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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mike Daisey's "Truthiness"

Posted By on Tue, Mar 20, 2012 at 11:00 AM

This week's episode of This American Life is both fascinating and painful to listen to, as many of the show's best episodes are. I came away from it still enraged at Mike Daisey and his lies, but also a bit sympathetic toward him. The show made it clear, without saying so, that he's dealing with some kind of mental or emotional problem. As it concluded, I still wanted him drummed out of the -- "nonfiction business," I guess I'll call it.

But I found it hard not to feel a little sympathy for a man who is obviously suffering from some kind of malady.

All that vanished, though, when I read his response to the show on his blog. There, it became clear that Mike Daisey is suffering from another affliction: He's a jerk.

For those who have somehow missed it: This American Life recently ran an excerpted version of Daisey's one-man theater presentation, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which he details his trip to China to investigate abuses at Foxconn, where Apple products -- and many other electronic devices -- are manufactured. But it turned out that many of the "facts" upon which Daisey built his show weren't facts at all. He made them up. And when confronted by TAL host Ira Glass, he lied again. And again. Many, many lies.

In his response to TAL' s "Retraction" show this week, Daisey starts out by comparing himself to Mark Twain, "another American monologist." Things only get worse from there. He's confrontational and defensive, claiming that the clips from his show that TAL aired were "pulled out of context." But of course, he doesn't explain what the correct "context" should have been. That's because the clips were perfectly in context -- they revealed him to be baldly lying about what he saw in China, whom he interviewed, and what people told him. He invented quotes and people. The context was, he's a liar.

Daisey reverts back to his main defense. Glass is "a storyteller within the context of radio journalism, and I am a storyteller in the theater," he writes. The theory he's banking on is that, in the theater, you're allowed to fictionalize in pursuit of a larger "truth." Which is true for Ibsen, Shakespeare, and Mamet, whose plays are clearly presented as fiction. But Daisey all along has presented his pieces as being factual.

Here's an exchange between Glass and Daisey on TAL:

Daisey: Yeah. We have different worldviews on some of these things. I agree with you truth is really important.

Glass: I know, but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is, somebody stands on stage and says "this happened to me," I think it happened to them, unless it's clearly labeled as "here's a work of fiction."

Indeed, the "normal worldview" is the only reason Daisey's show existed at all. Who the hell wants to go watch some guy in a theater telling fake stories about a real Chinese manufacturing plant? This is what always confused me about James Frey's defenders after it became known that he had made up a bunch of stuff for his addiction "memoir," A Million Little Pieces. Would the people who, ex post facto, said they didn't care that Frey had fabricated facts and events, have really been interested in first-time novelist James Frey's harrowing fictional tale of drug addiction? I doubt it. And that's why he passed it off as nonfiction -- so it would sell.

It's the same with Daisey, but, amazingly, he has some apologists of his own. This is a troubling phenomenon: A lot of people are willing to accept just about any act of assholery, as long as it's in service to their own opinions and feelings.

Many of Frey's defenders were recovering addicts, or just people who really liked his book. It's somewhat understandable that their first instinct would be to find valid reasons why the book was good despite the fact that it was misrepresented -- and also to find reasons to deny that they themselves had been suckered. But to carry that defense beyond first instincts is to deny reality. They read that book because they thought it was true, and they most likely wouldn't have read it otherwise. It probably wouldn't even have been published as fiction.

With Daisey, the defenses are of course more political. There seem to be fewer people standing up for the guy than stood up for Frey, I guess because Daisey's actions are so much more indefensible, and have much more serious implications. His show addresses serious public-policy issue. Lives are at stake. There are very real economic implications for companies like Apple and for the world. By comparison, Frey's only real victims were his own readers and Oprah. (To TAL's credit, Glass ended his show by interviewing Charles Duhigg, a New York Times reporter who led an examination of Foxconn and Apple that is not only reality-based, but excellent.)

But Daisey does have his defenders. Why? People don't like outsourcing, they don't like bad corporate behavior. They want something done to improve working conditions in developing nations. And they've seen Daisey as a champion of these causes. For them, it doesn't matter that a person has behaved abominably, or lied, as long as the behavior and the lies hew to their own "correct" worldview. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh rely on this for their own success. It's the very foundation on which propaganda is built. For willing consumers of propaganda, it's all about feeling, facts be damned. "Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you," Stephen Colbert promised viewers on his first show, where he explained the same kind of "truthiness" that Daisey is relying on.

Daisey seems to know how this works, though he's an inept propagandist. His apologia is rife with self-regard and sick-making appeals to the conscience. By his account, he's a warrior for truth (writ large) and justice, and if he has to lie a little (or, you know, a lot) to spread his message of fairness, then he will. Of course, he doesn't say that outright. Rather, he tries, pathetically, to divert our attention. "If people want to use me as an excuse to return to denialism about the state of our manufacturing, about the shape of our world, they are doing that to themselves," he writes.

See? He isn't the problem. The lying isn't the problem. It's the "shape of our world" that we should be paying attention to. And thanks to Mike Daisey, we are.

If Daisey's real interest is in changing conditions at Foxconn and other such plants, he has horribly sabotaged his own effort by lying about it. That's the real tragedy here. Now when people hear about Foxconn, in at least some cases they will say, "Oh, right -- the place that one guy told all those lies about." And so Mike Daisey is pushing us right back toward that "denialism" he claims to be so concerned about.

But a quick read of his blog will reveal that the main thing Mike Daisey is concerned about is Mike Daisey.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

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Dan Mitchell


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