Controversial Australian satirist John Safran has 'been into racists since high school'
Australian writer John Safran sees clowns to the left of him and jokers to the right. Philip Matthews talks to the kamikaze satirist.
Pauline Hanson? It turns out that Pauline Hanson is just the tip of the iceberg. No, it's worse than that: Pauline Hanson is the acceptable face. She is the gateway racist.
Australian writer and comedian John Safran confirms something you may have long suspected about his country.
Its politics are mad and confusing. The unsayable is often said, and loudly, especially where race is concerned. And nearly everyone involved is riddled with contradictions.
* Fun from both sides of the cultural divide
* Musa Cerantonio: Muslim convert and radical supporter of Islamic State
* John Safran
For Safran, think of an Australian Louis Theroux, John Oliver or Jon Ronson. Like those guys, he frames his stories as provocative investigations into areas other journalists treat with deadly seriousness. In one of those investigations, his new book Depends What You Mean by Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables, that area is the politics of 21st century extremism.
The cast includes Isis-supporting Muslims, the Nazi-supporting far right and the earnest socialists and anarchists of the far left – the various shadowy forms of media bogeymen.
Your Weekend phones him ahead of a visit to Christchurch, where he will talk about finding the humour in extremism with comedian Te Radar.
"I tried to make it not like a thinkpiece but an adventure," Safran says over a crackling line from Melbourne early on a Monday morning. The adventure started in 2015 when Safran, who has "been into racists since high school", saw a picture on Facebook of a skinhead and a left-wing protestor staring each other down. He went to a rally and followed the trail from there.
He has just turned 45 so there have been a good three decades of being into racists. It is easy to play amateur psychologist. He is Jewish and went to an Orthodox single-sex college in St Kilda. His grandparents escaped the Nazis and his mother was born on the way to Australia – in Uzbekistan, in fact. The wider family back in Europe did not survive.
"Even though I spent heaps of time with my grandparents, it was never spoken about, but I kind of knew something was up. A sentence here and there."
SO WHO ARE THE BADDIES?
At university, he noticed the contradictions of identity, the things that did not fit comfortably. Progressive students railed against Israel and Zionism and he wondered, are Jews the victims of history in one way and the aggressors in another? Becoming a fan of hip-hop opened other cans of worms. He remembers reading an article in some hip-hop magazine about African-Americans going back to their "roots" – he stresses the word to suggest its absurdity – in Africa, which left the actual Africans scratching their heads.
"The African-Americans had to face up to the fact that maybe they are more American than they thought."
In short, the thing we call identity politics is riddled with traps for the unwary. So when Safran went to that rally at Parliament House in Melbourne, where the lefties in No Room for Racism confronted the racists in Reclaim Australia, a couple of things jumped out immediately. The white woman on the racist team opened her speech by paying respect "to the Wurundjeri people, the traditional owners of the land". Huh?
Then he saw that the pastor from Catch the Fire Ministries, who chanted "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!", is a Sri Lankan immigrant. What does he have in common with the Nazis? Simple: they all have a common enemy in the Muslims.
There are bizarre love triangles and unlikely alliances. The left come across as humourless, earnest, hectoring. The racist right may be buffoonish but they are also populist, which means that everyone can grasp what they are on about. The left are stuck with their academic jargon – Safran compares them to Dungeons and Dragons role-players speaking their secret language.
The right are more fun for journalists to hang out with, essentially. Or more interesting at least.
"There was something so vivid about skinheads and the far right. So if I'm at a rally and I can only hang out on one side of the police line or the other, and the choice is between the hippies and the Nazis, I'm going to hang out with the Nazis."
VILLAINS AND STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
Some left-wing ideas really annoy him. The idea of "structural violence", for example. The argument goes that along with what you know as violence, the power imbalances and injustices that oppressed people live with are also a form of violence. For Safran, that leads to all kinds of moral ambiguity.
"If there is a white cop in the Northern Territory and he says something racist to an Aboriginal dude on the street, and then the Aboriginal dude says something racist to a white cop, you can't pretend they are the same thing. That's absolutely true but people use that as an excuse to not question their own behaviour. You can do anything you want as long as you're not committing a structurally violent crime or whatever.
"After the Charlie Hebdo thing [the shooting], they [Muslim gunmen] go to a kosher deli and shoot Jews. If your story started off that Muslims are the little guys and they are oppressed overall, and they're brown and Jews are white, and there's Israel, suddenly shooting Jews is non-structural violence. Lefties don't like you asking those questions because it screws up their simple narrative of how the world works."
