Conspiracy theories aren’t the only things the right-wing has inherited from the John Birch Society. The fringe extremist group of the ‘60s promoted vast and dire apocalyptic visions much as QAnon does today, but another thing that JBS once did is assign “missions” to its members.
Sometimes those missions were standard grassroots activity, like letter-writing drives or telephone campaigns. But others were more personalized, for the individual member. And all the while, the JBS member was exhorted to be polite, even cloyingly so, while propounding demands for squelching the dastardly communist opposition. Activists were encouraged to needle public officials but to do so wearing one’s metaphorical Sunday best.
People found great purpose participating in and completing these tasks: it gave them direction and let them feel they were part of something bigger than themselves. (That’s actually the driving idea behind this type of activity: it allows people to do something with their hands and to be rewarded for their efforts. It provides a sense of productivity and makes people feel like they made a difference.)
And it turns out, people like being given homework assignments of this type. They’re provided an action plan, and they’re charged with implementing it. People feel they must take up the agenda as it’s been given to them as a responsibility by leadership; and they get to put their whole person into the effort. Back in 1962, Alan P. Westin shared this about JBS:
To stimulate compliance by members with the local and national efforts prescribed each month in the Bulletin, [Robert] Welch has devised the MMM system, or “Member’s Monthly Memos.” These forms are filled out by the member detailing what he or she has done and including sundry observations on the “Americanist fight.” They are then collected by the chapter leader … Welch and his staff, according to the Bulletin, spend much time going over the MMMs.
… [T]he Birch Society has developed a thoroughly satisfying way for the thin-lipped little lady from Wichita or the self-made manufacturer of plumbing fixtures in North Carolina to work in manageable little daily doses against “the Communists.”1
You might remember last year, when Tucker Carlson riffed on this idea and—perhaps off-handedly, perhaps intentionally—set his viewers out into their neighborhoods, telling them to to harangue parents who were masking up their children, even to tussle with these parents. This was during the height of the pandemic, before vaccinations were widely available. And to Tucker’s delight, some of his fans followed his directions.
This suggestion followed similar tactics taken up by the right-wing to attend school board meetings and disrupt them, either on the subject of coronavirus policy restrictions or the topic of teaching race in the classroom (i.e., critical race theory). This, too, dovetails with former JBS strategy.
Now Matt Walsh, another conservative pundit, wants to try his hand at this. Walsh, on his podcast, delved into the controversy/conspiracy over transgender children by attacking Boston Children’s Hospital. The reason? The hospital provides minors with gender-affirming care.
(cue to 1:45)
Walsh: Today on the Matt Walsh show: childrens’ hospitals around the country are butchering, mutilating, and sterilizing the young patients. … According to Boston Children’s Hospital, literally every toddler who has ever been born, or will ever be born, is trans.
… Now, if it seems like they’re casting the widest imaginable net in order to catch the most children they can and put them all on a path to sterilization and butchery before they can even talk, well, that’s because that’s exactly what these monsters are doing.
And they’ve done it up until this moment without much resistance from the public. Well, that has to end. We have to stop making it so easy on them. And that’s why I’m in the very early stages of trying to organize a national, coordinated effort to fight back against this evil.
You know, it’s really just a matter of where do we begin. Maybe we begin at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Walsh may or may not truly harbor distaste or disgust for such programs (though from his rhetoric I think it’s clear). But what he’s looking for is evidence of his influence; that’s obvious, at least to me. Just like with Tucker, all that’s needed is to keep a lookout in the press to see if anyone has taken him up on his offer to harass strangers. And that’s exactly what happened: the anonymized army of trolls emerged to send threats to the hospital after Walsh’s clarion call.
CNN: Boston Children’s Hospital says it is being threatened and harassed now after far-right activists on social media posted misinformation, claiming they perform gender-affirming hysterectomy procedures on young girls. The hospital says it’s not true. They do not perform those procedures for anyone under the age of 18. Boston Children’s Hospital says it is proud, though, to be home to the first pediatric and adolescent transgender health program in the United States. The hospital, though, now is working with law enforcement to try to better protect its staff in the face of these lies.
That CNN report came just two days later.
This story particularly angers me because Boston Children’s Hospital is one of the premier pediatric hospitals in the country. I say that as someone whose greater neighborhood has a renowned children’s hospital of its own, with an understanding that these institutions provide the most meaningful types of restorative care that these patients can receive. Were I religious, I would say they do God’s work. Pediatric medicine is a selfless endeavor, one that should be celebrated everywhere.
Read more: NBC News | Boston Globe | Washington Post
We may need to revise the definition of brainwashing at this point. It’s not just about accepting a viewpoint on the world (Weltanschauung) and adopting that internally. At this point, it’s not about external coercion, like it was back in the ‘50s (with ideas of Manchurian candidates, etc). It’s a different route of internalization of an ideology, a kinesthetic route.
The term may need to be extended to include these participatory acts, taken up freely by the group member. They take on the task as their own, supplanting their own priorities for those of the group; and by participating in something, they become more likely to defend their participation and thus the cause behind it. (This is one of the mechanisms driving proselytization: the act of professing one’s belief reinforces that belief.) In this way, the group member allows the priorities of the group to eclipse those of his or her own.
1 Alan P. Westin, “The John Birch Society.” In The Radical Right, Third Edition (Daniel Bell, ed.), pp. 249, 251.