This week on High Noon, Inez Stepman interviews Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative and author of the book Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.
Live Not By Lies is all about preparing yourself — mentally, spiritually, practically — for the possibility of living as a dissident in a hostile and totalitarian society. Each of Dreher’s points is buttressed by his many interviews with people who have “lived it” under communism in Eastern Europe and Russia.
Dreher and Stepman discuss critical lessons for our own pre-totalitarian moment, such as where to draw the line to save your job and your integrity, the importance of preserving cultural memory, and the ways in which our developing technological and private tyrannies, if allowed to continue on their current trajectory, will look different from the tyrannies of the 20th century.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. My guest today is Rod Dreher, and you may know him from all of his previous writings, whether that’s at The American Conservative or elsewhere, and from his previous book, The Benedict Option. But what we’re going to talk about today is Live Not By Lies, which is his latest book, and I think it’s a really fascinating and important book for our moment because it not only talks about the comparisons between totalitarian societies and what he calls our pre-totalitarian society, but also talks about how people — and talks to people who lived under totalitarian societies, mostly communist societies — and how they managed to… Resist is too broad a word because it covers so many different actions. But what I want to say is the second half of this book is very much dedicated to how to live in a totalitarian society with a certain amount of truth and conscience, and dignity. So, oh, welcome, Rod Dreher, and it’s really great to have you here on High Noon.
Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
So the first question I really wanted to ask you is why you decided to write this particular book. Was it somebody that you talked to that gave you sort of their perspective, being from a totalitarian society or from a communist society? At what point did it flip over, I guess is my question, where you started thinking, “Hmm, there’s a lot of these people who are raising alarm bells about how life in America is in our time.”
Well, it started with the phone call back in either 2014/2015. I can’t remember precisely. I think it was ’15. It came to me from a doctor at the Mayo Clinic. We had a mutual friend, and he had told our mutual friend that he needed to tell some journalist what had just happened, so guy gave him my number. What the doctor said was that his elderly mother who lives with him and his wife had grown up in Czechoslovakia. And she was a young woman when communism came there, the communist government told her to stop going to church. She says, “I’m not going to stop going to church.” So they arrested her for being a “Vatican spy.” They put her in prison for four years and tortured her. When she got out, she immigrated to America and got married, and that was the rest of her life.
The mom was telling her son, “Son, the things I see happening in America now remind me of what it was like in my home country when communism first came to power.” What she was talking about was cancel culture, the emergence of cancel culture, the emergence of wokeness, people being afraid to say what they really think and so forth. And it really rattled this doctor. And I thought, “Wow, that’s actually something.” But, you know, my mom is old. She watches a lot of cable news. She gets scared about everything. Maybe this old woman is overreacting.
So I made a point whenever I would travel around for conferences, things like that. If I would run into somebody who lived in America today but had come from the Soviet Bloc, I would just ask them: “Are the things you’re seeing happening in our country today reminiscent of what you left behind?” Inez, every single one of these people, without fail, said yes. And if you talk to them long enough, they would be so angry over the fact that Americans just didn’t take them seriously. So after this happened enough times, I finally said, “You know, there’s a book here.”
You know, this sounds very familiar to me, just personally, because my parents come from communist Poland. But the sort of warning that is gone… I wouldn’t even say unheard, but in some way can’t be heard, right? There is a certain kind of baseline assumption about being an American. And, of course, in many other societies, there was a similar assumption, but I think especially about being an American that, “This really can’t happen here.” We have a particular history which has its own black marks, but that we don’t have the kind of history that, say, pre-revolutionary Russia had, or other places where these kinds of totalitarian societies rise. And there’s this just very strong mental block in terms of even considering the kind of possibility. Do you think that that mental block is starting to break down in the face of some of the things we’ve seen over the past, whether that’s year, two years, or even going back a few years?
Yeah, I think it is starting to break down, but it’s still going slowly. This book, Live Not By Lies, has sold, as we’re talking, almost 150,000 copies in the 14 months it’s been out, which is really extraordinary for a book like this. But it has sold those copies in the face of zero attention from the mainstream media — and I can understand why they wouldn’t pay attention to this book because the book damns them as being part of the soft totalitarian regime. But what I’m finding though is that people are talking among themselves, especially in church groups. Whenever I go out, travel, talk about the book, people will come up to me and say, “I bought five copies for people in my church because we have to figure this out.” And so word of mouth is sort of like Samizdat; it’s becoming the way that the awareness is spreading, but you’re very right about Americans just not wanting to see what’s happening right in front of our eyes.
