The Toronto Star
ENTERTAINMENT, Sunday, January 27, 2002, p. D12
On the fringe
A British journalist, armed with unheroic irony, wanders among those who hate - those ready to battle the ubiquitous Them
AP PHOTO/REGAN BOOKS
Ronson's subjects turn out to be mostly buffoons, alternating blood-curdling political pronouncements with oafish humourIN 1954 A handful of influential people, including David Rockefeller and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, formed a group that met once a year to discuss the state of the world. Their first meeting took place in a hotel in Holland called The Bilderberg- hence the name Bilderberg Group.
The core belief of the group, formed soon after the devastation of World War II, was that insane political belief systems, such as Nazism and Communism, were best combated by the conversion of the planet to capitalism. Rockefeller and his friends put their faith in businessmen. Businessmen, as Jon Ronson puts in his book Them, "were not ideologues. In fact the comforting thing about them was that they cared about nothing at all except profits."
Nearly half a century later, the Bilderbergs remain unknown to most people, even those well versed in current events, but they have become an obsession to others, who firmly believe that the Bilderbergs are the secret rulers of the world, arranging wars and elections according to their carefully calculated and fiendishly complicated purposes. The Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic publicly accused the Bilderbergs of launching the war against him over Kosovo. The Iraqi government, in November 2000, claimed that the Florida electoral mess was a plot by the Bilderberg Jewish conspiracy to put their man Al Gore into the White House. As a symbol, Bilderberg has united the left and the extreme right- all those people who, as one activist encountered by Ronson puts it, "hate Henry Kissinger."
The Bilderbergs, in short, are "Them." Ronson, a young British journalist and documentary filmmaker, has undertaken to explore the world of those who have made it their life's mission to expose "Them" and lead the resistence to their global, capitalist conspiracy. They are all right wing extremists of one description or another- Islamic fundamentalists, Ku Klux Klansmen, militia members.
Although most of his subjects are American, Ronson opens his book with a look at Omar Bakri Mohammed, a British Muslim born in Saudi Arabia, who leads a holy war against the Bilderbergs and everything they stand for, which is basically modern society. Ronson observes as Bakri offers leaflets outside a subway station, yelling, "Homosexuality! Beware! There are homosexuals everywhere!" To Ronson's surprise, nobody displays any hostility to Bakri. Instead, passersby "seemed to regard him with kindly bemusement." On the other hand, no one accepts a leaflet- until Bakri starts to yell "Help the orphans! Help the orphans!" Bakri chuckles as he hands out the pamphlets: "This is good. You see if I weren't a Muslim I'd be working for ... how you say ... Saatchi and Saatchi (the famous ad agency)."
This chapter establishes the tone of the book. Ronson's subjects turn out to be mostly buffoons, alternating blood-curdling political pronouncements with oafish humour. Ronson himself adopts the position of the wide-eyed innocent, the helplessly nice person with a total absence of what we now refer to as "attitude." He unashamedly reports his attempts to ingratiate himself with his subjects, agreeing with them whenever he can, offering them more or less sincere advice and sympathy, trying to avoid irritating them. "I felt that the best course of action, at that point, was to deride journalism," he notes in his conversation with one particularly testy bigot- a characteristic response. Unlike his subjects, he excels in understatement and irony. "My worryingly paradoxical thought process could be summarized thus," he writes at one point. "Thank God I don't believe in the secret rulers of the world. Imagine what the secret rulers of the world might do to me if I did!"
Ronson creates wonderful vignettes, vivid and funny- he excels in recreating dialogue, he presents only the most necessary details, he keeps rumination to a minimum. At times- such is his immense good luck or hard work or skill as a journalist- his narratives arouse genuine suspense. In one episode, for example, he meets an anti-Bilderberg activist named Big Jim Tucker outside a luxury hotel in Portugal where the Bilderbergs, according to Tucker, are about to meet. Initially, the reader is as doubtful as Ronson about Tucker's information. Tucker seems a clueless blowhard. And yet, sure enough, the pair are soon confronted by sinister men in dark glasses who ask pointed questions about their presence at the hotel and follow them in cars. It is almost with a frisson that the reader witnesses, along with Ronson and Tucker, the sudden arrival of a series of limousines at the hotel, bearing the mighty- including Canada's own Conrad Black. The secret rulers are in session.
In another episode, he reports on the visit to Vancouver of a truly bizarre anti-Bilderberg crusader, an Englishman named David Icke, who believes that the Bilderbergs are literally descendents of a race of lizards. Ronson also visits a group of local leftists who are mobilizing against Icke because they're convinced he's an anti-Semite. They are also appalled that Icke is appealing to their own constituency, the disaffected who oppose globalization. (Winnie Mandela is a big fan of Icke.) Ronson is thus able to set the scene for Icke's visit to a bookstore where one of the activists is waiting to throw a cream pie in his face. Without revealing the outcome, I'll say that it doesn't reflect well on anyone involved.
