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THEM: Adventures with Extremists
Brian Appleyard in the New Statesman
(This is Jon's favourite review of the book)
Extremists, notes Jon Ronson, don't like being called extremists. They prefer
to say that it is members of "the western liberal cosmopolitan establishment"
who are the real extremists. "I like it when they say this," he remarks,
"because it makes me feel I have a belief system." The whole book is captured
in that thought -- wry, paradoxical, mocking, ambivalent, uneasy, self-aware
and deprecating. The postmodern liberal aspires to accept everything and yet
believe nothing. But then he finds himself confronted by people -- extremists
-- who believe one thing and can accept nothing else. To them, the liberal is
tyrannical and his tolerance is thinly disguised oppression. The liberal
posture being, by definition, weak, he does not fight back. Instead,
sadomasochistically, he muses on the possibility of being comforted by faith.
Because they hate me, he reasons, I must believe. But in what?
One way to confront this conundrum is to think about it; another, better way
is to act upon it. Ronson acts. The result is a funny, superbly controlled
account of his wanderings through the wonderland of fanaticism and delusion.
This may be one more example of the "cool hack meets weird people" genre,
which was already looking jaded in the late 1960s. But it is lifted out of
the ordinary: first, by the quality of Ronson's writing; second, by the
carefully disguised seriousness of his intent; and third, by his Jewish
The writing is carefully understated. He avoids too much comment, offers
little analysis, and lets his material speak for itself. In fact, his
material is so good that it would be madness to do otherwise. With David Icke
believing the world is controlled by a conspiracy of 12ft lizards, almost
everybody believing it is run by a committee of malevolent Jews, and with the
blandly confident antics of London's own pocket Islamic warrior, Omar Bakri
Mohammed, all Ronson needs to do most of the time is stand back and watch.
The result is high comedy. Omar, for example, likes to take advantage of
Office World's Price Promise when photocopying his leaflets furthering the
cause of Islamic rule in Britain. "Ohyes," he explains, "I benefit from your
capitalism to convey the message" -- and, when Ronson visits Office World
with Omar, so does a Hasidic Jew, who is copying some sheet music for a
barmitzvah. The Jew glances at Omar's leaflets -- with their demand to "Crush
the Pirate State of Israel!" -- and glares at them. "This is a very sensitive
moment," whispers Omar. Then there is the plot by antiracists to throw a
meringue pie at David Icke in a bookshop. It misses and splatters all over
the children's section. "Well, that massively backfired," murmurs Icke.
The point of such incidents it to dramatise the gulf between quotidian
reality and the florid eccentricity of the extremists' beliefs -- in the case
of the Icke incident, to show the daftness of those who take him seriously
enough to bother opposing him. Ronson and the reader see what Omar and Icke
cannot -- that the actual world does not conform to their interpretations.
Where are the lizards? And doesn't the joint eagerness of the Jew and the
Arab to exploit Office World's Price Promise suggest a sharing of ordinary
human interests that, banal though it may be, subverts all their
Ronson's problem, however, is that, as he plunges deeper into this world, he
finds, to his amazement, that the world does conform to at least some of the
extremists' beliefs. The most consistent extremist belief -- held by poor
white American backwoodsmen as well as by Islamic militants -- is that the
capitalist world is run by a secret committee of Jews. This, they say, is
called the Bilderberg Group. As Ronson discovers, the Bilderberg Group exists
and, although not all its members are Jewish, it does seem to make a serious
attempt to run the world by bringing together a bunch of political and
intellectual heavyweights to, well, talk things over.
But they are secretive simply because it ensures open discussion, and their
attempt to run the world seems to consist solely of introducing people to
each other. They are, in reality, about as sinister as the World Economic
Forum, and a good deal less sinister than the average British Cabinet
meeting. This is not to say that potentially lethal conspiracies are not
possible -- Nazism was one, communism another -- but it is to say that
paranoid fantasy is not the best basis for assessing the threat.
The problem is, I suppose, that we have neither a big, global ideology to
combat, nor belief. In the absence of either, we tend to invent both.
Capitalism becomes a systematic ideology which, in practice, it is not, and
belief becomes a paranoid nightmare. People need belief, as Ronson wryly
notes about himself, and some, inflamed by the spectacle of an economically
successful world of unbelief, resort to faiths that require the destruction
of that world.
These faiths have the crucial virtue of making their adherents feel they
belong. Contemplating them, Ronson, the wandering Jew, feels he does not --
maybe cannot -- belong. At this point, his Jewishness plays a trick on him.
Sitting with a Jewish film director in the back of a limo in Hollywood, he
suddenly feels relaxed. These are his people. But wait a minute, perhaps this
is the conspiracy. "Is this the secret room, this limousine's interior, right
now? Is it us?"
He steps back from this moment, pointing out that the Jews' very attempt to
mingle with the Gentiles has created the myth of "a shadowy cabal: we Jews
who camouflage ourselves". They are not doing anything sinister, they are
"just hopelessly in love with the camouflage".
But the stepping back is not quite enough. He is right, the Jews are not
conspiring, they are embarrassed. But, more broadly, the liberal elites of
the west are engaged in some sort of loose, unconscious conspiracy to spread
something that is not so much a doctrine as a way of life they find
comforting to their own rootlessness. Viewed from the other side of the
looking glass, this can appear as crazy as Icke and his lizards. Belief,
after all, is the normal human condition; it may, in truth, be the only
viable way of life. That, as this book so wittily demonstrates, is the issue.
COPYRIGHT 2001 New Statesman, Ltd.
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