on February 25, 2002
Jon Ronson spent a couple years looking for, interviewing and hanging out with people who are viewed by the mainstream as "wackos" or extremists. This book is the result of those years and it is one of the most entertaining and informative books I've read in years.
The subject of the first chapter is Omar Bakri Mohammed, the so-called leader or Islamic Fundamentalists in Britain. After reading the chapter though, you get the feeling that Omar is all talk. He uses Jon for rides and makes him pay for things because he is broke and does not own a car. Conversations between Jon and Omar also prove that Omar isn't nearly as bad as he wants to be.
Later chapters cover Ruby Ridge, the David Koresh incident in Waco, David Icke vs. the ADL and people who believe that a small group of men rule the world (Bilderberg Group.)
Through every chapter, Jon manages to fit in and is able to interview his subjects in a very relaxed manner, thereby allowing them to speak freely with him.
-- The Klu Klux Klan leader who won't allow his Klansmen to use the "N" word.
-- David Icke, who believes that we are descendents of 12 foot tall aliens who now control us through select leaders.
-- A writer for a conspiracy magazine who thinks everyone is following them or hiding something from them.
-- Rachel Weaver, daughter of Randy Weaver (Ruby Ridge), who in great detail tells Jon the story from her point of view. (A sad story, no matter what side you may take)
There are so chapters that don't quite fit in with the rest, but they are interesting anyway. In between laughs, you'll be discover that most extremists are not that different from me or you, they just took it further.
on December 31, 2001
It's rare to come across a book that's original, genuinely important - and very funny too. But Them, a series of interconnected essays by one of the UK's most important alternative journalists, is all these things, and it succeeds not merely because of its unexpected timeliness (Ronson's profile of Omar Bakhri Mohammed, Britain's very own Bin Laden, was actually written four years ago) but because the author, unlike other humorous journalists, gets out and does some first-hand investigation. In Bakhri's case, this extended to engaging in a (beautifully-observed) year long association with the extremist that saw Ronson - a self-proclaimed liberal Jew of no strong religious or political convictions - become the would-be revolutionary's unpaid chauffeur and make frequent visits to his home. The strikingly off-key relationship that developed between the two is tellingly portrayed in deftly-paced vignettes:
'Next morning I sat in Omar's living room while Omar played with his baby daughter.
'"What's your daughter's name?" I asked him.
'"It is a difficult name for you to understand," said Omar.
'"Does it have an English translation?" I asked.
'"Yes," said Omar, "it translates into English as 'The Black Flag of Islam'."
'"Really?" I said. "Your daughter's name is The Black Flag of Islam?"
'"Yes," said Omar.
'"Really?" I said.
'There was a small pause.
'"You see," said Omar, "why our cultures can never integrate?"''
Ronson, indeed, succeeds remarkably well in humanising the men (and they are, with only one exception, men) he writes about, and his book, though undoubtedly hilarious, is never played principally for laughs. Instead, its humour emerges from character and situation, and it is all the more effective for it.
Ronson casts his net wide, visiting not only the US (setting for half the chapters in the book), but West Africa, Eastern Europe, Canada and Portugal too. His subjects include KKK leader Thom Robb, notorious new-age extremist David Icke (who believes that Queen Elizabeth is really a creature not dissimilar to one of the villains in 80s teleseries 'V' ), Gail Gans of New York's Anti Defamation League, and right-wing talk show host Alex Jones. Nor was his quest without danger - he finds himself tailed by sinister secret service men in the Algarve and - most spectacularly - unmasked as a Jew in the middle of a Jihad training camp. All in all, therefore, Them turns out to be an eye opening and admirable introduction to the wilder shores of contemporary belief.
There are flaws - some of the chapters fit better into the developing narrative than others (Ronson's portraits of Ian Paisley and Mr Ru Ru, an enigmatic Saudi Arabian encountered bidding at auction for Nicolai Ceaucescu's shoes, both seem out of place), and there are few laughs to be had in 'Running Through Cornfields', a compassionate profile of Rachel Weaver, one of the survivors of the siege of Ruby Ridge (an event that remains all but unknown in the UK, but which turns out to be pivotal to the development of the principal themes of this book). Most significantly, perhaps, Ronson's decision to place the strange story of the Bilderburg group front and centre in his narrative jars somewhat; by insisting that all the people he enountered share a common belief in the idea that this cabal of Western politicians secretly controls the world, the author surely suggests that the world's extremists share more, in terms of common ideology, than they really do. (The emphasis placed on Bilderburg, in fact, has more to do with the fundamental requirements of the book's narrative than it does with many extremists true ideologies.)
But these are minor quibbles when set against the reach, ambition and insight on offer in this book. Four stars for the content, and an extra one for the sheer vivacity of the writing on display.
