Yet Another Mike Daisey Piece

A few words on Daisey, truth, beauty, and bitterness.

It’s been nearly a month, and perhaps the discussion regarding Mike Daisey’s fabrications is already passé, but asking writers to ruminate on the nature of truth is like throwing a ball of yarn to a herd of cats. The crux of the debate regarding Daisey’s The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as excerpted on This American Life is the fact that parts of Daisey’s story regarding the situation of Chinese Foxconn factory workers seem to be fabricated or at the very least exaggerated, and when This American Life presented that story in the context of journalism, their fact checking failed to dig deep enough to reveal those fictionalized elements. TAL considered retracting the story as the only ethical course of action.

Daisey’s defense, on the other hand, was that “the tools of theater” are different than the standards of journalism—that his performance was a theatrical piece in which the insertion of fiction and the heightening of the drama of a situation based on reality, but not exactly reality, were legitimate aesthetic tactics.

The situation is complicated further by the fact that TAL has featured and celebrated a number of works of creative non-fiction and memoir from writers like David Foster Wallace and David Sedaris (of “China is Icky” fame), works which claim to be based on real experience but do not attempt to back up their claims to objective reality in the same way that mainstream journalism does. And the line of argument here is that we as an audience do not necessarily demand that kind of justification because there is an understanding that memoir and subjective recollection mediates reality in a number of unstable ways—we accept that because the interesting thing about those pieces is the mediation, not its claim to truth.

In his montage book Reality Hunger, David Shields borrows from Alice Marshall on this issue: “Our personal experience, though it may convey great truths, most likely won’t be verified by security tapes later… Autobiographical memory is a recollection of events or episodes, which we remember with great detail. What’s stored in that memory isn’t the actual events, but how those events made sense to us and fit into our experience.”

That’s what Daisey is talking about when he talks about using the tools of theater and the tools of memoir; in those kinds of subjective stories, the facts may not matter. We are drawn to those stories not because of the verification of every single little truth-claim but because we want to be in the presence of an authentic experience, and we understand that in drama there are ways in which one must lie in order to tell the truth. However there is, of course, a line that’s crossed in the public consciousness when it comes to the limits of that memoir-instability—Shields invokes it with the James Frey/A Million Little Pieces situation, where a novel gets passed off as memoir, and where suddenly the truth-claims again become the point of focus because the public feels as if it has been duped. As Shields puts it: “Oh how we Americans gnash our teeth in bitter anger when we discover the riveting truth that also played like a Sunday matinee was actually just a Sunday matinee.”

When it comes to assessing the damage caused by fabrication in the name of art, this feeling of being duped—of being betrayed by a work that we thought was real—is perhaps inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. The fact that it feels like such a betrayal speaks to Shields’ observation that, “We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication—autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter.”

Viewed in this light, Daisey creating a situation where he shares a real human moment with his interpreter and he touches her hand seems not that problematic—that’s drama. But Daisey claiming to speak to Chinese workers who suffered hexane poisoning, or claiming to have met with secret union workers in clandestine Starbucks meetings seems far more problematic. Why?

We can look to the lacunae present in the defenses of Daisey for the answer. There are two major lines of inquiry here:

1) There’s the claim that, of course, like any good piece of theater, there are distortions for the sake of drama, and no one expects them to be entirely true. This is the memoir disclaimer, as noted above. After all, the real Richard III wasn’t a hunchback, but Shakespeare made him one; Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s Zuckerberg isn’t a mirror image of the real one. That’s certainly true. As I noted in my review of the HBO film Game Change, no one should be going into a film like that expecting to receive true knowledge about who Sarah Palin really is.

What separates that from the Daisey situation is that those kinds of biographical stories are rooted in the collapse of the totalizing force of the Great Man theories of history; we as audiences, in these spaces, recognize that any attempt to fully understand the big players in any kind of historical narrative are going to be biased, are going to be incomplete, and are going to already be a kind of fiction. When we see those people in those dramatized spaces, knowing their outsized impact on the world stage, we already recognize them as becoming figures larger than and separate from life.

Daisey got past Glass because he told him what he wanted to hear.

This is not the mode that Daisey invokes, at least in the Chinese Foxconn segments. When he speaks of Steve Jobs (which was not part of the TAL excerpt), it can certainly fall in that mode, but as Alisa Solomon points out in The Nation, “The thread TAL used lines up with clichéd, unexamined assumptions about the scary and heartless Chinese system. That’s not to say that high-tech sweatshops shouldn’t be exposed and combatted but that Glass did not question Daisey’s exaggerations because he was not disposed to.” Daisey got past Glass because he told him what he wanted to hear, and Daisey’s theatricality tells his audiences what they want to hear, too.

