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Technology and Truth: Reflections on Russia, America, and Live Not By Lies

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DURING THE lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Washington told the world that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Although the Bush administration had no real evidence to back up this claim, this presented no impediment to pursuing the desired course of action. The necessary evidence was invented, and contradictory evidence was firmly suppressed. The following example is instructive. José Bustani, founding director of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (opcw), was at the time making persistent efforts to get Iraq accepted as a member of the opcw, as this would have allowed thorough inspections, and Bustani fully expected that such inspections would confirm what his own chemical weapons experts had already told him—that all of Iraq’s chemical weapons had already been destroyed in the 1990s after the Persian Gulf War. The Bush administration’s response to Bustani was swift: then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton gave him twenty-four hours to resign or face the consequences. For the Bush administration, overthrowing Iraq was far too important a matter to let the truth get in the way. 

CONSIDER THE contrasting course taken by John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile crisis. The crisis itself was initiated when U.S. spy planes photographed Soviet nuclear-capable SS-4 missile sites being installed on Cuban soil. In obvious contrast to Iraqi chemical weapons, these weapons of mass destruction were real, not invented. Despite this factual evidence, and even though this went against the insistent advice of his military, Kennedy refused to go to war. He refused to invade Cuba, thereby, in all likelihood, saving the world from Armageddon. 

But there is an even more instructive point of comparison between the two cases: Kennedy’s evolving efforts, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, to understand the Soviet Union. His June 1963 American University speech demonstrated the president’s effort to understand both the motivations and the complex reality of the Soviet adversary. Kennedy’s description of both sides as equally trapped in “a vicious and dangerous cycle, with suspicion on one side breeding suspicion on the other,” suggests a mind influenced by Homer’s Iliad. He praised the Russian people “for their many achievements in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture, in acts of courage.” He acknowledged the Soviet Union’s massive losses during World War II. Instead of dehumanizing America’s adversary, he did the opposite; he emphasized our shared humanity: “We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.” 

The contrast between the level of thought reached by Kennedy during his American University speech and the banalities and lies so regularly uttered by American presidents ever since could hardly be more dramatic. What has happened? How did the quality of American thought and leadership decline in such precipitous fashion? 

Page Smith, in his eight-volume history of the United States, repeatedly returns to the competition, throughout most of American history, between what he terms a Classical Christian and a Democratic Secular consciousness. Almost from the very beginning, according to Smith, the second had already outweighed the first. Although the historian’s multi-volume study concludes with the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, I would argue that it was Kennedy who briefly re-opened the possibility of an America incorporating at least some important elements of the Classical Christian perspective. With Kennedy’s assassination, that possibility closed. By the time George W. Bush and Dick Cheney became occupants of the White House, the Classical Christian consciousness, some unconvincing rhetorical flourishes aside, was already nothing more than a distant memory. American politics, culture, and society had become thoroughly technocratic. A secular consciousness, present from the very beginning, had undergone a transformation; or, perhaps it is better to say, had come to fruition as the technocracy always already implicit in the secular idea. 

Under technocracy, reason, even rationality, are no longer recognized as having an intrinsic value. They no longer oblige our agreement. To the contrary, they are now themselves subservient to our autonomous will. Nature is like putty in the hands of technological man: indeed, it is no longer possible to speak of “man.” The actors who act within technological society reject any such imposition. They themselves will henceforth technologically decide what and who we “are,” right down to the very core of our biological existence. 

America’s cultural milieu has two aspects, two scales of operation. On the one hand, we have the “Left” revolutionaries and crash-course quoters of Karl Marx and Michel Foucault who, in surprising numbers, have recently burst forth from American college campuses. And then we have, on the other hand, the surprisingly large number of global corporations and, in particular, all the big social media giants who as a group have embraced this “revolution.” The latter in particular help discipline public speech so as to keep it in line with the new ideology.  

