Monday, March 19, 2012

A Daisey Train of Thoughts

Before The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, there was this, the original Daisey deception:

I am kidding, but not only kidding. The exaggerations of Mike Daisey and the Johnson campaign, while different in their specifics, are in fact much alike, for they were both done for a Noble Cause. The former is exposing Apple's shady manufacturing processes in order to effect their change, the other was beating Barry Goldwater for the presidency. Both causes contain clear villains whose (potential) offenses are so great as to justify whatever distortions may be used in service of the goal of defeating them.

That the things Mike Daisey described--child workers, workers poisoned by N-Hexane, workers whose hands are destroyed by repetitive motion--that these happened is not in dispute. That they happened to the people he talked to, is.

This matters. It's not enough to fall back on Apple's established bad record when attacking them. 'They've done bad before, why wouldn't they do it again?' is a righteous comfort, but not right; it's the hallmark of conspiracy theorist thinking. Indictments of individuals and organizations must rest on their actual offenses against the actual people in the actual factories.

That Daisey felt the need to make the victims he didn't meet seem as if if they were the ones he did, is also vaguely egotistical in a white savior kind of way, as if they wouldn't matter if they weren't a part of his China experience. It's irritating for the same reason that Tom MacMaster's posing as a Syrian lesbian is irritating: it re-channels the suffering of a group through a voyeur of the privileged class such that only by the contact of the one with the other is the story granted legitimacy. Granted, acknowledging that characters and events had been fictionalized might not fully inoculate Daisey from such a charge--white saviorism is the most crippling problem with The Help--but by declaring a work fiction it would justify concentrating Apple's accumulate transgressions into one narrative.

The issue of narrative is what galls the most about Daisey's defense on This American Life's retraction of their January excerpt from his show. I'm a man of the theater as Daisey is, and I am with Ira Glass a hundred percent on this:

Ira Glass: Are you going to change the way that you label this in the theater, so that the audience in the theater knows that this isn’t strictly speaking a work of truth but in fact what they’re seeing really is a work of fiction that has some true elements in it.

Mike Daisey: Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.

Ira Glass: I understand that you believe that but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk – people take it as a literal truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater. Brian, who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your nuclear show, I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.

Mike Daisey: I think you can trust my word in the context of the theater.

I'm guessing the "context of the theater" refers to the work's own subjective, internal context. Seen on its own, as a story, it is powerful and moving. But so was Johnson's Daisy ad. It was great political theater, and it committed people to the (arguably) good cause of denying Goldwater the White House. But stories don't exist in a vacuum. And these particular stories, were not true.

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