Solzhenitsyn saw this himself after he came to the West, after the Soviets expelled him. In the — I believe it was a 1983 edition of the Gulag Archipelago — he said this directly. He said that everybody around the world looks at what happened to the Soviet Union and say, “Well, what happened there could never happen here. It wouldn’t be that way with us.” “In fact,” said Solzhenitsyn, “What happened in my country could happen in any country on earth under the right set of circumstances.” As I argue in Live Not By Lies, Hannah Arendt, her list of factors that lead to totalitarianism, they’re all present here, just as they were present in pre-revolutionary Russia and in pre-Nazi Germany.
One of the things that really runs through this book is the promise of utopia on earth, right? And that particularly promise, delivered, or sort of disseminated in a society in which people have totally broken faith with institutions and with any kind of sort of community organizations. I guess what I kept thinking about when I was reading it — or listening to it, rather — was a conflict of visions and, in terms of the constrained versus unconstrained view, that promising different kinds of utopia, right, depending on the circumstances of the society that it was being sold into. But you really focus on what the conditions are of the people receiving that message, I think rightly, because there’s always somebody promising something akin to heaven on earth.
And usually, if society is sort of good enough, if there are enough sources of meaning and happiness and stability and connection in people’s lives, they’re not particularly interested, or at least not beyond a small percentage of people, they’re not particularly interested in visions of utopia that may or may not come to pass. But what are some of the conditions that you think are present that you observe, or some of the similarities that you observe between, for example, pre-revolutionary Russia and United States now that make us more susceptible to messages of utopia?
Yeah. Well, Hannah Arendt said in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism that by far the most important factor in the rise of totalitarianism was mass loneliness and atomization. When people have been alienated from each other, from their communities, from their religion, from any of the things that gave people a sense of purpose, of identity and direction, then they’re very vulnerable to someone coming in with a utopian message that tells them, “Just trust me, trust the system. We can get this right. We can return everything that you’ve lost.” This is what the Bolsheviks did, and this is what the Nazis did. And we see this everywhere in America now. One of the things that really shocked me when I was doing my research was to find in a 2020 survey, I think it was, that the loneliest generation in America are not the elderly, which you would expect, but rather Generation Z. Seven in 10 members of Generation Z told the pollster that they don’t have any friends, and they’re lonely, or they don’t have good friends.
I mean, I find that completely extraordinary because especially happening as it is in a time when social media and social networking has supposedly connected us more closely than ever. In fact, people feel directionless and lonely. And this, I think, accounts for a lot of the pull of wokeness. Czeslaw Milosz, the great Polish poet and dissident, said that people — in his book, The Captive Mind, which came out in the 50s, not long after he defected — he said that people in the West think that communism only has power because it scares people, because it forces itself on people, which is certainly true. It does do that. He said that people in the West, though, miss the fact that communism gives people a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. It was a lie, said Milosz; that’s why he came to the West.
Nevertheless, when people don’t have that sense of purpose, they don’t have that sense solidarity, then they become vulnerable to this sort of thing; and that, I think, is the main reason that wokeness, soft totalitarianism, call it what you will, is progressing in America. A second reason, and you alluded to this earlier, is a collapse in trust in institutions. If you look at the polls for a long time, fewer than half of Americans say they trust most of the major institutions in society. The only ones that have polled above 50% in recent years are the police, the military, and, weirdly enough, small business. Well now, with the military going full-on woke, I saw some polling results recently that said that trust in the military is starting to collapse.
So all of this is part of an ongoing process that resembles to me the proverbial frog in the boiling water. We’re losing our liberty without even being aware of what’s happening. I should say, finally, one of the main factors is transgression for the sake of transgression. That is to say, people want to rebel against settled norms and institutions just for the sake of seeing what happens. I mean, this is common everywhere. It’s even been commodified since the 1960s rebellion. But now we are seeing the fruits of that and a disconnection from any authoritative institutions.
You remind us in this that similarly, following World War I, there was this sort of cross-national period of, depending on your perspective, sexual liberation or sexual decadence, right, that actually preceded some of these communist revolutions. But also in countries that didn’t end up having communist revolutions after World War I, there was a sort of great disillusionment with institutions. But you do point to the fact that this has happened before. We tend to think of our loose social mores as something new and revolutionary, but, in fact, you point to here that this isn’t… You call it transgression for the sake of transgression, that this search for sort of something…. Let me think about what I want to say here.
I guess I’m thinking about the art of interwar Germany, for example, where — of course, Hitler famously called it degenerate, and that’s not what I’m going to do — but there is this period in art where people very clearly want to show that they have no respect for the things that traditionally a society respects about itself, right? So you have Otto Dix painting World War I veterans, excuse me, World War I veterans in a way that’s grotesque, right? Or you have various, especially German, but other artists of the period as well, painting things that are not just revealing or showing nudes, which is obviously a tradition in art, but very intentionally trying to make nudes either grotesque or to give them a very sort of sexual character that was different than artists in the past. And I wonder if what you think the connection between those two things is the sort of great disillusionment and then the sort of hedonistic… but it doesn’t seem simply a search for pleasure, you know what I’m saying?
