“Our idea of totalitarianism is based on the Cold War. We think of the Soviet gulags. We think of the secret police. We think of breadlines … The problem is, we don’t really understand what totalitarianism is.”
A soft totalitarianism is gripping the Western world, and it’s our fear of suffering and sacrifice that’s allowing it to take hold, says Rod Dreher. He’s the author of “Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.”
In the face of growing tyranny, how do we stand our ground and hold onto our values, our conscience, or our faith?
“This is the source of tyranny. We are so afraid to be poor. We are so afraid to be anxious, to be unhappy that so many of us will do just about anything to avoid trouble and to protect our middle-class comfort.”
Below is a rush transcript of this American Thought Leaders episode from Jan 25, 2022. This transcript may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Jan Jekielek: Rod Dreher such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Rob Dreher: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: I’ve been reading “Live Not by Lies.” I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, I’ve had an incredibly powerful, frankly, experience of reading it. I’ll just say it straight up. But you can tend something in this book that’s very foundational to the whole, I guess, concept of what you’re talking about, that a soft totalitarianism as you call it is here and ever expanding. And there’s some people who would agree, but I think there’s a lot of people who would wonder what you’re talking about.
Mr. Dreher: Well, it sounds crazy to North Americans to think that our society, our liberal democracies could be turning totalitarian. I thought it was crazy too, when I first had this proposed to me by a physician here in the United States, who called me one day back in 2015, I think it was. And we had a mutual friend, and he was very anxious.
He said, “Look, my elderly mother lives with me and my wife here in America. She was born and raised in Czechoslovakia and spent four years at a communist prison being tortured for her Catholic faith, before she came to America.” And she said to me, “Son, the things I see happening in America today, remind me of what things were like in my homeland, when the communist first came to power.”
And this is what the doctor told me, and I thought, “Well, my mom is old too. She watches a lot of cable news, maybe this old lady’s just being an alarmist.” But I made a habit of whenever I would travel to conferences and things like that, if I would meet someone who had immigrated to America from a communist country, I would simply ask them, “Are the things you’re seeing happen in America today in terms of cancel culture, wokeness, things like that, does it remind you of what you left behind?” Every single one of them said yes.
And if you talk to them long enough, they would get really angry that Americans don’t take them seriously. Now I think one reason we don’t take them seriously is because our idea of totalitarianism is based on the Cold War. You know, we think of the Soviet Gulags, we think of the secret police, we think of bread lines and censorship and so on and so forth, but we don’t have that now. So how can this be totalitarianism?
Well, I think the problem is we don’t really understand what totalitarianism is. It’s a word and a concept that emerged in the 20th century by, of all people through Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy. It’s a word he came up with to describe a system in which everybody believes the same thing, the state has power over every aspect of life. And this is what we saw emerge in Nazi Germany, and also in of course, Soviet Russia and the countries that Soviet Russia took over.
What does this have to do with us? Here in our liberal democratic societies, we are seeing the expansion of a philosophy that, for lack of a better term, we can call wokeness. It has to do with identity politics, it has to do with like critical race theory, gender theory, all of these things in this broad idea of wokeness. It has conquered all of the institutions of American life.
It has conquered first universities, then the media, then it went on to sports, law, medicine, even of late, the military and the CIA. So, the government doesn’t have to get involved necessarily to enforce the wokeness, when you have all the other institutions doing it. Most important of all is capitalism, woke capitalism, when big business absorbed critical race theory and gender theory and all of these things and started enforcing it within their companies, as is their right to do in our liberal democracy.
It was game over, because in a liberal democracy, a capitalist democracy like ours, when big business wants something, it sets the tone for the rest of society. So, what the people who grew up under communism are seeing is that when you live in a society where people are afraid to say what they think, for fear of losing their jobs or being sent to the social margins, when people come to realize there is only one opinion tolerated, whether enforcement is coming from the government or from the institutions in society, it’s still totalitarian.
And finally, I should say that our idea of totalitarianism is only focused on politics. But in a totalitarian society, we certainly have one political party or leader that rules, but everything in society becomes political. So today you have things like, last summer, we had during Pride month, Kellogg’s cereal put pronouns, a pronoun guide on the side of breakfast cereal boxes for children. And they encourage children to come up with their own pronouns. They have turned breakfast cereal into an occasion for propaganda, for this woke propaganda.
This is a sort of thing that people who grew up under communism, they see it everywhere, that this is vesting all aspects of life, but we Americans and other North Americans and even people in Western Europe, our idea of totalitarianism is gulags and breadlines. So, we think we’re free, but these people who came up under communism are telling us we are increasingly unfree and if we don’t wake up now to what’s happening, we’re going to lose our freedom and the soft totalitarianism is going to turn hard.
Mr. Jekielek: You have some pretty incredible stories that you’ve discovered, or at least made me aware of through reading “Live Not by Lies.” And you open with a man named Father Kolakovic who basically went out and sounded the alarm to Christians ahead of time seeing something that nobody else was seeing. And I think in a way, I think you’re trying to be today’s Kolakovic, perhaps.
Mr. Dreher: Absolutely. Yeah. Father Tomislav Kolakovic was someone I had never heard, but it turns out he’s one of the unsung heroes of the Cold War. In 1943 he was a Jesuit priest in Zagreb, Croatia, his homeland, and he was doing anti-Nazi work. He got a tip that the Gestapo was coming to arrest him, so he escaped and went to Slovakia his mother’s homeland and began teaching in the Catholic university in Bratislava the capital.
Now, because Father Kolakovic had done in his seminary studies, had studied the Soviet Union because he wanted to be a missionary there. He understood the communist way of thinking and he told his students, “The good news is the Germans are going to lose this war. The bad news is when it’s over, the Soviets are going to be ruling this country. And the first thing they’re going to do is come after the church, we have to be ready.”
So, what he did was bring together these groups for prayer and study and discussion. Most of them, young Catholics, there were a few priests who were involved, they would come together and talk about what they were seeing happen in their society around them. Talk about what the teachings of the Catholic church had to say about what they were supposed to do in the face of this. And then they would make an action plan to go out and do these things.
