Jon Ronson's Them: Adventures With Extremists
Updated: Jan 7
In Northern NSW, there’s some graffiti written on a wall just outside the Lismore Base Hospital.
The graffiti, written as a series of dot points, brings together an impressive number of community fears into one short mega-conspiracy. It says:
At the same time, the USA, the President, Donald Trump, is asked whether he agrees with the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.
Meanwhile in Melbourne, Assistant Police Commissioner Luke Cornelius is asked about a planned protest in defiance of Victorian’s COVID-19 lockdown.
“[Protestors are] taking every opportunity to leverage the current situation to serve their ridiculous notions about so called sovereign citizens, about constitutional issues and about how 5G is going to kill your grandkids,” he says.
Just what is going on?
ADVENTURES WITH EXTREMISTS
Extremists and zealots have been making outlandish claims since the beginning of human history.
In fact, the word zealot is taken from a first century Judean political movement which sought to incite rebellion against the Holy Roman Empire.
In the 1990s, British author and journalist Jon Ronson decided to delve into the world of extremism to see what modern-day zealots were actually like.
He soon made a startling discovery: that extremists from very different parts of the ideological compass shared a belief that the world was being controlled by a shadowy group of powerful elites who were trying to implement a one world government.
This belief effectively unified Muslim extremists with white supremacists, and the whole universe of fringe-dwellers in between.
This powerful group of proto-elites even had a name: the Bilderberg Group. They supposedly came together to meet in a secret room, and had an annual paganistic festival at a place called Bohemian Grove in northern California.
Hence the book that he intended to write morphed into a quest to discover the truth about the Masters of the Universe.
WHERE THERE'S SMOKE
When you think about it, the idea that a small group of people exercise a disproportionate amount of political and economic power, and exercise it in a way that benefits their own interest, should not be controversial.
Indeed, Ronson recognised that as a white, educated, middle class male, he is in fact a member of the global elite himself.
His moment of clarity came in the back of a luxury car, driving around Hollywood with an A-List film director.
And then I saw where I was, in a limousine with the license plate JEW1SH, me, a Jew in the media cruising through Hollywood with my people, out to deride [Ku Klux Klan leader Thom Robb’s] beliefs, and I wondered – are we the New World Order? Is this the secret room, this limousine’s interior, right now? Is it us?
There is more to Ronson’s story than simply recognising the structural nature of power, however. In fact, in his determination to track down the truth led to two startling discoveries: both the Bilderberg Group and Bohemian Grove were real. (Remember, wikipedia still wasn't a thing back then!)
And in his laugh-out-loud retelling of the tales, Ronson describes how he almost managed to infiltrate a Bilderberg meeting with a journalist and Bilderberg-chaser Big Jim Tucker, and actually did infiltrate Bohemian Grove with notorious American alt-right shock jock Alex Jones (of InfoWars fame).
I won’t spoil the rest, you have to read the book to find out what happens.
But I will give you this much: Ronson’s investigations show conspiracy theories are most potent, and hardest to refute, when they start from point of fact. It’s what comes next that separates reality from conspiracy and fantasy.
FROM BILDERBERG TO COVID
Twenty years on from when it was published, THEM: Adventures with Extremists now seems almost quaint. The extremist views that he explored, explained, and (gently) mocked no longer seem quite so extreme. And they are no longer restricted to fringe groups of radicals.
The central narrative of a global conspiracy, directed by all-powerful clique, has leaked out into the mainstream.
The impact of the global conspiracy theory is not to be measured by the number of people who identify as adherents, but in the number of people who are simply confused and distrustful of what was previously seen as conventional wisdom.
Now we have 2020: the most batshit crazy year that any human alive has experienced.
I would love to know what Jon Ronson makes of all of this, and what he thinks has happened to turbo change the fringe extremism he documented in the book.
But hey, this is my blog, so I’ll offer a few of thoughts of my own instead.
THE PERFECT STORM
The rise of conspiracy theories has come about due to three key factors.
The first factor is the bewildering speed of change that we’ve witnessed in our lifetime (which is now being called the Great Acceleration).
These changes have been technological, environmental and social. They have included the development of the internet, the impact of human-induced climate change, and the global proliferation of mobile telecommunications and the proliferation of smart phones.
The second factor involves the response of powerful vested interests to the challenges presented by the first factor.
In particular, global corporations and conservative political parties, concerned that their dominance may be threatened by the existential need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, have set out to systematically undermine the scientific consensus around climate change.
This campaign has left our trust in science battered and bruised.
Those vested interests included many in the media – including certain media owners.
Congratulations geniuses, because, guess what: by pulling at one of the foundation stones of the enlightenment, you’ve destablised the whole shebang, and now the enlightenment project itself has got the wobbles.
With distrust in science has come distrust in all the institutions of liberal democratic societies – including the free press. Or as the President of the United States of America calls it, the "fake news media”.
So that worked out well, didn’t it?
What’s more, the collapse of trust in media has come about precisely at the time when the information hegemony of newspapers, television and radio stations is under ferocious attack due to the third factor: the social media revolution.
Legacy media institutions may be an instrument of power relations, but the wild west of social media is completely unregulated and can be completely unhinged. It is an ecosystem that does not differentiate between reality and fantasy.
Actually it does differentiate. Social media algorithms promote posts on the basis of whether users will engage with them (ie likes and clicks). Veracity tends to be less interesting, so the real world goes to the back of the queue.*
And in this ecosystem, the conspiracy theories of fringe extremists have thrived. They’ve literally gone viral.
In the media training sessions that I used to take, we would usually spend some time talking about the importance of narrative, and how human brains use narrative structure to make sense of the world.
Narrative allows us to put facts into context. But facts are vital as they ground the narrative in truth, or at least rationality.
For sure, Descartes may have said "If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things." (Or did he? ) But once you discount facts, or put science and objective reasoning on the same level as something you read on Facebook, then all narratives become equal – and equally meaningless.
That’s where we are heading now. The Great Acceleration is speeding towards The Great Confusion.
In The Great Confusion, all truth is contestable.
In The Great Confusion, 400 years of post-enlightenment values are replaced by a contest of memes. Reason, the evidence of the senses, tolerance and democracy give way to mysticism, suspicion, fear and division.
In The Great Confusion, the World Health Organisation and InfoWars are equal sources of competing information. May the shoutiest voice and the most likes win.
Twenty-five years ago, a book about living with extremists could be called THEM. Today it would be called US.
*Just today, as I post this blog, Facebook has announced that it is "banning" QAnon. Time will tell as to whether this will any impact on the spread of wild conspiracy theories on that platform.