At least part of the fear of understanding the point of view of extremists comes from the notion that if we empathize with them in any way, that we ourselves will fall into some sort of racist/paranoid snare trap. That we will learn, to our horror, that our convictions are not half as ironclad as we publicly claim them to be. It’s this fear that makes reading Jon Ronson’s Them: Adventures With Extremists such a fascinating read, particularly in this day and age.
Published a mere two years after the attacks on September 11th, 2001, Them is still an incredibly informative read a decade later. Ingratiating himself with various extremists over the course of years, humorist Jon Ronson has found a way to humanize the fringe culture that many of us fear and revile. And although Ronson is an impressive journalist, it isn’t the use of some trick technique that causes these “wackos” to open up to him–he merely listens and records.
He uses this “technique” on everyone from forest-dwelling Libertarians to Klansmen to Muslim extremists. And the thing that they all seem to have in common is not terribly surprising: a desperate need for someone–anyone–to listen. It isn’t surprising, because in the long run it’s that very desire to be seen as relevant that molds people from all walks of society.
This common ground reshapes the boogeyman in our eyes. Omar the Muslim extremist is just a more highly motivated version of your overly religious uncle with the crappy jokes. He doesn’t seem all that threatening–he is just odd. Omar doesn’t feel like someone who could hurt anyone: he’s just a big dork. One could argue that this takes some of the power away from the stereotype of the brown-skinned terrorist with the 40 yard stare. One could also point out that this makes him and the other radicals in this book even more dangerous, as it might allow our guard to drop just in time for this seemingly innocuous man to hurt someone.
I would argue against this, however, as Ronson is constantly keeping us abreast of all of these men’s (they are mostly men) affairs. David Icke’s theory that many world leaders are 12 foot tall lizard men in disguise is outlandishly laughable until you realize how widespread his thoughts are. Then it becomes acutely frightening. The percentage of people who buy into his bizarre notions is small in the grand scheme of things, but Ronson’s record of the actual adoring fans who arrive at Icke’s conventions is alarming to say the least. So Them has the dual purpose of amusing the reader with the antics and seeming “ordinary” nature of these radicals, while simultaneously frightening you out of your wits.
What I mostly took from this book, however, was the sadness of such a life. Too often we think of Jerry Springer radicals–the ones who clearly just need the attention that they aren’t getting at home. They throw on a robe, they drop the N-word in public: Boom. Of course, the endlessly tragic stories of Waco and Ruby Ridge are here as well, and they’re treated with the respect they’re entitled to. But more often than not, you’re treated to the general rank-and-file of the Ku Klux Klan or the paranoid inner thoughts of conspiracy theorists, and part of you wants to give them a hug. I don’t fully understand it myself: so many of them just seemed… well… lonely. Like the odd kid you knew elementary school who just didn’t fit in, so he never stopped playing with his GI Joes. And his storylines got deeper and more intricate, until you couldn’t even play a simple game with him without knowing the 1500 pages of Cobra Commander’s backstory.
Do we retreat into this fantasy world as some sort of defense mechanism? Is mental illness to blame? The many examples that Ronson brings to light suggest perhaps a little from both columns A and B. Whatever its underlying root, the best thing we get from Them: Adventures With Extremists is a face to put on the conspiracy theorists that both fascinate and frighten us. But it isn’t the face that some knee-jerk readers would be led to believe–the understanding and “he really is a good guy” attitude painted on by sappy liberals that I’m not sure even exist. Instead, the humanity that Ronson allows us a glimpse of makes these paranoids even less likeable at times. It’s the very idea that the majority of these people seem like addled court jesters that makes the atrocities that they support that much more horrifying. A true incarnation of the idiom “it’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch”. And then they say something that you can imagine being said by your old GI Joe-playing schoolchum, and there’s that awful need to help them all over again. It’s confusing, and even irritating. In other words: it’s humanity at its finest.
Beyond all of this postulating and theory, however, is a truly funny book. Jon Ronson does a wonderful job of keeping the reader informed and enlightened while also keeping a grin on your face. It’s difficult to be humorous for several hundred pages no matter what you’re writing about, so the fact that he can do this while writing about some of our world’s scariest people is that much more impressive. Hardly an exhaustive tome on the world extremism, Them: Adventures With Extremists is still a highly entertaining pinkie toe dipped in the swirling hot tub that is the mind of paranoia.