I’ve been thinking about Mike Daisey’s lies, about the seemingly small details that alerted reporter Rob Schmitz’s bullshit detector and put him on the trail, namely Daisey’s lies about the guards at the plant being armed, and the organizing workers meeting at Starbucks.
Daisey is now telling us that these lies are in the service of something more important, “truth.”
In his first performance after the airing of the retraction, Daisey addressed the crowd before beginning.
“When the lights go down, I will go backstage. When I come back up, the lights will come up on the stage and I will be telling a story. The whole attempt is to try to shine a light through something and get at the truth. The truth is vitally important. I believe that very deeply.”
I believe this very deeply as well, but I wonder why, in this particular case of storytelling, lies are necessary in order to tell the truth.
As a fiction writer, I am well-familiar with the lie that tells the truth. I’m pretty certain that I was introduced to the concept early on during my undergraduate creative writing studies, but it was cemented the first time I read Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story.” O’Brien tells the story of the death of one of his war buddies, Curt Lemon, who stepped on a rigged artillery shell and was blown to pieces in a flash of light. O’Brien’s point, as I take it, is that capturing the full circumstances of Lemon’s death extends beyond his abilities and so he must rely on the tools of fiction to capture the meaning of the episode.
And yet, even that’s not enough, towards the end of the story he says this, “You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it,” which to me suggests that finding truth is a process, an ongoing search, not a final destination.
That same Wired story that tells of Daisey’s pre-show “disclaimer” recounts that he’s kept most of the details that the This American Life retraction show has proven untrue in the monologue, including the armed guards.
In the originally published transcript of Daisey’s show, available at his own site, the scene goes like this:
And I get to the main gates, and I get out of the taxi with my translator, and the first thing I see at the gates are the guards.
And the guards look pissed. They look really pissed.
And they are carrying guns.
And I look back at the taxi which is now pulling away…and I’m involuntarily reminded of this Google News alert that popped into my inbox a few weeks earlier about an Reuters photographer who was taking pictures not at the Foxconn plant but near the Foxconn plant and Foxconn security went out, scooped him up, and beat him before releasing him.
I hope they’re in a better mood today.
There’re some facts in there. The manufacturing plants are indeed fenced and guarded. It’s not a stretch to believe those guards look pissed, though I suppose they could just as easily be bored.
A Reuters reporter was physically assaulted by guards at the Foxconn plant. (Though even the Reuters account of the incident doesn’t claim the man was “beaten.” The guards even apologized after police were called to straighten things out.)
I imagine the “truth” that Daisey is trying to convey here is that the atmosphere standing outside that plant (and presumably inside as well) is oppressive and menacing, that standing outside the gates is a scary and anxiety-ridden experience. Maybe without the guns, people wouldn’t appreciate how intimidating it seemed at the time.
Picture it as Mike Daisey asks his audiences to do, a portly theater performer in a Hawaiian shirt with some fake business cards and a female translator up against a behemoth, which already beat up one overly curious person.
Picture the gates with the guards behind them, and the guards with those guns, their lethality, the finality they deliver when or if they are raised and fired, something that Mike Daisey is asking you to see as very possible in that moment.
Mike Daisey said this to Ira Glass, “Everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end -- to make people care.”
Who, I ask you, does the presence of those guns and those pissed guards signal you’re supposed to care about?
The exploited workers at Foxconn?
Reading the transcript of The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, one can see that Mike Daisey works the cadence and delivery of the preacher. His message is clear. He has been to the mountaintop and he has returned with a mission, a mission to make you care, to make you see the truth.
And this truth is not about him, no sir and ma’am. He is a vessel. He is not the truth, but is truth’s vessel. The story is not about him, but about something bigger. He just happens to be the vessel.
A very special vessel.
I’m still thinking about those guns. Where there are armed guards facing out, one also imagines there may be armed guards facing in, keeping the workers to their tasks, preventing escape from the living hell they must experience inside. There are nets around the tops of the buildings because so many people have been jumping from them, choosing suicide over another moment on the factory floor. Why else would people be here except by force?
And someone wearing a Hawaiian shirt has arrived to help liberate them.
