Rod Dreher: What Happens When a Society Loses the Desire to Know the Truth?
“Hannah Arendt, the great political philosopher of the 20th century, said that when a society loses the desire to know the truth, that is a precursor to totalitarianism. And I think that has happened on both the left and the right.”
Rod Dreher is the author of “Live Not By Lies” and a senior editor at The American Conservative. At a time of rampant propaganda and disinformation, how do we get at the truth?
“This whole corrupt system depends on everyone being willing to nod their heads and go along with the lie. This is happening all over in the West today with gender ideology, with so-called anti-racism, and so much more.”
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Below is a rush transcript of this American Thought Leaders episode from Sep 17, 2022. This transcript may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Rod Dreher, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
It’s great to be here.
Well, Rod, the last time we spoke on camera, we were talking about your book, Live Not by Lies, a book that was profoundly valuable to me. Why don’t you recap for the benefit of our audience, the core of Live Not by Lies and why you think it’s had such an amazing resonance here in America, and frankly, from what I’m hearing, in Europe as well, where you’ve been the last year.
Well, the book came about when people who came to America, escaping communism, started telling me that the things they were seeing happen in the US today, cancel culture, identity politics, all of this, remind them of what they left behind under totalitarianism. Well, I thought as an American, that’s really an exaggeration, but the more I listen to these people, the more I realize, no, they’re seeing something that Americans are not seeing. And this totalitarianism is not like Stalinism 2.0, and I think that’s one reason why we Americans don’t see it, because we think of totalitarianism as gulags, secret police, breadlines, et cetera, all the stuff of the Cold War. That’s not what we’re dealing with, but it’s still totalitarianism because what’s happening is these people who run all the elite institutions in our society, not just the government, but big business, the military, media, colleges, things like that.
They’re all operating from the same ideological platform. It is an illiberal leftism that finds identity politics like making people who fit in favored categories of so-called victims, privileging them and putting everybody else at making them evil. The second half of the book is based on my travels in the former Soviet Bloc, asking people who stayed behind and who resisted communism, how can we in the West prepare for what is here now and what is to come. And the title of the book, Live Not by Lies, comes from a statement of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the most famous dissident against the Soviet Union, who said the most important thing for people to do is to try your hardest to live in truth, because the whole system, this whole corrupt system depends on everyone being willing to nod their heads and go along with a lie.
This is happening all over in the West today with gender ideology with so-called anti-racism, and so much more. And I think this is why the book has become so popular. I’ve sold 175,000 copies of this book in the United States. I’ve had zero mainstream media interest. This book has taken off because of the interest of non-mainstream media outlets like you, podcasters, but mostly word of mouth, because people can see with the COVID crisis, after the summer of George Floyd and the race riots, things like that, they can see that we are being lied to and America is changing and becoming a country that many of us no longer recognize, and they want to know what to do about it.
Well, I’m a deep believer in actually the power of truth. Somehow there’s something about human beings that they want to know, even if on the surface they don’t want to know, even if it’s not convenient, even if it’s actually deeply disturbing sometimes. I believe there is this human desire for truth that can overcome. And I think it’s part of the reason why Epoch Times has become so successful lately because of this, we’ll call it landscape. I call it a miasma of lies that we find ourselves in. Well, so let’s talk a little bit about propaganda clouds here, okay, because you’ve been in Europe the last year, basically, right?
Most of the last year, yeah.
And so you actually watched the Russia Ukraine war break out, Russia invade Ukraine. I’ve been arguing that there’s an inordinately high focus in this war on all sides, I’ll say, on the information war and to the point where at any given point, it’s really difficult to actually know what the heck is going on there.
