Australian politics, society & culture


Border crossings

John Safran’s ‘Race Relations’

Cover: February 2010February 2010Medium length read

The Torah says that we do not see things as they are. We see things as we are. In our everyday relationships, we take ourselves as the yardstick of normality – of rationality, leniency and consideration. The Dhammapadda tells us that conquering others is simple, compared with the task of controlling ourselves. But there is nothing ‘normal’ or self-controlled in the scenarios of John Safran’s Race Relations, in which Safran comes to the call of Obama, spanks an ex-girlfriend, gets crucified, and digs up a grave plot.

The premise of this ABC series is that sometimes ‘normal’ love is not enough. When you start craving all the ‘e’s of emotion: exciting, exotic, extreme, then the kind of relationship sanctioned by faith or culture because two people are ‘evenly yoked’ – that slow, sedulous, plodding love – can seem dull by comparison. To find this capital-E kind of love, Safran seeks subjects for exploration that would make sadists laugh and objects of adoration that would make Edward Said weep.

Following Plato, Schopenhauer theorised that individuals seek a “complement” or completing of themselves in a partner. Seen from a distance, the exotic other may be a meditative lotus-position, or sharp-witted, worldly battle-rap, or else a sterling intellect with thousands of years’ worth of cultural history. For enlightened middle-class liberals, appreciation may even extend to perceiving beauty in the uglier specimens of another race. “The cultural bump,” Safran calls it, this fetishisation. His insightful friend Ms Bennett puts it more bluntly: “How would you feel if you were ogled simply because you were Asian?”

Race Relations’ cultural parameters and emotional complexity come from Safran making himself both the subject and object of the show. He tests anti-feminist Henry Makow’s conviction that Asian women are less superficial in the one country with the reputation for the most sleazy-fat-white-men-with-beautiful-Asian-women per capita – Thailand. “Asian women judge a man by his heart, not by his looks” asserts Makow, so, disguised as Merrick’s Elephant Man, Safran pesters attractive Thai women to rate a photograph of the other John (the Jewish one) on a percentage scale.

You watch the first woman carefully evaluating the photograph of Safran and there’s a high likelihood she’s not in on the joke. You can almost see her weighing up the chances of a so-called ‘better life’ in the West. You have to admire her subsequent careful, clever diplomacy. She suggests that love might be a give-and-take, the chance to improve one’s situation. You guess that this Thai woman, almost 30, knows very well that her beauty is a depreciating currency. She gives Safran a 60% rating. But Safran’s character doesn’t like this first woman and so bugs another Thai woman until he gets a “70–80%”. And there, in ten short minutes, you get an idea that romance means something different for someone so rooted in reality, while you also see Makow’s model of love, a model that is solely bent on gratifying one’s ego, the epitome of Shakespeare’s “by lies we flattered be.” Behind Safran’s pranks is an astute and nuanced social commentator with the bullet-end of the joke often pointed at his own vanity.

In Safran’s world, there is no sanctioned way to behave in a social setting. He goes speed-dating and lets rip with capital-I Issues from the very start of his assigned seven minutes of small talk: can a white man understand a black woman as well as a black man can? The show never assumes anything about another culture, since cultural ‘truths’ can always be disproved by or counteracted with another argument: “Don’t make colour an issue when it doesn’t have to be. Not every black man understands every black woman,” one of his African-American speed-dating partners retorts. (Speed-dating, coincidentally, was invented by Rabbi Yaacov Deyo in 1998, as a way for Jewish youth to marry within their faith.)

There are no set rules or rituals in Safran’s sphere, no moral compass points, because “everything is just so confusing.” The Bangladeshi poet Tagore wrote that “we read the world wrong and say that it deceives us.” The more he finds out about the bizarreness of the world, the wider that world becomes. The sources Safran quotes and “zings” (as he likes to call it) for the show are people with varying styles of wire-traps in their heads, designed to ward off pernicious influences: Makow, holocaust-denier David Irving and Rabbi Kalman Packouz, who wrote How to Prevent an Intermarriage. Yet his friends, family and innocent victims don’t look bad in the show, they just look like, well, bewildered victims (whether they are acting or not).

In one of the more touching scenes in Race Relations, we see the restraint and love of John’s quiet, unassuming Jewish father in not handing down his personal hang-ups about anti-Semitism to his son. In Episode Five, John pesters his father about having gotten a nose job – “he cut off his nose to spite his race.” Alex Safran gently but persistently denies this, until he is finally forced to take a lie-detector test.

In love, as in pain,” Germaine Greer wrote once. A temporary heightened state of feeling. Without self-control, a person can change from the Corinthians model of love to being brutal and blind in a few short steps, proving to us William Hazlitt’s line that the slightest ache in our little finger causes us more discomfort than the suffering of millions. ‘Making out’ in Anne Frank’s attic is Safran’s demonstration of this. The guilt and shame the viewer feels while watching this is compounded by the picture of John’s grandmother with her beautiful haunted eyes. A Holocaust survivor herself, she tells him not to wear T-shirts on the tram that would incite anti-Semitism.

Shabbas has not been the same at the Safran household since John’s mother died. “Don’t lolly about diffelent leligion or culture,” his rented Japanese mother advises him. But having a mother that says all the right things is not the same having as one’s own mother, and he hears of a kabbalah ritual where the dead person can literally pass messages back through the grave, so John enlists the help of his two best friends. One of them, George, tries to explain to him that there is a limit on how far a person can go: “Even you have to have a fucking point where that’s enough. I mean, clearly you’re happy to be baptised, you’re happy to dig up a grave next to your mother, but there’s got to be something. Otherwise what stops you from going out and shooting somebody? Why do you have to beat yourself up for setting some sort of a boundary?”

The only boundary Safran tries to avoid crossing is that of pathos. You can see him trying to make a prank of his most personally painful moments. Confronting Deborah Kee Higgins, love of his life: “I’ve really got to rewatch Michael Moore, to work out how to do those confrontations where the subjects are humiliated, not the interviewees.” Coming out of an hour talking to his mother’s coffin with a grinning, “Yeah, I’m OK.” Smiling after his crucifixion.

George is the best friend who once mentioned that he would not go to Safran’s wedding if John married a non-Jew. Yet you never get the impression that George is a closed-minded fundamentalist (he seems to be genuinely happy at John’s wedding), but rather an intelligent man whose faith holds the cogs of his life in place. In fact, throughout the whole series, you never get the impression that religion and culture are the ultimate nemeses of affection.

"Me love you long time" are the words that begin and end each episode, but can a fetish really love you a long time? Race Relations, in its unflinching awkwardness, reveals the loneliness and irrationality of a love based solely on gratifying oneself; because of this premise, it is one of the most perceptive and funny looks at the delusions of modern-day romance that I have ever seen on television.

About the author Alice Pung
Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Her Father’s Daughter and Unpolished Gem, and the editor of Growing up Asian in Australia.