Within two years of Father Kolakovic arriving in Slovakia, each town of any size had one of these Kolakovic of its groups, prayer groups, reading groups, study groups, and they laid the groundwork for the underground church. Now, this is so interesting. The Catholic bishops of Slovakia chastised him. They said, “Father, you’re frightening people. It won’t happen here. It can’t happen here. Stop scaring people.”
But Father Kolakovic did not listen because he had studied communism. Sure enough, when the Iron Curtain fell over Slovakia, the first thing the communists did was after the churches and the church leaders. The only reason that there was an underground church in Slovakia for the 40 years of communism is because Father Kolakovic and his early followers laid the groundwork and prepared people for what was to come.
I believe here in the west today, we are living in a Kolakovic moment when Christians, non-Christians, anyone who is likely to fall into the category of dissident from the woke regime, the soft totalitarian regime, is going to be persecuted. It’s already starting to happen in some places, it’s soft now, I think it won’t stay soft forever. We have got to use the liberty we have now, the time we have now to build up the structures and the networks that will allow us to hold onto our faith and to our religious practices and be resilient in the face of suffering.
Mr. Jekielek: What makes you so sure or is it just simply the alarm bells being rung by these people that have come from communist countries saying, “Yes, I really recognize this.” What makes you so sure that this is really the way it’s going to go? Because it feels like that when you read the book, that you’re sure.
Mr. Dreher: Where is the pushback to all this wokeness coming from? Thank God we’re starting to see it in some places like in Northern Virginia. We saw in the fall of 2021 parents finally waking up to what was being done to their children in the schools and pushing back. I hope this happens everywhere. But overall, the fact that the elites in our society are all in on wokeness, that tells me that this is something that is going to endure.
One thing that a lot of us don’t recognize in America because we’re small deed Democrats and we think that the power comes from the people and theoretically that’s true. But in fact, most social change comes from the elites, when the elites have been captured by a particular ideology, that’s when real and lasting social change comes. And I don’t see any pushback right now, as you and I are talking to wokeness, a lot of people hate it, but I don’t see any organized pushback to it.
Plus, the fact that the tech industry is completely woke and have the capacity to surveil every single American to intimate levels. And Americans are fine with that because it’s been sold to us as consumer convenience. Every time we put an app on our smartphone, it sends up data about our daily lives to companies. Well, we think as long as it’s not the government, what’s the big deal?
Well, guess what the enforcers of woke ideology are not just the government, it’s also big tech and major corporations. We have seen even the people’s Republic of China, what is possible to do when you have a total surveillance environment and when you have a totalitarian government that is able and willing to use all the data it collects, that people generate from their online activities and use that to try to control people.
It can be done. And I think that’s same thing as coming to America. I don’t think it’ll be as severe as in China. I hope not, but it will happen. And it will happen too, because most people don’t want trouble.
I think this is one of the interesting things about soft totalitarianism is the old totalitarianism depended on inflicting pain and terror and fear on people to make them conform. That’s not what we’re dealing with now, what we’re dealing with now is something more like Aldous Huxley, not George Orwell’s “1984,” but Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” in which the totalitarian state there got people to conform by making them comfortable.
There’s this great scene in “Brave New World” where the dissident, his name is John The Savage, he comes in to meet the world controller for Europe who doesn’t want to torture him into accepting their authority. He just wants to say, “Why won’t you do this? We give you everything you need. We give you drugs to make you happy. We give you pornography, there’s all the sex you want, et cetera, et cetera. Materialistically, you’re fine. So why do you want to live outside of this?”
John The Savage says, “Because I want freedom. I want God. I want poetry. I want sin. I want suffering because that’s what human life is. That’s what it means to be human.” The world controller says,” Well, it’s sounds like you’re fighting for your right to be unhappy.” John says, “That’s it. I am fighting for my right to be unhappy.” Well, flash forward to where we are today, if you are a dissident against this wokeness, against this tyranny of comfort, then you’re fighting for your right to be unhappy. How popular that going to be?
In “Live not by Lies” I tell the story about being on a tram in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, traveling through with my interpreter, a young Catholic Hungarian woman, we were going to an interview and she said to me, “Rod, I struggle so much with my own friends, my own Catholic friends here.” She’s in her early thirties. “When I tell them that my husband and I have been fighting or I’m struggling with our little boy. It’s hard to raise a kid. They cut me off and say, Anna, just divorce your husband, put your kid in daycare, go back to the workplace. You’ve got to be happy.” She said, “I try to tell them, I am happy. I’m happy being a wife. I’m happy being a mom, but it’s not always easy. They have no capacity.” She said, “To understand that suffering and struggle is part of human life.”
“And in fact, part of the good life. They’re terrified of anything that makes them anxious. Any struggle they have.” I looked at her and said, “Anna sounds like you’re fighting for your right to be unhappy.” She looked at me and said, “That’s it. Where did you get that?” I pulled out my smartphone went to chapter 17 of “Brave New World.” In any case, this is the source of the tyranny. We are so afraid to be poor. We’re so afraid to be anxious, to be unhappy. That so many of us will do just about anything to avoid trouble and to protect our middle-class comfort.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, okay, so many places I want to go here because there’s this terrible irony and exactly what you’re talking about. I accept your premise here but at the same time, what we’re seeing in society is in an increase in unhappiness. Curiously with this inordinate focus on happiness and comfort and so forth. I want to touch on that. Before we go there though, I want to touch on this really interesting element.
When we think of these revolutions, let’s take the Bolsheviks or what happened in China, you don’t imagine the elites being behind it. You imagine that it’s a small group of revolutionaries that somehow take over the system and redistribute the wealth. And of course we know how it happens. I mean, you and I know how it happens, but somehow you make the case in the book that the elites were very much behind it, in Russia, for example. And I find that very interesting and in a sense, counterintuitive. So maybe we can expand on that a little bit.
Mr. Dreher: Sure. For most of the 19th century, after Marx published the communist manifesto in the mid-century, the Marxist and the socialist in Russia, struggled to get any sort of footing. Nobody wanted to hear what they had to say. They remained fairly small, the radicals.
And then in the early 1890s, a terrible famine swept part of Russia and the Imperial government failed to deal with it well. I think 500,000 people died of starvation. That was the first big blow that the Czarist regime had, that showed that it was incompetent.
