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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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Jan Jekielek:

Rod Dreher, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Rod Dreher:

It’s great to be here.

Mr. Jekielek:

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. For the benefit of our audience, please recap the core of “Live Not by Lies,” and why you think it’s had such an amazing resonance here in America and in Europe as well, where you have been for the last year.

Mr. Dreher:

The book came about when people coming to America who were escaping communism said the things they were seeing in the U.S. today; cancel culture, identity politics, and all of this, reminded them of what they left behind under totalitarianism. As an American I thought, “That’s really an exaggeration.” But the more I listened to these people, the more I realized, “No, they’re seeing something that Americans are not seeing. 

This totalitarianism is not like Stalinism 2.0, and that’s one reason why we Americans don’t see it. Because we think of totalitarianism as gulags, secret police, breadlines, and all the stuff of the Cold War. That’s not what we’re dealing with, but today it’s still totalitarianism. 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, and colleges are all operating from the same ideological platform. 

It is an illiberal leftism that supports identity politics, making people who fit in favored categories into so-called victims, privileging them, and making everybody else evil. The second half of the book is based on my travels in the former Soviet Bloc. I asked people who stayed behind and resisted communism how we in the West can prepare for what is here now, and what is to come. 

The title of the book, “Live Not by Lies,” comes from a statement by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the most famous dissident in the Soviet Union. He said the most important thing to do is to live in truth, because 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. 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 non-mainstream media outlets like you and podcasters. But it’s mostly word of mouth. 

With the COVID crisis, and after the summer of George Floyd and the race riots, people can see that we are being lied to. America is changing and becoming a country that many of us no longer recognize, and they want to know what to do about it.

Mr. Jekielek:

I’m a deep believer in the power of truth. Human beings want to know the truth, even if they appear to not want to know, even if it’s not convenient, and even if it’s actually deeply disturbing. It is the human desire for the truth that can overcome. It’s part of the reason why the Epoch Times has become so successful. Today we find ourselves in a miasma of lies. Let’s talk about the propaganda fog here. Actually, you have been in Europe for the last year, correct?

Mr. Dreher:

For most of the last year, yes.

Mr. Jekielek:

You watched the Russia-Ukraine war break out, with Russia invading Ukraine. I’ve been arguing that there’s a tremendous information war around this, where at any given point, it’s really difficult to know what is going.

Mr. Dreher:

That’s exactly right. When the war broke out, I was in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. I remember that day I was going about my business and talking to Hungarians, young Hungarians, and older Hungarians, about what they thought was happening. And to a man, they were all scared to death. The more I would talk to them, the more I realized that they were coming 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. It 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. 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 had been invaded by the Soviets. But at the same time, they hated and were afraid of the war drums being beaten by NATO. While in Budapest during those first weeks of the war, I watched the Russian propaganda on computer while I still could. It was clearly propaganda. 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 that 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 could have led to World War III. It would have meant NATO was engaging with Russia.

The CNN news was interviewing a retired U.S. Army officer for 15 minutes, which is like an eternity on network television. 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 were sitting on the other side of the ocean so far away from the conflict. I was sitting in a country that borders Ukraine. This idea of a no-fly zone and starting World War III was very, very real to these people. 

But to the viewers of American TV, it just seemed like the propaganda points of the Washington establishment. As an American, that was hard for me to take. And as an American journalist, I expected 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 lead-up to the Iraq war, and to when I had fully supported the Iraq war.

I lived in New York City on September 11th, 2001. I saw the South Tower fall with my own eyes. I was so angry and passionate about revenge, and seeking vengeance on those who did this to us that I did not want to hear the truth. I wanted to hear lies. I wanted to hear sweet lies that confirmed what I wanted to see happen, which was to go to war and punish somebody. Many years later I had regret for my own mindless support for that war. But I was now able to see how consent for war with Russia was being manufactured in the U.S.

It reminded me a lot of what was happening 20 years ago, when I was too naive and too eager to seek revenge to actually know what was happening. Jan, it has been frustrating to know that you can’t even talk about realities of this war and the things you’re seeing without being accused of being a Putin sympathizer. I’ve seen this happen a lot both in Europe and the US. I was totally against the Russian invasion. I hope that Ukraine wins, but at the same time, we have to talk about the reality of 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 governmental institutions, our media, and the NGOs want to keep this war going.

