In my life I have heard some strange theories. Three random ‘truths’ I’ve heard at various points in my life are:
- During the late 80s/early 90s a coworker advised me that AIDs was created by a man having sex with a monkey ‘over there in Africa.’ (Hunters exposed to blood of chimpanzee introduced the disease to humans.)
- In my teens I learned ‘we did not land on the moon’ that was all ‘staged in Hollywood.’ (I’ll let Buzz Aldrin address that one.)
- As my 10-year-old self stood nearby, a John Birch Society supporter explained to my father how the Communists were going to create Districts (instead of states) when they took over the country.
So, somewhere along the way I became interested in why people believe what they do. This interest led me to Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right by Claire Conner.
View From The Inside
In Wrapped, Conner tells the story of the John Birch Society from the inside out. Her parents were beginning members of the organization and her father, in his leadership role, rubbed shoulders with JBS leaders — including founder Bob Welch.
Although Conner’s book is an autobiography since she had interaction with so many JBS members the reader gets an intimate view of the minds and ideas that shaped the movement. The book’s greatest accomplish is the documentation of her parents’ paranoia, bizarre beliefs and behaviors (which inflicted a lot of pain in the her personal life) but it also puts into perspective the role various politicians played in pushing the country to the far Right.
Progress An Affront To American Exceptionalism
Seemingly unimportant events in the author’s life take on a sinister tone when interpreted by her parents. One example is when Conner learns, as a 12-year-old seventh grade Catholic school student, that in the 1930s ‘farms in Sweden had electricity in their barns before most farms in the U.S.’ When she tells her parents this bit of trivia, her father overreacts seeing it as an attack on Americanism. He says,
“What in God’s name are you talking about? Sweden? Sweden in a socialist country. One of the worst in the world.”
As she points out in the book, by 1930, 50 percent of Sweden’s farms had electricity compared to three percent in the U.S. South and 13 percent in the Midwest. However, this fact does not deter her parents. They send a note to school explaining the truth to the teacher, placing their daughter in the ideological crossfire that culminates with her parents embarking on a ‘textbook war’ and the author switching schools.
Her parents later tell friends how their daughter was nearly ‘brainwashed.’
One of the scenes in the book that resonated with me was a story her parents told of a father in Spain whose son was captured by the Communists. In their telling of the story, the young boy is handed a phone and instructed to tell his father he will die unless the father does as the Communists command. The father tells his son to ‘Say your prayers, my son, and die like a true Spaniard.’
The boy is shot in the head, according to her parents.
Growing up during the 1970s, I remember an obsession with Communism. At an evening church service we watched a film — a 1950s-style PSA movie — which went into great detail about the build up of nuclear warheads in the Soviet Union. I remember hearing, from the pulpit, that when the Communists take over the country they will round up all the Christians. The Christians will have a choice to make: Admit they are Christian and be executed, or deny it and burn in Hell. I had nightmares of being captured and being forced to make the choice.
It was a heavy burden for a 9- or 10-year old kid.
Who Is Doing The Brainwashing?
But, my exposure to the conservative viewpoint was nil compared to the author’s. By the time Conner is 13 she is a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society — hardly an age when one truly comprehends what they are endorsing. And, although, her parents were concerned about their child being brainwashed by the ‘establishment’, in the end, it was them brainwashing her. They exposed a vulnerable child to a worldview at odds with reality.
As the reader uncovers, it takes years for the author to find a more sensible understanding of American and global politics.
Fortunately she does — and, just as fortunately, she chose to share her story of enlightenment.
Rated: 5 out of 5. Very well-written, heavily documented and an intriguing look into the life of one person coached in the ways of extreme patriotism.
Hard To Fathom
Wrapped shines a light on how factions of our society are drawn into a mindset of fear, but it is also a study in how people dig in their heels and believe what resonates with them. In many ways, the John Birch Society reminds me of the countless religious leaders in American history that have predicted the end of time. When the world does not end on their predicted date, though, their followers do not always abandon them, choosing instead to rationalize why the date was in error. They latch onto their emotional response, blindly following the errant leader.
For about six decades, the John Birch Society has predicted a Communist takeover — or that Insiders are already running the show. Yet somehow, America — and the organization — is still standing.
Of course, you cannot read a book like Wrapped without relating it to the current Donald Trump phenomenon. Conner published the book in 2013 and, based on comments in the book, she began writing it somewhere around 2008. What is a little unnerving is much of the behavior she describes dovetails with Trump’s tactic of tapping into off-the-wall beliefs and fear.