Wrapped in the Flag

Wrapped in the FlagShortly after Obama became President of the United States, I noticed something interesting. Some people in the Tea Party movement started to talk about Fluoride. They claimed that it was a toxin and that people shouldn’t ingest it because it was — insert dramatic music here — a government conspiracy. This may not mean much to you, but to me it meant everything: the John Birch Society rides again!

It was founded in 1958, following the death of Joseph McCarthy from hepatitis. Or was it? Certainly those who started the John Birch Society didn’t think it was. They thought he was murdered because he knew too much. And who was he murdered by? Why all the communists inside the government! The founder, Robert Welch, even thought that President Eisenhower was a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy.” I know it sounds loony, but for many years, the group was part of the mainstream conservative movement. And, in fact, even in 1964, the group was hugely important in getting Goldwater the Republican nomination for president.

So the rise of the Tea Party did not surprise me. There is always about 20% of the population who gobble up this kind of extremism. The Tea Party was just another manifestation of it. And early on, there were John Birch Society booths at Tea Party events. Despite its terrible reputation, in 2010, CPAC finally allowed the group to sponsor the event. The only thing that had changed in the previous fifty years was the rhetoric. And how could it not? With the fall of the Soviet Union, it was impossible to continue to claim that the commies were coming. But calling the president an illegitimate socialist is pretty much the same thing.

Another person who was not surprised by the rise of the Tea Party was Claire Conner. She was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s and her parents were some of the founding and lifelong members of the John Birch Society. She chronicles all of this in her book, Wrapped in the Flag. It provides an amazing look inside the cult of conservative extremism. And make no mistake: it is a cult.

In fact, the book works more as a memoir of a family tragedy than it does anything else. I think most people will learn a lot about conservatives from the book, but I already knew most of it. What kept me reading was watching how people let their political obsessions bankrupt every part of their lives. If Conner’s parents feared communism, they also created their own kind of authoritarianism. Their entire lives circled around their political activities. And this was enforced onto the children. Conner was forced to write her “letters” each day: to newspapers, to politicians, to whomever.

This is hardly surprising: the communists and the fascists always hated each other, even though they were effectively the same thing. And the John Birch Society and the Tea Party are, at base, theocratic fascist groups. They are against “socialism” — the word. They don’t seem to know exactly what “socialism” the concept is. This is why the Tea Party talks about “freedom” but all they same to stand for are restrictions on reproductive rights and same sex marriage. The John Birch Society slogan was, “Less government, more responsibility, and — with God’s help — a better word.” That’s the Tea Party rhetoric.

At the start of the book, Conner’s father has a very successful business. But over time, his work with the John Birch Society takes its toll. In addition to everything else, he becomes a very public figure — notorious to many people. And this has a negative effect on his business. Eventually, his partners force him out and into a less promising part of the company. But the most telling part of the book comes when Conner is in college. Her parents have not helped her at all with college — she had to do it herself with work and scholarships. But even as they won’t help her with anything, her father is flying off to expensive John Birch Society conferences. A man’s got to have his priorities!

The take away from the book is that for both her parents, the political struggle was more important than she was. They were so blinded by ideology and fear of nonexistent threats that they lost sight of what was genuine and important in their lives. There is a similar disease on the left — the parents of the so called red diaper babies. But this was an extremely small group that simply doesn’t exist today. People on the left have turned in their ideologies for a pragmatic approach to politics. I think they’ve gone too far in this regard. But at least no one on the left sees their children as nothing but future warriors in the battle between Good and Evil.

If you want to understand the modern conservative movement, you really need to read Wrapped in the Flag. It explains a lot about how we got to where we are. And it explains why conservatives are so resistant to logical thought. But it is also chilling. Because 20% of the population that is crazy and fearful enough really can transform a nation if they are well organized. And they are.

