Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1987
The template for this work of creative nonfiction was set in the 1960’s and 1970’s by the original “gonzo” journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson’s achievement (some detest his work) was to recognize that the process of getting the story was often more interesting than the story itself. Thus, in The Hell’s Angels (1966), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), The Great Shark Hunt (1979), and many other works, Thompson creates the “Hunter S. Thompson” persona, a bad-boy kamikazi journalist: drug-eater, globe-trotter, gun- lover, alcoholic crazy. For many, Thompson is a “twisted” latter-day Holden Caulfield, evoker of a sensibility and Zeitgeist appropriate to a brutal, corporatized, big-government world. That Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip immortalized this character in the person of “Uncle Duke” only deepened the gonzo mentality in a new generation.
In Jon Ronson’s case, the object of investigation is not horse racing, Harley-Davidson rollers, Big Sur scenes of ecstasy and New Age philosophy, professional football, Haight-Ashbury, corrupt banana republics, or LSD theologians. In many ways he stalks the cultural opposites of these: preachers, mullahs, and utopians who call for an Islamic Britain, a Christian America, a white civilization, or a society free from the control of globalists, the United Nations, and the Elders of Zion. Purification and repristinization are the themes here. So that readers will not have to do this themselves, Ronson throws himself into situations where the most extreme extremists operate. While he finds a great many scary things, on the whole his “infiltration” of such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, Al Muhajiroun (a British jihad group), Aryan Nations, and Ian Paisley’s organization in Northern Ireland produces an exposé of their comic and absurd sides. Though some of the book appeared first as articles in The Guardian Weekend Magazine, Them has a distinct plot line, centering on Ronson’s picaresque journey to a modern heart-of-dark- green-ness, the site of the Bilderberg Group’s “grotesque” rituals in a forest not far from Santa Rosa, California.
Ronson’s method is revealed in the way he orders his thirteen profiles, studies, and “adventures.” The long first piece, “A Semi-Detached Ayatollah,” deals with the outlandish Omar Bakri Mohammed, a Saudi follower of Osama bin Laden, who declares holy war on Britain at the same time that he is receiving welfare payments and applying for citizenship. With an insatiable appetite for publicity, Omar allows Ronson to observe him close up, as he gathers funds (in six large novelty Coca-Cola collection bottles) for Hezbollah and Hamas; explains in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park his “post-Jihad vision for the U.K.”; denounces Christmas decorations, homosexuals, store-window dummies, and pictures of women’s legs on pantyhose packaging; and organizes for a huge rally of Muslims, one that he knows will not succeed but whose failure he can blame on the government.
Ronson is culturally Jewish, something he finally reveals to Omar Bakri in an unlikely setting: a Jihad Training Camp in Sussex. The Arab’s response is interesting. “I am not offended that you are a Jew,” he offers. “We are all Semites. If you were Israeli, if you were a Zionist, that is a different matter. But what offends me is that you hide it. You assimilate. That you have no pride.” When Ronson objects, Omar responds: “Assimilation . . . . Integration. That is the worst thing of all. Be a Jew!” They remain “friends,” even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which Omar publically lauded. Before that, however, Omar’s telephone number appeared on a poster whose text included the words: “The final hour will not come until the Muslims kill the Jews.” When Ronson challenges him about this, Omar claims that the posters are another attempt to frame him. He also remarks on how funny he found a recent article Ronson had written about him. The reader cannot help recalling the fact that when Omar is tired or nervous he watches the Disney movie The Lion King (1994), hardly a product of Islamic culture. This is, at the very least, a very postmodern mullah.
Them’s conclusions are all present in this comic, if threatening portrait. The extremists Ronson encounters are concerned with cultural purity, but not when they have to practice it themselves; wholly unperturbed by logical contradiction; blissfully impervious to evidence that challenges their worldview; keen on cashing in on their notoriety; and delighted in the way their conspiratorial interpretation of things simplifies the world for them while also making it more interesting.
Chapter 2, “Running Through Cornfields,” provides the book’s second major portrait, that of Randy Weaver and his daughter Rachel, survivors of the Ruby Ridge debacle of 1992. Secondary characters (and they are certainly that) include Alex Jones, a Texas talk-show host and foe of the New World Order/Bilderberg Conspiracy; Bo Gritz, a highly decorated Vietnam War hero and ultraconservative presidential candidate; Jack McLamb, a Montana-based organizer of “Police Against the New World Order”; David Icke, the English counterpart of Alex Jones; and Gail Gans, chief researcher for the Anti- Defamation League of B’nai Brith.
While most of this group can be cast in a humorous light, the Weavers cannot, and Ronson wisely avoids doing so. Readers unfamiliar with the details of the operation mounted against the Weaver family in Montana by endless contingents of local, state, and federal law enforcement personnel will gain much from his account. Millions of dollars were spent to take Weaver, a pioneer separatist (not a white supremacist) who found the machinations of a Zionist global cabal behind most things and whose crime was finally determined to have been failing to appear in court on a minor firearms charge. Weaver’s wife, Vicki, and his son, Sammy, were killed in the siege, along with a U.S. marshal. (To its credit, the government settled with the family, providing Weaver’s remaining three children with $1 million each.)