Mr. Jekielek:

In the conservative movement, of which you are a part, I have seen people becoming sympathetic to Putin or believing the Russian propaganda message. But people should really know better, correct? People are used to seeing this kind of stuff, perhaps because they have already been so propagandized by the American legacy media. Are we losing our ability to think clearly and see through this fog of propaganda?

Mr. Dreher:

Yes, we are. Hannah Arendt, the great political philosopher of the 20th century, said , “When a society loses the desire to know the truth, that is a precursor to totalitarianism.” That has happened on both the Left and the Right. After the attack on the Twin Towers, I was so driven by passion that when conservatives like Pat Buchanan said, “We shouldn’t rush into this Iraq war,” I wanted to dismiss him. 

I believed that the only way you could oppose the Iraq war was if you were a coward or a fool. But I ended up being the fool. And I’ve had to think about that. One of the most defining moments of my life as a public intellectual was thinking about how I allowed myself to be lulled into supporting 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 Polish intellectual Czeslaw Milosz called “The Captive Mind.” Milosz had been a communist and an intellectual, but he defected to the West. He was trying to explain from his experiences in Poland, as a Polish communist, how intelligent people could be seduced by communism, and by ideology. 

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 said, “That’s not really true. 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.”

What Milosz was talking about with communism is just generally true about human nature. We all want to have meaning, purpose and solidarity. Right now, when society seems to be shattering into a million pieces, we become so desperate for a sense of meaning, and for 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. 

Instead, we start seeking solidarity with those who make us feel comfortable and make us feel like we belong. So to go back to Putin, I’ve seen this on the Right as well. I’m an Orthodox Christian, which means Russian Orthodox too. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, “You’re Orthodox. You must really support Putin.”  They are 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.” So, I tell people not to project our own American culture wars onto foreign people. I spoke to an American diplomat once in Eastern Europe in one of the former communist countries. He told me the worst thing he has to deal with in Americans coming over, whether they are the Left or the Right, is they project American political fights and culture wars onto European situations, when they don’t really fit. It’s an egotistical thing in a way, Americans trying to say that everything is really all about us and our fights.

Mr. Jekielek:

This is really fascinating. I’m going to go on a tangent now, and I’m curious about what you think. Clyde Prestowitz is here at this conference, and we’re going to do an interview. He’s a brilliant mind on China and trade. He first worked in the Reagan Administration on trade with Japan. 

He observed that the Americans would go to Japan and say, “Free trade, free trade, free trade.” And the Japanese would smile back and say, “Free trade, free trade, free trade.” But what they actually created was avery strong hard headed industrial policy that allowed them to grow tremendously.  Communist China watched what Japan did and thought,  “These Americans are crazy. These Japanese are very smart. We’re going to do what they did.” And that is essentially what they did. What you just described reminded me of the picture Clyde had painted.

Mr. Dreher:

Yes. That is the mindset. I’m old enough to remember, because I was in college then. China began to open up under Deng Xiaoping. Of course China was going to become liberal and democratic, because you can’t get rich without being liberal and democratic. We believed that like it was the law of gravity. 

They showed all of us to be wrong. There hasn’t been a sufficient reckoning among the American intellectual elites for how wrong we were about China. The reckoning should be that we simply talked ourselves into believing what we wanted to believe, and that justified what we wanted to believe. 

But the real world is not like that. Going back to the build-up to the Russia-Ukraine war, Professor John Mearsheimer was right when he was talking about how certain moves about bringing Ukraine into NATO made Russia feel threatened.

This does not justify what Russia did, but our hands aren’t clean. 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-and-a-half, I have met older people in the former communist countries who remember the Cold War. Inevitably, they say to me, “What has 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, and as a place of hope. 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 again. We now look at you as a threat.”

What can I say to these people? They’re right. They’re completely right. But in Washington, the American elites and the NGOs and the academia and the media tell themselves that we, with our liberal ideas, are the harbingers of progress. We are enlightening these poor benighted natives. It’s really cultural imperialism, but when a liberal does it, they don’t see it that way.

