Home/Rod Dreher/Language, Memory, & Soft Totalitarianism

Language, Memory, & Soft Totalitarianism

You will be made to speak (Photo by PHIL NIJHUIS/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

The riots give us an excellent opportunity to see how the soft totalitarianism of the progressive left works.

Check out this tweet from an Associated Press reporter. The AP Stylebook is the standard reference book in most US newsrooms.

In other words, obscrue These Riot Days are accelerating the trends toward soft totalitarianism. The manipulation of language is a standard strategy for controlling the way people think. From my forthcoming book Live Not By Lies, here’s a passage taken from my interview with a Polish historian in Warsaw, Pawel Skibinski:

Skibiński focuses on language as a preserver of cultural memory. We know that communists forbade people to talk about history in unapproved ways. This is a tactic today’s progressives use as well, especially within universities.

What is harder for contemporary people to appreciate is how we are repeating the Marxist habit of falsifying language, hollowing out familiar words and replacing them with a new, highly ideological meaning. Propaganda not only changes the way we think about politics and contemporary life but it also conditions what a culture judges worth remembering.

I mention the way liberals today deploy neutral-sounding, or even positive, words like dialogue and tolerance to disarm and ultimately defeat unaware conservatives. And they imbue other words and phrases—hierarchy, for example, or traditional family—with negative connotations.

Recalling life under communism, the professor continues, “The people who lived only within such a linguistic sphere, who didn’t know any other way to speak, they could really start believing in this way of using of words. If a word carries with it negative baggage, it becomes impossible to have a discussion about the phenomenon.”

Teaching current generations of college students who grew up in the postcommunist era is challenging because they do not have a natural immunity to the ideological abuse of language. “For me, it’s obvious. I remember this false use of language. But for our students, it’s impossible to understand.”

Watch and listen for how the media — TV, radio, print — describe the rioters, and the riots. They’re going to start calling it an “uprising” — the New Yorker already has done so, and so has NBC News.

Watch also for how the rioting will be downplayed in favor of the real message, which is that America is a racist country.

The New Yorker is on the social media scene puffing an SJW grifter who explains why white people getting upset over riots and looting, if they are carried out by black people, is a racist act:

The (white, Democratic) attorney general of Massachusetts said today that the riots are an opportunity for moral growth:

“We have a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Healey said in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “The challenge I pose to all of us this morning is: Will we seize it?

She referenced the protest and riots of the past few days over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes. “Yes, America is burning, but that’s how forests grow.”

Watch closely how elites manage the public discourse to gaslight us all into believing that we are not seeing what we’re seeing. Matt Walsh had an amazing series of tweets — gathered in one place here — about how the media covered anti-lockdown protests as selfish, reckless, even racist — but completely flipped the narrative when mass gatherings were in service of a cause the media endorse.

Get this: public health experts are now coming out in favor of mass protests, for political reasons. It’s insane! Here I have been pulling my hair out in my red state over conservatives who refused to wear masks, and who treated Covid-19 like it was a political thing, not a public health matter … and now here are left-wing public health experts treating Covid-19 like it’s a political thing!

I was already suspicious of authority, but after this, I am even more radically skeptical.

(Note well: I acknowledge, and I deplore, that there have been multiple instances of police brutality against media covering protesters — see, for example, this shocking instance from Australian TV. The point of this post is to talk about how the narrative is being constructed, and how the culture’s memory of events of this week will be shaped.)

Here, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has allowed looters to run rampant in Manhattan, answers a Jewish reporter’s very good question:

And:

This is because the real religion of American progressives is anti-racism. You know who said so in 2015? The African-American linguist John McWhorter, who wrote:

An anthropology article from 1956 used to get around more than it does now, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” Because my mother gave it to me to read when I was 13, of course what I remember most from it is that among the Nacirema, women with especially large breasts get paid to travel and display them. Nacirema was “American” spelled backwards—get it?—and the idea was to show how revealing, and even peculiar, our society is if described from a clinical distance.

These days, there is something else about the Nacirema—they have developed a new religion. That religion is antiracism. Of course, most consider antiracism a position, or evidence of morality. However, in 2015, among educated Americans especially, Antiracism—it seriously merits capitalization at this point—is now what any naïve, unbiased anthropologist would describe as a new and increasingly dominant religion. It is what we worship, as sincerely and fervently as many worship God and Jesus and, among most Blue State Americans, more so.