Right. It’s metaphysical.
Seems like it has an edge underneath it that’s more than the simple, “Oh, this is pleasurable and I’m going to seek it because I don’t have a reason not to.”
Yeah, no, you’re right about that. One of the things that surprised me about my historical research is to find that the Bolsheviks were sexual revolutionaries too — at least the early Bolsheviks were, or are the ones in the revolutionary generation because they identify traditional marriage and traditional sexual roles with oppression. And they thought that, “If we can just get rid of these things, then we will all live in this sexual utopia.” And this didn’t start with the 1960s. And of course, it didn’t work out at all, but there was a connection between the sexual rebellion going on in the pre-revolutionary culture and totalitarianism. James Billington, the former Librarian of Congress wrote this great history, a famous history of Russia, called The Icon and the Axe. And in it he talks about how the sexual decadence was endemic to elite culture in Russia in the first decade of the 20th century.
And not only that, but… Not worship of Satan, but at least admiration of Satan. The cultural elites looked to Satan, the figure of Satan, as a literary romantic hero, because they admired his assertion of total will. And I thought about this earlier this year when that video Montero by Lil Nas X came out, which is full of satanic imagery; this is exactly the sort of thing that you were seeing happen in pre-revolutionary Russia. And whether you believe in the devil or not is beside the point. The point is they looked to the figure of Satan, the ultimate rebel, the person who rebels against all authority. They looked to him as a hero. And I think that this is also part of the decadence that led to the Weimar Republic and all the famous decadence of Berlin and awfully to a fascist backlash.
And I think that it’s a sign of the times, for sure, when you have this sort of sexual decadence that plays out in the collapse of families and the inability of people to form solid partnerships. Of course, today we have pornography endemic everywhere, and this is also making it harder for men and women to form stable relationships, and it increases loneliness. So it’s all tied together. You can’t point to one thing and say, “That is the cause.” It’s all working together, this disintegration of a formal society. I should recommend to your listeners a great book called The Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins, E-K-S-T-E-I-N-S. He’s a contemporary historian who looked Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which premiered in Paris, 1913, just before the war and caused this huge uproar. But Eksteins says that the artist really are profits.
That what Stravinsky anticipated, and other artists too, was the fundamental breakdown of subtle cultural norms that were happening even before World War I, and of course, here comes World War I, and it blows everything apart. And then we’re on our way into the 20th century, century of totalitarianism. The point is, though, that if you look to the art of the pre-revolutionary period, you can see clues as to what’s coming.
Well, obviously, despite some similarities, and actually one of the big ones that I kept thinking about, Helen Andrews wrote a great essay comparing pre-revolutionary Russia to modern America. And one of the things she focuses on is the fact that nobody in a position of authority or institutional power will defend the regime, right, that in fact the very elites sort of who have power in our society are exactly the people who will not defend the current regime, even with all of its flaws. But we are not in pre-revolutionary Russia. There are obviously major differences between the two situations. What are the unique features of what is developing in America, perhaps absent some kind of pushback or change of course? What are the features that are different about our potential totalitarianism here?
Yeah, I’m really glad you asked that because this is one of the common objections I get to my thesis. They say like, “Well, look around you. We don’t have Gulags here. We don’t have any secret police. We’re the breadlines, this can’t be totalitarianism.” In fact, this is a very different form of it, but it is still a softer form of totalitarianism. One of the big differences is that, in classic political theory, totalitarian theory, all power is concentrated in the state. We don’t have that now, but what we do have is what I like to call a regime, which includes the state but also includes the major media, the universities, the professions, the military, sports, entertainment, which is to say all the culture-forming institutions in our society. They’ve all gone woke. They have all adopted to some degree or another this radical ideology that… And they have made it to where you can’t get into those institutions and flourish if you object to this ideology. Now this is at the heart, I think, of what totalitarianism is.
It’s not simply the government having total control over everything that happens, but it’s rather a society that will only allow one ideology to exist, and that forces this ideology into every aspect of life. I think about, back in 1924, the Soviet Chess Society got fed up with the government, the new revolutionary government, trying to force its ideology onto chess. They came out with a statement saying, “We have to defend chess for chess’s sake.” They got a letter from a commissar that said, “Oh, no, no, no. In the time of the revolution, everything must be for the revolution, even chess.” Well, compare that to what we’re dealing with now where it seems like our woke capitalist overlords can’t find enough things that they have to brand with trans rights, or LGBT rights.
