By Danny Bryck
In 2018, playwright and activist Dan Fishback and I sat down and talked about identity, organizing, wellness, and the arts in Trump’s America. In the relentless two years that followed, we never got around to publishing it. So in October of 2020, just before the election, we sat down again, this time on zoom. The following has been edited for length and clarity from both those interviews.
Danny Bryck: When we did this last time, you started by placing us in time, to contextualize the conversation. It was a few weeks after the Pittsburgh shooting. Now we’re in a different moment. Can you do that again?
Dan Fishback: Well to really contextualize it we’d have to go back to Bush. But at the beginning of the year, before this horrible pandemic, everyone was talking about two big things. We were going to war with Iran and people were beating up and murdering Jews all over the tri-state area. And then things got worse! Things always get worse. It changes us, which is what fascism wants. We have experienced in real time how fascism works— fascism is a personality disorder of the leader and his followers. And it is not logical. It’s the logic of your scary dad. And those of us who are trying to survive under him are experiencing the same kinds of things that we would if we were trapped in a house with a scary dad, we get gaslit, we question ourselves, we lose our sense of self. And we are so overwhelmed by the constant barrage of new, horrible things that it’s demoralizing, and it makes it harder to think and act. And the press knows this. And yet they do not resist or adapt their structures in any way. They just continue to report on what happens that day, with no context, as if they’re not being manipulated.
And so just as we were all reaching peak disorientation in comes this deadly pandemic, through which Donald Trump has essentially murdered over 200,000 Americans, and yet he could still win this election. And the lead up to the election is such that who even knows what the election will mean, right? If an election is filled with street fighting at polling sites and hacking and all this nonsense, if I saw that in another country, I’d be like, maybe that election isn’t legitimate.
DB: As would our news media.
DF: Right. So we’re all sitting here being like, what the fuck is about to happen.
DB: And we were talking two years ago about this sense of overwhelm and mass manipulation, and what to do about it, and I remember you said then that the crisis we’re in is one of information. There’s more access to information than ever before and also more disinformation. But you found some hope in that ascendance of truth, even as we were simultaneously witnessing an ascendance of fascism.
DF: I think I’m more cynical than I was two years ago. I’m trying to stay much more clear about what’s actually happening in all its messiness. People are hungry for something that sounds like the truth, and neoliberalism has never sounded like the truth. It’s always sounded like a convenient illusion because it is. But the people with power are the people who can communicate really simple ideas to the masses. It’s easier for the right to do it because they have stupid ideas and it’s easy to convey stupid ideas en masse. Our ideas are generally harder. Occasionally someone nails it, like (wagging his finger and doing a Bernie Sanders impression) “I think it’s very interesting that a handful of billionaires and millionaires …” or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez making it a press point that she can’t afford to move to DC before her congressional salary kicks in. Radical ideas are more acceptable now than they were before.
But I no longer have faith that our movements are necessarily harnessing truth well, or even discerning truth well. When Tara Reade accused Joe Biden of sexually assaulting her, I was anticipating, our movements won’t let him survive this. Because the primary was not over. But it changed absolutely nothing. It was barely on TV. A lot of the feminists in my life and online basically ignored it. And at that moment I was like, I need to take a huge step back from having any opinions about the state of our movements, because I think I have misjudged where we’re at.
DB: Of course last time we were talking was also pre-COVID…
DF: Oh my God. 2018 was like a breeze compared to this.
DB: So what’s that been like for you?
DF: I’m having a very different experience than people who aren’t chronically ill. At the beginning I was like, welcome to my world. Cause you know everyone’s like (in a whiny voice) “Oh my God like, what do I do with all my free time at home?” I was like, well, you’re not chronically ill, so do all the things that I wish I could do. That sounds like freedom to me, if you’re trapped at home but you have your full bodily capacity.
So I’ve had a lot of intense resentment, and also abject terror because I’m at high risk. And it’s made it harder to like and respect people I used to respect when I see them socializing without their masks in photos. That’s another reason I no longer have faith in the ascendance of truth, because I see a lot of community leaders participating in the Trumpian delusion that like, “Well, nothing bad has happened to me so far, so I might as well keep doing whatever I want!” To me, this is fascist behavior, that threatens my personal existence and I would like to continue living.
DB: What has shifted for you as an artist, in your orientation or your priorities as a political artist?
DF: The place I find myself in now, is not one of a mass audience. Which shapes what my responsibilities are. I do not think that theatre is going to defeat fascism.
DF: If it were to do so, that would be shocking. I would— (Bernie Sanders voice) “I would be very interested.” To see what that would look like. For theatre to stop fascism. If this is transcribed it needs to say “Bernie Sanders voice.”
