The gentle absurdity of the human condition...

Jon Ronson has spent the last five years investigating the world of conspiracy theorists. He's visited the American militia movement in white separatist strongholds, jihad training camps, witnessed Ku Klux Klan cross burnings, Masonic rituals in secret groves and been chased while trying to infiltrate a clandestine meeting of politicians and businessmen called 'The Bilderberg Group'. He also spent time with ex-sports commentator David Icke who believes a bloodline of lizards rules the world.

In between all this he was also living in North London with his family and writing humorous articles for The Guardian.

I caught up with Jon Ronson before he gave a reading from his new book at the Off The Shelf literature festival in Sheffield.

Tom Stafford: How did you get started adventuring with extremists?

Jon Ronson: A commissioning editor at Channel Four knew my work doing gentle portraits of eccentrics. It was his idea to put me together with Omar [Bakri Mohammed, the London-based bin Laden supporter]. He thought it would be interesting to treat an Islamic fundamentalist in the same way you'd treat any other local curiosity, as a gentle absurdity. I did Omar and then a year or two later I did Ian Paisley.

I had a Damascus moment when i realised that all these extremists believed in the secret room [the room from which the secret rulers of the New World Order, a shadowy cabal of bankers and/or jews and/or lizards, pull the strings]. So that put in my head the idea of doing a travel book, to go and actually try to find the secret room.

TS: Do you find your own sense of self-slipping, mixing with all these people with weird beliefs? How do you keep from getting swept away?

JR: Well I do think I have a precarious sense of self anyway, but I'm also sane enough to notice when it's slipping. But I suppose on a day to day basis it's being a father, so one moment you're at jihad training camp, the next you're at legoland. The worst time in the five years I was writing the book were when the two things melted into one. Like when I thought my car was being bugged. Because I had two lives; the normal life and the extremist life and once in a while the two lives would blend. Sometimes in funny ways. The day my baby was born I had a phone call from the Ku Klux Klan saying 'we're all praying for you', not realising that they were praying for a mixed race child (the way they'd see it anyway).

But more frighteningly there was when I thought that the Bilderberg group or MI5 or somebody was checking me out but I was back in my everyday life back in Islington

TS: When doing the book did you intentionally decide to be non confrontational?

JR: Well, I'm like that anyway, but I'd say it was making a point, that I wasn't going to go in as a representative of our people, with a line I was going to push like American news reporters or someone like Donald Macintyre. So there's an element of intention there. It's how I am anyway, but i was fully aware that I'd be making a point. And that I would be more like sponge, you know I'd just allow myself to be open to their ideas, to sort of suspend my reality.

TS: I think it works really well

JR: I think it does. It's funny, when I was with the Klan one time. We're were in Michigan, we checked into a motel and there was a documentary about the Klan. but a different Klan, a rival Klan. So I'm with one Klan watching another. And you know normally they have cut-aways to noddies [shots of people nodding in agreement filmed separately], in this one they cut away to sort of sort of shaky-head stern shots, and I thought it was ludicrous. Because it was like 'let's go in a attack the Klan'. What's the point of that? All he was doing was making the viewers feel good about the fact that they weren't white supremacists themselves. It just seemed like a completely banal and pointless exercise.

TS: I was reading that chapter on the train and in that you say that the local media often send non-whites to interview the Klan

JR: Yeah, so you can see that it's easy for them to think that there's a sort of conspiracy in the media!

TS: I think there's a really strong reinforcement effect, where they think everyone is out to get them -

JR: - and everyone comes out to get them! Absolutely. I think in a way that's what the book is about. Both with Ruby Ridge where they got them in a very profound way [the home of a Idaho family that was killed by the FBI], but also in little ways all the time. We fulfil our stereotypes, constantly. The power elites of the western world, act just like the 'shadowy cabal'. That's my favourite subtext of the book.

TS: Do you think there's a connection between what the New World Order conspiracists think and what the anti-globiser's think? If you read someone like Noam Chomsky or John Pilger - who's new book is called 'the New Rulers of the World' - they go on about how the world is organised to benefit an elite few, starting wars and suppressing any dissent.

