When Fake News Becomes Reality
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series!
The day Donald Trump won, I was sitting in a rehearsal room in Berlin in the midst of a three-month rehearsal for Thomas Ostermeier's interpretation of Schnitzler's Professor Bernhardi. The 16 actors sat cross-legged on the ground with Thomas engaged in a discussion on the return of the far right and populism in the 21st century. It was a somber discussion but not out of line with what we had already been discussing in the weeks prior. The play deals with themes of populism and antisemitism, and the actors sitting in front of me reminded me of the days after September 11, when I sat in a similar circle with a professor of my own on the Upper East Side. The day of Trump’s victory had a similar feeling of solidarity and fear.
Professor Bernhardi is a perfect play for these times. Written in 1912, it feels horribly prescient of our current conundrums. The premise of the play is as follows: Professor Bernhardi, head of a private medicine clinic (and a Jew), is taking care of a young girl who is about to die due to an illegal abortion. A priest is called to her bed to read her her last rights. Upon his entrance, Prof. Bernhardi refuses to let the priest in to the room, lest his presence frighten her to death. The girl, you see, is in the midst of a fever dream and Bernhardi surmises it is her most peaceful time in life, and the mere presence of a priest may shock her back to reality, and in doing so, push her prematurely to the beyond. When the priest tries to get into the room, the Doctor gently stops him. This small physical kern blossoms into a batch of "Fake News" — with a group of doctors interested in getting rid of the Professor, proclaiming he physically assaulted (pushed) the priest, when in fact, the Doctor simply gently stopped him from entering the room. The professor’s opponents have an anti-Semitic streak running through their veins and yet feign innocence, proclaiming proudly, "How can I be an antisemite when I have Jews working for me?" Remind you of an orange someone? The play depicts antisemitism and the brewing undercurrent of a society on the brink of an inevitable slide towards outwardly racist and aggressive actions. Remember, there were still 20 years to come before the Reichstag would burn, and almost 30 years before WWII would be in full conflict. The slow drip of populism infects society slowly, which we see happening now in both the U.S. and parts of Europe.
The question of resistance during these challenging times is one with which I find myself in deep conflict. What type of world do we live in when facts are up for debate, and a feeling can be presented as a legitimate challenge to established scientific research? If we are to fight in a “resistance”, what power do we have as artists / media representatives when reason no longer works?
Resistance comes in many forms and fashions, but looking to the past is certainly going to help us "win" the future. Germans are masters of self-reflection; after two defeated regimes in the 20th century, every second conversation is shaded with whispers of the past, whether from fascism or communism. While working on Professor Bernhardi, we were continually confronted with the question of how history repeats itself and in which ways groups can stave off the inevitable return of authoritarianism and populism. Although leaders like Hitler or Pol Pot may be famous for their horrendous acts, it is the smaller groups of individuals who give way for these characters to take power and use the underlying resentment and racism of the society to advance their own dark desires. It seems America stands at this precipice, and while our leaders do little to dampen the growing aggressions against brown/black/gay/other individuals, it our duty to present facts and education in a way that can realign the absurdities of our current society. The hatred and bile spewed by those wishing to close borders, demean women/POC/LGBTQ etc etc, is not just dangerous for those individuals, but for our society as a whole — it allows megalomaniacs to capitalize on our fears and hatreds and grow our country’s populism into something unstoppable. Germans did not actively seek to become Nazis. They became Nazis because group dynamics allowed leaders to exploit the population’s fear and hatred and use it for their own dubious needs. Do not let this happen to you, America!
I know the resistance on the coasts is strong and powerful but I urge you all to travel to the middle of the country and become friends and colleagues with those who's ideas differ from yours. Friend (or re-friend) those on Facebook whose views differ from yours. Actively seek different media sources for broader perspectives (not Fake News, but different perspectives!). Turn off your devices and talk to people face to face. Through compassion and conversation our resistance can become stronger than angry Facebook posts or even protests, which amplify group-think and do not include those of differing views. Use your art to present different perspectives and always push back against Fake News with real facts.
At the end of Professor Bernhardi, the doctor sits alone on stage, literally stripped of his rights and his practice. Even the priest whom he was accused of assaulting admits the justification for his removal was unjust, and that the two men were simply doing their jobs. Once "Fake News" became ordinary and acceptable, there was no backing down until one or the other was destroyed. The Professor maintains he never wanted to outwardly fight the accusations. His ambivalence speaks loudly to our current situation: in our resistance, we must not sit behind closed doors and only discuss amongst our friends and comrades how allegations may or may not lead to negative outcomes. It is our obligation to make sure that regardless of the disdain we may feel for the other, we never let Fake News overwhelm the realities of the challenges we collectively face. In silence, we all become complicit, and Fake News wins.