Subtle But Sure

Rod Dreher Warns of the Approaching "Soft Totalitarianism"

Last week, Tucker Carlson interviewed Rod Dreher about his latest book, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.

Dreher, author of bestseller, The Benedict Option, told Carlson that his new book emerged from studies of Russian history as he endeavored to understand what pre-totalitarian conditions looked like.

After talking with dozens of people in Russia and Eastern Europe who lived through Communism, Dreher found they were all giving a similar message: the United States is now characterized by many of the same conditions that persisted in Russia before the Bolsheviks took over.

The thing they are worried about, Dreher explained, is not secret police or gulags, but Big Data working in tandem with woke capitalism and the media to destroy the middle classes and marginalize Christians.

This will not be a hard totalitarianism like George Orwell warned about in 1984. Rather, it will be a “soft totalitarianism,” that will feed our appetite for comfort and play on our susceptibility to psychological manipulation.

Carlson asked Dreher what he learned when researching for Live Not By Lies. He replied, “It taught me how much we Americans, including myself, need to learn how to suffer better.” Dreher continued:

“That’s what everybody I talked to, including people who had been beaten in prison, said, that Americans were so comfortable and so soft that we don't know how to suffer... We've got to be a lot more patient with our suffering so we can endure what is to come. Because this is what the soft totalitarians are going to do: they’re going to use our addiction to comfort to control us.”

A totalitarianism based on comfort is not as easy to recognize as a totalitarianism based on pain, because it does not fit the standard models that Americans have been alert to in the post-Cold War era. It is more akin to the dystopian vision of Huxley’s Brave New World than Orwell’s 1984.

Neil Postman, the great cultural critic of the twentieth century, warned about the difference between soft and hard totalitarianism. I will leave you with Postman’s words, from his classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death.

“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and has a Ph.M. in history from King’s College, London. He is currently working on a Master’s in library science through the University of Oklahoma. He works as a freelance writer and researcher for a variety of publications and operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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