And it was for the first time people who were stakeholders in society, middle class people, the merchant class, things like that, they began to wonder, “Is this system all its cracked up to be?” And they began to listen to their educated children, who were in many cases Marxist. And then after the turn of the 20th century, there was the Russo Japanese War where the Czarist military was badly defeated by the Japanese.
And that also struck a huge blow against the legitimacy of the regime. At the same time in elite intellectual circles, radicalism became all the rage. In fact, one of the things that shocked me, I found out that in early 20th century Russia, Satanism was a big thing. It’s not that they actually were Satanist, but among the literary and artistic set, they looked to Lucifer as the poster boy for the sovereign will, he didn’t care about anything, but his own pleasure and will. And they aspired to that. All of these things were bubbling in Russian society. And when the elites lost confidence in the system, it was over for the Czar, even before the shooting took place.
And of course, as we know, Russia got involved in World War I in 1914, lost badly and there was nobody left to support the Czar. So the Bolshevik party itself was rather small, but it was ruthless. And it took advantage of the widespread discontent and loss of faith in the system to rush in and seize power. And we all know what happened there. So, I think what I would want your viewers to take away from this is don’t think that these revolutions come from the masses rising out from below, the revolutionary class are actually the intellectuals and the social and economic elites.
Mr. Jekielek: In the book you reference, Hannah Arent’s and her landmark work on the roots of totalitarianism. It’s amazing how little knowledge of this body of information there is in, I guess, among today’s intellectual class and frankly in education in general, you would think it would be required reading
Mr. Dreher: Hanna Arent was a German Jewish refugee from Nazism. And after the end of the second world war, she set out to try to understand how it was that in Germany and Russia, totalitarianism of the right, as in Germany or of the left, as in Russia, how it came to power. What aspects of life, their social life in those countries made them susceptible to totalitarianism? And to read this book from the point of view of the 21st century is pretty shocking, when you think about what’s happening in our society.
Arent said that by far the most important aspect that laid those countries open to totalitarianism then was atomization of the people, mass atomization and widespread loneliness. She said that in both countries, which had come out of the first world war and also of industrialization, all of these things, which blew society apart and severed people’s ties to the institutions and the ways of life and even their families and communities that gave their life structure and meaning, that all left a great mass of people lonely and not knowing who they can trust.
And they didn’t have any direction in their life. Well, along comes Hitler in Germany and Lennon in the Soviet union or in Russia and says, “Here we can provide you with meaning in life. We can provide you with a sense of purpose and a sense of solidarity.” And people who felt all alone and isolated rallied to that. Well, we have that today too, here in the west.
One of the things that shocked me about reporting this book out, was to learn that the loneliest, in terms of self-reporting, the loneliest generation in American life is not the elderly, which you would expect they would be. In fact, it’s generation Z, the youngest people who are the most connected with this artificial social network, but there’s no substitute for human companionship. So that was the most important revolutionary or totalitarian fact, mass loneliness.
Other factors: the loss of authority, institutions lost authority, religion lost authority, all of the things that had given people meaning in life and structure and a sense of direction.
Those all came into question because of the war and other things. And so people were desperate. They needed direction. Totalitarianism promised it to them. It was a false promise, but it was something that people grabbed onto. Another aspect, the willingness to believe propaganda, to believe any lie, as long as it conforms to what people wanted to believe in the first place. Now this is widespread in our society today, both the left and the right. When we lose desire to know the truth, even if the truth hurts, even if the truth goes against what we want to believe, then we are opening the door to totalitarianism, again of either the left or the right.
So, these are some of the main factors that led those countries to be come to totalitarian. And I see when I read Arent’s book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” I mean, it was like a light flashing saying, “Look, what’s happening in our own country today.” We somehow think that our money and our wealth, our democratic history is going to protect us from this. But as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Soviet dissident said, “People around the world think that what happened in Russia can’t happen here. In fact, it can happen in any country on earth, under the right set of circumstances.”
Mr. Jekielek: And of course your book is named after Solzhenitsyn’s essay. “Live Not by Lies.” Which is also, I would say, required reading. I would recommend. So, I find something really interesting and that’s there’s been this very overt public discourse, even politicians say in, Virginia coming out and saying, this is me paraphrasing, “It’s perfectly reasonable for teachers to have the final say on children’s education. It’s not the parents.” I remember there was, I think a Harvard professor that was questioning the idea of home-schooling as being subversive somehow to the education of children.
And this has made me think a lot about the family, which you focus a lot on in the book as well and how the family is this unit in these totalitarian spaces, where there is trust. And also, I guess the basic unit of community, in a sense. And the flip side, there’s this assault on the family unit as being important and central, for presumably precisely that exact reason, by these totalitarian ideologies. I want to explore that a little bit and most notably you go deep into the Benda family and there are lessons for life and how to maintain the strength of the unit. So tell me about this.
Mr. Dreher: Well, it’s so important to think of the role of the family under totalitarianism, because what makes a totalitarian society totalitarian is that there are no middle institutions between the individual and the government and the state. So, it was so important to totalitarian governments that they eliminate the family, the traditional family, as part of eliminating anything that gets between the individual and the state. Because if they allow that, then the government sees a rival to the ruling ideology.
So, if you go back and look at the early Marxist rhetoric and propaganda about the family, you see that they saw the traditional family as a relic of feudalism, of capitalism and it had to be destroyed in order to liberate the individual, which really means liberate the individual for slavery. Anyway, we see the same thing happening now with the left in our own country. In our own time.
You mentioned the schools, this is where it’s happening, where most people are going to find this. When you have schools in this country already taking children, filling their heads with critical race theory, propaganda, and with gender ideology, you even have many schools that have formal policies in place that if a child, no matter how young says that they are transgender, the school will, by policy, refuse to let the parents know, on the grounds that the parents are oppressive, oppressing this child.
I mean, this is straight out of totalitarian societies and it’s happening right here. The family is such an important source of resistance though. And I learned this from talking to the Benda family in Prague. Vaclav and Kamila Benda were the only religious believers, they were Catholics in the inner circle around Václav Havel and the leading dissidents in Czechoslovakia.
