Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

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[REVIEW] Jon Ronson, Them

The "extremists" referred to in the title of Jon Ronson's book Them: Adventures With Extremists are the various individuals, groups, religious sects, and political movements which adhere to conspiratorial worldviews. Sometimes it's the Jews; sometimes it's the electronic media; sometimes it's the Catholic Church and the European Union; quite frequently it's the Bilderburgers. Always it's some sort of secret network that runs the world, into the ground more often than not, for some illicit and likely dangerous end.

Ronson is the perfect sort of author for this book. He has an inexhaustible sense of humour; he feels empathy even for the most repulsive people; he's unobtrusively skeptical. I was rather surprised to read about his mostly pleasant experiences with Omar Bakri Mohammed and that man's tragicomic efforts to organize an Islamic Republic of Britain. Ronson goes on to become acquainted with a remarkable number of people: the survivors of the Ruby Ridge incident; Ian Paisley making a missionary excursion to Cameroon; meeting with the leaders of rival factions of the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas; accompanying David Icke on a publicity tour in Vancouver. Ronson is polite to these people, almost excessively kind, and authentically sympathetic. He doesn't have to confront his subjects with their mistaken perceptions or their moral shortsightedness or their simple incompetence. He lets them demonstrate this himself.

Them's genius is that it isn't a simple debunking of conspiracy theories. It's more skeptical than that. Ronson isn't comfortable with glib dismissals of conspiracies or claims of grand malfeasance, as his sympathetic treatment of the unnecessary victims of Ruby Ridge demonstrates. More interestingly, perhaps, is Ronson's success in showing how most of the people he interviews--Muslim fundamentalists, American racial fundamentalists, cracked former British sports commentators--believe in the Bilderbergers and their quiet world hegemony. As Jonathan Duffy wrote for BBC Online back in June 2004, the discussion forum founded as a place for powerful political and economic figures to talk about world problems is commonly identified as a secret world government. It is true that the Bilderbergers have achieved one remarkable achievement, if you credit one of Ronson's anonymous sources.

I remember when I invited Margaret Thatcher back in '75. She wasn't worldly. She'd probably never even been to America. Well, she was there for the first two days and didn't say a thing. People started grumbling. A senator came up to me on the Friday night, Senator Mathias of Maryland. He said, 'This lady you invited, she hasn't said a word. You really ought to say something to her.' So I had a quiet word with her at dinner. She was embarrassed. Well, she obviously thought about it overnight because the next day she suddenly stood up and launched into a three-minute Thatcher special. I can't remember the topic, but you can imagine. The room was stunned. Here's something for your conspiracy theorists. As a result of that speech, David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger and the other Americans fell in love with her. They brought her over to America, took her around in limousines, and introduced her to everyone (291-292).

Did Thatcher's political career get a jump start thanks to the Bilderbergers? Quite possibly. Was this the result of a conspiracy? No. I recognize what this anonymous person did for Thatcher, because I've been reading a fair number of books describing how to do this sort of thing, and I've been trying to work up the nerve to do more of this. What did this person do? He wasn't leading a conspiracy. He was helping Thatcher network. Even though there are some differences between the Toronto job market and world politics, I don't think that the change in scale is enough to justify a wholesale reclassification.

There are exceptions, of course. I think particularly of the revelations surrounding Italy's Propaganda Due, which was linked to the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano in 1982 and the subsequent mysterious death of its president Roberto Calvi, shortly after a series of terrorist outrages including the assassination of Aldo Moro and the 1980 bombing of a Bologna train station. Sometimes there are real conspiracies about. (Maybe.) But only sometimes. Arthur Lyons was right to point out in his Satan Wants You that vast conspiracies with vaster plans aren't very cohesive by their very nature. Are maniacs conspiring together to achieve an unspeakable world dominion really going to have that much impulse control?

Conspiracies, Ronson concludes, are attempts to simplify overly complex realities, to try to explain those complex patterns of society which are likely beyond explanation. Conspiracies seek to essentialize people and groups, to impose clear and restrictive definitions on fuzzy objects. He encountered this himself in a conversation that he had with Omar Bakri.

"You are ashamed to be a Jew?" said Omar. "You deny it?"

"No," I said.

"I am not offended that you are a Jew," said Omar. "We are all Semites. If you were Israeli, if you were Zionist, that is a different matter. But what offends me is that you hide it. You assimilate. That you have no pride.

"I am proud," I said, unconvincingly.

Of course, Omar was right. I should have told him.

"Assimilation," tutted Omar. "Integration. That is the worst thing of all. Be a Jew!" (60-61).

Bakri seems to have liked Ronson as an individual, if one goes by Them. Bakri also seems to have wanted to be able to put Ronson in a tight little non-threatening category, something suitable for a simpler time, an epoch before (or, hopefully, after) the great threatening Them intruded. I can't help but be reminded of some lines from Tony Kushner's great flawed play Angels in America.

This is just you [. . .] afraid of what's coming, afraid of time. But see that's just not how it goes, the world doesn't spin backwards. Listen to the world, to how fast it goes.

That's [. . .] the sound of energy, the sound of time. Even if you're hurting, it can't go back.
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