Now probably isn’t the best time to release a hip, ironic book about how funny extremists can be, what with the ongoing tremors over anthrax, airline safety, and international terror networks manned by ferocious Islamic Jew-haters. Still, it would be a shame if Jon Ronson’s Them: Adventures With Extremists gets overlooked just because the national mood has shifted to no-kidding-allowed. There’s hilarious reporting in here, and though Ronson isn’t entirely sure about what to make of it all, he manages to serve up a fair amount of wisdom with the laughs.
Having worked this beat myself, I ask only three things of books about fringe people. First, the writer has to hit the road and put himself eyeball-to-bulging eyeball with his subjects. (Sounds obvious, but academics who theorize about the fringe often prefer to confine their research to the library, where you can’t get hurt or hollered at.) Second, he should serve up solidly reported tales that deftly combine “funny” with “alarming,” because that’s the way it is out there—99 percent of the time, kooks are harmless, even strangely likeable, but there’s always the nerve-tweaking possibility that their silly or offensive rants will translate into serious, violent action. Finally, the writing should advance an idea that’s more nuanced than this all-too-common theme: “These people are weird, I’m here, let’s sneer.”
Ronson does just fine with the first two—his travels in Europe, the U.S., and Africa bring him in close contact with an amazing range of characters, among them Omar Bakri Mohammed (a notorious, Britain-based Islamic fundamentalist who describes himself as Osama bin Laden’s “man in London,” and who has been under close scrutiny since September 11); Rachel Weaver, daughter of Randy Weaver and a survivor of the F.B.I. siege of Ruby Ridge; and David Icke, a former soccer player who’s gained infamy in Britain by insisting that most world leaders are, in fact, 12-foot lizards in disguise.
Ronson trips up on the question of what it all means, possibly because he’s trying too hard to find a coherent narrative thread through a collection of experiences that, by nature, defy coherence. The driving motive is a quest. A British journalist/humorist and documentary filmmaker who is also Jewish, Ronson decided several years ago to travel the world to meet Jew-obsessed Islamic fundamentalists, American neo-Nazis, and so forth—at first, it seems, simply because such people are an easy source of “found” humor in the style of Louis Theroux and Michael Moore. “And this is what I did with them for a while,” he writes in his preface. “But then I found that they had one belief in common: that a tiny elite rules the world from inside a secret room.
“I took it upon myself to try to settle the matter. If there really was a secret room, it would have to be somewhere. And if was somewhere, it could be found.”
Note to Jon: There’s no secret room. Instead there’s a large, permanent underground of groups animated by a stewpot of madcap theories about the Zionist Occupation Government, the New World Order, and shadowy outfits like the Bilderberg Group, which conspiracy theorists see as “a tiny band of insidious and clandestine powermongers [who] meet in a secret room from which they rule the world.”
These alleged cabals are not synonymous—ZOG paranoia has its origins in the anti-Semitic fantasies of the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a purported transcript of a secret 19th-century meeting of Jews plotting to rule the world. The Bilderberg Group is real—it was founded in 1954 by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who named it after a Dutch hotel where the first meeting was held. Bilderberg brings together politicians, economists, journalists, businesspeople—Bill Clinton attended in 1991—and yes, its meetings are secret. But so what? That’s true of most meetings sponsored by private organizations, from country clubs to the Shriners. Bilderberg is basically one of those big-think organizations wherein an elite (some of them Jews, many not) gather to bloviate about globalism, the economy, and politics; it bears more resemblance to Davos than ZOG. One oddity of Them is that Ronson, having settled on the quest theme, spends most of his questing time on the trail of Bilderberg types, as if sneaking behind their curtains were the same thing as finding ZOG’s “secret room.”
Oh, well. The good news is that some of these quests are brilliantly funny. Ronson spends time with Thom Robb, a Ku Klux Klan leader who’s determined to force an image makeover on his racist colleagues by banning the N-word and getting them to submit to a personality assessment that clusters them under labels like “powerful choleric sanguine” and “peaceful phlegmatic.” He reports on a David Icke speaking tour in Canada, and decides that the P.C. forces lined up against Icke are more ridiculous than the Lizard Man himself. He crashes the annual Bohemian Grove retreat in Northern California—another super-elite gathering that gives conspiracy theorists the heebies—in concert with a Texas-based rant-radio host named Alex Jones, who worries about his fate if he’s caught sneaking in: “I’m not going to end up tied to a pentagram with Henry Kissinger’s fat belly hanging over me while he’s necking with a pentagram, am I?”
With less success, he tries to crash a Bilderberg meeting in Portugal, in a memorable adventure with Big Jim Tucker, a reporter for The Spotlight, the conspiracy-dripping, Washington-based newspaper. Big Jim comes off like a living parody of a private detective; fearing assassination by unseen forces as he searches for the “truth,” he calls a friend every day “just to announce I’m still kicking the can and still hunting the macaroon.”
One of the funniest chapters details Ronson’s long acquaintance with Omar Bakri Mohammed, a simultaneously scary and pathetic guy who wants to overthrow the British government and form an Islamic state. But of course, post-Sept. 11, it’s also one of the unfunniest chapters, and it raises the essential question of whether extremism can, by any stretch, be considered cute anymore. One last quibble with Ronson’s style is that he doesn’t always dig deep enough—with Omar, for example, he doesn’t quote anyone from British law enforcement who can shed light on whether he’s a real menace or a wheel-spinning joke. In a revised preface sent to reviewers after the World Trade Center attack, Ronson talks to Omar after his arrest for making inflammatory statements, calling for a fatwa against President Musharraf of Pakistan for cooperating with the United States.