And they had five kids. Vaclav Benda died in 1999, but they raised their kids to be faithful Christians, but also dissidents. And I went to their apartment there in Prague, which had been a gathering place for the dissident community. In part, because it was right around the corner from the secret police headquarters and people, when they were on their way in to be interrogated, they would stop by the Benda apartment for prayer and for advice about how to resist the interrogation and so forth.
But I talked to Kamila, she’s now a grandmother about how she raised her kids, why it was so important to have these kids involved in the family’s work of resistance. And she said that they didn’t know when communism was going to end, if it would ever end in their lifetime. And they did not want to lose their kids to communist ideology.
So they knew that the kids had to go to communist schools, state schools, when they would come home from school, at the end of the day, the Bendas, primarily the father, would sit down and talk to the kids about what are you learning at school? And he would help them understand how the regime was lying. And so he gave them the precious gift of knowing how to discern truth from lies.
They didn’t just conform to avoid trouble. They also taught these kids by using movies and books, what truth was, what goodness was. They would watch High Noon, the great Western, where Gary Cooper is the sheriff, the lone sheriff who faces down the gang. When everybody else in the town is a coward. Gary Cooper stood there, stood for truth and he stood courageously.
The Benda children, they’re all grown now. They said, “We looked at our father like he was Gary Cooper.” In other words, both the father and the mother gave their children someone to look up to for examples of courage. I remember talking to Kamila in her apartment and mind you, this is an Eastern European intellectual apartment, there are 14 foot ceilings, there are books from floor to ceiling on every wall.
I said, ” Kamila, what did you do for these kids to help prepare them to love truth, and to love God and to resist, find courage? She said, “Well, I would read to them for two or three hours every day.” I said, “Every day?” Because she taught college too. She said, “Yeah, every day.” Even when her husband Vaclav was in prison, he was a political prisoner for four years. She said, “I would read to them.” I said, “What would you read?”
She said, “I would read myths. I would read the classics of Western literature. And I read to them a lot of Tolkien, Lord of the rings.” I said, “Tolkien, why Tolkien?” She looked at me and said, “Because we knew that Mordor was real.” And I realized that she was telling me this, what a genius thing this was for her to have done because these children, they couldn’t understand scientific materialism. They couldn’t understand Marxism or any of that, but they could understand what the fellowship of the ring was, they could understand what Mordor was.
And they came to understand the movement that their parents were involved in, this dissident movement as being analogous to the fellowship of the ring. So, what she was able to do was to build their moral imaginations up to love truth, to love goodness, to love virtue, especially the virtue of courage, so that when they got older and could participate in the movement, that they would naturally step into that. It helped me to understand how important it is to do this prep work.
You might say of helping keep cultural memory alive, because this is what they did. All of the dissidents, they knew that if they lost, if they allowed the communist to take away memory of what it meant to be a Czech or a Pole or a Slovak, to take that away from them, which they did by taking away the history and the culture, that they were lost.
I tell the story in the book, this isn’t about communism, but about Nazism. When the Germans invaded Poland, their plan to subjugate the Poles was to destroy the Polish idea of the Polish nation, the Poles as a separate people and their religion, their Catholicism. Well young Carol Voitiva, the future Pope John Paul II was there. He was a theatre student at the time and they knew it would be pointless to try to take up arms against the Wehrmacht.
So what they did, he and his theatrical compadres, they wrote plays about Polish patriotic, historical themes, and about Catholic themes. They performed these plays in the underground for audiences that took the risk of coming to see them. If the Gestapo had found out what they were doing, they would’ve killed them all, but they never found out, thank God.
What the future Pope was trying to do there, was to keep the cultural memory alive in this time of persecution. We have the same responsibility today to do that when we look at what’s happening in Hollywood, what’s happening in our schools, they’re trying to take away American history, trying to stigmatize the history of the west, all of this. This is all part, it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s not conspiracy, it’s happening. This is part of a plot to reimagine and re-engineer Western society.
I talk about in ”Live Not by Lies” about the 1619 project, which is about trying to reframe the founding, the American founding, to taint it with slavery. And they try to sell this to the people saying, “Oh, we just want our students to think about how bad slavery was.” Hey, that will be fine, but that’s not what this is. This is absolutely about falsifying American history to taint the founding and to educate an entire generation of young Americans into disbelieving in their country, disbelieving in their country’s ideals.
So, they can be remade in this totalitarian way. Again, six, seven years ago, I might have called that a conspiracy theory, but now talk to all these people who actually lived through communism. It’s very clear what’s happening. And it’s very clear that if we Americans don’t wake up and take these prophetic testimonies of the immigrant, seriously, that we are going to lose our country.
Mr. Jekielek: Just down the street at the Natural History Museum here in New York, they just removed Teddy Roosevelt’s statue. I think moments like this are instructive to what you’re talking about right now.
Mr. Dreher: People who grew up under communism know what it means when they take statues down. Last year and I think it was the New York City council room, they removed the statue of Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves. Look, nobody’s claiming that American history is populated with saints. These were flawed men who were great in their own time, but had flaws, they’re human beings. We should be able to accept that.
But these totalitarians, these neo-totalitarians, they demand ideological purity. And they’re trying to rewrite the past to make it serve their ideological program. And we’re going along with it too, we don’t stand up and defend these statues in the name of liberty, in the name of historical accuracy. We’re afraid to do that. And meanwhile, what are our kids learning? Our kids will never learn the things that many of us learned as just part of American history.
When you talk to the people who lived under communism, they just nod their heads, it’s like, “This is part of it. They want to take away any memory of the past because he who controls the past controls the future.” When I was in Budapest talking to this teacher, a teacher of the English language, man who’s about my age, I’m in my mid 50s, he said for him as a lifelong anti-communist, “A real tragedy and a savage irony is in the 30 years in Hungary, since the fall of communism.” He said, “I’ve seen the loss of our culture and our cultural memory at a much greater rate than even the communist achieved.”