Mr. Jekielek:

And this is the thing. Every propagandist, and Russian propaganda is a case in point, will use the best tools it has at its disposable. In America and in the West, we have a lot of promotion of 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 a lot of people don’t grasp. It’s in this fog of propaganda that you can start losing sight of reality.

Mr. Dreher:

That’s true. This is what I fear with the coming of the metaverse. We in the technologically advanced West are going to be drawn into these online pseudo-realities and come to prefer that to actual reality. That just sets us up for being conquered and exploited. I remember when I was in school in the early ’80s, long before the internet. 

I was so unhappy in school. I was picked on, and 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 in the game than I was about my actual life.

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 didn’t have in my real life. That comes back to me a lot whenever I read about the metaverse and how 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 fake reality within artificial intelligence with the actual flesh and blood world.

This confusion has a lot to do with why transgenderism has exploded among this generation that was raised on the internet. They believe that all of reality is fungible, as it is online. This is something that the propagandists, those wish 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 by drawing us into the metaverse to neutralize us, so we won’t object to what happens in the real world. When I start talking this way, I start to feel really radical. Yet, when you look what’s happening every single day, it makes you realize that things are accelerating. There’s a quickening going on now. And most of us are not ready for it.

Mr. Jekielek:

This is indeed the progressive, social-constructivist division of the world. There may not be a large amount of people that  foundationally believe in this, but 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. With the truckers’ movement in Canada, the situation is such that the legacy media there, the CBC, is very ideologically aligned with the prime minister and the current government. That’s one thing.

Two, they’re very significantly funded by the federal government as well. So you can imagine, there’s a whole narrative that develops around these truckers. They’re called white supremacists and similar things, none which is true. It’s actually quite preposterous. You can easily see that this is not the case. They’re just strongly against vaccine mandates. But the media creates its own narrative and pushes it out. The government is watching the media. Then, the government gets triggered by hearing what it wanted to hear from the media and says, “Oh my, we have to invoke the emergency act. The white supremacists are coming to take over Parliament Hill.” It becomes a vicious circle of unreality that’s self-reinforcing.

Mr. Dreher:

That’s a great phrase, vicious circle of unreality, because that’s what we live in all the time now. I was in Nashville last week, speaking to a couple of Christian church groups about my book, “Live Not by Lies.” The book has been out two years now. I thought that the basic critique was widely understood. That was really kind of vain of me. These are really sophisticated church leaders, and they had just never realized a lot of this stuff. For example, I was shocked 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 parents that their child is presenting as transgender at school. In Maryland recently, a federal judge upheld that policy. So here we have the state interposing itself between parents and children on a matter of grave concern, having to do with biological alteration of their bodies.

This is exactly what happened in Soviet Russia. In 1924, Alexandra Kollontai, who was one of the top revolutionaries of the Bolsheviks, published an essay instructing parents in the new Soviet Union. She said, “Don’t worry about your children. We, the government, will take care of your children for you. We’re going to raise them to be good communists. You can get on with your lives.” The communists intentionally wanted the state to step in and keep these children from being raised by the bigoted, old-fashioned, reactionary ways of their parents.

This is happening in America right now. But none of these conservative people who say they keep up with the news realized it. Finally, as I was talking to them, it occurred to me what was happening. I know this stuff goes on because I follow the media channels on the Right. For example, on Twitter I follow Christopher Rufo and LibsofTikTok, as well as others who pay close attention and who are bringing this information out. 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, and 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.

Mr. Jekielek:

This is also happens to be the case in looking at COVID. But let’s talk about the transgenderism question. A number of countries in Europe, and Sweden in particular, have implemented this “gender affirming care,” as it’s euphemistically called. It’s an approach to helping with gender dysphoria, and maybe very transitory gender dysphoria. They have now found out this isn’t a good way to do things. They’re back-peddling heavily. So, Europe is ahead of us on this. Now the Tavistock Clinic in the UK is being sued like crazy for doing this stuff. We could look over to Europe where this has been done and say, “Maybe we should slow down, because why do we need to replicate their mistakes?