That’s right. That’s right. I was in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, when the war broke out. And I remember that day, I was going about my business and talking to Hungarians, young Hungarians, older Hungarians, about what they thought about what was happening. And they were all to a man scared to death. And when the more I would talk to them, the more I realized that they would come out with stories they had either lived through themselves if they were old, or they had heard from their parents or grandparents, about the siege of Budapest in the second world war, which was the worst fighting of the second world war except for Stalingrad. So these are people for whom war is a visceral memory in their culture. And they were terrified that war was going to come to them. And I didn’t speak to a single person who supported the Russians.
These are Hungarians. Their country was invaded by the Soviets, but at the same time, they hated and were afraid of the war drums being beaten by NATO. And so in those first weeks of the war in Budapest, I watched on computer while I still could Russian propaganda, clearly propaganda, because I wanted to know what the Russians were telling their own people about the war. But then I turned on CNN and it was striking, because it felt a lot like propaganda too. I’ll give you a specific example. They were talking on CNN one night about establishing a NATO no-fly zone in over Ukraine. Well, that would’ve meant World War III. It would’ve meant NATO engaging with Russia.
The CNN news reader was interviewing at length, for like 15 minutes, which as you know is an eternity on network television, was interviewing a retired US Army officer and the question was not should we do this? The question was, should we do this now? Or should we do this later? And I wanted to yell at the TV. You don’t understand what’s happening. Americans are sitting on the other side of the ocean so far away from the conflict. I’m sitting here in a country that borders Ukraine, this idea about a no-fly zone and starting World War III is very, very real to these people. But for the news readers on American TV, it just seemed like they were reproducing propaganda points of the Washington establishment. Now as an American, that was hard for me to take. And as an American journalist, I expect propaganda from the state-owned media in Russia. I didn’t really expect it to be so strong from the American news media, but then Jan, I thought back to the Iraq war, leading up to the Iraq war. I fully supported the Iraq war.
I lived in New York City on September 11th. I saw the South Tower fall with my own eyes. I was so angry and passionate about revenge, seeking vengeance on those who did this to us, so much so that I did not want to hear the truth. I wanted to hear lies. Sweet lies that confirmed what I wanted to see happen, which was to go to war and punish somebody. I was able to regret many years later my own mindless support for that war. But I was able to see seeing how consent for war is being manufactured in the US now, war with Russia.
It reminded me a lot of what was happening back then when I was too naive and too eager to seek revenge to know what was happening 20 years ago. And so it has frustrated me to know Jan, that you can’t even talk about realities of this war, things you’re seeing without being accused of being a Putin sympathizer. I’ve seen this happen a lot in Europe and in the US. I totally against the Russian invasion. I hope Ukraine wins, but at the same time, we have got to talk about realities. What led up to this war and how we’re going to get out of this war. But so far, it seems that a lot of the people who lead our institutions, media institutions, governmental institutions, NGOs, things like that, they want to keep going.
I see in the conservative movement, which of course you’re deep within yourself. I’ve seen people becoming, like you said, sympathetic to Putin or believing the Russian propaganda message. And I think you really should know better, right? You’re used to seeing this kind of stuff, perhaps because these people have been so propagandized. In America through American legacy media and so forth, they have this reflexive reaction, but are we losing our ability to actually try to think clearly and sort of see through this fog or cloud of propaganda?
Yes we are. And Hannah Arendt, the great political philosopher of the 20th century, said that, “For when a society loses the desire to know the truth, that is a precursor to totalitarianism.” And I think that has happened on both the left and the right. Remember how I said a second ago, that after the attack on the Twin Towers, I was so driven by passion that when people, conservatives like Pat Buchanan said, “We shouldn’t rush into this Iraq war,” I wanted to dismiss him. I really didn’t believe that the only way you could oppose the Iraq war was if you were a coward or a fool. And I was the fool. And I’ve had to think about that. This is one of the most defining moments of my life as a public intellectual is thinking about how I allowed myself to be lulled into support for a bad war.
