When should you read this book? Curled up on your window seat, binoculars in hand, monitoring that activities of your shifty, shifty neighbour.
If I met Jon Ronson in person, I feel like I would like him.
Who wouldn’t like a guy who tries to buddy up with some of the strangest groups in the world?
It’s like going to an awkward dinner party attended by the KKK, Islamic fundamentalists, and the mysterious Bilderberg group – who may or may not decide the world’s destiny from a shadowy office.
Much as I can’t really see myself getting into most of the situations Ronson finds himself in while gathering material for ‘Them’, I feel that I would react similarly.
When a KKK leader derides him sulkily for spending more time with a rival klansman than with him, Ronson shifts about awkwardly and apologises.
When he suspects he is being tailed by a man in dark glasses, Ronson tries to wave at him to encourage friendly relations.
In short, Jon Ronson is precisely the least appropriate (and therefore the best) person to send to infiltrate some of the shadiest organisations in the world.
The world before 9/11
In the edition I have, there is a foreword written by Ronson in which he acknowledges that ‘Them’ may be read as a ‘snapshot of the Western world on 10 September 2001’.
The first chapter is about Ronson meeting an Islamic militant here in London who has his own jihadi training camp. I wonder whether he would have written about him with quite so much whimsy if the book had been published a few months later.
Portraying the militant as someone who gives a loud ‘Ha HA!’ after every comment and has completely lost touch with reality does tend to puncture the illusion we have that extremists are all terrifying evil geniuses.
However several of the characters seem to cushion their extreme beliefs with seemingly harmless eccentricity – so that when they do say something awful (e.g. “Well, the fat Jews fucked up,”) its impact is fairly shattering.
All the more so given that, just a few months after the book’s publication, we saw the full effects of ideology-fuelled violence in New York.
Do they seem… ‘funny’ to you?
It is the strange interaction of humour and really quite terrifying people that makes ‘Them’ so great.
Some of the most revealing moments take place when they don’t know Ronson is listening – the plan of several groups was to use him to boost their own PR of ‘tolerance’. But when the mic goes off, we get to hear what’s really going on.
It’s really interesting how extremists can use journalists in this way. I saw another example recently on an old Reggie Yates documentary where a crowd of Russian nationalists invited him to their march so that it would look like they didn’t hate black people on Facebook.
It could be a weakness, given that none of the extremists are exactly ‘acting natural’ around the guy who is writing a book about them.
But it’s very much framed as an ‘everyman meets extremist’ scenario, accepting everything that entails – including the fact that we’re not getting a fly-on-the-wall view of what’s happening.
For this reason, I’d say it’s more in the ‘entertainment’ category than it is in the ‘ground-breaking investigative journalism’ category.
Lizard, or not lizard?
I would like to share an excerpt which will give you a flavour of the book better than I can.
This chapter discusses David Icke, who is touring the world media with his message that major world leaders are actually nefarious lizard people. Some have interpreted this as a codeword for Judaism, so his supporters discuss how to deal with this negative PR:
Henrick argued the coalition needed to understand that David Icke’s lizard claims were ‘politically relevant’ (the lizards being the hidden hand behind corporate globalisation) and that they had a ‘factual core’ (there was much talk here of archeological evidence linking ancient cultures with reptilian invaders).
Brian, however, wanted to keep the lizards out of it all together.
‘I mean it,’ said Brian, severely. ‘Don’t mention the lizards. The lizards just confuse things. Jon?’
‘The lizards muddy the waters,’ I agreed.
Thoroughly recommended.Next up: ‘Blood Meridian’ by Cormac McCarthy