Strangers in a strange world

Paul Monk, Australian Thinking Skills Institute

Jon Ronson, Them: Adventures With Extremists London, Picador, 2002 (328 pp). ISBN 0-33037-546-6 (paperback) RRP $21.00.

Jon Ronson must have had a barrel of laughs writing this book. One after another, he spent considerable periods of time getting to know people who passionately believe very odd or hopelessly muddled things. Those things are mostly conspiracy theories concerning who ‘really’ runs the world. Many of his interlocutors think it is the Jews. Yet Ronson, himself Jewish, never loses his gentle and ironical sense of humour. He never expresses contempt or even irritation. To the contrary, he again and again exhibits an astonishing capacity to empathise with those whose views he very plainly doesn’t share. It is this which makes the book remarkable, rather than merely funny.

Take, for example, his encounter with a gentleman named David Icke. He begins with Icke, whose belief is ‘that the shadowy elitists who secretly rule the world are actually extraterrestrial, shape-shifting giant lizards’. As Ronson discovered, ‘a coalition of prominent anti-racists were convinced that when he said “extraterrestrial, shape-shifting giant lizards”, he was using code, and what he really meant was “Jews”’. Getting worried by people with such ridiculous views as Icke’s would seem to be about as rational as wanting to censor The X Files on national security grounds, but as Ronson discovered, the anti-racists can be almost as paranoid as the racists.

As Ronson relates, when Icke visited Canada for a speaking tour, the coalition wrote to former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney ‘to inform him that David Icke was accusing him of being a reptilian, child-sacrificing paedophile. But so far, to their bafflement, Brian Mulroney had declined to initiate legal action’. That they should be baffled is a sad indication of their complete lack of a sense of either humour or proportion. Icke, on the other hand, far from being baffled, saw such passivity on Mulroney’s part as evidence that the accusations were true and would come out in court if legal action was taken.

Icke had made similar accusations against Bob Hope (who surely must have seen the humour in them), George Bush Sr and George Bush Jr, Ted Heath, Boxcar Willie, the Queen of England, Kris Kristofferson, and Al Gore, among others. And none of them had taken legal action against him. ‘Why do you think that is?’ Icke asked Ronson. ‘I’m naming names! Come on, Jon? Why are they refusing to sue me?’ Ronson must have been sorely tested at this juncture, but his account of the event beautifully exemplifies his temperament throughout the book. ‘There was a silence. ‘Because they are twelve foot lizards?’ I suggested smally. ‘Yes!’ said David. ‘Exactly!’’ What uncommon self-restraint this shows on Ronson’s part!

But we have to pause, surely, and ask ourselves what on earth is David Icke on about. What makes Icke tick? There is, I suggest, a whole philosophy seminar to be had in just reflecting on this question. How could anyone possibly profess to believe what Icke does without being judged clinically unbalanced? How can he keep a straight face while arguing for this strange belief to international audiences? Why don’t such audiences simply see him as a stand up comic? And how would you go about proving to him that his belief is unsound?

Above all, what propositions that you take seriously might actually have the same epistemological character as Icke’s notion that the world is secretly run by shape-shifting twelve foot long extraterrestrial lizards? None? I doubt it. We human beings are actually riddled with superstitions, biases, unexamined prejudices, and flights of fancy. It’s just that we are rarely aware of how absurd they would look if subjected to rigorous, rational scrutiny. While most of us presumably find Icke’s confidence in his particularly odd proposition laughable, we would do well to reflect on whether views that we hold with equal confidence are actually any better justified—even in regard to the common fare of politics and economics. Try looking critically on those things you most want to believe. Your critical faculties will then be subjected to the tests that David Icke is failing. The question is, will you pass them?

Ronson never loses his gentle and ironical sense of humour.

Perhaps it is something of this sense of common human fallibility that enables Ronson to maintain his extraordinary equanimity in the face of the absurd. I confess that it is not an equanimity I find easy to share. When I contemplate the range of glossy magazines catering to the popular taste for signs, wonders and conspiracies, I have difficulty not feeling disgust and contempt. How can people read such things as Book of Spells, Hard Evidence, Nexus, Astrology, New Dawn, Insight, and Horoscope? Flicking through one every so often, to see how the other half thinks, is one thing—like eating the occasional Big Mac—but spending weeks talking to people whose heads are full of such stuff (and worse) as Ronson did is not a thing I could stomach.

