Thursday, March 28, 2013

Them: Adventures with Extremists

by Jon Ronson

Them: Adventures with Extremists


What is the Bilderberg Group? Is it a self-interested but vaguely benevolent private club composed of international movers & shakers who come together annually to discuss "government and politics, finance, industry, labour, education and communications"? Or is it a nefarious group of power brokers and nation breakers - the Secret Rulers of the World?

Who is David Icke? Goofy New Age conspiracy nut who believes our leaders actually belong to 1 of 16 sinister alien-reptile species? Or a misunderstood questioner of the powers that be?

Who is Ku Klux Klansman Thom Robb? Who is Omar Bakri Muhammad? Who is Ian Paisley? What really happened on Ruby Ridge?

But most important to me as a reader... who is Jon Ronson?

Is Jon Ronson a semi-comic journalist, author, and documentarian who has made a career out of puncturing various blowhards - in particular self-important politicians and freaky cult-style leaders? Is Jon Ronson a passive milquetoast who quivers in fear at the slightest threat? Is he an obnoxiously "neutral" and unusually self-absorbed member of the press corps... the sort of ruthlessly clueless reporter who would forget about pulling a kid out of burning car just so that he could take some cool snaps... the kind of hopelessly naive person who pretends that no one is truly capable of enacting evil - after all, you just gotta look under the surface and we're all just silly, harmless humans who couldn't hurt a fly, right? Or is Jon Ronson simply an adorable wet kitty cat?


This collection of anecdotes focusing on the "human elements" of various controversial figures and groups - with a brief but poignant (and ultimately infuriating) stop-off into the world of Ruby Ridge - is fast-paced and consistently amusing. I really appreciated the humanization of the assorted extremists - it fit right into my cynical-but-basically-humanistic perspective. People ARE funny. And even villains are people too, right? They have their little human foibles. No person is all bad or all good and everyone has their personal context and everyone is three-dimensional blah blah blah.

This has been a surprisingly popular book for a couple groups of friends. So let me talk about them for a little bit. These friends are: semi college educated & college educated & college - yeah right; work with their hands (so to speak), or not - but not office drones either; somewhat anti-intellectual; staunchly pro-human rights; semi hard-drinkin' family men... the kind of assortment of social work & blue collar & non-corporate, hates-all-politicians kind of guys who form a surprisingly large portion of the Democratic Party's backbone. Factor in youths spent in various alternate subcultures and you have in some ways an ideal audience for this novel. In an engagingly sardonic and self-effacing style, the book reveals who the assholes are and how fucked up governments are and points out the hypocrisy of certain extremists - fun stuff. Heads nod in agreement, including mine. And under all the mild snark and comfy irony is an almost sweetly idealistic theme of "people are just people". Awww, shucks.

Unlike my friends, I'm a Queer White Collar Nerd. But I doubt that that has anything to do with my different reaction. My friends are not naive (and, I should add, they are awesome), so maybe I'm just more of a prick. Whatever the reason may be, I didn't enjoy this as much as everyone else did. I really wonder why. This book annoyed me, sometimes even disgusted or angered me - but not because of Them's various subjects. JON RONSON was the problem. Oops, almost forgot my meaningless Venn Diagram:


Anyway, I enjoyed it enough to give it 2 stars. It was fun. Cute even, at times. People and their little foibles, amused sigh. Crazy people sure are crazy, good grief! And yet they're human too, my goodness! Funny crazy humans!

Eyeroll. I have some questions for you, Jon Ronson:

- What is your problem with being a Jew? My God man, have some fucking pride! I'll give you this: you acknowledge your unseemly hypocrisy in buddying up with various creeps who base their careers on demonizing jewish folks and who actually fund groups whose intent is to Kill Jews. Yes, you acknowledge that practising dishonesty by omission made you feel bad. But you continued to do it! At one point you fantasize about sabatoging an effort calling for the decimation of your people. All you had to do was throw away some horrifically offensive flyers. And yet you do nothing, not the slightest thing, you just wish you could do something, and then you move on with a shrug. I'm sorry, but I'm just not cool with that. Have some balls. I don't respect pussies just because they admit that they are pussies. Fine, thanks for being honest - but you are still a pussy. Am I supposed to be charmed by your sheepish confessions and your continual lack of backbone?

(Sorry for Pussy. I know it is offensive and misogynistic. But honestly I can't think of a more appropriate word. Maybe I'll come back and edit this review after I've thought of a better one.)

- Do you really think the Bilderberg Group is simply an overhyped bunch of harmless (albeit security-happy and obnoxiously exclusive) businessmen? Do you truly think they have had no impact whatsoever on the various events that have happened on the world stage? Are you that stunningly naive? Do you actually work for the Bilderberg Group?

- Don't you believe in checking out someone's background before you go a-spyin' with him in Spain? I'll give the Good Ole Boy in question his props: he didn't seem like a complete idiot. But you didn't bother to check out the rag he edits first? You are surprised that his small-town rag published some virulently racist articles? As a journalist, you didn't think it was necessary to check out his actual work before going on a super secret spy mission with him? Do you think that just because someone is garrulous and down-to-earth that they can't be capable of doing things that are incredibly wrong?

- Why didn't you mention that you had filmed a documentary on Ian Paisley prior to meeting him? You paint this scary blowhard as oh so mean to poor wittle Jon Ronson - Paisley's monstrous rudeness just comes out of nowhere. Don't you think it was at all necessary to declare your past history with the gent in question? That chapter functioned as a near hit piece... why? Sweet revenge for past insults?

- Do you think that writing a narrative, reporting a story, being a documentarian... somehow lets you off the hook when it comes to basic decency? I hate frickin' excuses, and in particular I hate excuses that are trying to let someone off the hook out of doing the right thing. Case in point: you are aware that some jackasses are planning to physically and publically humiliate a guy who you know is not a bad guy, who is not a racist or anti-semite or whatever... you know that what the jackasses are planning to do is completely unjust... the guy bares his soul to you, including all about his greatest fear: public humiliation, ON THE WAY TO THE WHERE THE PUBLIC ATTACK IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN... and you do nothing. Journalistic integrity, I suppose, right? Must not interfere, right? Fuck off! So it didn't turn out how the jackasses wanted it to turn out. So what? It could have - and you did nothing. I really wanted to kick your ass after that sequence.

- Do you truly believe that the Fourth Estate is unbiased and objective? In your quest to understand extremists and extremism, to show the human inside the monster, to show the basic foolishness of man... have you forgotten that people actually die for their beliefs...that words and actions sometimes have meaning? Your chapter on Ruby Ridge was the only place I found genuine anger... are you afraid of anger? Are you afraid of being disgusted by people who do truly disgusting things? Is the world and all of its woes and all of its angry violent people and all of its blood and slaughter simply amusing and interesting topics to snort and smirk over? Are there truly no stakes?

- Do you believe such passive engagement with the world is capable of delivering any kind of real truth? Well, at least the kind of truth that I can understand. "Objectivity"... Neutrality. Goddamn I hate that bullshit. Feh! Grow up, man. No one is truly neutral. Everything is subjective.

I could have been riveted by this book if it had had the strength to have an actual opinion. This isn't a history book, it is not clinical research or a community needs assessment - it is a personal narrative. Personal Narrative. And so No Opinions = Bullshit. Be real, don't be afraid to have some opinions or to get a little hardcore. To be yourself. To be angry that there are a bunch of fucked-up things going on in the world, all the time, throughout time. I'd much rather have that pissed-off messiness than this determinedly amusing, blandly pleasant, roll over & die softcore truthiness.

No comments:

Post a Comment