DB: Of course.
DF: But, we cannot destroy fascism if we lose our minds. And we cannot stop fascism if we are so bombarded with skewed messaging and fucked up corporate news media that we can no longer properly tease out what is true. The artists that I take great solace from, and the artists that make it possible for me to function under fascism, are making art that comes from that same sense of terror and longing for transcendence that becomes a crisis under fascism.
So, from my perspective, the role of art at the scale that I’m making it, is just to reflect truth, so that people can sit and feel like, “oh, I’m not crazy. I’m not the only person thinking this.” We need to sit with truer ideas than the ideas that we’re fed, and so my practice has become much more inward, because I know that as an artist I am at my truest when I am rigorously tussling with my own inner life and contradictions, and when I am at my most vulnerable I’m at my most true.
DB: So what have you been working on?
DF: In a weird way, I also found the pandemic kind of artistically liberating at first, because I was like, I’m a banned playwright in a theatre-less world. This field was not particularly kind to my work, and now I have to admit there was a touch of schadenfreude, watching theatre as an institution completely collapse. I was like, cry me a river. And I’m not convinced even now that there will ever be live theatre again in our lives. But I wanted to work on a play, just for me, with no thought about my audience at all, to try to stem the onset of like total madness.
So, the play I started working on is called “Golde.” And it’s an adaptation of the Sholem Aleichem Tevye stories. Golde is an upper middle class white Jew whose husband is about to retire after 45 years in the dairy industry, and she’s very nervous about intersectionality, Black Lives Matter, and her three daughters get more anti-Zionist and force her to confront her belief systems, which is basically what happens in Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye thinks his problem is changing traditions, but his actual problem is white supremacy. And he keeps being like, “Oy, my daughters,” like, he’s an idiot. So I was like, “Oh, this is a play about a fool.” But, I’m sure you’ve experienced this, oftentimes playwriting is like purposefully driving yourself insane, to let your insanity produce something that your sane mind can then manipulate. And I had to step away from Golde because I had pushed too far into my own trauma, and had an anxiety attack that lasted for like three days. Like, at first it was very cathartic, but maybe needling my ancestral trauma isn’t the best thing in a time of great anxiety.
So I was like, I need to write something fun. Which is why I started working on a young adult novel called “Rapture,” about a teenage Black trans girl who gets hired by a Christian Zionist organization to become the new global face of Israel, but in the process of realizing that her employers are evil, she accidentally kicks off the End of Days and has to save the world from the evil Christian God monster. But then I had to research Christian Zionism, which is not fun, so now I feel crazy again.
And next week, we’re going to be releasing a music video for my song, “Hope Hurts,” which is about living through abject horror, and thinking about all of your ancestors who lived through similar things, and trying to harness their strengths. And I’m directing, I’ve never directed a music video before. I have a handgun display box filled with my grandmother’s old socialist ephemera, and in the video I open the box and interact with the objects from inside. And I do stop motion animation to have one of the pins go on adventures around my apartment, and then around the sidewalks of Brooklyn. She sees another socialist pin from the thirties and they sit and watch the sunset and also do the hora. There’s a bunch of pins that do the hora. Wait I want to show you… (showing off the pins) here’s “Boycott Nazi Germany.”
DB: Oh my God I love it.
DF: I know. This is my absolute favorite: “Don’t read Hearst.” I just think that’s so funny. There should be like, “Don’t watch MSNBC.” Or just like, “Don’t listen to him.” We’d all know who him is.
DB: And it wouldn’t go out of style.
DF: There’s always a him.
DB: So talk to me more about “Hope Hurts.” We’ve been talking about losing faith in our movements, and our access to truth. Where does the hope come from and why does it hurt? And what are you getting from the ancestors?
DF: I wrote that song the day the [Minneapolis] City Council announced they were going to start defunding their police. And I never thought in my lifetime that any municipal body would make an announcement like that. And I felt a little bit of hope for the first time in many weeks, since like the Bernie Nevada win. But it was very painful to feel that hope. And I realized I had been luxuriating a little in the closure that I had felt, there was a kind of relief about coming to terms with like, everything will just be horrible. And then suddenly there was another little opening. So I was grappling with that. Now of course it’s a few months later and they have failed.
And you asked what the ancestors are sharing with me, and I don’t know why I find this reassuring, but they’re sharing with me that people are very, very weird and stupid. Irrational and intellectually and morally lazy. You know, I grew up ensconced in Holocaust education, and there was so much discourse about why did it happen, and never in my entire childhood was there an adult who said, “Oh, the Holocaust happened because this is what people are like.” Because a version of the Holocaust is happening right now in this country. Migrants in concentration camps, families being ripped apart, sterilizations, child abuse, medical abuse, it’s undeniably Holocaust-ish. And are people going to detention centers and using their bodies to get people out? Some have been, like Never Again Action, but for most people it’s not on the agenda. Theoretically they care. But people have personal lives and it’s very difficult for human beings to conceptualize or care about the wellbeing of people they don’t know.