Early this year, for example, I tried to read a couple of books that belong in what might be called the ‘lizard conspiracy genre’: Robert Bauval’s Secret Chamber: The Quest for the Hall of Records and Laurance Gardner’s Realm of the Ring Lords: Beyond the Portal of the Twilight World. I got as far as the end of the prologue in the first of these and to page 62 in the second before giving up in utter disgust at the craziness of the author in each case. Being given to annotating books, I wrote in the margin of Bauval’s ‘This is just ludicrous. You are a mental incompetent’ and in Gardner’s, at a similar point of frustration, ‘You are a bona fide nutter, pal!’

I had wanted to explore the world of the lizard conspiracy genre, in the safety of my own library, but gave up quickly. So, I marvel at Jon Ronson’s capacity to spend long periods in active engagement not just with the lizard conspiracy genre of magazines and books, but with the people whose heads are full of it, or those like David Icke who actually propagate it. I found myself chastened by his intellectual compassion. In his own modest way he seems almost a Jesus figure, moving among a crowd of the (intellectually) possessed, obsessed, halt, blind, lame, and leprous. He cured none of them, of course. Indeed, he did not even presume to bless or console them. He simply walked with them a while and got inside their ordinary humanity.

This is strikingly so, for instance, with Omar Bakri, the ‘semi-detached ayatollah’ of his opening chapter; Thom Robb, the Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in chapters seven and nine; and the Reverend Ian Paisley, with whom he travelled in Africa in chapter ten. All three encounters are wonders of intellectual restraint and good humoured humility on Ronson’s part. But his prolonged exposure to Thom Robb was the highlight of the whole, sweet book for me. Just the way Ronson sets the scene for us of his wide-eyed and open-hearted venture into the Ozark Mountains, northern Arkansas, ‘conspiracy-theory country, armed-response country, Ku Klux Klan country’ tells us a good deal about him and his mission:

The Ozark Mountains make the news from time to time when neo-Nazi gunmen or abortion clinic bombers pursued by scores of FBI agents vanish into them. It is a hiding place, a labyrinth of forests and dirt tracks and compounds populated by an informal army of supremacists and separatists allied by a common purpose, which is to [be] the supremacists and separatists of a homeland where the white race can live in peace and separation and not be bothered by the government or the immoral liberalism that infects the United States via Hollywood and stems, essentially, from the Jews.

The homeland they dream of is, in fact, not unlike the Ozark Mountains themselves, where the FBI can rarely find their man, where there are virtually no black people and even fewer Jews. I was probably the only Jew within a hundred miles or more, and I was doing my best to tone it down… I was consciously suppressing my hand gestures and attempting not to be overtly cosmopolitan.
I found myself chastened by Ronson’s intellectual compassion.

Did he, however, encounter frightening KKK storm-trooper types or actual threats to his physical well-being? Not at all. He met a Grand Wizard who very much wanted to fit into mainstream American society. ‘He wanted his own TV show, he said, with jokes and music, like David Letterman… That was his number one plan. But first he had to teach his members to stop saying ‘nigger’ when they were in public’. Ronson found a quietly spoken man given to making self-deprecating jokes:

He is a friendly and cheerful man, with an amiable demeanour. Had he not been the Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, I’d have described him as having the humorous demeanour of a Manhattan nebbish. The door was open for me many times to say, ‘Oh Thom! You’re such a nebbish!’, but that would have been a mistake. Still, it was surprising to find myself in a situation where I was toning down my Jewish character traits so as not to alienate myself from a Ku Klux Klan leader who reminded me of Woody Allen.

Isn’t that simply delightful? A nebbish, by the way, is a submissive or timid person. The word is an anglicisation of the Yiddish nebach, meaning ‘poor thing’. And, truly, to read Ronson’s account of Thom Robb is almost like reading the treatment for a prospective Woody Allen film. Thom told him that his project of rejuvenating the Klan was guided by popular self-help books, for example:

‘Which titles in particular?’ I asked him. ‘Successful Positive Mental Attitude’, said Thom. ‘Think and Grow Rich, The Magic of Thinking Big by Fred Schwartz. How to Win Friends and Influence People. I’m not implying… you know… I respect these authors very much. So I don’t want to imply that they’re secret Klansmen, or that they support the Klan in any way. All I’m saying is that they continue to have a very positive influence’.

‘I was struck by Thom’s choice of words’, Ronson writes at this point:

He respected the self-help authors so he didn’t want to imply that they were secret Klansmen. This was an unusually self-deprecating position for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to take. I remembered Omar telling me that I should be proud to be a Jew, that assimilation was the worst thing of all, and I considered offering similar advice to Thom.

In fact, Thom Robb comes across as like those liberal-minded nebbishes who run much of the Anglican and Uniting Churches these days. Unsurprisingly, many Klanspeople were deserting him, much as Protestants have left their liberal churches in droves in recent years, because the old fire was lacking from the cause. Timothy McVeigh was one disenchanted ex-KKK activist. ‘The truth was’, Ronson reflects, ‘many Klanspeople felt that without hatred there was no point in even having a Ku Klux Klan. Hate, they contended, was a pivotal Klan activity… These were rocky times for the New Klan’.

What will it take to sustain compassionate order in a world overflowing with human fallibility and disoriented, misdirected fear?

Mention of Timothy McVeigh invites a bit of a reality check. Was this man a nebbish? Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck offer a portrait of the Oklahoma City bomber, in the definitive American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing. The story is not amusing. It highlights that consuming distrust of government that feeds so many conspiracy theories and secret organisations in the United States and around the world. Ronson’s sublimely compassionate take on the mentalities behind such unstable groups should not altogether put to rest our concern about them. There are, after all, disturbingly many of them and, as McVeigh’s example showed, they can lash out in shockingly destructive ways. What Ronson’s humour and compassion help to do, though, is to temper the tendency we have to react to such events ourselves with paranoia and brutality.

I was reminded of the need for such a tempering of reactive tendencies last year, at a dinner party some months after the calamitous events of 11 September. My host, a charming and sweet tempered man for whom I feel both respect and affection, remarked that ‘We should wait until there is a great big pilgrimage to Mecca, about four million of them (sic) there at once and then nuke the place!’ Was I horrified by this remark? Angered? Appalled? Well, not altogether, because I couldn’t take it seriously. Yet it seems to have been meant more or less seriously. It struck me that my host totally failed to appreciate that his statement annihilated the very moral ground on which he stood and that what he was urging was, quite literally, a thousand times worse than the terrible acts of destruction which had so angered him. And, let me repeat, this is a person whose profession is reason and who prides himself on not holding superstitious or irrational views of the world!

This question of the appropriate response to the paranoid or ‘lizard’ constituency goes to the heart of what Jon Ronson is about, I think. Nowhere is this more movingly and sombrely set out than in his second chapter, ‘Running through Cornfields’. He relates in this chapter the story of Randy and Vicki Weaver and their children—an ex-Green Beret in the US Special Forces and his family. The Weavers formed the view that ‘the world was being secretly ruled by a clique of primarily Zionist international bankers, global elitists who wanted to establish a genocidal New World Order and implant microchips bearing the mark of Satan into everyone’s forehead’. So, in 1982, they took their children to a mountain retreat in rural Idaho to stay well away from what they thought was coming.

What came was the FBI, with demands that Randy Weaver become Bureau informer on the local neo-Nazi society called Aryan Nations. He declined. The Bureau went after him. The consequence was a siege of the Weaver home in which Vicki Weaver and her son Sammy were killed by Federal agents. Ronson’s account is remarkably dispassionate. He simply relates a tragedy. A tragedy of the collision between strange error and fearful, overbearing authority. A tragedy that happens in non-violent ways every day when we encounter those we fail to understand and whose ways of thinking we distrust or despise. It is a cautionary tale as we move further into the War on Terrorism. A tale we might all do well to ponder. And Jon Ronson’s nebbish compassion and reticence in judgement make him a very good teller of the tale—a parable for our time. Read his book. Have a gentle laugh or three. And reflect on what it will take to sustain compassionate order in a world overflowing with human fallibility and disoriented, misdirected fear.


Bauval R. 1999, Secret Chamber: The Quest for the Hall of Records, Century, London.

Gardner, L. 2000, Realm of the Ring Lords: Beyond the Portal of the Twilight World, Fair Winds Press, Gloucester, MA.

Michel, L. & Herbeck, D. 2001, American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, Regan Books, New York.

Paul Monk is senior fellow with the Australian Thinking Skills Institute in Melbourne. He is a former senior intelligence analyst, who headed China analysis for the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) in the mid 1990s. He is now Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies at both Melbourne University and La Trobe University, and Visiting Fellow in Strategic Studies at the Australian National University.

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