As techno-totalitarianism really gets into gear, it is up to each one of us to root our lives, our homes, our schools, and our parishes in the eternal values of the Christian faith and classical learning—and we need to do so with imagination and realism, avoiding the temptation to become nostalgic dreamers.
Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, by Rod Dreher (256 pages, Sentinel, 2020)
In America we were constantly told that a product was “New and Improved.” More scoops of raisins were forever being added to the raisin bran. The peanut butter was always crunchier than before. Every year the cars were sleeker, safer, more luxurious, had more gadgets, and were cheaper to buy. Nearly everything, from sandwiches to skyscrapers, was constantly being updated, improved, renovated, and re-styled. New was always better.
In the Old Country it was the reverse. Rather than advertising a product as “New and Improved,” advertisers were likely to bill it as “Old Fashioned.” Labels were printed in Ye Olde English style. Traditional British images of Big Ben, Tower Bridge, crowns, and coronets were everywhere. If you want to sell something in England, put it in an old tin box with a picture of a thatched cottage on the front.
One of the favorite advertising tricks was to get a royal warrant for your product. If Her Majesty the Queen would only purchase your waxed jacket, your marmalade, shoe polish, or pickles, you could print the royal coat of arms on your label, and (let’s say you produced axes) you could brag, “Purveyors of fine cutlery to the Royal Executioner since the reign of Henry VIII.”
The English addiction to nostalgia is a trait shared by most conservatives. By nature, we are inclined to look back with affection and look forward with fear. Rod Dreher’s recent book Live Not By Lies is a good example of looking forward with fear. His earlier volume The Benedict Option is a good example of looking back with affection. Both reactions to the modern world are understandable, but are they realistic?
In Live Not By Lies, Mr. Dreher quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s words and warns us of the coming totalitarian state. In a typically well-researched book written in Mr. Dreher’s urgent style, we are told by survivors of the communist regimes how the current situation in the United States echoes the communist surveillance and police state. One of the most gripping pieces of experiential evidence Mr. Dreher offers is to ask us if we have ever been in a situation where we have had to bite our tongue—not out of good manners or the need not to offend Aunt Betty, but because we were afraid.
Perhaps we were afraid to say what we really think about supporting “Pride Month” at work. Maybe we were afraid to express support for President Trump. After big tech’s recent censorship campaign and the concern that “they know more than we think they know and they’re going to use it,” anybody can admit to have some second thoughts about speaking up.
But hasn’t this always been the case? Sure, the technology for surveillance is awesome, and no doubt there are some on both the left and the right who would wish to violate privacy and gather information for law enforcement and security. It is also true that there have always been checks and balances between the need for security and personal freedom. Are they really disappearing?
In the first four chapters Mr. Dreher outlines the problem of what he terms “soft totalitarianism.” This is totalitarianism in Birkenstocks and T-shirts instead of jack boots and brown shirts. It is the totalitarianism of the woke young things who dream the impossible dream of socialism. When the techno-tyrants hold hands with the government spies, so the theory goes, all things are not only possible, but probable.
In Live Not By Lies, Mr. Dreher plays his usual part of Paul Revere on his midnight ride crying, “The techies are coming! The techies are coming!” There is clearly a market for this sort of thing among conservatives, and I am inclined to buy into this mentality myself. However, I also try to check my instincts and correct them with common sense lest I go into the downward spin of conspiracy think.
Maybe Mr. Dreher overstates his case and throws fuel on the fire of right-wing paranoia. In a heightened atmosphere of QAnon conspiracy theories, this doesn’t help. On the other hand, we’d better get our heads out of the sand, our noses out of the trough, and our backsides off our La-Z-Boys and take notice of the Brave New World which is approaching. Maybe the techie-totalitarians really are coming.
In the second part of the book Mr. Dreher sets out a plan for dissent. This is not an underground army as much as a re-working of the Benedict Option—stressing the solidarity of family, faith, friendship, and the need to build strong alliances that run not so much against the prevailing atheistic culture as alternative to it. My only beef with the book is that Rod Dreher’s recommendations may lead readers to fall into the nostalgia trap.
We spend too much time looking back with affection and nostalgia. Yes, things were lovely in the past when the kids played touch football until sundown and Mom called them all in for a home-cooked supper. Tony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes also sounds the conservative trumpet with a long lament about how bad things are and how good things used to be. John Senior’s delightful rant, The Restoration of Christian Culture, is another book in the same vein.
Senior waxes Chestertonian in passages with cutting satire, sharp witticisms, and the perfect acidic bon mots. So his comment on fast food:
I have to have lunch once a week at the local Hamburger King. You know, of course, that millions of Americans now regularly eat French Fried potatoes with their fingers. We have sunk, anthropologically speaking, beneath the cultural level of a fork.
Senior is all for smashing the TV and, after a hard day weeding the turnip patch, sitting by the fire to read Treasure Island to the kids before standing around the piano to sing Stephen Foster songs, then up to the wooden hill by nine so you can hit the floor at five to milk the cows before gathering to recite Matins in Latin… and don’t forget the cold shower!
Senior’s book is a terrific read, and, like other conservative jeremiads, the condemnation of the present feels good and the alternative offering is a romantic and lovely dream that feels even better.
However, once we get our noses out of books and unglue our eyes from the omnipresent and omnipotent screen, what’s to be done? I think the ideas Mr. Dreher sets out in the second half of Live Not By Lies at least have the simplicity and practicality of principles, not specifics. As techno-totalitarianism really gets into gear, it is up to each one of us to root our lives, our homes, our schools, and our parishes in the eternal values of the Christian faith and classical learning—and we need to do so with imagination and realism, avoiding the temptation to become nostalgic dreamers.
This is where I connect with Mr. Dreher and Senior’s emphasis on the example of St. Benedict. Facing the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Benedict simply did what he could with what he had where he was. If we look to his example and the enduring witness of monasticism, we will be doing our part. History shows that eventually every atheistic system crumbles under its burden of lies. Then having laid a foundation for the future, our progeny may see how our sowing of seeds blossomed into a new Christendom.
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