From the moment the bus drove through the Northern entrance of Yellowstone and headed toward the federal reeducation camp, everyone aboard reacted with amazement. This place was not what we anticipated. From the American flags and the red, white and blue bunting that lined the Park entry route, to the local high school band playing patriotic songs, and the free badges declaring slogans like “Another ex-liberal for Birch,” “Kiss Me, I’m a Conservative,” and “Jesus Is a Republican,” we were pleasantly surprised by the party atmosphere that marked our arrival.
Granted, there were armed guards patrolling the park perimeter, the latest in security technologies protecting against potential escape, and intermittent reconnaissance flights passing overhead. But because most security activity was unobtrusive, it was easy for us to comprehend this experience more as a summer camp for adults and less as a political penitentiary.
Besides, once the bus stopped and we disembarked, we were totally unshackled and happy to be off that uncomfortable vehicle. As I stretched my arms and shook the blood back into my aching limbs, Jane approached. “What’s with these Republicans? I expected Alcatraz and they took us to Disneyland. Well, it’s not quite the Magic Kingdom, but they seem to be really glad to see us.”
Before I could reply, however, an officer in a U.S. Army uniform began addressing us through a megaphone. He introduced himself as General Jeffery Spitz, commandant of the Yellowstone camp. “Welcome to the Yellowstone Patriotic Orthodoxy facility," he announced forthrightly. "You have been sent here by the American government until such time as you willingly embrace the political philosophy of the United States, Republican conservatism.
“We want you to feel comfortable,” he continued, “and to that end all of you from the Los Angeles bus that just arrived have been assigned to Barracks Unit 6—the men to Unit 6-M, the women to Unit 6-F. In a moment you will proceed to your respective residences. There you can select a cot and change into the orange jumpsuits that will be your wardrobe until your rehabilitation is successfully completed. On each bed is a printout of the rehab schedule which starts tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock, just after breakfast.
“You are one of our first groups, so please bear with us if you encounter any inefficiency. We're learning together. We want to treat you well, because we want you to join us in fidelity to the new America, to our conservative United States. To that end, you may now remove the yellow armband each of you has been wearing. You will soon be issued new identification credentials.”
A few prisoners actually applauded General Spitz’s greeting. Most of us were more interested in tearing the offensive band from our arms. “I had relatives who were forced to wear these things in Nazi Germany in the 1930s,” Jane said, as she ripped off her armband. “This has sickened me ever since we left Los Angeles.”
The General continued his welcoming address, explaining that because busloads of liberals from Western states would continue to arrive, the prison population would quickly swell, exacerbating problems of inmate control. “Let me warn you from the outset,” he said sternly. “Despite the gaiety that greeted you, this is a federal incarceration facility. You will obey the rules. You will participate in all organized events. And under the most severe penalty, you will never, ever attempt to escape.
“I’m a career Army officer, and our guards—or as we like to call them, our Peacemakers—may be soldiers or even civilian contractors, but all they're very good at what they do. They’re equipped with the latest firearms, as well as mace, tasers, night sticks and other tools.
“All of them are trained and certified by the National Rifle Association to be crack shots, and they are under orders to shoot to kill anyone attempting to exit this camp before his or her rehab has been completed. In plain English, don’t even think about breaking out. Do you understand?"
This time no one applauded. Such frank talk had stunned us into silence. The velvet glove had momentarily slipped from the steel fist it covered.
The General continued his orders of the day. “Now, proceed to your barracks, change clothes, and come back to the Buffalo Bill Lodge for dinner and compulsory evening prayers.” The Lodge overlooks the creek about a quarter-mile down this footpath,” he concluded, pointing to a dirt trail that passed through a thickly wooded area.
It was a blunt introduction to the camp. And the message was unambiguous. If anyone had thought Yellowstone was going to be a woodsy Six Flags experience, the General’s remarks shattered that illusion. This was no amusement park, no holiday in Big Sky Country. It was only the next stage in a harrowing national experience that was barely two days old.
