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January 16, 2006

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures - Louis Theroux

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures
by Louis Theroux
Pp. 280. London: Macmillan, 2005
Hardback, £17.99

In his 2001 book Them: Adventures With Extremists, Jon Ronson travels with a veteran of the conspiracy theory subculture called Jim Tucker to Portugal, to infiltrate what is supposed to be a meeting of the Bilderberg Group. The Bilderberg Group, of course, in a certain paranoid Weltanschauung, is one of the sinister groups who actually run the world, along with the Trilateral Commission, the Freemasons, and anyone else sufficiently mysterious yet high profile enough to attract the attention of those looking for a grand, unified explanation of the state of the world. In any case, in Ronson's account things very quickly change from a rather jolly caper. Leaving the hotel where the Bilderbergers will, in due course, be divvying out control over the affairs of men and drinking the blood of newborn babies, they find themselves being tailed by a dark green Lancia.

Ronson rings the British Embassy:

"British Embassy."

"Ok," I said, "I'm a journalist from London. I'm calling you on the road from Sintra to Estoril – "

"Hold on."

"Press office."

"I'm a journalist from London." I said. "I'm calling you on the road from Sintra to Estoril. I'm being tailed, right now, by a dark green Lancia, registration number D4 028, belonging to the Bilderberg Group."

There was a sharp intake of breath. "Bilderberg are very secretive," she said. "They don't want people looking into their business. What are you doing here?"

"I am essentially a humourous journalist," I explained. "I am a humourous journalist out of my depth. Do you think it might help if we tell them that?"

In a public talk in Dublin on 28th September 2001, Ronson provided some further detail unmentioned in the book. After saying
I am essentially a humourous journalist,
he told the Embassy's woman that:
I'm a bit like Louis Theroux.
The audience tittered, evidently regarding Theroux as a little bit, well, declassι. Later Ronson declared that he hoped that he, unlike Theroux, didn't just mock Those Silly Americans but had a certain respect for the various conspiracy theorists and cultists he encountered.

It turns out that Louis himself harbours similar hopes. The Call of the Weird (one of the working titles was May Contain Traces of Nuts which perhaps indicates less of a desire to get away from mockery than Theroux claims) is a sort of follow up of the various individuals featured in Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends – as well as some others who had not been featured in the final series. Theroux describes his anxieties on embarking on this tour:

My anxieties took various forms. I'd had the idea of seeing my old subjects because I was curious what had become of them. But it would also be my first visit since making the shows, which, now I thought about it, some critics had regarded as being faintly mocking in tone. Would my interviewees still be as friendly having seen the programmes? Would they feel conned? Would they mind that the series of cultural documentaries they'd participated in, Louis Theroux's America, had arrived on British TV screens as a light-hearted romp called Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends?
There's a certain faux-naοve quality to this – I love that "now I thought about it", as if he was blissfully unaware that anyone would think he had been "mocking in tone". His subjects, with the exception of the frankly sinister self-help guru Marshall Sylver, seem either indifferent to the shows or proud. For instance Jerry Gruidl, former aide-de-camp to Richard Butler of Aryan Nations, delightedly recalls:
I enjoyed the shows you sent me … I bring them out if I have visitors. I was kinda shocked by the one where you were in the porno thing. I laughed my ass off. I thought that was really gutsy.
Gruidl is, despite his utterly noxious beliefs, presented by Theroux as somewhat endearing – he describes:
being in the slightly uncomfortable position of being treated in a slightly grandfatherly way by an unabashed neo-Nazi and anti-Semite.
Theroux doesn't just focus on various millenarian groups, unlike Ronson. His subjects include prostitutes, pornographic performers and self-help figures. Ike Turner features, largely because of his notoriety as a wife-beater rather than anything else. He finds himself talking to the former Thor Templar, in 1997 "Lord Commander of the Earth Protectorate", who ran a security agency for those under attack from aliens. This firm – the Alien Resistance Movement – peddled a variety of wares, the most dramatic of which was a:
"psychotronic helmet" [which] looked a lot like an ordinary bicycle helmet with various knobs and pipes glued on.
Thor Templar himself had reportedly killed many aliens using this device. Now, using a different nom de guerre, he runs a more conventional New Age company. When he meets Theroux, they find a shared dislike of President Bush brings them together:
That I shared so much political common ground with a one-time alien hunter struck me as curious.
One of the major virtues of our age is being non-judgemental. People talk about being non-judgemental as if it is ipso facto a good thing. One wonders would "undiscriminating" have a similar cachet some day. One would imagine that non-judgementalism about his subjects would be one of Theroux's animating principles. To a degree, this is so. But oddly enough – or perhaps not so oddly, since he does find himself becoming involved in their lives and reflecting on his previous status as a sort of voyeur – as the book proceeds Theroux finds himself less and less non-judgemental about the lives of his characters. After filming Mike Cain, one of the residents of Almost Heaven, the isolated millenarian community founded by Colonel "Bo" Gritz (alleged model for "Rambo"), Theroux tries to gently dissuade Cain from the armed confrontation with the government that was the not-too-hidden subtext of the militia movement.

