Monday, March 27, 2017

Who Is This Jon Ronson Person Anyway?

Jon Ronson, The Elephant in the Room: A Journey into the Trump Campaign and the “Alt-Right” and The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones: And the Less Amazing Adventures of Some Other Real-Life Superheroes

Welsh journalist Jon Ronson probably came closest to hitting the big time when Ewan McGregor played him in the 2009 film The Men Who Stare At Goats. He lacks Hunter S. Thompson’s name recognition, despite being visibly influenced by Thompson’s gonzo style, but continues producing prolifically. Having recently discovered Ronson’s work, I decided to investigate him further by reading some of his standalone digital essays. Sadly, I emerged more confused than when I went in.

I cannot dispassionately consider Ronson’s essay about the Alt-right, in largest part because he published it before the 2016 general election. Like me, he considered Clinton's victory a foregone conclusion, and treats Donald Trump as a nine-days wonder, bound to blow over quickly. Interactions with actual conservatives present as low comedy. Thus he doesn't so much unpack Trump, as mock Trump's various hangers-on, especially Alex Jones, to whom Ronson has a personal and professional connection.

More important, for an essay whose title promises to go "Into the Trump Campaign and the Alt-Right," it offers precious few inside views. Ronson wanders into Alex Jones' studio a few times, where he's greeted with polite distrust. But he never meets Trump, Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort, or Kellyanne Conway. His Trump campaign reports originate in the press gallery way above the Republican National Convention. He’s one among the crowd; there's no insidership on display.

Completing this essay, I feel no better informed about the Alt-Right than going in. Who are they? What is their unifying position? When did they uncouple from the mainstream right? Are they more than PR jargon? For a term that's gotten ballyhooed widely in the last six months, I realize I know little about them. I undertook this essay, partly, hoping it would clarify my confusion. Instead I feel as flummoxed and adrift as ever.

This essay doesn't know what it wants to be about, probably because its author doesn't know what he wants to accomplish. We're I grading this whirlwind in my classroom, I'd say it lacks a thesis statement. Without that, the author lacks focus, and the reader lacks grounding. Ronson apparently expected a message to emerge from this stream of consciousness. But it's just a mélànge of liberal journalist buzzwords opportunistically grabbing a waiting, but confused, audience.

Jon Ronson
Ronson’s essay about the Real-Life Superhero Movement has the opposite problem: where he analyzes the Alt-Right he never meets, he meets the Superheroes he barely analyzes. Fluke Internet publicity made Phoenix Jones a viral sensation in the late 2000s, despite being hardly the only unarmed, costumed crimefighter in America, or even Seattle. Equipped with a press agent and a theatrical flair, Jones made civilian street patrols, formerly a fringe area, suddenly visible, if still unpopular.

Late-night patrols with Jones’s Rain City Superhero Movement reveal a strikingly banal truth: they don’t do much. Though Jones claims he’s been shot on patrol, his principal activity apparently involves making people stare, turning public gaze on unsavory people doing unsavory things, until they back down. They’re less crime-fighters, more public spectacle. In many ways, mostly unspoken but once briefly acknowledged, these “superheroes” channel the existential malaise inherent in Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen.

Though the Rain City Superheroes have garnered media attention, they’re hardly America’s only self-proclaimed superheroes. Ronson visits other cities, only to find himself deeply disappointed. New York’s organized “superheroes” are effective at dispersing criminals, but have little flair; Ronson calls them bullies. San Diego’s superheroes make good PR, but patrol safe, gentrified downtown streets. Only the Rain City Superheroes combine theatre with (sadly paltry) results.  Despite many fine-sounding promises, this ain’t the Justice League, folks.

Unfortunately, Ronson only makes these “heroes” into punch lines. He observes them only one or two nights, which, combined with cursory interviews, denies them any reliable long view. He makes no attempt to get viewpoints from police, policy experts, psychologists, or basically anyone outside the movement. He simply contrasts the superheroes’ high-minded rhetoric with their banal results and rolls his eyes. Fans of pop psychology will see avenues for deeper investigation, which Ronson basically ignores.

These essays don’t instill confidence in Ronson’s journalism. The one trait they share is Ronson himself. Like P.J. O’Rourke and other Rolling Stone alumni, his “journalism” involves reporting what happened to him, and assuming it’s representative. If a student presented such content to me, I’d explain the Fallacy of Composition and suggest avenues for rewrite. But maybe that’s why I’m still slaving in the salt mines, while Ronson gets movie resales and TED Talk invites.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting perspective on Jon Ronson. I've been a fan of his work for ten years or so, but I've never considered him a journalist in the traditional sense. Perhaps that's because I first heard of him through his appearances on This American Life, a show that is a venue for memoir more than journalism per se, although they have done some admirable investigative reporting in stand-alone episodes. As I understand him, he is a memoirist and casual debunker. He has made it his job to demystify an array of bogeymen of American culture such as DARPA and the contemporary spiritual medium industry, but has never claimed to be making a thorough investigation of any of them.

    With The Elephant in the Room I got the impression that, like many of us, Ronson was caught unprepared for an actual Trump win, and started scrambling to publish something when Trump became the Republican nominee and he realized that every little bit of inside information about Trump's inner circle, about which not much was know, should be widely disseminated. But that's just my guess.