Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
There always is this fallacious belief: “It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.” Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
I am reading Rod Dreher’s new book, Live Not By Lies, A Manual for Christian Dissidents (Random House, 2020) in which Dreher discusses what he calls “soft totalitarianism,” comparing the rise of this modern brand of authoritarianism that has been snaking up through the institutions and culture here in the United States* (before, if not stopped, the inevitable guns come out) with the “hard totalitarianism” of Germany and Soviet Russia in the last century. It is both a timely and necessary read.
What strikes me as a student and observer of both the history of the old-school regimes and the modern iteration as described by Dreher is the power of words that bookend them all, i.e., they all begin with propaganda and end with obituaries–both literal and figurative for both dissidents and nations.
Such regimes might start with soft, deceptive public relations campaigns (“THIS kind of socialism is different, better, best!“; “It’s for the CHILDREN!”; “Equality and justice for all!”) but as soon as the psychological operations have sufficiently conned and subdued the masses, other words, hateful and dangerous, crash the party, The Party, and freedom.
Fortunately, however, still other words–in books like Dreher’s as well as plays, poems, and essays, past and present–serve to alert and warn us of the truth of what is happening and to provide wisdom and advice regarding how, now, we might live if the gates of freedom do close and the show trials begin as man’s inhumanity to man, unleashed, metastasizes at alarming rates.
Back to the book.
In “Part One: Understanding Soft Totalitarianism,” Dreher expands his definition of this more covert (at first) brand of totalitarianism with a view of its history, then he features first-hand accounts of survivors and dissidents who give advice through their words, deeds, and writings on how to survive. “Live not by lies,” for example, is famed Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s succinct summary of how he and others survived life in the Soviet Gulag forced-labor camp system. More on Solzhenitsyn’s other work that serves as a warning to us in the West, below.
In “Part Two: How to Live in Truth,” the author discusses six ways to survive the experience under the following broad themes:
Value Nothing More Than Truth (“Live not by lies”; “Live in truth.” p. 98)
Cultivate Cultural Memory (“The more totalitarian a regime’s nature, the more it will try to force people to forget their cultural memories.” p. 114)
Families Are Resistance Cells (“Under communism…the family came under direct and sustained assault by the government, which saw its sovereignty as a threat to state control of all individuals.” p. 132)
Religion, the Bedrock of Resistance (“…a creed…is a priceless possession. It tells you how to discern truth from lies. And for those whose creed is Christianity, then in the face of ubiquitous hatred and cruelty, faith is evidence that the true Truth, the real Reality, is the eternal love of God.” p.152).
Standing in Solidarity (Whether Christian or not, “Small communities can rescue the lone individual,” and “make grief easier to carry.” But urges the author, “organize now while you can.” pp. 169, 174, 177, 179).
The Gift of Suffering (“No Christian has the power to avoid suffering entirely. It is the human condition. What we do control is how we act in the face of it.” p. 207).
MORE WORDS TO THE WISE FOR TODAY FROM YESTERDAY–REDUX
UPDATE, October, 2020: Many people in the United States believe that our presidential election coming up in less than one month offers a dramatic choice of direction for the country.
One option would be a continuation of the work-in-progress called the representative republic form of democracy our founding fathers crafted.
The other option, heavily influenced by the emergent Democratic Socialists of America and self-described Marxist-trained organizers, would take America in an entirely different direction, one akin to the totalitarian forms of government cited above–and violent events of this summer permitted in many Democrat run cities prove that whatever soft totalitarian measures might have been in place in our culture and institutions prior have begun to harden.
Thus it might well be time to listen to the voices and the wisdom from the past, which is why I decided to review the book, above, and to re-post a feature from 2018 based on Solzhenitsyn’s “Warning To The West” (updates added) regarding what he suspected, nearly fifty years ago, might be coming our way.
During the early 2000s I taught Citizenship classes to people going through the lengthy, multi-part process of becoming Naturalized United States citizens. Lessons included basic U.S. history, government, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens, information featured on the list of 100 questions from which each candidate is asked up to ten, randomly selected. I also helped them practice interview-related English reading, writing, and speaking skills.
In the nine terms I taught the class, I served people from a number of countries in Eastern Europe, Central and South America, and Asia. I attended two swearing-in ceremonies at the local courthouse for students who successfully completed the process, and I will not forget the tears, joy, and celebration at those events, new citizens and families dressed in red, white, and blue, waving small American flags given them along with their Citizenship Certificates…
One question that inevitably surfaced during the classes and that always challenged me was: “Why do some Americans seem to hate this country so much?”
Because the classes were, of course, politics-neutral, I was careful to couch my replies in the context of teaching our First Amendment rights* of free expression, peaceable assembly, and the right to “petition the government for redress of grievances”. I explained in the U.S history part of the classes that by exercising these rights, Americans, over time, have been able to not only affect “peaceful transfers of power” from one administration to another but also to address problems such as slavery, women’s rights, and many other issues, some still works in progress.
I would explain all this carefully to my students, realizing that sitting in front of me were individuals (in one case an entire family) who had fled despots and economic oppression, violent coups, and the hardships of survival under various iterations of socialist/communist rule. They sat quietly among others who came here for educational advancement or economic opportunity.
These days, which in many ways are so vastly different in the U.S., politically and socially, than back in the early 2000s, I imagine it’s a little harder for citizenship teachers to maintain neutrality given the growing polarization of our society where many often struggle to maintain those same First Amendment rights, especially freedom of speech.