When you picture a Chinese manufacturing plant, what do you see? Wired magazine writer Joel Johnson, who took his own trip to Foxconn and published his findings in February 2011 offers that, “there are two competing visions: fluorescent fields of chittering machines attended by clean-suited technicians, or barefoot laborers bent over long wooden tables in sweltering rooms hazed by a fog of soldering fumes.”
Foxconn is most definitely the former. Johnson describes the reality as “banal.”
As reported by Johnson, this is the start of the day for a Foxconn worker: “You enter a five- or six-story concrete building, pull on a plastic jacket and hat, and slip booties over your shoes. You walk up a wide staircase to your assigned floor, the entirety of which lies open under unwavering fluorescent light.”
Shifts are ten hours during which you stand or sit in one place doing repetitive work in front of conveyor belt. You get an hour for lunch and two ten minute breaks. To use the restroom you raise your hand and someone subs in. Every few days you learn a new task for the purposes of “cross-training.”
As Johnson says, “It seems incredibly boring -- like factory work anywhere in the developed world.”
You, okay, I, was imaging a technology Gulag, the cracked concrete floors, the flickering overhead lights swinging from wires, the workers dressed in gray, utilitarian sackcloth.
Johnson’s pictures show that the Foxconn living quarters look more like a dorm.
Yes, there’s wide reports of abuse of labor standards at Chinese manufacturing plants, forced overtime, weeks without days off. Those “dorms” are beyond overcrowded. Even the best conditions are well below what we would tolerate in our country.
Seventeen people at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen committed suicide by jumping off the buildings, which is why they installed the nets.
The suicide rate at Foxconn is below the national average for both rural and urban China.
It’s actually pretty easy to make people care about something. The Kony 2012 video did it seemingly in an afternoon. Tears well in my eyes when I’m watching TV and I hear the strains of a Sarah MacLachlan song and see her on that couch, hugging a sad-eyed mutt, about to tell me horrible tales of animal abuse.
In Daisey’s version, life and work at Foxconn is reduced to a simplified essence. Workers in this living hell are essentially tortured until they are maimed, disabled, or choose to jump from the building. What a horrible story. We have to do something about it.
Except think about how much more interesting the story is, how much sadder and more tragic because it is more complicated, because the conditions at Foxconn and factories like it may be as good as one could hope and expect from a developing country in the midst of a great economic surge, and the unquenchable demand for these products, but is still insufficient to meet the human needs of their workers and their citizens.
How tragic if they’re doing some reasonable version of their best, and still, 17 people would rather jump from the building than keep working and living there. That, to my mind, is much closer to the truth of the matter, but that story isn’t going to work for Mike Daisey because Mike Daisey wants to make sure that if we just care, we can make things better.
What if people already care, and still it’s not enough?
I can just picture being part of the audience at one of Mike Daisey’s shows. We’ve laughed together, we’ve cried together, we’ve cared together. We are the good guys, with our caring, job well done, emphasis on the word “done.”
On his website, after the airing of the TAL retraction, Mike Daisey posted a response, and part of it says this: “My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge.”
One of the stories Daisey tells in his monologue is meeting with young labor organizers. He recounts it this way:
They don’t even look college-aged, they look younger than that. And I say to them, “How do you know who’s right to work with you? How do you find people to help you organize, to do what you do?”
And this sort of breaks the narrative, and they look at each other bashfully, and they say, “Well, we talk a lot, we have a lot of meetings—we meet at coffeehouses, different Starbucks in Guangzhou, we exchange papers, sometimes there are books…”
And it’s so clear, in this moment, that they are making this up as they go along.
The way so many of us do.
The way pirates do. The way rebels do.
The way the crazy ones who change the world do—they all make it up as they go along.
Here is our human connection. Fellow rebels meeting in secret.
But let us also consider the lie, that these people (if they aren’t a complete invention) told him they meet in Starbucks, whereas reporter Rob Schmitz showed this to be unlikely to the point of metaphysical impossibility, that, in the words of a reporter friend of Schmitz’s “Chinese factory workers gathering at Starbucks is sort of like United Auto Workers in Detroit holding their meetings at a Chinese teahouse.”
