Jon Ronson is an adventurous journalist with a particular interest in fringe politics and science. Although he has a very light-hearted and gentle tone, he has through his career gained access to some hard to reach individuals and groups, and uncovered some remarkable truths. I first became aware of him fairly recently, when his book The Psychopath Test was recommended to me. Then I managed to see him giving a live talk last month which was outstanding, and bought a couple of his older books while I was there. ‘Them: Adventures with Extremists’ was first published in 2001, but is still very (if not more) relevant now 15 years later.
The book is a compilation of anecdotal interviews with conspiracy theorists and members of extreme political groups, which Ronson was able to conduct during his search for ‘the secret room’ where the leaders of the world supposedly congregated to plot our future. Everyone he meets seems to have a different idea of who ‘they’ – the enemies and oppressors – actually are, and how they go about their ‘evil’ business. For a topic taken in utter seriousness by most, it is delivered in such an entertaining and clear cut way that it really makes a pleasurable, but nonetheless thought-provoking, read.
Ronson spends time with Islamic extremist Omar Bakri, members of the radically different factions of the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, and conspiracy theorists such as David Icke, giving a humanistic view and interpretation throughout. He doesn’t allow their ideas to define them; he is open and curious enough to get to know each as an individual, and to try his best to understand the assumptions their world views are based upon.
The reader is faced with some difficult scenarios along the way, which pose us inevitable questions about personal values. For example at one point Ronson (Jewish by upbringing and descent) is sitting in an unattended, unlocked car with thousands of pounds raised by Omar Bakri to fund the war against Israel. Put yourself in that situation: you have opportunity to prevent the money from reaching a cause you believe is fundamentally wrong. But is the potential immediate threat to your person a more pressing factor in deciding what to do? What is the stronger instinct, morality or self preservation?
There is a telling of the events of Ruby Ridge and Waco in the US, from the perspective of the Weaver family torn apart by the disproportionate actions of armed Marshals. Ronson cleverly leaves us to make our own decision as to whether the fault lies with a ‘new world order’ throwing its weight around, or a clashing of egos that got out of hand. It also leads nicely into a piece exploring the consequences of being labelled a ‘white supremacist’ or ‘anti-semite’, and the way in which the media uses such information to exaggerate and exploit.
Two of the most poignant adventures in the book are centred around Ronson trying to catch The Bilderberg Group ‘in the act’. In one of these, he accompanies Spotlight journalist Jim Tucker to a 5 star hotel in Portugal where ‘the group that rule the world’ were supposedly due to meet. An amusing sequence of events ensues, including them being followed by men in dark glasses and being given sinister messages by strangers at the poolside, yet they still come out with some leads that prove fruitful later on. The second is a visit to Bohemian Grove with radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, to witness the reportedly satanic owl burning ritual carried out annually by some of the most powerful people in the world. Once again, this adventure is written up with a lot of humour and had me laughing out loud, but it also does arguably contain some definitive information on what the gathering is all about.
Here is one of my personal favourite quotes from the book by one of the people interviewed:
‘Let’s face it, nobody rules the world anymore. The markets rule the world. Maybe that’s why your conspiracy theorists make up all those crazy things. Because the truth is so much more frightening. Nobody rules the world. Nobody controls anything.’
In summary, this is an excellent and entertaining read for anyone with an interest in the role of extreme political and religious views on modern society. It is balanced and non committal in terms of the conclusions drawn, but still provides some very unique insights. I have no real criticism to give on this book: it is scored as 8 purely on the level of its impact. I am looking forward to reading more from Jon Ronson in the near future.