John Safran’s latest is suitably provocatively titled Depends What You Mean by Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables. We know how Safran works: he gets in there with his self-doubt and endless questions, and keeps working away with the people we have already written off, finding things that we really otherwise wouldn’t know about. He makes an effort ingratiating himself in the name of both entertainment and knowledge. This may sound like I’m writing him off, I’m not: this is an excellent book. It is funny and fascinating; Safran is ruthless on his subjects on both sides of the political fence, as well as himself.
The subheading of this book is very late-2016, when a lot of the events of this book actually occurred. It is the latest US Presidential election and Clinton’s dismissal of Trump’s fans as deplorable becomes an unexpected uniting rallying cry of that group: they are rouge and proud. The year extreme went mainstream. This is the undercurrent to the latest round of Safran turning up where he’s not wanted, digging away at contradictions many would prefer to leave unexamined.
“Who is this black puppet-master among the white nationalists? And this Muslim fundamentalist who geeks out on Monty Python? Is there a secret radicalisation network operating in John’s own Jewish suburb? And ultimately – is hanging with all these radicals washing off on John himself?”
Safran has a particularly receptive antenna for cutting-edge contemporary issues and denial. He refuses to accept what many of us think just has to be dealt with, he endlessly questions those some would rather be left alone. There is the idea that some sections of society should not be given the air, coverage, exposure: Safran thinks there they dwell and grow when they should be pulled out, raked over, worked out. If it’s out there, then we can all see that there is nothing particularly special to worry about: it’s just an another ordinary powerless Australian with some particularly extraordinary ill-informed views.
I find Safran very smart and completely self-aware. He plays the journalist Jew detective, who also gets drunk with white racists and is desperate to explain his motivations to himself as well as to his readers. The contradictions within himself are not lost on him. This book is uncomfortable reading but also laugh-out-loud funny.
This is a portrait of self-proclaimed ordinary Australians, of our contemporary society. And it is not particularly flattering. It is a completely original read, insightful and dead-pan funny. Safran gets in to places and tells stories like no one else can.