on 3 April 2011
I read Jon Ronson's book in an abridged Swedish edition. I expected the book to be comic relief, and it's certainly marketed that way. Instead, I found the book to be disturbing, tragic and (at best) tragicomic. Sometimes, it made me sympathize with the extremists!
The Muslim fundamentalist Omar Bakri may have been a clown, but his antics are less entertaining today, after the London metro bombings (something Ronson also acknowledges in a foreword to the Swedish edition). The attacks on David Icke in Canada raise the question who is more insane: Icke or the people harassing him? As for Randy and Vicki Weaver, they were obviously the victims of a set up, to put it mildly. The paranoid crypto-Nazis who chase the Bilderbergers are disturbing, but so are the Bilderbergers themselves. One of the Bilderbergers, Dennis Healy, doesn't understand what on earth the fuzz is all about when interviewed by Ronson: "Sure we have secret meetings. So what? That's how it works. That's how thing are done".
So that makes it alright, then?
The high point of "Them" is Ronson's successful infiltration of the Bohemian Grove, where he manages to watch the secret ritual and mock sacrifice to the owl god. The "ritual" turns out to be a ridiculous, pseudo-Masonic college fraternity stunt. The thing looks more pathetic than menacing. Indeed, somebody suggests to Ronson that the Bilderbergers might actually *like* all the conspiracy theories about them. It boosts their egos. Today, nobody controls anything anymore.
Perhaps the full-length original version of "Them" is more entertaining. Or perhaps the Swedish translation is to blame?
I don't know, but I walked away from this book more convinced than before that the extremism of the conspiracy theorists is fuelled by the insanity of the real world...
on 20 July 2004
After hearing the media's over-hyped version of things, it was great to read something that puts it all into context. Ronson does the impossible and manages to take a really funny look at conspiracy theories and Islamic fanticism (the bit about the controversial cleric and the choc-ice still makes me laugh).
My only problem with the book is that it storms off brilliantly, moving from one set of extremists to another, but this does not continue throughout the book. Therefore, it's only let down is that the start is so good, that the last half cannot possibly keep the same pace and quality of laughs.
I went straight onto 'Them' having torn through Ronson's brilliant 'The Psychopath Test' and I wish, in a way, I'd read them in the opposite order. This is without doubt a really interesting, and funny book - but it doesn't have the same gut impact of the other title.
Don't get me wrong, Ronson manages once again to portray remarkable people with the same kind of slightly suspect innocence that Louis Theroux uses on TV - so we meet everyone from an Islamic extremist to Ian Paisley, via David Icke - but the writing simply isn't knit together quite as beautifully.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the central theme here is slightly more flaky. What links all these people (and others) is the belief that a 'World Order' of important people meet up and shape all our destinies. The central focus of these beliefs seem to be primarily the Bilderberg Group and a strange American gathering involving giant owls that is more reminiscent of an extended Fraternity party than anything sinister.
Yes, these groups do bring together very important people for networking, but hardly for setting the whole world's agenda - apart from anything else, these groups only meet once a year, hardly enough to run things from day to day. Even so, Ronson's attempts to penetrate these gatherings is itself both funny in its mild incompetence and rather scary.
A good book then, very readable, and a real incite into the way that so many of these fringe people are inspired by the same conspiracy paranoia - but not quite Ronson's best.
on 3 May 2011
I have been a little hesitant in reviewing the Kindle version of 'Them' as Amazon will, frustratingly, include this review with all versions of the item. I also own the 2002 paperback edition, and found it replicated none of the errors I cross-referenced from the Kindle version. The book itself was a really enjoyable read, mixing investigative journalism with a great deal of humour.
The Kindle version, however, is rather disappointing. I noticed a large number of typing and formatting errors, particularly words pushed together without spaces between them. An accent symbol on a person's name, repeated many times in chapter 11, is presented as (what appears to be) an image rather than actual text. This causes lines containing this name to have huge gaps above and below. Frustratingly, this Amazon review will also not correctly display the accented character! However, I typed the word - with the accent - into a personal document, which I have subsequently viewed as plain text on my Kindle without any problems. It is definitely a character recognised by the Kindle so I have no idea why the publisher has chosen to present the work in this way.
