Ridley Scott’s TV adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle came to Amazon in November, and bluntly put, it’s a horrifying ten hours. The premise says it all: What if the Allies had lost World War II? We see America divided between a Nazi regime in the east and a Japanese empire in the west, where people must discover what resistance to totalitarianism looks like in a world in which American police wear swastikas on their sleeves and Hitler is führer of half the globe.
Despite the fascist iconography in nearly every frame, the setting is more reminiscent of Stalinist Russia than Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. The show is set in 1962; there is no war to “justify” atrocity. Instead, atrocity is simply part of survival. It’s more The Lives of Others than Army of Shadows. The only ray of hope is not a weapon or a revolutionary political leader: It’s a myth.
A myth is not a falsehood or a fairy story, as people often think, it’s a narrative that offers, however obscurely, an explanation of the relationship among God, oneself, and the world. The myth in The Man in the High Castle is so powerful than anyone exposed to it is changed: either they become obsessed with destroying it, or they find in it the strength to resist evil.
The Totalitarian Myth
Vaclav Havel, the leader of the Velvet Revolution that overthrew the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia twenty-six years ago, would approve. As a playwright and philosopher living under Soviet tyranny, he became convinced that totalitarianism derived its strength not solely from power or even from fear, but from myths. An oppressive regime must somehow convince citizens that it is more rational, even more humane, to go along with its machinations than to resist. It can only do that by presenting a myth that justifies both itself and them.
In a 1978 essay called “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel observed that dictatorships in the modern world have little in common with dictatorship as defined by Aristotle. Classical dictatorships usually ended with the dictator’s death, but by the 1970s the Soviet Union’s power no longer depended on a leader or a group of leaders. It survived through its ideology, a monolith of acceptable truth that was completely integrated with the power structures. Ideology prohibits deep thought because it claims to have thought through the most important issues itself. As Havel says, “[Ideology] offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.” The Soviet ideology, developed over decades (or centuries, depending on whom you ask), was simple: Power is truth.
The USSR consisted of a massive framework of interconnected groups and individuals that, by consciously or unconsciously acquiescing to the ideology, gave it power. Havel pointed to the greengrocer who quietly put a sign “Workers of the World, Unite!” in his window every morning. It seemed like a small thing, but whether or not he meant it, his acquiescence empowered the state. The ideology of the regime was embedded into civil society to the degree than every individual who did not actively resist it, tacitly strengthened and became its instrument.
The Simul of Being Human
Human beings are complex creatures. We are simultaneously free (in mind, soul, and will, and therefore responsible for actions), fallen (capable of and even inclining toward tremendous evil), and dignified (distinct from all other creatures and deserving of love and respect). The Soviet ideology was particularly alluring because it addressed each of these characteristics. It gave each individual dignity based on his participation in the regime, promising that, if he joined it, he was brave and insightful enough to reject the previous world order in favor of a new one. It denied that inequality and misery are the result of a sickness in man’s very soul, and said that evil comes from and can be fixed by political economics. Finally, it claimed that regimes should be free, classes should be free, but not individuals; individuals must sacrifice their freedom—of thought, conscience, and will—to the good of the group. By doing this, they have joined a glorious force and have been transformed from trivial cogs in a capitalist machine to essential cells in a communist body, and are significantly relieved of the burden of individual responsibility.
Obviously not everyone who lived within the USSR supported it. But it is undeniable that even though millions and millions of people hated the regime, the greengrocers continued to put the sign in their windows, and the regime persisted. Havel ascribes this to the power of the myth.
Against totalitarian regimes there is usually a resistance. Sometimes it is political, sometimes violent, always risky. But the strongest resistance is able to transcend politics and battle against not the structures but the ideology sustaining them. Resistance, at its best, is a sustained, strategic defense of an alternative myth. It can’t be solely political. Resistance must win the battle for the imagination, which politics alone can’t do. Only myths, narratives about oneself, God, and the world, can do that. For Havel and the Czechoslovakians, resistance ultimately meant creating a whole alternative society that operated under and alongside Soviet society until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.
Signpost Your Resistance
Does this have anything to do with us today? We still have basic freedoms of religion, speech, and association. Do we really need to worry about resistance?
The short answer: Absolutely. We shouldn’t wait for The Man in the High Castle or the horrors of the Soviet regime to become realized in America to start thinking about resistance. Resistance must begin as soon as a society’s metaphysics define human nature as something other than simultaneously free, fallen, and dignified. In other words, each generation must be a resistance, a rediscovery of truth and a reintegration of it into daily life, society, and government.
Resistance, like virtue, is simple but not easy. Begin by looking around; ask yourself what story the current regime is telling about God, yourself, and others; about freedom, sin, and dignity. If that story is not true, if it does not account for reality, resist it. To resist is to push back, to counter, to critique, to question. So read, think, discuss. Look for truth and expect to find it. Don’t take shortcuts. Form friendships and try together to hammer out what’s real. Don’t give up. Resistance can be as simple is putting a different sign in your window, or a different slogan on your Facebook wall. According to Vaclav Havel, that could make all the difference in the world.
Republished with gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Review (December 2015).
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The featured image is taken from the Facebook page of The Man in the High Castle.