Newsletter #47: Live Not By Lies
Welcome back to the Masculinist, the newsletter about how we live as Christian men and as the church in the modern world.
Live Not By Lies
Before I started the Masculinist, I created a set of guiding principles for what I was doing, the first of which I talked about in the very first issue: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous dictum: live not by lies. He wrote his essay of that name in 1974, just as he was about to be arrested and sent into exile in the West.
I still believe today that our North Star needs to be discerning, speaking, and aligning ourselves with truth.
So I was pleased to see Rod Dreher used that theme for his latest book, itself titled Live Not By Lies. I’d encourage you to buy and read it. And while I can’t cover everything in the book today, I do want to look at some of the themes, as always using them as a point of departure for some of my own thinking.
Dreher is frequently accused, with some fairness, of being excessively gloomy. As with all of us, I don’t think we can understand why he is the way he is without putting it in the context of his life experience. I haven’t done a detailed biographical investigation of him, but the things I’ve heard Dreher say about his own life are characterized by various degrees of trauma and loss. He was bullied in school and was not able to overcome his assailants, nor did the authorities come to his aid. He moved back to his hometown from the big city but his family was not necessarily glad to see him. He gave his all to expose Catholic abuse scandals but was unable to bring about justice. That experience nearly shattered his Christian faith, and did cause him to leave the Catholic Church and go into Eastern Orthodoxy.
If these were our experiences, we’d probably be gloomy too.
I keep returning to a Ross Douthat column in which he writes:
The first time I ever heard the truth about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., finally exposed as a sexual predator years into his retirement, I thought I was listening to a paranoiac rant.
It was the early 2000s, I was attending some earnest panel on religion, and I was accosted by a type who haunts such events — gaunt, intense, with a litany of esoteric grievances. He was a traditionalist Catholic, a figure from the church’s fringes, and he had a lot to say, as I tried to disentangle from him, about corruption in the Catholic clergy. The scandals in Boston had broken, so some of what he said was familiar, but he kept going, into a rant about Cardinal McCarrick: Did you know he makes seminarians sleep with him? Invites them to his beach house, gets in bed with them …
At this I gave him the brushoff that you give the monomaniacal and slipped out.
That was before I realized that if you wanted the truth about corruption in the Catholic Church, you had to listen to the extreme-seeming types, traditionalists and radicals, because they were the only ones sufficiently alienated from the institution to actually dig into its rot. (This lesson has application well beyond Catholicism.)
People who can see terrible truths are quite often like this, wounded and alienated from institutions. My own newsletter is a product of this very thing. A three-year period of frankly bizarre occurrences did me enormous harm and caused me to question everything I thought I knew.
This alienation is a source of power, but it can also end up warping people in very unhealthy ways. One is ending up like Elijah, believing you are the last faithful man. Another is to make such suffering and alienation normative; if others have not likewise suffered, it can only be because they’ve sold out or been unfaithful.
I think about this a lot with regards to what I am doing with the Masculinist, and how to avoid at least some of the pitfalls I’ve seen others stumble into.
Dreher’s pessimism, then, probably stems at least in part from his experiences. Fortunately for him, he’s managed to largely avoid falling into the traps I noted above. I attribute that in part to the fact that he has remained at least partially anchored in movement conservatism. He still works for a recognized magazine in the space, is still friends with many movement conservatism people, Andrew Sullivan, etc. This helps keep him from becoming socially isolated on the fringes and turning into one of those people Ross Douthat was talking about.
And you know what? Sometimes you’re right to be gloomy.
Live Not By Lies is a successor to The Benedict Option. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up making it into a trilogy with a third book.
The book argues that America is going to increasingly experience “soft totalitarianism.” In contrast to the type of hard totalitarianism that the Soviets used – sending dissidents to the gulag and such – this will use different forms of coercion. Society will increasingly enforce an Orwellian, ever-shifting ideological line from which deviation can, and increasingly will, involve negative sanctions, generally imposed by non-state actors such as corporations. Negative sanctions in this case meaning loss of income or privilege in contrast to positive sanctions like being thrown in jail.
