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Books

Untying the knot

By Oscar Schwartz
John Safran explores the human tangles of belief and identity

In 2004, John Safran travelled to Orange County, California to try to join the Ku Klux Klan. In a clubhouse, surrounded by Nazi insignia, Safran suggested to the Grand Wizard that because once-banned Catholics were now able to join the Klan, maybe an exception could be made for Jews. He needled the military-clad white supremacist – “I’m whiter than Hitler” – until, in exasperation, the Grand Wizard conceded that, yes, maybe a half-Jew could become a Klansman. In his various documentaries over the years – like John Safran vs God and John Safran’s Race Relations – this is how Safran has demanded our attention: he ventures out to the fringes in order to report back on the extremists who dwell there. His satire often works to deflate these racists, religious fanatics and ideologues through absurdity. As the Grand Wizard became red in the face while debating the technicalities of Jewish matrilineal descent, he started to look like a petulant teenager playing army dress ups in a fusty basement.

In his new book, Depends What You Mean By Extremist (Hamish Hamilton, $34.99), Safran resumes this inquiry into the world of fundamentalists and fanatics, but within a reconfigured political topology in which the fringe is encroaching on the centre. The book begins with Safran heading off to a Reclaim Australia rally in mid 2015 and ends with Trump’s election. Safran inserts himself into this historical trajectory: he parties with members of the United Patriots Front in regional Victoria; engages in scriptural debate with Rabbis and Muslim preachers; provokes lefty anarchists in hip bars; and lifts weights with radical Zionists. Throughout, Safran can hardly contain his excitement and terror that his once marginal extremists are no longer confined to basements, but are rallying troops under gazebos in local parks in Bendigo, or holding up traffic in Melbourne’s CBD.

Throughout the book, Safran’s attention is repeatedly drawn towards what he calls “tangles”, convoluted knots of people, beliefs and identities that defy easy categorisation. For example, at the Reclaim Australia rally, Safran meets Pastor Daniel Nalliah, a Sri Lankan Evangelical Christian who espouses a staunchly anti-Islam and anti-immigration policy, which he uses to unite his “multi-ethnic” congregation of recent immigrants. Safran delights in the improbability of these tangles, and using Gonzo-style reportage, draws out their surreal humour. One Sunday, for instance, Safran attends mass at Nalliah’s Catch the Fire Ministries and watches a Chinese man blow a Jewish ram’s horn, a Ugandan man thank Jesus for the Israel Defense Forces, while a moustachioed man sings ‘Hava Nagila’ from the pulpit. “There’s nothing more ’strayan than dropping to your knees and weeping to Christ for the IDF,” Safran writes, “I imagine Dennis Lillee is doing this right now.”

Safran also uses these tangles to highlight a dissonance between the purity of ideology and the messiness of reality. At a house party for the United Patriots Front, Safran meets Sito, an Indonesian Muslim immigrant who describes himself as “Islam but anti-Islam too”. Safran tries to point out to the white nationalists in the room that they’ve just spent the afternoon rallying against precisely Sito’s demographic. Unwilling to spoil the festivity, the UPFers resist Safran’s intransigent application of their policies and insist that they’re OK with a self-identifying Muslim immigrant who loves eating bacon and getting stoned.

An important idea that emerges from Safran’s investigation is that co-existence requires a type of messiness, but as people retreat deeper into political or religious ideologies they wilfully overlook the tangles of reality, as these weird knots unsettle the closed explanatory systems that they have imposed on the world. Safran takes pains in pointing out that this ideological myopia is just as prevalent on the left as on the right. After posting a picture of the Sri Lankan Nalliah at the Reclaim Australia rally on his Facebook, Safran is criticised by progressives for “taking up space” as a white man in a political discourse that ought not concern him. An irritated Safran observes that for these Facebook commenters, it is important that he is white and not Jewish, as this would complicate their critique. In fact, one critic tells Safran that his “Jewishness has dissolved into whiteness and is no longer an ethnic identity that makes you ‘the other’”. Safran responds by taking the piss. He writes, “I know that for some, history only goes as far back as last week’s BuzzFeed listicle, but still. Strange that they can’t understand why a Jew is curious about a far-right rally in his home town. Hey, BuzzFeed, maybe you can help educate them on this matter. I even have the headline: Schindler’s Listicle.”

While sarcasm is Safran’s way of negotiating and analysing racism and extremism, there are moments in the book when he takes his satirical armour off and gets angry in an uncharacteristically sincere way. In one scene, a drunk Safran rants to his friend about a book he is reading on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In equal parts inspired by the courage of Jewish resistance fighters, and horrified by the forced submission of the masses, Safran comes to the conclusion that Jews should have each other’s backs, because no one else will when the Nazis come. “I know it’s far lower stakes,” Safran rants, “but when a Muslim attacks a rabbi on the synagogue grounds, it’s like the socialists at the rallies, they look away because, oh, it’s a bit awkward.” The book ends in the wake of Trump’s election, with Safran learning Krav Maga with a right-wing Zionist in Melbourne’s south-east, acting out his very own retreat into identarian logic. It’s an uncomfortable ending, but captures the emotion of these disturbing and disorienting times far more effectively than some meta-commentary on the importance of liberal values in our increasingly extreme moment.

Oscar Schwartz

Oscar Schwartz is a Darwin-based writer and researcher.

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