I’m thankful that my parents did not give me the middle name Oliver or another starting with an ‘O’ or I would be initialing documents ‘SOB’, son of a Birch[er].
To better understand the depth of deceptions, I am sharing the story of my grandfather, a highly intelligent, lovable man, who, like my brother Bob (see Forced Toward Extinction by Those Defending Us), was unknowingly fighting against democracy, freedom and our existence. A side note, he was Bob’s god father. After his death, Bob acquired his guns, one of which he urgently bought to defend us from a communist takeover when gun registration was enacted in the early 70’s.
Path to the John Birch Society
Feel free to skip ahead to the role of the John Birch Society. The details of my grandfather are not critical.
My mother’s father, Earl, entered adult life with a motorcycle adventure, riding a hard-tail Indian motorcycle from Illinois to the Rocky Mountains. He was a couple of years ahead of the Argentinian, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, who wrote the book “Motorcycle Diaries” of his life changing journey, before fighting for Cuban independence with Fidel Castro. Like Che, my grandfather was extreme in politics, but totally opposite, including at least one event in Cuba.
A side note, until the last few years, I had known nothing about Che and little but the name Castro, an evil, communist dictator. I had watched the movie of the same title and only thought it was an interesting youthful adventure. When I was 17 I had also taken a motorcycle journey, the summer between high school and college. I came out, intactly ignorant and uninterested in politics.
My grandfather grew up in Peru, Illinois, a rural town along the Illinois River. In his youth, he had built a raft and floated the river like Huckleberry Finn. In daring competition with friends, he sledded down the river bluff, crossing railway tracks, under a moving train.
He dated the oldest of three sisters of a Baptist minister and superintendent of the rural one-room schools. The very strict father required that his daughters marry in order of age but my grandfather secretly eloped with the youngest, traveling to the nearest city, Peoria, Illinois to spend their honeymoon at the Pere Marquette Hotel. This was 50 years before I moved to Peoria to work for Caterpillar, who frequently used the recently refurbished hotel for corporate guests.
The oldest of my grandmother’s sisters subsequently married Bill. They lost their home in Cuba during the Cuban revolution of 1953 through 1959. I was born two years into that revolution. My great uncle Bill sold high end German cameras and gave me a Voigtlander 35mm for my birth, instructing my dad to document my life and pass it on when I was old enough. They had also lived in California and said that Nixon had been their paperboy.
My parents passed the camera to me when I was 13, just before a trip to visit my great uncle Bill and his wife at their cabin near Durango, Colorado. Their resort cabin was on a ranch of a World War I veteran and pilot. There were pictures of him in uniform next to a biplane. I caught grasshoppers to fish for trout as they fly-fished in waders. My great uncle Bill kept a World War II Willie jeep there to get to his remote cabin. Like this trip for me, they had taken my mother on a trip to the Rocky Mountains when she had turned 13.
The middle of the three married Wilbur, later an engineer with weapons development. I do not recall if he was with Martin or Douglas. He also had a cabin that I visited on that trip, his near Allen’s Park, Colorado. My dad said he had the patent on synchronizing an aircraft machine gun to fire between the rotating blades of the propeller. I think this was before his time but demonstrated my family affiliation with weapons and war. My mother, in retirement bought a log home in Estes Park, Colorado, a few miles from her uncle’s. One of his two son’s was career Navy. I believe all were involved in aviation and photography.
My grandfather had been a radio broadcaster in Chicago and Bloomington, Illinois during World War II. Sometime between World War II and the Korean War, he started working for WestClock in his home town of Peru, Illinois. In addition to manufacturing mechanical watches and clocks, they manufactured bomb fusses for the military. My grandfather managed the military contracts, hosting the military visitors, and managing quality assurance from testing at bomb sites. Both of my parents had worked in manufacture of bomb fusses during the Korean War, mom for WestClock and dad for Sundstrand.
In 2012, after telling my aunt Carleen that I had protested NATO in Chicago, she told me that my mother’s father had been active in the John Birch Society. She was my dad’s sister but had been my mom’s best friend in high school. I had never heard of it and this did not mean anything to me. A year or two later, I read Claire Conner’s book “Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right (see below)”.
Now I have many questions. In 1955, the year I was born, Claire’s parents met and connected with Robert Welch in Boston, who, in 1958 founded the John Birch Society. Her parents were initial members, founding a Midwest chapter in Glen View, Illinois. My family moved to Glen View in 1960, shortly after my dad finished his time in the Air Force. Claire’s parents often held John Birch meetings at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, where we likely attended mass. The Catholic church spans the extremes of political activities.
I had assumed that my mom converted to Catholicism to marry my Catholic dad, but when I asked her, she said her parents initiated the religious conversion shortly before she met my dad, roughly 1953, but she never explained why. My grandfather never appeared very religious. His family was Lutheran and his wife’s father was a Baptist minister, who in his last years lived with them. My grandmother was cremated on death and this was my grandfather’s wish, not very consistent with the Catholic faith.
