Book Review - Them: Adventures With Extremists by Jon Ronson

I recently listened to the audiobook of Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson, published in 2001. (Pro-tip - cancel Audible, then re-join at half price!) I thought I'd write a review, because it seems like the kind of book the subreddit would enjoy. It's a little dated, having been published in 2001, but it's worth a read if you're at all interested in conspiracies, and it raises issues that we're still grappling with today.

The work is written in the "gonzo journalism" style, with the author, Jon Ronson, as the protagonist. Ronson presents himself as well meaning but naïve figure, the kind of man people can't seem to help but trust (a "peaceful phlegmatic" according to a Ku Klux Klan personality test). He's the kind of person that drives a terrorist around London to help him fundraise for Hamas, discusses public relations and brand recognition with a KKK leader over peach cobbler, and thinks that we should listen to both sides, even if one of those sides is discussing the 20 different types of lizard-men.If you like Jon Ronson as a character, you'll enjoy this book, but if the person I just described sounds insufferable, irritating or condescending, its probably best to give this book a pass.

The Extremists, the Elites, and the Owl Effigies.

It's clear that the book was originally going to be about the people described as "Extremists" - the Islamist Omar Bakri Muhammed, militia types like Randy Weaver and his daughter Rachel, of the Ruby Ridge incident, conspiracists like Alex Jones and David Icke, white supremacists like Tom Robb), Jeff Berry and Richard Butler), and the anti-Catholic Unionist preacher Ian Paisley. They're all affectionately ridiculed in a darkly humous manner, they come across as so endearing that it's always jarring every time Ronson reminds you that other people with similar beliefs occasionally kill people because of them. However, Them isn't a hit piece mocking these people, or even an attempt to understand how people arrive at such bizarre beliefs.

Instead, it reads like a weird piece of investigative journalism, as Ronson focuses on the one claim that all his "Extremists" agree on: a shadowy groups of elites runs the world. The "Extremists" Ronson talks to can't agree if they're Jews, Satanists, Catholics, or just in it for money and power, but as Ronson looks into it you do get the sense that maybe these people are onto something. You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to be interested in what exactly happens at the secretive invitation-only Bilderberg Meetings, or why prominent men gather annually to burn the "Spirit of Care" beneath the gaze of an giant owl statue at the Bohemian Grove. I honestly feel like these are the strongest sections of the book, because it turns out that the rich and powerful are a pretty strange group of people, and it's wild to discover that they really do hold secret meetings to "discuss major issues", sometimes featuring owls. I promise I'm not paranoid, but it seems obvious that the conversations of the rich and powerful in expensive hotels and exclusive clubs really do influence world events. These people will admit to having a Globalist agenda, at least in the sense of being in favour of "sensible global policy", and they are definitely opposed to all the "Extremists" Ronson interviews. I kind of wish Ronson had looked into this more, given us some historical perspective on where all these conspiratorial beliefs come from, but I guess it's much easier to get interviews with "Extremists" than with world leaders and wealthy businessmen. It's just that when you actually look into their secret meetings, they don't really seem that sinister or that powerful. For me this is a real shame, because like Ronson I'm basically on board with their Globalist agenda, and I'd always hoped that somebody actually knew what they were doing.

"Let's face it... nobody rules the world anymore - the markets rule the world. Maybe that's why your conspiracy theorists make up all those crazy things, because the truth is so much more frightening - nobody rules the world. Nobody controls anything."

"Maybe... that's why you Bilderbergers like to hear all the conspiracy theorists, so that you can pretend to yourselves that you do still rule the world."

It's not a sinister cabal, it's just powerful men looking for a chance to relax.

But what even is Antisemitism?

Ronson is Jewish, and almost everyone he talks to is at least allegedly anti-Semitic, so there's a fascinating discussion spanning multiple chapters on what exactly counts as anti-Semitism. It's clear that there is overlap between the beliefs of anti-Semites and the beliefs of conspiracy theorists, and David Ike in particular seems very upset that both anti-racist activists and literal Nazis think that when he says "Lizard" he means "International Jewry".

This is how things now stand: The Anti-Defamation League are searching for code words that have replaced the word Jew, and for the anti-Semites the word "Jew" has become a code word for non-Jews that meet in secret rooms...

Ronson offers no definitive answers, there's only confusion, dog whistles, and uncharitable readings of the other side - see what I mean about the book still seeming relevant in 2021?

The fact that a lot of these conspiracy theories are basically standard Leftist analysis of capitalism with a weird spin is pointed out, directly comparing Ike to Chomsky in a memorable passage:

"There's a very big difference between Noam Chomsky saying it and David Ike saying it."

"Which is?", asked Brian, his eyes narrowing.

"Well firstly", said Sam, "Noam Chomsky is Jewish. Secondly, Noam Chomsky is not mad. Thirdly, Noam Chomsky is in fact an intellectual. And finally, Noam Chomsky is not an anti-Semite."

It seems the real problem with David Ike, expressed by Leftists like Sam and Brian, and rightists like Alex Jones, is that they agree with him enough to find him really embarrassing. They wish that we could keep the class analysis but drop all the weird lizard stuff - the narcissism of small (ideological) differences?

Anyway, if you do want to hear "the truth" about the way the world works, you're probably better off reading Noam Chomsky or Curtis Yarvin than David Ike, you get the same thrill with 100% less lizards.

My Takeaway

Ultimately, the book leaves you with an unsettling question: Who should we be concerned about? Who are "They"? The ridiculous "Extremists" that Ronson interviews? Or the people that really run the world?

The thing about "Extremists" is that they grab media attention by being provocative, transgressive, and occasionally dangerous, but they don't have real power. I'm not saying that Extremists never gain power, but after reading this book I do feel like we need to focus much more on the boring people that actually make things happen, because they're the people that shape world events.