By Jon Ronson

The expression “conspiracy theory” has American roots going back to attempts at price fixing by railway monopolies, but first became widely popular during the energy crisis of the early 1970s. In those days it was a slogan of the political left, angry at the collusion of capital. Support for their point of view could be drawn from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.”

That image of scheming capitalists in secret meetings is still with us, but today’s conspiracy theories are more likely to be associated with right-wing fundamentalists and “extremists.” It is into this colourful milieu that British documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson inserts himself in Them: Adventures with Extremists.

In the course of his adventures Ronson gets to hang out with Omar Bakri Mohammed, an Islamic fundamentalist living in Britain, Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge fame, Dr. Ian Paisley proselytizing in Cameroon, the politically correct head of the “new” Ku Klux Klan, and a small group of alternative news reporters intent on exposing the evils of the mysterious Bilderberg Group.

Ronson, himself a Jew and thus by most reckonings one of “Them,” manages to ingratiate himself with all of these characters using the charm, urbanity and wit he confesses to possessing in spades. His easy-going style, however, is also the book’s major drawback. Ronson, a self-described “humorous journalist,” never attempts to understand the attitudes and beliefs he encounters. Does this plague of paranoia have any explanation in our fear of technologies we can’t understand or control? Our alienation from politics that no longer seem representative? Anger at the power and influence of the media? Suspicion of globalization?

Ronson refuses to analyze. Instead, one has the sense that the extremists and extremist groups he describes are just material for his Nick Broomfield-style shtick. While he maintains his straight-guy ironic distance his subjects perform, at times self-consciously, as his clowns. It is entertaining, occasionally very funny, but it doesn’t explain anything.

What the book does manage to effectively convey is how the organizations combating extremists (like the Anti-Defamation League) often share the same blind sense of mission, intolerance, and paranoid fantasies as their enemies. The two sides play off each other, confirming the worst of their mutual suspicions. The values of liberalism – which are something different than the benevolent capitalism of the Bilderberg Group or the aggressive political correctness of the ADL would have them – are not well represented here.

Them investigates a world of myths and dark imaginings. Ronson’s own literal-mindedness and lack of imagination (he has a hard time buying the idea of code words, and never seems to consider the “secret room” as a metaphor) is both a strength and a weakness as a reporter. He admits to not having a belief system of his own, which makes it impossible for him to really understand those of others. Instead, he is content to simply edit and record amusing anecdotes of the lunatic fringe.

Review first published March 16, 2002.

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