John Sheirer: Wrapped in extremism — a childhood in the John Birch Society
NORTHAMPTON — Back in 2009, a friend saw a tea party rally on Fox News and asked me, “Where did these crazy people come from, the John Birch Society?” She was joking, but like all the best jokes, this one was grounded in reality.
“Wrapped in the Flag,” a new book by Claire Conner, chronicles her life as the daughter of parents who were immersed in extreme right-wing politics as founding members of the John Birch Society in the 1950s to the present.
Conner combines her insider perspective and detailed research to illuminate the “Birchers,” as they were known. The organization was founded in 1958, when Conner was a teenager, and grew directly from Joe McCarthy’s paranoid accusations that Communists were infiltrating the United States government. Birchers focused not on the reality of Communism in the world, but on fabricating Communism where it didn’t exist. Most famously (and most ridiculously), they accused moderate Republican President Dwight Eisenhower of being a Communist sympathizer.
In addition to seeing Communists lurking in every shadow, Birchers were virulently opposed to immigration, homosexuality, civil rights, Social Security, public education and pretty much any government action to help American citizens. They espoused devout Christianity and adherence to the Constitution (or their own twisted versions of Christianity and the Constitution).
They revered big business and the wealthy while dismissing unemployed and poor people as victims of their own laziness. And they believed that the constitutional concept of “we the people” applied primarily to white male property owners.
When Conner saw the tea party reaction to the election of President Obama, she recognized the same forces that propelled the John Birch Society and their related right-wing compatriots. History repeats itself — a cliché to be sure, but an accurate one. Unfortunately, in American politics, people have trouble remembering the last administration, let alone events five decades ago, so Conner’s book is particularly welcome.
As a memoir, “Wrapped in the Flag” combines coming-of-age and dysfunctional-family motifs. Conner traces her own life from childhood to maturity as she reacts to what can only be described as her parents’ political insanity. These parents make her both a pariah in school and a frustrated adult who tries her best to care for them as they age, despite their continuing tone-deaf attempts to convert her to their extremist views as they accuse her of being a brainless liberal.
Conner also presents her own political journey from dipping a toe into supporting right-wing candidates to anti-abortion activism and anti-gay leanings to a left-of-center moderate whose views ultimately grow from her experiences as a parent herself.
As a work of political history, “Wrapped in the Flag” is at its best. She takes us on a true-life expedition into the fever swamp world of wingnuttery. Extreme views seem to go hand-in-hand with extreme personalities, and her parents definitely are extreme personalities — as are the many other Bircher family friends whom Conner writes about, including such infamous figures as Birch founder Robert Welch, white supremacist Revilo Oliver, anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly and failed presidential candidate John Schmitz. She’s even privy to some certified gun nuts and stunning “family values” sex scandals, showing how little the world of right-wing politics has changed in 50 years.
Most important, Conner does her readers the essential service of showing the connections between the John Birch Society and today’s equally extreme right-wingers, many of whom have wiggled their way into the mainstream of American politics far more than their Bircher antecedents.
People like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Ron and Rand Paul, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, most of the tea party, and just about everyone on Fox News would be right at home attending one of the Conner family’s living room Birch meetings to wail about the impending destruction of America at the hands of those filthy liberals. Ultimately, American commonsense prevailed over the Birchers and other extremists of that era. “Wrapped in the Flag” is a cautionary tale that warns us to follow suit and reject those who would lead our nation on a disastrous rightward lurch.
John Sheirer of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.