Barracks Unit 6-M was a new building. It reminded me of those knotty-pine cabins pictured in tourist brochures. It was hard to believe, but the builders of these housing units had actually made them architecturally harmonious with the older park structures. The only difference was the propaganda streamers and photographs hanging outside and inside the Unit. Attached above the front door, for example, a large yellow banner proclaimed “Citizenship is Conservative.” It was more amusing than threatening. The idea that a slogan could change my politics was absurd. But, I was sensible enough not to share my dismissive attitude with the other captives.
Inside, the rustic décor of 6-M was marred only by the many oversized photos hanging on the walls. These were photographs of “Celebrated Conservatives” with catchy captions designed, I assume, to humanize the images. Beneath the picture of Ronald Reagan, for example, “Standing Tall with the Gipper” projected the former president as both a brave commander-in-chief during the American invasion of Grenada, as well as the dying football player whom the former Warner Bros. star portrayed in the movie, “Knute Rockne, All-American.”
There were others in the right-wing pantheon, including multimillionaire broadcaster, Rush Limbaugh. In the photo Limbaugh was sporting one of those garish neckties—designed years earlier by a former wife (the lovely and talented Marta)—that he hawked on his broadcasts until the divorce. Limbaugh glared somberly above the caption “Lost the weight, but not the gravitas.”
There were others, most of whom I recognized, but this entire gallery of political rogues was nothing but amateurish propaganda. I remember thinking, “Is this the best they can do? Is this what this concentration camp is going to be about?”
But politics was not uppermost in the prisoners’ minds. When we reached our barracks most of us just collapsed on the first cot we could find. Several quickly fell asleep. Most were so exhausted that they didn’t even noticed that there were already about forty beds occupied by earlier arrivals from Oregon.
I selected an unclaimed cot, and quickly began to assess the place. I estimate that there were several hundred sleeping spaces, and the spacious restrooms and showers seemed sufficient for that many people. There was no privacy, however. But as state enemies we were not expecting privacy during our imprisonment.
I undressed and leisurely made my way to the lavatory. The hot shower felt fantastic! And as I stood motionless, allowing the warm water to cascade over my aching body, I was temporarily transported to a wondrous place. After all the tension of the past two days, including the arduous bus ride, it felt wonderful to relax in a shower.
It was so soothing that I was overcome by a wave of sleepiness.
After drying and clothing myself in one of the garish jumpsuits General Spitz had described, I made my way unsteadily back to my bed. I planned to lie down, but only for only a few minutes. In rapid order I fell fast asleep.
I was in a deep slumber when I realized that someone was tugging at my shoulder. “Hey, wake up. Better get up if you want to attend the mandatory meeting,” said a fellow prisoner. “Get up, man. God knows what they’ll do if you miss the first general meeting.”
I was groggy, but still managed to mutter “Thanks very much. I appreciate the wake-up.” A glance at the clock hanging prominently on the wall showed how close I was to sleeping through the meeting. I jumped to my feet and moved out the door with the last inmates to leave.
Dinner at the Buffalo Bill Lodge was nothing special. It was served cafeteria-style in a large room filled with wooden picnic benches. Even the menu was conservative: meat and potatoes, coffee or diet pop, and Jell-O for dessert. The dining experience was more remarkable for its colorfulness. The brilliant jumpsuits turned the dining room into a blaze of orange, punctuated occasionally by the ever-present Peacemakers, rifles in hand, who walked between the benches. Their uniforms were totally black and so, apparently, was their collective mood.
I sat with two men I had just met. Peter Scott barely qualified to be in the camp. He was only a few months older than the minimum voting age, and the Patriotic Orthodoxy Act only applied to people at least eighteen years old. Because his birthday was in December, he hadn’t even qualified to vote in the last election.
Peter claimed that he was arrested because he was a student at the University of California at Berkeley. “I’ve never been political, at least not until now,” he explained. “I was living at home in Santa Monica during a school break. I had a part time job in a local supermarket to make money for the Fall term. Then, wham! Next thing I know, the police are at my door arresting me under authority of the POA.