You even have cereal this past summer, breakfast cereal for children, that had on the side of the cereal box a chart telling them to pick their own pronouns. It seems like a minor thing, but this is what totalitarianism is: when you can’t escape the ideology, even sitting down with your children for breakfast. This is something that people don’t see, though, because if they’re so busy looking for George Orwell’s 1984 to come about, they’re going to miss the fact that we’re actually living in something more like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Brave New World is an important book to pay attention to because, unlike Orwell, whose 1984 had a totalitarianism that forced itself on people through fear and pain and terror, in Huxley’s version, people were invited to surrender their liberties to the totalitarian state because it gave them pleasure, it gave them material security, and it gave them constant entertainment. You didn’t have to be forced to accept this. You wanted to be part of it so you could be part of the pleasure dome, live under the pleasure dome.
When I think about turning points in our recent history with regard to what you’re calling woke capitalism and cancel culture, I pinpoint for the latter, I think… I’m a Californian, and when Prop 8 was going through the California political process, right — so this was the amendment that was limiting marriage to a man and woman as a matter of state law, and I was against that proposition at the time. But I remember the first sort of instances of people who had donated, for example, to Proposition 8, Brandon, I think was his name, the CEO of Mozilla, who was forced out of his company because of a donation, a private donation, that he had made to that campaign.
There were sort of similar tactics of mobbing people who had made donations. That’s the first time I remember seeing something like that play out in politics as opposed to the campus. But you point to a different kind of turning point, I think, or at least suggest it in this book with regard to companies. So that was the turning point, I think, internally where a company was like, “Okay, we can’t have a CEO who has donated to something that, at that time, even in California passed and a majority of voters, but you point to this RFRA Battle in Indiana as the first time that you observed corporate America coming in heavily on the side of sort of social liberalism. Can you just rehash what happened there and why it was important?
Yeah, it’s hugely important. Usually, we who are older — I’m 54, I grew up in a country where big business tried to stay out of politics because it was bad for business. That was the theory. So, fast forward to 2014 — or is it 2014 or 2015 — the RFRA Battle, Religious Freedom Restoration Act Battle, in the state of Indiana. State of Indiana, which had a Republican legislature and a Republican governor, Mike Pence at the time, they passed a state version of the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would’ve had the effect of giving religious people who are sued for discrimination an affirmative defense in court. It wouldn’t guarantee that they would win, but it would give them a little something to stand on, affirmatively. The federal version passed with bipartisan support in 1993, and various states have passed state versions too over the years. State of Indiana passed this and didn’t expect any trouble with it; it’s a Midwestern state, a Republican state.
What happened was so many major corporations — Salesforce, Apple Computers, Eli Lily, and so many others — came down like a ton of bricks on the state of Indiana and said, “This is bigoted legislation, and if you don’t get rid of it, there will be serious economic consequences to pay.” The state backed down, repealed the legislation. And that was the last time that this was tried anywhere else. It was a landmark decision. This was the Waterloo for social and religious conservatives because it showed that, in the end, when big business takes a side in our free-market country, that’s the real power. And I think that that was also the true beginning of woke capitalism as we know it today. And now, just try to get hired by one of these companies if you have any profile online where they can find out that you support any kind of social conservative cause. It’s going to be really, really difficult, but that’s where it started, right then.
And in fact, the woman I told you about earlier, the elderly Czech woman, she saw on the news the mobbing of Memories Pizza, that little, tiny evangelical-owned pizza parlor in small-town, northwest Indiana. She saw how the flash mob came against these people and threatened to burn the thing down after they were asked by a TV newsperson, “Would you serve gay people?” And they said, “Of course.” She said, “Well, would you cater a gay wedding?” They said, “Well, no. We’re evangelical Christians. That would be against our faith.” There was a national mob calling for the burning down of Memories Pizza. That’s the thing specifically that triggered the elderly Czech woman. She said, “This is exactly what they did in Czechoslovakia to anyone who objected to the communist government.”
Right, and I’ve repeated this on this show before, but you really… And in fact, even in the Soviet Union and in other places where they were unquestionably totalitarian, the Gulags were, other than in the ‘30s and under Stalin but later, the Gulags were in existence, but they weren’t the primary method of controlling people. You really had to be called recalcitrant to end up in the Gulag. It’s much easier just to make people unable to, for example, if you’re a doctor, make you unable to practice medicine and to have the only job you can find be washing dishes, and if even that; or if you’re an artist, to prevent you from working as an artist because you don’t have your Guild card. In order to get that card, you need to be in good standing with the party, right?
These things start to sound much more similar to what is developing in a private context in America. But let me ask you, are you more optimistic given… I guess, how do incidents like I’m thinking over voting laws in Georgia, where there was this pushback — because Delta tried to come in and do the same thing, right? They had the huge hub in Atlanta, and they tried to apply pressure to the Georgia legislature over some of the voting laws that they were passing. And the Georgia legislature quickly voted to repeal big tax credits that had been given to Delta to reside there. I mean, do you think that there are more politicians on the right who are cognizant of this dynamic and understand that if they buckle to this kind of corporate pressure, that there’s very little they will be “allowed to do” in their sphere of politics?
