Jonestown Scripted

koolaidWhen Professor Comas posted about how one of the authors of The Laramie Project would be lecturing about her new project, I momentarily struggled to recall why that title rang a bell; I had to travel back to the memories of high school to remember. In sophomore year of high school, my English teacher had a part of her curriculum dedicated to learning about The Laramie ProjectThe Laramie Project is a play about the town of Laramie, Wyoming, and the murder of Matthew Shepard, a homosexual University of Wyoming student. The play is by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, whom thoroughly interviewed the locals of Laramie and used many of the interviews, word for word, in their script. The play resulted in the humanization of what had become a topic numbed by network news channels. The play was later adapted into an HBO Original Film. Remembering how moved I was by both the play and the film, I elected to see the author speak about the topic of her new play: Jonestown.

I again had to travel back into the memories of high school to remember what about Jonestown I had learned. I vaguely remember watching a documentary in my Psychology class about a crazy pastor, Jim Jones, who rounded up a bunch of people from San Francisco, traveled with them to some island in an attempt to create some sort of sovereign colony, and then had them all commit suicide by way of poisoned Kool-Aid. One of the main things that struck me in high school about this case was the huge sum of money Kool-Aid spent on proving and advertising that it was a knock off brand and not the real stuff. Needless to say, I went into this lecture mostly ignorant to what truly happened on that little island (except that Kool-AidTM is not affiliated).

One of the first points that Leigh Fondakowski, the author/lecturer, made was that she too was quite ignorant to Jonestown. She knew just about as much as I did when she started and made a conscious effort to do no auxiliary research as she traveled about the country interviewing Jonestown survivors.  She felt that auxiliary research would undermine the information that her interviewees gave, in a way. One of the main topics of controversy is the conflicting information that is available about both Jim Jones and Jonestown; Fondakowski did not want to subconsciously, or consciously, form any bias before conducting her interviews. It was important to her that the truth of the story come from her interviewees. Like another playwright we know, Fondakowski deals with “truth” in an interesting way. She asserts that it is not her place to determine what is true and what is not about the story of Jamestown, but importance lies in her interviewee’s “truths”, or what they believe to be true. Fondakowski believes that these truths are what allow the audience to empathize with the characters and further humanize the series of events. After a reading a series of heavy interviews and showing eerie photos, Fondakowski offered to answer any questions that the audience may have and requested that all questions be asked into the microphones located at the base of the forum. No one moved. Trying to ease the tension, I walked down to the microphone and said, “Hi, I’m Frank. I’m wondering if you intend to adapt your script into a screenplay like you did with the Laramie Project.” For those who appreciate good television, or are interested in Jonestown, Fondakowski is currently working on a Jonestown series.

“The Narrative Doesn’t End:” Mike Daisey, Truth, Art, and a Phone Call

Almost no one calls me in my office.  90% of the calls are my wife or a textbooks ales representative (poor souls- they are ever-optimistic.).

So, when the phone rang two weeks ago, I answered it very informally.  “Unh, hello?”

“Is this Jordi?”  I didn’t have time to realize I should have recognized the voice.  “This is Mike Daisey.”

Mike Daisey Performing

Now, some of my students doubted this phone call happened.  I can assure you it did.  Maybe Mike (Mr.Daisey?  Etiquette fails me) is even reading this as he assured me he read all 64 blog posts by 32 of you over two weeks.  And 100 last semester, I presume.  I wished he would have commented for their sake, but I also understand that engaging in 164 individualized exchanges in 2 semesters is a lot to sign up for (I get paid for it!).

The highlights of the conversation.

1) He wanted me to let my students know he did read their posts.  And he liked Gil’s use of a picture of Mike to “prove’ he is a “big, fat liar.”  I think Mike was sincere in being amused.

2) He wanted me to make it clearer that he issue an apology to his audiences and other stakeholders (theater people, journalists and human rights activists, especially).  You can read it here.  The LA Times, at least. noticed it.

He writes about “loosing his grounding.”