Let’s just say, for example, that you post “All lives matter” on Facebook. Someone sees it and reports it to your employer, and you are fired. That is not a hypothetical example but happened to real people this year at Cisco. The op-ed page editor at The New York Times was forced out after running a submission from US Senator Tom Cotton to which some staffers took umbrage. The cryptocurrency company Coinbase decided to prohibit political activism on the job, and shortly thereafter The New York Times ran a hit piece on them calling them racists. I could no doubt compile a lengthy list of similar incidents just from 2020.
Going forward, people with even moderately dissident views may find themselves being the subject of media hit jobs, kicked off social media, kicked off online payments infrastructure, and even lose their bank account. Even if this occurs to only a comparatively few people, it will have a chilling effect on many others.
The random nature of these cancellations, as well as the fact that they are often retroactively applied for people saying and doing things that were conventional wisdom not long ago adds to the climate of fear. Dreher writes:
These utopian progressives are constantly changing the standards of thought, speech, and behavior. You can never be sure when those in power will come after you as a villain for having said or done something that was perfectly fine the day before. And the consequences for violating the new taboos are extreme, including losing your livelihood and having your reputation ruined forever.
One thing that makes this regime possible is new technology which allows for ubiquitous monitoring. Dreher cites Shoshana Zuboff’s concept of “surveillance capitalism” to show that it’s impossible to opt out of the system. Large tech companies now know more about us than we know about ourselves. Even if we don’t have accounts on a Facebook property, Facebook still has a profile on us. But most people willingly invite these companies to snoop on them, installing things like Alexa speakers in our homes that are constantly listening to and recording everything we say. Even without that, our phones are basically doing the same thing.
This trove of data allows us to be easily manipulated by these companies, generally for the prosaic purpose of making money. The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma provides a good exploration of this.
To the extent that this becomes a form of soft totalitarianism rather than a form of money making, it’s generally not because of executives like Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg, or even the average employee who just wants to do his job. Rather it is lower level but highly activist employees in their organizations who aggressively push this. Or it is done in response to media pressure. Nevertheless, senior management has largely gone along with these actors to date (though there are some signs people in places like Silicon Valley are getting tired of it).
The net result of these technologies is thus something akin to China’s social credit score (“the mark of the East,” as Dreher calls it), only instead of being enforced by the state, it’s implemented by large corporate actors who today wield immense powers in key sectors you can’t easily avoid. If you play ball with the system, you are rewarded with status, consumer goods, etc. If you don’t, then the goodies of society can be withdrawn at some level. This is another difference in the Chinese style vs. Soviet style approach. China (and America) offer material comforts that were absent in the Soviet system that was spartan for most everyone. Dreher writes:
Soft totalitarianism exploits decadent modern man’s preference for personal pleasure over principles, including political liberties. The public will support, or at least not oppose, the coming soft totalitarianism, not because it fears the imposition of cruel punishments but because it will be more or less satisfied by hedonistic comforts.
Dreher’s book was inspired by people who’d lived under communism who were telling him that they were becoming worried that developments in our society were similar to what they’d seen then. He thus tries to trace some parallels between the rise of communism and our current situation. He also provides a number of very moving stories of Christians who experienced persecution under communism, and how they sustained their faith and their communities during that time. He believes we can and should draw lessons from them. I will not relate these because you can and should read them for yourself in the book.
How applicable today the lessons from the communist era are is an open question. After all, he’s not the only one who can study them. China, for example, saw what happened to the Soviet Union and took action to militate against it happening to them. I think it’s interesting that they continued to use hard totalitarian tactics against ethnic minorities while developing their surveillance state primarily for the ethnic Han majority. They obviously believe the “soft” approach is much more effective with that group.
Should America become a more oppressive place to live, communist examples as provided by Dreher are important to study. But a broader range is needed. We should have a better understanding of what’s going on in China, for example. We should also study the works of Ernst Jünger, which have captured the imaginations of many people today. Jünger, best known for his World War I memoir Storm of Steel, wrote a number of essays and novels exploring various forms of totalitarian society, including On the Marble Cliffs, The Forest Passage, and Eumeswil. While Eumeswil, a science fiction novel, describe a world closer to our own, I consider The Forest Passage in particular to be superb. Someone encouraged Dreher to read The Forest Passage earlier this year, and he posted a positive note about it. By all means read Live Not By Lies, but complement it with other reading. I suggest starting with Jünger for that, though I should warn you his work is more philosophical than Dreher’s.
