Depends What you Mean by Extremist by John Safran (2017). A review by John Cook

Depends What You Mean by Extremist

It would seem that John Safran has been around for a long time (1997 actually) and keeps on popping into consciousness with his various films/videos/TV shows. I, for one, watch what he has to say as much to enjoy his quirky manner and directions of inquiry as for great depth – though depth is often present when he follows a line such as racism in America and reporting on the death of Richard Barrett in ‘Race Relations’ and some of the musings of the ‘Sunday Night Safran’ on Triple J with Father Bob Maguire.

If there is an indication of his increasing maturity it has to be this book. Safran takes on the confusion and puzzlement most people feel when presented a daily diet of extremist doings whether they be right wing ‘patriots’, jihadis, islamaphobes, ant-Semitics, Q Society or anarchists. He has the background, skills and experiences that enable him to move from group to group plying his usual slightly fey, inoffensive, ‘matey’? manner that enables him to get close to people normally seen as cardboard thin media stereotypes and prod gently into their background, behaviours and ultimate goals.

The confusion, I for one, experience in trying to get a grip on these groups is partly reflected in the early stages of this book as Safran meets extremist individuals and begins to burrow into their awareness. Some of these people vary from the foolishly ignorant through closed-mindedness into petty actions (ranging from public affray through to the infamous ‘tinny terrorists’) on to the genuinely dangerous and suicidally angry.

Safran manages to extract some common features from many of these individuals that focus not always on a particular issue so much as a felt need that shifts from one focus to another such as moving from Asian migration to Islamic migration. I see it in two senses. One is a driving need to be right – to have found ‘the answers’ and ‘the cure’. The other is when those answers are matched by a fear that those answers might actually be wrong and in need of modification or re-direction or admission or error. It is clear to me that the most dangerous of these individuals are those who are fundamentally most fearful, defensive and angry in this sense.

Safran sets his investigation against a mostly Melbourne setting (understandably) that it is remarkable for its very ordinariness and suburban and urban) feel. I enjoyed the story of the pig roast at the Cronulla riot ‘commemoration’ that few enough attended while no one seemed to have any idea how long the roast might take though the sausages were OK.

This is vintage Safran with a weird mixture of the serious, thoughtful, comic and bizarre that might encourage some deeper thought and consideration by readers genuinely interested in investigating this contemporary phenomenon that is a pointer towards changes and instability in so many Western nations – viz Hansonism and Trumpism.

Where else are going to find two extracts like the following ..

Del (a Palestinian woman working somewhat covertly in Melbourne Jewish bakery) tells me her aunty is wrapped in a paradox of her own. She’s convinced that her doctor, who is Jewish, is trying to poison her ’She’s going on and on and on. And I’m like, “Why do you see him if you think he’s poisoning you?” And she goes, “Jews are the best doctors.”

How could anyone who grew up with Mad magazine think that ISIS is a good idea?’

 

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