18 thoughts on “Wrapped in the Flag

  1. I’ll put this one on my reading list. Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind taught me the essential mechanics of conservatism. I’m sure case studies like this, or Frank Schaeffer’s memoirs, and certainly my reflections on my parents provide valuable details into how the pathology manifests itself. The more I think about The Reactionary Mind, the more convinced I am that President Carter’s recent remarks are correct: feminism is the principle civil rights cause. That is because it is the first one we encounter. You may not have blacks, or latinos, or gays (though you probably do), or believers in other gods (or none) in your community; but everyone has women in their family. How do you treat them? As equals, as people, just like us (right answer), or not? This first choice informs all the subsequent choices. Either you believe in equality or you do not. Conservatives do not. Liberal politicians and opinion leaders are bad at making this distinction stick, making it a liability for their opponents. And you can easily do this without making an overt challenge to wealthy elites.
    Small steps. Win an election. Provide services. Remind the base where those good things come from. I can be patient in the service of a goal if I must, but am not by nature a patient man.

    • That’s a good point about women. The justification for not allowing women to vote in the early years of our democracy was that the women got to lobby their husbands. That was seen as equality. I was just listening to The Majority Report segment on Gamergate. I don’t think you have to look any further to see just how screwed up we are on this point.

      Conner discusses Frank Schaeffer and his father in the book. It is a remarkable thing. Let me know what you think of the book once you read it.

  2. While there is much of interest in Corey Robin’s book, it is unscholarly and tendentious. It is too obviously telling me what I want to hear, and therefore is suspect; its theses are vague and basically amount to `look – here`s a reactionary reading`. I`m not saying he`s all wrong. I`m saying he has invented “essential mechanics of conservativism“, he did not identify them.

    There is a bona-fide folk conservativism that Robin is unable to understand. They still are wrong, and reflexively hierarchical, but Robin is unable to register their existence, because his outlook is bigoted. So don`t be so confident that conservatives don`t want equality. Despite the horrible reactionary turn mainstream conservativism has taken, it would be wise for us on the other side not to be too quick to agree with Robin that reaction is all there is to conservativism.

    • I know what you mean. I had wished that The Reactionary Mind had been a book length argument rather than a collection of essays. And you are right, he is talking about a single kind of conservatism: intellectual conservatism. But it is very important. I think he has Burke nailed. And since Burke is about the best conservative thinker ever, that doesn’t speak well of the movement. Give me Paine or Wollstonecraft or Hazlitt any day! I think Fear: The History of a Political Idea is a better book, but there is much of interest in The Reactionary Mind.

      The John Birch Society is the essence of folk conservatism. And I think a lot of the reason that Buckley et al turned against it is more out of a sense of intellectual snobbery than any fundamental differences over policy.

      But this is why we need Corey Robin and Claire Conner and more to understand the world.

  3. OK, but the folk conservativism I was thinking of was not the John Birch Society (nutty at any speed), but rather traditional personal responsibility out of small town Canada (inclined to elite sycophancy, but at least had a point sometimes).

    There was a time not that long ago in these places, forgotten even by the conservatives it seems, that ostentatious consumption was considered rude, even when done by elite individuals. And sexual impropriety was held as wrong, not in the absurdly selectively manner it is in contemporary conservativism, but held as wrong when done by anybody. They did not try to excuse the star football player accused of ‘playing’; if a left-wing and a right-wind politician got down with a secretary, they were equally regarded as wrong. And so on.

    They weren’t nutty. They were Catholics. They were the sort of people who might now be called ‘socially conservative, but strongly inclined to social spending’. There is no room in Robin’s typology for these people. I don’t think he’s ever met any people like that, and certainly never experienced a community of whom a majority share this inclination.

    Even though Robin is addressing some interesting issues that need some attention, maybe any good his work does is cancelled by his cherry-picking and hyper-vague theses. ‘Elective affinity’ – to me this means ‘Robin elects to say these guys are similar’. Etc.