Here is the end of it:

I speak about truth because it is what I aspire to. All my stories, even when I’ve fallen short, have been attempts to experience the truth with my audiences.

I am sorry for where I have failed. I will look closer, be more patient, and listen more clearly.

I will be humble before the work.

I think some of you wanted more of a mea culpa from him then he offered (or was included) in the “Retraction” podcast.

3) I thanked him for both the the quality and the strength of the original The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and for making that work available under a Creative Commons license.  For those who think he may have wanted somehow to get “more fame” from TAESJ to line his pockets, you need to know that he makes no money from others performing that work.

From his website:

In a groundbreaking move, after over 200 performances in 18 cities over 19 months, a transcript version of THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS was made available for free download in February 2012, and has been released under an open license so that it may be performed by anyoneanywhereroyalty free. It was a phenomenon, downloaded more than 100,000 in its first week, and to date has had over 35 productions, and been translated into six languages.

4) He offered to send me some links to other coverage of TAESJ and his apology. Still hoping to get it! 🙂

5) We discussed how Ira Glass and the other people at This American Life made their own choices about how to handle the problems with the original podcast.  I shared that I am frustrated by the attempt to equate Daisey’s problems (lies, exaggerations, or appropriation of 3rd party material as his own experiences) with the overall truth of the issues in the play, which include of course our own love affairs with Apple technology and also the lesser known history of Apple and Jobs.

6) I explained that the tech/no performance of “un/real and un/true: The agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was a polyvocal performance.  We added various “interruptions” to the original script to bring many different viewpoints into  the performance including other reporting about Foxconn and Apple, an interview where Steve Jobs dismisses concerns at the factories (“They have swimming pools” he says, I think), a fragment from an 19th century mill girl in America with similarities to the problems in China, a Chinese scholar’s reaction, and so on.

Do I Agree with Ira Glass?

I think part of Mike’s concern was also that the way the student posts ended with “Retraction” podcast implies that it is the end of the story.  “The narrative doesn’t end there.”  I agree with him.

There are so many other issues and changes in the overall “story” of technology (all companies!), Apple, China, globalization, capitalism, consumers, and development and justice.  I won’t outline it all here, but just this week, I heard that Foxconn was going to open up its labor unions to freer elections.  Is everything “fine” now?  I don’t think so.  Progress is not an excuse for complacency.

Mike did not say directly, but I wondered if part of his concern was that the nature of the assignment (from his viewpoint, reading these blog posts) was that perhaps I sided completely with Ira Glass and the TAL producers.

Here is the short answer: no.

I was one of the people who worked hard to see the play still performed here last fall when there were understandable concerns about having it all (especially after dealing with Greg Mortensen).  But full credit to Pete Mackey, our VP of communications, who imagined that the original monologue AND the controversy around its truths and lies could be performed in a way that acknowledged it all.  Technology, justice, globalization, China, Apple in an engaging play AND the issues of truth, art, knowledge, and journalism all in one moment!  Yes, please!

Here is the longer answer:

Me, Teaching, Truth, and Social Construction

Look, when I teach, I try to be careful to leave plenty of “space” for student voices to come forth and express themselves.  I balance this with some healthy amounts of my challenging or engaging a student to develop their ideas more in speech and writing, to go deeper, to be more sophisticated, and to ask hard questions.  Sometimes, I reveal what I “really think” if I think it will provide new insight or will model a way of thinking.  Maybe I am too careful not to make my views clear.  Maybe I reveal too much of what I think.  Bucknell students like to know the right answer.  This is an ethics class after all.  Maybe I should be arguing for what is clearly ethical or unethical.

So maybe Mike thought, based on how I structure the blog posts, that I fully agree with “Retraction.”  Understandable.  But I do not.  My choices for how I structure the materials and assignments are about creating student experiences.

To have the full impact of the first podcast, followed by the impact of the retraction, followed by having to make one’s own decisions about what matters, about what is right or wrong in facts and in ethics, followed by having to grapple with who controls the narrative, followed by some uneasy reconciliation with this whole nexus of issues is a series of I think irreplaceable learning moments.

