Let me tell you something about interviewing people. It’s very often disappointing. Especially when it’s someone you’ve been in awe of. Very often the person you have built up such an interest in can disappoint in an interview, because they’re guarded, or nervous, or shy, or not as interesting as you thought. Or you stuff the interview and ask really lame questions.
This wasn’t the case with John Safran, the award-winning TV and radio presenter, writer and documentary maker. The John Safran on the phone was absolutely consistent with the John Safran I’ve come to love in his books and in his TV and radio work.
He’s unguarded, unpretentious and totally engaging. He’s also intensely passionate about his subject matter and in every turn in the conversation he seems to be discovering something new. His passions are race, religion and ethnicity. And in a media environment of 2-minute bites, where the subject is so poorly explored, Safran’s latest book Depends What You Mean By Extremist (Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables) takes us to the streets and behind closed doors for a more detailed examination of extremist views, delivered with humour, intrigue, confusion, and surprising compassion and kindness. Nothing is really as it seems and Safran has this uncanny ability of getting right up close.
He’s interested in what his subjects have to say. He wants to drill down to why someone would think something so preposterous or illogical.
Even though he’s known to expose contradictory and illogical arguments of extremists, he still somehow manages to quietly insert himself in the middle of the action.
It’s like magic. Somehow understanding race, religion and ethnicity is his thing.
Saffran explains it away as ‘soup’.
‘When you grow up and next thing you know you are an adult and those smells you remember from childhood, like the smell of soup from a particular ethnic background, before you notice you have absorbed these things. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, they escaped the war, their stories were in the background, I was never sat down and told the stories. They didn’t say, hey, John, let’s teach you about Nazis. It was the soup thing, something intense and dark floating around.
‘When it comes to things around mysticism or religion, I am so interested in it.The people I interview feed off that. I find as soon as it’s a radical group and they don’t have a religious layer, I’m looking at my clock a bit, and when I talk to people who have these beliefs and they know that I know, and they aren’t having a conversation with a polite white atheist or leftie who doesn’t really get religion or magic, they play along.’
End-of-the-world thinking is not new to Safran. At the orthodox Jewish college he attended for high school – Yeshivah College in Melbourne – they were all waiting for the return of the Messiah. So while Safran never signed up for the end of days, he knows what it’s like to be surrounded by extreme religious thinking.
A Sufi tells Safran that satire should retire. That it’s more dangerous than religion. This fascinates Safran.
‘I discuss this in the book. There is this bean-counting thing done by conservative people about art, to justify it financially, and there are ideologues on the other side asking what is the point of this? Will it bring Donald Trump down or not? I blame John Stewart.
He created the reality that you have to have a watertight proposition at the start and then you have these dot points to back up your proposition. It’s not always that neat.
I saw on Q&A last week people arguing about satire, asking What is the point of comedy? There is a vital and often dangerous role that humour and satire can play – Safran believes in tackling a seemingly global rise in hate, racism and extremism. ‘People might start listening to the jokes…’ he says. ‘The clowning must go on.’
Safran describes his book as an exorcism. ‘I once did this doco,’ he says,’ where I hung out with this exorcist; he was an evangelical Christian. I go to non-religious psychologists after and they’ve told me an exorcism can be really good; you know screaming is good, it’s a way to get things out of your system and if the way is culturally comfortable then that’s okay. They weren’t dark on exorcisms because they were atheists. I feel that this book is a bit more than an exorcism. It’s 2017 and there are people marching in the street in Melbourne where I have grown up holding swatikas, accusing of people being Nazis, formations of police in the CBD the same place that I have walked past my entire life – how would I not scream at all of this? This is an exorcism – this is a culturally appropriate!’
Safran notes the aligning politics of extremist groups, no matter how polarised their beliefs. ‘They all want to upend the world and the system.’ He wrote his book at a time when Bernie Sanders and Trump were rising in the US, where regular people were opening up to radical thinking.
He believes he couldn’t have had a more interesting time to be writing a book on extremism.
‘The night Donald Trump got elected there was a 97 per cent chance that Hilary was going to get in. It was like everything was tipping over. People were so confused. I had friends ringing me. Everyone needed to talk. People who weren’t into politics were totally confused and needed to get their bearings. It was exciting to be writing this story during that time. I couldn’t have planned it; it feels like it won’t happen again.’
In his book Safran traverses the diversity of Australian extremism. From white nationalists to ISIS supporters, anarchist and more. Along the way he discovers that extremism dishes up satire without even trying. Like the black puppetmaster of the white nationalists. A Muslim fundamentalist who geeks out on Monty Python. And a radicalisation network in his own Jewish suburb?
Safran wants to find out what he doesn’t know.
‘There’s an Eminem song… at least I know that I don’t know. There are things we know we know, and things we know we don’t know. I want to get to the things I don’t know I don’t know.’
John Safran is one of the writers appearing at this year’s Byron Writers Festival, 4–6 August. Earlybird tickets for Byron Writers Festival are now on sale and, if history is any indication, they will sell fast. Full program announced 14 June. Tickets at byronwritersfestival.com or call 6685 5115.