John Safran, writer and comedian, Brisbane Writers Festival
It’s a bit dangerous to think everything is neat, because it’s not. You’re going to be disappointed if you think everything fits like that ...
John Safran is no stranger to a little bit of confrontation. The comedian, radio personality and satirist has made a career out of investigating the diverse and contentious natures surrounding religious, political and ethical issues – sometimes earning the ire of those he investigates. John’s latest book showcases the author in similarly fine form as he tries to untangle and make sense of the latest phenomenon surrounding the rise of far-right groups and the growing anti-Islamic sentiment in Australia. Depends What You Mean By Extremist is a witty and engaging journey which sees John Safran drinking tequila with white nationalists and discussing Monty Python with radicals. The book has earned praise from many, and proves to be a suitably irreverent take on the contradictory nature of the far right and far left. John Safran will be talking about the book in detail at the Brisbane Writers Festival, but we got the opportunity to ask John a few questions of our own before he arrives in town.
Take me back to the beginning of the writing process for Depends What You Mean By Extremist. When did you decide that his issue would form the basis of an entire book? It seems at the beginning of the book that you were at a rally because of simple curiosity…
Yeah, definitely! There are a few different layers to how I roll into a new project, so one thing is me just trying out a few different ideas. I wanted to do another book with Penguin and they wanted to do another book, so I poked around at a few different things. Then when I turned up to that first rally – the one from the first chapter – that’s when I started tweeting sarcastic things, not really for any purpose besides being sarcastic. A newspaper thought they were funny and they asked if I would write an article about it and I said I would. I did that and then that really seemed to hit on something – it got heaps of views or whatever. It was almost the most popular thing I’d ever done if you go by ‘views’.
What was it about that rally – and your presence there – that you think got so much attention?
I think that was because it was my same routine that people loved in the past, but that it was also very Australian – rather than it being, “Oh, John’s hanging around a bagel shop talking about Judaism,” suddenly I was hanging around Aussie flags and quote-unquote ‘bogans’ and all this stuff. It was also kind of interesting. And then Penguin thought it was a good idea to follow up on. The groups from that rally – the United Patriots Front and Reclaim Australia – hadn’t quite got their footing at that stage, there was no direction as to what they were. They were already claiming that there was going to be this tenth anniversary of the Cronulla riots, so I went to Penguin and the original pitch was that I was going to follow all of these strange, far-right groups up until that anniversary date. But then everything got its own momentum and turned in a different direction that you have no way of predicting once you start rolling down that hill.
Prior to immersing yourself in this culture and embedding yourself within these groups, had you any familiarity with these organisations or had you been following their rise to that point?
I think this book demonstrates the advantage of artists following instinct and going on their own path. Like comedians trying to follow what is funny or weird or ironic. I was willing to follow these people when I had no idea it was going to turn into something bigger – and by that I mean a re-emergence of Pauline Hanson and an even bigger world thing with Donald Trump. I was just happy hanging out with skinheads at the pub, to be honest, that was interesting. Then I sort of captured these people who have, in their own way, become front and centre of different elements of modern Australia. People like Musa Cerantonio, who is currently awaiting trial for terrorism-related offences – all alleged at this stage – I was hanging with him before he was ‘famous’. It’s the same with the guys from the UPF who are facing charges pertaining to religious vilification. Blair Cottrell and Neil Erikson – I was hanging with them as well. I was just digging around these people because they were fairly interesting and had this emotional energy to them, but it was coincidence that I was there before they became something bigger.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about these people on both sides of the discussion?
Things that were actually surprising were things such as people on the far left and far right were sort of talking like they had this big problem with Islam or defending Islam, but when you dig a little deeper you find out that they had these other, broader issues, and they were latching onto this Islam thing because it was what had traction in the mainstream at the time. These white nationalists who didn’t have a particular agenda against Muslims or Islam beyond the fact that they were ‘the other’, but it wasn’t what animated them. They found that they could latch on to this cause and make their views sound more palatable. And then on the far left, they were using these rallies to protest in favour of Muslims but they had their left-wing causes and socialism. Again, they saw it as a marketing hook of sorts to put forward their real agenda.
During the research and writing process, how did you go about framing everything and tying it all together in a way that was coherent and engaging?