One of the books I read when I was doing research for Live Not by Lies was a great book from 1953 by a Polish intellectual Czeslaw Milosz, called The Captive Mind. And Milosz had been a communist and an intellectual, but he defected to the West. And he was trying to explain from his experiences in Poland, as a Polish communist, how intelligent people could be seduced by communism, by ideology. And one of the things he said really stuck with me. He said that people in the West believe that the only way anybody can accept communism is if they’re terrorized into it. He goes, “That’s not really true.” He said, “Communism is a lie, but it speaks to this deep craving people have inside themselves for meaning, for purpose, and for solidarity.” And he said, “Unless people in the West understand that appeal of communism, they’re never going to be able to fight it.”
Well, what Milosz was talking about with communism is just generally true about human nature, I think. We all want to feel meaning, purpose and solidarity. And right now, when society seems to be shattering into a million billion pieces, we become so desperate for a sense of meaning, a sense of connection with other people that many of us cease to put the pursuit of truth in the front of our affairs, as we ought to. And instead we start seeking solidarity with those who make us feel comfortable and like we belong. So to go back to the Putin point, I’ve seen this too on the right. I’m an Orthodox Christian, which means Russian Orthodox too. And I’ve seen so many people come up to me and say, oh, you’re Orthodox. You must really support Putin, conservatives who want me to give a good word about Putin.
I said, no, I don’t support Putin. I hear he’s been terrible for the Russian church because he’s become corrupted by power. And so I tell people don’t just project our own American culture wars onto foreign people. I spoke to an American diplomat once in Eastern Europe, the former communist countries. And he told me the worst thing he has to deal with, with fellow Americans coming over, whether they are the left or the right, is they project American political fights and their culture war onto European situations when they don’t really fit. But this is Americans trying to be … It’s an egotistical thing in a way, Americans trying to say that this is really all about us, their fights.
This is really fascinating. One thing I was talking about a little bit earlier, I’m going to take a little bit of a tangent. I’m just curious what you think about it. Clyde Prestowitz is here at this conference. We’re going to do a sit down. I’ve had him. I think he’s brilliant, brilliant mind on China and trade and so forth. And his observation, he was first, he worked in the Reagan Administration on the trade side with Japan. And what he observed was the Americans would come to Japan and say, free trade, free trade, free trade. And the Japanese would smile and say back, free trade, free trade, free trade. But what they would actually do is very strong hardheaded industrial policy that allowed them to grow massively. And communist China watched what Japan did and thought these Americans are crazy. And these Japanese they’re very smart. We’re going to do what they did, which is essentially what they did. And this is what you just described, reminded me of this picture that Clyde has painted.
Yeah. Oh, it’s the mindset. I’m old enough to remember as I was in college, when China began to open up under Deng Xiaoping and so forth. We believed it, it was a law of gravity, that of course China is going to become liberal and democratic because you can’t get rich without being liberal and democratic. Well, they showed us all wrong. And I don’t think that there’s been a sufficient reckoning among the American intellectual elites for how wrong we were about China and what the reckoning should be is simply that we talked ourselves into believing what we wanted to believe, because it justified what we wanted to believe was true. But the real world is not like that. When I go back to the build up to the Ukraine, Russia, Ukraine war, I think John Mearsheimer, Professor Mearsheimer was right when he was talking about how certain moves by NATO in the United States made Russia feel threatened about Ukraine, rigging Ukraine into NATO.
Again, I underline, this does not justify what Russia did, but our hands aren’t clean. I think we in the United States, especially in our leadership class, tend to think that whatever we want to do is good simply by the fact that we want to do it. When I’ve been in Europe this past year, year and a half, I run into people in the former communist countries, older people, people who remember the Cold War. And they inevitably say to me, “What happened to you, Americans?” I say, “What do you mean?” And it’s always the same thing. “We used to look up to you as a beacon of freedom, as a beacon of sanity, as a place of hope for us. And now we look at you and you’re sending us gender ideology. You’re trying to force us through your businesses and through your State Department to accept transgenderism and accept this redefinition of the family over and over. We look to you as a threat to us.”