More:

Antiracism as religion has its downsides. It encourages an idea that racism in its various guises must be behind anything bad for black people, which is massively oversimplified in 2015. For example, it is thrilling to see the fierce, relentless patrolling, assisted by social media, that the young black activists covered in a recent New York Times Magazine piece have been doing to call attention to cops’ abuse of black people. That problem is real and must be fixed, as I have written about frequently, often to the irritation of the Right. However, imagine if there were a squadron of young black people just as bright, angry and relentless devoted to smoking out the bad apples in poor black neighborhoods once and for all, in alliance with the police forces often dedicated to exactly that? I fear we’ll never see it—Antiracism creed forces attention to the rogue cops regardless of whether they are the main problem.

The efforts in recent days by corporate and entertainment elites to affirm their Antiracism piety are something to behold. I have been receiving from you readers copies of e-mails that CEOs and university presidents have been sending out in the last day or two. They are, in the Nacireman sense, religious testimonials. You don’t think this stuff is religious? Look and listen:

This too is part of constructing the narrative. You will not be allowed to remember these days in any other way, if the ruling class of our institutions has anything to say about it. In this passage from Live Not By Lies, I explain why cultural memory is important, and why totalitarian regimes attempt to gain a monopoly on cultural memory:

In his 1989 book, How Societies Remember, the late British social anthropologist Paul Connerton explains that there are different kinds of memory. Historical memory is an objective recollection of past events. Social memory is what a people choose to remember—that is, deciding collectively which facts about past events it believes to be important. Cultural memory constitutes the stories, events, people, and other phenomena that a society chooses to remember as the building blocks of its collective identity. A nation’s gods, its heroes, its villains, its landmarks, its art, its music, its holidays—all these things are part of its cultural memory.

Connerton says that “participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.” Memory of the past conditions how they experience the present—that is, how they grasp its meaning, how they are to understand it, and what they are supposed to do in it.

No culture, and no person, can remember everything. A culture’s memory is the result of its collective sifting of facts to produce a story—a story that society tells itself to remember who it is. Without collective memory, you have no culture, and without a culture, you have no identity.

The more totalitarian a regime’s nature, the more it will try to force people to forget their cultural memories. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the role of Winston Smith within the Ministry of Information is to erase all newspaper records of past events to reflect the current political priorities of the Party. This, said the ex-communist Polish intellectual Leszek Kołakowski, reflects “the great ambition of totalitarianism—the total possession and control of human memory.”

“Let us consider what happens when the ideal has been effectively achieved,” says Kołakowski. “People remember only what they are taught to remember today and the content of their memory changes overnight, if needed.”

You think voting for Donald Trump, or voting Republican, is going to stop this? You’re dreaming. Don’t misread me: it may be important to vote for conservatives over liberals; in fact, in most cases, it certainly is. But this is not something that can be countered through politics. No Republican politician will do anything, or be able to do anything, about corporate leaders subjecting employees to re-education sessions, or universities doubling down on social justice indoctrination. We are going to come out of this long, hot, miserable summer with the progressive ruling class with much more confidence in its own righteousness, and much more willing to clamp down on dissent from its “social justice” gospel.

We have to get ready for it. We have no time to lose. Live Not By Lies is already on a fast-track publication schedule, but I’m going to ask my publisher if we can fast-track it even more. America is changing fast, right in front of our eyes. Soft totalitarianism is coming fast.

One more thing: A professor pointed out to me today that one theme of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that’s becoming quite relevant today is how the most oppressive regime of control does not apply to the proles, but to members of the Party. The more elite you are, the more coercive the system is. It’s true in hard totalitarianism, and it’s especially true in soft totalitarianism. Said the professor, “If you’re a plumber or a fast-food worker, you aren’t likely to pay any consequences for not playing the PC game, but the higher you are in the elite, the more danger you’re in.”

UPDATE: Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize winner behind The 1619 Project, says that rioting and looting over the George Floyd killing is not really violence, and we must not speak of it that way:

UPDATE.2: Elites are not on the side of law and order when they politically sympathize with violent lawbreakers.

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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