A wandering Jew

Them: adventures with extremists

Jon Ronson <em>Picador, 337pp, £16</em>

ISBN 0330375458

Extremists, notes Jon Ronson, don't like being called extremists. They prefer to say that it is members of "the western liberal cosmopolitan establishment" who are the real extremists. "I like it when they say this," he remarks, "because it makes me feel I have a belief system." The whole book is captured in that thought - wry, paradoxical, mocking, ambivalent, uneasy, self-aware and deprecating. The postmodern liberal aspires to accept everything and yet believe nothing. But then he finds himself confronted by people - extremists - who believe one thing and can accept nothing else. To them, the liberal is tyrannical and his tolerance is thinly disguised oppression. The liberal posture being, by definition, weak, he does not fight back. Instead, sadomasochistically, he muses on the possibility of being comforted by faith. Because they hate me, he reasons, I must believe. But in what?

One way to confront this conundrum is to think about it; another, better way is to act upon it. Ronson acts. The result is a funny, superbly controlled account of his wanderings through the wonderland of fanaticism and delusion. This may be one more example of the "cool hack meets weird people" genre, which was already looking jaded in the late 1960s. But it is lifted out of the ordinary: first, by the quality of Ronson's writing; second, by the carefully disguised seriousness of his intent; and third, by his Jewish identity.

The writing is carefully understated. He avoids too much comment, offers little analysis, and lets his material speak for itself. In fact, his material is so good that it would be madness to do otherwise. With David Icke believing the world is controlled by a conspiracy of 12ft lizards, almost everybody believing it is run by a committee of malevolent Jews, and with the blandly confident antics of London's own pocket Islamic warrior, Omar Bakri Mohammed, all Ronson needs to do most of the time is stand back and watch.

The result is high comedy. Omar, for example, likes to take advantage of Office World's Price Promise when photocopying his leaflets furthering the cause of Islamic rule in Britain. "Oh yes," he explains, "I benefit from your capitalism to convey the message" - and, when Ronson visits Office World with Omar, so does a Hasidic Jew, who is copying some sheet music for a barmitzvah. The Jew glances at Omar's leaflets - with their demand to "Crush the Pirate State of Israel!" - and glares at them. "This is a very sensitive moment," whispers Omar. Then there is the plot by anti-racists to throw a meringue pie at David Icke in a bookshop. It misses and splatters all over the children's section. "Well, that massively backfired," murmurs Icke.

The point of such incidents it to dramatise the gulf between quotidian reality and the florid eccentricity of the extremists' beliefs - in the case of the Icke incident, to show the daftness of those who take him seriously enough to bother opposing him. Ronson and the reader see what Omar and Icke cannot - that the actual world does not conform to their interpretations. Where are the lizards? And doesn't the joint eagerness of the Jew and the Arab to exploit Office World's Price Promise suggest a sharing of ordinary human interests that, banal though it may be, subverts all their grandiloquent differences?

Ronson's problem, however, is that, as he plunges deeper into this world, he finds, to his amazement, that the world does conform to at least some of the extremists' beliefs. The most consistent extremist belief - held by poor white American backwoodsmen as well as by Islamic militants - is that the capitalist world is run by a secret committee of Jews. This, they say, is called the Bilderberg Group. As Ronson discovers, the Bilderberg Group exists and, although not all its members are Jewish, it does seem to make a serious attempt to run the world by bringing together a bunch of political and intellectual heavyweights to, well, talk things over.

But they are secretive simply because it ensures open discussion, and their attempt to run the world seems to consist solely of introducing people to each other. They are, in reality, about as sinister as the World Economic Forum, and a good deal less sinister than the average British Cabinet meeting. This is not to say that potentially lethal conspiracies are not possible - Nazism was one, communism another - but it is to say that paranoid fantasy is not the best basis for assessing the threat.

The problem is, I suppose, that we have neither a big, global ideology to combat, nor belief. In the absence of either, we tend to invent both. Capitalism becomes a systematic ideology which, in practice, it is not, and belief becomes a paranoid nightmare. People need belief, as Ronson wryly notes about himself, and some, inflamed by the spectacle of an economically successful world of unbelief, resort to faiths that require the destruction of that world.

These faiths have the crucial virtue of making their adherents feel they belong. Contemplating them, Ronson, the wandering Jew, feels he does not - maybe cannot - belong. At this point, his Jewishness plays a trick on him. Sitting with a Jewish film director in the back of a limo in Hollywood, he suddenly feels relaxed. These are his people. But wait a minute, perhaps this is the conspiracy. "Is this the secret room, this limousine's interior, right now? Is it us?"

He steps back from this moment, pointing out that the Jews' very attempt to mingle with the Gentiles has created the myth of "a shadowy cabal: we Jews who camouflage ourselves". They are not doing anything sinister, they are "just hopelessly in love with the camouflage".

But the stepping back is not quite enough. He is right, the Jews are not conspiring, they are embarrassed. But, more broadly, the liberal elites of the west are engaged in some sort of loose, unconscious conspiracy to spread something that is not so much a doctrine as a way of life they find comforting to their own rootlessness. Viewed from the other side of the looking glass, this can appear as crazy as Icke and his lizards. Belief, after all, is the normal human condition; it may, in truth, be the only viable way of life. That, as this book so wittily demonstrates, is the issue.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, John Prescott: sinking fast