Television Review

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The Independent Culture
BEING A member of the Ku Klux Klan isn't easy. As a couple of mild-mannered members pointed out to Jon Ronson in New Klan (C4), it isn't easy keeping those robes white (especially with all the flames and everything). And how do you keep that pointy bit on the hood from flopping down? And in recent years, there have been other problems to worry about: declining membership, poor public image and so on.

Ronson followed Thom Robb, "national director" of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, as he travelled the country on a publicity drive, and addressed the annual National Congress of the Klan on the need to promote a gentler, more caring image. These days, the Klan doesn't wear white robes (or at least, only once a year), it doesn't hate Jews or black people, doesn't burn down churches, and doesn't go in for cross-burning - it prefers the term "cross-lighting". Above all, it doesn't use the "N-word" - as Robb demanded of his audience at the national congress: "You think grandma's going to vote for that?" The New Klan thinks in terms of brand awareness, personality skills and TV exposure - we saw one member preparing for a rally by getting his pony-tail hair-sprayed into place.

There appeared to be plenty of grist for Ronson's deadpan, faux-naif mill here; and the film did have several moments of absurdity, pleasing or sinister. At a sparsely attended rally in a car park in St Joseph, Michigan, Robb claimed that modern America had been turned into "a cesspool of faggot-slime". He then turned away from the camera and muttered "That's the part they'll probably put on TV", as though it had been a simple slip of the tongue.

This was Robb's problem in a nutshell. According to Ronson's account, without hatred the Klan had nothing to keep it going, "just a hollowness". Membership was falling away and its rallies didn't attract much publicity, favour-able or otherwise. Meanwhile, rumours were spreading that Robb was planning a Klan cook-book, and that he had been seen kissing a black baby for the benefit of the media. Ronson visited Jeff Berry, who ran a rival faction of the Klan and wasn't afraid to say the "N-word". Berry sneered at Robb's pussyfooting: "You're supposed to be out there saying `We're tired of all you damn niggers taking our rights away'." Berry was getting regular primetime national television exposure, on news programmes and on The Jerry Springer Show.

But Robb's problem was also Ronson's: just what was he doing with these people? They didn't present a threat to public order; they weren't representative of the American Far Right, or even, if Berry was to be believed, of the majority of the KKK. So what, then, was the point of studying them? The programme's title, with its studied echo of "New Labour", suggested that there might be some satirical edge here - perhaps we were meant to find in Robb's project of renewal some reflection of Blair's Third Way. There was a passing, superficial resemblance, though not enough to sustain a programme. All in all, New Klan felt like an oddly aimless way of passing the time: Ronson had gone out ready to tackle sharks, and he had ended up tickling a dead trout.

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