Foxconn was trending before Mike Daisey. When I clicked to see what the fuss was about (new abuses?), I surprisingly discovered a bajillion retweets saying this: This American Life had retracted their version of Mike Daisey’s The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs monologue due to numerous falsehoods. One example was that he didn’t meet the workers poisoned by n-hexane because they were poisoned in a different factory, not the one in Shenzen. Mike Daisey confirmed the falsehoods, defended his work in a statement on his blog. You should read it in full. The gist of it is that he stands by his work. Since it is theater, it is okay to use dramatic license to drive home an emotional point.
His defense works for me, at least qua his work. I’ll get to Mike Daisey himself later. I watched his play when he was in Berkeley (and The Last Cargo Cult). For me, his monologue is no less powerful knowing that he didn’t literally meet with certain people he said he met with or that he wasn’t challenged with guns. The emotional impact is the same. The message still stands. The guilt is still there. I know that human dignity was violated to make the iPad I’m typing this blog post on. We should still pressure American companies who make the products we love to make them in a humane fashion. And guess what, Apple has felt the pressure. Mike Daisey achieved some level of victory. How empowering that is to a cynic like me.
I defended Mike Daisey’s monologue in my own way on Twitter, stating, “And I bet Mike Daisey’s Mac didn’t actually bleed when he took it apart.” I was referring to the powerful ending of the piece (at least it was the ending when I saw it) where he’s taking his computer apart and putting it back together and all he can see is blood. Daisey didn’t need to see literal blood for this point to be made and it would be absurd to demand that level of realism. In fact, the emotional impact is still the same if he didn’t actually have that epiphany during that activity. This could be concocted for dramatic purposes, but it doesn’t matter at all. (Any narrative contains falsehoods because it flattens a life that isn’t so linear.) The same stands for the content of his interviews. The fact that someone was literally poisoned during the manufacture of Apple products is enough to make Mike Daisey’s monologue work.
Now what of Mike Daisey himself? This blog post would be over if it wasn’t for something Lloyd tweeted: “Daisey’s problem is that the falsehoods he conveys onstage (for obvious dramatic effect)… he has repeated as fact in actual interviews.” So now I think that Daisey’s credibility takes a hit. But how does this affect his art and his goals?
I think it doesn’t really affect the monologue. Like I said, the emotional impact is still the despite what literally happened. Dramatic license in theater is okay. Imagine an alternate universe where the falsehoods were made clear from the beginning. Does it change the credibility of the original monologue? No, it doesn’t.
Art retains its own value apart from the creator. To use extreme examples: Hemingway’s books are still great despite his drunkenness. OJ Simpson’s touchdown runs are no less impressive because he killed someone. Ray Lewis isn’t any worse a football player because of his involvement in a man’s murder. I also think a womanizer with a wife (lying is implied here) who is a writer deserves to have his work judged by its own merits. (But it is okay to examine the comtext in which the work was created.) However, is it the same when the credibility claims are so central to the piece? I think if we are adult enough to recognize the difference between theater and facts, we will be okay. We can hold the differences in our head. We can draw on the emotions of theater to spur our activism, and we can draw on journalistic fact to guide what we do. Yet we should know what is what, and theater shouldn’t be presented as fact, especially by the creator.
So what’s next? Is the movement destroyed? I don’t know. Questions about future human behavior are the ones I usually answer wrong. I still admire Daisey’s art and the spark he has created. Even if he were to knowingly lie to others outside the context of theater, it would be fine if it were done in service of his larger goals of sparking change. I just hope he didn’t hurt this spark. I, though, can only speak for myself. I don’t know how this news affected other people. How do you feel — about theater and Daisey himself? Will this change what you do?