A More Hopeful Future
Dreher’s soft totalitarian future is realistic in that it is already somewhat here. But I diverge somewhat from him in that I think his future vision seems over-determined. I think there’s a much broader range of possible future outcomes. This is where I somewhat part ways with his pessimistic views.
The future is vastly more uncertain than we’d like to believe. A year ago, who would have predicted a global pandemic like we’ve had? In January 2015 how many people would ever have believed it possible Donald Trump would be inaugurated President just two years later? Few people were expecting the sudden collapse of Soviet communism when it happened. No matter how many black and gray swans we see (see Masc #14), we always underrate the possibility of more.
I’ve experienced this personally. After my three terrible years, I had another series of experiences that functioned as stunning revelations for me. It was almost like God was saying, “Aaron, I’m going to show you the answer to questions you didn’t even know you were supposed to be asking.” For example, I discovered I had a magnesium deficiency that had caused a lifelong low-grade depression I’d never even known I’d had. (That’s a topic for an entire future issue). I went from the absolute low point of my life one October to living nearly my dream life a mere 15 months later thanks to events I had no inkling would occur and several of which essentially fell on my head out of the sky. If you’d told me where I’d end up at the beginning of that journey, I would have said, “That’s impossible.”
Hope is one of the great theological virtues. That’s principally our eternal hope of course. But there’s also hope in this world too. Someone just described to me today that hope is the intersection of the recognition of a fallen world with the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s a good way to think about it.
In this world, the good guys don’t always win. Jeremiah’s ministry was an earthly failure and his life so miserable he wished he’d never been born. Or I think about the faithful Presbyterian theologian Gresham Machen, who was totally defeated and driven from his seminary and denomination. Sometimes we experience inexplicable suffering like that of Job or Heman.
But sometimes the good guys do win, often in circumstances of seeming impossibility. Abraham did have a son named Isaac. The Hebrews were delivered from slavery in Egypt. Gideon’s 300 did triumph. Jonathan and his armor bearer did defeat a Philistine army by themselves. David did slay Goliath.
While Dreher is right to be gloomy in my view, he comes across as someone invested in a future of defeat. He explicitly says he has hope, yet a mood of defeatism pervades his work, something I’m far from the first person to notice. He’s more likely to write about someone who suffered and survived, or someone who’s living a healthy, quiet existence somewhere, than of stories of victorious conflict or justice triumphant. I think accounts for much of the pushback he receives. This sadly provides an excuse for people to dismiss him as “alarmist” or whatever and ignore the substance of his work, which is frequently quite penetrating.
This is where perhaps different life experiences might have produced a different outcome. Imagine if, for example, he had been able to get people to go on the record about Cardinal McCarrick, leading to his removal and justice triumphing. How might he feel differently about the world today with some big wins like that under his belt?
Conversely, if I had not experienced those episodes of radical positive shifts in my own life, I might have a much more pessimistic view myself.
In short, while Dreher’s future is one scenario worth considering, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to that. In particular, we shouldn’t abandon hope or shy away from taking externally oriented action in an attempt to create a better future. God is not constrained to save by many or by few. Things seldom proceed in a straight trend line into the future. And it’s easy to see cracks in the current regime that may change things in profound ways for good or ill.
Dreher is right to note, for example, that our regime has been enormously legitimized by its provision of material goods and a rising standard of living. However, since the recession of the early 2000s that has ceased to be the case for many, and painful downward economic and social mobility is a reality of life for millions of Americans. Whether a highly unequal society in which the majority of Americans experience high degrees of economic anxiety, social dysfunction, declining life expectancy, and stagnant standards of living is stable over the long term is a very debatable proposition.
Within the elite, there are probably greater divisions than is apparent on the surface. Right now ultimate short term cultural power is held by The New York Times and a handful of other top media outlets. No person or institution in our society is capable of withstanding a continuous assault from them. But Silicon Valley is increasingly unhappy with this arrangement and growing more hostile to the media by the day. A low-grade battle between tech and media over where ultimate authority lies is currently in progress. While tech appears to hold similar values to the media, there are important differences, and if the tech industry successfully gets the upper hand (which I personally hope they do), the dynamics of our society will change significantly.
It’s also the case that in their zeal to get rid of Trump, the American elite shredded the political formulas that previously legitimized their rule by presenting it democratically in a manner that had wide acceptance. Today they increasingly rule through raw power, coercion, and overt institutional manipulation. Unlike in say the 1980s, most of American today understands that we have a ruling class that indeed rules. And unlike in the era of the Protestant establishment, when WASP social prestige brought public acceptance of their leadership, a very large share of the country, 70+ million Trump voters for starters but also including many millions of alienated minorities, does not view them as a rightful ruling class. This will have profound consequences for society.
In short, I don’t think we have as good an understanding of what the future will actually hold as we might like to think. There are possibilities for the future that we cannot even imagine.
The Most Damaging Lies
An interesting aspect of the book is that Dreher does not tell us much about what lies we are not supposed to live by. I actually think this was a great choice, because the range of lies we need to be on guard against is very large and is not just limited to lies told by the secular world.
Lies that come from within the church are much more consequential than what comes from society at large. Reading the New Testament I am struck that while persecution looms large, the bigger problem was often actually from false teachers within the church. Epistles like Galatians, 2 Corinthians, and Jude were written specifically to combat false teaching and false authorities who were attempting to establish themselves in church leadership (and sideline Paul).
I would suggest that, now as with then, the main problem facing the average Christian in America is less likely to be secular society than false teaching or some form of persecution within the church. It’s hard to believe, for example, that secular soft totalitarianism poses a bigger problem for the Catholic faithful than the church’s own pederastic and corrupt priests and bishops.
Protestant churches continue to promulgate a variety of untruths with regards to marriage and gender, with the result that many people who believed them or have been under the authority of those who taught them have suffered enormous harm to their lives.
It’s also increasingly the case that Protestant churches are becoming more compulsively woke in ways that align with secular ideologies. As with the treatment of secular dissenters that Dreher noted in his book, the same fate will increasingly await those who don’t toe the new line within the church. We have already seen this happen. When the congregation of First Baptist Church of Naples refused to approve the call of a new woke senior pastor, several members were summarily excommunicated for racism. Some woke figures have made it clear that if you don’t go along with them, church discipline and excommunication are options. (And vice versa for some of the non-woke). Whether you are pro- or anti-woke, the key is that churches are increasingly becoming party line, with dissent becoming less acceptable. And it’s very clear that the balance of institutional power lies with those who want to fall in line with secular elite society over those who want to remain more traditionally Christian.
We’ve seen this in the way Dreher himself has been treated. He’s gotten respectful hearings in recent years in secular outlets like The New Yorker. The people who really trash him are within the church. Greg Thompson called Live Not By Lies “utterly egregious,” “dangerous,” “histrionic, misleading, and vindictive,” etc. And I’ve noted before that Dreher’s Benedict Option apparently annoyed even Pope Francis.
In the gospels, the man born blind that Jesus healed was kicked out of the synagogue. Later in John we’re told that many of the Jewish leaders believed in Jesus, but would not admit it for fear of also being kicked out of the synagogue. So this is not a new phenomenon.
Under communism, many Christians and their leaders went along with the regime. That might be the biggest lesson of the communist era for today.
But the deadliest and most damaging lies of all are those we tell ourselves. Each of us, myself included no doubt, believe any number of things that just aren’t true. Sometimes we are genuinely deluded because we took in what our parents or others told us on good faith. The completely false teaching that women desire a servant leader, for example, sounds good in theory. Being a “white knight” with women is something that powerfully resonates with people like me raised in the 1960s-90s era. It just feels right. But these things are grave delusions about intersexual dynamics that have led to catastrophe for many who’ve tried to put them into practice.
Sometimes we are deceived because we want to be deceived. In the film The Matrix, Neo takes a red pill that ultimately shows him the bleak reality of the world he lives in. It was a bitter pill to swallow. His companion Cypher longs to return to the computer-generated delusion of the Matrix.
Not all contrarian or unconventional ideas are true, of course. Most of them are not in fact. But many of the things we’ve been told or believed all our lives are likewise false. No one wants to believe that they’ve been living their life in accordance with lies, particularly when they’ve invested so much of themselves in them. It’s a bitter pill indeed to recognize that we wasted so many precious years of our life in service to lies. But we have to find within us the courage to seek out, discern, and live in alignment with the truth even when it’s something we don’t want to believe. Because in the long run believing in lies is ultimately more costly.
