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American Totalitarianism

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It’s not just me who thinks the US is sliding into a woke-led totalitarianism. Prof. Andrew Michta, writing in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, says that America is “resegregating.” More:

Czesław Miłosz, a future Nobel Prize-winning poet who had just defected from Poland, began work in 1951 on a book called “The Captive Mind.” Even as Stalinist totalitarianism tightened its grip on Eastern Europe, many Western European intellectuals lauded the brave new world of Soviet communism as a model for overcoming “bourgeois forces,” which in their view had caused World War II. Living in Paris, Miłosz wrote his book, which was published in 1953, to warn the West of what happens to the human mind and soul in a totalitarian system.

Miłosz knew from experience, having lived through the Communist takeover, how totalitarianism strips men and women of their liberty, transforming them into “affirmative cogs” in service of the state and obliterating what had taken centuries of Western political development to achieve. Totalitarianism not only enslaved people physically but crippled their spirit. It did so by replacing ordinary human language, in which words signify things in the outside world, with ideologically sanctioned language, in which words signify the dominant party’s ever-changing ideas of what is and is not true.

Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, nationwide protests, which quickly turned to riots, have been hijacked by the neo-Marxist left, morphing into an all-out assault on American cities and institutions. This assault is underpinned by an audacious attempt to rewrite history that turns specific past events into weapons not only to overpower political opponents but also to recast all of American history as a litany of racial transgressions.

The radicals have turned race into a lens through which to view the country’s history, and not simply because they are obsessed with race. They have done so because it allows them to identify and separate those groups that deserve affirmation, in their view, and those that do not. What is taking place is the resegregation of America, the endpoint of which will be the rejection of everything the civil-rights movement stood for.

Michta offers a solid, useful definition of the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism; the woke militancy is unquestionably totalitarian:

What is driving the radical protesters and rioters—who are enabled and manipulated by the “digital intelligentsia” in the press and an expanding segment of the political and business classes—is contempt for the freedom of anyone who fails to comport with their image of a just society. In authoritarian systems those in power seek to proscribe certain forms of political speech and social activity. Totalitarians claim unconditional authority to reach deep into each person’s conscience. They prescribe an interpretation of the world and dictate the language with which citizens are permitted to express that interpretation. Authoritarian regimes leave largely untouched the private civic sphere of human activity; totalitarians destroy traditional value systems and reorder the culture. That is why they are harder to overthrow.

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This is about more than statues and history. Those who control the symbols of political discourse can dominate the culture and control the collective consciousness. If you doubt this, ask yourself why there has been so little backlash from ordinary, non-elite Americans. Our sense of self has been progressively deconstructed. We feel in our bones the wrongness of the violence being visited on the nation but lack the language to speak against it.

And:

American society is faced with a stark binary choice. Either we push back against the unrelenting assault of the neo-Marxist narrative, or we yield to the totalitarian impulse now in full view in our politics. It is no longer enough to wait for the next election, or to pin our hopes on a “silent majority” that will eventually stop the madness. There may be no such majority. If there is, its members may no longer be able to articulate what they see unfolding around them.

Read the whole thing (if you have a WSJ subscription; it’s behind a paywall).

None of this is news to me, of course — all of this and much more is in my forthcoming book Live Not By Lies— but what struck me the most about Michta’s essay is his speculation that there may not be a “silent majority” waiting to rise up against this.  

Last week in this space I wrote about a long lunch conversation with a pastor who is deeply frustrated by what he says is the inability of his fellow clergy to grasp the scale and the significance of the present crisis within the churches (or rather, the related crises of people falling away from the practice of Christianity, and those who remain knowing nothing at all about the faith, meaning their ties are highly tenuous). In his telling, the pastors he knows either refuse to acknowledge the facts right in front of their noses, or get angry at him for pointing them out. The result is a leadership class in the churches that huddles in false security behind the Maginot Line in their mind. They are not prepared to fight the war that’s actually upon the church, and are not preparing their flocks to resist.

I told the pastor over lunch that I had been dealing with this kind of thing for the three years since The Benedict Option was published. Lots of pastors and church leaders — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — have rejected the book’s diagnosis and prescription without giving any indication of having read it. As Alan Jacobs has written about this phenomenon, Dreher might be wrong in his prescriptions, but only a blind person could deny that the churches are in big trouble today. So what’s their solution? (says Jacobs). “More of the same things we’ve been doing” is a suicidal strategy.

Having read Michta’s piece this morning (thanks to the reader who sent it), I think I understand better why these pastors are so paralyzed with fear. They may have no strong reason to believe that their congregations would be behind them if they stood up to this madness. Four years ago, when I was traveling around researching The Benedict Option, I spoke to the pastor of a large conservative Protestant congregation. He told me the main obstacle he faced in his congregation was the constant fear of the people. What they were afraid of, though, were the threats they perceived Out There: e.g., radical Islam. He said that when he would preach on other things, things that had to do with the spiritual lives and threats they faced within their own hearts, they tuned him out. They only wanted to hear that the threats were external. He was pretty discouraged, and I found out later that he left that congregation.

Mind you, these were all conservative people, theologically and otherwise. But they had a fixed idea of what the threat to their existence was, and it had nothing at all to do with their way of life. This pastor I talked to, I don’t know if he supported the Benedict Option idea, but having spent time with him, I came to believe that he absolutely was trying to pastor that church in a way to make its members more truly and deeply Christian, and that he (the pastor) understood deeply how the currents of ordinary American life bear the church farther and farther from shore. But if his account of the congregation was true, the people of that church did not want to hear any of this. They only wanted their own prejudices validated.

I heard something very similar from the pastor in Louisiana with whom I lunched last week. (I wrote about it in “The Finder-Friendly Pilgrim Church,” in case you missed it.)

