Guest review of John Safran, ‘Depends What You Mean by Extremist’, 304 pages released by Hamish Hamilton, May 2017.
I got very irritated reading John Safran’s latest book Depends What You Mean by Extremist. As someone who had been to most of the anti-fascist rallies in and around Melbourne in the last few years; watched in horror as Pauline Hanson clawed her way back to power; and scrolled through my Twitter account with interest as Phil Gallea as well as Blair Cottrell, Neil Erikson & Co faced criminal charges for trying to blow up the Melbourne Anarchist Club (the former) and staging some cringe worthy and offensive public theatre (the latter) – I picked up Safran’s book with interest.
And my interest quickly turned to frustration.
Safran’s book fails on two counts. It fails firstly to identify, critique or explain the deeply held political ideas of people on all sides; instead relying on amusing caricatures and Safran’s interest in religion as both the organizing principle and fuel to progress the story.
Secondly, whilst attempting to be a cross between Louis Theroux and Hunter S Thompson, Safran fails to become truly immersed, or really understand, any of the people he surrounds himself with.
I also found I had concerns about some of the ways Safran conducted himself, or at the very least the way he has expressed himself.
Safran offers up curiosity and caricature, without understanding, interrogating or attempting to explore the deeply held political views by the people on all sides of this story. After reading all 304 pages, the reader is left with no clear idea on anyone’s ideology. There is no attempt to unravel the far-right’s seeming preoccupation with Muslims from their wider ideologies, any more than there is any evidence of understanding that for “the left” anti-fascist activism is just one part of broader political work.
This is not only a failing of Safran’s book, but a disappointment. While there is one Chapter The Hustings that talks about the broader political situation of the time (Trump, Brexit, One Nation etc), there is no real discussion of how the characters are, or could have been, influenced by the current political climate. The cast of characters appear with no context, or even any musing about how they have come to their beliefs. It is as if they have appeared with no history, no story, no ideology – just kooky characters for Safran to examine as curiosities. Almost as if he is collecting them like Pokémon– the Neo-Nazi, the garden variety racist, the socialist, the anarchist, the ISIS supporter.
Without interrogating people’s core beliefs and finding what drives them to action, every character comes across as either a weirdo or entirely irrational. Safran milks this for all it’s worth. He presents himself as the only rational actor; the only one looking at both sides of arguments; the only one not blinded by ideology, dogma or religion. It is sensible, moderate Safran against a world of not only flawed, but contradictory characters.
Safran spends much of the book examining these contradictions. “I like looking at tangles,” he says to the unkindly nicknamed Mr Snort and Mrs Sneer (seemingly if you won’t go on the record, but you are a good plot point you get an unkind nickname). Whether it is a Sri Lankan Christian associating with Nazis; Muslim converts who also happen to be Monty Python fans or racists having Asian girlfriends – Safran is there to savour the juxtaposition. He seems incapable of comprehending these very human contradictions. As he divorces his subjects from their broader politics he also robs them of their lived experiences. It is these experiences that not only influence someone’s politics, but also form their individual quirks and foibles. The resulting contradictions seem to leave Safran’s mind spinning. It is as if he expected only two-dimensional stereotypes. And as he comes face to face with living, breathing, and contradictory humans – he is shocked.
The result of not examining individuals’ politics is, obviously, a very unpolitical book. It makes no attempt to understand or explain the politics involved. Safran instead roundly focuses on religion. While religion does have a part to play in this story, I don’t believe it is at the centre of what is happening amongst “Australian Deplorables.” Everyone has bigger agendas to push than religion – whether that be a return to White Australia, or fighting back against capitalism. Those who profess to have strong religious beliefs, are not content with simply practicing their religion- there is an element of a crusade about it, and at least some political dimension. Not a single sentence in his book is dedicated to the discussion that filled column inches, placards, and the shouts across police lines: is the current wave of Islamophobia in Australian society racist? There is no discussion about the intersection of Islamaphobia and racism. Those who are involved in anti-Muslim politics are described as racists, but there is no discussion around how this particular strain of racism is a product of current global politics.
