Sep 17

Book Review: Them

Them: Adventures with ExtremistsThem: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson

I listened to the amazing audio short “The Butterfly Effect #1” by Jon Ronson and I didn’t want the magic to end so I went to audible to see what else they had by him. This was the best on offer, since I’ve already read/listened to The Psychopath Test.

The magic of Ronson’s work is that he is so polite and nebbishy, competely at odds with the rather intense figures he interviews. In this work, he interviews an Islamic fundamentalist, the Grand Wizard of the KKK, the editor of a radical right-wing conspiracy theory newsletter, Randy Weaver, and some die-hards obsessed with infiltrating a secret cabal of owl-worshippers.

I started out totally feeling at one with Ronson’s approach. He interviews these people with total earnestness, seemingly most concerned with making sure that the subject likes him. That Ronson should feel so upset that an Islamic fundamentalist dedicated to overthrowing his own country should decide he’s not Ronson’s friend anymore seemed ludicrous. For a guy who is so easily upset, who wants so desperately to be liked, Ronson sure puts himself out there with some really unlikeable and unfriendly people.

One of the techniques that Ronson does is to transcribe the conversations, and (in the audiobook version) read them out with what I assume is not the original inflection. So if his subject says something like “One day the lizards who rule the world will let their mask slip and we’ll be there to get it on film. That will really be something, ha ha!” And Ronson will read out the “ha ha” when it was probably originally just a burst of nervous laughter. It works to make them seem ridiculous without actually mis-quoting them, but it’s a technique he uses too often.

I think maybe I’ve reached the saturation point for Ronson’s particular type of humor. Or maybe this book just wasn’t as strong as the others. Some of the people he interviewed were a combination of dangerous+pathetic, such as the Islamic fundamentalist and the Grand Wizard of the KKK. Other people were just pathetic and sad, such as David Ike who thinks that lizard people are controlling the world. But putting Randy Weaver in there wasn’t quite fair. Maybe the Bilderburg group exists (or maybe it doesn’t) and I think it’s quite a stretch to think that a secret cabal of lizard people (or Jews) are controlling the world in clandestine meetings at five star resorts, but Randy Weaver’s wife and son definitely were killed by U.S. agents. Vicky Weaver really was shot in the head by agents from the federal government in her own kitchen with her baby in her arms. Her young son really was shot in the back after they killed his dog. Whether it was because the family posed a danger to others because of their off-the-grid gun-toting anti-government beliefs, or if it’s because Randy refused to be a mole for the FBI into white supremacist organizations is up to debate, but I don’t think including him in this book set the right tone. It’s all paranoid delusions until the government murders your family.

I guess that’s my main problem with this book. Ronson doesn’t seem to be sure what kind of tone he wants to set. Is this supposed to be like Serial, where you’re halfway between belief and disbelief and vacillate between thinking these people are insane and wondering if they know something we don’t? The intro trailer set that tone. For the first half of the book, I thought that was the aim, and it seemed to be doing it pretty well. But then it went on too long. It felt like being in a stalled subway car with a crazy homeless person. At first their ranting shouts are frightening. Then they are amusing. Then they are annoying and you just want them to be quiet. I started out feeling titillation at the extremists Ronson was interviewing and their horrible agendas, but as time went on, they were just pathetic losers who only really have power when people listen to them, and I no longer wanted to listen to them.

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