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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Tabarrok on “Bernanke vs. Friedman”

Alex Tabarrok has a very flattering post at Marginal Revolution about my 2011 article,  “Ben Bernanke versus Milton Friedman: The Federal Reserve’s Emergence as the U.S. Economy’s Central Planner.” It seems that the President of the Richmond Fed has independently just made a similar argument.

Ed Lazear’s WSJ op-ed on California’s water problems

Ed Lazear had an outstanding op-ed, “Government Dries Up California’s Water Supply,” in the June 26 Wall Street Journal

It brings me back to 1982, when I first moved to California from Texas. Less Antman had the California Libertarian Party hire me as research director, and one of the biggest political issues at the time was water. The fight was over a ballot initiative authorizing construction of a Peripheral Canal around the San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta to divert more water to Central Valley farmers and southern California. It would have been an enormous, expensive boondoggle that united environmentalist and libertarians in opposition. I ended up not only writing but speaking before all sorts of audiences about the issue. My studies made me quite familiar with the socialist bureaucracy, much of unelected with taxing power, which manages California’s feudalistic water system, severely mispricing and misallocating water.

Fortunately, the Peripheral Canal went down to defeat. But little was done to reform California’s water system, and Lazear provides an excellent survey of the myriad drawbacks still plaguing it today. His solution: “Rather than praying for rain, we should get government out of the water-allocation business.” One noteworthy detail he doesn’t mention is that even in non-drought years, because the system encourages overuse of water, the Central Valley’s ground water continues to get depleted. This ensures that each subsequent drought will generate ever more serious problems. Worst of all, one solution being pushed during the current drought is a jazzed up version of the Peripheral Canal.

HT: Corrie Foos

Surowiecki on Intellectual Piracy

James Surowiecki had an excellent article in the June 9 issue of the New Yorker about countries committing intellectual piracy. It includes a nice summary of how “stealing” patented ideas played a major role in the early economic development of the United States. In the process, it surveys some of the considerable historical evidence debunking the widespread myth that intellectual property is necessary for, or even makes a contribution to, economic growth.

My REASON review on the Panic of 1837

My review of Jessica Lepler’s The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis appears in the July issue of Reason. It has now been posted online.

Only after agreeing to review the book and receiving my copy, did I realize that Lepler’s study was far too academic and specialized for the typical Reason reader. But previously, when they had asked me to review Thomas Fleming’s Civil War book (A Disease of the Public Mind) and I had agreed, it turned out to be an awful example of cliche-ridden, superficial pop history at its worst. So I told them it wasn’t worth reviewing, and I didn’t consider it wise to do that again with the Lepler book, even though it would have been for the exact opposite reason.

A much better, recent book on the panic of 1837, despite my disagreeing with most of its interpretations, is Alasdair Roberts’s America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 (2013). I mentioned it in the first draft of my Lepler review, but it was in a section that Reason edited out.

Selgin on Bernanke

Some of you have probably already seen Roger Lowenstein’s overly laudatory, but still useful and interesting, article on Ben Bernanke in the March 2012 Atlantic. As a good antidote, you should check out George Selgin’s thorough and informed critique of Bernanke’s first of four lectures on the Federal Reserve. Bernake seemingly unreflectively repeats many gross myths about the history of banking. Although these myths are widely believed by mainstream economists who who are abysmally ignorant of history, Bernanke has specialized in monetary history and should really know better.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel