“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.

Stop bullying “Lil” Daisey

While listening to the “hot debates” between Mike Daisey, on one side, and Ira Glass with Rob Schmitz, on the other, I caught myself creating an image, kind of like a video, of what was going in the studio. The whole conversation reminded me of a child talking to his parents, trying to justify his “little” lies. It was a public beating of Mr. Daisey, who himself did not even make an attempt to behave maturely. Perhaps it, the Retraction, was theater all along. I cannot say for sure.

“Lying is bad” – our parents said. Subconsciously we do know that, however, when it comes to justification, it is hard to determine, even for those who taught us, what exactly is bad about lies. The most common argument that I have heard against any forms of “not telling the truth”: “Would you want to be deceived yourself?” I wouldn’t say no to that in any case. As you might yourself come up with an example of a “lie for good”, and therefore successfully achieve contradiction.

So, why is lying bad? I think that the problem associated with lies is the confusion it creates. By deceiving other people one becomes unpredictable and therefore less trustworthy. “What to expect from this person?” “What to believe in?” By lying, especially to the public, one creates instability in information delivery chain and impairs society’s perception of that information. Today, data is the most valuable thing. At the end of the day, millions of lives depend on reliable information. Hence, all the knowledge received is not reliable, due to the uncertainty, and therefore can be neglected, which is simply stupid in the Information Age. Chaos awaits us, once lying becomes publicly acknowledged to be acceptable.

So, how is Mike Daisey even related to what I was writing about? Mr. Daisey has not admitted to lying, because “it is inaccurate to say so”. Couple of questions asked, and he desperately starts to alter his story, just like a little child before his parents. This reminds me of myself at the age of 15: once I came back home late at 1am and was altering the story, adding some details hoping that I would not be punished as much. What is even worse – everybody knew Daisey was lying.Lie to me I would like to paraphrase Ira Glass: “Mike came to explain his story, rather than to admit his lies”. Mike Daisey turned the radio show of journalistic format into a theatrical performance – farce. “Must let the show go on”.

Mike Daisey believes Mike Daisey: Do You?

Being restricted to three paragraphs to try and answer these questions is cruel and unusual punishment.  I would be lying if I told you that I have the answers.  But since I must do so as a result of the assignment, I will intend to do the best I can to answer the questions given the context and resources that have influenced me.  What is truth? What are lies? Who gets to decide?  At the crux of sorting out all of these answers, in my opinion, are three main elements: motivations, intentions, and goals.  To illustrate this idea, consider this very blog response.  We can then put this Apple case on the stand and try to generate some more assertive answers.

Sure, I have greatly enjoyed these podcasts, but my motivations for writing this blog are clear.  I am scrambling to post the answers to the aforementioned questions by midnight tonight mostly because I realize the effect it would have on my grade if I did not do so.  I have laid out my intentions, though they are also pretty guided by the prompt.  I plan to consider the answers to these questions based on the resources I have been provided, my own background knowledge, and the context in which I am presenting my findings, namely, a blog to spur discussion among classmates on the topic at hand.  My goal is along these same lines.  I want to create an interesting idea that can be used to more generally understand the meanings of truth and lies within the appropriate context.  In this case, my idea is a set of elements that must be considered in each case – motivations, intentions, and goals.

 Making the dramatic shift from my blog post that maybe twelve people will read to Mike Daisey’s monologue that millions of people have heard, we must remember the core elements and apply them to this situation.  First let us consider his potential motivations behind his actions.  It is pretty reasonable to think he was motivated by the potential of become famous and garnering media attention.  In this retraction podcast, we hear about the MSNBC interview and numerous other outlets for the name “Mike Daisey” to become well-known.  When considering his intentions, it is hard to look much further than the comment he makes in his monologue, which is repeated in a dramatic moment during the retraction,” I am going to lie to a lot of people”.  The fact that he said this straight forward, I believe that Daisey intended to make false statements the entire time.  Last, when considering his goals, I am struck by how much this project and work means to him.  He almost seems to be describing a “suicide” when he gets emotional and says how sometimes he wishes he would have just killed the project altogether.  Mike Daisey had a goal of embarking on a mission to tell the story of Apple to everyone—with a combination of facts and personal touches.  Considering this context coupled with the dictionary definitions of truth, “that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality”, and lies, “an intentionally false statement”, allows us to form an opinion of whether Mike Daisey should be considered a liar, or as he says it, a story-teller and writer.  I believe that since personal wealth could be motivating his actions and decisions, his intentions were to intentionally tell false statements (the definition of a lie), and his goals were not, in my opinion, creating a majority best interest, Mike Daisey should be considered a straight-up liar.  Maybe I do not get to decide, but I think anyone can decide so long as he considers how all those elements play into the context of the situation.  Do you think these elements make sense, and if so, do you think they justify Mike Daisey’s “lies” or do they further make him seem to be a lying scumbag?

