The left-liberal Orthodox Christian website Public Orthodoxy, the parish newsletter of Orthodox Christians who want to turn American Orthodoxy into Episcopalianism, has published a piece by the scholar Kristina Stoeckl that seriously misunderstands a few things. As my work is one of the things she misunderstands, I need to set the record straight.
She begins by lamenting — correctly — the closure by Russian authorities of the organization Memorial, which exists to keep alive memory of Communism’s crimes. Yet she somehow believes that this lamentable act by the Putin government is supported by conservative Orthodox Christians. More:
On the pages of Public Orthodoxy, Aram G. Sarkisian recently pointed out the odd affinity which some American Orthodox cultivate vis-à-vis the time of the American Civil War and how ultraconservative Orthodox groups appropriate an eighteenth-century story to fit a twisted and ahistorical agenda of the twenty-first. The identification with past epochs it nothing unique to American Orthodox. In my own studies of moral conservatism in Russia and the US, I have also encountered this identification with the past, in particular with the period of the 1920s to 40s.
I wrote about that Sarkisian piece (my response was titled “The Phony Threat Of Orthodixie”), and criticized it for being wildly off the mark in describing the reality of contemporary American Orthodoxy. Sarkisian found a handful of reactionary Southern Orthodox Christians, and conflates their views — which I do not share, and which most Orthodox I know don’t share — with all politically and theologically conservative Orthodox Christians from the American South. American Orthodoxy is very small, but one place it is growing is the American South — meanwhile, it is dying in the blue-state Northeast. Prof. Stoeckl is Austrian, so perhaps she doesn’t realize that Sarkisian’s piece is an example of the very thing she criticizes: appropriating past history wrongly to advance a line of criticism of a contemporary phenomenon. It is a truism that for the American left, it is always and forever 1963 in Selma. Sarkisian appears to have decided that it is also Fort Sumter, 1861.
Here’s where I come in. Stoeckl writes:
In his speech to the 18th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Vladimir Putin drew a historical comparison between the 1920s and today, comparing advocates of gender equality and rights pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity with Bolshevik revolutionaries:
“In a number of Western countries, the debate over men’s and women’s rights has turned into a perfect phantasmagoria. Look, beware of going where the Bolsheviks once planned to go—not only communalizing chickens, but also communalizing women. One more step and you will be there […] this is nothing new; in the 1920s, the so-called Soviet Kulturtraeger also invented some newspeak believing they were creating a new consciousness and changing values that way.”
Putin conjures up a contemporary “red scare” in order to recommend his Russia built on Orthodoxy, traditional values and military power as alternative model. “Beware of going there” is addressed to the foreign participants in the Valdai Discussion Club. You Westerners, he is saying, you think that you won the Cold War and defeated communism, but you don’t see that you now have communism in rainbow colors. The true winner of the Cold War, this is the essence of his message, is Russia.
The copyright on this idea is held not by Putin, but by Rod Dreher, who wrote an entire book in order to argue that those on the liberal and progressive side in today’s culture wars are just like Bolshevik revolutionaries and that religious conservatives are the new dissidents in our era. The book cover of his Live Not By Lies invokes a red pillage of churches in a distinctly 1920s constructivist iconography.
Well, Putin may or may not be a bad man, but he is absolutely correct in that statement. But as to my work, do I say that the libs are “just like” the Bolsheviks? No, not at all. I will be charitable and presume that Dr. Stoeckl, who is personally kind, read Live Not By Lies, and has simply forgotten that its main premise is that we are living through the emergence of a new, softer form of totalitarianism, but are slow to recognize it because our idea of totalitarianism is based on Stalinism, which this most certainly is not. In my book, I talk about the distinctions, but also the similarities. In fact, the entire genesis of the book, as I explain, was that emigres to the US from Soviet bloc countries are seeing things happen here that remind them of what they left behind, but they can’t get Americans to take them seriously, because naive Americans think that It Can’t Happen Here.
Moreover, I discuss the forms that contemporary totalitarianism takes that distinguish it from the Soviet model, and indeed from the classical model: chiefly, the fact that it is not centered in the State, but is emerging simultaneously from ideological capture of private institutions, most importantly of Big Business (“woke capitalism”). And I point out that unlike the Soviet Union (and the state of Oceania in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), our softer form of totalitarianism seeks domination and conformity not by imposing pain and terror on people, but rather by manipulating their access to status and comfort. Yet the end goal is the same for all kinds of totalitarianism: the politicization of all of life, and the establishment of a single ideology to rule.
This is what the Soviet bloc emigres see happening now in America — and not just in America, but also in Europe. Here is the core of her thesis:
The identification of the leadership of the World Congress of Families, of Vladimir Putin and of Rod Dreher with the anti-communists of the past is – apart from hilarious in the case of Putin—haunted by a double historical blind spot: first they ignore the totalitarian potential on the right, and second, they ignore the fact that terror is born by ideological polarization. In their re-imagined 1920s struggle, they ignore the lesson of totalitarianism.
This is just bizarre. I won’t speak for Allan Carlson and the World Congress of Families (she criticizes him too), and certainly not for Putin, but I cannot for the life of me understand this accusation of “ignor[ing] the totalitarian potential on the right.” Of course right-wing totalitarianism existed! That’s what Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were; Mussolini invented the word “totalitarianism,” in fact. There is always totalitarian potential on the right, but we are not seeing the emergence of a totalitarian right today. We are, however, seeing everywhere the emergence of a soft-totalitarian left, as I document in my book.