I believe we are told this lie because Daisey wants to make sure that we know that these young Chinese people are just like us. They too gather in Starbucks and drink coffee and talk. Just like us.
Or consider another incident from Daisey’s monologue that was indeed wholly invented, the one with the man whose hand was mangled working in the plant and got to see a working iPad for the first time when Daisey showed him one:
“I reach into my satchel, and I take out my iPad. And when he sees it, his eyes widen, because one of the ultimate ironies of globalism, at this point there are no iPads in China. …. He's never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, ‘he says it's a kind of magic’.”
Look! They have dreams, quite possibly the same dreams you and I have, to own electronics made in China because everyone knows that shit is cool! We have to care extra hard now!
Except here’s something I’m confident of, that being young in China is definitively not the same as being young in America. I also don’t think a man from rural China who has migrated to a choked and overwhelming industrialized city is really going to think that the iPad is magic. I imagine he’s thinking, what would I need this for?
But Daisey wants to reassure us that the American dream – access to gadgets – is obviously also the Chinese dream.
By making these people just like us Daisey denies them their reality, the truth of who they are. It’s gross.
This is not to offer an excuse for manufacturers who abuse their workers. On the contrary, the truer story strikes me as even more tragic, because caring is definitely not going to get the job done.
The awful paradox is that Daisey’s sanding down of the reality, rather than disturbing and unsettling the audience, provides comfort because in the end, if we care, we can do something.
Daisey is willing his audience towards naivete, towards an understanding of truth that removes it from the realm of process into a fixed target, easily struck. By retelling the story the same way over and over Daisey has abandoned his alleged quest for truth, and instead put himself at the center of his supposed cause.
And all that caring isn’t going to do a damn thing for those factory workers, most significantly because the chief spokesman for their cause, Mike Daisey has proved himself wholly un-credible and the bad actors get to fall back on plausible deniability.
The truth is that Daisey is a shitty storyteller, one incapable of capturing nuance because he’s too busy dragging the spotlight closer and closer to himself.
Tim O’Brien’s lie that tells the truth is always in the service of more complexity, not less, an acknowledgement that the tools of storytelling will fall short, an acknowledgement that even though absolute truth is beyond our grasp, we should keep reaching.
It is simultaneously a declaration that one has done their best and a request for forgiveness for falling short.
This past weekend, George Clooney made the rounds of the Sunday political talk shows, along with his partner in the Satellite Sentinel Project, John Prendergrast.
Clooney has been involved and invested in the humanitarian crisis in Sudan for better than a decade. While certainly not acting alone, he has used his celebrity to bring attention to the human rights atrocities committed there in a way that has undoubtedly made people “care.”
The Satellite Sentinel project uses satellite technology and data analysis to constantly monitor the situation in Sudan, a literal eye in the sky capable of predicting impending attacks on civilians or the razing of villages or the appearance of fresh mass graves.
Here, in Clooney, is a man who knows the spotlight, which is maybe why he knows there’s something more important than caring, and that thing is to give witness.
There are two aspects to giving witness. One is to have personal knowledge and experience and give true and accurate testimony to it. The purpose of this kind of witness is to encourage others to witness as well. Rather than substituting the testimony of another, we are then asked to see things for ourselves.
When one gives witness, especially if it is accurate and true, inevitably the initial witnesser will become less and less important, less of a focal point because more and more people have gathered around the idea and witnessed it for themselves. The spotlight moves and expands, the light spreads across multitudes.
Mike Daisey received a standing ovation at his first performance following the revelations of his lies.
The second aspect of giving witness is to live a life consistent with what you’ve witnessed, a living testament to your own experience.
I am not a religious person, but I like to think of the power of storytelling to affect lives as my witness. I suppose that’s something I share with Mike Daisey.
The first time I read Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” I was overcome with emotion -- a deep deep sadness mixed with an appreciation of beauty and life -- and I realized that I’d read something true.
I think I may understand why Mike Daisey is more interested in making people care, than in giving witness. Giving witness doesn’t come with standing ovations.
He wants to preach, and I suppose we need preachers too, except that if you think about it, we could dump all the preachers in the world tomorrow and do just fine, as long as there are individuals still willing to witness.
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