I’ve returned from the land of no internet connection (well, at least the zone I was in). As usual, I didn’t do a lot of reading, so you get another retro review.
I am working on new stuff.
Jon Ronson, of course, went on to a successful career and a movie adaptation — The Men Who Stare at Goats.
A retro review from October 23, 2003.
Review: Them: Adventures with Extremists, Jon Ronson, 2001.
With an open mind and some charming naivete, Ronson went on an expedition to find not only those who obsess about the secret masters of the world but, just maybe, the masters themselves.
Like others who have actually done honest fieldwork amongst these political exotica, Ronson meets a lot of kind, polite, and charming people — as long as you happen to be the right race or creed. Many are reasonable and tolerant too — at least when they don’t have any power to realize their visions.
From the vast zoo of modern conspiracy theory, Ronson mostly concentrates on the ZOG/Bilderberg/Trilateralist/Satanist clade which is usually associated with the right wing. But his years of research turn up some surprises.
In pre-September 11th London, Ronson hangs out with Omar Bakri, self-described as Osama bin Laden’s man in London. In America, we meet Thom Robb, Grand Wizard of some Klan sect in a world rife with internecine sniping, egomaniacs, and FBI informers. His claim to fame? He wants his disciples to follow his self-help program — oh, and stop using the “N-word”. With Jim Tucker, reporter for the notorious and defunct Spotlight newspaper, he attempts to infiltrate the annual meeting of the legendary Bilderberg Group. Then there’s ex-British sportscaster David Icke who insists that, when he talks about a conspiracy of world ruling reptilian space alien Illuminati, he really means space aliens and not Jews.
And Ronson doesn’t find extremism just among the conspiracy mongerers. The infamous actions of the U.S. government at Ruby Ridge are recounted as well as the press’ general inability to see a distinction important to the Weavers and their supporters — racial separatism as opposed to racial supremacy. The Anti-Defamation League comes across as far too ready to see anti-Semitism and pass its faulty judgements to a gullible media. Canadian activists try to stop Icke from public speaking — all in the name of racial tolerance. And when Ronson actually interviews a founding member, Denis Healey, of the Bilderbergs on their history and activities, suspicions are not entirely allayed.
Ronson makes few outright comments and judgements on his subjects, provides no grand summing up of his findings and that may be the book’s biggest flaw. The closest he gets is the concluding statement that nobody really controls anything. The book is more reportage than analysis. But that reporting is done with a sharp eye for the humorous and sinister. Bakri tells of what a future Islamic London will be like — and is chided at a meeting of fellow jihadists about his inept fishing. Who is the man following Tucker and Ronson in Portugal during the Bilderberg meeting? Hollywood, a claimed nexus of the Grand Jewish Conspiracy, comes off as petty, apolitical, and a place of insincere boutique faith as Ronson follows Tony Kaye, director of American History X, around. Klansmen argue the merits of silk or cotton robes. Ronson infiltrates the Bohemian Grove — attended by U. S. presidents and vice-presidents — and finds a rather silly, decades old frat boy ritual that just doesn’t have the same drawing power it used to among the up-and-coming junior world ruler set. And more than once, Ronson, a Jew, finds himself guiltily associating with anti-Semites.
To be sure, some of the books chapters seem extraneous. An auction of Nicolae Ceausescu’s relics adds nothing. Neither does a chapter on Ian Paisley taken from an early newspaper article.
Ronson’s book reminded me of Phillip Finch’s God Guts And Guns which went among the American radical right and the works of Laird Wilcox about American political extremists. Its humor and willingness to consider outre theories like David Icke’s reminded me of Alex Heard’s Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels In End-Time America, the work of Ronson’s fellow Englishman Louis Theroux, and the pages of The Fortean Times.
Anybody interested in strange beliefs, conspiracy theories, or political extremism should read this book.