In a way it gives me less hope, which is less pain. And in another way, it gives me more hope because it feels like a little bit of clarity and clarity feels good right now. I have so many thoughts I don’t trust. So to have a thought that I agree with and believe, even if the thought is, “we’re all doomed,” at least I believe it. I thrive when I believe that something is true.
DB: Last time we spoke, we were talking about another song of yours, “Laughing with Lizards,” which is from a Yiddish expression I didn’t know meaning something like laughing bittersweetly, or to keep from crying. That song is also about connecting with the ancestors.
DF: It’s about how my ancestors prepared me for this moment, but that knowledge was stolen from me. And that’s just the nature of displacement and Ashkenazi Jews are not the only displaced people in the world who are cut off from ancestral traditions and concepts. And it’s bittersweet! Cause there’s this joy to like feeling connected, like oh yeah that belongs to me, that helps me! But also this terror that there’s so much more that I don’t know, and something about just learning that one phrase gave me this strange sort of faith that I’m being protected, or that I am in the company of my ancestors. And I think people need to feel like they exist inside of time in order to feel that they exist at all, and I think part of the disease of America is being outside of time, in the sense that no one has a past, no one has a history. And it feeds into the disease of Zionism… like when I was in the [Israeli] settlements, so many people there were like “in America or France or England, I felt so hollow and life felt so superficial but now I’m here and I feel like I’m part of something much bigger…” But they’re responding to the slow spiritual death of white capitalism, where we have sacrificed our past, our ancestors, we’ve cashed it all in for power, and there’s spiritual emptiness. It explains the rage and nihilism of white youth culture. Something’s missing! So “laughing with lizards” is really resonant for me because it means I’m not floating in nothingness. It means, when I’m at my most alone, that’s when I’m also at my most not alone, because I have more ancestors than I have friends.
DB: So how do you think we find that truth and clarity and meaning that you’re talking about, together, in this moment? In our communities, and as a country?
DF: I will say that whoever is the next Democratic president, whether it’s Joe Biden or AOC or whatever, my primary need is for them to prosecute fascists, to have some kind of truth process, whether it’s truth and reconciliation or just truth, like: The record. Must. Show. The. Truth. That is to me Obama’s greatest failure, he did not undo a fraction of the harm that George W. Bush’s administration caused, no one was held to account. His ethos was, we’ve got to move on like mature people, but mature people tell the truth, right? And Joe Biden will not do this. If he were to become President, it will happen again.
But I hope that the wider institutional Jewish world, comes to terms with its own failure to effectively deal with post-Holocaust life. This cataclysmic event happened to us. We’ve had 70 years to prepare the world to notice the signs of ascendant fascism and prevent it from happening again. But if we had done that truthfully, we would be calling out Israel. Because Israel has been an ascendant fascist state for quite some time. So we’ve had a vested interest to not do that. And so we have constructed a system of [Holocaust] remembrance that does the opposite of preparing the world to spot fascism because it completely forecloses any comparison. And if you cannot compare a situation to the Holocaust then you cannot prepare for the next Holocaust. And if your complaint is you can’t compare because it’s not happening to Jews, then you don’t understand the Holocaust. Because Jewish migrants from the East were, yes they were Jewish, but they were also from the perspective of urban people in Western Europe, disgusting filthy immigrants who were going to steal jobs and rape their children.
DB: Even the Western European Jews had stereotypes about the “Ostjuden.”
DF: Right. So I think the institutional Jewish world has a lot of explaining to do, and the Democrats, I don’t anticipate they will do these things, but my hope is that the Left pushes these ideas into the mainstream.
DB: So. We had a conversation two years ago that is unfortunately very similar to the one we’re having now. What do you think we might be talking about a year or two from now?
DF: There’s such a range of possibilities of what’s about to happen, from something totally banal, to like something incredibly bloody and violent and potentially the dissolution of the United States. So I won’t speculate. But what I hope is that those of us who make art and who have sway over public conversations will begin to have a much more blunt and clear conversation about what a person is and what mental illness is, like mental illnesses that are endemic in our political culture and in our world. Not in a judgmental way, just in a practical way. I think we need to have an intense reckoning with how irrational, weird, and unpredictable human beings are, and how easy it is for a human being to abide by madness and not intervene. How’s that for a button?
DB: That’s a perfect socialist button.