Monday, November 12, 2012

Can They Handle the Truth? (Update, November 13)

We must not only know the truth, but face the truth, if it is to set us free or to keep us so.

Robert Welch, The Blue Book of the John Birch Society 

If all men (and women too, of course) … would simply resolve tomorrow always to be truthful, about everything – to the best of their knowledge and understanding – and would then abide by that resolution, I believe that fully half of all the troubles and grief of the human race would disappear within six months.

Robert Welch, The John Birch Resolutions (1970), No. 2.

On more than a few occasions, Mr. Welch urged members of the JBS to study the behavior of conspiratorial collectivists – and then do exactly the opposite. Where our enemies engage in subterfuge and concealment, for example, we were to be ethical in our means and open about our objectives. After all, he would say, “Education is our total strategy – and truth is our only weapon.”

One luxury of telling the truth – as one is given the wisdom to understand it, and the means to express it – is that you only have to tell one story, and you can share it with everyone. As a gentleman, Mr. Welch sometimes found himself in predicaments in which tact and truthfulness were at cross-purposes. One oft-repeated story described how Mr. Welch once spent the better part of a day avoiding a direct answer after his secretary asked him if he liked her new hairdo. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings by offering an honest opinion of the atrocious coiffure, but he wasn’t going to lie. So he simply remained silent until somebody explained to the puzzled assistant why her boss was making himself scarce.

Robert Welch understood that if we’re willing to lie about little, insignificant things, we’ll be much likelier to lie about the big, important things. The people who presume to act as his successors have been doing both, and it’s about to cost the organization a great deal.
For decades – probably since the early 1970s – Jack McManus peddled anti-Semitic nonsense on company time. This was known to Art Thompson no later than 1999 or 2000. This is a violation of JBS institutional policy laid down, in unambiguous terms, by Mr. Welch in the mid-1960s.
By the late 1990s, McManus had become a huge liability to the organization. At Vance Smith’s request, Art Thompson compiled a dossier on McManus’s activities and used this as leverage to remove McManus as JBS President in 2000.

Five years later, Thompson -- whose calculus of self-interest had changed – allied with McManus to remove Vance Smith. Seeking to save his job, Smith used the same dossier in an effort to blackmail McManus. I was one of several people who were shown video clips of anti-Semitic speeches by McManus and told that the material could end up in the hands of the media (e.g. Larry King) and Morris Dees, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). This caused me to resign from the JBS in disgust – only to be begged back on staff, two days later, by McManus, who wanted me to sit alongside him and Thompson at the first staff meeting following Smith’s ouster.

It wasn’t until Vance Smith’s allies made some elements of Thompson’s dossier public that I understood the depth and extent of the Jack McManus scandal – and the cynicism displayed by both Thompson and Smith in dealing with it. This is precisely the kind of thing that thrives in an atmosphere of institutionalized truth-shading. And it is exactly what Robert Welch didn’t intend for the organization he created.

All of this has been sitting in plain view for years, and – predictably – it has finally caught the attention of the SPLC, just as Thompson predicted in 2000 and Smith threatened in 2005. 

As I recently disclosed, the SPLC approached me for an interview about my experiences in the JBS. My response was: I will talk about this subject anywhere, with anyone, at any time, and the SPLC is no exception. Yes, they are an enemy. I recognize that fact and told the organization’s reporter as much in my initial reply. 

In telling the truth to an enemy I am not acting out of an obligation to him, but rather to the truth. I believe that Robert Welch would do likewise. Much more importantly, I am convinced that the Lord I worship would do so.

Over the space of a week or so, I will serialize the e-mail interview I had with the SPLC’s reporter. This is done, among other reasons, as a way of holding that organization accountable for the accuracy of its report about an organization for which I still have great respect.

*When did you join JBS? Hold old were you?

*I joined the Society at a Council Dinner in Salt Lake City in the spring of 1993. I was 30 years old at the time, and had been contributing articles to The New American for about two and a half years.

*Did you grow up knowing about JBS? Did you know about William Buckley's campaign to banish JBS from the conservative movement? Did that give you pause or was it ancient history?

My older brother had briefly been a member of the Society in the early 1970s. A few years later, as a high school student, I read several of the JBS-published books and magazines he had purchased. By that time I was regularly reading National Review and was vaguely aware of the fact that Buckley and his followers had a very negative view of the JBS, but I wasn't conversant with the details.

*Were your parents involved? What were their politics - liberal, conservative, something in between?

Although my parents were and remain politically conservative, they have never been members of the JBS. In 1972, they cast a protest vote for John Schmitz.

*What were yours growing up?

My earliest political concerns focused on the prospect of nuclear war (owing to an off-hand comment by my sixth grade teacher) and "life issues," such as abortion. I was nine when the Roe decision was announced. I asked my mother to explain what was meant by the term "abortion," and my reaction was one of unalloyed horror. It still is. In seventh grade I went through a phase of reading dystopian literature (Brave New World, 1984) and several books about totalitarianism, including Robert Payne's biography "The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler" and Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago." As a result I was left with an incurable distrust of government power, which is a condition I'm trying to make contagious.

*You first resigned from your editorship of the New American, why? Why did you return?

I should clarify that I was one of two senior editors; I was never the editor-in-chief.

