“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
These were the words Donald Trump first uttered in the wake of the deadly Charlottesville riots earlier this month. A woman died at the hands of a Neo-Nazi, and the President was talking about dualities, condeming hatred on both sides. The President was labelled a racist, and criticised for being too lenient on the xenophobic views of the white supremacists.
But perhaps there is merit in understanding the motivations on both sides of the fence. Not just the radical right wing so-called racists. And not just the members of our bubble. And Melbourne Journalist John Safran agrees with this.
Who are these people chanting “All Lives Matter”? What spawned the resurgence of Neo-Nazism? Why is there a black man speaking at a Reclaim Australia rally? And who the heck voted for Pauline Hanson?
These questions are more relevant than ever, and they are questions Safran endeavours to answer in his powerful book, Depends What You Mean By Extremist.
LISTEN: Mia Freedman and Amelia Lester try to make sense of the Charlottesville riots.
This book is a reminder – if you have somehow forgotten – that these issues aren’t unique to America. If you thought white supremacists could only walk unmasked down the streets of the Deep South, you’ve obviously never ventured into a Reclaim Australia rally.
Safran begins with a roll call of one such meeting.
Outside Melbourne’s Parliament House, a motley crew of protestors have assembled to call for the end of multiculturalism in Australia. There’s a blonde woman, paying respect to the Wurundjeri people, the traditional owners of the land. There’s a Sri Lankan Pastor who wants to send Muslims home. And then there’s a bunch of burly men looking like bikies. They are from the far-right United Patriots Front. Among them is a smattering of skinheads, emblazoned with swastika tattoos and making holocaust jokes. Neo-Nazis aside, it’s not the white-washed crowd you would expect at a Reclaim Australia event.
The cast of this book – the ‘deplorables’ – is as fascinating as any true crime story. But what might shock you most, is the fact that they live in your suburb.
As a member of Melbourne’s Jewish community, Safran is in a unique position to comment on these people. No one would blame him for fearing the uprising of Neo-Nazis, but he doesn’t. Instead, he’s determined to learn what led them to this point of extremism.
Seeing a Jewish writer consorting with a skinhead leader is as an unlikely pairing as Pauline Hanson in a burqa. It has to be seen to be believed. And that leads us to the highlight of the book.
Because what would a book about Australia’s extremism be without a look at our very own Pauline Hanson?
The thing John Safran seems to find most difficult to comprehend about the divisive Senator is her shift from targeting Asian immigrants to Muslims. He asks the One Nation leader if she is going to flip flop again, and she gives this gem of a quote.
“How do I know I’m not going to bump into you in fifteen years’ time and you’re going to be -”
“Wearing a burqa?… It won’t happen. I will never wear a burqa.”
You heard it here first, folks.
So what does all this mean? Why is it so important for everyone to read this book? And what is Safran's big take away on race and rioting in Australia?
It's the need to look at both sides of the story. In a way, like Trump.
You don't have to agree, just listen. When we understand their motivations, we see that all these people, whichever side they fall on, are afraid. They're scared of the unknown. And they're scared of change. While Trump is capitalising on this fear, it's our job to assuage it.
At one point in the book, Safran says: "Maybe it's helpful for people to know that dangerous people have charisma."
And that is how the deplorables come into power. But remember, there's also power in knowledge. By understanding these people a little better, hopefully we're gaining the tools to counter them with wit, not weapons.
You can buy Depends What You Mean By Extremist here.