I had no idea why we lived in this Northern suburb of Chicago for about a year. It was far from where dad was finishing pharmacy school at Chicago Circle and far from his subsequent pharmacy work in Chicago. When dad first returned from the Air Force and resumed college, we lived in an apartment in a mixed neighborhood, possibly the South side. Now knowing my grandfather’s connection to the John Birch Society, he probably insisted on the move, both being racist and likely wanting us to be close to the John Birch activities.
I know that by grandfather was close to his two brother-in-laws. I now suspect they shared this John Birch activism. I do not know which of them initiated this radical activism. It is even possible that my great uncle Bill was in an intelligence service behind his camera salesman job in Cuba during the revolution.
Unfortunately all of my contacts on my mother’s side have passed away, including, last May, her best friend, my aunt Carleen. My grandfather had kept meticulous records but on his death my mother had urgently destroyed most. My brother Tom destroyed all of her records after both of my parents had passed away. Now all I have are questions.
Role of the John Birch Society
In the opening home page of Voices of the Water, I noted how the Heartland Institute is one of the organizations receiving corporate funding to deceive the public on the climate emergency (read more). The Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and others are favorite political causes of David and Charles Koch. Their multimillionaire father, Fred Koch was one of the original Birch founding members, along with Stillwell Conner, father of Claire Conner, author of “Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right.” My grandfather and possibly my mother were likely colleagues of Stillwell. I wonder if they ever met Fred Koch or his sons David and Charles.
Shortly after Obama was elected, the Tea Party was launched, bankrolled by the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity. The Tea Party is a new version of the John Birth Society. Both mobilize people with libertarian ideology.
Note that American libertarian ideology is a perversion of European libertarian or anarchist ideology. It retains the distrust of, and the desire to destroy the state, but puts nothing in its place to defend the people. This is exactly what the corporations want, total political power for them and none for the people.
This slight of hand fooled my grandfather and is even more effective today at deceiving the public. These corporate think tanks took a valid nugget of anarchist ideology, that giving someone else power over your life, is nearly always abused and a loss of freedom, but cleverly omit telling the libertarian Birchers or Tea Party members that nearly all power lies in wealth (see Power Lies in Private Control of the Economy). People have no voice and limited power in the economy. Corporations are not democratic institutions. The U.S. Federal government, for all of its abuse, is slightly democratic, and, until we create more direct political power, it is our only protection from corporate greed.
I, like Noam Chomsky, agree with these Birchers and Tea Party members that hierarchies of power are nearly always abusive and rarely justified against an objective of freedom. But, before trimming back the hierarchy of centralized government, people must become politically active and create local political power that is connected through federation to manage scale and defense against external threats, corporations being one.
I have read a detailed analysis of compatibility of the Tea Party with the libertarian, corporate funded organizations of the Koch brothers. The clear objective was to gain corporate funding and support of the Tea Party toward achieving corporate objectives through what appears to be grass roots mobilization.
The 2015 article, Snobs Versus Slobs: National Review’s War With Its Audience analyzes how the conservative party gatekeepers were attempting to retain the Trump supporters while distancing themselves from Trump. It relates this to the historical challenge that William F. Buckley and the National Review had with the John Birch Society.
It is not clearly stated, but both of these articles are analyzing how to use people to achieve corporate goals. The libertarians, Tea Party members and Birchers are being deceived. From my experience, the same is true of supporters of the Democratic Party, but that is beyond the scope of this post.
There are many contentious, divisive issues used to mobilize people, like anti-communism, that I am intentionally not discussing here because they are distractions. The important message is that the corporations are investing money to deceive us into supporting politicians who are enacting the legislative agenda of the corporations and the wealthy to remove all restrictions on them. The climate emergency is only the most extreme result of their assault.
Below are excerpts of initial text from “Snobs Versus Slobs: National Review’s War With Its Audience” and Claire Conner’s book, “Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right.”
Snobs Versus Slobs: National Review’s War With Its Audience
September 14, 2015
The American conservative movement, which first coalesced in its modern form after World War II, has long been an uneasy coalition of snobs and slobs, of wannabe aristocrats and intellectuals like the late William F. Buckley and Norman Podhoretz joining forces with such avatars of plebeian rage as Joseph McCarthy and Sarah Palin, respectively. Yet this fusion of pretend- gentry with pseudo-populism has always been a shaky one, with the more respectable faces of the right occasionally having to distance themselves from their uncouth cousins. Buckley’s magazine, National Review, has constantly tried to define a respectable conservatism that excludes lurid conspiracy theorists as well as the more overt manifestations of anti-Semitism and racism. It has assumed the role of gatekeeper—the gate of an exclusive country club, that is—deciding who counts as worthy of entry and who has to be locked out.
