“Journalism,” George Orwell once said, “is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” If Orwell was right then John Safran’s newly released book, Depends What You Mean by Extremist: Going Rogue With Australian Deplorables (Penguin, $29.95), is a damn fine piece of journalism. There’s surely no shortage of fascists, anarchists, evangelicals, militant Zionists, Hindu nationalists, anti-theists and Jihadis who would all be happy to see Safran’s long-awaited second book pulped – or at least, to see the bits about them edited out.
The non-fiction romp follows the quirky, eagle-eyed satirist as he immerses himself in Australia’s radical fringes. Safran sinks tequila with neo-Nazis, chats Monty Python with fanatical Islamists, stalks the anti-Muslim Q Society and winds up so paranoid he starts carrying a knife. Safran’s main quest, as he puts it, is to look for “tangles” in multicultural Australia – those awkward ironies that don’t fit into anyone’s overarching political or religious narrative. The opening chapter describes a rally run by white supremacists that’s more ethnically diverse than the anti-racism counter-rally opposing it. Neither side’s leader are comfortable talking about this, because it doesn’t slot into anyone’s agenda.
From there, things just get messier. We meet fascinating characters, from the Lebanese white supremacist to the anti-fascist activist who harasses Israeli shop owners. If it was fiction, you’d think the author was being an overly post-modern smart-arse. Safran’s panorama suggests that nobody’s conception of who they are in relation to society is without contradiction, and the people most invested in black and white world views are often the most paradox-plagued of all: an easy tool for bolstering a fissiparous identity is the steel of unyielding ideology. Safran’s subjects are mostly oddballs (one ISIS aficionado is referred to as “The Gnome” because of the race of his World of Warcraft character) and you get the sense that all these dreams of caliphates and reichs are underscored by a craving to belong. Of course, the easiest way to be a part of an “us” is to find yourself a “them”.
But it’s not all about the dialectics of hate: this book is fucking funny. Safran’s prose is plain but vivid, and the gumshoe tenacity of his first venture, Murder in Mississippi, is here more thoroughly peppered with the hysterical schtick of his two-decade TV and radio career. As I devoured it over a couple of days I was often reminded of the odd cocktail of cringing, fear and laughter I first felt when watching a younger Safran ask an unhinged Grand Dragon if he, as a Jewish man, was allowed to join the Klan.
When the other guy isn’t dressed in army gear, the power dynamics of this style of journalism can be fraught. A lot of humour depends on hypocritical targets being of higher status than the person skewering them, so the scope of the reporter’s authority and influence has to be downplayed. This doesn’t always work. For instance, there are occasions when Oxford education Louis Theroux, with BBC camera crew and international audience behind him, plays up his bashfulness to some poor hick and mumbles a bromide like “have you tried not being a Nazi?” Safran is sufficiently self-deprecating to avoid these pitfalls. He tells us straight out when he’s being a dick, and his interactions and analysis are refreshingly unpretentious.
As someone whose sympathies lie with the far-left, there were moments in the book that made me squirm – and this is a good thing. As the liberal status quo disintegrates and society’s extremes fold towards its centre, Safran’s message is a timely one: don’t take yourself too seriously and always rememebr the tangles.