I was going to introduce this as Ronson’s first book and my third (of his), but a cursory look at his Wikipedia entry tells me that that is in fact not the case. I hate to start a review with a tangent (I don’t), but there is, in fact, an elusive but not hard-to-find book called Clubbed Class published in 1994 (Them saw its first publication some seven years later). It is described by the publisher as “[…] a travel book with a difference. Ronson lies and cheats his way around the world, sampling the jet set life, in his quest for the world’s finest holiday. He gambles in Las Vegas, sips cocktails on the QE2, game hunts in Zimbabwe and witnesses the final days of apartheid in Sun City.”
I want this book. As a prelude to what I’ve spent the last couple weeks reading it would be an absolutely fascinating look at any potential growing pains Ronson had while refining his humor and unique journalistic voice in a scattershot view of a world now relegated to myth for an entire generation.
So now that I’ve started a review with a book I’d like to read, let’s break into the book I actually read.
Them (because I refuse to write out the title of a book past the colon) is broken down by targets. I’d say groups, but when your goal is to infiltrate a group under a guise and often lie and omit, there isn’t much else to call it. We go through British Jihadists and their strangely prima donna attitudes, The Ku Klux Klan on their way to effectively rebranding themselves as a more huggy, less lynchy collection of White Nationalists and how the more militant of the klan take that as well as a gay black man running for president, and (because it was mentioned in his essay The Elephant in the Room) the notoriously maligned Bilderberg Group (hitherto known as the Build-A-Bear Group).
After working throw what I consider to be his later works, going back in time feels like I’m doing just that, retreating into a time where he is still hungry, a journalist desperate for his place at the table, willing and daring to do anything in order to get a chance to grab that spark that allows a soul to surge to the top of read-lists and into the mild comfort of the cultural zeitgeist. Clearly this worked, the book sold well and over the last 15+ years he has leveraged it into innumerable writing gigs and several more published books, but the Jonson of here seems a little too keen on treating his subjects as collections of wildlife, standing aside more often than not and letting ‘nature takes its course’. It’s not morally wrong, but it is most definitely questionable, mainly because it’s done not out of some sense of self-preservation, but because he wants the story. And no one dies, there is no great drama other than the implications of his actions and utter lack of contrition or awareness of what I feel should be pretty obvious in their moral questionability.
All of the stories that Ronson tells end rather abruptly. There is no sense of closure. You don’t necessarily feel like you are missing anything terribly important, but the idea of an ending seems somehow forgotten, like a book missing a back cover because the binder didn’t feel it was particularly necessary to appreciate the content that makes up its pages. It’s necessarily wrong, but if you’re not going to care enough to put a bow on something you’ve written then I have to wonder how much you cared to begin with.
Finally, The Build-A-Bear Group and the events that its alumni partake in at Bohemian Grove. This is the story mentioned by Ronson in later works and seems to be something of a defining moment in setting off his career. And in this book I can understand why. Paranoia is infectious and mixed with fear it is as powerful a narcotic as any opiate. Whether in the Build-A-Bear Group or at the hushed hallows of Bohemian Grove, rich and powerful people rubbing shoulders with other rich and power people seems to be seen an unnatural thing. Now I’m not suggesting it is in the best interest of the country to have an oligarchy, but to call it a conspiracy as supposed to a natural cornerstone of end-game capitalism seems tragically misleading. The Build-A-Bear Group gets together and plans on how to retain power and influence the young and impressionable future political giants with whatever their version truth is, while Bohemian Grove is a bunch of rich vary-aged white men getting together and reliving their more youthful days while binge-pissing off walking trails for the sake of being men, of being somehow capable of controlling, or dominating the world around them.
It’s a strange surreal experience of skeptical and conspiratorial minds engaging the same event and coming out of it with experiences so different that one is forced to wonder what kind of selective horror must have been imposed on Jones and friends off screen while Ronson and his compatriot cautiously wandered from forest bar to forest bar observing and occasionally engaging with the mundane eccentricities of the elite.
It’s a fascinating read, that part anyway. And the rest hit their marks occasionally, but there is still an abruptness in the way each story. Like an exposé, deliberately or not, cut back to rather long anecdotes. Were I to have read this book first in my Jon Ronson binge, I feel I probably would have enjoyed it better, but coming at it third I was left rather, if not unimpressed then unmoved by its contents.
That is, perhaps in part due to the mainstreaming of so much of the extremist culture on display in this book. From the Jihadists to the White Nationalism that made America hate again, they are our every day, things we look into the TV day after day, acknowledging and living with, a monster we see so often that fear has given way to dejection, sadness, and perhaps even that dread feeling of normalcy, even as the monster continues to grow larger and more vicious just outside our window.
I’m now left wondering if the reason this book didn’t work for me was less due to content, and hinged almost entirely on the fact that 2001’s extremism feels so mild, almost good-tempered compared to the casual conversations I hear online and during holiday dinners.
“Bilderberg is a way of bringing together politicians, industrialists, financiers and journalists. Politics should involve people who aren’t politicians. We make a point of getting along younger politicians who are obviously rising, to bring them together with financiers and industrialists who offer them wise words. It increases the chance of having a sensible global policy.”
“Does going help your career?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” he said. Then he added, “Your new understanding of the world will certainly help your career.”
“Which sounds like a conspiracy,” I said.
“Crap!” said Denis Healey. “Idiocy! Crap! I’ve never heard such crap! That isn’t a conspiracy! That is the world. It is the way things are done. And quite rightly so.” He added, “But I will tell you this. If extremists and leaders of militant groups believe that Bilderberg is out to do them down, then they’re right. We are. We are against Islamic fundamentalism, for instance, because it’s against democracy.”
“Isn’t Bilderberg’s secrecy against democracy, too?” I asked.
“We aren’t secret,” he snapped. “We’re private. Nobody is going to speak freely if they’re going to be quoted by ambitious and prurient journalists like you who think it’ll help your career to attack something that you have no knowledge of.” – Jon Ronson, Them: Adventures with Extremists