It’s happened by free market capitalism. You and I were talking before we started filming about Neil Poston, the great Neil Poston and the late media theorist, who talked about how today we are living in a Huxleyan dystopia in which nobody has to ban books, because nobody wants to read them in the first place. Well, this is what this man who lived through communism, Thomas Shai, that’s his name. This is what Thomas was telling me, that today he looks at his own children in a free Hungary, but so many of these young people want nothing more than Hungary to be like Sweden. They don’t want to read books. They don’t want to learn music. They don’t want to learn history. They just want to be consumers.
Mr. Jekielek: We can’t entirely be there because your book has done actually pretty well.
Mr. Dreher: Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: So there’s a few people out there that want to read.
Mr. Dreher: Yeah. What’s interesting is about this book, I’ve written a number of books. I’ve written three New York Times best sellers, including this one. This one has done by far better than any of my other books. Even though the mainstream media has completely ignored it. I think it’s done well because people know that something is happening, something dangerous, something dark is coming and they want to be prepared.
I was out in Colorado last year, giving a speech about “Live Not by Lies” to a large Christian group. A man came up to me afterwards and said, “I want you to speak of that in my church.” It was an evangelical megachurch.” In my church, the elders read your book and we have already started founding Kolakovic groups and are starting to network because we can see it happening right here in our own state.”
I’m like, “Thank you for that. Thank you for telling me that. It makes me feel really good. It makes me feel like that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.” And being faithful to the testimonies that these people in the former Eastern Europe entrusted with me. Because look, it was so interesting to talk to these people. One of them in Slovakia said to me that under Soviet communism, we looked to the west for hope and for guidance. And now the idea that you, he’s talking to me, coming here and getting that from us is just incredible. Yeah, it is. And thank you for being there to share your stories with us, because if enough of us in the west take what you’re saying seriously, we may be able to avoid the worst.
Mr. Jekielek: To me, one of the most important parts of what you’ve written is something that I think is rare to read about. And I’ve been doing a lot of reading in this, let’s say general realm, and that’s for lack of a better term, the value of suffering.
The value of suffering, the importance of being able to accept it and frankly deal with it as a normal part of life. That’s in some ways antithetical to this, I guess, Huxleyan and world, which we’ve been entering, where suffering is just seen as something to be avoided at all costs. Not that anyone would wish it on anybody, but that’s a different thing, isn’t it?
Mr. Dreher: It is. And in fact, this is the secret to resistance, is the way you deal with suffering. I can remember after interviewing an elderly pastor, a Russian Baptist pastor in Moscow, we went outside the tea shop and it’s snowing on the streets in Moscow, near the Kremlin. And he looked at me and said, “You go home to America. And you tell the church that if they’re not prepared to suffer for the faith, then their faith is worthless.”
And this is a man who had been through it and he knew what he was talking about. And I found this over and over and over again, that that was the key to having resilience in the face of this horrible persecution, is willingness to suffer and not just bear it stoically, but to find a way to transform it and to make it purify and something good.
One of the heroes of “Live Not by Lies” is a man named Dr. Sylvester Kurchmary. Dr. Kurchmary was a layman, a lay Catholic and a physician who was a Lieutenant of Father Kolakovic. And when the secret police pulled him off the street and put him in prison in the early 1950s in Czechoslovakia, he said in his later prison memoir, that he knew that he cannot allow himself to fall into self-pity. Because if he felt sorry for himself, he would collapse in the face of torture and imprisonment.
Rather, he entered prison saying to himself, “I’m here to be God’s probe.” Meaning I’m here to find out how people are suffering here in prison and how I can serve them out of love. I’m here to pray for them, with them, teach them and I’m here to deepen my own conversion and my own repentance.
And so he set a program for himself that he followed for the 10 years he was in prison to keep himself from losing hope. He believed and at the core of his being as a Catholic, that to be a Christian is to live as Christ lived. And that even means to suffer as Christ suffered. Well, I think there’s so much deep wisdom there, especially when you apply it to what we’re living through today.
We don’t have anything like what the Dr. Kurchmarys and the other dissidents lived, at least we don’t have it in the US, but we do have a terrible fear of suffering because so many of us are middle class and comfortable. I mean, I accuse myself of this too. And this is how the totalitarianism, the soft totalitarianism works by making us afraid of any discomfort.
Most of the people in Eastern Europe, I was told, ended up conforming and going along to avoid trouble. Those relative few who had the courage to embrace suffering or the prospect of suffering to stand for the truth, they were the ones who made it and they weren’t just Christians. I wrote “Live Not by Lies” as a Christian for Christians, but I’ve been delighted, although not surprised, to find that people who don’t share my Christian faith have found a lot of value in “Live Not by Lies” because it talks about the importance of being willing to suffer and without despairing, and also having courage to stand up.
I remember asking Kamila Benda in Prague. I said, “Kamila, you and your husband were the only religious believers in that inner circle around Václav Havel, the rest were atheist. Was it difficult for you to work with them, knowing that you believe radically different things about the source of goodness? You had a radically different cosmology and so forth.”
She said, “No, it wasn’t hard at all Rod, because you have to understand when you’re facing down totalitarianism, the most important virtue in anybody is courage.” So if you find someone who’s courageous, who’s willing to risk it all to stand up. That person has to be your ally, no matter what else there is about them. So she said, “You have to understand that most Christians in this country kept their head down and conformed. So for us as Christians to find these atheists who were willing to stand up and even go to jail for the truth, we knew that these were the people we wanted to be with, have with us in the foxholes.”
Well, it’s also true today. One of the early adopters of this book and advocates for “Live Not by Lies” was Barry Weiss. The young journalists who quit the New York Times because she knew she couldn’t tell the truth at the Times. Barry is, I guess, late millennial, maybe gen Z, Jewish lesbian of the centre left. And she told me on the phone, she said, “Look, if you had told me, Rod, two years ago, that I would be on this same side as conservative Rod Dreher about anything, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are.” Absolutely. Here we are. And I’m absolutely with you, Barry, because you have courage, you have demonstrated it by your willingness to suffer rather than live by those lies.
In the same way, the left-wing atheist, Brett Weinstein and his wife Heather Hein, both scientists and academics who were driven out of evergreen state by the woke mob. They’ve embraced the book too, because they see in this book, though they’re not religious believers, they see a model in these brave dissidents, a model for all of us today, whatever our politics are.