We have become inherently skeptical regarding any Great Man narrative; but in considering the stories of everyday life, of systems and processes, we are more predisposed to regard those elements as possessing a kind of truth because they must, by their nature, invoke a claim towards objective reality to be compelling. We recognize the “reality” of Great Man stories is to be found in their broad strokes, but the “reality” of everyday life, of the struggles of the masses, feel like they rest in the details, in the truth of the little moments. To distort and manipulate those moments (as opposed to the expected biographical distortions of Great Men) seems to betray their invocation in the first place.

For example, one of the first red flags that TAL’s “Retraction”  noted was when Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, who knew a thing or two about Chinese culture and its economy, heard Daisey mention meeting workers at a Starbucks—a detail that rang false to anyone who actually knew how Chinese workers lived. That small detail is perhaps a minor fictionalization in the grand scheme of things, but its inclusion in the first place betrays a potential lack of understanding that an outsider brings to his observations of a system, and casts doubt on the value of that narrative if it is possessed by such a lack of understanding. There’s a reversal of this situation in Peter Hessler’s book Country Driving, when he follows the operations of a Chinese factory and reads a wanted ad for workers in which they are expected to “吃苦”, to endure hardship, to “eat bitterness.” That minor detail, showing what managers expect of workers, or that there’s even a specific word for those conditions, provide far more insight than Daisey does.

More than that, Daisey’s embellishments and fabrications betray a lack of confidence in his own story. Writers such as Hessler and Leslie T. Chang, and photographers like Edward Burtynsky have managed to capture the actual experience of the Chinese factory worker in all its rhythm and detail and drama—compelling experiences, all of them. The fact that Daisey (as Solomon notes, a man who “had parachuted into China for a couple of weeks without any experience there or any journalism background”) felt the need to embellish the everyday plight of a foreign culture for the sake of drama feels every bit as insulting as Jason Russell of Kony 2012 feeling that in order to activate the empathy of his audience in regard to the plight of the people of Uganda, he needed to lens it through a vignette with a cute little Caucasian child.

2) The second justification for Daisey’s actions runs from that same line of thinking—that the fudging of the facts and the exaggerations and fabrications were in the service of a greater good, not just to activate people’s empathy but to engage their activism: drama for the sake of positive change in the world. It’s certainly part of Daisey’s intent; the transcript for The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs on his website ends with sections titled “The Rest of the Story is in Your Hands” and “Change is Possible,” and Daisey wasn’t going on MSNBC just to talk about his own geekery; he was telling people what he saw at Foxconn factories.

The tools of theater may be different from the tools of journalism, but Daisey used them as one would use the tools of empire.

The “greater good” stance is an end-justifies-the-means argument, and it’s a dangerous one. It’s the core essence not of theater, but of political theater, and I’d think anyone who has weathered the political discourse of the past decade would be skeptical of any attempt to mobilize large-scale change based on fudged facts and fabulations. The tools of theater may be different from the tools of journalism, but Daisey used them as one would use the tools of empire. More specifically, as Shields quotes Ron Suskind quoting a Bush 43 staffer: “You believe that solutions emerge from the judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

The reason why people revere the concept of speaking truth to power is that we know that most of the time it’s the other way around. It’s power speaking to truth and doing violence to that truth. It’s what you can hear in Daisey’s piece, in the way it claims to represent the subjectivity of an everyday guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s just asking questions—and yet ends up in the position of power in the drama he’s spinning, delivering pronouncements of truth. There’s such a cloying smugness in the moment (revealed to be unverified and most likely fabricated) when Daisey encounters a group of underage factory workers and asks us: “Do you really think Apple doesn’t know? … [D]o you really think it’s credible that they don’t know?” To which I ask: do you really think Daisey doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing? Do you really think it’s credible he doesn’t know?

These things matter. It matters if, as in Kony 2012, you make it seem like a warlord’s power base is expanding when he’s actually on the run. It matters if, as Daisey does, you use the tools of theater and then use the fiction constructed with those tools as a foundation to legitimize your claims of expertise to speak on shows that try to use the tools of journalism, as on The Ed Show on MSNBC—or This American Life, for that matter.

I understand why Ira Glass did what he did with his retraction. It’s blood atonement, pure and simple. Over the years Glass’s show has reported harrowing and poignant stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. They’ve produced one of the most cogent narratives of the global financial crisis, and more recently their reporting on Georgia drug court judge Amanda Williams may have led to her stepping down. A retraction on this scale, and especially the way Glass goes about it, comes with more than just a hint of scapegoating for TAL dropping the ball, but the urgency and anxiety and anger within reflects a recognition that credibility is easy to lose and difficult to regain. If it requires the brutal evisceration of Daisey, then it’s time to bring those tools out. In an inversion of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, “Retraction” may not have been the story we wanted to hear, but it’s the one we needed to hear.

When Daisey twisted the facts to serve an agenda, however noble that agenda was, he spoke as empire does. And what Ira Glass did to him? Sic semper tyrannis.