others gave them the courage to fight back. Last year, I stood in a secret underground room in Bratislava, where Catholic samizdat was printed for a decade. My guide was Jan Simulcik, a historian who, in the 1980s, was part of the underground who distributed that samizdat. He told me that like everybody else in the movement, he was afraid – but the camaraderie of his friends gave him the courage to keep going.
Dr. Vaclav Benda, a hero of the Czech resistance, worked to bring Czech people together, face to face, to remind them that they were actually a people. The state demoralized the masses by making them feel isolated and alone. As Dr Benda saw, the simple act of rebuilding social solidarity was counterrevolutionary. In our time, the state doesn’t force us to choose loneliness and isolation behind a glowing screen; we do it to ourselves. We can fight back by rebuilding the bonds of community in practical ways.
Third, we must strengthen our religion. I don’t simply mean that we must go to church more. Rather, we have to be far more radical than that. In my book “The Benedict Option,” I write about St. Benedict of Nursia, the 6th century Christian who responded to the collapse of the Roman imperial order by creating a parallel society dedicated to disciplined prayer and service to God. Over the next few centuries, the Benedictine monks played an absolutely key role in civilizing barbarian Europe. It began, though, with St. Benedict developing a Christian way of life that was resilient in the face of the extraordinary stresses of the early medieval period.
This past Sunday I made a pilgrimage to the cave in Subiaco where Benedict lived alone for three years as a hermit, praying and fasting and seeking the will of God. From that little hole in the side of a lonely mountain grew a seed of faith that, over the next centuries, would rebuild Western civilization. If you feel powerless and despairing, go to Subiaco and see what God can do with a single man who puts the search for Him above everything else.
We now live in a post-Christian civilization. Right now, while there is time, Christians at the local level must commit themselves to creating new ways of living out old truths. Every one of the anti-communist dissidents I interviewed were strongly believing Christians. Pawel Skibinski, a biographer of John Paul the Second, told me that humanity is like a kite. As long as it is connected to the earth by a string, it can fly very high. But if the line is cut, the kite falls to the ground.
We are the kite. The line is our connection to God. Without the God of the Bible, we will not be able to resist both the coming totalitarianism, or the parallel temptation to embrace evil forms of resistance.
Here’s what I mean. In 1939, the English poet W.H. Auden was living in Manhattan. He went to see a movie in a part of the city where lots of German immigrants lived. As a newsreel came on describing the Nazi invasion of Poland, German-speaking members of the audience leaped to their feet and began shouting, “Kill them! Kill them!”
Auden was deeply shocked by the nakedness of the evil displayed by the Nazi sympathizers. And he understood that mere humanism would not be enough to defeat it. After this dark epiphany, Auden returned to the church.
Finally, we must do the must counterrevolutionary thing of all: embrace the value of suffering. This strikes at the heart of the Pink Police State and its therapeutic totalitarianism.
If you are not willing to suffer the loss of social status; if you are not willing to suffer the loss of a job; if you are not willing to suffer the loss of freedom – and, if it comes to it, even your life – for the sake of the truth, then you have already surrendered to evil. This is the lesson we learn from the anti-communist resistance. The essence of their Christian hope was that suffering has ultimate meaning, if it is joined to the transformative passion of Jesus Christ.
The willingness to suffer for the truth is at the core of the final message Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave to the Russian people on the eve of his 1974 exile, in an essay titled, “Live Not By Lies!” A few years, later, the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel urged his readers to “live in truth.” Havel told a fable about a greengrocer who has the sign “Workers Of The World, Unite!” in his shop window – not because he believes the slogan, but because he doesn’t want trouble.
One day he removes the sign from his window because he wishes to live in truth. And he will suffer for it, says Havel. He might lose his business. He will not be able to travel. His children might not get into universities. The pain will be real. But his act will have ultimate value. The humble greengrocer will have shown that it is possible to refuse to conform to the official lies. It is possible to live in truth.
The life of Vaclav Havel, the first president of a free Czechoslovakia, and the other anti-communist dissidents shows that those who are willing to suffer for the truth might, in the end, triumph. Very few dissidents expected communism to end in their lifetime. They resisted communism because that was the right thing to do. What about us? What will we do in our time and place?
The Pink Police State is kindlier than its totalitarian predecessors, but in its ideology of globalist homogenization and technological reach, it is no less a threat to the existence of religion, of families, of tradition, and of peoples. Yes, we must fight it politically when we can, but we must also fight it inside ourselves.
I want to close by telling you about a hidden hero who deserves to be rediscovered. In 1943, a Croatian Jesuit named Father Tomislav Poglajen was organizing Catholic anti-Nazi resistance in his home country. When he learned that the Gestapo was going to arrest him, the priest fled to his mother’s country, Czechslovakia. He adapted his mother’s last name, Kolakovic, and began to organize Catholic anti-communist resistance.
Why anti-communist resistance? Father Kolakovic knew that the Germans were going to lose the war. But as he told the young Slovak Catholics who gathered around him, communism would ultimately come to power in their land. And that, he prophesied, would mean horrible persecution for the Church.
Father Kolakovic did not sit around waiting for it to happen. Instead, he organized cells around the country – groups of young Catholics who gathered for prayer, Bible study, and lectures. They also learned the arts of resistance – for example, how to survive an interrogation. They established resistance networks across the Slovak region. When the communist dictatorship installed itself in 1948, Father Kolakovic’s network was ready. It became the backbone of the underground church, which was the chief source of Slovak anticommunist resistance.
Today we await a new Father Tomislav Kolakovic – a visionary who can read the signs of the times, and who builds the ways of life, and the social networks, capable of resisting the coming evil.
My friends, one way to define hope is the marriage of MEMORY with DESIRE. If we can remember what we once had, and desire to have it again, we have something to hope for. There is no better place than Rome to ponder the cultural memory of our common civilization. From St. Benedict’s cave in Subiaco, to Wojtyla’s hidden theater under occupation, to the underground samizdat room in Bratislava – these are all part of our cultural memory. Let these memories shape our desires – for God, for truth, for liberty, and for home — and may they give birth to the joy of resistance.