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America’s Coming Troubles

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I’ve been part of an email exchange among Orthodox Christian friends, talking about what they believe is the coming suffering, even persecution, and wondering whether we will be strong enough in the faith to endure. A reader also wrote:

The condition of our country now reminds of me of when my marriage was ending a few years ago. My ex-wife and I had got to a point where we both knew that there was nothing left, but we kept on because neither one of us could bring ourselves to end it. We were staying together out of habit, until finally that got to be too much. I feel like that’s where we are as Americans. The difference is my ex-wife and me had already gone through all the fighting with each other and had settled into a cold war for a couple of years before we went to a lawyer for an amicable divorce. I’m scared that Americans still have a lot of fight left in us. We’re going to see that after this election, no matter which way it goes.

When I read things like that, I don’t know how to process them. I can’t imagine what a real civil war would look like in America today. Spain 1936, yes, but not a country like ours, and not because we are somehow more virtuous; rather, it’s about the structure of the country, and our advanced economy. Antifa will fight. Neckbeard right-wing militias will fight. But the rest of us? Really? Are there any political principles over which you would take up weapons and shoot your neighbors?

I don’t want to say that it couldn’t happen. It’s just very hard to imagine it getting to that. As readers of this blog and my book Live Not By Lies know, my view is that the elites will eventually subdue the population with an American version of the Chinese social credit system. The technological infrastructure already largely exists, as I write in the book. I am confident that a victorious left will push to make sure that something like Trump could never happen again. The great challenge facing faithful Christians and other dissenters will be surviving with our faith and/or our principles intact, when most people around us are capitulating.

Today the Washington Post published a story about how so many Americans on both the left and the right expect the country to come apart after the election. Excerpts:

One week before Americans choose their path forward, the quadrennial crossroads reeks of despair. In almost every generation, politicians pose certain elections as the most important of their time. But the 2020 vote is taking place with the country in a historically dark mood — low on hope, running on spiritual empty, convinced that the wrong outcome will bring disaster.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican political consultant who has been convening focus groups of undecided voters for seven presidential cycles. “Even the most balanced, mainstream people are talking about this election in language that is more caffeinated and cataclysmic than anything I’ve ever heard. …”

More:

“I didn’t take it seriously for a long time, but in the last six weeks, it’s become very concerning,” said Michael Barkun, a political scientist at Syracuse University who studies political extremism. “This idea that the other side winning the election will produce a precipitous decline and the disintegration of institutions is completely at variance with American history.”

Historians say that in past bouts of insecurity and self-doubt, Americans often focused on foreign threats — the ideological battle with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the worry about unrest in the Middle East after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

But now, the worry on the right that a Democratic win would plunge the nation into catastrophic socialism and the fear on the left that a Trump victory would produce a turn toward totalitarianism have created “a perilous moment — the idea that if the other side wins, we’re in for it,” said Peter Stearns, a historian of emotions at George Mason University.

“The two sides have come to view each other not as opponents, but as deeply evil,” he said. “And that’s happening when trust in institutions has collapsed and each group is choosing not to live near each other. It seems there’s no middle ground.”

Read it all. 

It could have been a really interesting piece, but it’s mostly about how this is All Trump’s Fault. This is why I don’t trust the mainstream media anymore: the people who produce these stories seem completely incapable of comprehending the world outside the broad left-wing narrative. They’re not wrong about Trump being a chaos agent, but even after four years of him, the dominant forces driving the left have no sense of why so many people on the right stand with him — or at least feel more secure standing by him than they do about the left being in charge.

One thing the Post reporter could have talked about, from a non-partisan point of view, is how America really is in a pre-totalitarian state, judging by the factors in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism. This is a significant part of Live Not By LiesIn my book, I talk about these factors that Arendt said are present in a society ripe for totalitarianism:

Loneliness and social atomization. Totalitarian movements, said Arendt, are “mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.”

“What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world,” she continued. “is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.”

She wrote those words in the early 1950s, now considered in these Bowling Alone decades to have been a golden age of communal solidarity. This past January, before the long Covid-19 emergency, health insurer Cigna released results of a survey finding that 61 percent of Americans consider themselves to be lonely. Young Americans are far lonelier than the old: seven in ten Millennials call themselves lonely, with nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) of Gen Zers self-diagnosing as such.