But I believe truth is situational and contextual.  This was the origin of the other poll question that many of you answered.   I am a dyed-in-the-wool social constructivist meaning that what we usually call “facts” are never universal and always have a history.  All knowledge is socially constructed.  This can perhaps make me seem like a naive relativist to some.  The Opus Dei priest who was an ethics teacher for one higher education class certainly thought so and so failed me on an ethics exam.  But I argued then and now that social constructionism does not mean “anything goes.”  Knowledge and facts still must meet criteria of accuracy or worthiness before they are accepted by that knowledge community.  The knowledge AND the criteria are themselves always a result of a social process of interested actors.  There is no position from which to step outside of our constructed existence and objectively measure facts as “true”or not.   But criteria and knowledge is the best we can do.  And we should always try to make them better, whatever our field is.

One result of this approach to epistemology is an inherent pluralism in knowledge.  Since there are many kinds of knowledge and many sets of criteria, what is good knowledge in one area may or may not be in another.  How we judge “correct” literary theory is different from “correct” civil engineering from “correct” sociology.

So did Mike lie in parts of his monologue?  Die he make mistakes or exaggerations  (yes, yes).  But did he LIE where lying is a deliberate act of  deception?  By the standards of journalism, yes.  By the standards of theater, no.  By the standards of utilitarianism, no if the amount of visibility raised far outweigh the cost of the lies.  By the standards of a social movement to humanize the global economy, no.

Is there an easy answer to the question? No.

Social Ethics vs Business Ethics

So here is a news article about a bartender from Ohio who was fired for calling the police on a customer who was intoxicated and driving home. The owner stated that it was “bad for business” for a bartender to call the cops on its drunk customers. Here’s the link:. I thought this article was very relevant to our class. It clearly demonstrates the boundaries placed between businesses and society when it comes to certain issues. A bar is in the business of serving alcohol. Society has a very rigid opinions on drinking and driving, with good reason. So did the bartender deserve to be fired? Is the reasoning legitimate? Personally, I believe that she was morally obligated to stop the customer from driving away. Perhaps calling a taxi service and taking away the customer’s keys should have been attempted first before allowing the customer to just waltz out and being forced to call the authorities. Firing her may have been a little extreme. Her past actions should have played some role in the decision. I doubt she has a habit of calling the cops on her customers. Please add comments as your thoughts on the whole issue.

Living a life completely clear of Mudd

Fannie Mae

Fannie Mae, as you might know, has been heavily involved in the financial crisis of 2008. Along with Freddy Mac, Fannie Mae is a quasi-government mortgage-lender. It was a gigantic cash cow and, perhaps, one would call it a cash cow. They were however contributing to the housing bubble by trading relatively large number of subprime mortgages, most of which were not reported in financial reports, which partially led to collapse of the company and further federal takeover of Fannie Mae.

CEO of Fannie Mae at that moment was Daniel Mudd. One would think, that Mudd, who stayed away from everything “dirty”, should not have gotten in big trouble after seemingly large problems he, as an executive, led Fannie Mae into. Indeed, Daniel has quietly stepped down as a CEO and continued to pursue his dream and attempted to rebuild his career basically from scratch. After leaving he took the helm of a hedge-fund, Fortress Investment Group. He began a completely new life – a Fannie Mae story of his life seemed to end with a not-so-happy ending and Mudd started an entirely new novel. He even put his huge mansion on sale, which clearly indicates that Danny is leaving all the mud behind.


To me it sounded like a perfect ending of a story. I even felt that I started reading a new book – the one that only remotely reminds me of the previous unhappy romance I read. The only similarity seemed to be main character’s name. However, one of the things Mudd forgot to do is clear his name and reputation of mud. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” – one would say. In this case, however, the cover is just simply way too conspicuous and the implied protagonist becomes a clear antagonist in public’s eyes. Mudd couldn’t even start to enjoy his new life, when SEC filed a law suit against poor guy, which led to his resignation as a CEO of Fortress. He was accused of fraudulent actions as a CEO of Fannie Mae. Although he was not the only one who SEC brought law suits on, Mudd was in fact the most prominent one. In fact, company’s board gave Mudd an option: “settle the case quickly and you can stay”. Mudd did not think it was an option; he stepped down and devoted his time to clearing his name. He is Raskolnikov, looking for redemption, and economy is an old grumpy lady, who just had to die at some point (Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky).