It is, I imagine, much harder to maintain a teacher’s neutrality particularly in light of the current state of political rage. She can only hope that, at length, in the ever-darkening fog of politics, reality will surface and what can be done to right the real wrongs will emerge. If there is time. In the meantime, to the lesson plans…
One such reality is history. Not co-opted, conjured, or re-constructed history, but the “news from the front,” as it were, from “primary sources,” historical data that has survived mind control and brain washing, shout downs and–these days–social media censorship.
I emphasize real history because, in light of what astute students–whether citizenship candidates or natural-born U.S. citizens–are witnessing today, as they carefully observe what has been evolving in this nation on the sociopolitical scene, is more akin to a devolution than revolution, to submission than resistance to what ironically has for several years been touted as a desirable “fundamental transformation” of the nation by what powers are mongering for control.
And it doesn’t appear to many that such a transformation–more importantly, resistance to it–will come in such a peaceful manner as the nation has been accustomed to in the past. What’s been brewing in the shadows [and in the streets, here in 2020] may be more powerful and advanced than many might think.
Sometimes, it takes an objective, informed observer on the outside to point out the dangers.
Solzhenitsyn’s Message to Us. Today.
One such outside observer– but one who knew all too well whereof he spoke and wrote–was Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Solzhenitsyn learned the hard way what life under a repressive regime was/is like (which is where some think this nation might be headed–behind the scenes) and he was an outspoken critic of same, specifically, regarding the Soviet Union under Communism. He helped to raise global awareness of its Gulag forced labor camp system through his writing. And, to my second topic, below, even back in the 1970s he observed some similarities in what had been happening in the West to what happened decades prior in Russia.
In his own country, he saw, he suffered, and he spread the news of the iteration of Communism under which he was forced to live, producing both (brilliant) fiction and non-fiction based on the realities of the Gulags because of his passion to both apprise–and warn–people in the West of the real consequences of submitting to such governance.
In a 1985 interview featured in Eternity, Solzhenitsyn got to the focal point of what, in his view, happened to his native land to set it up for such a takeover:
Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”**
But Solzhenitsyn did not just explore the genesis of the Communist regime that enslaved his native land, he also warned us in the West that, in his view, the same sort of preamble to Communist control was appearing here, in education, society, and politics.
(Fast forwarding to today’s cultural milieu, some forty years later, the situation is much worse in some respects when one thinks of the even more apparent animosity toward our Judeo-Christian heritage–which is the jurisprudent underpinning of Western civilization.)
In several speeches and interviews compiled in the book Warning to the West back in the 1970s, Solzhenitsyn specified how history has been repeating itself here–and for us in 2018, I believe it can be argued, even more so. See what you think.
Without any commentary, because I believe they speak for themselves, I have transcribed, below, what I believe are the most salient words born of Solzhenitsyn’s first-hand experience of fifty years of forced–and close–study of the real effects of Communism on a nation and its people and how he saw the future of the West, if not informed and warned
But let the reader decide if he was pundit or prophet.
Let the reader also, like my former citizenship students, give thought to perhaps one of the reasons beneath the hatred many seem to have today for the United States–whether or not today’s haters are really aware of it, yet, propaganda being as potent as it is, rage being as destructive.
From A Warning to the West (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)
I understand, I sense that (you in the West) are tired. But you have not yet really suffered the terrible trials of the twentieth century which have rained down on the old continent. You’re tired, but not as tired as we are, crushed for sixty years. You’re tired, but the Communists who want to destroy your system are not; they’re not tired at all. (82)
But a concentration of world evil is taking place, full of hatred for humanity. It is fully determined to destroy your society. Must you wait until it comes to smash through your borders, until the young men of America have to fall defending the borders of their continent? (82)
We (Solzhenitsyn et al) contemplate the West from what will be your future, or we look back seventy years to see our past suddenly repeating itself today. And what we see is always the same as it was then: adults deferring to the opinion of their children; the younger generation carried away by shallow, worthless ideas; professors scared of being unfashionable; journalists refusing to take responsibility for the words they squander so easily; universal sympathy for revolutionary extremists; people with serious objections unable or unwilling to voice them; the majority passively obsessed by a feeling of doom; feeble governments; societies whose defensive reactions have become paralyzed; spiritual confusion leading to political upheaval. What will happen as a result of all that lies ahead…from bitter memory we can easily predict what these events will be. (130)
Remember: those were Solzhenitsyn’s words of warning back in the 1970s.
His description of Western society back then sounds as if it comes from (real) news today.
If it’s too late to completely reverse the sociopolitical state of things, at least we can heed his advice regarding the spiritual state of the nation–and of our own lives–because whatever the case, today is always a very good day to put one’s spiritual affairs in order considering what bad news already looms on the horizon of history [and in many looted and burnt inner-city streets here in the latter half of 2020].
Here is a good place to gather the intel.
FOOTNOTES FOR POST ABOVE:
* “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
**Ericson, Edward E. Jr. (October 1985) “Solzhenitsyn – Voice from the Gulag,” Eternity, pp. 23–24.
FOOTNOTES FOR BOOK REVIEW:
For more specific survival ways and means from Solzhenitsyn’s writing:
On Swords of Truth and Narratives of Survival–for Every Era–from Solzhenitsyn, Tennyson, and the Holy Spirit (Revisited)
For a whole series on how to identify, understand, and resist the most frustrating element of both the covert and overt political rage see here