Safran’s failure to examine both the broader political landscape and people’s individual politics makes the characters on all sides of this story less relatable than they most likely are in real life. It is easy to laugh at a character study of Jim Saleam or the anarchist “ninjas”. As Safran depoliticizes them, they are as two dimensional and stereotypical as the Channel 9 news would like us to believe. This is a disservice to everyone involved. How can we combat racism and Islamaphobia without understanding where it comes from? And similarly, how can the ideas of anti-fascism, socialism or anarchism be shared and understood when the only representation of these people are hokey stereotypes, devoid of motivations and ideology.
To be kind, one may excuse Safran for failing to interact with the political side of this story by arguing that he wasn’t trying to write a political book; that this was an exercise in gonzo journalism. That Safran was merely “going along for the ride” and reporting on what he saw and experienced. But on this count, Safran fails as well.
While Safran attempts to immerse himself in both the far-right and “the left” – it feels obvious throughout the book that neither side trusts him; and he never “lets go”. The book feels less like a wild ride on the fringes, and more like covertly observing from the corner. By trying to play all sides of the issue, Safran is neither trusted or respected by anyone. It feels like both sides are keen to capitalize on his platform to promote their causes, but constantly weighing up the risks of having him along. Safran “participates” – whether that is smoking a cigarette with Ralph Ceminara, or showing up to a community day at the Melbourne Anarchist Club, but it is obvious through his writing that he views himself as separate to proceedings. Unfortunately for Safran it takes more than a joint with the fascists or a beer with the anarchists to really get amongst these people and understand them. Safran’s reluctance to “pick a side” results in almost everyone treating him with extreme caution; and this prevents him from doing what the book’s subtitle would have us believe happened: “Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables.”
Throughout the book, the reader is conscious that Safran is trying to write a book. It is not just out of interest or curiosity that Safran is hauling himself around the country attending rallies, interviewing people and following leads. It feels that he is single mindedly chasing moments, experiences and people that would translate well into his narrative. Safran is at his most delighted one the sole occasion he has the opportunity to change the narrative. When the UPF decide to shift a rally from the Melbourne CBD to Melton, but to do so at the last minute to stop counter protesters from effectively organizing; Safran vacillates on whether to tell No Room For Racism this information. When his personal trainer tells him to tell the anti-racists what is going on, Safran reflects:
“I first think he’s being moral, but it’s not that. My trainer also does graphic design so he has a creative bent. He thinks my duplicity will be better for the book, because it will change events. “You’ve become the puppetmaster,” he tells me.
..I’m like, My God, the conspiracy theorists were right! It’s exactly what they say: beware of the Jews, they play both sides – the communists and the capitalists. I am the devious Jew.”
I think this attitude, while understandable, is deeply concerning. No one would argue that it is the worst thing in the world to want to write a successful book. However Safran presents himself as someone with an interest in what is going on and possibly led people involved to expect him to eventually choose a side and use his platform for good. Anti-racist activists care so much about the work they do that it seems inconceivable that someone who is viewed as “progressive” would ever do anything to assist Neo-Nazis. Yet it was only through self interest that Safran tipped off No Room for Racism about this crucial piece of information. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the book for Safran. “Mr Snort” at the Melbourne Anarchist Club challenges Safran about his role – “Are you part of building an anti-racist movement or are you just about books and selling and career and profile?” Safran never answers the question. At one point Safran says “I would love, for the sake of this book, to be mildly beaten up.” He is lucky enough that this never comes to pass; unlike many who put their bodies on the line to resist against racist organizing and sustained injuries from both racists and the police.
It is notable that Safran hardly mentions the police. As he sketches out rallies he mentions the numbers of police. Anyone who has been to any demonstrations in Melbourne over the last 5 years will have noticed an increase in police presence and the intensifying nature of what a police response looks like. He does not at any point mention the violence perpetrated by police – both with physical violence and pepper spray. So out of touch with police attitudes at these rallies John Safran obviously felt safe enough to bring a knife with him to the Melton rally.
