Note: This review discusses a book by an author with a record of deep and specific animosity toward Black people and transgender people, and briefly quotes his work to demonstrate this. Links to Dreher’s online writings are included where possible; readers should exercise their own discretion when clicking through.
I desperately wish that we lived in a world in which nobody had to pay any attention to Rod Dreher. Technically we do live in such a world: it is neither ontologically nor morally necessary either that his writings exist or that anybody afford them press coverage. But in American publishing vox denarii vox Dei is the rule, and Dreher’s considerable personal charm will always afford him a warm reception in a media landscape that anoints conservative intellectuals primarily on the basis of their ability to avoid overt racial slurs during fifteen minute television appearances.
In the interest of sparing the reader’s time and blood pressure, I will state my conclusion at the outset: Rod Dreher’s Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents is not worth your time or anyone else’s, because it contains nothing that has not already been said by a thousand other forgettable mediocrities, all citing the same books for the past six decades, all working each other into hysterics as brain fevers and libido remunerandi erode the ordinarily obvious distinction between social opprobrium and show trials. In light of the intellectual vacuity and the vicious spiritual poison that have animated Dreher’s political projects over the past five or so years, a reader who values their conscience should give this book as wide a berth as a firm underhand throw and deep water will allow.
For those stubborn or foolhardy enough to persevere with me, I promise nothing but lengthy discussion of a tedious book that does not meet basic standards of readability or intellectual integrity but that will be bought and read by the sort of person whose middle-class anxieties demand that their hatred for racial and sexual minorities be cloaked in cultural concerns that they imagine get discussed at cocktail parties to which they are not invited. Dreher’s main concern in writing this book is “soft totalitarianism,” which he is quick to point out does not actually exist yet, but which he is absolutely certain poses a civilization-scale threat to the United States.
It is important to note that at no point does he actually define “soft totalitarianism” or tell us how we would know it had arrived. Its function is atmospheric: it hangs in the air of his book, an eschatological photonegative to the kingdom of God that Christ has made present among us. Always lurking somewhere in the future, soft totalitarianism is supposed to instill the atmospheric dread of an old episode of The Twilight Zone, assuring us that the book’s litany of interviews with Eastern Bloc dissidents has something to teach contemporary Christians about the coming persecution—even though it will supposedly be very different from anything they experienced.
Really, Live Not By Lies is a kind of sequel to The Benedict Option, Dreher’s 2017 diagnosis that traditional Christians, having lost the culture war, should turn inward and cultivate small communities of orthodox believers in which they can most fully express their faith. This followup volume attempts to offer concrete advice to help those communities survive the supposedly imminent crackdown of soft totalitarianism, drawing on the experiences of people who experienced genuine state persecution in Soviet-ruled Hungary, Ukraine, and Czechoslovakia. Dreher’s first book outlined the theory of communal withdrawal under liberalism, and the book under review is supposed to tell us how to practice such withdrawal under illiberal state conditions that may not allow for it.
BenOp was greeted with acclaim from both the conservative and the liberal press, and both conservative and liberal critics praised the “beautiful cohesion” of Dreher’s “monastic vision,” all the while attempting to dance lightly around his alarming hatred for LGBT people (particularly trans people) and his venomous disdain for every Black person who has ever been murdered by police in recent memory. The dance is a familiar one, and nowhere near as deft or even as competent as the self-satisfaction of the writers in question would have us believe. American newspapers and magazines are so desperate to showcase “real conservative thought” that they will trip over their own feet to shake hands with any neo-segregationist who can throw on tweed.
Meanwhile, the varnish of respectability afforded by privately funded sinecures at conservative newspapers and think tanks will not receive so much as a scratch from liberal pundits obsessed with a nostalgic fantasy of bipartisan decorum, a mythic Golden Age in which Joe Biden could have a healthy working relationship with Strom Thurmond and Black people had the decency to die away from cameras. Nostalgia, however, is a poor substitute for critical judgment, and the kid gloves with which Dreher’s work has been handled suggest that news media are happy to gloss over his quite hideous social views in order to pretend that there are still “serious” conservative intellectuals in the room.