I really trust comedy and my sense of irony. I think if I’m finding something interesting or funny, I’ll put it in. If I’m not, I don’t force it – even if it’s totally valid on some intellectual level. For instance, I spent either one or two weeks in New South Wales turning up to court to follow these court actions where various government authorities and a Muslim spokesperson and the New South Wales police were trying to shut down the tenth anniversary Cronulla Riot rally. I was not very active in that – I was just sitting there in the court, so it wasn’t very engaging for the style of the book. Also, it’s late in the book where all of these new characters are being introduced so it didn’t work artistically. Then I just put in things that seemed funny. I trust my instincts that it’s going to add up to something in the big picture – sometimes it just takes reading the book to see. When I’m getting drunk at an after party with the UPF and I find out there’s a Muslim dude there, and I drunkenly try to get them to explain how they can hang out with him after their anti-Islam day – it was just my instinct that it was a funny, weird and disorienting scenario. I think most people will see what I am getting at in those moments, when it builds up the bigger story.
I’d love to know your thoughts on how the use of humour can play into the story telling. Does humour diffuse some of the seriousness around a situation to make it easier to digest, or is it simply just your way of telling the story?
I think it’s my way of expressing it, but I also think it almost goes without saying that I don’t put this story forward as some sort of comprehensive, total coverage of everything from an objective bird’s eye view. I insert myself in the story and tell the audience about my background, but I’m not that worried that anyone is going read my thing and not see it as my modern contribution to the discussion. I don’t really hobble myself or worry too much about how things are coming across. There can be a conversation about why I’m being funny about something that’s serious, but I think 99-percent of people get it. For me personally I think I’m on the same team as writers and artists – people that have gone out and told a story and tried to do it in an engaging way. If I was to really defend myself, I could say a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.
You’re no stranger to confrontational scenarios. In terms of inserting yourself into these situations, was it more intimidating a prospect getting in close proximity to these sorts of groups?
There was a few times – with the more intense people – I felt more inhibited saying things back to them. It’s hard to know whether I made a creative call or whether I was nervous. There were a few interactions with the Aussie ISIS supporters where I felt a bit inhibited to say what I really felt. Then again, in the book I get to put across what I really feel. There was a bit of a thing where some people are so overbearing and threatening, that you’ve got to bite your tongue at the time and then they get annoyed later and ask me why I didn’t have a fight about that at the time if I didn’t agree. At the end of the day, it’s not like I was hanging out with these extremists and they thought I was on their side. It was the opposite – I was some whatever, low-level liberal from the other side.
There are certain aspects of the book where you refer to your own upbringing, religion and community – did this project affect your own worldview in any way?
The thing I was most surprised with – and it’s kind of what I allude to in the opening – was where I rock up the rally and suddenly there’s questions from some hyper PC people asking what some white guy was doing there. It kind of derailed me a little bit. I was like, “What? Are you kidding?” Most of the far-right folk talk about the Jews. Even in the past few weeks, in Charlottesville, there are far-right people marching in the street chanting, “The Jews shall not replace us.” The Jews seem to be mentioned by a few key players in this whole discussion, so I found it really weird that this modern day identity politics – people were trying to derail me by asking, “What are you doing here, white man?” I was really surprised by that. Even after the book has come out there has been a bit of that, where weird identity politics where I’m meant to somehow justify why I told this story. I find that baffling, because obviously the vast majority of Australians would get it.
In terms of finding things baffling, what are your thoughts on the state of the world and the direction we are heading in?
The thing I really find interesting is that since I have been following this world – this outlier world of conspiracies and fringes – the fact that they have been dragged into the mainstream is totally weird to me. I talk about it in the book – when I started talking to these people from the alt-right few years ago they were such outliers. It was like talking to a dude about aliens building the pyramids – that was how oddball they seemed. Regular racism has been in the mainstream, but this kind of esoteric racism hasn’t been before.
Ideally, what do you hope readers take away from the book?
I wanted to make the reader feel disoriented – because that’s how I felt. That’s how I feel the world is at the moment. I think the fact that I showed how things don’t fit neatly is kind of helpful. It’s a bit dangerous to think everything is neat, because it’s not. You’re going to be disappointed if you think everything fits like that.
John Safran’s Depends What You Mean By Extremist is out now through Penguin. John will be speaking at the Brisbane Writers Festival on Friday September 8. Catch him at the State Library of Queensland at 4:00 pm and then at the Chermside Library at 6:30 pm. Check out the full Brisbane Writers Festival Program here.