Credit Penguin Random House
The blurb of his latest book, Depends what you mean by Extremist — subtitled “going rogue with Australian deplorables” — describes John Safran’s unique talent for “turning up where [he’s] not wanted”. But Safran does not relish the awkward and uncomfortable.
“If I wasn’t doing it creatively, I’m not sure I’d be doing it — I’m not really a brash person outside of this,” he told Crikey. “Now I’m fine with it, but when I first started, I hated the prank element of it all so much.”
The donning of a surreal paper mache bust of Mike Munro during one of his earliest and most infamous pranks — his confrontation with Ray Martin — was not for comedic effect.
“He totally deserved it, but on this human level, I just wanted to hide my shame,” he said. “That’s how much I hate that kind of confrontation.”
In the intervening 18 years, he’s drifted from mischievous prankster to amused observer of society’s fringes, and this is where he found the subjects of Extremist — the marginal political movements that have suddenly found themselves at the centre of the political debate in Australia and elsewhere. His subjects include white nationalists United Patriots Front, anti-Islam political parties like Rise Up Australia and Islamists like Musa Cerantonio.
“The federal election happened and there were all these anti-Islam parties that hadn’t been there before, so I had to follow that, but the book was still about the smaller people reacting to the bigger events,” he said.
Safran feels that this flurry of hard-right groups is down to a “a perfect storm of different people with different interests coming together”, particularly through the loose far-right political collective Reclaim Australia.
“People were attracted to it, because it gave them a chance to launder their more extreme views through something more palatable,” he said. “Now it’s got a bad name, but there was a time when there was a fight over what Reclaim Australia was, and there were definitely people involved who were just trying to make it a Dick Smith thing — ‘Oh, it’s just there should be jobs for Australians, there’s nothing suss going on, it’s just waving Aussie flags and being proud.’”
Whatever its initial aims, this “laundering effect” made Reclaim Australia a focal point that drew together many of the people featured in Extremist — particularly Daniel Nalliah, the Sri Lankan evangelical Christian at the head of Rise Up Australia, and UPF mouthpiece Blair Cottrell.
“If you’re a white nationalist, you know you’re not going to get people turning up to hear you say ‘oh white people and black people have different DNA and have to be separated’, or ‘Jewish bankers control the world,’” he said. “And it’s the same with evangelical Christians — they aren’t going to get a lot of traction talking about the second coming of Christ and saying that we’re in a spiritual war with the Muslims.”
This “perfect storm” also helps account for the diversity of many of the far-right groups Safran encountered, which, he wryly notes in the book, would be the envy of any of the progressive Melbourne institutions that hold meetings on how to “draw a ‘less white’ demographic”.
“Pastor Daniel and his followers are largely immigrants who came in the late 1990s, or even later, and when you think about that — they just have a different storyline to their lives than Australians who’ve been here for several generations,” he said. “So if you see some dudes in turbans at an anti-Islam rally, it’s not like the first time they heard of Islam was through Pauline Hanson — they come from India, and the Sikh and Muslim communities there have this long history over hundreds of years. So when they move to Australia, suddenly this new storyline gets imported in.”
The diversity of the far right is something Safran sees as a gap in the conversation, an oversimplification of the debate on forums like Q&A, where he sees the debate reduced to “white racist bogans” versus “big shaky Jenga tower of everyone else — the gays and the Muslims and the Aborigines”.
Part of this gap is because “people who are on the left don’t really understand religion, so how are they going to talk to someone like Pastor Nalliah? So I think there’s a real disconnect there that isn’t really helpful. Because religion is so important to these people, whether it’s devout Christians or Muslims, it’s kind of strange that people dodge around that.”
In Extremist Safran recites a prayer with Nalliah, does shots with white nationalists and goes to lunch with Musa Cerantonio, who would be arrested attempting to sail to Indonesia and eventually join Islamic State. Is there any act that he would consider too compliant, too compromising?
“I kind of really think that it’s cool for artists to jump into that world and do it,” he said. “It’s almost safer if it’s more extreme parties, like, people aren’t going to think ‘Oh Safran’s joined the neo-Nazis and they’ve let him in because they somehow haven’t googled him.’ I’m more apprehensive on far more mainstream things, like I don’t want people to think I endorse this or that political party.”
But, of course, the “extreme” is becoming more and more mainstream.
“I think the interesting thing creatively is that as this stuff becomes more mainstream, covering it suddenly becomes much more high stakes,” he said. “Like, someone pointed out to me that in my last book, Murder in Mississippi, it starts with me walking through this forest to meet this white nationalist, because that’s where that stuff was. Just a book ago to find that weird stuff you had to go on a journey, and now it’s so mainstream.”
The growth of these movements raises the questions of the wider implications of what his subjects believe. Safran says real-life developments, such as Cerantonio’s arrest, didn’t give him any pause about whether he should be joking about those subjects.
“I’m just a real backer of art — I remember growing up I was really into counter-cultural stuff,” he said. “And how do you micro-manage why it’s helpful to have, say, Monty Python’s Life of Brian or why it’s useful for Mel Brooks to dress up as Hitler? It seems like comedy is really important and helpful and you arrive at things you don’t arrive at if you try to micro-manage or pre-plot it, you know? There’s lots of things I wouldn’t do, or I’d think were in bad taste, but not in this area — in this area I think it’s really important to get in there with your muddy boots and do jokes.”
Surprisingly, given the mocking tone of his book, Safran said the majority of the negative feedback he’s received since publication has come from his more progressive subjects.
“Like, me doing gags about white supremacists, everybody loves it, and I think it’s good and helpful to do. But then we get to the murkier subjects, like the fact that I’m not supposed to mention anti-Semitism — unless it’s Donald Trump’s people doing it — but not, like, Muslim anti-Semitism,” he said. “I was really surprised that people were surprised– if I brought it up people reacted like I’d farted at the dinner party.”
His explanation for this discomfort fits with a recurring theme of the book — any kind of absolutism invariably entangles you in contradiction and hypocrisy.
“I think even with those people, it’s not that they have a problem with Jews, it’s just they’ve got the world worked out in a certain way, and if you bring up something that challenges that they get shitty.”
And Safran thinks the themes in Extremist will continue to produce interesting work for a while yet — he rejects any notion that the seeming failure of the hard right in recent elections across Europe and at the state level in Western Australia represents any kind of return to “normal.”
“No. [What happens next] will be such a gear shift that we can’t even imagine it now. Remember under Obama and we thought, ‘oh this is how the world is forever.'” he said. “And then Trump’s in, and whoosh. And even with him, within a couple of months the energy has changed … Not that he’s now a good person, he’s just another politician.”
“Basically I’m saying I don’t know,” he laughs “But … it’s going to be weird.”
One gets the sense that Safran would rather like that.