Rod Dreher’s latest book, Live Not By Lies, provides a useful introduction to this woke new world. Dreher’s methodology depends on a wide-ranging comparison of the United States and the USSR/Russia. In the course of these comparisons Dreher, to be sure, himself occasionally falls into the trap of technological reasoning, however inadvertently. Nonetheless, his analysis is revealing. It points to how these woke corporations and woke foot soldiers express one and the same thoroughly technocratic “civilization.” 

DREHER TAKES the Soviet Union and its East European satellites as the paradigmatic case of a political order based on lies. What kind of “lies” does he have in mind? 

First of all, atheism. For Dreher, the Soviet system’s denial of the truth of Christian faith, a denial necessitated by its founding Marxist-Leninist creed of dialectical materialism, is key. The central point, for Dreher, is that a system based on atheism is itself for just that reason already based on a lie. 

He pays considerable attention, however, to the moral challenges faced by believers living within a society which considers faith itself to be dangerous, or at any rate something wholly belonging to the past. In such a society it is difficult, and at times altogether hazardous, to openly live out one’s faith. In the 1920s and 1930s, when many thousands of Orthodox priests and believers were swept up and perished in Josef Stalin’s Gulag, it was deadly. Although after WWII and Stalin’s death in 1953 the situation in Russia gradually underwent important changes that made life considerably easier for believers, it is true that for most of the Soviet period open expressions of religious faith were at minimum a career killer.  

Dreher’s second example of “living by lies” relates to the Soviet system’s demand for ideological conformity. Dialectical materialism was the reigning ideology, and the Communist Party apparatus made known which interpretation of that ideology at any given point was to be considered authoritative. Under such a system, writes Dreher, the Party itself became “the sole source of truth.” School children had to mouth what the ideology demanded of them instead of reflecting in their papers what they honestly thought.  

Building on these two themes, Dreher draws a series of parallels between what he terms the totalitarian Soviet empire and the “soft totalitarianism” currently being installed by “woke” revolutionaries. The latter share with the early Bolsheviks what might be termed a sociological fallacy. Both divide people into categories of oppressor and oppressed. For the Bolsheviks, the oppressors were the property-owning bourgeoisie, and the oppressed were the property-less poor, the peasants, and the factory workers. For America’s woke revolutionaries, the oppressors are now white, male, heterosexual Christians, while the oppressed are sexual minorities and people of color. 

Such thinking by sociological categories entails a failure of reason. Although Dreher doesn’t make use of the term, it also entails the embrace of moralism. Dreher notes how, for a generation nurtured on Marx as filtered through Foucault, there is no such thing as objective reason. Rationality is no longer viewed as equally available to all. Reason is no longer authoritative. What matters is one’s power position, and power is viewed as a function of the category (oppressors or oppressed) to which someone belongs. The similarity here with the early Bolsheviks is indeed very striking. From the perspective of today’s practitioners of social justice and other woke ideologies, Dreher notes, the enemy cannot be reasoned with. The enemy can only be defeated. Those who resist the revolutionaries’ imposition of new doctrines are, allegedly, “practicing ‘hate.’”  

On the other hand, whereas Soviet ideological conformity was for the most part top-down, in the American case, it is more distributed. Evoking themes reminiscent of Russian theater director Konstantin Bogomolov’s controversial essay “The Rape of Europe 2.0,” Dreher writes: 

Today’s [Western] totalitarianism demands allegiance to a set of progressive beliefs, many of which are incompatible with logic – and certainly with Christianity. Compliance is forced less by the state than by elites who form public opinion, and by private corporations that, thanks to technology, control our lives far more than we would like to admit. 

Silicon Valley social media giants further intensify the totalitarian threat. Citing Edward Snowden, Dreher notes that the state now has access, in perpetuity, to everyone’s communications, and if the government wants to target someone, there is no longer any reason to expect that the law will be a refuge. The result is the spread of a “surveillance capitalism into areas that the Orwellian tyrants of the communist bloc could only have aspired to,” and the emergence of what he terms a soft totalitarianism. 

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