    Is it really that different from Glen Beck with his nutty chalkboard lectures? More erudite and informed, obviously, but is there any difference in the actual quality of reasoning? Hard to see it – and I’m real biased in favour of Robin.

    • RJ:
      I was meaning to ask you who you were talking about, and you answered me. Do these people still exist, and are they the same? I tend to use ‘conservatism’ as a shortcut for contemporary American movement conservatism, not out of jingoism, but because those are the people who are most capable of destroying the future of humanity and who are most stridently pursuing that end. No doubt they would describe it differently. This is Robin’s emphasis as well. To your point about these staid Catholics, are they the same people with the same worldview now? The middle class white protestant men, and certainly Republicans, who I knew as scoutmasters in the middle 1980’s were environmentalists. Sierra club members, all. That was not, then, a controversial stance. I use the language of fundamentalist christian religion (stance) because right wing politics have totally merged with religion in America. Tens of millions of American voters are now incapable of voting for a Democrat because “Baby Killers”. And I mean those people who are otherwise reasonable and reachable on other issues (not reachable enough to override the veto I just described, just in a focused conversation), not the true movement fanatics. Conservatism has found a way to buy these (not wealthy but white, or those who imagine that they are white, or imagine they are ‘people’ just the same) people off. They have been offered the false promise of being the house servant. Not a white man, but not somewhere above the lowest. It’s tragic. It’s disgusting. If there were any alternative I wouldn’t bother with humans.
      The inequality, always about the inequality. That is chiefly what I take from Robin. Concerning the reactionary impulse, well now I see how the current dominant class is energized by the perceived loss of their status advantage. But the main lesson I draw from his comments on reactionary impulse is this: they will reinvent themselves. If you crowned me (or some more temperate leftist) Dictator this moment, the conservatives would reinvent themselves according to the needs of the moment. If you destroyed the power of Finance Capital today, those people would wait for the power to find a new center and seek to infiltrate it. Beyond merely grinding hidebound rednecks out of existence with a multi generational plan for a New Southern Reconstruction, liberals need to find something for hyper competitive and egotistical people to do with themselves that is not socially destructive.

  4. Your last sentence is particularly interesting. We need computer games – “Dominate the Weak”, “Disenfranchise Old Ladies”, “Murder Unionists” or something.

    The problem I have with Robin is not with the trends he identifies. I’m satisfied that they exist, and this is why I was initially interested in reading his stuff. Furthermore, he also shows cogently in my opinion that some classic authors popularly believed to be careful pragmatists in fact have deeply reactionary tendencies. So good, so far.

    The problem is that he says this is all there is to conservativism. He does not use this word as a shortcut for contemporary movement conservativism. No, he says and claims to have shown that all conservativism, always and everywhere, is reaction and nothing else. As I said before, the excerpts are cherry-picked and the argumentative level much more similar to that of Glenn Beck than to that of Bertrand Russell.

    So, sure, Robin has identified the essential mechanics of contemporary American movement conservatvism. But that’s not what he claimed. He claimed that he identified the essential mechanics of all conservativism always and everywhere. The difference is important.

    You are, like me, free to take what you want from Robin or any other author, and leave the rest. I’ve pretty much taken that attitude to Robin and many other recent left-wing professors. But I’d be remiss if I did not point out that while Robin’s statements are congenial to my views, I think it’s lousy writing. And there are lots and lots of unemployed academics worlds more intelligent and insightful than Robin, but less adept at self-promotion. I speak here as a scholar who disagrees with Robin and what he represents (i.e. sloppy scholarship) and not as a political partisan who largely agrees with Robin and what he represents on that front (unionization, community organization, renegotiation of the terms of political debate).

    • RJ: can I interest you in the “Reply” link? ;-) I’ve got the site set up to go five levels deep and it makes it easier to follow the conversations. At least it makes it easier for me!