This obvious tragedy mutated into the tragicomic, however. Ronson shows the uses to which Weaver has been put (he now visits gun shows to sell T-shirts and autographs) by the collection of oddballs previously mentioned. Especially outrageous is Alex Jones, whose radio program clearly leaves planet Earth for the sake of shock value and revenues—as he, for example, alleges that politician Al Gore and Britain’s Prince Phillip need to drink blood to survive. Nearly on the same level is the now-wealthy Rachel Weaver, who believes that the Hebrews of the Old Testament are not related to modern Jews, the latter having a different and more sinister origin.
Trying to grasp modern anti-Semitism brings Ronson into contact with genuinely “other” individuals and circumstances. In his visit with the Anti-Defamation League’s New York office, he finds this organization to be every bit as conspiracy-minded as those it tracks, discovering in all manner of utterances “coded” threats to Jews and Israel. The chapter entitled “Hollywood” leads to New Line Cinema and the attempt of director Tony Kaye to gain full control over the editing of his “antiracism” film American History X (1998). (Kaye’s limousine bears the license place “JEW1ISH.”) Ronson usefully recalls the fear Jewish film moguls exhibited during the 1930’s about making anti-Nazi films. Such people, he offers, “do not meet in darkened rooms except for when they are planning ways to suppress pro-Jewish movies.” Columbia Pictures was founded in 1924 by Harry Cohn, who, when asked to give to a Jewish relief fund, said: “Relief for the Jews? How about relieffrom the Jews? All the trouble in this world has been caused by Jews and Irishmen!” Meanwhile, Kaye flies in a Tibetan monk and hires a rabbi and a priest to help give his campaign a certain “spiritual” weight. The religion of toleration is what reigns in America. So, do Klansmen really have that much to fear from the Hebrew tribe? (In this connection, Ronson’s portrait of Thom Robb—the “progressive,” sensitive, group-dynamics-trained Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan—provides the book’s funniest moments.)
The climax of Ronson’s book comes in the final chapter, when he manages to infiltrate a meeting of the infamous Bilderberg Group in Bohemian Grove, California. Throughout, his informants have pointed darkly to this supposedly ultrasecret, Jewish-dominated cabal of one-world globalists, financiers, statesmen, Zionists, corporate tycoons, and magnates. Satanic orgies, bestiality, pagan rites, human sacrifice, and scheming on a colossal scale all have been attributed to this group, founded in 1954 by Dennis Healey, Joseph Retinger, David Rockefeller, and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. In Lord Healey’s words (Ronson spoke directly with this famous leader of Britain’s Labour Party), “We aren’t secret. We’re private.” This fact has allowed countless extremists to ascribe to Bilderberg every sort of depredation. (Nearly seven thousand World Wide Web sites refer to it.)
What, then, does Ronson find? This part of the story must not be given away. Yet once readers are finished with this account, they must ask whether it is really true. Has Ronson told the truth, or has he, as it were, been captured and used by the conspiracy itself? He has unmasked “Them”—but is Them always wrong? Has Ronson somehow gone over to Them?
This is an amusing and interesting work, justifying all the attention it has received. In the end, however, one must wonder if the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., of September 11, 2001, nullified its value. The arch silliness of some Muslim fundamentalism is exposed here, but when silliness straps on a bomb, laughter cannot be the response. The fragility of the liberties allowed in the West (including Ronson’s liberty to publish such a book) is far too evident now, so when one laughs with Ronson, it is done with a guilty conscience.
Also, Jon Ronson must certainly realize that the time has passed when cultural Jews can celebrate their identity while jejunely ignoring its religious origins. It is only slightly funny when he quips that he likes it when extremists say that the Western liberal establishment is itself a fanatical, depraved system, because “it makes me feel as if I have a belief system.” Such nonchalance was appropriate to an era when Jews were emerging from strong, exclusivist communities and needed intellectual emancipation and the fresh air of skepticism. However, when Jews are rapidly disappearing because of assimilation—but are accused in the House of Islam of engineering most of the evil in the world—standing apart is simply impossible. In the world after September 11, 2001, there is no “apart” upon which to stand.
The persona called “Hunter S. Thompson” was a sharply outlined figure. Crude, wantonly immature, thoroughly insufferable, shameless in his self-obsession and grandiosity, he was at least rooted in a tradition of American letters. That tradition was established between the mid-nineteenth and mid- twentieth centuries by the likes of Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Ring Lardner, and Jack Kerouac. Rankly secular, it could exist because of smug, solid, strongly rooted Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities. By contrast, the Briton “Jon Ronson” who inhabits these pages is, because of his faintness, his (does one dare say it?) rootless cosmopolitanism, finally not very interesting. Judaism is for him the source of his wit, whimsy, and sense of irony. While he is inspired by Woody Allen, it is not the Woody Allen who was attracted to Ingmar Bergman and directed the movies Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), which wrestle hard with the great moral themes of Western civilization. Thus, one hopes the best for Jon Ronson, who clearly has none of Thompson’s obvious moral failings, but if “Jon Ronson” is all he can muster, the current times condemn him to irrelevance and obscurity. Omar Bakri was right: Assimilation is the greatest threat of all.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (November 1, 2001): 449.
Library Journal 126 (October 15, 2001): 99.
The Nation 274 (February 18, 2002): 32.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (January 13, 2002): 10.
Publishers Weekly 248 (November 12, 2001): 48.
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