Yeah. I think that there is an awakening going on. It needs to happen a lot faster though, but I am glad that some people are starting to awaken. I think about JD Vance, who’s running for Senate for the Republican nomination in Ohio. He’s been very much red-pilled on the threat that corporate America faces to traditional values and to the liberties of conservative people, of dissidents — and frankly, of all of us. I think that what has to happen, though, is the whole Republican party has to get red-pilled on its slavish obedience to whatever big business wants, and, I should say, whatever the military wants. This has been a big problem for us. Some guy who comments on my blog, a military veteran, called out the other day former Republican chairs of the Armed Services Committee on the Senate, saying so much of the wokeness that has come into the military came in under their watch because they’re so afraid, leading Republican politicians, to stand up to the military, to what the Pentagon wants.
So I think this has to be a big, and a very steep learning curve for Republican politicians about who big business and the Pentagon are, whose side they’re really on. I think also that the capitalism aspect of this, Inez, you can see it happen with Ryan T. Anderson, probably a friend of yours, certainly a friend of mine in Washington, one of the top Catholic public intellectuals of his generation, and a gentle, kind, respectful man. He wrote this book called When Harry Met Sally or When Harry Became Sally, sorry, about the transgender moment, and he was writing in criticism of it. But Ryan Anderson, being the kind of man he is, it was a very respectful logical argument. The book sold fairly well, I think, but earlier this year, he found out by mistake that Amazon had stopped selling it.
And when questioned, Amazon said, “Well, we’re not going to sell any books that frame transgenderism as a mental illness.” Now leaving aside whether that’s really what Ryan did, this was their policy. Well, guess what? We live in a free-market society. They have the right to decide what books they will and won’t sell. I think that right is an important right to defend. But because Amazon has a near-monopoly position on the retail book market in America, if it decides that it is not going to sell a certain kind of book, a book that takes a certain political or social position, then those books won’t be published because a publisher cannot take the risk of investing in a book that Amazon won’t sell.
So you have right here in a liberal democracy, in a free market, legal decisions made by major economic actors that have a tremendous impact on the kind of discussion we can have in the public square. This is something that so many Americans are slow to grasp because so many of us, people my age and older, were raised and formed politically in a time in which big business was, if not on our side, at least neutral, and something to be defended against the government. Times really have changed.
Well, if times have changed, let’s shift and let’s think like dissidents, for lack of a better word. One of the most difficult questions that you tackle here is the line between living with lies and letting them sort of come through you into the world, right, in the famous formulation. And you distinguish that from imprudence, for example, but on the other hand, you seem hyperaware of the way that, psychologically, this kind of prudent decision making about when and where to speak up, how that can turn into rationalization that then makes you part of an immoral system.
I mean, what is the line, for example, to make this practical? What is the line for somebody who works in corporate America with all of the attendant sort of woke capitalism stuff that we’ve been talking about, what is the line where they should be willing to lose their job? Because there are so many people in that position right now; they’re wondering what to say or what to do, or if they should speak up in environments, whether that’s corporate America or academia, or there are certain places where it’s easier just by virtue of employment contracts and stuff. But let’s say corporate America, which has at-will employment, and which has shown itself perfectly willing not just to fire you, but to sort of blackball you from your profession.
Yep. Well, this is an impossible question to answer with any clarity because, well, I’ll put it to you like this: when I was in Poland doing interviews for the book, I spoke to two different men, Polish Catholics, who told me… They asked me what should they do? Both of them work for the Polish branch of American multinationals. And they were being forced to celebrate Pride Week, Pride Month, whatever it is. Now they both told me, he said, “We don’t have any problem working with gay people. We have gay people in our office. We get along with them fine, but we’re Catholics, and we feel that the company is pushing us too far here. Should we quit our jobs?” Now I’m an American who writes for a conservative magazine; I’m not going to get fired. I can go back to my comfortable home and continue to count on my salary to support my family, but these men had wives and children. And these are good jobs.
All I could tell them was, “Look, you have to think about this. Talk to your priest about it, talk to people in your life who are wise, and obviously talk to your spouse, and then make a decision.” I said, “I can’t in good conscience tell you, no, you must quit your job now. But what I can tell you is that if this isn’t the line in the sand, a line in the sand is coming, and you had better prepare yourself for that. I think that when you were forced, as a general rule, and as that when one is forced to say something or affirm something that one does not believe in as a condition for one’s employment, then one has to say, no, even if it costs you your job. And if your family is in such a situation, with a sick child, for example, that you would be in a really dangerous situation if you quit your job, then make every possible effort to define an exit, so you can land somewhere soft. The problem is there are fewer and fewer places where you can land somewhere soft, and it’s really appalling. And I think what’s happening is that certain of us on the right are seeing that there is probably going to be a role for the government that we never would’ve supported before in preventing big business from doing this sort of thing to its employees. I think there is an appropriate role for the government. And believe me, 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have said that at all.
