In his new book, Depends What You Mean by Extremist, scallywag-turned-social-commentator John Safran plunges into the mad world of “Australian deplorables”. We spoke with him about dealing with conflict, combating racism with humour, and whether we’re all truly screwed.
Interviewer Ronan MacEwan
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What made you want to write about extremism in Australia?
There are long-term things and short-term things. The long-term was my own life growing up Jewish with all this shit floating around. I lived with my grandparents in high school, but they never sat me down and said, “Oh you know, all our family were killed by Nazis and we’re the ones who survived and got to Australia.”
I went to a very religious Jewish school, even though my family wasn’t all that Jewish, and I started to see all these angles that are interesting. Nothing is fixed; you’re white, but you’re not quite white. You’re Jewish, so does that mean you’re a victim of racism? But hang on, now there are all these Jews of Israel who are the ones doing the persecuting. If you’re just a classic white Aussie, it’s easier to rest on some simple thing. When you’re not quite white, everything doesn’t fit easily and you start to notice.
Cut to 2015, and I’m rocking up to a far-right rally because I was fascinated by the claim there was going to be skinheads on the street. But when I got there, there were all these multi-cultural people on the anti-multicultural side. I was like, What the fuck. And when I brought it up on Twitter, people were pissed off with me. I became interested in why people were uncomfortable with me [saying this was odd]. And I thought, everything in art is about conflict, and there is obviously conflict here, so I’m going to dive down this rabbit hole.
That’s one of the stressful things in your book – you don’t back away when the conversation gets uncomfortable. You get attacked from both the left and the right, and sometimes threatened physically. How do you remain calm when people are saying these horrible things to you and get on with writing a book?
I’m in a very fortunate position to be able to play out all that stuff in real time and bend it to an advantage. But if I couldn’t use [this negativity] for the work, I would just hate it. I would be like, Fuck this, I’m just going to be interested in cricket or something. If it wasn’t going into the book, I wouldn’t even like the mild conflict. I don’t know how I could be political – I couldn’t put up with the conflict. I did hate it at the time when the [right wing group] UPF were putting [memes] up about me, and I was having to put out those fires on the internet. So many things that helped chug things forward in the book were the things I hated at the time.
What kept you going forward?
I didn’t have a Plan B. I’ve always had this creative thing in me, and I just needed to express it somehow. In primary school, I’d tried to draw comic strips and I was no good at that, so then I formed bands. And then that didn’t work out. Later, I auditioned for [the ABC program] Race Around the World, and I got on. I was shooting little documentaries, and I stumbled into this style where I imposed comedy and my personal story onto the real world. If there was a big earnest issue, you were meant to treat it with reverence, but I’d somehow make it all about me. I would turn a story on voodoo culture in Africa into an opportunity to put a curse on my girlfriend. I fell into this style and everything I’ve done since then, including this book, has been a version of that.
You interview the whole spectrum of extremists in the book, from the super-religious to the purely political. Was one side of the spectrum easier to talk to than the other?
I found that if a person is coming from a religious perspective, it’s far easier to talk to them. If someone is purely political it can be harder to have those conversations. Partially it’s getting outside my wheelhouse of interests, but I also get the impression that, with devout people, they are interested that I’m interested. Even if I’m sarcastic, as soon as they can tell I’m interested, you kind of start feeding off each other. You get the impression that [devoutly religious people] are happy to be finally talking to someone on their terms.
Did you have any angst about giving any of these people publicity?
Not really. I put this stuff out there so people can base their opinions not on theory, but on practice. I do not think that anyone reading my book is going to go, You know what? I’m to join ISIS because [Islamic preacher] Musa Cerantonio is into Monty Python. I don’t think I’ll get any criticism that I’m making ISIS or white nationalism attractive.
Let's say you run into someone in an elevator, and they ask you why they should read your book. What do you say?
I trust that irony, humour and stories can add up to something. This book is so not a think piece. The question I asked myself while writing it was, how do I make this a rollicking adventure? With my previous book, Murder in Mississippi, I felt I put the brakes on the story too much. This one just cascades forward.
What’s do you think is next for the anti-Islam movement?
As I point out in the book, the movement works as long as it can present itself as being normal. At the rallies, they were desperately trying to pitch themselves as proudly Australian. But as soon as the cracks started to show and people started to see how radical the leadership was, that’s when the crowds started to thin out. They wanted to recruit through normality, not radicalism. They’re going to have to figure out a way to appear normal again. I don’t know if they’ve blown it.
And what’s next for you?
I’m thinking my next project will have something to do with religion. The under-discussion of religion in Australia still has way more material in it. These discussions need to come earlier. It’s a very loaded debate since 9/11; it’s just easier for people to bite their tongue. It might be too late. We’re screwed.
Depends What You Mean by Extremist is out now through Penguin.