But it is precisely Dreher’s fear of racial and sexual minorities that animates this book: the signs that point to “soft totalitarianism” are things like showing basic courtesy to trans people by not misgendering them, or acknowledging that racist school and admissions systems penalize Black and brown students for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability or conduct. He summarizes the precepts he finds so distressing as follows:
Men have periods. The woman standing in front of you is to be called “he.” Diversity and inclusion means excluding those who object to ideological uniformity. Equity means treating persons unequally, regardless of their skills and achievements, to achieve an ideologically correct result. (p. 15)
It is worth asking what, precisely, Dreher means by “exclusion.” His use of the word is slippery and equivocal, attempting to unite such disparate experiences as losing friends and losing one’s job. Both are painful and distressing experiences, but one is an inevitable consequence of human difference, while the other has readily apparent political remedies that Dreher is not interested in thinking about: nowhere within Live Not By Lies does it occur to Dreher that perhaps the problem is that people’s lives can be destroyed through loss of a job that they hold, in 49 states, only at their employer’s pleasure. Maybe if people and their families could survive job loss, it would not seem so terrible to Dreher that some workplaces and schools strive explicitly to hire and admit disadvantaged minorities and to offer them extra support in their work, or that physicians are expected to adhere to the professional consensus of their field when treating transgender patients instead of substituting private judgment for accepted standards of care.
But I don’t think this would faze Dreher at all. His work has long been marked by a total absence of any sense of proportion, manifest in his characterizing academics who disapprove of their tenured colleague’s published remarks as a “totalitarian beast” and his painting a pamphlet of suggestions for talking sensitively about the sex organs of transgender people as a threat to civil rights. He displays no ability to discriminate between the varying levels of repercussions that someone might face for their opinions, nor any awareness that some opinions (like “I should not be sexually harassed in my workplace” or “I would like to join a union”) are far more widely and severely punished even than the most vicious anti-gay or anti-trans statements. His sole, frenzied concern is that educated upper middle class professionals—that is, people like Rod Dreher—might find themselves socially inconvenienced for holding opinions that many of their friends and coworkers find loathsome.
Nowhere is this pettiness more evident than in Dreher’s chapter on “woke and watchful” capital. “Woke capital” is a phrase that has become popular on both the left and the right for describing corporate diversity campaigns and the veneer of social conscientiousness in corporate advertising. According to Dreher, “Woke capitalism is now the most transformative agent within the religion of social justice, because it unites progressive ideology with that most potent force in American life: consumerism and making money.” His premise here seems to be that company HR policies are driving the accelerated adoption of liberal ideas about racial and gender equality, which clearly puts the cart before the horse: it is rather the growing adoption of those ideas by the public that drives corporate HR policy to keep pace if companies wish to avoid bad press and consequent drops in revenue.
This basic error constricts and vitates the chapter’s otherwise cogent concerns about the dangers of capitalist surveillance and the collection of massive quantities of data by unaccountable private firms. It is legitimately frightening that companies like Facebook and Google and Amazon know so much about us, that they gather data about our private conversations and use it to sell things to us, that there is very little stopping them from making baldly manipulative and nefarious use of that data. But in Dreher’s hands these worries give way to an incoherent fantasy of woke activists somehow taking the helm of these information giants and subjecting the world to the largest mandatory sensitivity training in human history, as if Robin DiAngelo had been reading both Lenin and Gramsci.
Or, he imagines further, if political majorities demanded it, such technology could be used to track and suppress dissidents like Christians. That such technology is already used to hound civil rights activists and bring charges against left-wing protestors completely escapes his notice, because Dreher cares far more about imaginary and hypothetical dangers to white middle class Christians than about genuine dangers faced every day by poor people, people of color, and LGBT people. For all his hand-wringing about the coupling of unaccountable power with “wokeness,” he seems only to object seriously to the latter.
In fact, Dreher is downright optimistic about the possibility of unaccountable power when it’s put in the hands of people who agree with him. His fears of curtailed speech, job loss, minoritization, and restricted intellectual inquiry all fall away when he talks about Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. When Orbán banned universities from teaching gender studies and kicked the Central European University (which he refers to as “Soros University”) out of the country, Dreher characterized the move as necessary “to prevent [Hungary] from committing cultural suicide like the rest of Europe.” And when Orbán’s government passed a bill declaring an indefinite state of emergency, granting him the ability to rule by decree and suspending both parliamentary sitting and elections, Dreher was quick to assure readers that the law was “basically fine,” and that we Americans really need to understand that Orbán is seen as protecting the country from people like George Soros.
On that subject, the widespread vilification of Soros in Hungary and Poland is, Dreher tells us, a natural result of his championing of refugee settlement in ethnically and culturally homogeneous countries; apparently the fact that Poland and Hungary are the two most anti-Semitic countries in Europe has nothing to do with the matter. Orbán’s extraordinary measures—the consolidation of state authority, the forced closure of academic departments and entire universities, the suspension of democratic elections—are all necessary, he thinks, to combat “the disintegration that comes with Western-style identity politics” and avoid such supposed threats as “angry and unassimilable Muslim immigrants, vicious institutional combat around so-called ‘white privilege,’ and endless fights in locker rooms and libraries over gender ideology.” In the name of protecting cultural and ethnic homogeneity and the conservative idolatry of traditional gender roles, Dreher is happy to enlist the aid of authoritarian strongmen and to write endless apologies for them on his blog.