Speaking of soft places to land, right? In the Soviet Union or in the Soviet Bloc states, right, there were some places, some refuges from ideology — not many, but they existed especially later on in, for example, engineering or pure mathematics, which is why, if you talk to sort of folks who have left the Soviet Union or the surrounding Bloc countries, if you talk to people who are born like me, first-generation Americans, so many of their parents are engineers. That’s not necessarily by accident. It’s because a lot of people… this was one of the refuges that you could seek. If you couldn’t live with yourself, if you weren’t willing to actively all the time talk about what the latest line of the party was, then to some extent you could now.
In some eras that was impossible as well, but at least in the softer eras, it was possible to sort of just do your math, right? And they didn’t tolerate you speaking against the order, but if you were a brilliant engineer, there was a certain amount of freedom that it gave you at least within your work, right, not to mouth the platitudes of the regime. Are those kinds of refuges… Do they exist in our pre-totalitarian moment? It certainly doesn’t seem to me that the sciences are refuge, given what’s happening in medical schools, which Katie Herzog has done some great reporting on, and Aaron Sibarium has as well. Given what’s happening in the science departments of universities, not just in the humanities, not just in the studies courses, but in hard math, hard science, physics, and other departments.
It doesn’t seem to me that science is going to be that refuge here. Do you have other ideas of perhaps careers that… I mean, this sounds dramatic, but I think it’s actually a very fair way of thinking about it. If you’re a young person today and you’re thinking about what career should I go into? Where should I build skills so that I won’t be asked to compromise my soul in a very real way and be faced with the decision that so many people are faced with today, where it’s feed their families and in the comfort to which they’re accustomed, or even lower than the comfort to which they’re accustomed, or knuckle under this kind of ideology?
You ask a really important question here, and it’s something that a lot of Americans of the educated social class, even if they’re conservatives, are afraid to look at. Somebody was telling me recently, I forget who, that Charlie Kirk from Turning Point USA asked an audience, he suggested to them that they should not send their kids to college, but send them to trade school. And he did not get a lot of positive feedback there because it’s really difficult for people of the educated class, you and I both are part of that, to think about our kids not going to college, but this is a reality that we have to face. When my… I have three kids, one’s in college now. He’s studying to work in museums. He’s going to face it head-on. But his younger siblings, one is about to turn 18, and he said, “Dad, I think I might want to go to trade school.”
And before I would’ve been like, “Wait, wait, wait, son, let’s think about this,” but now I’m like, “You know what? That might be a good idea.” Not only because that’s where his talents are, but he’s going to be able to have a job that’s fairly cancel-proof if he learns a trade. My youngest is in 10th grade and she loves baking, and she’s gotten to be very good at it. She wants to go to culinary school. Again, I’m thinking, “This is great. You will have a job that is in a vocation that is less open to being canceled.” So this is the sort of conceptual leap that people like you and me, and a lot of the people who listen to this program are going to have to make with our children and with ourselves, too, thinking about building careers that we can do with integrity and without compromising our beliefs, our principles, or, if we’re religious, our faith. Because this is coming.
The thing is though, Inez, this is what concerns me so much about now is the way surveillance works. The so-called surveillance capitalism that Shoshana Zuboff from Harvard has written about, the way that all of our, not only the government, but major corporations with our own permission, surveil everything we do through the smartphones and through the laptops. They know where we are, they know who we’re in touch with, they know what we read, what we buy, and so forth. In China, with the social credit system, this is used to oppress people even if they do nothing wrong at work. If the system finds out through their GPS coordinates that they were around people with low social credit scores, so-called anti-social people, then the people themselves can get a lower social credit score and it will make it harder for them to work, to travel, to have all these privileges until, at the very end, they could be thrown out of the economy; they’re no longer able to buy or sell. And this is without a human being ever laying eyes on them. This is all done by algorithm. I think this is the thing that worries me even more than our kids or we ourselves might be shut out of certain professions because we’re not on board with the ruling class ideology. But even if you work, if you pick up trash, but you happen to read the wrong things or hang out with the wrong people, you may find it hard to get a bank account. This is a sort of thing that is coming, and we had better get busy now erecting legal barriers to the woke capitalists who want to do this sort of thing.