“But one cop let it slip,” Peter commented. “As he was cuffing me, he said, ‘This ought to teach you to go to that Commie college with those homo professors.’ That’s why I was arrested and sent here, because I was a student at Berkeley. Hard to believe. One of the finest universities in the world, and I’m imprisoned for being a sophomore there. These reactionaries are certifiably whacko.”
“Better lower your voice,” whispered the other man dining next to me. He was Antonio Franceschi, a tall man in his early forties with a slight accent. “These guards here are goons when it comes to enforcing their laws. If they hear you criticizing Republicans or conservatism, they’d as easily break your head you as tell you to be quiet.
“Look, I worked in the electrical workers union in Los Angeles for twenty years before the Republicans outlawed organized labor last year. I’ve seen management goons in action,” Tony continued. “These guards are goons—they’re thugs, sadists, brutes—whatever you want to call them. They get their kicks by clubbing defenseless people. Believe me, they’re dangerous!”
Tony then nodded toward a dining table in the corner of the room. The table was filled with African-American men and women. “If you think we’ve got it bad, just look at those poor bastards,” he said. “I can tell you now, Peacemakers may dislike liberals, but they hate black people. I wouldn’t be surprised if they picked a fight with the blacks tonight —just to keep in practice.”
I was incredulous. “Come on, enough with the cynicism. Are you suggesting that these prisoners are in danger here because they’re black?” I asked.
“I'm not suggesting it, man, I'm declaring it up front and in your face,” Tony replied. “They're in danger, big time. Not only have blacks voted overwhelmingly for Democrats for more than half a century, you've got to remember the strength and direction of the Republican Party since the 1960s has come from white reactionaries, above all in the South, who despised the civil rights movement.
“Have you seen any black guards? Seen any black soldiers? There’re no such animals here. There haven’t been blacks serving anywhere in the military since President Birch re-segregated the armed forces. It doesn't take a genius to see that this whole POA thing is a lily-white.”
As we three were finishing with supper, a church bell softly chimed. It came from the Lodge’s sound system, but it sounded authentic. As the dinner crowd quieted down, General Spitz rose to announce that this was now Prayer Time and all liberals were required to communicate with God. With a "Sacred Hits" CD playing softly in the background, most of the prisoners bowed their heads and, at least, gave the appearance of praying. Regardless of the prisoners' religion, however, they had to pray to their respective Divinities with "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "Onward, Christian Soldiers" playing in the background.
“I don’t need this,” a voice suddenly blurted out. "I don't worship any supernatural God." It was Jane Mandel, my seatmate from the bus. “I don’t believe in any of your Gods. In my America, freedom of religion also means freedom from religion. And I especially won’t bow down to any state-mandated Spirit in the Sky.”
Just as Jane seemed ready to lecture the room on atheism, three Peacemakers ran toward her. It didn’t take many electrical zaps from their stun guns to floor the diminutive protester. Two of the guards then grabbed her arms and dragged her out of the room. “Everyone calm down,” commanded a third Peacemaker. “Go back to your prayers. This is God’s time.”
I remember vividly walking back to Unit 6-M. I could smell the forest in this marvelous national park. It was a clear, crisp evening, one of those times when it was exhilarating to be out in nature and great to be alive. A slight breeze further invigorated me, momentarily distracting me from the wretched reality we were all experiencing. It reminded me of a summer visit to Yellowstone many years ago when I was a child. Despite the dread in my present circumstances, the beautiful park had lost none of its natural beauty.
As I meandered along the footpath, I tried to understand how American liberals had reached this point. It had started simply enough, I decided, when liberals allowed right-wingers to besmirch the very word “liberal.” How could we allow liberalism to become a dirty word? The root of the very word was "liberty." Who could find liberty evil?
Every progressive change in the nation’s history happened because of the courage of liberals and their belief in liberty. From the Revolutionary War through Jefferson, Jackson, and FDR, to the modern Democratic Presidents: these were not conservative leaders; they were liberals.