With an open mind and some charming naivete, Ronson went on an expedition to find not only those who obsess about the secret masters of the world but, just maybe, the masters themselves.
Like others who have actually done honest fieldwork amongst these political exotica, Ronson meets a lot of kind, polite, and charming people -- as long as you happen to be the right race or creed. Many are reasonable and tolerant too -- at least when they don't have any power to realize their visions.
From the vast zoo of modern conspiracy theory, Ronson mostly concentrates on the ZOG/Bilderberg/Trilateralist/Satanist clade which is usually associated with the right wing. But his years of research turn up some surprises.
In pre-September 11th London, Ronson hangs out with Omar Bakri, self-described as Osama bin Laden's man in London. In America, we meet Thom Robb, Grand Wizard of some Klan sect in a world rife with internecine sniping, egomaniacs, and FBI informers. His claim to fame? He wants his disciples to follow his self-help program -- oh, and stop using the "N-word". With Jim Tucker, reporter for the notorious and defunct _Spotlight_ newspaper, he attempts to infiltrate the annual meeting of the legendary Bilderberg Group. Then there's ex-British sportscaster David Icke who insists that, when he talks about a conspiracy of world ruling reptilian space alien Illuminati, he really means space aliens and not Jews.
And Ronson doesn't find extremism just among the conspiracy mongerers. The infamous actions of the U.S. government at Ruby Ridge are recounted as well as the press' general inability to see a distinction important to the Weavers and their supporters -- racial separatism as opposed to racial supremacy. The Anti-Defamation League comes across as far too ready to see anti-Semitism and pass its faulty judgements to a gullible media. Canadian activists try to stop Icke from public speaking -- all in the name of racial tolerance. And when Ronson actually interviews a founding member, Denis Healey, of the Bilderbergs on their history and activities, suspicions are not entirely allayed.
Ronson makes few outright comments and judgements on his subjects, provides no grand summing up of his findings and that may be the book's biggest flaw. The closest he gets is the concluding statement that nobody really controls anything. The book is more reportage than analysis. But that reporting is done with a sharp eye for the humorous and sinister. Bakri tells of what a future Islamic London will be like -- and is chided at a meeting of fellow jihadists about his inept fishing. Who is the man following Tucker and Ronson in Portugal during the Bilderberg meeting? Hollywood, a claimed nexus of the Grand Jewish Conspiracy, comes off as petty, apolitical, and a place of insincere boutique faith as Ronson follows Tony Kaye, director of American History X, around. Klansmen argue the merits of silk or cotton robes. Ronson infiltrates the Bohemian Grove -- attended by U. S. presidents and vice-presidents -- and finds a rather silly, decades old frat boy ritual that just doesn't have the same drawing power it used to among the up-and-coming junior world ruler set. And more than once, Ronson, a Jew, finds himself guiltily associating with anti-Semites.
To be sure, some of the books chapters seem extraneous. An auction of Nicolae Ceausescu's relics adds nothing. Neither does a chapter on Ian Paisley taken from an early newspaper article.
Ronson's book reminded me of Phillip Finch's God Guts And Guns which went among the American radical right and the works of Laird Wilcox about American political extremists. Its humor and willingness to consider outre theories like David Icke's reminded me of Alex Heard's Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels In End-Time America, the work of Ronson's fellow Englishman Louis Theroux, and the pages of _The Fortean Times_.
Anybody interested in strange beliefs, conspiracy theories, or political extremism should read this book.
on June 4, 2011
I became a Jon Ronson fan with The Men Who Stare at Goats, more so when he wrote The Psychopath Test, and with THEM --a loyal fan dying for the next book he writes. THEM takes us on a journey through the outskirts of our society where the separatists, militias, and Ku Klux Klan members exist and thrive. He introduces us to sides of noteworthy people we only hear about, and sets out on a mission to find the secret Bilderberg Group who secretly controls everything in the world.
The book is jam packed with facts and stories that will inform you, make you wonder, and will make you laugh hard enough to choke. Ronson's delivery is remarkably the-guy-next-door and he speaks with you as to take you into his confidence where he reveals his real thoughts, hilarious as they are. This book is a good and very fast read, and one you will feel a bit of sadness for as it ends; readers want the entertainment to continue! This is the sort of man you could sit and speak with for hours and never find a boring moment if his books are any indication. Buy this book! (And read it!)
Jon Ronson's Amazon page is amazon.com/Jon-Ronson/e/B001H6KH4U/ref=sr_tc_img_2?qid=1307218796&sr=1-2-ent
In this clever spin through weirdo land, nice Jewish Brit humor journalist Jon Ronson uses his modest charm to ingratiate himself into the lives of some pathetic characters so that he might write about them. The underlying theme is something like the benign madness of conspiracy theorists.