Yeah, that’s a scary thought, and I had thought previously about the social credit system idea, but I had connected it directly to the person. The truly scary thing there is it’s already such a powerful force, that kind of social ostracization, that people will drop their friends without additional incentives, but to think about turbocharging it so that if you interact with an undesirable, you immediately suffer the consequences, right? You can’t even carve out… The question I wanted to ask you next was how to carve out this kind of zone of privacy, right, that you talk about that was so important, living totalitarian regimes, places where, it may be people’s private apartments, where you could have lectures, where you could have perhaps not explicitly political things, but in fact, art, literature, plays. You could have a conversation in a less fearful way. You have to carve out these, both communities and zones of privacy, where those kinds of conversations can continue to take place. But what you just suggested will make that more difficult.
Much more difficult. I was contacted not long ago by a retired military intelligence officer who read the book and got in touch with me to say, “Everything you say is absolutely true.” He said, “I’m a conservative, there’s a lot I can’t tell you, but I can tell you you’re on the right track here.” And what he’s doing now — he’s an Eastern Orthodox Christian, as I’m I, and that’s why he contacted me — he said that he’s devoting himself in his private time to figuring out ways to help churches be resilient and to keep from being persecuted. One of the things he said that all of us are going to have to do is get used to leaving our cell phones at home. He said that you can’t even just turn it off, that you’re still trackable, and they can still listen to you.
I mean, this sounds like crazy James Bond stuff, but it’s really happening. When I was in Prague interviewing Kamila Bendova, her family, the Benda family of Prague, have a whole chapter devoted to them about the things they did as anti-communist activists, as a family. Even today when you go to her house, they don’t have smartphones there because they know. Kamila said, “If you had had to deal with what we had to deal with, you would not bring anything into your house, like a smartphone or an Alexa or anything like that.” And look, this is something that… I know more about this than most people. I still carry my smartphone everywhere, but I think it might end up getting to that point where we have to abandon the use of these things just to protect ourselves. Certainly when we get together for meetings or conversations.
I was out in California not long ago, talking to an active-duty service member — we met at a social event — who was telling me that he would not encourage anybody to go into the military now because he said, “It’s so woke. It’s not the same military it was just two years ago.” But he’s also in intelligence, and he said, “Look, there are a lot of things, again, I can’t tell you because it would be against the law, but they know that we are standing here right now. If they wanted to know where I was and who I was, and I was talking to you, it’s been recorded.” And he said, “You can trust me on this. It’s not conspiracy theory.” So this is the kind of thing that I don’t know, Inez, that we have any capacity to deal with. This is where, given the limits of technology in the Soviet era, that even the Soviets couldn’t do the sort of things that we can do now.
Everything that’s being done in China with the social credit system and this techno totalitarian state, we have the same power to do it technologically here in America; we don’t have yet the political will to. I think that we need to have a freedom movement that’s not just a right-wing thing, but that gets people who want to protect their liberty on the left to stand against this sort of thing. The problem is that on the left itself… I got an email the other day from a friend who hates the Republicans with the heat of a thousand suns, but he said the trans thing and the way that educators, schools, are pushing transgender ideology has red-pilled him, and now he wants to know how he can work with Republicans to fight this thing in his county because he said, “Look on my side, there is no resistance to it among Democrats because Democrats want to use the power of the state to force people to be good as they define it.” So it’s a really difficult thing, because you have to convince people of what used to be commonly believed in America, which is that you have a right to be wrong. Nowadays, people don’t think you have a right to be wrong.
So I want to wrap this up with a final question, because I was reading this and really trying to think about — and I really do encourage people to read it, and particularly the second half of it — think about what small or large steps you can take in your life to prepare for the possibility of this kind of future and the ability to live in a way that is not sort of crippling to who you are. But the final question I really wanted to ask you is, if this comes to pass, which I hope it doesn’t and, like you, I hope that… And I think there’s some reason to hope that there is a broader backlash happening now, that it’s not just the right, that there are folks on the center and even Democrats who are waking up to how far this has gone and how dangerous it can be.
So I’m clear, I’m not fatalistic about where we’re going, but I agree with you that this is a real possibility worth considering. And in that light, I wondered what you think that, if we manage to carve out for ourselves these sort of zones of privacy, these dissident meetings, you write that or you talk to folks who say that they gathered in this way to remember who they were or who they are as a nation — so you’re talking about, for example, Poland, where preserving their nationhood through multiple occupations over time. What sorts of plays, maybe they’re not plays, but what sorts of things would we talk about and show and perform and display, if we are to preserve who we are as Americans in a potential totalitarian future? What would be our Samizdat?