“The charges are baseless and political, and I have no intentions of settling anything,” said Mr. Mudd. So, let us wish Daniel Mudd luck, because it seems to me that fortune is his biggest hope at the moment.


Fannie Mae’s Former Chief, Mudd, Sells in Washington
Fortress Chief Daniel Mudd Resigns
US charges ex-Fannie, Freddie CEOs with fraud
Fannie Mae’s Former Chief Fights to Clear His Name


…despite the fact that he died on July 5th, 2006. At the time, he was awaiting sentence after being found guilty of six counts of conspiracy and fraud in one case, and a separate four counts of fraud elsewhere.

It took a simple Wikipedia Google search to learn that he died in a hospital near his vacation home in Aspen, Colorado. Apparently, the World’s Favorite CEO suffered from coronary artery disease, and had a heart attack which may not actually have been his first. There was a memorial service held at the First United Methodist Church that George HW Bush attended, which was weird to read, given the fact that I’ve been there multiple times in my life, including for the wedding of some family friends. At this ceremony, according to a bizarrely direct Bloomberg article, he was defended furiously- my favorite quote was “Ken Lay was neither black nor poor, but he was a victim of a lynching.” Alright, thanks, Houston.

Life moved on, and Lay’s body was cremated and the ashes were buried in Colorado. Where? According to Wikipedia, “a secret location in the mountains,” and I swear to God I’m not making this up. Since he was, you know, dead, the conviction was abated, which according my small amount of research means that the conviction that had been facing him basically disappeared. Please, correct me if I’m wrong, because of all the things that I like being, wrong is not one of them.

So why shout to the masses that he’s alive? Because that’s the name of my new favorite Ken Lay-related website, Ken Lay is Alive, which describes itself as “An organization devoted to tracking the whereabouts of the former Enron CEO.” At first, I thought that this site was an odd joke of some kind, an idea reaffirmed by the “sightings” page.

I also am impressed with their Photoshop skills.

The kind people at KLIA would like to remind you to print these out and study them. Presented without further comment.

Now, I was ready to dismiss this as an oddball satire of conspiracy theories about his death and sadly, those do exist. Apparently the timing of his death and the unknown location of his ashes means that he’s hiding in the mountains somewhere with his stash of money and souls. This is almost definitely viable when you factor in the incident with the autopsy- apparently someone made a mistake and wrote “Tuesday” instead of “Wednesday” in one place. GASP.

However, attempts to delve deeper into these conspiracy theories (I’ll forever regret that intention) led me to further confusion about my new friends over at Ken Lay is Alive: both Wikipedia and CNN, at some point in a mention of theories about Lay’s death, linked to an update on the homepage that Skilling was seeking a retrial. (Their biting commentary? “If he had spent as much time trying not to be a scumbag as he sepends [sic.] trying to weasel his wayout of doing his time, everthing might be okay.”) So maybe it’s best that I give up on that.

However, on this second visit, I noticed the “The Ghost of Ken Lives On” portion of the site, which opens with this:

I just want to know what a $1500 haircut would be like.

And yes, the Government speaks like a sitcom dad.

And now we’re getting to the important idea behind not just this site, but why we study Enron (and hell, these guys too!) in the first place. The rest of this page (look, if you haven’t gone to this site yet, just do it now) is a list/article/timeline/rant about the impact of a few people on the whole. And that’s a phenomenal discussion to have.

So after all of this almost-exploration, what do I have to leave you with? A thought, courtesy of Ken Lay is How much are we going to let a few people control the economic environment of our lives, and is it even up to us? I’ll also leave you with this meme that they tried to make happen (they made too many for me to count!)

Get it? People are like… sheep!!!