    • Let me add one thought to the conversation. Conservatives will tell you that the anti-choice position is really about liberty: the liberty of the fetus. However, there are clearly conflicting liberties here. Do you think that the anti-choice community would be one-tenth its size if it weren’t for the fact that it was putting women in their place? So in this regard, it fits perfectly in Robin’s thesis: it is a reaction against the liberation of women.

      As for the nice small-c conservatives in Canada, I think you may be going astray. I am politically very liberal and even radical. But personally, I’m very conservative. Also: I don’t think there is anything wrong with political conservatism. It is best to have some people running around trying to slow things down. Social and political change is best when it happens gradually. But that doesn’t mean that conservatism isn’t reactionary.

      • Yes it does. Slowing down change is not the same as picking on the weak and reinforcing hierarchy. Not exactly the same tendency, but largely coextensive in contemporary mainstream politics.

        I am reacting, you know, to what Robin actually is saying there. He does not say, as maybe you mean to say, that overwhelmingly American movement conservativism is about authoritarianism, picking on the weak, viciously defending hierarchy. He makes the considerably stronger claim that always and everywhere, conservativism is about these things and only about these things. On the scholarly level the difference is important.

        You know, I know, by looking elsewhere, that slowing down change is not the same picking on the weak. For example, opposition to ostentatious consumption, theoretically anyway, would oppose desires of the economically better-off.

        I’m aware that in practice that sort of thing tends to get twisted around on the not-particularly-privileged, especially in these dark days. But no, I don’t believe that control of women always has motivated upward of 90% of anti-abortion activists. Maybe now with the most recent, most-nutty version of this movement, but I think you forget there were liberal anti-abortionists. Thin on the ground now, I’ll grant.

        I just don’t see how we ask people to change and reconsider what they think in the world, telling them, “stop hating on the poor” when typically they consciously do not. Most conservatives, deep down inside, just want to control people and keep masters masters? Just don’t think so. This really is the specific sort of thing I’m criticizing. I’m not even sure what it possibly could mean.

        I think a not-that-clever conservative scholar could make the same case against liberals or leftists. And please note that I’m not talking about dumb-dumb Goldberg, or anyone else like that wanker!

        • Hey, you did the Reply! I’m so pleased! ;-)

          I will have to give this quite a lot of thought. I’m in a weird meta-state where I half agree and half disagree. It is certainly true that there is little that is traditionally conservative in movement conservatism. It is distinctly radical. In fact, when I look at modern conservatives, what they remind me of are communists of 1920s — at least in regard to ideological purity.

          What I need to think about is whether these two kinds of conservatism (change resistant and authoritarian) are truly two different ways of looking at the world or just different places on a continuum. I really don’t know.

          As for Robin’s book: you got a much clearer argument from it than I did. My main complaint was that I didn’t especially think it was an argument for what it supposedly was an argument for. Maybe I’ll have to read it again. I remember it being fun.

  5. Just wanted to pop in here and say “thanks” for the book rec. I just finished it. I agree; it’s more a family tragedy than strictly a political book. Keeping it simple that way makes it powerful; in the end, you feel much worse for Conner’s parents than you do for her; she escaped. (The moments where she realizes how her views have changed, such as watching Dr. King’s “Dream” speech or coming to terms with her adult sons telling her they’re gay, are deeply moving.)

    While it’s possible that there are right-wing extremists who don’t allow their political views to poison their family life, I haven’t met any. My father was a Bircher who became a religious extremist, and it ruined his life. It’s one thing to dedicate yourself to a difficult or hopeless cause and be aware that progress may not happen in your lifetime (“don’t mourn, organize.”) It’s another to devote your life to a totalitarian vision that can never be fulfilled, because ultimately it makes impossible promises. So the happy perfect world you expected from tax cuts or the rise of fundamentalist religion isn’t happening; there must be saboteurs, you must be under attack. Anyone not with you is against you. It’s one hell of a lonely life.

