Book review: Them and The Elephant in the Room, by Jon Ronson
This book began its life in 1995 as a series of profiles of extremist leaders, but it quickly became something stranger. My plan had been to spend time with those people who had been described as the extremist monsters of the Western world – Islamic fundamentalists, neo-Nazis, etc. I wanted to join them as they went about their everyday lives. I thought that perhaps an interesting way to look at our world would be to move into theirs and stand alongside them while they glared back at us.
And that’s what I did with them for a while. But then I learnt of their shared belief in the New World Order: that a tiny elite rules the world from inside a secret room. It is they who start the wars, I was variously told, elect and cast out the heads of state, control Hollywood and the markets and the flow of capital, operate a harem of under-age kidnapped sex slaves, transform themselves into twelve-foot lizards when nobody is looking, and destroy the credibility of any investigator who gets too close to the truth.
The Elephant in the Room isn’t the last chapter of Them, but it could and should be. Them, published in 2001, with Ronson writing the preface a month after 9/11, details his experiences trailing along with various extremists in the UK and US. What counts as an “extremist”? If art is whatever the artist says it is, an extremist is whoever other people say is one. That was Ronson’s selection criterion, at least.
His subjects include Omar Bakri Muhammad, an outspoken London-based Islamist linked to al-Qaeda (this piece, so obviously pre-9/11, was particularly fascinating and sadly innocent-seeming considering what it preceded); David Icke, an English conspiracy theorist who posits that shapeshifting reptiles control the world behind the guise of prominent political and cultural figures; a KKK Grand Wizard; Weaver family survivors from the Ruby Ridge siege; and a journalist on the trail of the Bilderberg Group, a shadowy group of global elites attending a private, mysterious conference in Portugal.
Lest we relegate these conspiracy theorists and fringey paranoiacs entirely to the sidelines where they belong, it’s worth noting that in addition to enjoying the support of the leader of the free world (more on the Alex Jones-Donald Trump connection later), support for these belief systems really does go all the way to the top:
The Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic publicly blamed the Bilderberg Group for starting the war against him in the former Yugoslavia. His accusation was barely reported. I suppose that the journalists at the press conference had never heard of the Bilderberg Group and simply didn’t know what to write.
That’s really the problem – it’s easy to point and laugh at the guy screeching about shapeshifting twelve-foot lizards manipulating world events, but as The Elephant in the Room underscores even more, these fearmongers, provocateurs and conspiracy theorists have the ears of those in power – despite what may seem completely ridiculous to common-sense sensibilities. We have to take this stuff seriously because they’re influencers, terrifying as that is.
But also, Ronson’s trademark humor makes this chilling journalism much more palatable, and actually really enjoyable:
Every individual accused of reptilian paedophilia by David Icke had so far failed to sue, including Bob Hope, George Bush, George Bush Jr, Ted Heath, the Rothschild family, Boxcar Willie, the Queen of England, the Queen Mother, Prince Philip, Kris Kristofferson, Al Gore, and the steering committee of the Bilderberg Group.
‘Why do you think that is?’ David Icke had asked me when I interviewed him about this matter in London. Then he turned to my notepad and thundered, ‘Come on, Ted Heath! Sue me if you’ve got nothing to hide! Come on, George Bush! I’m ready! Sue me! I’m naming names! Come on, Jon? Why are they refusing to sue me?’
There was a silence.
‘Because they are twelve-foot lizards?’ I suggested, smally.
‘Yes!’ said David. ‘Exactly!”
I wondered how relevant the book’s content would be today, considering it was first published in October 2001. Ronson was considering that himself as he wrote the preface, and we entered our current state of heightened paranoia, mistrust of official channels and proliferation of conspiracy theories:
Some of the radicals and conspiracy theorists and fundamentalists compared this intensifying paranoia with a pressure cooker, ready to explode, but I thought they were just being overly dramatic, and nothing bad was going to happen. Perhaps, in retrospect, this book can be read as a snapshot of life in the Western world on 10 September 2001.
The answer: incredibly relevant. One of Ronson’s main subjects in Them, who reappears in The Elephant in the Room is radio ranter Alex Jones, who’s risen to prominence with his far-right-wing brand of offensive conspiracy theories in recent years, which happen to be favored and accepted as fact by Donald Trump. But before all that, Ronson tagged along with Jones and his girlfriend to a secretive forest meeting of a group of powerful figures at Bohemian Grove in California. It was the scene of a ritualistic but goofy get-together that included a number of prominent (and very drunk) men in leadership positions, supposedly George W. Bush and Dick Cheney among them.
What transpires is entertaining but carried a very different meaning for Ronson than it did for Jones, who felt his suspicions about the group’s nefariousness were validated:
It was clear that the Texans’ interpretation of the ceremony differed from my own. My lasting impression was of an all-pervading sense of immaturity: the Elvis impersonators, the cod-pagan spooky rituals, the heavy drinking. These people might have reached the apex of their professions but emotionally they seemed to be trapped in their college years. I wondered whether the Bohemians shroud themselves in secrecy for reasons no more sinister than that they thought it was cool.
The Elephant in the Room is a long-form essay but a quick read (40 pages or so) that sees Ronson return to the topic of far right extremism in America as it ramps up with Donald Trump’s nomination, viewed through the lens of his connection to Jones.
Running into Jones at the Cleveland Republican National Convention, they reunite and reminisce about their clandestine infiltration at Bohemian Grove, an event that still seems to be a nostalgic almost lifetime high point for Jones.
Ronson also meets Roger Stone, then involved in the Trump campaign. It’s a pretty wonderful piece, seeing Ronson’s dry snarky humor and smart analysis applied to the 2016 campaign behind the scenes. I only wish it was book-length instead of a single essay, I can’t imagine what he could do with more time and material.
It was published in September 2016, so at the time of writing and even publication, Ronson believed, and writes as much, that Trump wouldn’t win but that his popularity should be heeded as a dangerous warning.
Like other Ronson books, these read so quickly because his writing is so engrossing, funny, and highly readable. Ronson is a great observer and he must have something special that endears him to his subjects – even after explaining a years-long fallout over their differences in beliefs, Jones is happy to reconnect with him (to a reader’s great benefit.) They seem to let their guards down around him, and he has such a skill for excerpting perfect dialogue and scenes from this place of access to enhance his stories.
Most extraordinary is how nearly two decades after its publication, Them remains so relevant, mostly because its subjects, shown here in the full blooms of their ranting lunacy, have managed to come to even more prominence in the meantime. The fringe movements aren’t on the sidelines; they’re front and center. Jones marveled that it’s surreal to espouse his rants on-air on InfoWars only to hear those views later parroted by Trump.
Scarily relevant insights into the belief systems and believers behind modern extremist movements.
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