Review of Claire Conner’s Wrapped in the Flag

I recently posted a review at Amazon of Claire Conner’s Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right. (The paperback edition changed the subtitle to What I Learned Growing Up in America’s Radical Right, How I Escaped, and Why My Story Matters Today.) The review begins below. It unfortunately is buried within a stack of over a hundred favorable reviews at Amazon. But anyone who wants to read the review there can go here. Then if you find it worthy, you can click the button that says the review is helpful and move it up in the queue:

I thoroughly enjoyed this book despite myself. The author, Claire Conner, entertainingly interweaves a personal story of her growing up with parents who were avid and prominent members of the John Birch Society with a history of the Birch Society itself. I am only four years younger than Conner, and my own story has many intriguing parallels to hers. My parents never joined “the Society,” as its members referred to it, but they (particularly my mother) became what could be called Birch Society “fellow travelers,” involved in right-wing politics after the election of 1960. Many of their friends were Society members. I therefore imbibed much of the same literature as Conner, listened to similar public lectures, and was taken to and participated in similar events. She and I both, for example, were peripherally involved in the 1964 Goldwater campaign.

Our similar backgrounds even influenced both Conner’s and my choices of college. In her case, she was required by her parents to attend the Catholic University of Dallas, at a time when Willmoore Kendall (who had previously been one of Bill Buckley’s mentors at Yale) was teaching there. I chose to attend the Presbyterian Grove City College, studying economics under Hans Sennholz (who wrote for the Society’s magazine, American Opinion, for a span of years) and history under Clarence Carson (a frequent contributor to the Foundation for Economic Education’s Freeman). Finally, she and I eventually grew up to reject the Society’s conspiratorial worldview.

But there the similarities end. I drifted from conservatism to libertarianism, whereas Conner became a leftwing, progressive activist. Her narrative is filled with many fascinating tidbits and anecdotes about Birch Society activities and luminaries. But unlike me, she had parents who were domineering and dogmatic to the point of being abusive. Thus, she is unable to separate fully her wrenching childhood from the ideas and opinions of those she generally identifies as right wing. While there is always a note of tenderness in her writing about her parents, their fanatical harshness becomes the template for her damning of not only all Birchers but also most conservatives and even libertarians.

This makes her utterly oblivious to the extent to which she is still trapped in a conspiratorial worldview, but one of the Left rather than of the Right. She has graduated from her parents’ belief that America was threatened by a giant left-wing conspiracy, in which every liberal was either a Communist or a Communist fellow-traveler to a belief that America is threatened by a giant radical-right conspiracy, stretching from the 1950s to the present. She lumps together with the Birch Society in this gigantic, ongoing, and diffuse conspiracy such disparate individuals and organizations as Bill Buckley and his conservative National Review; politicians such as Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan; Ayn Rand and her Objectivist followers; the libertarian Cato Institute; the modern Tea Party; and white supremacists of the Klan.

To support this portrayal, Conner engages in the same kind of guilt by association that Birchers employed to charge, for instance, that Martin Luther King was a secret Soviet agent. Thus, the fact that Fred Koch, the father of Charles and David, was a founding Council member of the Birch Society (who ultimately left because of opposition to the Vietnam War) implicates every person and organization associated with him and his sons. Although she honestly reports that Buckley eventually denounced the Birch Society, this cuts no ice for her. She recognizes no significant difference between the racist, anti-Semitic Revilo Oliver (kicked out of the Birch Society for those very reasons), who became virulently anti-Christian, and Jerry Falwell’s Christian Moral Majority, which was unabashedly pro-Israel. Indeed, nearly anyone who thinks that government has become too intrusive and extensive is somehow involved, wittingly or unwittingly. Most disgraceful and bizarre of all, the book’s introduction slyly tries to insinuate that the radical right somehow contributed to the Kennedy assassination, yet while fully accepting that Lee Harvey Oswald was actually the assassin as well as a Communist.

An occasional, slight acknowledgment that her parents or others she wishes to expose were correct about a few things slips into Conner’s story. Thus, only in a footnote to her memories about her parents indoctrinating her in the 1960s about how “the ultimate fiend was Mao Zedong” (p. 43), worse than Hitler, does she concede, “My parents were right about Mao” (p. 225). Late in the book she admits “I never would have guessed, not in a hundred years, that the John Birch Society would be as critical of President Bush and the fiasco in Iraq as I was” (p. 212). But none of this can soften her blanket denunciation of everything her parents advocated or embraced. As stated above, there is much fascinating historical detail in this readable book. With a little more nuance, balance, and objectivity, it could have been far more compelling and credible. Conner’s account of how her parents mistreated her, in particular, is in many places heartbreaking. Which makes it all the more sad that her scarred upbringing has turned her political landscape into the exact mirror image of that of her parents.

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