John Safran tagged along to one of the first Reclaim Australia rallies expecting to find skinheads roaming the streets of Melbourne. Instead, he found himself on a path that lead to his new book, Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue With Australian Deplorables. Ahead of his now sold out talks at libraries in Adelaide next week, Collage’s Natalie Carfora spoke to John to discuss all things extremism.
Natalie Carfora: How did you become interested in Australian political extremism?
John Safran: Uh, the long answer is way back when I was growing up Jewish, things about extremism were always floating in the background. It was nothing specific. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents who escaped Europe and the Nazis but nothing was really said. The closest comparison is when you become an adult and you realise there’s all these smells from your ethnic background – from the soup or the roast – and you kind of go ‘ah, okay, so I grew up and somehow I absorbed that’. It’s part of who I am, with history.
And when I was younger, my dad was curious about the secrets going on in the world. Once at a function when I was really young, my dad pointed to this man who had a Freemasons logo on his tie. ‘They’re a secret society’, he said, ‘they know each other from the secret symbol on his tie’. I liked that there’s little secret worlds going on in the community.
More recently, these things that when I was younger that floated around in the fringes, are suddenly closer and closer to the mainstream. It seems that a refresh button was pressed. Quite a while ago fringe groups were old men, a bygone era. But suddenly, there’s a new generation.
When I turned up to a Reclaim Australia rally, the second one they ever had, but the first one I went to, I turned up because on Facebook the people who were organising the counter-rally to the protest said there’s going to be skinheads on the streets of Melbourne. So I had to go. I got there, and I got to a crossing in the CBD that I had been to so many times, but now there were riot police standing in formation in full gear. It was crazy, so disorienting.
NC: Do you find many parallels between Australian extremism and the realities of it in other countries? What about throughout history?
JS: The thing I discovered that might not be apparent when you walk by – because they all sort of try and pitch to the mainstream, hide how revolutionary or radical they are. They’re all like I am concerned about Islam, or I am concerned about racism, but they pitch what their missions are to the mainstream and make out that they’re very normal. But then you spend a bit of time and you realise that they want to upend society as it is. Whether it’s a religious group who want the Messiah to come, or the far-right who want democracy to end, or even the left-wing who want society to collapse because capitalism and neo-liberalism haven’t worked.
When I capture these people, it happened to be in sync with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Since ascending, Trump has become normal. Now, he’s sort of another rich, self-interested right-wing politician. When he first was ascending, he was so totally radical and strange. The Bushes were supposed to win the Republican presidency. This guy who would say anything was on the rise, and even Bernie was saying radical. People were hanging out, super excited that change was afoot. This could be the moment, this might be the moment that the world upends. There are definite comparisons.
NC: What was the biggest irony that you found with the extremists?
JS: Uh, there’s a lot of ego. There are so many layers, I can’t tell every story. I was really interested in how religion is coursing through things that people may not realise from the outside looking in… That ego thing, these people are human, they have egos, they get annoyed if someone gets more attention than them. They say things as if everything’s about politics, everything’s about a revolution. But so many petty little things that regular people, that Grade 6 kids would get upset about, upsets them. Does that make sense?
NC: Yeah, definitely. So, Collage originated as an art history club, so I have to ask one about art. Do you think that art and visual culture have a role to play in extremism? Does it do more to promote extremism or challenge it?
JS: Totally. There’s a scene in my book where one of the ISIS supporters sort of discusses the latest ISIS music videos. He puts on his Arts degree hat and talks about multimedia and the way those ISIS videos sort of try to attract people by seeming normal; they cut it like a Hollywood film or a video game. Absolutely. They speak in English, this plays a role in radicalisation.
Looking at ISIS, they’re so spiritually driven rather than culturally. They’re not that into identity politics, they don’t say we prefer brown people to white or we have a problem with you if you speak English. No, anyone can be a Muslim, anyone can come and fight. They’d be happy to put out something that is cut together like a Hollywood film that can be appealing to white Western boys. It’s hard to kind of, it’s like adults trying to be cool for the kids. The mere fact that that’s the starting point means it trips up, it doesn’t really work. How do you counter that?
So much of the energy of the movements was because of Facebook pages with JPEGs and memes and little videos. It kind of creates an impression to people, that something’s going on, this is a movement. When really, it’s just one guy who pulled together a page. Package yourself right, and you can make it look much better than it does.
When I was very young, before the Internet, if you printed out a book that was self-published, there was something wrong. It didn’t look like a Penguin, the font was different or the binding made it look Amateur Hour. The Internet pulls together things that look professional; with a bit of money you can make your webpage or Facebook page look as high quality as a Coca-Cola page. It’s helpful in pitching to people that there’s a movement going on, it’s not just one crank in his bedroom.
NC: So last year during the university’s student elections, one of the candidates running for social justice officer had photos of him at a Reclaim Australia rally leaked. Do you think that equality and this kind of nationalism can co-exist?
JS: Everything’s a matter of degrees and definitions, or whatever. At what point is someone being patriotic, which is okay with mainstream society? At what point does it cross a line and become nationalism? When does it become racially nationalistic that everyone has a problem with? Everything’s just a mess, really.
We are living in this era where everyone accuses everyone of every bad thing. You can never really take anyone on their word, or that they’re coming from a good place when someone accuses someone else of something bad. Unless you really trust the person who’s making the accusations, you have to look into things yourself. It’s like that thing with the boy who cried wolf. The whole of modern online culture is crying wolf at a nuclear level 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
I do think that there might have to be some new reality where there is more forgiveness. Everyone’s going to have a nude photograph that somehow got up on the internet. Does that mean that person can never get a job? Or so many people have nude photographs on the net that it no longer has the meaning that it would have had. I guess the same with people poking into dodgy politics, it’s just when do you forgive them?
NC: What is the highest scoring Scrabble word you’ve ever played?
JS: Ah, that’s an interesting question. I usually just play on an app on my phone, but I play with other people not against a computer. Let’s see what my highest one is here… Okay my highest one is 116 points: “rewakes”.
I think my highest one I ever got, the highest one, or the best play is a Triple Triple, where you go over two Triple Word Score tiles. You have to cover 8 spaces, but you only have 7 tiles. You have to have someone play a word that goes in the perfect place. I’ve played Scrabble heaps, and that’s only happened to me twice. Predators and something else? Predators and lionise maybe? I don’t remember the scores but they got Triple Triples. You feel really zen for a while after that, all the knots go out of your back.
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John Safran’s latest book, Depends What You Mean by Extremist, is out now. It’s available on the Penguin Random House website or in all good bookstores.