During the exceptionally ugly leadership struggle of October 2005, I was dismayed to learn that Vance Smith was seeking to blackmail Jack McManus -- who sought to remove Smith -- by threatening to go to the media with a "sizzle reel" of video excerpts from anti-Semitic speeches McManus had made. My resignation was necessary because I didn't want to be employed by an organization in which disputes of that kind are resolved through blackmail. After Smith was removed and replaced by the current CEO, Art Thompson, Jack McManus called me and urged me to return to the organization. I didn't find out until much later that Thompson had been the source of the compromising material about McManus: Acting at Smith's behest in 2000, Thompson had assembled the dossier as part of an effort to remove McManus as JBS President.

*How influential is JBS in today's conservative movement?

The Society's influence is difficult to measure. It has been the focal point of anti-UN activism for several decades, and for most of its existence has been diligent in exposing the corrupt origins and the continuing depredations of the Federal Reserve System.

*How large is JBS?

I don't know how many people belong to the JBS, or how many active chapters exist. It's fair to conclude that the group does punch far above its weight class, however.

*Agenda 21 seems like a harmless, tree-huger program with no teeth, yet JBS seems obsessed with it. Why? Was Agenda 21 an important issue when you were on the magazine?

I see nothing innocuous about a document purporting to be a global blueprint for redefining human behavior and property rights to engineer what an unaccountable elite would regard as a "sustainable" society. If this document were hortatory in nature, we could safely dismiss it as an exercise in ideological self-delusion. But there are efforts underway to incorporate its tenets in local land-use policies, which is a HUGE issue here in the mountain West.

The JBS has been very concerned about Agenda 21 since the 1992 Earth Summit, and I think those concerns are entirely valid. As far as it being "toothless" -- the tangible threat posed by Agenda 21 to property rights is much greater than the threat embodied by many of the obscure, minuscule hate groups covered by the SPLC.

*When did you start having questions about JBS' support your police and immigration positions?

My views of immigration and the SYLP campaign began to change at about the same time -- mid-2006. I tardily began to examine immigration from an economic perspective, and concluded that the supposedly overwhelming flood from the South was actually a product of the housing bubble, and would subside when the bubble burst. At the same time, I found myself immersed in horrifying accounts of undisguised criminal abuse by local police, and started to report on that issue in the Birch Blog (which was published between October 2005 and August 2006).

*On your blog you call for Art Thompson to resign, why?

Some people whose views I respect and whose friendship I cherish consider Thompson to be an honest and decent man who is doing the best he can. On the basis of my experience I can't endorse that view. I consider him to be shamelessly dishonest and incurably inept. His on-line commentaries are the kind of thing that would dribble down the chin of an individual created in a recombinant DNA experiment involving Floyd R. Turbo and Joad Cressbeckler. He still refers to the "Soviets" and has actually endorsed the idea that we could win the"war on terror" by taking the fight to Moscow. There are younger, more perceptive, and more capable people who could and should be at the head of the JBS.

*How would you describe Thompson coming to power? Was it a palace coup as Fotheringham calls it or was it a necessary step to remove ineffective leadership?

Since there wasn't a clearly established process for replacing a CEO, it's difficult to say that what happened in October 2005 was a "coup."

During the October 2005 leadership stuggle, Vance Smith's detractors protested that he had become a petty control freak; Smith described Art Thompson and Jack McManus as incompetent, dishonest opportunists. This is one of those rare conflicts in which each side told the unvarnished truth about the other. Between 2000 and 2005, Thompson displayed an instinctive gift for subtle intrigue worthy of Talleyrand: He first allied with Vance Smith to remove Jack McManus as JBS President, and then five years later teamed up with McManus to remove Smith as CEO (with McManus reinstated in his old position).

*As I mentioned, Buckley tried to banish JBS from the conservative movement, but he's gone and JBS is still here. How has it survived?

Whatever one thinks of his message, Robert Welch was very persuasive to many people, and he did have a certain gift for organization. The resilience of the JBS has a lot to do with the model of education and activism Welch promoted. Buckley was a professional celebrity, not an organizer.

*Can you introduce me to current JBS members?

I would be willing to try.

*Do you still believe in the message of Robert Welch?

Anybody who has spent any time in the JBS will recite Mr. Welch's credo: "Less government, more responsibility, and --with God's help -- a better world." Although I have come to disagree with some elements of Welch's analysis -- and am disgusted by the behavior of the people presently running the JBS -- I remain passionately devoted to that vision.

Unlike the reflexively bellicose people who call themselves Conservatives today, Mr. Welch was never a militarist; in one commencement address he gave in the mid-1950s he pointed out that there was no reason why the American people and the people of the USSR would consider themselves enemies if it weren't for the behavior of the governments presuming to rule them. In matters of social policy, Welch opposed abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide, like most conservatives, but also opposed the death penalty (as do I) and condemned torture. In the speech he gave at the founding of the JBS, Welch described pious Muslims as allies in the struggle against the lawless state. He was not preoccupied by the supposed threat of immigration, and didn't believe in enlisting the government in crusades to purify people's moral behavior through the righteous application of coercion. In a remarkable speech he gave in 1979 -- when most conservatives were worried about the Soviets -- Welch predicted that the U.S. would become universally hated for the government's practice of "imperialism by the dollar, as a substitute for the sword."

If Robert Welch were around today, the Fox-aligned Right would consider him a liberal.
To be continued….

UPDATE, November 13:

Just after the election -- and just in time for the holidays -- the JBS has laid off several field coordinators. As is always the case, the austerity axe spared the richly compensated gerontocrats in Appleton (but not, in all probability, some of the people on the home office staff who do actual work).

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