By Jon Ronson
I am very much a believer of Occam’s Razor—that the simplest answer is usually the correct one—which makes me pretty much anti-conspiracies. I have to admit, though, that Jon Ronson’s Them gave me pause.
The front cover has this description:
Is there really, as the extremists claim, a secret room from which a tiny elite secretly rule the world? This book is a journey into the heart of darkness involving twelve-foot lizard-men, PR-savvy Ku Klux Klansmen, Hollywood limousines, the story of Ruby Ridge, Noam Chomsky, a harem of kidnapped sex slaves, and Nicolae Ceausescu’s shoes. While Jon Ronson attempts to locate the secret room he is chased by men in dark glasses, unmasked as a Jew in the middle of a Jihad training camp, and witnesses CEOs and leading politicians undertake a bizarre pagan owl ritual in the forests of northern California. He learns some alarming things about the looking-glass world of them and us. Are the extremists onto something? Or has he become one of Them?
I had previously discovered Jon Ronson when he was on a hilarious episode of NPR’s This American Life, talking about his most recent book, The Psychopath Test. (If you haven’t heard the episode, you definitely should—they bring in a psychologist to administer the “psychopath test” to the NPR staff.)
I promptly picked up the book at the library and realized that I had experienced Jon Ronson before—he wrote the book Men Who Stare At Goats, which was made into a movie a few years ago with Ewan McGregor and George Clooney. Several things became clear all at once: Ronson has a writing style unlike anything I’ve read before. He describes himself as a humorous journalist, but he writes in a kind of nonfiction stream-of consciousness. I enjoyed the movie “Men Who Stare At Goats,” but the characters just seemed to sort of float along and kind of accidentally run into important people or pivotal events. It didn’t seem very realistic in the movie, but it now seems very much how Ronson operates, and once you get used to it, it is pretty awesome being along for the ride.
Ronson just seems like the most pleasant, unassuming, agreeable person, and he must be because he gets interviews I wouldn’t have believed possible. In “The Psychopath Test,” he meets with CEOs, even after telling them he wants to see if they are psychopaths! It is unbelievable—they are just sort of amused. I think he must have some superpower of not giving offence. Them starts off with him spending a year off and on with Britain’s self-proclaimed right-hand man of Bin Laden, even though Ronson himself is Jewish.
Ronson has a very active voice in his books, unlike most journalists, and that is very much part of the charm. The reader gets a much clearer sense of the full interactions, and I started to notice that Ronson asks lots of questions but only very rarely disagrees or confronts people. Even his questions are very inviting, sort of “I’m sure I’m being very stupid about this, but what about….” People seem usually pretty delighted to speak with him. (Although if I recall, The Psychopath Test begins with one of his subjects from Them being very unhappy with his treatment in the book and threatening him.)
In the book’s preface, he explains how he came up with the title Them. While in the middle of researching the book, he describes his research to a friend, and the friend replies, “You are sounding like one of THEM.” And I have to warn that after reading this book, not all the extremists will seem so extreme to you, either.
It reminded me of watching a tv program on the Society of Masons with Tom. They had lots of conspiracists describing various farfetched theories about the Masons, and Tom and I had a good time laughing at how ridiculous it all was. Then, the program interviewed a representative from the Masons, and he was so slick with complete non-answers (“why, we are just a normal fraternal order, how could you possibly think otherwise?”) that for the first time I had some momentary doubt.