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Them: Adventures With Extremists


Them: Adventures With Extremists

It goes without saying that extremism is on everyone's mind
nowadays. Whether that's the reason that Jon Ronson's THEM, a
British book, has been released in America is an open question.
There's little doubt that the new preface addressing September 11th
is the kind of socially relevant touchstone that a publisher would
never let pass by. But how much does the book itself really have to
say about terrorism, extremism, and the malaise of the modern
world? Quite a bit, actually.

First off, Jon Ronson is something of a smart ass --- albeit a
smart ass of a very high order. Unlike comedians and essayists, who
are always commenting on things, Ronson is a journalist; he exposes
the silly underbelly of pompous people by using their own words
against them. He's the master of the quote that says 10 times as
much as it appears to, of the uninflected description that is more
damning than a thousand adjectives. But perhaps his greatest asset
is that he enjoys people; he really likes them. He's always looking
for humanity in his subjects, and when he finds it in the form of
weakness or vanity, he tries to understand it rather than mock

All of this niceness and humor is sometimes hard to make jibe with
what we know to be the results of extremism. For this reason
Ronson's conversation with Rachel Weaver, the daughter of
over-persecuted isolationist Randy Weaver, is less funny than the
rest of the book. A lot of the humor in THEM comes from the fact
that Ronson is talking mostly to demagogues. One gets the sense,
and Ronson does too, that many of these people are as interested in
being famous as they are in advancing their causes. They are cults
of personality, and Ronson sees them to be kindred spirits on some
level. When he visits people like the skinheads living in the Aryan
Nations in Idaho, who seek no publicity, who exude only hatred, he
gets scared.

As a Jew, Ronson tends to focus on people who are suspicious of
Jews, which as it turns out, is most everybody. In general, THEM
doesn't trouble itself with the roots of hatred --- such things are
intractable --- but Ronson does stumble onto an interesting theory
about prejudice towards Jews, one that I had never thought of
before. The willingness of Jews to assimilate has been at the
bottom of their success through the ages. Karl Marx, Albert
Einstein, Ralph Lauren, Louis B. Mayer --- assimilated Jews. But
what if this assimilationist tendency, this hostility towards the
old ways, is part of the reason that people think Jews are hiding
something? That is, what if Jews really are hiding something ---
their heritage. It's an interesting theory.

THEM begins by trying to figure out why some people believe in
massive conspiracy theories about other people, and it ends in the
exact same place. After witnessing an owl burning ritual at an Ivy
League internationalist retreat (What's up with those, anyway?),
Ronson and his conspiracy theorist travel companions are left on
opposite sides of the same divide on which they began. He sees a
bunch of businessmen and dignitaries acting like jackasses, his
companions see Satanism and a shadowy cabal. All Ronson can
conclude is that, for whatever reason, some people see one and one
and make five, while the rest of us are stuck with regular

It bears remembering, of course, that conspiracies do exist. One
need only listen to the tapes made by the FBI of Archer Daniels
Midland executives participating in a worldwide price fixing
conspiracy to realize that men in hotel rooms sometimes do control
the world in secret. The trouble comes when people use conspiracy
theories to substantiate their prejudices. Here's a test: If the
truth is so obvious that you don't even need to investigate; if
their denials only make you believe it more; if you think everyone
has been duped except you and your friends --- and you only made
those friends after you realized all your old friends were
duped...well, I might be talking about you. This break with
rationality is what Ronson, a wonderful skeptic, is able to
highlight in his stories.

THEM will hardly make you feel better about the state of the world.
It will, however, do something more valuable. It will remind you
that extremists are human beings, that their leaders are hardly
evil geniuses, that they are sometimes just buffoons. It will also
remind you that there is evil in the world; that some nuts are too
hard to crack, and that sometimes, if you're evil enough, you don't
even need to be a genius. It's a lesson worth remembering,
particularly right now.

Reviewed by Fred Kovey on January 23, 2011

Them: Adventures With Extremists
by Jon Ronson

  • Publication Date: January 1, 2002
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743227077
  • ISBN-13: 9780743227070