Conservative camp roasts more than just weenies

Birch Society summer targets liberals, plots

Los Angeles Times/July 1996
By Roy Rivenburg

Angelus Oaks, Calif. - Here are some of the things that happen at John Birch summer youth Camp: People in Revolutionary War garb fire muskets into the evening sky; bumper stickers declare, "I love animals, they're delicious"; and men in weird hats burst into cabins in the dead of night.

And campers learn about secret world plots involving devil worshipers, cocaine-snorting Caribbean rulers, the United Nations and President Clinton.

Indeed, there are enough conspiracy theories here to make even Oliver Stone's head spin.

For 26 years, the John Birch Society has offered this weeklong summer program, held in various locations around the country, as an "antidote" to what it considers leftwing "disinformation" from public schools, the media and ocher institutions.

It's a mixture of politics and play that makes for one of the nation's most unusual camp experiences.

Under a canopy of ponderosas in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, 85 students have paid $175 each for seven days of canoeing, ping-pong, archery, volleyball and crash courses on topics such as New Age religions, illegal immigration and the Constitution.

They also must deal with the Night Patrol, a roving band of camp counselors wearing swords and strange headgear who storm into cabins at unpredictable hours.

The idea behind the raids is to instill resentment against excessive police power, says Kevin Bearly, a former Los Angeles police officer and minister who directs the camp.

Such lessons are built into nearly every aspect of the camp.

Classes walk students through the Birch Society's often-intriguing view of current events.

The world is like a stereogram painting, instructor Orlean Koehle says.

"When you stare at it long enough," she says, "the real picture begins to open up."

Birchers believe that a powerful group of "insiders" are manipulating global events in an effort to create a totalitarian, atheistic world government.

Everything is seen in this light.

Consider the environmental movement. On the surface, it appears to be a collection of "wonderful, benevolent people trying to help and save the Earth," Koehle tells the campers, who range in age from 13 to 20.

In reality, she says, it's a plot to unite humanity against a common enemy, pollution, and lay the groundwork for a world regime.

Koehle urges students to ignore doomsday hype about-such things as endangered species - extinction isn't necessarily bad, she says, noting that dinosaurs became oil deposits -- and depletion of the ozone layer, a point with which some mainstream scientists agree.

At a bonfire that evening, the junior Birchers take her message to heart.

"Styrofoam's not bad for the ozone, is it?" quips one boy as head counselor Arnold Marquardt, who in real life works as a fire chief, tosses several foam cups onto the pyre.

On other evenings, the campfire entertainment includes cameos by "Thomas Paine" and musket-toting Revolutionary War soldiers.

Any remaining illusion that Camp Birch is just another summer getaway quickly evaporates during a tour of the cabins. Each is an orgy of red-white-and-blue streamers, balloons, bumper stickers and other patriotic paraphernalia.

"I hate what Clinton and his gang of anti-gunner, gays and liberals are doing to America," says a T-shirt hanging from the ceiling in one boys' dorm. "No New-World Order" blares a decal in a girls' cabin.

Still, not everything is purely political.

Some students nod off, doodle or pass notes during class. Young Birchers in love stroll the grounds holding hands. And a frustrated boy tries to fend off rumors that his bellybutton is pierced.

Even campers who were wary of the program initially -- Carrie Warren signed up only after her parents "bribed" her with tickets to a concert -- seem to get caught up in the JBS spirit.

"The classes are really good," says Warren, 18, who plans to enroll at Pepperdine University this fall as an aspiring corporate lawyer. "They back up what they're saying with newspaper articles and facts."

There are also flashes of humor. The head of the United Nations is referred to as "Egyptian socialist Boutros Boutros By-Golly," and the leader of Haiti is portrayed as "a coke-snorting animist voodooist" who was reinstated by "U.S. military forces on an errand assigned to them by the United Nations."

A lot of what's taught is standard conservative rhetoric-but always with a sinister twist.

Mass transit, for instance, is a mistake not because freeways are more cost-effective, but because it will allow the government to control the movement of its citizens. By getting rid of cars, "they'll be able to restrict where you go," director Bearly says.

And illegal immigration is a mess not so much for the burden it puts on social programs, but because "white Leninists" intend to spark a U.S. revolution by manipulating recent arrivals. Marxists want to send "millions of Mexicans across the border with the idea of having each kill 10 Americans," says William Grigg, a studio musician tuned Birch magazine editor who describes himself as half-Mexican, half-Irish. "My friends call me Blarney con Carne," he says.

The United Nations is viewed as a cabal of communists, Satanists and allied dupes bent on ruling the world. Aiding and abetting their cause are scores of businessmen, media executives and politicians in the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations.

The only hope for redemption, of course, is the John Birch Society. Founded in 1958 by candy baron Robert Welch, it has struggled in recent decades to regain its once-notable visibility and influence.

Welch, who died in 1985, named his organization after an Army intelligence officer who was killed by Chinese communists a week after World War II ended.

From an estimated 100,000 members in the early 1960s, the group slid to 80,000 during the 1970s and then nose-dived during Ronald Reagan's presidency.

The summer camps, which enroll about 1,000 teens each year at sites across the country, are part of the society's rebuilding plan.

Membership is open to all races and creeds, Bearly says, and "we don't promote militia movements in any way."

"We totally believe in making changes through the ballot box," he says.

Armed with facts and literature from their weeklong stay, campers can go back to their friends and classmates and argue for conservative causes, JBS officials hope.

"The good news," Grigg tells the group, "is that we will win. And I know all of you will have an important role in that victory."

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