The rabid anti-Semite Gruidl who treats Theroux with grandfatherly affection, even printing out flyers when his laptop goes missing, has his rancid beliefs challenged in an admittedly ineffectual way:

I just don't see the big deal. When I think of Jewish people, I think of people like Woody Allen and Bob Dylan and Marcel Proust. People I admire.
Not, as Theroux admits, the best choice of examples designed to appeal to a chap like Gruidl.

In the chapter on pornography, Theroux finds himself wondering if a successful obscenity case against Rob Black, a "horror porn" film maker, might succeed in restraining an increasingly limitless industry. (For once the overused "industry" is the mot juste) Theroux's own view – that pornography degrades women – comes into clearer and clearer focus throughout the chapter, almost despite his own liberalism, one feels.

Not all the characters are remotely sympathetic – there's the slimy self-help guru Sylver, taking thousands from spectacularly gullible victims, there are the racial supremacists of Aryan Nations whose clownishness does not detract from their repulsiveness. There's April Gaede, villainess of perhaps the most disturbing chapter in the book, on "Prussian Blue", a musical group made up of Gaede's pretty, blonde, blue-eyed twelve-year old daughters. Called "Prussian Blue", in the vile words of Mrs Gaede, because:

their eyes are blue and my dad's side of the family are Prussian Germans they thought it would be a good name for the group. Prussian Blue is also a compound that should be present in the residue left over from Zyklon-B and which is not present – get this – not present in the so-called "gas chambers" in Auschwitz.
The girls tour the circuit, so to speak, of white power camps and conferences singing the hits of racial hatred.

Some more high-minded readers will wonder: what is the point? Why all this fuss and bother about a handful of crank conspiracy theorists, the lunatic fringe of the lunatic fringe, and a bunch of prostitutes and porn performers?

Firstly there is, as outlined above, the odd way in which Theroux becomes something of a moralist. There is something warm and compassionate about Theroux's approach. One wishes, perhaps, that the word "weird" did not occur so often in the titles of his creations. But despite this he is not an uncritical spectator. Non-judgementalism does get you a certain distance – one doubts that if he was moralising from the start of his encounters with his subjects that Theroux would get very far at all. But once involved in their lives, one cannot help but seeing the obvious sources of the misery and desperation some of these people live in.

What's more, it always does one good to realise the sheer variety of human experience in an age of a superficial libertinism that conceals a more pervasive non-conformity. John Stuart Mill famously wrote:

that so few dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of our time.
Eccentricity for its own sake is of course supremely irritating, as well as obviously fake. But the eccentricity that is a simple by-product of genuinely held convictions or an approach to life is a different matter. Mill explained that the intellectual vigour and innovative power of a society could be measured by its tolerance of eccentricity, even if the eccentricity itself was not remotely part of mainstream society. It is significant that this sort of book seems invariably to be about America. For all the grotesqueries of some of the subjects here, it is testament to the protean variety of the place.

The final words say it best:

As I worked away in the cacophonous apartment, with the noise of the passing trucks and the motorcycles shaking the walls, I realised that this might be the secret that I was hoping to disclose. I would never stop phoning round my old subjects. I would never stop musing over cups of tea, and wondering what became of the people I met; the journey was ongoing and endless. And I became aware of that vast continent of human stories that lay at my back, stretched out under the overarching sky; the UFO believers and porn performers, and cult leaders and rappers, and somewhere a neo-Nazi playing mah-jong on his computer in a room he shared with fifteen-cent fish.

Seamus Sweeney is a medical graduate and freelance writer. He is a contributor to Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece (Ashgate, 2005).

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I meant "pervasive conformity"


Posted by: Seamus at October 24, 2012 03:29 PM
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