Book Review: Depends What You Mean by Extremist

Comedian and muckraker John Safran has brilliantly skewered the left and right of politics for near on two decades, mainly via TV and radio, and now continues with his second foray into books.

In 2013, we saw another side to Safran – the sarcastic Truman Capote – with the release of his true crime debut Murder in Mississippi. But as you discover with Depends What You Mean by Extremist Safran didn’t have to travel far to have an adventure with extremists, they were in his hometown of Melbourne.

Safran’s latest sees him almost match the ‘gonzo nice’ style of his English peers Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux, two writers and documentary filmmakers who have taken ‘new journalism’ to intriguingly obscure places. The English duo connects with people with extreme or bizarre views and in doing so their subjects reveal information you wouldn’t get in a news report. This allows their audience to view these people in a different light and occasionally empathise.

Safran is similar. He’s like the sarcastic punk rock kid of the trio, and the funniest. He connects, not with Louis Theroux-like politeness, but through self-deprecating humour and an outsider’s perspective that allows his subjects to let him view their world. And like Theroux and Ronson, his approach allows him to mine journalistic gold.

The extreme worlds Safran explores in his latest book includes far right nationalists and extreme Islamists while anarchists and socialists pop up to say hello in the years leading up to the re-election of Pauline Hanson to the Australian senate and Trump to the US presidency. Safran captures that point in time just before anti-Islam rhetoric moved from the fringes to the mainstream, which is one of the strengths of this book but what ultimately stays with you is how similar the far right, extreme Islam and the far left can sometimes be, especially when perpetuating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Full of cracking one-liners and Safran’s honest-to-a-fault self-deprecation, Depends What You Mean by Extremist is a unique journey through many radical Australian pit stops that doesn’t quite reach the promised land like, say, Jon Ronson’s excellent novels The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. Nonetheless, Safran’s zigzagging through the radical maze has more than enough twists and turns to entertain.

Author: John Safran
Publisher: Penguin

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