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BUY THE BOOK: USA
Ronson tracks down America's Ku Klux Klan as they give their old racist image a make-over.
With membership at an all time low and rival groups stealing their thunder, these are desperate days for the Klan. Grand Wizard and Pastor Thomas Robb is is out to modernize his flock with the aid of self-help books and marketing techniques. Gone are the days of hatred and lynchings - the New Klan claims to be gentle, upbeat and friendly and Thom Robb is more interested in imitating David Letterman than Adolf Hitler.
Jon Ronson travelled to their headquarters in Arkansas to discover if the New Klan are succeeding. Although the odds are stacked against him, Robb is confident he can rejuvenate the Klan. First he must teach his followers to change their ways and stop using the "N word". With techniques gleaned from self-help books, New Klan claim to not hate blacks or Jews, don't burn down churches or start lynchings and only wear their robes once a year.
"With so many pivotal Klan activities outlawed by Thom, I wondered what, exactly, was left," asks Ronson.
After seventeen years at the top, Robb is America's longest standing Klan leader and has been a racist all his life. He joined the Klan in 1979 - the year a rogue Klan faction shot and killed five protesters in North Carolina. Before his image change, he used the "N word" freely, rose quickly through the ranks and was elected a Grand Wizard in 1982. Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh was a member of Thom's Klan, but all this is now firmly in the past.
"I've always been a kind and gentle person. I'm just a nice guy," he tells one reporter. The downside to Thom's New Klan is that many Klanspeople have deserted him for more outspoken leaders. Within the racist community, Thom's detractors have begun to manufacture sinister rumours. Two of his former supporters claim that he had kissed a black baby for the benefit of the media, and worst of all, that he was planning a KKK cookbook. In a video expos' of Robb, one of his critics comments: "He's a grandstander and a showman and I think his reign is coming to an end".
Ronson follows the New Klan as they make their way to Michigan on a national tour aimed at recruiting new members. On the way, he stops off to meet Robb's main competitor - rival Klan leader Jeff Berry. Not afraid to stick to the old stereotypes, Berry is a well-known racist who is outraged at Robb's tactics.
"What's wrong with saying 'nigger'? To me, that's a dictatorship. That's what the Klan is about - freedom of speech. Thom Robb is a chickenshit. If he doesn't change his ways and the way he runs his Klan, the only thing he's going to have left is memories'"
As the Saturday morning of Thom's Michigan rally dawns, the Grand Wizard readies his troops for battle. "Remember, these guys have got their cameras on us'I know none of you guys cuss or swear'I don't want any smoking, and no chewing tobacco and no chewing gum. Try to not sway'"
The key, according to Robb, is entertainment. As the New Klan head off to bring their message of love for the white race to the people, Jon Ronson wonders what will become of Thom's vision.
"The odds are stacked against the New Klan'Without hatred there's nothing much left - just a hollowness. Just being entertaining probably won't be enough to get Thom back up there. If Thom wants to become the voice of the Ku Klux Klan again, he's got to learn how to say the 'N word' entertainingly."
Ronson is on the far right (geographically rather than politically), holding the boom. The others are either Ku Klux Klanspeople or Ronson's cameraman, Dave Barker.
Photos: © Jon Ronson
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