But National Review’s undeniable influence on conservatism has been waning, and its latest attempt to act as the right wing’s bouncer has backfired. The controversy, as it always seems to be on the right today, concerns Donald Trump’s role in the GOP. On the magazine’s website, Jonah Goldberg published an epistolary article whose title says it all: “No Movement That Embraces Trump Can Call Itself Conservative.” “Dear Reader (if there are any of you left),” Goldberg begins, rather forlornly, “Well, if this is the conservative movement now, I guess you’re going to have to count me out.”
In response to Goldberg’s attack, Trump’s right-wing fans, some of whom are avowed white nationalists, pushed the hashtag #NRORevolt, which became a hub for those rejecting National Review’s status as the arbiter of who counts as respectable right-winger. Just a few tweets are sufficient to see the level of intellectual argument involved:
These poor people thinking the jewish neocohen is on their side. Hope they wake up #NRORevolt http://www.nationalreview.com/article/423607 /donald-trump-conservative-movement-jonah- goldberg#comment-2237525121 … pic.twitter.com/DzMVCD4E1M — ricky_vaughn99
@NRO I guess he didn’t suck Israel’s cock hard enough for you NRO fags. Why didn’t he cup the balls? #NRORevolt #Cuckservative — tharightstuff
Between adopting niglets, loving mestizos and securing Israel’s borders, the #cuckservative has no time for his own white race. #NRORevolt — darklyenlighten
Those pushing the #NRORevolt hashtag are clearly a gruesome lot, and if National Review has helped keep a lid on such unwholesome cretins, we can be grateful to the magazine. Yet the Review’s role in serving as a rightwing gatekeeper too frequently gets celebrated in uncritical terms. The oft-told story about how National Review expelled anti-Semites and Birchers from the right is much more complicated than the way it is usually rendered. If National Review has purged extremists, it is often after a period of working with them. The magazine has long played a delicate balancing act of gathering together as many on the right as possible and then trying to shake off those who go too far.
Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right
July 2, 2013 by Claire Conner
About the Author
Claire Conner’s father was a national spokesperson for the John Birch Society for more than thirty years; her mother was also a staunch follower. Conner holds a degree in English with honors from the University of Dallas and a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin. She lives in Tampa, Florida.
I Know What Extremism Looks Like
Five years ago, I was sure I’d heard the last of conspiracies, secret Communists, and America’s imminent collapse. After all, the Cold War had been over for twenty years, my parents and most of their fanatic friends were dead, and the Bush administration was killing America’s appetite for right-wing Republicans.
“There’s no one left to hoist the extremist flag,” I told myself. I was wrong. By 2008, political discourse sounded eerily similar to that of 1958, when a brand-new right-wing, populist movement—the John Birch Society—burst onto the American scene. All across the country, newly awakened Birchers rallied to “take our county back.” Two dedicated Birch leaders mobilized the Midwest: Stillwell and Laurene Conner—my parents.
Dad and Mother had been primed for their lurch to the right for many years. They loved Joseph McCarthy and hated the Communists. They’d decided that government assistance made people weak and lazy, and that the New Deal was really a bad deal. They loathed Franklin Roosevelt and blamed Democrats for destroying our free-enterprise system. So in 1955, when Mother and Dad were introduced to Robert Welch, a candy-company executive turned conspiracy hunter, they immediately recognized a kindred soul. My father said Welch was “a brilliant mind and the finest patriot I’ve ever had the privilege to know.” Three years later, when Welch founded his John Birch Society, Mother and Dad didn’t hesitate— they signed up and immediately handed over $2,000 for lifetime memberships, the equivalent of about $15,000 today.
The John Birch Society became my parents’ lifelong obsession; nothing was allowed to interfere with the next meeting, the next project, the next mailing. At fourteen and thirteen, respectively, my older brother and I were deemed old enough to take up the cause as full-fledged adult members. During Birch activities, the other Conner children were banished upstairs, where my ten-year-old sister was put in charge of the baby (eighteen months) and my six-year-old brother fended for himself. In only a few months, the entire Conner family lived and breathed Birch.
Night after night, Birch activists and new recruits filled our living room.
They received hours of instruction about the secret conspiracy, the New World Order, hidden codes on the dollar bill, and Communist spies inside our government. Birchers were schooled in the evils of creeping socialism, Communism, and Marxism. Good Birchers understood the sins of welfare and Social Security. It was time to rise up against the unholy alliance of the Left—Communists, socialists, liberals, union bosses, and the liberal press. Robert Welch identified Communists as one enemy in this epic struggle to save the country. Of course, in the 1950s the march of the Communists across Eastern Europe and Asia was scary to Americans, but Welch was more worried about the Communists lurking inside our country, often holding positions of influence. These home-grown American Communists were ready to spring into action to take down our Constitution and replace it with a socialist manifesto.
