BOOK REVIEW: Depends What You Mean By Extremist by John Safran

BOOK REVIEW: Depends What You Mean By Extremist by John Safran

Penguin Random House
May 2017
Paperback, $34.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction/Society & Culture

9/10

 

John Safran channelled the late Truman Capote for his true crime debut, Murder in Mississippi. For his follow-up, the TV documentarian and prankster takes a leaf from Louis Theroux by casually observing and telling the stories of some extraordinary individuals. In Safran’s case these people are extreme characters like evangelical Christians, anarchists, nationalists, Islamic converts and the like. Depends What You Mean By Extremist – Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables is essentially the penned equivalent of one of Safran’s TV shows, because it will challenge your thinking while proving to be quite provocative, naughty, and fun.

The initial idea for Depends What You Mean by Extremist came to Safran when he attended a Reclaim Australia rally.

It’s mid-2015 and this is all happening in Melbourne. Thrilled that there’s something as exciting as skinheads roaming around my home town – I’ve been into racists since high school – I scribble down the date of the upcoming rally.

It was shocking to him that this far-right group who most people assume are a small number of players on society’s fringe were actually gaining traction and that they boasted members who weren’t all white-skinned Neo-Nazis. In reality, this demonstration actually resembled a multicultural family picnic day and Safran was surprised to learn that some of the supporters were recent Australian immigrants who opposed multiculturalism.

That clinches it. Skinheads side by side with Jews; immigrants against immigrants; Shermon’s promise of a far-right hajj – this is a case for John Safran, Jew Detective.

The many contradictions and complexities of these different groups are beautifully captured by Safran’s writing. He interviews and goes along for the ride with Blair Cottrell, the current leader of the United Patriots Front; Shermon Burgess, AKA The Great Aussie Patriot; and Pastor Danny Nalliah of the Catch the Fire Ministries. Readers will be familiar with some of these individuals from Safran’s TV special, The Goddamn Election! But in the written format he does not offer any solutions or take particular sides. He also interviews individuals from the UPF’s rivals, No Room for Racism, and a Muslim convert.

A white Australian, the Sufi grew up in Maroubra… All sorts of threads led him from his non-religious upbringing to Islam: a chat with a Muslim girl in high school about Jesus; a book by a black American gangster who found redemption through The Nation of Islam. When the Cronulla riots erupted, just before his conversion, the Sufi’s two worlds overlapped. Both sets of text messages hot into his phone: ‘Let’s fight the Lebs’ and ‘Let’s fight the Aussies’.

None of these characters escape Safran’s shtick and cheeky sense of humour. At one UPF rally where the crowd had swollen in numbers so that the group required security and “event management” Safran quipped to a guard that he was in charge of the sarcasm for the day. The fact that Safran describes himself later on as a “Jewish octopus with a tentacle in each camp” also shows that his barbs are not exclusively for the supporting characters in this particular story.

Depends What You Mean by Extremist explores Australia’s political climate twenty years on from when Pauline Hanson launched One Nation version 1.0. The fact that the majority of this was also penned in the lead-up to President Trump being elected is even more poignant and shows how important this book is. Like so much of Safran’s work it looks at how things like race, religion, and culture are tangled together in a complex web of contradictions and layers. In true Safran style this book courts controversy and is bound to annoy people as he door-stops individuals with ideas that are sometimes contentious. There are also times where this book feels like it could have been adapted into his comedy series (especially the part where the UPF try to recruit him into a rap group and a book club, and the reaction when he walks down a street in Lakemba in a make-shift Fiddler on the Roof costume.)

This book spins Safran’s unique perspective and pushes boundaries as he breaks falafel and shares a drink with some Aussie eccentrics. In the hands of this self-confessed “Jew Detective” we are treated to a stable and strong course along the muddiest of waters and the various shades of grey that exist in different life and belief systems. Depends What You Mean by Extremist ultimately features some well-considered prose and a head-first dive into some madcap mayhem by one engaging, funny man who pushes all the buttons on some shit-hot topics. Searing.

BOOK REVIEW: Depends What You Mean By Extremist by John Safran

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