Loss of faith in hierarchies and institutions. Loneliness is politically significant because it leaves the masses hungry for a sense of community. In a healthy society, an individual could find fellowship and common purpose through the institutions of civil society – political parties, churches, civic clubs, sports leagues, and the like.

But Americans have been dropping out of mediating institutions steadily since the 1960s. Meanwhile trust in basic institutions – political, media, religious, legal, medical, and so forth – is at dramatic lows. Young adults under 40 are the most religiously unaffiliated generation in American history, and though strongly liberal and Democratic in their political preferences, are also the least likely to embrace a political party.

Embracing transgressiveness. In both pre-Bolshevik Russia and pre-Nazi Germany, elites reveled in acts of rebellion that made fun of traditions and standards, moral and otherwise. They immersed themselves in baseness, and called it liberation. They also took pleasure in overturning institutions and established practices for the sake of outsiders.

“The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it,” wrote Arendt. Her words apply with eerie prescience to the upheaval on today’s university campuses, within the media, and elite culture in general.

Susceptibility to propaganda and ideology. Whether out of cynicism or misplaced idealism, the willingness to surrender one’s moral responsibility to be honest for the sake of a politically useful narrative opened the door to tyranny. In pre-totalitarian nations, wrote Arendt, hating “respectable society” was so narcotic that elites were willing to accept “monstrous forgeries in historiography” for the sake of striking back at those who, in their view, had “excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind.”

You can see these factors generally in our society, across left and right, though they manifest in different ways. I worry far more about the left, though, because again, it controls all the major institutions in this society — and the activist left really is totalitarian in its mindset, in the sense that it wishes to eliminate anything that it finds to be evil. Here’s a great new piece in New Discourses, by D.L. Devonshire, about the qualities of Woke Totalitarianism. Excerpt:

Anyone who has ever been in a totalitarian country, including this author, who has spent considerable time in a number of them, will keenly remember the existence of a layer of tension that is always present, not in the background, but in the foreground. The vibe of baseline tension permeates to the core atmosphere of the interhuman environment, not just in certain kinds of interactions, but in all of them, on a collective, societywide basis. It is created by the background existence of the totalitarian authority, its ever-watchful eyes, the pervasiveness of its enforcements, and the severity of its punishments. It forces every person, every time he steps out of his house, and sometimes even within it, i.e., around his own children, and especially around his computer, to mind the integrity of the compartment between his free internal thoughts that live inside his head and his unfree external behavior out in the world. It requires every person, as he conducts his normal daily interactions with others, to always take great care with every word or silence, every action or non-action, to hew correctly and with sufficient enthusiasm to the mandated party line.

As Wokeness opposes individualism on its face, to be in the Woke state of mind it is important that each individual think primarily as a member of the greater collective (what they redefine as “authentically”), and not his own individual thoughts. People are directed to think about the substantive elements of Woke doctrine all of the time, to take them into consideration in everything they do, and to always be on the lookout for deviants. Like other totalitarian architectures, it insists on always being top of mind.

When everyone is walking eggshells not some of the time, but all of the time, when everyone is afraid of making a mistake, of speaking the wrong word or not speaking the right one, of forgetting to say something when it is required, or of inadvertently doing or saying anything that could be interpreted, correctly or incorrectly, as a “microaggression” against a Woke disciple or any member of an honored group, this is the sort of material out of which the totalitarian fear layer is brought into existence. Every active dissenter from Wokeness feels its tensile force already, whether consciously or subconsciously, in the rapidly increasing tightness of the demands this alien doctrine is now imposing on us, and the life-altering consequences of non-compliance with or ignorance of Woke expectations. There will come a time when its presence will be undeniable, when the entire population, even the most naive and politically inexperienced, will come to experience it for the first time. At that point, as Wokeness enters the mature phase of its development, it will fast be approaching the peak of its powers, and all but impossible to oppose or defeat.