Birchers believed that those American Communists were all over the place. They served on school boards, advocated putting fluoride in drinking water, and taught subversive university classes. Others organized labor unions, led the civil rights movement and served in the Congress. The Birch message resonated. Membership exploded and revenue spiked. My father was rewarded for his dedication with a promotion to the Birch National Council, where he served for thirty-two years.
From the outset, the GOP applauded the Birchers for their patriotic zeal and embraced them as good Republicans. But after a scandal rocked the society in 1961, the GOP worried that its closeness to the Birchers would taint the Republican brand. It could not afford to be painted by the Democrats as the political arm of the radical right. Republican leaders decided to label the Birchers as crackpots and push them out of the party. Problem solved. The effort worked. Before long, the Birchers had joined the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, and other kooks as the most extreme reactionaries in American politics. The Republican Party took credit for saving the United States from fringe-of-the-fringe crusaders who imagined that even the president was a Commie. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, while the politicians and pundits declared the Birchers dead and buried, the moneyed Birch leadership went to plan B, redirecting their cash and their influence into think tanks and foundations. My parents joined in that diversifying effort. They founded a right-wing Catholic organization, the Wanderer Foundation, in St. Paul, Minnesota and donated to every right-wing organization and political-action committee they could. My parents never had big money, but other Birch families spent huge sums to bankroll Birch ideas. Fred Koch, one of the original Birch founding members and a National Council member with my father, invested a small fortune on his pet projects, including the so-called right-to-work laws, designed to hamper union organizing. His sons, David and Charles Koch, inherited their father’s multimillions, turned them into multibillions, and invested liberally in their favorite political causes: the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and others. Those organizations incorporated many John Birch Society ideas and effectively increased both their reach and their impact on American politics. Since Citizens United, the 2011 Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited and unregulated corporate political donations, the Kochs have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to individual candidates and political-action committees. The Kochs and their allies envision the same framework for American government that I heard from my father and his John Birch Society allies: the New Deal dismantled, the federal government reduced to a quarter of its current size, and most federal programs gutted. In this right-wing, libertarian utopia, businesses and individuals would be free to do anything, unrestrained by rules or taxes. In 2008, when the economy tanked and Barack Obama emerged as the Democratic nominee for president, the radical right went on the offense. The Democrat was labeled a Marxist, a Socialist, and a friend of terrorists. Folks unfurled the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and shouted about trees of liberty being watered with the blood of tyrants. When I heard frenzied voters at a Republican rally shouting, “Treason,” and “Kill him,” in response to one of Sarah Palin’s anti-Obama rants, I worried. “My parents are back,” I told anyone who’d listen. People looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I realized that the Birch Society had faded out of America’s memory. It had been confined to a footnote for political wonks. Six months after President Obama was inaugurated, a new right-wing, populist movement arose. The Tea Party—bankrolled by the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity—staged rallies and protests across the country. Self-appointed zealots suggested “Second Amendment remedies” if they didn’t achieve their goals at the ballot box. I shuddered when I heard my father’s favorite rally cry: “We’ve come to take our country back.”
These newly minted right-wingers were rattling off old Birch slogans:
• Immigrants are the enemy. Protect our borders and deport all illegal aliens.
• Gays are ungodly. Pray the gay away from children and teens.
• Unemployed people don’t want to work, and poor people keep themselves poor, on purpose. If we cut the minimum wage and eliminate unemployment compensation, everyone will have a job.
• Unions caused the economic collapse by shielding lazy, incompetent public employees.
• Rich folks are “job creators,” and we need to protect their wealth.
• Social Security is unsustainable, and Medicare and Medicaid have to be restricted so that corporations and “job creators” have lower tax rates.
• Abortion is murder and must be outlawed even in cases of rape and incest. No exception means no exceptions; even in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.
• The economic meltdown of 2008 came from high taxes on corporations, too many regulations, and poor people taking out mortgages they couldn’t afford.
• The government can’t create jobs, so stimulus programs don’t work. Cutting taxes creates jobs.
• The government can’t limit the right to own or carry guns. If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.
• America is God’s chosen nation, but our president can’t understand our exceptionalism. After all, he’s not a “real” American; he’s a Marxist, Socialist, Muslim racist who hates America.
I know that this new radical Right is a rewrite of the old John Birch Society. This time, however, the movement has enormous political muscle, unlimited dollars, and right-wing media support. This reality hit me after studying my parents’ files and personal writing, combing historical archives, and reading contemporary accounts and documents produced by the Birch Society itself.
My notes credit published works and archival documents, but much of this narrative comes from my experience. This book chronicles the history of the John Birch Society and its impact on America, past and present. But above all, Wrapped in the Flag is my story