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With Love and Squalor -
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Shanghai Baby -
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Shop Talk -
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame -
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This is Not a Novel -
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My Name is Red -
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The Corrections -
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Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America -
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

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Them: Adventures With Extremists
by Jon Ronson (Simon & Schuster)

Globalization, for all its contemporary buzzworthy cache, is nothing new. From the Roman Empire to the Middle Eastern spice routes to the frenzied European colonial land-grab, advanced societies have always tried to spread their economic and cultural influence the world over.

Whereas the internationalism of the past was scattershot and decentralized, today we have a host of supranational governing bodies such as the UN, the WTO, the EU, the IMF, NAFTA, etc., which seek to regulate the pace and reach of another relatively new phenomenon - the multinational corporation. These corporate behemoths work through a complex web of affiliates, subsidiaries, partnerships and locations, sometimes managing to buy their way into the highest levels of sovereign state power in the form of contracts, subsidies and tax loopholes - giving the appearance that there is little difference between the corporate world and our governing bodies. One need look no further than the Enron scandal (or any aspect of the Bush administration) for proof of this.

When the powerless are shown time and again that they have no say in the processes that control their lives, they might just fall victim to a reactionary form of tribalism (often labeled extremism) to try and preserve that which they hold dear. The KKK, Al Quada and various militia movements all share a common link: They are non-corporate entities who see this vast network of corporate bodies, governmental organizations and international governing agencies working together to make decisions in which they have no say, but which control their lives and lifestyle choices. They see it, and, perhaps with good reason, as a fight for survival.

Also Reviewed This Month:

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace -
Gore Vidal

The War Against Cliche -
by Martin Amis
Look at Me
by Jennifer Egan

Tishomongo Blues -
Elmore Leonard

And then there are the mutated 12-foot lizards that really rule the world.

Jon Ronson, award-winning documentarian and columnist for the Guardian, plunges deep into the underworld of conspiracy theorists, racial supremacists, and religious fundamentalists while investigating "Them" - a shadowy and supposedly all-powerful group of industrialists, rising politicians and policy-makers who purportedly control the world. In tracking the group down, Ronson encounters a wide range of characters, all of whom wholeheartedly believe that this group meets once a year in secret locations throughout the world (a prerequisite of their meeting places is supposedly an 18-hole golf course), ostensibly to plan wars, decide the fate of the world economy and choose the world's next leaders.

The surprising thing is that this group, target of wild rumors of Satan-worship and, yes, claims that they are the offspring of an extraterrestrial race of lizards, actually exists. They're called the "Bilderberg Group," and are probably pretty harmless. In fact, Ronson manages to sneak into a July, 2000, meeting of the group in northern California, at which George Bush Sr., John Major, Henry Kissinger and soon-to-be VP Dick Cheney were all guests. Ronson off-handedly mentions that news accounts will later testify that Bush, Sr., first "learned" that his son picked Cheney as his running mate "while on a camping trip in northern California." It's a bit disappointing that Ronson finds this a mere side note to the zany antics of the talk radio ideologues he is traveling with. Most disturbing, and not treated with enough depth, is the woman-hating, frat-boy behavior of our world leaders. According to his account, there were pictures of the previous night's party posted to a bulletin board in which "elderly preppy-looking gentlemen stood around, drinking and laughing. Some were dressed in full drag, with fishnet stockings and hideously applied makeup, humorously oversized fake breasts protruding from their nylon blouses, their legs wide apart, fingering their buttocks, tongues out, etc." WHAT!?!

It's good to know that our fate rests in the hands of enlightened men like this.

The book begins in London, where Ronson spends a year with Omar Bakri Mohammed, a clownish, yet manipulative man who often referred to himself as bin Laden's man in England (and is now being investigated by the British government, who may deport him). Omar gets Ronson to chauffer him around to various meetings and events, trying to raise money for terrorist groups as well as foster a jihad with which to overthrow the English government. Being Jewish, Ronson never seems to have much of a problem with this, but does have one moment of moral clarity when he is left alone with bags of money Omar has earmarked to be sent to a terrorist group in Israel. "And what the hell was I
doing, guarding money that would be used to kill the Jews? I had to reach into the car and make a run for it. This was my responsibility. My duty. How many lives might it save? But I didn't do it, of course, and then Anjem and Omar returned, thanked me for my help, and took the money to the bank."

And what would a book on extremism be without a couple of chapters devoted to our own American brand of paranoia? Ronson spends some time in the States with Rachel and Randy Weaver, of Ruby Ridge fame. Some real, disturbing questions are raised about the aggressive tactics of the U.S. government both at Ruby Ridge and Waco, which occurred just weeks later - but, as Ronson finds out, things are not always what they
seem.

While speaking to the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith, Ronson discovers that the Weavers weren't perhaps as innocent as they had led him to believe, just as he learns that others he has been dealing with haven't exactly been forthcoming about their real agendas. When trying to infiltrate his first Bilderberg meeting in Portugal with the publisher of The Spotlight newspaper, Ronson considers him just another off-kilter conspiricist. The ADL later provides him with documentation of The Spotlight's history of Holocaust denial and support for the neo-nazi movement.

Of course, the ADL practices its own form of extremism, advertising the propagandistic and question-begging slogan: "One out of eight Americans has hard-core anti-Semitic feelings." The ADL also provides him with a list of "code words", such as "New Yorker" and "International Banker" which supposedly double for "Jew" in the radical circles Ronson has been spending time in.

Skeptical of everything he encounters, including official government reports and groups like the ADL, Ronson nevertheless falls headlong into the conspiracy subculture and comes dangerously close to falling over the edge himself. In trying to understand what makes one group of people set themselves in opposition to the socio-political apparatus of contemporary society, Ronson discovers that the world we live in defies any set of rigid definitions and avoids our often-simplistic attempts at categorization. Reducing life to a struggle of "us" vs. "them" is a cop-out that naively assumes we are all merely the sum of our most obvious parts. His entertaining yet thought-provoking journey offers a very human look into the lives and motivations of those we often dismiss as "extremists". Funny thing is, they think of themselves as the sane ones. "They say that the Western liberal cosmopolitan establishment is itself a fanatical, depraved belief system," says Ronson. "I like it when they say this because it makes me feel as if I have a belief system."

- Paul McLeary

 


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[email protected] | March 2002 | Issue 24
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