The emergence of the fear layer, concurrently with the sudden irruption of Woke doctrines and enforcement protocols into the mainstream of public life, confirms beyond any doubt that Wokeness as a movement is not consent-based, it is power-based. Its authority is not requested, demanded, or solicited; it is imposed. Submission to its rules and repetitive declarations of allegiance and adherence to it are absolutely compulsory and are a part of the movement’s ritual. Power is exclusive to the Woke, but that power may be rescinded from any person at any moment, on any arbitrary basis, especially from members of dishonored groups.

This is something the left is doing right now, wherever it holds power. Look at this Real Clear Investigations piece about how woke penitence has penetrated the workplace. This all comes from the left — again, because it has captured the leadership elite. Excerpt:

Like a growing number of organizations around the country responding to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, Duke is adopting anti-racist advocacy as an organizational mission. That mission doesn’t mention time-honored workplace goals like color-blindness, meritocracy, or equal opportunity; instead, its target is the so-called complicity of America and its citizens in “structural racism,” “oppression,” and denialism.

“I feel like my employer is calling me ‘racist’ and I then saying I must agree,” the doctor, who requested anonymity, told RealClearInvestigations. He said he is troubled that Duke’s leadership is imposing its political ideology on staff, implicating employees in a sweeping moral narrative, and dedicating itself to the task of “uncovering this hidden racism the employer is sure lurks within.”

Workers are coming under increasing pressure to support social justice programs on race and gender that would have been considered radical just a few years ago and too divisive to be injected into the workplace. Now an organization’s commitment to fighting racism and identity-related “phobias” increasingly involves encouraging, pressing, or even requiring workers to get behind the company’s social justice mission. And it can spell trouble for employees who balk or publicly disagree.

All of this is in place with Trump as president. If Trump goes, as seems likely, it’s going to accelerate with the executive branch behind it. If he somehow wins re-election, then it will also accelerate in the private sector, though maybe, just maybe, the executive branch will find ways to fight it. Either way, we are in for troubling times.

One of the most important things for all of us dissidents to grasp is that we will not be able to rely on our usual institutions. We cannot wait to be led. I was really struck by this piece on the traditionalist Catholic website One Peter Five, by someone who writes only as “A Homeschooling Catholic Mom.” She says:

I just finished Rod Dreher’s outstanding new book, Live Not by Lies.  I knew his book discussed the coming soft-totalitarianism, and I was hoping for some ideas of HOW to react to such persecution coming from secular actors, whether the state, big corporations, or both.  Dreher provides great encouragement, explaining that it is through small groups that the faith will survive.  It was a network of anti-Communist actors, both religious and secular, that fought the state-sponsored totalitarianism.  And it was small groups of faithful who encouraged one another and even spread the Gospel despite the oppression from the state.  Dreher sees the need for small groups of believers to band together as western civilization crumbles into a post-Christian wasteland.  Indeed, it seems that soft-totalitarianism that is overtaking our woke society and unless we provide our pinch of incense at the altars of anti-racism,  the LGBTQ agenda, and Communism, we will be ostracized, persecuted, and intimidated.

However, after Pope Francis’ recent bombshell support of same-sex unions, I see that small groups will be necessary even to protect ourselves and our faith from an onslaught of heresy from the Vicar of Christ himself.  My heart aches for the souls who are going to be misled by the heterodoxy coming from the Vatican.  The parallel Churches spoken of by Archbishop Vigano are manifesting themselves before our very eyes.  The faithful vs. the woke.  The orthodox vs. the heterodox.  And it is devastating.

She goes on to talk about how much good came out of a group in her parish that gathered to pray the Rosary together. She says below things that would have made the late Vaclav Benda laugh out loud with joy. This is the kind of thing he and his family did under communism, to fight the atomization:

 We must form Rosary groups, make and eat dinner together, let our children play, and build one another up in our faith.  Regular meetings to read and discuss the scriptures in preparation for Holy Mass, Bible studies, catechism lessons can follow football, soccer, and ultimate frisbee.  This is how we combat atomization.  This is how we spread the faith.

And make no mistake, as Dreher emphasizes, these small groups need to be in-person.  If the suppression of the New York Post story has taught us anything, it is that our time on the internet is limited.  When we are de-platformed, our twitter accounts suspended, and our websites blocked, we must have in-person small groups to help one another survive.

