by Jon Ronson.
Jon Ronson’s book is extremely readable and at times highly entertaining. I’m a big fan of Louis Theroux (especially his Weird Weekends and Jon’s amiable deceptively laid-back probing reminds me of Louis. He looks at one “extremist” group at a time. There’s nothing too heavy in the way of analysis. Nothing that taxes a concentration used to three-minute songs, 60-second adverts and sound bites. Don’t get me wrong though – this book is thought provoking. The writing style is (as its author might say himself) urbane.
Who are the “Them” of the title – the extremists? Well, as Jon points out:
“One thing you quickly learn about them is that they really don’t like being called extremists. In fact they often tell me that we are the real extremists. They say that the Western liberal cosmopolitan establishment is itself a fanatical depraved belief system. I like it when they say this because it makes me feel as if I have a belief system.” (Preface)
On the face of it, the tendencies collected together as the other or bad guys don’t seem to have a lot in common – the New Age David Icke followers, the KKK, people trying to expose the Bilderberg Group, Ian Paisley and Muslim fundamentalists amongst them. What they share is a belief that there is a hidden hand directing world affairs – a belief (in one form or another) in a conspiracy. As soon as the word “conspiracy” is mentioned you think “anti-Semite” almost automatically. Are they just all anti-Semites? The answer appears to be – not all, just most. Ian Paisley really does mean the Pope and Catholics not Jews. In the case of David Icke and his Lizards perhaps he means what he says and is a straightforward, straight-talking nut. Jon Ronson seems to lean towards this view. Some of those who worry about Bilderberg are radical and progressive, others are anti-Semites. Jon gives us a passport into some very strange countries. Sometimes you wish he would comment more on what he finds there. In the case of Icke he hangs around with a Canadian group who don’t seem to know much about their subject. The British Green Party under the influence of anti-fascist researcher Larry O’Hara (publisher of Notes from the Borderland) produced most of the arguments and research against Icke. It isn’t mentioned.
Jon interviews a lady from the Anti-Defamation League in the US to find answers as to whether these conspiracy theorists are just anti-Jewish. He states:
“It is no exaggeration to say that the ADL has the last word on who is an anti-Semite and who is not. They are the ones who decide. They inform the rest of the world and the rest of the world, including me, goes along with it.”
I found this a little troubling. Why should anyone have the last word? What happens if they are wrong? What standards of evidence are needed? Do the accused get a chance to answer? What appeal process is there? It seemed like Jon was happy to surrender his judgement to others on this important matter. Why? The ADL also told Jon that people used code words rather than use the words “Jews” directly. I’m sure some do. I’m wary of those looking for coded meanings in the words of others.
Ronson identifies himself as Jewish, although he isn’t religious and has ‘married out’. He doesn’t always inform the extremists he meets of this. Indeed he explicitly denies it several times. The saddest part of the book for me was when Jon was left alone with money collected to attack Israel. He asks: “What the hell was I doing, guarding money that would be used to kill the Jews.”<p.45) Indeed. He considers taking it and thus preventing this evil. He feels he should do. In the end he does nothing. Whilst undoubtedly personable I find this "neither hot nor cold" aspect of Jon off-putting. Are we all just becoming passive consumers of information – voyeurs – unable to participate actively?
Surprisingly, Jon confirmed the existence of a Bilderberg Group meeting in Portugal. He details the attendance of high-ranking politicians and business folk. He tells how he was followed and felt threatened. Does this indicate that the conspiracy theorists might have a point? Or does it just show that interest groups form associations to pursue common ends? Jon interviews a founding member of the Bilderbergers – Dennis Healy. Healy's basic answer to the conspiracy theorists is that no one runs the world but it might be better if someone did! He also agrees that it doesn't harm the career of aspiring world leaders to attend Bilderberg meetings…
Ronson also describes bizarre robed ceremonies in a US forest (Bohemian Grove) attended by VIPs. Frankly I didn't know what to make of this; it read like the description of a bad acid trip. In the end perhaps the interpretation you put upon events like this depends what you believe to begin with. I even wondered if Jon was making it all up.
His final words to us are; "I turned off my computer". What did he mean? The Internet has mainstreamed or at least brought into popular consciousness the whole alternative "conspiracy theory" tendency. By turning off his computer, Jon Ronson was metaphorically trying to "tune into" the "real world" once more , before an alternative view of the world made him question that "reality" any further. Perhaps the reason why he ended things this way was his wry comment: "Thank God I don't believe in the secret rulers of the world. Imagine what the secret rulers of the world might do to me if I did."(p.136) … Or maybe he was just joking?