What can I say to these people? They’re right. They’re completely right. But in Washington they tell themselves, and among American elites and the NGOs and the academia and the media, they tell themselves that we with our liberal ideas are the harbingers of progress. We are enlightening these poor benighted natives. It’s cultural imperialism, but when a liberal does it, they don’t see it that way.
It’s remarkable. And this is the thing, right? Every propagandist, and Russian propaganda as case in point, will use the best tools it has at its disposable. And in America and frankly, in the West, we have a lot of exposure with bad ideas that can be used by propagandists against America and the West. It doesn’t change the fact that it remains a much better system. This is the thing I think a lot of people don’t grasp and it’s in these propaganda clouds or fogs, or I don’t know how to say, you can start losing sight of reality, basically.
That’s true. And this is what I fear with the coming of the metaverse, that we in the West and the technologically advanced West are going to be drawn into these online pseudo realities and come to prefer that to actual reality. And that just sets us up for being conquered and exploited. I remember when I was in high school and this was in junior high, actually, this was the late ’70s, early ’80s, long before the internet. I was so unhappy in school. I was picked on, I was bullied, as happens to a lot of people in high school. I started playing the game, Dungeons and Dragons, which is a very intensive and imaginative game. I really loved it, but I remember lying in bed one night, realizing that I was spending more time thinking about the life of my character within the game than I was about my actual life.
And it kind of scared me, because the fake life that I’d created with this character was more appealing, because in this fake life, I was strong. I was good looking. I had lots of friends, all the things that I wasn’t in my real life. Well, that comes back to me a lot whenever I read about the metaverse and how people, especially young people who are raised on the internet, find themselves coming to believe that reality is something that can be completely constructed. They’re confusing the difference between fake reality, within artificial intelligence and online, with the actual flesh and bone world.
I think that this confusion has a lot to do with why transgenderism has exploded among this generation that was raised on the internet. I think they believe that all of reality is fungible, as it is online. And I think that this is something that the propagandists, those which to rule over us, will exploit in the future to neutralize any opposition to what they want to do. It’s going to be like Brave New World. They’re going to pacify us with this by drawing us into the metaverse to neutralize us. So we don’t object to what happens in the real world. But when you start talking that way, you get really radical. And yet when we see what’s happening every single day, it makes you realize that things are accelerating. There’s a quickening going on now. And I don’t think most of us are ready for it.
This is indeed the progressive social constructivist division of the world. And I think there may not be an incredible amount of people that believe this foundationally, but I’ve come to believe that it just kind of infects everything. I’ll give you an example. I don’t have direct evidence for this, but this is what I think happened. The truckers’ movement in Canada. In Canada, the situation is such that the legacy media there, the state broadcaster, CBC, they’re very ideologically aligned with the prime minister and the current government. That’s one thing.
Two, they’re actually funded very significantly by the federal government as well. So you can imagine, they’re watching and there’s a whole narrative that develops around these truckers. They’re white supremacists, all these things, none of this is true. It’s actually preposterous. You can easily see that this is not the case. They’re firmly just against vaccine mandates. Now, but the media has its narrative. It pushes that, it tells the government, the government is reading the media, tells them all these things. The government gets freaked out hearing from the media what it wanted to hear and says, oh my goodness, we have to invoke this emergency act. The white supremacists are coming to take over Parliament Hill and it becomes this vicious circle of unreality that’s self-reinforcing.
That’s a great phrase, vicious circle of unreality, because that’s what we live in all the time now. I just was last week in Nashville, speaking to a couple of Christian church groups about Live Not by Lies. The book has been out two years now. I thought that the basic critique was widely understood. That’s really, I guess, kind of vain of me, but these are really sophisticated men and women, church leaders, and a lot of this stuff, they just had never realized. I was shocked for example, to realize that they did not know that in many school districts across the United States, the school districts themselves have policies in place that forbid teachers and staff members from telling the adults, the parents, if their child is presenting as transgender at school. In Maryland recently, a federal judge upheld that. So here we have the state interposing itself between parents and children on a matter of grave concern, have to do with biological alteration of their bodies.