There’s much more I could say, but as always this is getting long. Live Not By Lies is a fairly short, easy, and very worthwhile read. Even if you don’t like Rod Dreher, this one is worth picking up for the stories of those who suffered under communism alone.
I’ll close with one thought that I will not fully develop. Consider it a seed to think about for a future issue I plan to write. Christians under communism often had to suffer terribly for their faith. Dreher writes:
Relatively few contemporary Christians are prepared to suffer for the faith, because the therapeutic society that has formed them denies the purpose of suffering in the first place, and the idea of bearing pain for the sake of truth seems ridiculous.
But sometimes it’s easier for us to suffer for our beliefs than to allow other people to suffer for theirs. In a world where so many people are fiercely wedded to beliefs that just aren’t true, is it the church’s responsibility to attempt to ameliorate the consequences of that for people who have no intention of changing the way they are living their lives?
In the Culture
Rod Dreher also recently posted some drawings by 31-year-old Hungarian Lainey Molnar. Here are a couple from her series:
There’s some truth in these. All people are made in the image of God and so have full dignity and worth regardless of life circumstances. Children and a conventional lifestyle are not for everybody. It’s a free country (for now, at least) and people are going to choose different life paths which it is very much their right to do. She writes:
We have the right to choose our lifestyle and not apologize for it, we have the right not to settle for less, we have the right to pick whatever makes us whole, being a white picket fence and three toddlers or backpacking around the world. Don’t let anyone’s rulebook or judgement define you.
That might be her truth at age 31. But will she feel the same at age 41, 51, 61, or 71? Some decisions and choices come with lifelong consequences. By the time we recognize those consequences, it might be difficult or even too late to change course.
As a more realistic picture of life, read this piece by Gina Dalfonzo. She’s a single Christian woman who at least at one point lived in the DC area, and who has written on the topic of singleness a few of times. You can get a sense of the pain she experiences from being single and childless when she writes:
This was brought home to me recently when I updated my will. When one has no spouse or children to whom one can leave everything, this takes a whole new level of intentionality. I spent weeks pondering the fate of my most prized possessions. This was not, I hope, out of an excess of materialism. It was because the things that mean the most to me will not become family heirlooms, as I wish they could. There is no passing them down the generations, at least not to direct descendants. There are my parents and sister, but that is more a passing up or sideways. I could have bequeathed everything to charity, but something in me could not face the thought of my things going to people who would not remember me when they wore or read or looked at them. A self-centered feeling, most likely, but I could not shake it.
I cannot but think of my podcast on Urban Christian Buddhism when reading this, as the church has taught people like her to consider perfectly ordinary and understandable feelings like these as self-centered. She wanted to have a legacy. She wanted to have children and grandchildren to remember her. These are natural and good desires. In what possible world is wanting this self-centered (an inherently negative term)? The church’s teachings on this, which I collect under the rubric of “the idolatry of the family,” have gaslit people into believing that normal, healthy desires and legitimate grief are somehow sinful or wrong.
I want to stress that I’m not claiming Dalfonzo ended up single because she lived like the people in those drawings or has that attitude or anything like that. I don’t know how she ended up where she is and I wish her all the best. But her story illustrates that the message embedded in Molnar’s drawings is a lie. Maybe not for everyone, but for many women (and men) the end result of not having children in the long term is a lot of pain. And maybe even more pain than they are willing to let on in print.
For a male variation on this same theme, read “The Last Days of Tony Hsieh” on the Masculinist blog.
In our ancestors’ times, anyone banished was already accustomed to thinking for themselves, accustomed to a hard life, and to acting autonomously. Even in later times this person probably still felt strong enough within to take the banishment in stride and assume for himself not only the roles of warrior, physician, and judge, but also priest. Things are different today. People are incorporated into the collective structures in a manner that makes them very defenseless indeed. They hardly realize how irresistibly powerful the prejudices have become in our enlightened epoch. Additionally there is our whole living off of processed foods, communication connections, and utility hookups; and all the synchronizations, repetitions, and transmissions. Things are little better in the field of health. Suddenly, in the midst of such conditions, comes banishment, often like a bolt from the blue: You are red, white, black, a Russian, a Jew, a German, a Korean, a Jesuit, a Freemason—in any case, much lower than a dog.
– Ernst Jünger, The Forest Passage