You can't believe what you read in the newspaper, right? British journalist Jon Ronson explores the far reaches of the skeptical point of view in his book Them, a chronicle of his attempt to follow through on the claims of conspiracy theorists and find the secret room from which a shadowy group of powerful people is supposed to develop their plans to rule the world.
In his effort to find the Truth that is out there, Ronson rubs elbows with extremists of all kinds, from Grand Wizards of the KKK to muslim activists tied with Al Quaida. The one thing in common all these people have is that they believe in a secret plot to rule the world, and they regard it as their mission in life to expose this plot so that the world may be set free.
From what I've seen, the world may be pretty close to a popular uprising against secret organizations made up of shadowy world rulers. Take, for instance, what happened at a local community forum I attended last week. The forum was about the Total Information Awareness program, a nifty plan from the Pentagon for using electronically gathered information to keep track of the personal activities of every American citizen. Two people, apparently from the nearby farming town of Genoa, New York, got up from the audience and challenged the speakers to address the fact that the Total Information Awareness project was being run by the Illuminati, a satanic cabal of people who have secret ruled the world ever since the time of the America revolution. The evidence of the connection, they said, was in the logo for Total Information Awareness, which consists of a pyramid with an all-seeing eye at its top, casting its gaze over the entire world.
Now, I don't know two licks about the Illuminati, but what they say about the logo is true. Here's what it looks like:
Although he never mentions the Total Information Awareness program (it wasn't known of publicly at the time of publication), Ronson's book explores the belief in cabals of the kind described by the participants of the forum I attended. It's a mighty entertaining exploration too, very well written and entertaining thoughout, with anecdotes of all kinds of strange beliefs and behavior.
An investigation of extremists is at its most valuable to us when it provides insights into our own thoughts. Them does a beautiful job of pulling the reader into the perspective of those who believe in the conspiracies of secret committees that rule the world from behind closed doors, making the beliefs of these people just plausible enough for us to question our own assumptions about what's true. Ronson's reporting ought to make more eager to critically evaluate our own theories about what's really going on in the world.
The people that Ronson describes are particularly outlandish, entertaining in their paranoid lack of self-awareness. The truly remarkable thing about Them, however, is that it reveals how close most people are to falling away from the ability to exert self-control. For those of us who think about things and try to understand how things really work, there is always the temptation to reduce our critical examination into an automatic and complete rejection of the normative model of power in society. Once we turn the official picture of the world on its side, it becomes easy to believe that everything is a lie and that almost everyone is one of Them.
The ironically mainstream popularity of such non-selective disbelief is demonstrated through the huge financial and cultural impact of films such as The Matrix, where the hero feels free to slaughter the unenlightened once he has seen the truth himself - after all, the hero's mentor tells him, if They have not yet been liberated, They can be nothing more than unknowing representatives of the secret, evil rulers of the world. In the strange logic of the movie's alternative reality, it's better to murder those who unwittingly serve Them than allow the world's evil rulers to continue their schemes.
Now, as entertainment, I love The Matrix, and other movies of its kind, like Dark City and The Truman Show. There's a lot more meat to these stories than paranoia, but I think that those of us who choose to question the validity of mainstream ideas would do well to balance our skepticism with a regular self-assessment to ensure that our disbelief hasn't taken us past the limits of rational incredulity.
I recommend Jon Ronson's Them to anyone who worries that they're spending a little too much time worrying about what's really going on behind the scenes. I also offer the following food for thought: a secret organization is, by definition, secret. The Masons are not a secret society because you know about them. The Bilderberg Group is not a secret organization because there are massive amounts of documents out there purporting to describe what it is that the Bilderbergers are up to.
I've got a little rule of thumb: if someone from a tiny little town such as Genoa, New York has the ability to find out about a supposedly secret plot to rule the world, that plot is either a hoax or not much to worry about. The way I figure it, if there really is a satanic secret society that is trying to take over the world in secret, they're doing a really sloppy job if Farmer Prichard from Madison County has read all about it on the Internet.
Of course, there's always the possibility that the secret world rulers purposefully let the little people know about their plots because they know that no one will believe them, and thus, the very idea of secret world rulers will be automatically ridiculed by the rest of society. Yes, it could be that the Illuminati are engaged in a secret plan to make you look stupid by revealing the implausible truth to you alone. Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when at first we try to take over the world through the establishment of global organizations to sacrifice cloned babies to Beelzebub!