Mike Daisey, Foxconn, and the Art of the Theatrical Lie:
I saw Mike Daisey perform his monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Public Theater in New York about a month ago. It was fine, like watching Spalding Gray channel Sam Kinison, but nothing special beyond what Daisey revealed he had seen. (He totally blew the comic possibilities of the moment when Apple phoned Jobs to offer him his old job back.) Now, the Rude Pundit's not gonna say he had suspicions about Daisey's story of his visit to Shenzhen, China, and the Foxconn factory where many Apple products are made. But the Rude Pundit did occasionally think throughout the piece, "Damn, that's convenient and coincidental." Still, he didn't doubt the veracity of the tale. He has been in situations where the number of experiences he had in a short timespan seemed downright miraculous. Daisey has performed the show for tens of thousands of people over the last couple of years.
Daisey was featured on an episode of This American Life, which led to his appearance on MSNBC shows, on Real Time with Bill Maher, in the New York Times. He was a performance artist who was having a moment in the sun, and, really, who could blame him after over a decade of doing one-man plays? Did you go to China? Did you talk to Foxconn workers after you heard about the spate of suicides in 2010? Did you pretend you were a businessman so you could get inside the factories? No, you didn't. You thought about it for a moment, you got outraged briefly, and then you waited until the Joseph Kony video came out to care about something else. (No, not you, dear reader, but a more general "you.") Daisey, though, became the de facto spokesperson for the outraged Apple product buyer who wants iShit made without liberal guilt.
Now that it's come out that Daisey outright lied about details of his experience, about people he met, about meetings he had, about places he went, he was called back to Chicago Public Media's This American Life for an episode about his fabrications and the show's retraction of its original episode, during which Daisey lied to producers who were fact-checking the story. You do not fuck with Ira Glass. That bespectacled motherfucker does an NPR version of pimp-slapping in one of the more uncomfortable interviews you'll ever hear. The transcript is available, but you gotta hear it to get the full agony of Mike Daisey.
As a writer who likes to fuck around with reality (see: any blog post regarding a certain leather slave or ones subtitled "A Fantasia"), the Rude Pundit is sympathetic to Daisey's defense that he was using artistic license for the sake of theatrical effect. Or, as Daisey tells Glass, "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." One way to justify this is that Mike Daisey was performing "Mike Daisey," and that "Mike Daisey" did have all these experiences, like meeting workers with shaking, gnarled hands or poisoned by chemicals used at a plant. It's the difference between Stephen Colbert and "Stephen Colbert." And, in Daisey's theatrical world, that works.
Except not this time. See, Daisey was the beneficiary of amazing timing. Steve Jobs died just before his show opened. And many, many people who might not have seen it did so. And because they did, he was dealing with audiences who didn't get that "Mike Daisey" might be a fabrication, a combination of various people and their experiences. But what happened was that Mike Daisey was enjoying attention that a downtown, unknown-outside-of-theatrical-circles artist was getting, and he was becoming something else. And he allowed everyone to believe that "Mike Daisey" was real. Hell, he might have started believing it. Or maybe he thought he was extending his performance to a different type of performance space. Either way, he was fucking with real feelings. He was fucking with real lives. Even as he was fudging the facts.
What's most aggravating is that Daisey didn't have to embellish the details and allegations of the treatment of workers in China. He could have referenced them as things he was told by activists. One part of the monologue that doesn't get much discussion is the part the Rude Pundit enjoyed most: the story of the life of Steve Jobs. Daisey stuck to the real story. He didn't make up a meeting with Jobs. It's storytelling at its most compelling. And it was an easily verifiable tale.
The most disappointing thing about Daisey's justification for lying to Glass, to all the other news sources, and to his theatre audiences is that he didn't just admit the real, honest-to-fuck truth: Daisey thought he could get away with it. He didn't because of the oldest tragic flaw in theatre: hubris. He saw a chance to be more than what he had been. He went for it. And he fucked it up. It's kind of a slap in the face to all the theatre artists who say they are giving you facts and do not lie. Daisey's refusal to call "bullshit" on himself is weak, and a weak man can't lead a movement.
As for Apple, China, Foxconn, and the workers, well, to be cynical, welcome to the world. This is how your shit is made. It ain't just your electronics, but almost all of it. Do you like your shit? Do you like what you pay for your shit? Then what the fuck are you gonna do about it other than complain. Daisey himself says his goal is just to "spread the virus" of the knowledge germs he's spitting at you. That's setting a pretty low bar for global workers' rights.
Oh, one other thing about Daisey's show that bugged the hell out of the Rude Pundit. Daisey presents himself as a lifelong Apple product fetishist. But after everything he saw and heard, he never says he gave up his Macbook Air or his iPad or his iPhone or his desktop. In fact, he tells us at various times that he still uses them. It is probably the most honest, truthful part of the play.