The people who control the world
Jon Ronson goes looking for 'Them'
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Every generation gets its world-controlling cabal.
The Middle Ages had the Knights Templar. The 18th century had the Masons and the Illuminati.
Our modern age has golf-playing businessmen and 12-foot lizard-men. Or so Jon Ronson was led to believe.
Ronson, a 35-year-old British writer, humorist and documentarian, kept reading and hearing about the "tiny elite [that] rules the world from inside a secret room" -- so he decided to go in search of it.
He met with extremists of many stripes: Ku Klux Klansmen with a PR bent, Muslim rabble-rousers, a wacky Hollywood director, the Northern Ireland political leader and cleric Ian Paisley, and others convinced that a New World Order meant the end of the world. He sought out the industrialists of groups such as the Bilderberg Group and Bohemian Grove.
He wrote about his experiences in "Them" (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone paperback).
If a reader is looking for foaming-and-ranting psychotics, "Them" ain't them. Indeed, Ronson's extremists seem rather normal. Some are very much aware of how their views marginalize them. Others aren't, but couldn't care less.
There was the Arkansas Klansman Thom Robb, for example, who couldn't quite figure out where he fit in. "He wanted to give the Klan an image makeover, by banning the robes and the hoods and the 'N word' -- as he always called it ... and hatred in general," Ronson says in an e-mail interview, "even though his members were always sidling up to him and whispering, 'Uh, Thom, we kind of joined the Klan because we wanted to hate people.' "
Robb, he continues, "was desperate to be accepted by the mainstream. I'll never forget him whispering to me one day, 'Do you think I'm weird?' "
So the people of "Them" are people who are all too human -- even if they would deny others their humanity.
"I was always out to paint them with human characteristics we could relate to," says Ronson. "They really are, by and large, personable in the flesh."
And, he adds, sometimes the extremists have a point. As the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone's not out to get you. "I wanted to de-demonize the demons, and shine a light on the way governments sometimes deliberately use demonizing language for their own nefarious ends," he adds.
Ronson demonstrates his point with an affecting meeting with Ruby Ridge victims Randy Weaver and his daughter Rachel, whose clash with federal agents left Randy Weaver's wife Vicki and son Sammy dead.
Ronson came out convinced that the clan, if eccentric -- indeed, Randy visited a nearby Aryan Nations summer camp for the camaraderie, not the rhetoric -- had been mislabeled as monsters: "I certainly believe the Weavers were utterly innocent, were a threat to nobody, and if you can't believe crazy things on top of a mountain in Idaho, where can you believe crazy things?"
Rachel, in particular, "was wise beyond her years," Ronson says. "I think that if Rachel had been raised in North London, she'd be going to Starbucks and studying at art school and voting for Tony Blair."
But, Ronson was asked by friends, surely the Weavers, with their guns and their separatist beliefs, were ... troubling?
"They said, 'Come on, who would you rather have living next to you? The crazy white-separatist Weavers or a family of respected FBI agents?' " Ronson says. "The only answer I could come up with was, 'Whichever one plays their music quieter.' "
'It definitely made me paranoid'
Ronson doesn't deny that many of the extremists in "Them" are, well, extreme. Many have put together half-baked theories that blame the troubles of the world on wealthy businessmen, usually a code word for Jews. Ronson, who's Jewish himself, sometimes found it awkward to listen to their views, even as he was assured that they weren't talking specifically about him.
"It definitely made me paranoid," he says of researching the book. "When I first started writing about these people ... I came up with the self-aggrandizing conclusion that as a Jew I wanted to meet people who hated Jews. But now I think that I also connected with them on a neurotic basis. The irony is that my neurosis comes from being Jewish, whereas theirs often manifests itself in a hatred of the Jews."
But what extremists are really afraid of, he adds, is a world out of their control. They've only become more open about it since 9/11, Ronson says.
"I think you get renaissances of conspiracy theories during times of great political upheaval," he says. The first, he observes, was during the Industrial Revolution, when suspicion centered on covert plotters in secret rooms (an update of the Middle Ages' fear of Jews and moneymen). Then came the Cold War, and the plotters became Communists. Now conspiracy theorists have seized on globalization, and their bogeymen are industrialists.
Ironically, adds Ronson, to a large extent the world is out of conspiracy theorists' control. After all, conspiracy theorists tend to be fearful, less educated, less tied in to the power structure. Meanwhile, the leaders of corporations and countries do meet as part of conferences sponsored by organizations such as the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group.
They may not be the cackling puppet masters the extremists imagine, as Ronson found out when he spoke to a Bilderberg invitee who'd turned the group down -- "I don't want to rule the world," Ronson was told whimsically, "I like to do the gardening and play Scrabble and have sex" -- but they do try to exercise influence, and hope their ideas become policy.
Still, that's a far cry from meeting in a tiny room. Or from being a 12-foot lizard, as imagined by one of Ronson's subjects, David Icke, who really believes that. In fact, he's accused everyone from Bob Hope to Al Gore to Queen Elizabeth of hiding their reptilian selves underneath human suits.
"When David says that 12-foot blood-drinking child-sacrificing pedophile lizards secretly rule the world, he really is referring to lizards," says Ronson.
Ronson, of course, doesn't buy into that theory. On the other hand, while researching a Bilderberg Group meeting, he was chased through parts of Portugal by shadowy security men, and says he found out just how thin the membrane between "us" and "them" may be.
"My paranoia made me realize just how fragile my liberal, cosmopolitan baggage is," he says. "A few more car chases like that and I'll be believing that lizards rule the world."