This is exactly what happened in Soviet Russia. In 1924, Alexandra Kollontai, who is one of the top revolutionaries of the bolsheviks, she published an essay telling parents in the new and Soviet Union. Don’t worry about it. We the government will take care of your kids for you. We’re going to raise them to be good communists. You can get on with your lives. The communist intentionally wanted the state to step in and keep these kids from being raised by the bigoted, old fashioned, reactionary ideals of their parents.
This is happening in America right now. But none of these people, all conservative people who keep up with the news, realize it. And finally, as I was talking to them, it occurred to me what was happening. I know this stuff goes on because I followed the right media channels. For example, I follow Christopher Rufo online on his Twitter account, LibsofTikTok and others who pay close attention to this and who are bringing this information out there. But if you don’t go out looking for this information, if you just sit back and passively depend on the New York Times, the networks, cable news, to tell you what’s happening, you will never find this out because we’re part of this vicious circle of unreality. They don’t want people to know what they’re doing to our children.
The really bizarre thing, and this is also happens to be the case with looking at COVID. But let’s talk about the transgenderism question. A number of countries in Europe, I’m thinking of Sweden in particular, they’ve tried this sort of gender affirming care, as it’s euphemistically called, approach to helping with gender dysphoria and maybe very transitory gender dysphoria, and they found this isn’t a good way to do things. They’re back peddling heavily. So Europe is ahead and now there’s Tavistock Clinic in the UK that’s being sued like crazy for doing this sort of stuff. So we could look over to Europe where this has been done and say, whoa, maybe we should slow down because why do we need to replicate their mistakes?
Yeah, because that is reality. But we prefer we, meaning the ideologues who run our government and who run our children’s hospitals and things like that, prefer ideology to reality. It’s been an extraordinary thing to see because we’re talking with one of the most vile things you can imagine, the sexual mutilation by doctors of children. It’s happening at a widespread level. The media are not talking about it. Chris Rufo and some of these other activists exposed what children’s hospitals were doing. They had the proof, they had visual proof. They had written proof. The hospital said that’s not happening. The media bought the hospital’s story.
But what people are going to have to wake up and realize is that in some of these states, progressive activists who prefer ideology to truth are pushing for laws that will enable children at the age of 15 and or older, this is already the case in I think Oregon or Washington, one of those two states, they can get themselves medically emancipated from their parents if they want hormones or surgery and the parents can do nothing about it. This is the law. This is happening everywhere because parents don’t realize what’s going on because the media are hiding it from them. Well, why are the media hiding it from them?
I believe the media are more concerned with ideology, with this ideology of trans liberation, but more than that, a broader ideology of sexual liberation, the idea that we are who we desire sexually, and we must have total control over our bodies and our desires and anything that gets in the way of that must be smashed. This is a strong ideology that has been ruling the United States and the West since at least the 1960s with the sexual revolution. And now we’re seeing it taken to its most extreme form with the sexual mutilation of children. I think what’s coming next is going to be pedophilia. And we have got to wake up now. We’re not going to hear these stories from the mainstream media. Only people like the Epoch Times and non-mainstream sources are even talking about this stuff, even though it’s actually happening.
Why do you expect that pedophilia is the next step? Is it just because it’s sort of never ending acceleration into the more extreme?
It’s acceleration and it’s the fact that within living memory, it happened. In Germany in the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a pro-pedophilia movement. Some members of the green party, which is now in the ruling coalition, they were part of this. They argued that children are sexual beings. Children should have the right to make these decisions for themselves. You even had a government sponsored program that placed orphaned kids in the homes of pedophiles with the thought that the pedophiles will help them be better adjusted. This is not conspiracy theory. You can find this out. It’s been reported in mainstream media. The fact is sophisticated Western people within living memory embrace this sort of thing as the next level or the next stage of the sexual revolution. Now we became horrified by that and pulled back. But I wonder what’s going to stop it.