It reached an absurd climax when people on the far left managed to convince themselves that the dead Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were the real villains, rather than the people who murdered them.
In response, the left complain that he has "humanised" racists and would-be terrorists by hanging out with them and gently sending them up. And they might have a point. Some readers will come away from Safran's book with the sense that Australian jihadists couldn't organise a deadly terror attack if they tried, but of course there was the Lindt café attack in Sydney in 2014 when lone gunman Man Haron Monis took 18 people hostage and three were killed, including Monis himself.
And just one day before Your Weekend phoned Safran in Melbourne, four men in Sydney with reported links to Isis were arrested for allegedly plotting to put a bomb on a plane. Safran hadn't followed the story closely – "What's happened in Sydney?" – and hadn't checked if any of the four were names he had encountered.
Even Musa Cerantonio comes across as a wacky, fun figure in Safran's account. He and his brother were riffing on Monty Python movies and prank-calling motorway toll operators at their home in Melbourne when Safran visited.
So it comes as a shock to then go online and see that Australian police consider Cerantonio to be "the second or third most influential jihadist preacher in the world" and arrested him in 2016 after busting an alleged terror plot. That required an urgent rewrite, Safran says. With the trial coming up in 2018, he had to remove any references to Cerantonio's previous crimes.
But Safran is not alone in seeing Cerantonio as inherently comical. Even Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce called Cerantonio and his accomplices "clowns" and compared their foiled plot, coincidentally, to something from Monty Python.
Two of the right-wingers Safran met have since been in trouble with the law as well. United Patriots Front leader Blair Cottrell and his idiot sidekick Neil Erikson, who once phoned a rabbi with the demand "Give me the money, Jew, or else I will get you", were charged with religious vilification after staging a mock beheading in a recruitment video.
Could Safran have been harder on them? He says he expects that readers won't approach his book in isolation and assumes it is "a given" they see racism as bad.
SAFRAN AS STUNTMAN
Another thing to know is that, across the ditch, Safran is a fairly big name. Television series like John Safran vs God and Race Relations have inserted him into controversial issues as a kind of kamikaze satirist. The most outrageous stunt in John Safran vs God had fundamentalist preacher and TV exorcist Bob Larson performing an exorcism after Safran had passed through such "demonic hotspots" as Haiti and Los Angeles while making the series.
Safran has a similar stunt in the new book. Ralph Cerminara, who is, confusingly, an Aboriginal racist with a Vietnamese wife, warned the Jewish Safran not to walk down Sydney's Haldon St, which is famously Muslim. So Safran put on as much Orthodox garb as he could find – "I've gone full Fiddler on the Roof" – and did just that. Nothing happened.
That illustrates the wider theme. How much of the farcical politics, online name-calling and racist noise is just harmless play-acting that is ripe for satire, like the priests and believers in John Safran vs God? Are they for real or are they just phonies and opportunists jumping on a bandwagon?
It makes sense that the classic Australian skinhead movie Romper Stomper is being rebooted but now the skinheads are angry about the Muslims. Hating Asians is so 1990s. And it may explain why Pauline Hanson's career has also been rebooted.
After years in the political wilderness, Hanson returned to the Senate in 2016, almost as a harbinger of the greater orange menace to come in the United States. Even anti-gay preacher Fred Nile has re-emerged from the dark ages and has joined in on the loathing of Muslims.
Safran finally managed to confront Hanson during a walkabout in an Adelaide shopping mall. How can Hanson, once so notoriously anti-Asian, now be a political ally of the Sri Lankan immigrant pastor Safran met earlier? In an astonishingly brazen moment, Hanson told Safran that she was never against Asian immigration.
"Sometimes the hypocrisy is more annoying than the bigoted radical views," Safran says.
And maybe the professional politicians with real power are more dangerous than the nutters online with their endless splinter groups – the racists who hate Muslims more, the racists who hate Jews more. Hanson and One Nation make "this anti-Islam thing seem as normal as a trip to the beach," he writes. The shameless Queensland senator almost gave Safran a perfect, dark ending for his book when he thought he had finished it.
"Pauline Hanson was going to come to a town hall in a Jewish part of Melbourne and try to get the Jews on board for her," he says with a mix of disbelief and regret. "Oh my god, how could I not cover that? I revved up the book again. But she ended up cancelling."
John Safran talks with Te Radar in Shifting Points of View: John Safran – Depends What You Mean by Extremist in the Christchurch Arts Festival, September 10.
- Your Weekend