I would not want to imply that the errors in the Kindle edition render it entirely unreadable. However, it does not do justice to Ronson's writing, and I would advise against rewarding the publisher for such a lazy and sloppy conversion into the digital format.
on 12 July 2012
Somehow, despite being a virtually card-carrying Guardianista, I'd never read one of Jon Ronson's books. This one seemed as good a starting point as any!
The book describes Ronson's adventures with several extremist groups and conspiracy theorists as he tries to find out more about the Bilderberg Group, who are thought by many conspiracy theorists to summarily control the world. It's long-form gonzo journalism, with the added edge that Ronson is Jewish, while a number of the groups he meets along the way are, to a greater or lesser extent, anti-semitic.
The narrative of the book is engaging, and some of the descriptions are enlightening. But it feels to me like there's a central problem in this book: Ronson seems quite conflicted over his feelings about the people he meets. Occasionally, he plays their beliefs for laughs, but, for the most part, it seems reasonably clear that he likes the individuals whilst finding their viewpoints and some of their actions abhorrent. This was and is always going to be a problem in an ethnography like this, but the fact that there's never any deep reflection on this in the text just gives the whole thing an air of awkwardness.
There's also a slight weirdness in that it seems to me that the point the book is trying to make is that relatively ordinary people can believe extraordinary things with certainty. That's a really interesting concept, but, again, there's no real self-reflection on this. Did this experience make Ronson question any of his own deeply-held beliefs? Has it made him view conspiracies and conspiracists differently? How has this whole experience changed him?
Ronson writes engagingly about the challenge of going through this investigation as a Jew. He reflects on denying his Jewish heritage, and how that makes him feel. Yet the other big questions seem to hang in the air, and I'm left wondering what the gonzo style adds if the majority of the deep personal reflection is cut out of it. I guess it provides a narrative. But it takes away objectivity, and makes us very reliant on the author as the sole source. I'm not sure those trades are worth it if the impact on the author - which is really something I consider to be at the heart of the style - is taken away.
I'm conscious that I've now written three paragraphs of criticism of a book that, on the whole, I enjoyed! I learned the truth about the Bilderberg Group (not that I'd heard of it before reading this book). There were several convincing descriptions of how conspiracy theorists interpret events in a way that supports their own world view (though, disappointingly, little discussion of the degree to which the rest of us do that too). The writing brought the characters to life, and the narrative drove the "plot" forward at a good pace.
All-in-all, while I was a bit disappointed by what wasn't in this book, the stuff that was there was great: I'll certainly read another of Ronson's books at some point in the future. As for the star-rating: I've dithered for some time now over whether to give this 3 or 4; it's somewhere in between. On balance, this isn't a book I'd return to again, and I think its flaws of omission pull it nearer to 3 than 4.
on 31 December 2002
I remember Jon Ronson from when he used to write the back pages essays in "Time Out" many years ago. If this book is anythnig to go by, he's come a long way since.
It starts as more "humourous journalism" when Jon decides to spend time looking at various political and religious extremists. Strangely many of the people Jon meets - from completely different backgrounds and nationalities - tell a very similar story about a secret group of powerful men who control the world.
Jon decides to track down this group (known as the Bilderberg group). Amazingly he finds them. He even gets to speak to them. And attends one of their secret countryside retreats.
They may not turn out to be 12 foot lizards or a secret Jewish conspiracy, but they _do_ exist. And they _are_ important. Even people who hate conspiracy theories have been convinced by this book.
Who would've predicted it? I imagine that's just about as pertinent a question as can be applied to Them. Who would have predicted that a 5-year documentary of myriad extremist groups would culminate, at least if not internally, then externally, in the most violent of thematic bookends: the World Trade Centre horror? Who could have predicted that Jon Ronson's strange acquaintanceship with Omar Bakri who, last century, proclaimed himself Osama Bin Laden's man in Britain, would, in 2001, take on such fearsome new dimensions. I don't think, certainly, that Jon Ronson would have predicted it. But, possibly, the extremists Jon adventures with in this wry-yet-shocking book would have guessed. Because, as this series of fair-handed portraits continually demonstrates, extremist groups are reacting against something. They may have wrong the level or the participants (individual, or group, sector, race) of a conspiracy, but they do not make up the whole story. There are conspiracy theories because there are conspiracies. Extremists shout and bawl, often in distasteful and, frankly, bizarre terms about conspiracies, only because people are apt to conspire.
