Why Mike Daisey Matters

Mike Daisey’s blog posts bumble between righteous indignation and sincere apology about the media storm surrounding him. Because he made up interviews and events for the This American Life broadcast of his monologue. And then lied to TAL fact-checkers about it. Despite the fact that all he was trying to do was raise awareness about the poor working conditions of the people that make Apple products. And people keep getting mad at him for it!

Thankfully, when his bravado receded, he sincerely and humbly apologized to journalists, to theater folks—especially those in the non-fiction and documentary genres—and to the human rights advocates working to improve the lives of people working in factories such as Foxconn, one of Apple’s key manufacturing partners in China. He apologized to his mother, to his grade school teachers, and to that one high school drama coach–the one who liked to wear eclectic scarves, or who brought an exotic pet, like a sloth, to rehearsals–that helped him believe in himself. He apologized to his cat.

But he didn’t apologize to the people of China—specifically, the Foxconn workers he interviewed—for misrepresenting them. And this omission proves the point I am about to make.

Readers recall Stephen Colbert’s truthiness: an idea or fact that must be true because it feels true. (One problem with blogging outside of the news cycle is that I’m not even one of the first 20 people to cite Colbert on this issue.)

So why did “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory” feel so true? Why was it so truthy? This moment from the original episode begins to answer that question:

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.”

No iPads in China? The US’s main economic competitor? Say waahhh? In fact, the government has blocked the sale of iPad 3s, pending resolution of a trademark dispute. Meanwhile, plenty of “gray market” iPad 3s are circulating the country.

But that inconvenient fact would detract from this image: an older man with leathery skin and a hand mangled in a factory accident so that it looks “like a twisted claw.” His “claw” swipes the touchscreen. His injured hand caresses the device lovingly. His eyes widen, as his caresses make what he can understand only as “magic.”

This image feels true because it fits with the stories we in the US like to tell about our technological, economic, and moral superiority. It feels true that the devices that our toddlers can use look like magic to the poor, mangled, darker-skinned people who make them.

Daisey’s translator, Cathy, called it: “It’s just like a movie scenery… Very emotional. But not true to me.”

Cathy’s right. The scene comes straight out of so many movies and stories—stories that have become more common during the era of widespread globalization. Stories about how, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, we are the cause of and the solution to all of the developing world’s problems. These emotional stories that are not true for the people in the stories.

As a lifelong novel addict, I can agree about the importance of an expansive definition of “truth.” And I agree that we should wield whatever tools we can to protect workers from the more predatory aspects of our global economy. Theater, reporting, novels, international trade policy agreements, funny and confusing protests at global summits, chocolate chip cookies, if they work. (I have a few recipes in mind…)

But casting that injured man into our movie about globalization probably doesn’t help him much.

The Mike Daisey kerfuffle matters because we still believe the movie version of this story. It seemed somewhat plausible to many, many people that Apple–mercurial genius Jobs himself–mangled a man’s hand and then astounded him with technologial wizardry. We should all–myself included–should have seen that scene for the fiction it was. We should have suspected that this man was too grotesque and too technologically innocent to be real. But we didn’t. And I hope that Daisey’s mistakes can help us see better next time.

PS: Hey, while I was writing this I got scooped by the New Yorker! Not a bad way to get scooped.

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3 thoughts on “Why Mike Daisey Matters

  1. Melissa says:

    When are the beautiful/grotesque stories true, and when are they just beautiful? It’s hard because the only defense against such stories is an unassailable skepticism, but skepticism that intense doesn’t leave us open and empathetic. Does that make sense? If I’m too busy being suspicious, I’m less likely to allow myself to be moved. So what’s a reader to do?

    • Elizabeth says:

      That’s an interesting point. My main, most relevant response is that art that happens to reinforce old, destructive stories about groups of people isn’t original. It’s drawn on cliche. It isn’t good art. You know, Flannery O’Connor used the grotesque pretty well–grotesque can be very powerful. But I believed in Daisey’s story, and I’m pretty skeptical!

  2. Inder says:

    It’s a lesson in the “truthiness” of long-held stereotypes, really. They feel true to us, not because they are actually true, but because they are deeply ingrained in our culture. They are in fact true – to our cultural image of ourselves. Just not when compared with factual circumstances in the real world.

    You’re right, it’s just the same old story: Privileged white dude “embroiders” story about poor, non-white people in a way that perpetuates our stereotypes about the innocent, naive, anachronistic “native” who lives in such a backwater that has never seen a white person, ahem, never seen an iPad. And we buy it hook, line, and sinker, because it just fits with our worldview.

    Of course, it also makes for great, powerful writing. You do have to wonder if the unembroidered truth (guy shrugs at iPad because he’s seen a million gray market versions) would have sold nearly as well to TAM. After all, one reason these stereotypes persist is that people just eat them up.

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