Claire Conner. Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right. Boston: Beacon Press, 2013. See here to buy the book. See also here, which has a later edition of the book. One of the Amazon reviews there is by Claire’s sister, Janet Conner.
Claire Conner’s parents were dedicated and high-ranking members of the right-wing John Birch Society. They knew high-ranking people in the group, and also a number of high-ranking people in America’s right-wing, in general.
In Wrapped in the Flag, Claire Conner talks about her experiences with the John Birch Society and others on the right. Her narrative goes from the 1940’s through the 2000’s. In part, the book seems to be a catharsis for her, as she comes to terms with her feelings about her parents, both positive and the negative. At the same time, she also believes that her experiences are relevant to America today. While the John Birch Society no longer has the prominence that it once had, its ideas live on, particularly in the ideas held by the Tea Party.
I have been wanting to read this book for a long time. I have long had an interest in the John Birch Society, so I was curious about what it would have been like being in that movement, or growing up in it. I grew up reading Birch literature and Birch-like literature. I enjoyed it because it presented an alternative version of history, and.spouting Birch-like views was also my personal way of rebelling against the establishment! I am more to the Left now than I was then, but I do not thoroughly dismiss what I read in Birch literature. Some of its tenets are still a part of my belief-system: a recognition that government often serves the interests of the rich and powerful, a belief that things are not always as they seem, an aversion to war (yet, JBS views on war were rather complicated), etc.
I grew up in an offshoot of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, and I think that people who grew up in ultra-conservative versions of that movement will identify with Claire Conner’s story. A lot of what Claire talked about was familiar to me—-not because my experiences in Armstrongism were so bad, but because I know about people with worse experiences in it. Claire’s parents had a rather pessimistic view about the future, for they were paranoid that socialism, Communism, or the new world order could come to America anytime soon. They expected their daughter to toe the right-wing line, and they often became outraged when she did not. When Claire received a scholarship to the University of Illinois and was recommended by the governor, they forbade Claire to go because she may be indoctrinated by liberals there, plus they disliked the governor because they thought that he was too liberal. They told her to go to the conservative Catholic University of Dallas instead (which today is widely-respected, but back then it was unaccredited and was finding its wings). They refused to pay for Claire’s college because money was tight, but they continued giving money generously to right-wing causes. Survivors of Armstrongism may recognize the rigidity and the stance towards money in their own experiences. If there is a difference between the two, it may be that Armstrongites expected the end to come soon and believed that would be followed by the second coming of Jesus Christ; Birchers, by contrast, tried to stop the end through mass education and political activism.
In reading this book, I came to understand better the ruptures that occurred within the American right. After reading this book, I think that the rupture was primarily over what stance America should take towards Communism. I do not think that the rupture was primarily about racism: from what Conner says, Bill Buckley and Robert Welch tolerated racists such as Revilo Oliver (a holocaust denier) within their movement, and they only parted ways with them when the racists made them look bad. But there was a difference between the mainsteam right and the Birchers on how to handle Communism. My understanding is that the mainstream right believed in a strong national defense and aggressive foreign intervention to combat Communism. The Birchers sometimes echoed that, but there were also times when they were singing another tune. They believed that Communists were literally running the U.S. Government.
Consequently, they thought that any war America would enter, including the Vietnam War, would serve the interests of the Communists, so they spoke out against the Vietnam War. Many Birchers viewed the Cuban Missile Crisis as a ruse. Robert Welch even questioned whether the Soviets had a superior military: they had the U.S. military to serve their ends, after all! Why, then, would they need a superior military? And why should we be spending more money to build up our military, out of fear of Soviet military superiority? Welch differed from mainstream conservatives on that. I read somewhere that the difference between the John Birch Society and Phyllis Schlafly was that the Birchers viewed Communism primarily as an internal threat, whereas Schlafly saw it more as an external threat. That makes sense to me, after reading Conner’s book.
The book was an interesting account of who was who in the American right. I recognized many names, while learning new ones. A new name that I learned was that of Revilo Oliver, who, according to Conner, was the one who introduced concern about the Illuminati into the Birch ideology. Conner also had informative asides about the history of the Catholic church’s stance towards abortion. According to her, the Catholic church’s rigid stance against abortion today was not always its stance. For this, she cites Peter De Rosa’s Vicars of Christ, pages 365-377.
Conner respects her parents’ strength, determination, and intellectual interests. But she also seems to have understandable resentments about the past. One some issues (i.e., Mao’s brutality, opposition to the Iraq War), she can identify with her parents or the JBS. Overall, however, she seems to believe that their views are bizarre or short-sighted, and she would probably dismiss the views as eccentric if they did not have the influence that they have. Their influence definitely concerns her.
What started Claire Conner on the journey of questioning her parents? For one, she was comparing her parents before they became Birchers to how they were after joining. Before joining, they were nicer parents. And her Dad, a WWII veteran, at least saw American intervention in WWII as justifiable before he became a Bircher, whereas he starting questioning that the Holocaust even happened after becoming one! (Note: The John Birch Society itself has written against Hitler, and it has even been criticized by Holocaust revisionists. See here. But I am not surprised that racists and Holocaust deniers gravitated towards the JBS.) Second, Claire read books and had experiences that encouraged her to question. One of her teachers allowed her to borrow books from her library if she kept her grades up, and one book that Claire read was John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, a critical look at racism in the American South. That led Claire to question what her parents and the JBS was saying about the American South and the Civil Rights Movement.
I have read Birch and Birch-like literature as a hobby, or as an intellectual interest. Some of it, I buy, and some of it I don’t. Claire Conner talks about what happened when people took those ideas seriously. Ideas can have consequences!