Best of 2009: John Safran the holy fool

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John Safran, race relationsFirst published October 2009

On Wednesday ABC TV aired the first episode of John Safran's eight-part satirical series, Race Relations. It's timely and provocative, as race, and its portrayal and coverage on the media, have become hot-button issues.

The inauguration of Barack Obama early this year as the first black American President was much-heralded around the globe as a major stepping stone in overcoming race-based prejudice and hatred. But since the heady days of his election win and inauguration, there have been disrespectful and negative sentiments expressed about him in Washington street protests, and even in Congress.

Many observers, including former President Jimmy Carter, have denounced these as slurs based on race, slurs that would not have been aimed at a white president. But Obama himself, in what seems to be a move to defuse the situation, has played down any notion that criticism of him has been based on his race.

A race-based controversy erupted on Australian television, ignited by Hey Hey's clumsy blackfaced lampooning of the Jackson Five. And there was heated debate in the UK this week over the BBC's decision to include racist leader of the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin, on the panel of current affairs show, Question Time.

The BNP's constitution states it is only open to white people, and one of its key platforms is to rid Britain of migrants, particularly Muslims. Griffin was one of a swag of ultra-right politicians recently elected to the European Parliament. Critics of the BBC argued that allowing him on Question Time would give legitimacy to his racist views.

So, with Race Relations, Safran enters highly vexed and contentious territory.

The premise is simple: Safran is Jewish, and there are family pressures to 'marry in' — to hitch up with a nice Jewish girl — but he is more attracted to Eurasian women. This leads him to ask, in matters of love, 'should you stick with your tribe, or escape your tribe?' — a worthwhile question in these fractious times.

He sets off on an international quest to examine 'cross-cultural, interracial and interfaith love'.

In the first episode (watch video here), a Eurasian ex-girlfriend who is a scientist tells him of an experiment in which female students were found to be more attracted to the male body odour of other races. So Safran steals the used knickers of female Jewish and Eurasian friends and devises his own experiment involving random panty sniffing.

This is followed by visits to Israeli and Palestinian sperm banks where he and his Palestinian sound recordist hoodwink the clinic supervisors and make a Palestinian sperm donation to the Israelis, and vice versa.

Is Race Relations part of the problem, or part of the solution? Certainly Safran's stunts are cringe-making, in your face, and potentially creepy. But they are put in the context of a cogent and pithy argument that has serious intent. I think he gets away with it.

And without wishing to put him on a pedestal, for those who have qualms about Safran from a religious point of view, it is well to keep in mind the tradition of the 'holy fool' — people who can see through cant, hypocrisy and pomposity, and, using cutting stories, actions or parables, tell uncomfortable home truths. Usually they are eccentric or slightly weird figures, often at loggerheads with authority and despised by the mainstream.

In Christianity the notion is famously described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:10 with its exhortation that Christians should be 'fools for the sake of Christ'. In Russian Orthodoxy it is expressed in the figure of the yurodivy, and Muslims have their malamiyya, usually translated as 'people of blame'.

Certainly Safran's sometime collaborator, parish priest of South Melbourne, Fr Bob Maguire (who appeared with him in the chat show Speaking in Tongues on SBS TV, and on Triple J radio) fits this mould. And it's safe to call Safran a holy fool of secular culture. So it's worth strapping on the seatbelt and going on the journey for the rest of Race Relations even if it's a bumpy, uncomfortable and confronting ride.

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, john safran, race relations, fr bob maguire, palestinian sperm bank, eurasian women



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Existing comments

Like the South Park phenomenon the world needs such fools ... fools for the sake of balance and integrity.

I have just watched soome episodes of SP and at times gasped at the concepts portrayed ... wonderful for the soul
Judy | 15 January 2010


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