This easy deference to unaccountable power when it happens to agree with him puts Dreher in alarming company. Defenders of his Benedict Option usually present it as a return to localism, a shifting of power from a central and unaccountable state to community institutions so that local preferences can be honored. But his use of localism to justify the hard right authoritarian politics of Viktor Orbán reveals a man far more sympathetic to Adrian Vermeule than to Wendell Berry. Vermeule, a professor of law at Harvard, is a proponent of “integralism,” a constitutional philosophy that advocates a government supposedly ordered toward a singular vision of the common good.
This view is increasingly popular with several highly visible (and extremely online) right wing writers, including Vermeule, Sohrab Ahmari and Patrick Deneen, all of whom share Dreher’s admiration of Orbán. Though BenOp localism and state integralism are different in scale, they seek similar results: communities in which pluralism has been jettisoned as a value and members are left with the choice of either upholding or dissenting from a specific vision of the common good. Both Dreher and Vermule are, however, notably cagey about questions of minority rights in their communal visions. Vermeule admits that under his articulation of a “common-good constitutionalism,” current “jurisprudence on free speech, abortion, sexual liberties, and related matters will prove vulnerable” to being overturned, and Dreher does not consider the situation of a gay or trans child born into a BenOp-style intentional community.
Perhaps they lack the imagination to articulate the details; more likely they know that their thoughts would turn the stomach of any reader with a conscience. But I have taught in communities with deep-seated aversions to LGBT people; I have known students who were thrown out of their homes for being romantically drawn to people of their own gender; I have friends who were forced to cut all ties with the close-knit communities in which they grew up because those communities would not afford them the basic dignities of personhood. The differences between a BenOp community and an authoritarian integralist one are mere differences of style and scale: will you deny your “deviant” child’s humanity yourself, telling them day by day in countless small ways that you consider them broken and wish God had given you another, or will you let the integralist state censorship office and legislative body do it for you? Either way, you have likely killed your child; either way, the community, after a slight hiccup, gets to carry on business as usual, without the troublesome intrusion of people who might test the limits of its commitment to Christian love.
With all this in mind, it is extremely difficult to take the second half of Dreher’s book seriously. He purports to tell Christians how to survive the persecution that he assures us is just around the corner (despite the Republican Party’s having tightened its grip on two of the three branches of government over the past four years), and his primary sources of wisdom are dissidents who lived under Soviet Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, and Hungary. Many people and their families suffered tremendously under one-party rule, and the hardline anticlericalism of the Soviet government often led to the overt persecution of religious believers, especially members of minority religious groups or dissident clergy.
But Dreher, as we have seen, is no principled defender of free thought or international cooperation, nor is he allergic to the notion of an illiberal society as such: he extends no such sympathetic consideration to vulnerable minorities in his own country and delights in the regimes of overt, legalized homophobia that prevail in Hungary and Poland. His dissident stories, like so much else in this book, are mere props for a resistance formula that amounts to “practice the Benedict Option and keep going to church.” His admonition to “value nothing more than the truth” varnishes his habitual disregard for trans people’s accounts of their own lives, and his call to embrace “the gift of suffering” seeks to ennoble a man who thinks himself crucified every time he stubs his toe or sees a drag queen on television.
In the end, that’s all that Live Not By Lies offers: another series of overwrought reactions to whatever dull and thoroughly middle-class inconveniences are on Dreher’s mind. He would very much like to forge a tenable connection between the situation of conservative Christians in America and the plight of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, because this would turn his fantasies into prophecies and give the weight of real moral concern to a publication record whose best representatives are vents about petty grievances, and whose worst are blasphemy against the image of God in his fellow human beings. But his book’s attempt to draw this connection fails, and fails badly. Dreher’s continued insistence that totalitarianism is just around the corner renders his project into a kind of inept intellectual burlesque, with Dreher himself as a monastic Miss Mazeppa squawking out a trumpet call to warn us that the big reveal is coming—although nobody really wants to see what he’s got in store. He is, in the end, a man announcing that the fly in his soup portends the doom of civilization and prone to fits of anger because his tattooed waiter doesn’t seem to care; would that any of the rest of us had a waiter’s good sense.
Daniel Walden is a writer and classical scholar He spends his non-work hours thinking about Catholic socialism, musical theatre, and the Michigan Wolverines.