    I recall visiting a mosque with a female friend some years ago. My friend had been told to wear a scarf, and was having trouble fitting it over her ample head of hair. The women at the mosque told her not to bother. “We don’t expect you to wear that,” one told her. “If God wants you to do what we do, He’ll let you know.”

    And that’s my political attitude towards people I know who don’t share my liberal ideals. I hope they come around. I make efforts to demonstrate that a out-and-out liberal can be a nice guy (to the extent I can be a nice guy.) I don’t regard them as the enemy and I don’t consider it my responsibility to go down in flames trying to convert them. You can’t save the village by destroying it.

    The lone crusaders who believe they are all that stands against darkness really inhabit a sad mental universe. My dad began to identify with murdered Old Testament prophets as his religious mania took more of a toll. I guess that’s my late addition to the conversation. Old-school conservatives believed that an existing order was good and resented anything that threatened it. They were insensitive to the sufferings of others less well-served by the structures they defended, but they were at least taking a rational stance (better the devil you know.) And they ended up often being flexible; if change didn’t upset the apple cart, they would sometimes accept it. (Conner, in her book, comes off as an old-school conservative, and that’s not a criticism.) Authoritarians by contrast can never NOT be nuts. Nothing can satisfy them.

    I suspect both views (and liberal views, too) are part of a continuum but not in a “one is a gateway drug to the other” kind of way. Rather, that political views are a bit like sexual orientation as depicted on a Kinsey scale. We all have generous and authoritarian sides. We all have things we’d like to see changed/stay the same for the benefit of others and things we’d like to see changed/stay the same for our own benefit. (I’m a total authoritarian in the kitchen!) How those sides of our personalities play out in our political views has to do with experience and education and the economy and probably a zillion other factors. You can’t create a society of people without authoritarian tendencies (they’re in all of us) but you can make society less of a place that encourages those tendencies to take over. Making difference a matter of personal quirk rather than a means of determining who is comfortable and who suffers is a good way to start.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I was amazed how well it pulled me into the narrative. I agree with pretty much everything you say. But I most especially agree that Conner is a conservative. She has what I dare say most conservatives have: perspective and compassion. I especially liked what she said about abortion rights. It is one thing to be against abortion, but if you really care about it, you ought to be willing to do something about the environment in which they occur. It means dealing with poverty — something the anti-choice community appears to only be interested in making worse. It means making sex education and access to birth control better — again, something the anti-choice community is against. So where does that leave someone who hates abortion but cares about people? Not picketing abortion clinics, that’s for sure!

  6. A lefty nun whose book I read recently called it the “pro-birth” movement. Not “pro-life.” There’s a difference!

    And “30 Days” had a good episode where a staunch pro-abortion-rights person lived with an anti-abortion couple for a month. As always, the show hedged its bets; the anti-abortion people weren’t serious loons (like, I’m afraid, my dad — probably why I donate to Planned Parenthood today.) No, they ran a shelter for poor women, helped them find housing and job training, embraced government-funded anti-poverty programs and the rest of it. Exactly what serious “pro-life” people should be doing (and few are.) So the show cheated in bringing its two sides together (it didn’t really show how nutbag one side tends to be), but I forgave it; I don’t want to see political opposites screaming at each other.

    • I suppose there are anti-abortion people and anti-abortion-rights people. As I continue to have to explain to people IRL, pro-choice people are not pro-abortion. And anti-choice people are not pro-life. Thus, I only use pro-choice and anti-choice. Anything else provides a false balance. The couple who ran the shelter could have been pro-choice, so they clearly are unusual. As we all know, the reason the anti-choice movement is a big deal is because it came to be used as a racial appeal. Otherwise, it would just be Catholics who were dealing with it.

      I’m not even sure that the anti-choice people are pro-birth. They don’t especially seem to care that poor women get the necessary nutrition and prenatal care they need. It is just enough to stop the abortion, then let go, let God. What a vile movement.

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