You have conservatives who keep their head down, who are happy to tell me and others who stand up, “Good for you. Glad you’re standing up.” But they don’t want to take any risks themselves, those aren’t the people that you can count on. You can count on the Barry Weiss’, the Heather Heins, the Brett Weinsteins, the Peter Bogosians. Those are the people who are going to stand with you through thick and thin and not abandon you when things get rough.
Mr. Jekielek: And this is an interesting question, actually, I’m meditating on this a little bit, because I do think the book transcends even though it’s a bit of an instruction manual for Christians in a way, it seems to transcend that. So it made me think about basically the, I guess, the spiritual qualities that make resistance to whatever form of totalitarianism possible. I mean, it’s because, you described a situation where someone imagined themselves to be able to be like Christ and endure that suffering. But you know that’s not what Peter Boghossianis is thinking. What are these characteristics? Have you given some thought to this?
Mr. Dreher: I think it is a passionate commitment to truth. Live not by lies, live in truth. Václav Havel, the playwright, who led the Czech dissident movement and became the first president of a free Czechoslovakia. In 1977, he told this parable of the greengrocer. And this was his example of why you should live in truth.
He said, “Imagine that you have a greengrocer in a communist city who has a sign hanging in the window of his shop saying, workers of the world unite, the Marxist slogan. All the shopkeepers have this sign in the window. Nobody believes it, but they put it there. So they won’t have trouble.” “Well, what happens?” Said Hovel, “If one day the greengrocer pulls the sign down.” He said, “I’m not going to put this up there it’s a lie.”
“The secret police come, they arrest him. They take away his business. He has to go mop floors or something for a living. His family loses privileges. They can’t travel. The kids can’t get into college, et cetera, et cetera. He suffers a serious loss.” But what has he gained? Aside from his integrity, maintaining his integrity, he has also shown the rest of the watching world that it is possible to live in truth, to live not by lies, if one is willing to suffer and pay a price for it.”
And I think this is the thing that people like Barry Weiss, like Brett Weinstein, Heather Hein, Peter Boghossian and others, this is what they live by. There’s a lot of nobility in that. There’s real virtue in that, virtue that sadly many, many of my fellow Christians do not have. So I think that is a key thing.
And also, as we talked about the importance of suffering, I talk about in “Live Not by Lies” about this great movie by Terrence Malick, the American film director, called “A Hidden Life.” It’s based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter. Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian Catholic farmer who was killed by the Nazis because he refused to swear allegiance to Hitler. In the movie, it starts out in their little village, high up in the Alpine mountains of Austria, where you think they would’ve been safe from Nazism. But of course they weren’t.
When the Nazis came to town, most everybody in the village and they were all Catholics, most of them became Nazis, except Frans and his family. And at one point, Frans walks to the village church and he sees an artist painting pictures on the wall from the Bible, of the life of Jesus and so forth. And the artist tells him, he said, “People come into this church and they see these paintings and they admire Jesus, but Jesus didn’t call admirers, he called disciples.”
“How do you tell the difference between an admirer and a disciple?” By the willingness to suffer when persecution comes, that’s how you determine who really believes this stuff, that’s for whom it is life itself, not just an add on to life, but life itself. You can look at this in a secular way too. You and I are sitting here talking in front of the founding fathers.
Today in America, are we admirers of liberty and democracy? Are we disciples of liberty and democracy? You’ll be able to tell the difference when it comes to persecution those, whether they’re religious or not, or whatever their religion, those who are willing to stand up for the truth and to stand up for liberty will prove themselves to be true disciples of liberty and the rest who conform and keep their heads down, they never were.
Mr. Jekielek: And it just strikes me, this is almost bizarre to say, but we’re talking about a commitment to objective reality. That’s a commonality here. An objective truth, a shared reality, that would be, at least a piece of the pie.
Mr. Dreher: That’s true. And do you know what? When I was in Poland interviewing people for the book. This one Polish professor said he was so concerned about the young generation, the post-communist generation in his country. He said, “We who grew up under communism, came to understand how the state manipulated language to create a sense of unreality around. And we figured out how to see right through that.”
But these kids who’ve been raised in freedom, for all the blessings of freedom, they don’t have this inoculation against lies. And so when you have this new language coming in, talking about who knows what a woman is or a man, we’re gender fluid, we’re this or that, all of these things, they are not vaccinated against this ideological virus. And so he said that we’re seeing a lot of our young people who don’t understand how this works, accepting this woke propaganda coming in from the west and assuming that this tells us what the world really is. When in fact it is a falsification of reality.
Mr. Jekielek: On the one hand, there’s this commitment to some objective reality, I think that’s shared, but there’s something where there’s a willingness, and I don’t know where this comes from. I don’t know if it’s exactly courage. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, but a willingness to not just go along with whatever the tide of society is, which as you mentioned, many people are just naturally going to, I don’t know if it’s naturally, but are just going to do. So it’s a rare trait, and what is that? And I do think it’s a commonality. that we share.
Mr. Dreher: Yeah. It’s a willingness to go against the flow. GK Chesterton said that a dead thing can go along with the stream, but only a living thing can go against the stream. And we’re seeing this happen today. Right now, in Europe, for example, some of the bravest people I know are vaccine resistors. Now, to be clear, I’ve been vaccinated myself. I’m not against vaccines at all, but I’m also against vaccine mandates because I think this is laying the groundwork for totalitarian rule.
We’re seeing this happen in Europe, everywhere today, if you resist the mandatory vaccines in Austria and more and more countries, you pay a severe price. And there are people, not only Christians, but people willing to pay that price for this principle. I think these people are heroic, frankly, and this is the thing I want to cultivate in my children, whatever the issue is, do not go along with the crowd.
I’m from the deep south, South Louisiana, a small town, and I was born in 1967, so I have no memory of the segregation times, of the Jim Crow times. But when I moved back to my hometown 10 years ago, I discovered that in 1964, on the courthouse lawn, there was a white riot. A black man, a pastor tried to register to vote and successfully did, the first black man to register to vote in 63 years there and whites rioted against it.
It was appalling to read this and also to know that probably in that crowd were some men that I grew up respecting, having no idea that they had done this. And for me, it was just so shocking to realize that in my beautiful little peaceful town, that this violence, this racist violence had happened just before I was born.