Now, think about that in context of the Michta column. Michta isn’t writing about religion. He’s writing about an American public that has been so propagandized and demoralized that it cannot see the true nature of the threats to it, or if it can, it lacks the wherewithal to respond appropriately. The rot has gone very deep. On this blog, I report on things going on within the culture of universities, of major corporations, of schools and religious institutions, and so on — as well as reporting on things happening in the public square. We are witnessing the dismantling of American liberal democracy, and the conditions under which it thrives. It is an emergency, but relatively few people are treating it like an emergency.

Are people waiting for this supposed “silent majority” to rise up and save the day? With Michta, I ask: How do you know that such a silent majority exists? I know a lot of people are planning to vote for Trump as their contribution to the fight against this madness. Vote for Trump if you want to, but understand that all of this has happened under Trump. I think there’s no question that it will accelerate under Biden, and in that sense, a vote for Trump is reasonable. But don’t think for one second that Trump is going to stop any of it. He doesn’t know how. Whether Trump is re-elected or not, the war on faith, family, and the foundations of American democracy will continue.

Again, let me be clear: I’m not telling you to vote for Trump, or not to vote for Trump. I am telling you that your vote matters a lot less than you might think.

Here’s a big reason why: consumer surveillance technology. The Houston Chronicle reports:

Operating in the shadows of the online marketplace, specialized tech companies you’ve likely never heard of are tapping vast troves of our personal data to generate secret “surveillance scores” – digital mug shots of millions of Americans – that supposedly predict our future behavior. The firms sell their scoring services to major businesses across the U.S. economy.

People with low scores can suffer harsh consequences.

CoreLogic and TransUnion say that scores they peddle to landlords can predict whether a potential tenant will pay the rent on time, be able to “absorb rent increases,” or break a lease. Large employers use HireVue, a firm that generates an “employability” score about candidates by analyzing “tens of thousands of factors,” including a person’s facial expressions and voice intonations. Other employers use Cornerstone’s score, which considers where a job prospect lives and which web browser they use to judge how successful they will be at a job.

Brand-name retailers purchase “risk scores” from Retail Equation to help make judgments about whether consumers commit fraud when they return goods for refunds. Players in the gig economy use outside firms such as Sift to score consumers’ “overall trustworthiness.” Wireless customers predicted to be less profitable are sometimes forced to endure longer customer service hold times.

Auto insurers raise premiums based on scores calculated using information from smartphone apps that track driving styles. Large analytics firms monitor whether we are likely to take our medication based on our propensity to refill our prescriptions; pharmaceutical companies, health-care providers and insurance companies can use those scores to, among other things, “match the right patient investment level to the right patients.”

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Surveillance scoring is the product of two trends. First is the rampant (and mostly unregulated) collection of every intimate detail about our lives, amassed by the nanosecond from smartphones to cars, toasters to toys. This fire hose of data – most of which we surrender voluntarily – includes our demographics, income, facial characteristics, the sound of our voice, our precise location, shopping history, medical conditions, genetic information, what we search for on the Internet, the websites we visit, when we read an email, what apps we use and how long we use them, and how often we sleep, exercise and the like.

The second trend driving these scores is the arrival of technologies able to instantaneously crunch this data: exponentially more powerful computers and high-speed communications systems such as 5G, which lead to the scoring algorithms that use artificial intelligence to rate all of us in some way.

Read it all.

This is the basis for the coming American version of China’s social credit system. Notice that none of this has to do with the government. If you think totalitarianism is only something that the state can impose, you’re wrong. This is what Woke Capitalism is doing to us. We are in a different world now. As I write in Live Not By Lies:

It is not at all difficult to imagine that banks, retailers, and service providers that have access to the kind of consumer data extracted by surveillance capitalists would decide to punish individuals affiliated with political, religious, or cultural groups those firms deem to be antisocial. Silicon Valley is well known to be far to the left on social and cultural issues, a veritable mecca of the cult of social justice. Social justice warriors are known for the spiteful disdain they hold for classically liberal values like free speech, freedom of association, and religious liberty. These are the kinds of people who will be making decisions about access to digital life and to commerce.

The rising generation of corporate leaders take pride in their progressive awareness and activism. Twenty-first
century capitalism is not only all in for surveillance, it is also very woke.

Nor is it hard to foresee these powerful corporate interests using that data to manipulate individuals into
thinking and acting in certain ways. [Age of Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana] Zuboff quotes an unnamed Silicon Valley bigwig saying, “Conditioning at scale is essential to the new science of massively engineered human behavior.” He believes that by close analysis of the behavior of app users, his company will eventually be able to “change how lots of people are making their day-to-day decisions.”

Maybe they will just try to steer users into buying certain products and not others. But what happens when
the products are politicians or ideologies? And how will people know when they are being manipulated?

If a corporation with access to private data decides that progress requires suppressing dissenting opinions, it
will be easy to identify the dissidents, even if they have said not one word publicly.

Pre-order to read the whole thing when it comes out September 29.

I’m telling you, this new order is already largely in place, and we are passively accepting it. We are being conditioned to accept it. I am absolutely not saying that we should surrender to it — in fact, quite the contrary. What I’m saying is that it is no surprise that the American people have been demoralized and manipulated. The “silent majority” is not going to save us, because if it even exists, it is likely already neutralized, or soon will be — and might never understand why or how. We should be standing behind political leaders who recognize the threat from this data grabbing, and who are prepared to fight it, and fight it hard. (Donald Trump is not that leader; Sen. Josh Hawley and Sen. Mike Lee might be.) But in the meantime, we should be preparing ourselves for the long resistance. Totalitarianism is coming. It will be softer than what existed in the Soviet bloc, but totalitarianism it certainly will be.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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