I have a number of concerns about Safran’s behavior and conduct, and the biggest of them is his carrying of a weapon. In a moment fuelled by whiskey and reading about the Warsaw Ghetto, Safran in what can most kindly be described as a severe case of Hemingway stumbles into a camping supply shop and buys a pocket knife. He mentions this in a somewhat offhand way, and the reader (well at least this reader) forgets about it until Safran upon seeing an act of violence unfold in Melton writes: “I feel the knife in my pocket.”
To be clear, Safran doesn’t do anything with the knife, but I don’t think that is the point. To carry a knife, or any weapon, into a high stress, high emotions situation like the rally in Melton is a plain and stupid dumb idea. It’s not jut dumb. It’s highly disrespectful. It puts in danger every single person in your vicinity. It made me absolutely furious that at this rally people were put at risk for the sake of Safran’s ego. To bring a knife to the rally, but not have the foresight to pack a bottle of water and some sunscreen – that, as far as I’m concerns, bumps up your charge from stupid to moronic.
Police were checking bags at the Melton Rally. The bag checks were very targeted. Wearing a balaclava – bag check; carrying a flag – bag check; punk – bag check. As an unassuming white girl in sensible shoes and no balaclava, my bag wasn’t checked. It would seem D Grade celebrities are similarly exempt from police suspicions.
Mr Snort and Mrs Sneer at the Anarchist Club are entirely suspicious of Safran, which after reading the book – I think they were right to be so. The way Safran characterizes some of the “radicals” he meets is, as “the left” are want to say, highly problematic. Halfway through the chapter entitled “Left-wing pinkoes and right wing death beasts” starts the section dedicated to Comrade Snort and Comrade Sneer (seriously, how did Safran not think to call them that!) with “There are more hot anarchists than I expected here. Don’t get me wrong, there are also flabby radicals who wouldn’t be able to throw a Molotov cocktail without breaking into a wheeze, but still.” How this is relevant to anything that is happening in the book is not clear to me. Having recently had the UPF turn up on its doorstep, the Melbourne Anarchist Club had opened its doors on a Sunday afternoon to bring the community together. Not to perform traditional, socially acceptable levels of beauty for John Safran. This sentence started to make me feel uneasy about the way Safran was viewing, and then writing, about women.
The reader doesn’t see the backstory between Mrs Sneer and Safran, but it seems tense from the start. He describes her first sentence as a snap. Other words used to describe her speaking are – snaps; sneers, complains; demands; hisses. She also “pushes” a pamphlet towards Safran, and when she tires of the conversation she “huffs off”. Meanwhile, Mr Snort just “asks”, “says” and “tells.” Is it too much of a stretch to imagine Safran hurt that the “hot anarchist” women don’t implicitly trust him, talk to him and fawn over his celebrity. And that in return for this, he paints them as mean, irrational, stupid and annoying?
That said, Mel from No Room For Racism gave Safran her undivided attention on several occasions, let him into the inner machinations of No Room For Racism, and invited him to the bizarre truce talks with Reclaim Australia. Safran repays this assumedly invaluable access by referring to her continually as Mel the matriarch. The UPF guys are leaders, the anarchists have a CEO, but when Safran sees a woman in charge she is a matriarch. I can’t help but feel that word minimizes Mel’s position. It plays into the idea of women being soft, social and family oriented. It’s soft power; not hard power. It’s not that those things are necessarily bad. But you’re not calling Blair “Daddy”, are you? Similarly, a woman who explains herself as being “half-Jewish” and is introduced as Rebecca is referred to by Safran only as the “Half-Jewess”. While some Jewish women have embraced or reclaimed the word – it’s hardly a universal reclamation. As with Mel, Safran is quick to make her title particularly feminine, though this is not crucial to the narrative.
The weird sexism, paired with the lack of political insight have made me really question what John Safran is about. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I would caution activists to remember these things the next time he’s hanging around. It seems clear to me that Safran is neither interested in immersive experiences, nor politics. That, coupled with his careless behavior and problematic depictions of women make me irritated. The political work of others has provided Safran with a successful product to hawk. He has never picked a side, but is not impartial. This book lacks the academic rigor to explain what has been happening in Australia recently, and the energy and personal commitment of true gonzo journalism. Its one success is as a best seller for John Safran.
Andy Fleming, May 19, Depends What You Mean By Extremist : A Review (of sorts).