But I also had to face the fact that what if I had been a young man at this time, chances are I would’ve been in that crowd rioting. I hate to think about it. But when I was thinking about what made people racist back then, if you are of my parents’ generation, my dad was born in the ’30s, my mom, in the early ’40s, you had no way of knowing in any counter narrative to white supremacy.
This was life. They had radio, but radio never talked about it. The newspapers never talked about it, these people not to excuse them at all, but these people, my parents’ generation really were ignorant of the evil that they did. I think at some level they had to have known it was evil, but certainly the churches didn’t preach against it. I had to face this in myself though, where I like to think that I would have stood up there against the mob and defended these black folks.
But chances are, I would’ve been just as cowardly as the rest of them. And I might not have joined the mob, but I would’ve kept my head down to avoid trouble. I think all of us have that within ourselves, that capacity to be cowardly. And it’s important to realize it now.
Just last week, as we’re talking, I heard from an American missionary, I can’t mention his name now, but he had been put in prison in an Islamic country for his missionary work. And he told me that he had always imagined that he would be very brave in prison. He said, “In fact, I broke, but that taught me something about what we need, the skills we need and the virtues that we need to inculcate in ourselves in order to be strong.” I’m going to be meeting with this man in a couple of weeks and he wants to share this with me.
So hopefully I can write about it. But it’s important that we are humble about this sort of thing and recognize our own capacity for conformity. If you had been alive and a white person in my hometown in 1964, if you had stood up against that racist mob to defend these black citizens, you would’ve put your own life at risk. How many of us would’ve really done that? I can’t say that I would’ve done that. I hope I would’ve, but I can’t say for sure that I would have.
I think right now is a time for all of us, everyone listening to this broadcast to think hard about this, how much would you suffer for the sake of truth and justice and for your faith, if you’re a person of faith, if you’re not thinking through this right now, and imagining these scenarios where you could lose your job, you could lose your liberty and you might even have to lose your life for the sake of the truth. If you’re not thinking about this now, then you’re going to be caught flat footed and you may ultimately capitulate.
Mr. Jekielek: It makes me think of that, I guess, now famous image that we’ve seen in social media a lot. Of the kind of one man that is not doing the Sieg Heil and I remember reading the story and why most people believe they would be people like him that would not do it. But the reality is, it was a very tough thing to do.
Mr. Dreher: Yeah. And you can’t wait until you’re put to the test, by then it’s too late. I mean, I think about that iconic image from my own college years of that one lone Chinese protester in Tiananmen Square, who stood in front of the tank. You want to be that guy, but that guy didn’t become that guy in that moment. We don’t know who that was, but everything that led him to that point had built in him the conscience that gave him that courage. Similarly with the Franz Jägerstätter, the man I mentioned earlier, who was murdered because he wouldn’t swear allegiance to Hitler.
And all these dissidents, the small decisions they took in everyday life leading up to the moment of testing, gave them the courage and the wherewithal and the reason to take the stands they did.
I remember a few years ago, after the Obergefell ruling came down from the US Supreme court legalizing gay marriage in the state of California, the LGBT caucus, and the state legislature put forth a bill that would have taken away Cal grants as direct grants, student aid grants to poor students, would’ve taken them away from students who wanted to use them to go to Christian colleges.
The LGBT folks called them bigot colleges, because these were conservative Christian colleges that didn’t approve of homosexuality. The way the law stood is that poor students could use these grants at any accredited college, but the LGBT caucus wanted to change it where they wouldn’t be able to use these for these religious colleges. It would’ve meant the closure of about a hundred small religious colleges in California, or those colleges would’ve had to violate their conscience.
Well, a friend of mine, who’s a senior administrator at a Christian college there, led a group down to the mega churches of Orange County, which is a very conservative evangelical place in Southern California, they wanted to rally support in these churches. They went to talk to pastors. He told me that we could not find a single pastor who was willing to stand with us for the liberty of these colleges. I said, “Why not?” He said, “Every single one of them was afraid of being called a bigot, even though they agreed with us.”
He told me that if it hadn’t been for the Hispanic Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles and the Black Pentecostal pastors of South Central Los Angeles, we would’ve lost that fight. The fact was that all these comfortable, suburban evangelical conservatives were not willing to stand up when it counted. And we cannot allow ourselves to be this way. We can’t be those people. We have to develop the courage right now to know that when the time comes for our testing, that we will take that tough stand.
Mr. Jekielek: And you’re just making me think that courage comes sometimes in very unexpected places. What motivated me back in the day to get into China human rights issues, way back when this was 20 odd years ago, I became very interested and I met a woman at the university who had made it out of China and just a very simple woman. I think, between 65, 70 years old, and her crime was, she was a Falun Gong practitioner, and her crime was that she refused to sign a piece of paper that said, “I renounce this.” And they tortured her. And she had the scars to prove it.
And it was the sort of person you would never expect would have to face this sort of thing. I’m sure she never expected that she would have to face this sort of thing, but somehow, she just simply wouldn’t do that. But today, even, I can’t help but think, some folks might even be perplexed by this. “Hey, why not sign the piece of paper?”
Mr. Dreher: Because, well, if you believe in transcendent values, whether you believe in a personal God or you believe there are things that are transcendently ideal, you can’t just sign the paper without signing over your soul, in some real sense, even if you don’t believe in an afterlife. And I think what you’re touching on is the importance of religious belief, broadly considered to giving people the wherewithal to resist.
Now, as we’ve been talking, you don’t have to be religious in order to resist. There are courageous atheists who have resisted as well, but boy, does it help when you believe that your suffering has ultimate moral and even metaphysical meaning. It can and be so much easier to stand up.
I tell the story in the book about this man, Alexander Ogorodnikov, he was a late Soviet dissident. Ogorodnikov came from a very prominent communist family. But in the early ’70s, he lost his faith in communism and became a Christian. In apartment in Moscow. He started a prayer group and young people were finding their way to his prayer group from throughout the city. Young people who had lost all faith in communism, but they were looking for something. And they found it coming to his apartment to pray and to study scripture.