Even Republicans produced liberal leaders such as Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Nelson Rockefeller. They, too, were liberals and their achievements were crucial to the success of the United States through the centuries. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger was a liberal—and he was good enough for the Kennedy family!
How did modern conservatism destroy liberalism? Conservatives were masters of deceptive persuasion. That, I acknowledged. How else to explain the manner in which disgruntled reactionaries took over the conservative Republican Party and began calling themselves conservatives. There had been legitimate right-of-center Republicans, but they were not among the Tea Party crew of zealots who hijacked Republicanism and now ran a Party that was far to the right of right-of-center.
Masquerading as protectors of American values, the hard Right struggled to roll back a century of American social progress. Their eyes were fixed on some mystical past where a small number of men of Western European ancestry controlled great wealth and power while the massive remainder of society was persuaded to respect disparity as a national strength. Then, modern reactionaries simply manipulated the distrust and self-interest generated by millions of people competing for personal gain and status.
And it worked. During the later Axis of Evil Wars, the victorious Republicans gained enough power to repeal the first and fifth amendments of the Bill of Rights. That meant the end of Free Speech, Freedom of Assembly, religious practice unfettered by government, as well as protection against self-incrimination.
Liberals strongly criticized the repeals, but polls showed that the electorate approved them, so liberal opposition crumbled. Liberals also fell silent when Congress created a Department of Religion and confirmed Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, as the nation’s first Secretary of Religion. As Reverend Secretary Graham explained it at the time, “Fair is fair. We have lived with the separation of Church and State for almost 250 years, now we must learn to live with the marriage of Church and State for the next 250.”
When more assaults on American rights occurred because of the Birch administration and the Supreme Court—the outlawing of abortion, compulsory prayer in public schools, dissolution of trade unions, unrestricted carrying of concealed weapons, cancellation of most environmental and workplace safety regulations—where were the liberal politicians? Many had been voted out of power and returned home to raise their own gardens, but most jumped from the Democratic to the Republican Party in order to rescue their political careers.
I thought, too, about the rich popular culture America once produced. It was the envy of the world until a few years ago. Sure, there was sex and violence in our culture, lots of it—but many people wanted that, and they supported it with their checkbooks and charge accounts. But there was also human profundity, spirituality, honest emotion, and personal dignity in our pop culture. The maturity was undeniable, the acceptance universal. And it was all created by free men and women operating with a minimum of government oversight.
But, then came a succession of morality laws, a culture war that turned literature, TV and radio broadcasting, motion pictures, pop music, and art into Sunday School fare. Inspired by the moral crusade launched years ago by Attorney General John Ashcroft during the first administration of Bush II, this war realized its greatest achievements following the elections of 2016. With massive Congressional majorities, Republicans delivered to President Birch a string of bills that, conservatives boasted, purified American culture.
I remembered the outrage from liberals when the Anti-Pornography Act outlawed all forms of human nudity from display in public and in the media, including the internet and sculpture. But their complaint didn’t last long. After a few protest marches and letters to various newspapers, the liberals capitulated and rationalized that in a democracy the majority rules.
More purification legislation followed. One law, for example, banned profane words from public speech. Another forbade the positive depiction of deviance—by which the Republicans meant atheism, homosexuality, abortion, liberalism, socialism, Islam, and so forth—in every medium.
Where were the liberals? We did nothing! Said nothing! Even when the Reverend Secretary helped push through a bill making the Southern Baptist religion the official faith of the United States, liberals accepted it because, they reasoned, the act didn’t outlaw other religions.
“Damn the liberals,” I muttered out loud. “That’s for sure,” replied an anonymous voice from the evening darkness behind me. I froze for a second, then continued walking forward in silence. For an instant I had let down my guard, something I could not do if I hoped to survive. I could speak privately with my fellow prisoners, maybe. But publically, and in front of strangers? Never. Such a lapse could be disastrous in this hostile situation.
As I entered Unit 6-M for my first night, I was glad that I hadn’t blurted out something like, “Damn the conservatives.” That might have elicited a response from a Peacemaker—with a rifle.
Copyright © 2012 J. Fred MacDonald - All Rights Reserved.