I spent this morning at the annual Fortean Times covention - Uncon 2011, held at the Camden Centre in London.
The last time I was at the Camden Centre was in the days the London Anarchist Bookfair was held there. I have to say that event probably rather spoiled me - Uncon has considerably less going on, and at £32.35 including booking fee for a one day ticket, the pricing structure is also somewhat different. Todays session had a room with a coffee bar and six stalls, and then in the main arena six one hour talks on the big stage. Of these the only one that really floated my boat was Jon Ronson, discussing his book The Psychopath Test.
I have apparently met Ronson before (he wrote a sarcastic report for Time Out on a Class War public meeting in Brixton in 1993) but was pleasantly surprised by just how funny he was and how capably he dealt with a thirty minute Q&A session. Ronson's talk took in the Scientologists, a Broadmoor inmate who says he faked mental illness to avoid a long prison sentence, and his experience meeting some of the leading figures in mental health such as Robert Hare. Ronson attended Hare's classes so as to be able to use his psychopath checklist. From Hare, Ronson took the idea that many corporate CEO's display psychopathic tendencies, and indeed that these ideals are actually a boon for business careers. A lack of empathy, remorselessness and a superficial charm are benefits in corporate life. Hare estimates that whilst only 1 person in 100 is a psychopath, 4 in 100 CEOs are. More recently both George Monbiot and Horizon have adapted these arguments.
Before we all rush to work and ask our boss if he minds sitting through the PCL-R test before his first meeting of the morning, Ronson did offer a clear warning of the dangers of untrained amateurs rushing about in the this field, plus secondly the obvious problems with labelling people. Throwing the floor open for questions, this point was again re-emphasised, with Ronson arguing he hopes the first half of the book may allow the reader to become power crazed, the second half to realise the error of their ways.
Ronson expressed relief that his work on conspiracy theorists was conducted before 9/11. He takes the view that he was the first person outside of the 'conspiratorial left or right' to look at the Bilderberg meetings, and that these events now get serious press coverage. Ronson was scathing about the 9/11 'truth' movement, arguing its humourless nature meant it was impossible to empathise with them (and presumeably to make good television out of them!)
Those expecting Jon Ronson to use his platform to criticise the pharmaceutical industry, or the health industry may have been disappointed. His position here is, he insists, evidence based. The only trend he is aware of that lacks any evidence for it is childhood bi-polar disorder. Here children 2-3 years old are being labelled as bi-polar because of what are in effect temper tantrums - with the pharmaceutical lobby and pushy parents happy to revel in 'treatments' for this condition.
More generally in the questions Ronson praised The Guardian for its high moral stance, something that suggests he is unaware of the more critical literature about The Guardian/Observer to emerge in recent years, or the treatment of certain Guardian journalists such as Michael Gillard and Laurie Flynn. He ended by pointing out pyschopathic tendencies are ideal for some of the business practices that have proved so damaging to the economy in recent years - the sub-prime market and asset stripping need a short term, get rich quick and never mind the consequences mentality. The long term businessman behaves in exactly the opposite way.
Uncon 2011 continues today and tomorrow. If the prices are held, or come down, I may well attend next year, but the organisers should throw the event open to Fortean Times subscribers a lot more. Until they do, Uncon won't achieve what it could.