Mr. Dreher:

Yes, because that is reality. But we prefer, we, meaning the ideologues who run our government and who run our children’s hospitals, prefer ideology to reality. It’s been an extraordinary thing to see, because we’re talking about one of the most vile things you can imagine, the sexual mutilation of children by doctors. 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 visual proof. They had the written proof. The hospital said that’s not what is happening. And the media bought the hospital’s story.

People are going to have to wake up.  They’re going to have to realize in some of these states, progressive activists who prefer ideology over truth are pushing for laws that will enable children at the age of 15 and or older—this is already the case in Oregon or Washington, one of those two states—to 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. The media is hiding it from them. Why are the media hiding it from them?

The media is more concerned with this ideology of trans-liberation, but more than that, a broader ideology of sexual liberation, this idea that sexually, we are who we want to be, and we must have total control over our bodies and our desires. 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 at least since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Now, we are seeing it taken to its most extreme form with the sexual mutilation of children. What’s coming next is going to be pedophilia. 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.

Mr. Jekielek:

Why do you expect pedophilia to be the next step? Is it just because it’s a never-ending acceleration into the more extreme?

Mr. Dreher:

It’s an acceleration and it’s a fact that within living memory, it has 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, 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 would help them be better adjusted. This is not conspiracy theory. You can research this. It has been reported in mainstream media. The fact is, sophisticated Western people within living memory embraced this sort of thing as the next level or the next stage of the sexual revolution. We became horrified by that and pulled back. But I wonder what is going to stop it today.

If the only thing that stops it now is disgust, people can be trained out of their disgust. 20 years ago, most people would’ve been horrified by the thought of hospitals sexually mutilating children, cutting the breasts and uteruses out of healthy teenage girls, or castrating boys. You would have thought that could 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. 

One more thing, and this is the crankiest thing I will say, but it’s true. The more people I talk to, I find that it is true. It is about smartphones. Giving smartphones to children is plugging them in directly to the most disgusting, the most subversive information they could possibly find. You don’t own your children anymore if you give them a smartphone. But it seems difficult for parents to stand up against it. 

I have three kids. I had to fight this fight with them and it’s a hard fight. And you’re also fighting other parents who want you to capitulate, so they don’t have to feel so bad. But 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, I was right.” But it’s too late for a lot of kids.

Mr. Jekielek:

These are very troubling realities. I want to switch gears now. I took a trip and thought of you. On 4th of July, my wife and I went to Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I have an admiration for traditional living communities, especially ones that live outside of society to varying degrees. The Amish are a perfect case in point. It reminded me of some of your meditations in the “Benedict Option,” your previous book. I’m wondering how your thinking has evolved since then regarding creating intentional communities that live a bit outside of society.

Mr. Dreher:

You know Jan, I had to fight with people when my book, “Benedict Option,” came out in 2017. People who hadn’t read the book said, “Dreher is just saying to head for the hills. We all have to be Amish.” Actually I wasn’t saying that, because I don’t think that is realistic for most people. Most of us are going to have to live in the world. I’m trying to figure out a way where we can, “Live in the world, but be not of the world,” as the Bible says. In other words, I am thinking about 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. Given everything that’s happened since then, if I came out with a new supplement to the book, I would add a chapter about those who are saying, “Let’s head for the Hills. Let’s go be Amish.”

I’ve seen how difficult it is for well-meaning parents who want to build some sort of alternative community that is enmeshed in the world, but where we can live with our own values, and raise our own kids within a certain moral framework and religious framework. That is incredibly difficult to do, even harder than I expected. As the world degenerates further, we’re going to see more and more people thinking about the Amish option. It’s very hard. My kids are older now, and that moment has passed for me. But if I were just starting a family, I would strongly consider doing something like that.

My situation is not quite 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 work with his hands.

The youngest one is 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. That puts them outside the mainstream of my social class. In my social class everybody goes to college, but my 2 younger kids are not. They’re going to be somewhat insulated, by not joining the  bourgeois rat race.

Mr. Jekielek:

Rod Dreher, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.

Mr. Dreher:

It’s always great to be here, Jan. Thank you so much.

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