They knew that KGB was watching them and they knew that they were all going to end up in prison someday. And eventually they did. Ogorodnikov told me that they put him on death row, the Soviets did, even though he didn’t have a death sentence, they wanted to make an example of him because he came from such a privileged communist family. They put him with the worst of the worst prisoners in Russia.
He went in there and he began to share the gospel with them. Well, eventually the wardens got sick of this because he was making converts. So, they put him in isolation and they began to torture him in solitary confinement. As he was telling me this story in a hotel in Moscow, I notice that his face was partially paralyzed and that was from the beatings he took.
Anyway, he told me that he began to lose his faith. He began to doubt that he had an ultimate mission there in the prison, even as a Christian. One night, he said he was awakened by a vision, an angel woke him up. He said he saw this with his eyes and showed him a prisoner being led to his execution with his hands cuffed behind his back with a guard on either side and Ogorodnikov knew this man was being taken to be executed. This was a guy he had shared the gospel with, and the guy converted. Well night after night, this kept happening with a different person each night.
Ogorodnikov finally realized that he was being shown men who were having their death sentence carried out, but they had repented of their sins and were going to be in paradise with God, because Ogorodnikov had been there to share God’s love with them. And this old man, he’s old now, he was telling me this with tears going down his cheeks. He’s saying, “I regained my faith.” And he understood that God had a purpose for him to suffer as he had.
I think that God has a purpose, I’m a Christian myself and an Orthodox Christian as Ogorodnikov. I believe God has a purpose for each and every one of us, even those who don’t believe in him and that that purpose involves, at some level, it’s going to involve being willing to accept suffering and not let the suffering destroy us, but instead, turn it around and allow it to build ourselves up and purify our own consciences and to help other people who are struggling to bear the burden of suffering without despairing. And in fact, using it to become more compassionate.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s a beautiful vision. And I mean, as we finish up, I guess I want to think about, we’ve talked about different elements of this throughout our chat today, but I mean, I’m sure a lot of people are coming to you right now and having read “Live Not by Lies,” say, “Rod, what can I do? Okay. We can start Kolakovic groups. How do we train for suffering?” That seems like a strange idea. What is your broad, I guess, prescription would be the right word at this point? I’m sure you have one.
Mr. Dreher: Sure, sure. Well, the most important thing is to found the Kolakovic groups. But whether you’re religious or not, you need to form these groups to talk about what’s coming and what you can do, where you are. It’s not going to look the same in New York City as it will in Duluth or in some small town somewhere. But this is crucial.
It’s also crucial to read as widely as you can about what’s happening in the world, but also to read the literature of the dissidents, the anti-communist dissidents, read these stories. They’re incredible. I tell the story in “Live Not by Lies” about Father George Calciu , who was a Romanian Orthodox priest who was put in what is widely considered to be the worst prison of the entire communist block, Pitesti in Romania. The things that the communists made those prisoners do are unspeakable.
But there’s a book by Father George of his talks and his interviews that you can get. And I would read some of these to my children, not the worst of it, but just Father George talking about the value of suffering and what it meant to be a faithful Christian, is to accept the possibility of suffering, not look for it, but accept it.
I’d also advise people to find in your own neighbourhood, in your church, in your social circles, in your job, if you know people who came to this country, escaping communism, whether it was Soviet communism or Chinese communism or Cuba, wherever, talk to them about what they’re seeing, chances are they’re dying to talk to you about it, to warn you, but they’re afraid. Make it possible for them to tell their stories and ask them for their advice.
Humble yourself as an American to realize that we don’t know everything. These people have been given the gift of suffering, where they came from and they can use this gift to build us up right now, so that we can either stop it coming to America. Or if it comes, we can hold our head high and refuse to conform.
And finally, I would say to parents, do as Kamila and Václav Benda did, prepare your children, don’t shield them from these horrible things, because they’re going to have to go out into the world and you want them to be young men and women of vision, of faith and of courage, share with them what’s happening in so far as its age appropriate. And also read to them the classics, read to them the Lord of The Rings and help them to understand that the virtues that are made to inhabit these characters and these storylines or things that are real and that we can live by too.
Kamila Benda told me that the dragons of Tolkien were more real than some of the things they were actually living with. So I mean, these things are so important. There’s no reason to despair. We have to get rid of any happy clappy optimism that we have about what’s coming. We have to be realistic because only if we’re realistic in looking at the struggles coming, can we build ourselves up to resist it.
People say to me, “If you see all this coming, how do you maintain hope?” I say, “There’s a difference between optimism and hope.” Someone who’s optimistic expects everything’s going to be okay no matter what. Well, that’s just not true. We hope it will, but it’s not true. But someone who is hopeful knows that even if it comes to the worst of it, if we can resist without losing our faith, without losing our integrity, without losing our souls, then God can, in some sense, use our sacrifice and our suffering to make the world a better place and inspire people to be brave and compassionate.
Mr. Jekielek: I mean powerful vision here and it reminds me of a line where you reference again Solzhenitsyn, where he’s grateful for his terrible, terrible prison experience. I think if we can learn to value, not wish for, but value the suffering that we inadvertently will have in different forms and that can make us stronger.
Mr. Dreher: It can. Solzhenitsyn said in the gulag archipelago that after his horrible experience in prison, he was able to write honestly, bless you prison. Well, how could he say that? He said that because the prison experience awakened his soul, it led him to a religious conversion, but it also led him to think about his own life and the Soviet system and what it actually did to people, how it ground down humanity. And it made a dissident of him and it made him indomitable.
So the prison experience, as horrible as it was, refined him and it also destroyed many other people. We shouldn’t look at prison or persecution as something that inevitably makes us better. We have to meet this persecution. We have to meet this suffering with a disposition of soul, that allows it to work this alchemy within ourselves, like Dr. Kurchmary.
Sylvo Kurchmary. He came out of there a saint. It made him a saint. He’s not been canonized. I believe it made him a saint, but again, this is something we can control. We can’t control whether or not suffering comes to us, but we can control how we react to it. And this is the real secret that the dissidents have to share with us, that these things are within our control, but we have to learn from the past so we can meet the future with coverage.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Rod Dreher it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Mr. Dreher: Thank you for having me.
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