Well, we have to protect our culture, keep cultural memory alive. I see, as you and I are talking, I can see over your shoulder, is that Gary Cooper in front of a Solidarność? Well, Gary Cooper in the movie High Noon was a favorite of the Benda family in Prague. In the depths of communism, they somehow got their hands on a copy of High Noon and the parents showed it to their children and said, “This is how one behaves, kids, when you’re faced with an enemy.” And so they were trying to model for them the importance of passing on cultural memory, these stories, the Benda family too. They read to their kids all the time. I talked to Kamila, the mom, who read for two or three hours a day to their six children, even when her husband was in prison as a political prisoner.
And what she was trying to do was to build within them an awareness that the things you’re hearing outside of this house are lies. And these stories that you carry in your heart and your memory will tell you what’s true. She looked at me and said, “I read them a lot of Tolkien.” I said, “Why Tolkien?” She said, “Because we knew that Mordor was real.” And suddenly it struck me, Inez, that this woman was so wise, Kamila, she knew that her kids would not be able to understand what communism was or any of these theoretical things, but they could understand what Mordor was. They could understand what The Fellowship of the Ring was. And they could analogize The Fellowship of the Ring to the activists in the distance who would come to their mom and dad’s house to talk about these things.
And so in this way, they kept the cultural memory alive, and they used stories to tell people who they were. This is something that we’re going to have to do, and I think things like classical Christian schools are one way of doing that. We also need to nurture these alternative ecosystems where we really do go back and read the classics, read the things that the woke don’t want us to read, watch the movies they don’t want us to watch, and tell these stories. I should say too that the book, Inez, is a hopeful book in that it shows that it is possible to resist this, if you’re prepared to suffer for your principles. But if you’re not prepared to suffer, if preserving comfort and status is the thing that matters to you most, then you’re going to collapse. All of the dissidents, whether they were Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox, they all were solid on that point that we have got to prepare ourselves to suffer for the truth.
[Essel Tunisian 00:51:34] did, as Vaclav Havel did. Final point: I dedicate the book to the memory of this Catholic priest from Croatia named Father Tomislav Kolakovic. Father Kolakovic was a Jesuit in Zagreb doing anti-Nazi work in 1943, when he got word that the Gestapo was coming to get him. He sneaked out, went to his mother’s homeland, Slovakia, and began teaching at a Catholic university in Bratislava. He told his students, “The good news is the Germans are going to lose this war. The bad news is the Soviets are going to be ruling this country when it’s over, and the first thing they’re going to do is come after the church. We have to be ready for them.” So he didn’t just talk about this. He acted. He set up these prayer groups of mostly young people who had come together to pray and to study, but also to talk about the things happening in their society, around them, what they saw coming, and decide on action plans, things they could do to get ready for persecution.
Within two years of his arrival in that country, these groups had spread out all over the country. Every town of any size had one, and they had a network. The bishops, the Catholic bishops of that country, chastised Father Kolakovic and said, “Father, quit scaring people. It will never happen here.” But Father Kolakovic had studied communism because he wanted to be a missionary to the Soviet Union. He knew how the Communists thought and he kept doing his work. Sure enough in 1948, when the iron curtain fell over that country, the first thing the Communists did was come after the church. The reason there was an underground church for 40 years in that country is because Father Kolakovic saw what was happening, and these young people who didn’t sit back and just hope that it wouldn’t happen, they got busy getting ready for it.
And so when the priests were arrested, the underground church kicked in. I think we’re in a Kolakovic moment here in America, Inez. And I think all of us, whether we’re religious or not, whether we’re Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, whatever, we need to start coming together and making plans. I hope it doesn’t happen. We have to fight against the coming of totalitarianism as hard as we can. But if we lose this fight, we’ve got to be able keep the resistance going.
Yeah. I really recommend your book for people who are interested in doing exactly what you just said because the steps that you outline — and to be perfectly clear, you, like me, we are lucky. We never had to live in this kind of society, but what you’ve done in this book is go out and talk to people who were able to both live and resist in those kinds of societies. And not everyone can be or will be Solzhenitsyn, but what you’ve done for us here is really laid out — not quite so concrete as 1, 2, 3, but still something more comprehensible — ways that we can get ready. Perhaps comprehensible, like you said, the child reading Lord of the Rings, what you’ve done for us here is laid out Mordor and laid out some things that we can do to prepare ourselves for that eventuality if it comes to pass if, as you say, if we don’t win this fight.
But thank you so much, Rod Dreher, for joining us on High Noon. Rod Dreher’s book is Live Not By Lies: A Manuel for Christian Dissidents, and I really highly recommend everybody read this and prepare in the way that Rod has laid out for us here through the words of people who really have done it, and lived through it. It is a comfort to know that we are far from the first people to be at this kind of juncture in our lives and in our history. And we won’t be the last if the crooked timber of humanity endures. So, Rod, thank you so much for joining me on High Noon.
It’s been a pleasure, and Merry Christmas to you and your listeners.
Merry Christmas. And thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, your comments and questions can go to [email protected]. Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.