The book is split into chapters, which, usually, take one extremist group at a time. Occasionally several chapters link the threads of one conspiracy, but essentially Ronson provides digestible snapshots of a wide range of beliefs and fears. The buffet approach can possibly leave you short-changed in terms of full-blown analysis, but the book isn't really concerned with providing that. Instead, what the reader gets is an extremely entertaining read - Ronson being about as charming and witty guide as any tourist could want, especially, it soon becomes clear, when traversing some fairly odd ground - but also one that allows the humanity of the extremists to be viewed. As individuals, these are very often personable enough people. They are far from crazed, even if more frequently they stick with worrying fastness to their eccentricity and their sometimes indefensible beliefs.
But it is not just the extremists who are being revealed here. The British press, the countless groups proclaiming to protect New York Jews from anti-Semitism, the financiers, the entrepreneurs, the businessmen and politicians of the (secretly world-ruling, according the conspiracists; privately world-benefiting, according to them) Bilderberg group, all come in for the sort of gentle, self-effacing, but often deceptively impassioned probing Ronson specialises in. He doesn't ever become one of them, though he worries about it, and I doubt many of the readers of this book will either, but all of us together, author and audience alike, are, by the final pages, far slower to jump to conclusions and far quicker to accept that They might have a bit of a point.
on 19 April 2001
This is a great book. Anyone who has followed Jon Ronsen's work in the Guardian newspaper will know already that he asks the kind of questions that you would ask of people you would never dare ask them of. So in this volume he writes about time spent with Ian Paisley and David Icke amongst others. However frightening this prospect is, it is his time spent amongst anti-Jewish fundamentalists (such as the Klan) which is most interesting. Especially since he is himself Jewish. His writing on the New World Order provides a welcome other take on conspiracy theorists. Whilst not becoming one he explores in some detail the contradictions of being paranoid you are being watched whilst in fact you are being watched. The notion of who the good guys are is much more muddled than in much previous writing of this sort (on both sides).
So read it. You will laugh out loud and come away feeling you have broadened your horizons. What more could you want?
on 6 April 2006
'Them' is an astonishing piece of journalism, which I picked up on recommendation and read without budging from the sofa in a day. It's often said journalists are lazy. Not here. Ronson has a talent for snouting out the absurd, and the brass cojones to head straight for its source. How he got these figures to let him shadow them is every bit as mystifying as the Bilderberg group.
The result is a wonderfully funny, and often frightening read. It strips our preconceptions of these bizarre, extremist figureheads and reveals them at their most naked. It exposes their hypocrisies, eccentricities, motives, beliefs, and pettiness, without being cruel. Particularly entertaining is the chapter on travelling through Camaroon with the terrifying Reverend Ian Paisley. It is the snippets of infantile, eavesdropped conversation that makes 'Them' such a shocking, hysterical, and orginal read. Ronson writes clearly, subtly, and sews the plot together nicely on the 'secret-room' thread.
I laughed out loud all day at these remarkable revelations. Here is a book that will change how you look at the world.
on 30 December 2002
Global politics are terrifying, and lets face it there's not a lot of laughing matter there. It is always a welcome relief to have your worst paranoid fears confirmed with a comic touch.
As Ronson himself acknowledges he is:
"Essentially a humorous journalist...out of my depth."
As he bumbles his way through meetings with powerful (and sometimes several planets short of a solar system) people you can see that Ronson's self-depreciating interview style has paid dividends where hardened news hacks fail. It is really important to say at this point that if half of the things he uncovers are true then we should be very, very worried. My only slight reservation was a feeling that in an effort to remain impartial to his subject matter, you never got to hear Ronson's own opinion....you make up your own mind! Dark, disturbing, and very funny.