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#23 – Them

June 28, 2007

every -ist and every -ism thrown my way to stayJon Ronson’s gift as a journalist, if I can make claims like this having only read one book by him, is an incredible ability to make his interview subjects relatable, with unsurpassed wit and sincerity. The characters in Them: Adventures With Extremists are almost exclusively the people who are generally written off as raving lunatics, one-note extremists. In fact, his criteria for including them in this book was that they have been referred to as “extremists” by others. And yet, his portrait of all of them is an honest, unbiased look at all of them as people, not as philosophies. This makes for a very unique take on a generally unexplored topic.

The one theory that unifies all of Ronson’s extremists, is that they believe the world is controlled by a secret society operating behind closed doors – The New World Order, The Illuminati, The Bilderberg Group, whatever you want to call them. (I know linking to Wikipedia for research purposes is not terribly academic, but in this case, it’s way more credible than most of the material available online about these groups.) By refusing to immediately dismiss these claims and getting close to the conspiracy theorists behind them, Ronson starts to assemble a disturbingly cohesive portrait of this group – how could so many diverse, often opposed groups make up the same theories, after all? While Them is on the surface a collection of interviews, there’s a definite pattern to Ronson’s movements, almost like he’s following leads. By the time he has been followed through Portugal by a man in sunglasses, met with several Bilderberg alumni anonymously, and snuck into an owl-burning ceremony called the “Cremation of Care”, this feels more like you’re watching a really great political suspense movie then reading a journalistic book on extremism. Which makes it all the more exciting that Edgar “Shaun of the Dead” Wright, Mike “School of Rock” White, and Jack “Jack Black” Black are currently working on an adaptation.

Another fascinating aspect of the book is that more time Jon Ronson spends interviewing these people, the closer he comes to becoming one of them (or if you like, Them.) He spends a lot of time with them, too: he stays with Omar Bakri Mohammed, who declared himself “bin Laden’s man in London”, for almost a year. He, and subsequently you, start to sympathize with them a little bit too much. With the exception of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations (and, entertainingly, American History X director Tony Kaye), Ronson humanizes all of his subjects to a degree that I never would have thought possible, given the subject matter. Them is a fascinating book for this reason. When you start feeling bad for Thom Robb, the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who’s trying to make the Klan media-friendly but can’t get his followers to stop using the N word, you know Ronson’s done something really bizarre here.

Not to say that Them: Adventures With Extremists is all intrigue and racists, though, it’s also flat-out hilarious. Some of Ronson’s dialogue, and the little bits of absurdism he finds in these situations, are so funny it hurts. I can’t think of a more perfect example than the case of David Icke, a former BBC sportscaster who now tours to warn listeners that the world is secretly controlled by giant lizard aliens, taking the form of humans. Icke is loved by fascist groups and despised by equally militant anti-hate groups who believe that “lizard aliens” is right-wing code for Jews, like “international bankers” is in some circles. However, Icke is infuriated by this, constantly insisting to Jon that he is literally referring to twelve foot tall alien lizards. By the end, Ronson is convinced, even if nobody else is: sometimes a lizard is just a lizard. Tremendous comedy, realistic portrayals of political radicals, genuine pathos, and some actually exciting action. This all makes Them: Adventures With Extremists a hell of a good book, and it’s got the potential to make a brilliant movie. Highly recommended.

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