Mark Radcliffe believes there is still an important message behind Mike Daisey’s now-disgraced theatrical performance.
It was the theater story of the year: Monologuist Mike Daisey’s performance “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” told a fascinating tale of widespread labor abuse at Apple’s key factory in China—Foxconn. It prompted in-depth discussion on the supply chain of the world’s most profitable company, resulting in a key episode on NPR’s “This American Life” and even prompted the New York Times to launch a investigation of Foxconn’s labor practices.
I finally saw it myself just a few days ago. I actually went to college with Mike years ago. We even acted together in a play once (his role was bigger than mine). I’d seen a few of his other performances and was looking forward to this one. Sure enough, it was illuminating. And thought-provoking. And entertaining. And actually funny as hell. As an Apple-lover myself (Daisey confesses to be an addict as well), I now have to know think about the human cost of all their products I’ve bought over the years.
But then, sure enough, the morning after I saw it, the “controversy” erupted. NPR retracted their story, after discovering that Daisey didn’t actually see what he says he saw in some instances. Now, this is not to say these things didn’t happen—they did, as has been documented through various investigations like the NY Times series. But Daisey didn’t see them all first hand, he sometimes just heard about them. He simply claims he took some theatrical liberties. It was simpler to tell the story as if he’d seen it all himself.
The way I understand it, NPR did not discover these inconsistencies on their own. Marketplace correspondent Rob Schmitz looked into the veracity of Daisey’s claims on his own, and actually tracked down Daisey’s translator, Cathy Lee. She refuted many of Daisey’s claims as to what they encountered together. Then Schmitz brought this to NPR’s attention, and soon thereafter Ira Glass swung into action and the retraction was issued. (It occurs to me that Cathy might have a lot of incentive to say, “Everything is fine over here,” if she still lives in China, but that of course is pure conjecture.)
But what NPR (and now CNN and a host of other sources) seems to be saying is: we have to throw out the entire story.
I say, “Not so fast.”
Yes, I would prefer that Daisey had been more transparent with how his story was constructed. (And he clearly does, now, too.) And yes, perhaps NPR should have poked around a bit more before taking Daisey’s word. But if the overall “spirit” of his portrayal is true, and has been bourn out to be so by other investigative efforts, I think I can forgive a performance artist (not a journalist) for stretching of what he actually encountered, vs what he’s simply heard about. Especially if the net result is that workers’ rights gets more attention, pay is raised, and policies are put into place that save lives, or at least make factories safer and more humane.
Rob Shmidtz even admits, “The things Daisey lied about seeing are things that have actually happened in China.” There have been atrocities at these factories. There have been under-aged workers. There have been excessive work shifts. There have been workers who were exposed to toxic elements. There have been factory explosions. There have been suicides (yes, I’ve heard that the number is below the national average, but still, people killing themselves while on the job should not be dismissed with “Hey, it could be worse!”).
So while I understand Ira Glass wanting to set the record straight, I think that to imply Daisey’s story is nothing more than “fabrications” is excessive, and runs the risk of convincing the world to now think, “Oh, see? He made 100% of it up. Everything’s fine in China. There are no abuses. We can all back to mindless consumerism now. When does that new iPad go on sale again?”
And I think that would be a terrible shame.
To dismiss his story entirely is to miss the forest for the trees. This is not a case of Jason Blair, making up countless stories while being an NY Times reporter just to promote his career, nor of James Frey, releasing what was 90% fiction as memoir, since his publishers urged him it would sell better. Has Daisey’s star risen as a result of this? Sure. But it seems pretty clear to me that his intentions were humanitarian in overall nature. He’s made the transcript to his show available for free download around the world, and while he wasn’t 100% forthcoming, his efforts were out of activism at heart and have led to positive change.
Unfortunately, I’m not close enough to Daisey any more to reach out to him for a comment, but he did offer this explanation to his audience before performing his final show.
What do you think? Are his actions justifiable? Deplorable? Do the ends justify the means?