Hanging out with neo-Nazis and ISIS supporters is just another day at the office for John Safran. That a Jewish bloke from Melbourne would choose to spend time in the company of extremists is not so surprising.
Safran first appeared on Australian television streaking in Jerusalem, wearing only a St Kilda scarf and beanie. He famously turned the camera on Ray Martin and tabloid journalism when he rummaged through Martin's garbage. His last book, Murder in Mississippi, covered the death of a klansman in the deep American south. Perpetually drawn to conflict, he manages to be simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and irreverent while addressing serious issues.
We're dining at the City Wine Shop, which he chose because it provides a great view of goings-on across the road. Turning up to a protest one day, he was confronted with a very strange picture of his hometown. "The first rally I went to I walked up from Parliament Station and all these spots I was so familiar with, suddenly there are all these police in modern riot gear. And it just looked so weird ... skinheads on the street ... I thought, I want to follow this down the rabbit hole."
Before we head there with him, we need to order. I opt for the pasta with pumpkin, ricotta and pine nuts, he orders the schnitzel with coleslaw.
Safran is charming and intense; he listens carefully, speaks quickly and is clearly passionate about his subject matter. He's intrigued by the recent conflicts in Australia, the so-called race wars and the various factions within. Originally inspired by the anniversary of the Cronulla riots, his latest offering is called Depends What You Call An Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables. While the anniversary proved a non-event, other, similarly motivated tribes were gathering and tensions were simmering, all of which provided rich fodder for the book.
In 2015, he went along to one of the first "race rallies" in Melbourne.
"I got here and started sending sarcastic tweets about how multi-ethnic the far right was compared with what was being promised. Most people were fine and thought it was funny and whatever but there was this weird, minor blowback, like 'why are you showing this, why are you reporting on this?' I could tell there was this tension. Why are people shitty with me? The fact that people were getting annoyed, I feel like I am definitely right and they are wrong, so I followed that path."
Further digging revealed recurring religious themes in the conversation, "which I reckon a regular person mightn't be as attuned to". In a society that doesn't regularly discuss religion - same sex marriage debate aside - he found it fascinating to hear so many people referring to the Messiah.
"All this stuff that Aussies don't talk about generally because they've come from generations of families who might only ever turn up to church for Christmas or Easter. They really compartmentalise religion."
Putting himself in the thick of it - whether getting drunk with neo-Nazis or communing with klansmen - is his MO. "If I did some droll sitting at home taking the piss out of everyone, I don't think people would accept it as much. I reckon I come across as such a smartarse, I can be somewhere with a white supremacist who has killed 17 people and I'll write some snarky comment and people reading it will be like, 'Who is this arsehole John Safran?'. He's making fun of the white supremacist murderer, that's a bit mean."
Physically getting involved and engaged creates a different narrative and makes people respond differently: "I think when I'm actually there I get more forgiveness. [People think] he bothered to turn up."
The waitress interrupts to ask if we want a glass of wine. "Your food is in its photo shoot," she says; it's a red for him and white for me.
At the top of his website is the headline "John Safran, top Jew detective". It sounds like a gag yet encapsulates him perfectly; sleuthing has been his focus for years, using a combination of investigative and new journalism. "I'm absolutely using the tools of journalism but even though I do that, I am coming from more of a creative perspective, that's what driving me more. It's not as though if I couldn't do this I'd write a Quarterly Essay about the issues involved." (He'd be more likely to play guitar and sing if he could, he says, if it made a big impact on an audience.)
Popularised in the '60s by the likes of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, new journalism involves immersing yourself with the subject of a story. Thompson famously did so with the Hells Angels. A prolific reader, Safran is reading Norman Mailer's The Fight. (He loves Mailer's ability to inform through his writing, citing the example that boxers need to earn how to absorb punches as well as how to punch.) Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is another favourite.
"That's what one of the jokes is, no matter what [the story] is, somehow I make it about me, but it's kinda cool because it's self-aware. It doesn't have that Aussie thing where you constantly downplay it, or chip away at it."
Curious by nature, Safran is drawn to this type of event. Apparently that's always been the case. ("I've been into racists since high school," he quips.) As he gets older he reckons all storytellers have the one book in them and songwriters the one song. This conflict thing is his schtick. "Now I realise the audience is just people who like that I kind of tippy toe into the little shadows and ??? then come back and show what I found."
Humour provides levity for the inherently difficult and often ugly nature of what he writes about. He likens it to Jewish comedy after World War II. "It's not like when Mel Brooks dresses up as Hitler, he takes down anyone, it's more like the world's mad and it's good to scream. Comedy's a good way to scream. I think my book, that's more where I'm coming from. At the moment there's this real frantic energy running through the world, and Melbourne too, and me personally."
He believes comedy has been commandeered, that people today think it has to have a point. "I blame it on Jon Stewart [of The Daily Show], he's ruined everything. He presented this watertight, opening line at the top, and then it's like ??? proving the case. And then people start thinking that's the point of comedy. It becomes this weird thing, it becomes 'how many scalps did he get?' People start justifying Stewart or Stephen Colbert on, you know 'this conservative politician had to quit'."
Our conversation is wide-ranging and by the end of lunch we've covered admin, his old sparring partner Father Bob ("He was a bit freaked out by the book, thought it was really scary") and the disruption of the media ("it drives me crazy that people on Twitter are being citizen journalists; a few years ago there was such cockiness, 'oh it's fine newspapers are dying' ").
Social media plays a fundamental role in orchestrating the rallies and protests; it allows like-minded people to connect and commune in unprecedented ways. Before Facebook, "they would have had to start with the harsh reality that they could only get seven people to turn up to this pub, now they can do these things on social media, they could really develop momentum".
"The extreme groups can really latch onto that in the same way that women on Instagram will into existence that they're a model - and then they are a model. With the far right it was like that, you had these young men who willed into existence that they were a movement."
When writing the book, Safran admits he was neurotic. "I saw how tribal everyone was and it really was a bit depressing, how people are so happy with violence if it's not [against] their people. I got really ??? really negative, thinking why is everyone assuming everyone is going to come together?"
He was always "on", getting messages day and night from players at both sides of politics. Since the book's release, he has decompressed. "I thought I was being balanced, hanging out with these white nationalists - as balance I'd hang out with these ISIS supporters. Now I'm hanging out with the normies."
There are only two parts in the book "where someone from normal land comes in, like my dad at one point".
If he wrote it again, he'd include more from the non-extremists' perspective. At one stage, he writes about being here at the City Wine Shop, chatting to a waitress. "She's folding up the tables, ready for the new rally. I say to her 'When's the race war starting today?' and she says 'Oh, about midday.' So I think in the next book there will be a bit more normals."
Depends What You Call An Extremist is published by Penguin.
The bill, please
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