Both episodes have something else in common- the revelation near the end that poisonous anti-Semitism is indeed part of the air that such people as Tucker and Icke breathe. An official of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) shows Ronson back issues of Tucker's newsletter, which contain articles denying the Holocaust. After the incident of the bookstore, one of Icke's supporters makes a casual, and brutal, remark about the "Jews" in Ronson's hearing.
It may be progress, of sorts, that the supporter is embarrassed when he realizes Ronson has heard the remark. In similar fashion, the leader of a Ku Klux Klan group, Thom Robb, is embarrassed when Ronson catches him discussing the racial origins of a newspaper interviewer. Robb is a modern Klansman- he tries to get his supporters not to say the word "nigger"- and he even apologizes to Ronson over the obvious fact that his supporters are stupid. Most of the extremists encountered by Ronson downplay their racism and anti-semitism. Even they know it's not cool, but their protestations of innocence- "The Jews are drawing their own parallels," says one supporter of Icke's lizard theory. "They're just paranoid"- offer no reassurance.
Yet even after this, Ronson does not lapse into moral indignation, or change his own attitude of kindly bemusement toward people like Big Jim Tucker. Perhaps because of his deliberate efforts to ingratiate himself with his subjects, or because they sense he actually likes them, Ronson rarely encounters hostility. At one point two skinheads among the Aryan Nations camp in Idaho confront him. "What's your genealogy?" they demand. "I have no idea," he replies. "I'm Church of England." It's not the only time in this book that he denies he's Jewish.
There's no doubt "Jews" remain a symbol to certain people- primitive nationalists, fundamentalists of all stripes- of something threatening. Anti-semitism may be on the wane, but if our prosperity and civil peace are ever seriously threatened, the disease might start to spread again. Ronson's book will certainly not diminish anyone's fear on that score. It offers no easy answers, either. The Vancouver anti-racist group, as portrayed by Ronson, is a pathetic lot. Its members display the same tendency to demonize people on the basis of stereotypes, the same urge to make their lives a drama by conjuring menace on all side, as their opponents. And if there's any solution to paranoid politics, it is certainly not in trying to shut people up through the medium of hate laws or counter-intimidation.
Even the ADL comes off a bit badly in this respect. One of its officials displays undisguised rancour toward Randy Weaver, an eccentric who built a house for his family in the woods of Idaho. Weaver, who did entertain odd political views and sometimes hung around the Aryan Nations, was the victim of blatant entrapment on the part of the FBI. (An undercover agent asked Weaver to sell him an illegal sawed-off shotgun.) When Weaver refused to show up at court, a virtual army of federal agents surrounded his cabin, opened fire and killed his nine-year-old son and his wife, who had a baby in her arms at the time.
Ronson interviews Weaver's daughter, Rachel, one of the most likeable characters in the book. Rachel's mother seemed to have lived by the Old Testament- "We didn't eat meat unless it had a split hoof and chewed its cud," Rachel recalls- at the same time as maintaining her own curious form of anti-semitism. "You should have seen some of the literature Mom showed us as kids," Rachel recalls. "It totally proves that the Hebrews were not Jews." This is sad business, of course. Yet when Rachel insists her parents were not white supremacists, the reader, for once, is inclined to believe it. There are degrees and nuances in prejudice, as there are in everything. In any case, victims of government callousness are not required to be blameless to win our sympathy. Certainly the ADL, and the left in general, should know that.
Ronson, despite- or perhaps even because of- his unheroic self-presentation, always seems to display underlying good sense. He knows righteousness is not a substitution for perception and understanding.
If there's a weakness in the book, however, it is that he may be a little too intent on maintaining the tone of irony and urbanity that marks every paragraph. The reader gets the feeling there are currents of anger and desperation that Ronson, deliberately or not, underplays in his portraits of his extremists. There is no comfort in knowing that most of them are clowns.
A journalist of Ronson's talent and sensibility, covering Hitler and his buddies in the early 1920s, might well have found similar buffoonery. A perceptive onlooker, writing about Stalin before the revolution, might well have discovered the same kind of incongruous vanity and clumsy joking and stark unawareness as we see in Ronson's Ku Klux Klan.
That's hardly cause for comfort.
Adventures With Extremists
by Jon Ronson
Simon & Schuster, 330 pages, $36.50
RONSON"Thank God I don't believe in the secret rulers of the world," Ronson writes. "Imagine what the secret rulers of the world might do to me if I did!"
Star literary critic Philip Marchand appears weekly.
Category: Arts and Culture
Length: Long, 1429 words
Copyright © 2002 Toronto Star, All Rights Reserved.
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