A look at peculiar institutions, oddball literary experiments, and reckless rugged individualists. A celebration of American non-conformity.
Them: Adventures with Extremists
By Jon Ronson
Simon and Schuster (2002)
Review by Karl Wolff
Have you heard of the Bilderbergs? They are instrumental in the creation of the New World Order. They meet in luxurious hotels, are highly secretive, and secretly control the world. They may be Jews, Satanists, or Freemasons. Or any combination thereof. Taking this premise, Jon Ronson decided to investigate. His book of gonzo journalism, Them: Adventures with Extremists explores the hot-house world of conspiracy theories, global cabals, and anti-Semitism.
Ronson is a Welsh journalist who has written other noteworthy books like The Men Who Stare At Goats and You Have Been Publicly Shamed. He delves into the weird and the odd. In Them he interviews a Muslim fundamentalist in London, a PR-savvy Klansman, Dr. Ian Paisley, David Icke, Alex Jones, and Randy Weaver's daughter. He also talks to the Anti-Defamation League and the director of American History X, a Hollywood producer with the vanity plate that says JEW1SH.
Despite being written over a decade ago, it remains a darkly humorous take on racism, anti-Semitism, and terrorism. The comical tone is what elevates Them from a disposable piffle to the apex of journalistic art. Them is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas during the heyday of the '90s militia movement. Unlike Hunter S. Thompson's drug-addled wannabe Hemingway figure, Ronson's persona is more passive and empathetic. Many passages read like they are from the Jon Stewart-era Daily Show. Here Ronson is talking to Muslim fundamentalist Omar Bakri Mohammed:
"This is so terrible," he [Omar] said. "The police say they may deport me. Why are people linking me with bin Laden? I do not know the man. I have never met him. Why do people say I am bin Laden's man in Great Britain?"
"Because you have been calling yourself bin Laden's man in Great Britain for years," I said.
Ronson's genius comes in how he humanizes figures normally prone to caricature, including David Icke. He empathizes with Icke's personal and professional struggles, teasing out issues of free speech and coded racism. Is Icke using code to assert an anti-Semitic message or does he really believe the Earth is controlled by twelve-foot lizards?
Another figure, the controversial preacher and Ulster unionist Dr. Ian Paisley, comes across as gruff, avuncular, and beyond reproach. Paisley espouses a fiercely Protestant vision while Ronson follows him around Cameroon. Despite Paisley's conviction that the European Union is an institution infiltrated and controlled by The Vatican, the man himself is not a moral hypocrite. He contrasts Paisley against the toxic shysters Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.
What these travels lead to is Ronson's attempts to infiltrate a Bilderberg meeting in Portugal and the Bohemian Grove retreat in northern California. The clandestine journey into the belly of the beast ends up rather anticlimactic. Unlike the claims of Icke, Alex Jones, the KKK, and Muslim fundamentalist terrorists, the Bohemian Grove meeting was entertaining, but not sinister. Ronson concludes that it is a means for world leaders to blow off steam and get in touch with their innate childishness. When he talks to an attendee of the Bilderberg group, the attendee said the Bilderberg group came about as a reaction to irrational nationalism. While deals are probably made, that is a far cry from an inner cabal controlling the entire planet from a darkened room. Ronson realizes something far more dangerous.
"Let's face it," my Deep Throat had said to me. "Nobody rules the world anymore. The markets rule the world. Maybe that's why conspiracy theorists make up all those crazy things. Because the truth is so much more frightening. Nobody rules the world. Nobody controls anything."
Well, that's comforting.
Coming next: Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery by Martin Gardner