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Kyle Eller: Can we ‘live not by lies’ in this cultural revolution?

Oct 13, 2016

“Live Not By Lies” is the title of an essay written by one of my heroes, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in 1974.

For younger readers who may not know, Solzhenitsyn was a dissident in the Soviet Union under its brutal atheistic communist dictatorship. He spent time in the gulag — slave labor camps that were the Soviet equivalent of concentration camps — and in Siberian exile for political reasons. He converted to Orthodox Christianity from atheism, in part because of this experience. To the embarrassment of the totalitarian Soviet government, he received the Nobel Prize for literature for chronicling these experiences.

Kyle Eller
Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

He made himself a great nuisance. As this essay was completed, the Soviet Union finally kicked him out of the country, into exile in the West.

One of his criticisms of the Soviet system is that it was a culture of the lie. The system had a ruling orthodoxy, a dogma — its all-encompassing brand of communism. Soviet citizens were required to adhere to it, and Soviet life was ordered around it. Say something against it in an overheard whisper — or even fail to applaud vigorously enough when an official spoke it — and you could end up crowded on to a railway car bound for the “Gulag Archipelago,” where millions went to be worked and starved, often to death, in a climate that makes northern Minnesota’s winters seem balmy.

But lies are not a solid foundation to build on. By 1974, the structure built on the lies of communism was creaking; the people still forced to mouth the lies could now see them for what they were.

Solzhenitsyn wanted to give that tottering structure a good shove. But he recognized that most people were not like him. Openly speaking the truth in public was beyond the courage of most people when it meant risking jobs, their literal daily bread and state violence.

So in “Live Not By Lies” he suggests passive resistance: simply refusing to participate in them.

“It’s dangerous,” he says. “But let us refuse to say that which we do not think.

“This is our path, the easiest and most accessible one, which takes into account our inherent cowardice, already well rooted. … Our path is to walk away from the gangrenous boundary. If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.

“That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.”

He proposes a commitment not to write, sign, print, say or participate in any other way in “a single phrase which in [your] opinion distorts the truth.”

I’ve been thinking about the parallels with our situation in 21st century America. Obviously ours is nowhere near as dire. Our neighbors don’t disappear in the night bound for gulags in the wilds of Alaska for a politically incorrect remark. Our Department of Justice is not allowed to torture a confession out of you.

Please God we will never face that level of persecution.

But make no mistake: Our country has a ruling orthodoxy, and it ain’t the Nicene Creed. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the “swing vote” on the U.S. Supreme Court that now makes most of our important decisions, may have defined our ruling creed best in the infamous Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, rationalizing the “right” to abortion: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

That is a lie. There are “givens” in human nature and the rest of creation which we are powerless to erase, and true liberty is found in this truth, not in opposition to it. Kennedy’s lie is no less a lie than Lenin’s were.

This ruling lie is the reason you are now considered a “hateful bigot” if you maintain, as everyone did until 15 minutes ago, that the human reproductive system has some intrinsic connection to human reproduction and that gender has some intrinsic connection to one’s biological sex and that marriage has some intrinsic connection to the complementarity between men and women and to the children they cooperate to produce. Or that unborn babies are people.

It’s why George Orwell’s terrible vision is coming true, with words disappearing or being redefined out of existence, and new words, such as a whole new slate of pronouns, are being invented. It’s why there are newly minted thoughtcrimes like being “cisnormative.”

And the lie is being enforced. Speak counterrevolutionary views in public, however kindly, and you may be no-platformed at universities and vilified in the press. You may answer to human resources in your workplace or even be forced out of your job and your livelihood.

Those who disagree with you may seek you out and haul you before a court to sue your small business out of existence. They may mob you with mass cyberbullying on social media. You will be called terrible names and subjected to false accusations. (And just try to defend yourself.)

You may find yourself unemployable in many fields. You may find educators who consider it their mission to pry your children away from your bigoted clutches. Organs of the federal government have already declared that defending your constitutional rights of conscience is just a pretext for bigotry. Kennedy’s court has already declared you full of irrational animus.

You will discover the Orwellian concept that tolerance does not mean tolerating the intolerant — and conveniently, those empowered to make that determination are the ones who don’t tolerate you. As Orwell put it in “Animal Farm”: “Some animals are more equal than others.”

The intimidation was already palpable a few years ago, when Minnesota voted on the marriage amendment. Things have escalated dramatically since then.

The revolution is still mopping up after its victory, seeking out and purging dissenters from the new order. Even silence is dangerous now. You are expected to applaud vigorously when the new orthodoxy is spoken — it’s called “virtue signalling.”

So it’s dangerous. But perhaps we can find it in ourselves to live not by lies — to resolve on the small step of not participating in them. Perhaps then what should be seen to be naked will someday be so before all the world.

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at keller@dioceseduluth.org.