If the only thing that stops it now is disgust, well people can be trained out of their disgust. 20 years ago, most people would’ve been horrified by the thought that hospitals were sexually mutilating children, cutting the breast and uteruses out of healthy teenage girls or castrating boys. You would’ve thought that can never happen in America. Now it not only happens, but the federal government, Joe Biden’s Administration, mandates it. So we can talk ourselves into anything or allow ourselves to be talked into anything. And one thing too, that this is the crankiest thing I’ll say, but it’s true. The more people I talk to, it’s true.
The smartphone. Giving smartphones to children is plugging them in directly to the most disgusting, the most subversive information they could possibly get. You don’t own your children anymore if you give them a smartphone. And it seems like to stand up against that, I have three kids. I had to fight this fight with them and it’s a hard fight, because you’re also fighting other parents who want you to capitulate so they don’t have to feel so bad. But then when you talk to people whose kids have been sucked into transgenderism by the smartphone or sucked into pornography by the smartphone, you realize, oh my God, they’re right. But it’s too late for a lot of kids.
I want to switch gears a little bit. These are very troubling realities. And this is actually something I was thinking about you. I went for 4th of July with my wife. We went to Amish country, the Lancaster County. And I have a particular, let’s say admiration or love of traditional living communities, especially ones that live at various degrees outside of society, but not necessarily completely, I say. The Amish are a perfect case in point. And it reminded me of some of your meditations in the Benedict Option, your previous book, and just quietism, and I’m wondering how your thinking has evolved since then about creating intentional communities that live a little bit outside of society, at least.
You know Jan, I had to fight with people when my book came out, Benedict Option in 2017. People who hadn’t read the book said, “Dreher is just saying head for the hills. We got to all be Amish.” And actually I wasn’t saying that, because I don’t think it’s realistic for most people. I believe that most of us are going to have to live in the world. But what I’m trying to do is to figure out a way that we can live in the world, but not be of the world, as the Bible says. In other words, how we can hold fast to our convictions and build strong resilient communities, even in a world that’s hostile. That was five years ago. I have to tell you now though, given everything that’s happened since then, if I came out with a new addition of the book, I would add a chapter about those who said, “You know what? Let’s head for the Hills. Let’s go be Amish.”
I’ve seen how difficult it is for even well-meaning parents, people like myself who want to build some sort of alternative community that is enmeshed in the world, but that where we can live our own values out and raise our own kids within a certain moral framework and religious framework. It’s incredibly difficult to do, incredibly difficult, harder even than I expected. So I think that we’re going to see more and more people as the world degenerates further and further starting to think about the Amish option. It’s hard. My kids are older now, and that moment has passed for me. But if I were just starting out, just starting a family, I would strongly consider doing something like that.
This is not on that scale, but it is partly that way. I have three kids. My oldest is about to finish his undergraduate degree. He wants to go into museum work. I worry a lot about him being canceled, because he’s a white heterosexual Christian male. My two younger kids are 18 and 16. The 18 year old just finished high school. He wants to go to trade school and learn auto mechanics. That’s his passion. His grades were great, but his passion is to do work with his hands.
And the youngest one, she’s probably the smartest of all my kids. She has great test scores. She wants to go to culinary school because she loves baking and I fully support this. I want my kids to do what they feel that they’re called to do, but there is a real relief in my heart that my two younger kids are probably not going to be canceled as conservatives and Christians because of the work they’re doing. They’re working with their hands. Now this puts them outside the mainstream of my social class; in my social class everybody goes to college, but not my kids. And I think they’re going to be somewhat insulated by not joining some bourgeois rat race.
Well, Rod Dreher, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
It’s always great to be here, Jan. Thank you so much.
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