John Safran: ‘I’d Be Happy to Have More Fights with People’

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He's back from the brink with a new book.

Photo via Penguin Randomhouse

Let’s put it this way: fringe-dweller John Safran isn’t afraid of boundary pushing. The self-dubbed “Jew detective” is so familiar with the unfamiliar, he’s earned himself almost as many adversaries as devotees in his 20-year-long career.

From his early days streaking through Jerusalem wearing nothing but a football scarf on the ABC’s Race Around the World, to his priest-provoking discussions on the long-running and beloved Triple J radio program Sunday Night Safran with Catholic co-host Father Bob Maguire, as well as his real-life crucifixion in Kapitangan just outside of Manila, this documentary maker and author is no stranger to spending time on the social periphery. In his new book, Depends on What You Mean by Extremist, he chose the local far-right movement, including groups like Reclaim Australia, as his latest subject of examination. The book brims with his personal experiences attending rallies with very vocal members, as well as spending time in their homes, and, as always, he managed to the find the humour in the heretical.

Here’s what the stuntman had to say on his personal relationship with curiosity, why he’s always searching for the confluence of conflict, and how journos get serious FOMO.

[Growing up in Melbourne,] I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. They’d escaped the Nazis but all their family was killed. The flat where I lived with them, for instance, [was built for them] by a cabinetmaker; he made sure in the wall there was a hollow thing with a little door and a lock, so they could hide their money in there. [There was also] a real abundance of supply of canned pickles and canned food. We never literally talked about the Holocaust or anything… it was totally the opposite. It was unspoken. But in the same way as when you’re an adult, you realise that all this stuff from your childhood is now in you. Like, you have the smell of the soup of your particular ethnicity. It’s like, “Oh, okay. It’s part of me.” And that means something to me. There was that kind of element and obviously that’s really loaded with issues of racism, and all the issues of secrets, and things that aren’t spoken.

Once when I was young, I was at this Bar Mitzvah party or something, and my dad points to this guy with a tie and says, “See that symbol on his tie? That’s a Freemason’s symbol, and they’re like a secret society. They don’t like it when you go and ask them about it. Go on and go ask him about it.” Anyway, so I go up to this guy and I ask him, “Are you a Freemason?” My dad just put this thing in me that there’s this secret world going on.

I like creative energy and conflict, and there’s just something about religion. It’s almost like [anyone] just has to say the word “religion”… and then it’s on. Everyone’s already awkward, which is really helpful.

When I did my first article about a Reclaim [Australia] rally, which ended up being the first chapter of the book, [I wrote] down the things that people have said, like “turn on the gas”. Then, I got some responses on Twitter from this Muslim woman who just said, “Oh, that’s so awful. I’m really sorry you had to go through that.” And I was kind of going, “You know, she’s right. It is fricking awful.” I’m just in this rare total one-in-a-million circumstance where, someone shouting that to me, I can leverage that to my advantage.

Photo via Penguin Randomhouse

I’d be happy to have more fights with people, and maybe I should. Because I guess I am thinking, I want them to say what they have to say, what they need to say, because my books are about dialogue… [but] if you’re in the moment, often you’re not processing everything, and so sometimes I’m listening back at the tape, and I’m like, “Why did I let them continue?”

It probably would’ve been better maybe to have got out of there [more often, but] it’s just really hard. It’s hard to take a week off and go, “Oh, I’m not going to screenshot and keep a record of everything for this next week, because now I’m in my army gown today. You have a FOMO. There’s so much FOMO.

I do think that with offensive comedy… you can kind of end up saying things and having conversations that you almost, like, can’t have any other way. I remember this conversation – I had a few versions of it over the years – with Father Bob Maguire on Triple J, and I’d always say to him, because he did a lot of work with the homeless… and people who were economically deprived or whatever. A couple of times on air, I’d be talking about how, “Isn’t it weird how people often need help or they’re in unfortunate situations, like the homeless can be arseholes?” You know, they’re humans, they just seem to be arseholes. And then we’d have this conversation where he’d go… “You’ve got to understand that you don’t help people out because they’re on that level. You don’t have to like everyone, you just have to love them.” That’s how he’d explain it – he’d just say, “Well, that’s not the moral basis of why you help people. It’s not like you help people in unfortunate situations because they’re angels with no flaws or whatever.” I just feel, like, that is so a conversation I would only have… because I think it’s funny and you’re not meant to say that.

When I first started and there was the Internet, but there wasn’t Google, and there wasn’t this whole reality where everyone just typed in your name and found things. You could be a bit more of a sneak. You could kind of, like, assume that people aren’t going to find out who you are. But then it just changed, and I just had to work backwards from that. There’s no point sulking in the corner. I had to start adjusting how I do things in my work around the fact that no, people will type in my name straight away and the first thing that will come up is a smart-arse prankster who rings up people claiming to be sincere, and then double crosses them.

It’s just having to adapt to new realities and being excited about them, rather than annoyed by them. Or at least be annoyed by them in a funny way. That’s the good thing about conflict: everything’s helpful.

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