Prof. Stoeckl’s essay is in large part an exercise in liberal whataboutism — except there is no “what” in her whatabout. Where are the right-wing totalitarians in the West? Mind you, there is a difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Authoritarianism is anti-democratic, and seeks to establish a monopoly over the political sphere. Totalitarianism is authoritarianism, but extended to every aspect of life (that is, it makes all things political). This distinction matters — and even so, I can’t see any meaningful danger from right-wing authoritarianism. It could arise, yes — and European + American liberals of the left and the right always point to Hungary’s Viktor Orban as an example of right-wing authoritarianism. But this is absurd, as spending any time in Hungary will make clear to the fair-minded observer. There are many substantive critiques of the Orban government, but the idea that he is turning Hungary into a Magyar version of Franco’s Spain is risible.
I can only speculate about why Prof. Stoeckl is willing to overlook my argument and the evidence I present, but if she’s like other liberal critics, it’s because that she doesn’t see progressive ideological hegemony as problematic at all. It’s the way the world is supposed to be, according to them.
On her point about terror being born of ideological polarization, I’m trying to figure out what she is saying in her essay. Here’s a passage:
Terror rarely produced solidarity. While millions of persons perished, the Christian Churches failed in front of the challenge, becoming both victims and collaborators. The “lesson” of totalitarianism is that under conditions of utmost ideological polarization, no-one is safe nor saved. The ideological polarization of the 1920s, 30s and 40s produced terror from the left and from the right.
Why, then, is the identification with the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s so significant for twenty-first century conservatism? One could dismiss it as merely rhetorical. After all, we live in 2021, the Cold War ended in 1991, not even China is communist any longer, what is the problem if some people continue to kick the anti-communist ball after playoff? I don’t see it this way. The identification with the time before the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century allows conservative actors to ignore the lesson of totalitarianism: under conditions of utmost ideological polarization, no-one is safe nor saved.
I don’t get her point here. All you have to do is look at the Spanish Civil War to realize that under condition of utmost ideological polarization, no one is safe or saved. Who disputes that? But in the US today, it is the left that is driving this polarization: by driving people out of their jobs, exiling them to social margins, and instilling fear in people, that they will get on the wrong side of the woke commissars, and find themselves unpersonned. This is happening everywhere here, though perhaps not in Austrian academia, and if it were, Prof. Stoeckl, a progressive and a liberal Catholic, will not have to fear for her livelihood.
Yesterday in this space I wrote, after a series of informal conversations with conservatives I know, about a conservative exodus from certain professions, because of wokeness. I’m thinking right now of one of those friends with whom I spoke. He is a Christian and a conservative, but not very political. If he were more politically oriented, he would have identified as Never Trump, but basically, he’s a man of high principle who doesn’t bring politics to his job. Now, though, he has endured the woke-ification of his workplace, and is planning to get out. The atmosphere of fear within his firm is intense, and he can no longer do his job with integrity. This is something that was 100 percent advised and executed by the left. No phony equivalence (“the right might do this too one day”) can erase the fact that whatever potential the right has, the left is turning their own potential into acts.
We do have an illiberal right in America. Some of them are scary people. They also are largely powerless. The illiberal left, which holds immense power, depends on the threat of the illiberal right to justify its own illiberalism. The woke-ification of the US military, for example, went into high gear after January 6; it’s why our national media are obsessed with keeping the memory of January 6 alive. For the record, I think what happened on January 6 was appalling, and that people should be punished for it. I supported the second Trump impeachment because of the way he behaved on that date. But I also believe that the left in this country is using that event as a Reichstag Fire moment, to justify its own repression. As regular readers know, I have been publishing e-mails and comments from readers who are either now in the military, or who have recently retired, all testifying to the way wokeness imposed from on high is tearing military cohesion apart. We cannot and should not have a US military that is politicized — but that is exactly what the left in power is doing!
I don’t know what the professor thinks about that, or even if she, being Austrian, knows about it. But it is definitely happening, and it is an example of the kind of thing that is driving our country apart. Maybe the professor is like our standard American liberals: defining “polarization” and “aggression” as refusing to agree with whatever new thing the left proposes now. Allow me to once again bring up the interview I did last summer with one of the most prominent Hungarian Orban critics, an academic who is permitted to say whatever he wants about the Orban government (as he should be!). He told me in our interview that despite all his criticism of Viktor Orban, he feels completely at liberty to stand in his classroom and say whatever he wants to. I told him that in the US, professors like him are permitted by law to say whatever they want to … but most of them would be fools to criticize wokeness in any way, because it would stand to cost them their job and their career, not because the State would get involved, but because academia has become highly illiberal, to the left.
In the end, the professor’s argument is not really with me, but with all the emigres from Communist countries whose painful experiences in their native lands taught them to see what comfortable liberals and conservatives in America and western Europe cannot. This no doubt comes as painful news to many academics, but yes, sometimes liberals and progressives really are the bad guys.
By the way, if you haven’t read Live Not By Lies, this short PragerU clip gives you the essence. In the very first lines, I refute Stoeckl’s thesis, by pointing out that we are not going to have an American gulag, and the state is not going to come after us — because it doesn’t have to. Watch: