I’ve just finished Jon Ronson’s ‘Them: Adventures with Extremists.’ Thoroughly enjoyable, rollickingly quotable and yet… Well, there’s a nagging feeling that the book is a bit… fictional.Ronson is a UK-based humour writer who produces material for the Guardian (who seem to have a thing for humour writers, as I found out whilst living in London). He admits this early on in the book when he tracks the Bilderberg Group to Portugal and finds himself the subject of some very overt surrveillance. The chapter reads well; jumpy reporter, a riling mark and strange, secret group of pan-government-cum-capitalists spying on each other. It reads rather too well, as if the events have been carefully restructured to provide the best in written entertainment.Which I think they have.Let it be said that I’ve no doubt that Ronson interviewed the people he claims to have met. I’ve no doubt that he went to Portugal. Indeed, I suspect that if pushed he could provide tapes and transcripts of almost every dialogue he reports.I just have doubts about the events surrounding those snippets of conversation.My suspicion arose originally because Ronson claims, in the introduction, to have gone from skeptic to slight-believer in the kinds of One World Government conspiracies that currently make up the bulk of American ‘alternative’ histories. Nothing in the book ever gives any support for that claim, though; up to the very end he is presenting the usual agnostic sentiments about global conspiracies that you expect from a reporter writing a humourous look at the Extremists (his term). Thus, the introduction reads not like an admission but a useful hook to get you to read further; why does Ronson think this way, et cetera. The lack, then, of support makes me think that he’s playing with pre-conceptions. Good for him; I enjoy well-written, well-paced books like everyone else.Elswhere in the text events end up being too convenient. Ronson gets chased in Portugual by, presumably, the Bilderberg Group and the local British Embassy warns him off. It reads like 60s spy fiction. Some of the unattributed conversations he has with Klan members come right out of the ‘Dukes of Hazzard.’ Omar Baktri is portrayed as ‘the nice racist,’ a peculiarly English stereotype that everyone knows of but no one has ever met. Every event in the book is like this; it touches on a schema of reality we know via the media rather than via our own experience.This troubles me; I’m a Classicist when it comes to History. I beleive that history is meant to be informative and entertaining; that it should, properly, be thought of as fiction. Up until relatively recently History was a form of fiction; people simply made stuff up to fill in the historical record. Whether it was Suetonius making up sexual perversions for Tiberius or Gibbon’s filling in events between those he could find references for, History was treated as entertainment and moral education. Ronson’s book isn’t strictly history; I doubt it will ever be used as primary source material for the life of Omar Baktri, for instance, but it fits in with the kind of secondary source material that people will end up supplementing history with. So, as a Classicist I think that’s okay, but as a researcher in Conspiracy Theories I’m torn. On one hand Ronson is probably getting to the heart of the material; whilst his reports may not feel accurate they present the kinds of view’s people have in a clearer way due to the fictionalisation. On the other hand I can’t really be sure of that without further research, and there’s so much to read anyway.Gah. No matter my philosophical issues I would recommend the book to anyone with a slight interest in the views of those against globalisation and the One World Government. Funny, easy to read (I read it in about four hours) and it has no weird after taste, which is more than can be said for some of the other books on my reading list.
About Matthew Dentith
Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.All posts by Matthew