The first "them" is Omar Bakri Mohammed, "The Semi-Detached Ayatollah," who billed himself as Osama bin Laden's man in the U.K. He comes off looking like a charmingly pathetic, on the dole, sweet old man who just happens to have this rude habit of declaring jihads on non-Muslim people.
Next Ronson takes us to "Ruby Ridge" Idaho so we can meet the gun-totin' separatists and their Aryan Nation buddies. They come across as the victims of an FBI riot. Next we meet Big Jim Tucker who writes for a daffy underground journal called The Spotlight that is fascinated with "The Secret Rulers of the World," sometimes known as the Bilderbergers. Ronson gets way into the Bilderbergers, who allegedly include such Illuminati as Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, Umberto Agnelli, the Rothchilds, etc., chasing after them to Portugal and northern California, where he eavesdrops on their "bizarre pagan owl ritual," ultimately seeing their antics as the high jinks of good old college boys who haven't totally grown up.
There's a romp through the jungle (while eating rat) with Dr. Ian Paisley, the anti-Papist from Ireland who comes across as a stern preacher man maniacally spreading God's word to the ignorant masses. Ronson also has some fun with David Icke, who is accused of being anti-Semitic, but is really anti-lizard. After some personal involvement, Ronson finds that Icke is just a guy who sincerely believes that the New World Order is controlled by the likes of George and George W. Bush, the Queen Mother, Al Gore, Kris Kristofferson, etc., who are 12-foot lizards that have cross-bred with humans.
In the middle chapters there are encounters with the Klu Klux Klan, two versions. There's Jeff Berry, Imperial Wizard of the American Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, who behaves like your sensible Klansman, hating everybody who's not white and Christian; and then there's Thom Robb, Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, who doesn't truck with using the "n-word" and kisses black babies as he tries to nouveau-spin the Klan's image. Ronson also visits Tony Kaye, a Hollywood director whose limo has "JEWISH" as a vanity plate. Ronson makes him look blindly self-centered while recalling that "The $50,000 distribution costs of Birth of a Nation (1915) [a film making the KKK look good] were put up...by the twenty-eight-year-old movie novice Louis B. Mayer." Ronson adds, "So Jewish Hollywood was funded, in part, by the heroic positive images of the Klansmen in Birth of a Nation." He also checks in with the Anti-Defamation League in New York and makes them look a little on the prejudicial side since they continue to insist that "lizards" is a code word for "Jews."
There is definitely something to be said for taking the edge off the horror of hate-mongers by turning them into objects of humor. Ronson is clever and he is funny. There's a nice running irony throughout because he is Jewish. The fact that he was able to befriend people who hate Jews is to his credit. What Ronson seems to be saying is that laughter is a good defense against hate, something like "laughter is the best medicine," and I'm sure that's true to some extent. I can't imagine however that Osama bin Laden, for example, has much of a sense of humor.
An interesting sideline here is the realization that newspapers headlines and CNN sound bytes fail to paint a realistic picture of what extremists are like. Ronson, within the limits of his intent, does that. He makes them human, and in that way partially disarms them, recalling to my mind the old saying, "No man is a hero to his valet." Maybe for his next gig, Ronson could find and visit bin Laden's four wives and record their bickering and their (inevitably) less than heroic apprehension of the jihad warrior. I'm sure it would make for some good laughs.
on June 20, 2003
Camp-Jihad is but one of the destinations that Jon Ronson visits in his quest to see the world through the eyes of the agitated fringe -- to look at "our world" by moving into theirs, standing alongside "them while they glared back at us." And, exactly, who are they doing the glaring? There is Omar Bakri Mohammed, waging his own "holy war" against Britain, urging a fatwa on Rushdie, and releasing statements on behalf of Osama bin Laden; David Ickes, who may or may not be referring to Jews when he talks about lizards, but who clearly does attract anti-semitic followers; Thom Robb, trying to create his version of a "politically correct," 21st century Klan; Dr. Ian Paisley, screaming in Ronson's ears that "Germany is calling"; Mr. Ru Ru, disappointed at the quality of Ceausecu's goods on auction, but buying them anyway to make Romanians happy....; and so on. Each of the "families" Ronson visits are, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, weird for reasons unique to them, but all are connected by their fear, hatred and obsession with the coming "New World Order," represented by the "Bilderberg group," that select cluster of global elites allegedly conspiring to establish a world mega-state. Jon Ronson's guided tour of some of society's more eccentric sects makes for addictive reading. Them is, with the exception of a few parts (the interviews on Randy Weaver's death are especially disconcerting), a book as entertaining as it is informative. Read Them. Trust me, they're reading about you....
on March 24, 2002
"Them" is pretty well written, and moves at a good pace, but too often just skims along the surface of the interesting groups that the author discovers.
