Up Close and Personal with the Radical Right (Book Review)
Despite owning a book store, I often check out books from Alton’s Hayner Library. I just finished reading an extraordinary work: “Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right” by Claire Connor that I want to share with you. Although a memoir, this book is very timely in light of the rising tide of right-wing extremism in our nation.
Claire Connor had a difficult time during her freshman year in high school but not because she was a poor student or troublemaker. Her parents, both of whom were dedicated members of the John Birch Society, insisted on examining the textbooks used in the Catholic high school she attended in search of communist influence. After uncovering what they regarded as a plethora of “errors, lies and mistakes” and complaining to the staff, Stillwell and Laurene Connor decided to take their concerns to the next level. They attended a meeting of the parents’ association and interrupted the proceedings to give what they considered “a detailed analysis of the pro-Communist, anti-American materials hiding in the textbooks.” The other parents, who didn’t share the Connors’ fanaticism, shouted them down and the meeting came to an abrupt end. Weary of the Connors’ shenanigans, Claire was expelled from the school.
At her parents’ insistence, Claire Connor joined the John Birch Society at age 13 and met prominent right-wing extremists who played significant roles in the society’s development. The most disturbing activist profiled in the book is undoubtedly Revilo P. Oliver, a professor of classics at the University of Illinois who was an early member of the society and close personal friend of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch. An accomplished public speaker, Oliver captivated audiences with his claim that FDR pushed the United States into World War II for the sole purpose of helping Stalin extend the Soviet empire. Oliver also introduced audiences to Holocaust denial. Jews were imprisoned because they were traitors to the German government, according to Oliver, who emphatically denied the existence of extermination camps and gas chambers.
According to Claire Connor, her father and Oliver served together in the leadership of the John Birch Society for seven years. Oliver finally proved too controversial even for the society’s hard-right extremists. During a Birch-sponsored rally in 1966, he spoke of a “beatific vision” that could be achieved by “vaporizing” Jews. The resulting avalanche of negative press made Oliver a liability and Welch cut him loose.
Another right-wing celebrity from Connor’s childhood was Fred Koch, the father of Tea Party founders Charles Koch and David Koch. A founding member of the John Birch Society, Koch hated labor unions and regarded them as part of a communist plot to take over the United States. Stillwell Connor, the owner of a mattress factory in Chicago, also hated unions and vowed to keep his business union free. His daughter quotes him as saying, “As long as there is breath in my body, there will never be a union in my company. I’ll board it up first.” He vowed to fire any employee who advocated unionization.
John Birch Society members also detested the civil rights movement, which they regarded as communist-inspired. Laurene Connor’s hostility towards civil rights drove her to embrace views espoused by neo-Confederates. The North had oppressed the Southern states, she told her daughter, until they had no recourse except to wage a “war for Southern Independence.” Slavery really wasn’t so bad, she insisted, because “it was a welfare system. The slaves were taken care of, and they were baptized.”
Such politicial pathology made for a toxic home environment. Claire Connor began her personal exodus from the extremist politics in which she had been raised by reading books that her parents would have condemned. A high school teacher surreptitiously introduced Connor to “restricted” tomes such as John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me.” Connor began to discover a reality that wasn’t depicted in the literature of the John Birch Society. She had been taught that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was “as bad as they come,” but watching the March on Washington and hearing his “I Have A Dream Speech” on television — while her parents were away, of course — brought her to tears. Connor’s eyes were opened to the suffering endured by the marginalized and oppressed, which made her unfit for right-wing extremism. Empathy and compassion had no place in the world of her parents and their political associates — just as they have no place in contemporary right-wing politics.
Connor’s memoir has an interesting local twist. Her mother worked closely with Phyllis Schlafly, a longtime Alton resident who now lives in Ladue, on a number of issues, but they never became close friends. “According to my mother,” she writes, “Phyllis and her husband, Fred, insisted they’d never been members of the John Birch Society, but Mother knew they’d actually joined 10 months after my parents did. Robert Welch must have known Phyllis was a Bircher in 1960 when he called her ‘one of our most loyal members.’ ” Schlafly’s persistent denial of John Birch Society membership angered Laurene Connor, who told her daughter, “Phyllis sold out to the Republican establishment.”
Upon hearing about “Wrapped in the Flag,” I decided to check it out through Hayner’s interlibrary loan system rather than wait for a used copy to make its way to my book shop. Although it’s not in the best interest of my business, I encourage you to do likewise. This book is really that good — and that important.