JR: Absolutely. But when I was writing the book I really didn't realise that, and it was only when I started doing readings when the book first came out, and the audience would be full of anti-globalists who were there to support the book and putting me next to Naomi Klein or Noreena Hertz. To this day you'll often see the book in those sections. Or "If you like this book try The Silent Takeover or Noam Chomsky". And that took me completely by surprise, but it was a pleasant surprise. But also…and I was thinking about this just the other day…the conclusion I came to was that books like "No Logo" talk about the implications of globalisation on people's society and people's money and, without even realising it, my book talks about the implication on people's heads and people's imagination. So maybe there is that connection. But when I realised that the conspiracy theories on the right were very similar to conspiracy theories on the left, they just called it by different names, that was a big revelation to me. I had no idea that that was the case. And it sort of comes over in the book, but I comes over without me even realising it at the time when I was writing it

And of course the far right are desperate to get into bed with the far left. Aryan Nations sent their contingent to Seattle to protest along side the [left.]

And I guess the reason they [leftists anti-racist anti-globalisers] hated David Icke was because he was spoiling it for them. I think one of the said to me "now the WTO can say 'if you're against us you believe in 12 foot lizards". But David Icke pisses off everyone in that world. The people on the extreme right also hate him because he's cleaning up with his lizard theory.

TS: I can't see why!

j: People love it! I wouldn't be surprised if David Icke sold more books than Noam Chomsky. If Noam Chomsky spoke in Los Angeles for instance 500 people would turn up. David Icke can get 2000 people in.

TS: Incredible. There's also this bizarre business with code words. [mimicking an anti-racist] "When he says he lizards he means Jews" But, maybe when he says lizards he really means lizards.

JR: Yeah, and when he says "no, I really do mean lizards" they say "ah well that's code as well" But the other day I was on David Icke's website and there was a link to The International Jew. Which is THE worst anti-Semitic book, it's really vicious. So I thought, well maybe he does mean Jews when he says lizards.

TS: So you've resolved the ambiguity you once felt?

JR: yeah, I'm beginning to. I wouldn't sanction a link to the International Jew on I was quite shocked. It seemed like he was throwing up his hands and saying 'ok, no more pretence.'

TS: Do you think there is a reason why people end up believing those kind of things? Is it that they are ill, different from everyone else - or is it that they are the same as everyone else and they believe X and we believe Y?

JR: When I was being chased by the Bilderberg group what was so amazing to me was just how easy for me it was to cross the line into the whirlpool of paranoia. I remembering thinking to myself 'Christ, a few more car chases like this and I'll be believing in 12 foot lizards.' So I think part of it is circumstance and some of it is down to bad luck. And I do think David Icke's path - and this is complete conjecture on my part - I that he had really bad arthritis and I think he had some kind of psychotic reaction to his medication and that's what made him believe that he was the son of god, and then he was on Wogan and gets laughed out of Britain. And that's what led him to believing that there were conspiracies against him; because you think everyone's out to get you, and then suddenly everyone is out to get you and so that led him down that path that goes on and on and on, which led him to the (to him) entirely rational conclusion that 12 foot lizards rule the world.

TS faced with two world views: conspiracy vs. cock-up, which would you choose?

JR: as liberal I would say a bit of both. It's half cock-up and half conspiracy. I mean look at my street. I know this is a really bourgeois outlook, but my street used to be full of little, interesting, independent shops, and now it's full of chains. Basically my street is now a kind of out of town strip mall that you'd find in Michigan. With the same chains, it's got Borders and Starbucks. And I use Borders and Starbucks all the time myself. But at the same time, how can that not be a conspiracy? Maybe capitalism is a conspiracy. On my street specifically, the council have put up all the rents to what the chains can pay. It's just a random example, but is that a conspiracy between politics and big business? It is isn't it?

TS: But no one planned it

JR: I think Starbucks planned it. They've got a deliberate policy of crowding out independent coffee shops. And they're a relatively benign example.

But as Dennis Healy said "that's not a conspiracy, that's the way things are done" I put that line in the book thinking that the subtext of that is Dennis Healy is admitting there is a conspiracy. But i don't really know what i think about globalisation yet. Maybe there is no globalisation, is there anything happening that hasn't happened before? How many of these things are disparate facts, and how many are trends? I don't really know what i think.

TS: Complex stuff! Thanks a lot for talking to

The Off the Shelf festival continues around Sheffield until November 2

Read extracts from Jon Ronson's work at
Them is available in paperback and hardback from Amazon

Photographs copyright Chris Saunders Many thanks to him for letting us use them