Reaching out to others takes courage.  We will be rejected.  Plans will fall through.  Kids will fight.  Human relationships are messy, but the mess is worth the effort to build up a community where we are.  We cannot control the Holy Father and we cannot ensure every priest is communicating the faith properly.  However, we can choose the environment in which we raise our children in the faith, while reaching out to those around us.  We are the hands and feet of Our Lord.  I do not have the platform to reach everyone in the world with the truth of the Gospel, but I can reach out to those in my community. I can evangelize those who are in front of me.

Read it all. 

She’s right. This is on us — all of us. If you have the support of your church’s pastor, great. But don’t sit around and wait for somebody else to get things going. I cannot emphasize often enough the visionary Father Tomislav Kolakovic, who was not discouraged in the 1940s by his bishops telling him he was being alarmist. He organized Slovak Catholics to build the social and spiritual infrastructure they needed to live the faith under communist oppression, before it struck. From Live Not By Lies:

Father Kolaković knew that the clericalism and passivity of traditional Slovak Catholicism would be no match for communism. For one thing, he correctly foresaw that the communists would try to control the church by subduing the clergy. For another, he understood that the spiritual trials awaiting believers under communism would put them to an extreme test. The charismatic pastor preached that only a total life commitment to Christ would enable them to withstand the coming trial.

“Give yourself totally to Christ, throw all your worries and desires on him, for he has a wide back, and you will witness miracles,” the priest said, in the recollection of one disciple.

Giving oneself totally to Christ was not an abstraction or a pious thought. It needed to be concrete, and it needed to be communal. The total destruction of the First World War opened the eyes of younger Catholics to the need for a new evangelization. A Belgian priest named Joseph Cardijn, whose father had been killed in a mining accident, started a lay movement to do this among the working class. These were the Young Christian Workers, called “Jocists” after the initials of their name in French. Inspired by the Jocist example, Father Kolaković adapted it to the needs of the Catholic Church in Slovakia. He established cells of faithful young Catholics who came together for prayer, study, and fellowship.

The refugee priest taught the young Slovak believers that every person must be accountable to God for his actions. Freedom is responsibility, he stressed; it is a means to live within the truth. The motto of the Jocists became the motto for what Father Kolaković called his “Family”: “See. Judge. Act.” See meant to be awake to realities around you. Judge was a command to discern soberly the meaning of those realities in light of what you know to be true, especially from the teachings of the Christian faith. After you reach a conclusion, then you are to act to resist evil.

Václav Vaško, a Kolaković follower, recalled late in his life that Father Kolaković’s ministry excited so many young Catholics because it energized the laity and gave them a sense of leadership responsibility.

“It is remarkable how Kolaković almost instantly succeeded in creating a community of trust and mutual friendship from a diverse grouping of people (priests, religious and lay people of different ages, education, or spiritual maturity),” Vaško wrote.

The Family groups came together at first for Bible study and prayer, but soon began listening to Father Kolaković lecture on philosophy, sociology, and intellectual topics. Father Kolaković also trained his young followers in how to work secretly, and to withstand the interrogation that he said would surely come.

The Family expanded its small groups quickly across the nation. “By the end of the school year 1944,” Vaško said, “it would have been difficult to find a faculty or secondary school in Bratislava or larger cities where our circles did not operate.”

In 1948, the Communist Party seized power in a putsch. Everything Father Kolakovic, who had been expelled from the country in 1946, warned of came true. The Family became the backbone of the underground Catholic Church, and the only means of anticommunist resistance for the next four decades.

There is a reason I dedicateLive Not By Lies to this hero of the faith, this happy warrior, though I am not a Catholic:

The reason is that he was not only unafraid to see the painful realities in front of the Christians of Slovakia, but he was not willing to sit quietly and wait for it to happen. Father Kolakovic acted.

We are not powerless in this moment. We can act to help each other through these crises, and to prepare for the struggles ahead. Remember what Father Cassian Folsom told me in 2015, in Norcia? That the only Christians who are going to make it through what’s coming will be those who do some version of the Benedict Option — that is, living and working together in deep faith and strong community. Do not think that politicians will save us, or be able to save us. Or bishops, or anybody but ourselves, with God’s help.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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