I give Ronson a lot of credit for his work -- spending time seeking out, then "shadowing" these groups is no easy effort. He's obviously a personable and persuasive guy in order to accomplish these objectives.
But this book feels like a series of magazine articles stitched together. Not enough depth, too much "I wonder if they trust me, the jew, the journalist, the white guy". He either didn't have as much access as he'd like us to believe, and is thus reduced to platitudes, or he's holding back on the "in depth" material for another volume.
All in all, a good read. But like fast food, you don't come away totally pleased and full. If you'd looking for the perspective of a social scientist, don't bother. But if you like the 20/20 and Dateline NBC style of coverage you'll love "Them".
on September 16, 2004
This is a humorous account of Ronson's several years spent with various extremist groups, from Islamic radicals to the KKK. Ronson's a British journalist, and he plays it so straight that at times I couldn't tell if he was making fun of a person, agreeing with them, or just getting out of the way to let them hang themselves. I was expecting more laughs from this book. There were some hilarious parts, particularly when the logistics of extremism come into play-At a cross burning, KKK novices wonder if they should douse the cross, then raise it, or raise it then douse it? And an Islamic Fundamentalist hatches a plot to release thousands of mice into the U.N. But for the most part, it was just a well-written account of the personal side of extremism. There's a pretty moving bit about the standoff and subsequent shooting of a mother and her son by the FBI at Ruby Ridge.
It was interesting to see the politics of extremism, how people whose views aren't that radical are lumped in with other radicals and labeled extremist by the media in an effort to sensationalize and polarize. It was also interesting how Ronson thematically tied the book together-all these extremists, from different parts of the world, all believe in a ruling elite that pulls the strings that make things happen. They don't necessarily agree on who this elite is-politicians, Jews, or a race of 12-foot lizard people (seriously)-but they agree that these secret rulers exist. I've got to hand it to Ronson-he's got some balls. Not only does he, a Jew, hang out with Muslim extremists and the KKK, he infiltrates a neo-nazi skinhead group and sneaks into a secret ceremony of the world's elite in which they hold a mock sacrifice and dance around in druidic robes. This last part is so bizarre but is delivered in such a straight way that I began to question if the whole book wasn't a hoax. A sort of mockumentary. But it's not.
on February 12, 2002
I really enjoyed this book. It was a light, easy read and it was quite funny. I like Jon Ronson and I admire him for his courage.
I'm not sure how much of the book I believe. I think that in a general sense it is probably all true-to-life but some of the specifics must have been embellished, if only to make them funnier. The occasional lack of believability doesn't make the book less enjoyable.
Mr. Ronson showed a great deal of the human side of the extremists he studied. His exploration of the events behind the Ruby Ridge incident was particularly poignant.
I'd like to see a followup story that describes the reactions of the people he interviewed for this book at having their stories published, having fun poked at them, etc. I wonder which of them (if any) were flattered/angry/pleased, etc. by it.
This book was one of my favorite reads of the winter.
British journalist Ronson has written a witty and fast-reading "lite" tour inside the world of various political and ideological extremists. While the emphasis is very much on individuals rather than organized groups, he takes us into lions' dens from Richard Butler's White Power compound in Idaho to an Islamic fundamentalist "training camp" in rural England, to the legendary (and sophomoric) annual Bohemian Grove gathering in Northern California. Some of the chapters seem shoehorned into the overall theme, such as the brief one where he witnesses a mysterious "Mr. Ru RU" buying up the remnants of the Ceaucescu's personal effects at an auction in Romania. Another rather weak chapter is that in which he hangs out with weirdo director Tony Kaye ("American History X") for a day and sort of halfheartedly explores the notion that Jews control Hollywood.
More interesting are his investigations of the "Bilderberg Group"-a sort of loose affiliation of powerful politicians and financiers who meet in secret (or private, depending on your point of view) once a year. I'd actually never heard of them before, but they seem to be a New World Order version of the legendary Trilateral Commission. Also interesting are his brief encounters with Dr. Ian Paisley, and footballer turned believer in alien lizards David Icke. These are entertaining but have the flaw of being little more than expanded magazine articles.
The strongest (and timeliest) parts are his longtime relationship with the self-described "Bin Laden's man in London", who is portrayed as nothing so much as a ridiculous buffoon- albeit an inflammatory one. Another bit of buffoonery occurs when he hangs out with the new PC leader of the KKK, his archival, and some rabid right-wing radio guys. However, amidst all the chuckling at the idiosyncrasies of these guys, there are two very poignant pieces when Ronson meets up with Randy Weaver and his eighteen-year-old daughter some ten years after the "Siege of Ruby Ridge". These will have Americans seething at the arrogance and ineptitude of government law officers run amok. By the end of the book, the reader is unlikely to have learned a great deal, but it does provide a few humorous glimpses into the mindsets of those on the fringes.