The Simplicity of Truth and the Complexity of Lies

Listening to Mike Daisey’s responses in “Retraction” made me cringe.  His long pauses followed by short answers made listening to the interview with This American Life uncomfortable.  The problem with Daisey’s monologue is simple (at least in my mind) – he mixed truth with lies.  I’m a firm believer that people know when they are telling the truth and when they are telling a lie.  When Ira Glass asks Dasiey to clarify shady parts of his monologue, such as the ages of workers he interviewed or whether the guards carried guns, his long pauses and seemingly voided answers made the interview process exhausting, as Glass would describe during the show.  

Some might argue that Daisey just took his time to answer the critical questions that Glass asked him, however I firmly disagree.  Have you ever been accused of lying but known deep in your heart that you told the truth?  I have – and there’s no way I, or anyone else in their right mind for that matter, would respond the way Daisey does.  His answers make the story even more difficult to believe because he lacks simplicity.  Truth is simple and well-understood.  Lies are complex and difficult to understand.

So, was Mike Daisey an unethical liar?  Ironically, this is a difficult question to answer.  Personally, I believe Daisey when he says that his monologue was his best work, and that is why it was so hard for him to answer some of the questions that Glass asked him.  I believe that he did indeed experience and witness some of the things that were in his monologue, but that he also drew from other articles and instances that had nothing to do with Foxconn and put them into his elaborate story.  Therefore, I think the right thing to do would’ve been to explain to his audience that it’s a fictitious story BASED on true events – not non-fiction like he initially described it.  He could have even done this after the fact, with his interview on “Retraction” and I think he would’ve been fine.  Instead, he chose to give shady answers and not fully come clean with what happened, resulting in unethical behavior.  

Truth within the Lies

The word “lie” can be defined in this context as an intentionally false statement. The Retraction, revealing that Mr. Daisey is in fact a liar, did not actually come as a huge surprise to me. Looking back, his vivid descriptions of angry guards carrying guns outside of the factories almost reminded me of a scene out of North Korea, rather than China. What really astonished me was that Daisey never fully admitted that most of his original story was fabricated. He claims that he is not a journalist, he is an artist, and thus he should be held to different standards. However, Daisey did not say beforehand that his segment was a work of fiction, intentionally trying to mislead his audience. Yes, he did reveal some overarching terrible truths about Apple. The truths that he revealed are still terrible. He did not need to weave a web of lies to get his points across. Daisey’s segment exposed shocking practices at Foxconn factories in China where Apple products are made. That is a truth. Mike Daisey fabricated countless details in order to get his fifteen minutes of fame. That is my speculation. His segment never would have gotten the amount of attention that it did if he had announced that it was a fictional “work of art” to begin with.

I think the most shocking fabrication of all was Daisey’s claim that he was unable to contact his translator, Cathy. A simple Google search for “Cathy Shenzhen translator” brought me to her contact information. She also has a personal website (http://www.shenzhenhelper.com/) that is written in English and describes her services. This day in age, with unlimited information available to us at the touch of a button, Daisey probably should have thought twice before lying about how difficult it was to get in touch with his translator.

After doing a little research, I found that Daisey also misrepresented his show as a work of “non-fiction” when he performed at various Public Theaters (http://theater.nytimes.com/2012/03/19/theater/defending-this-american-life-and-its-mike-daisey-retraction.html?_r=0). The fact that he has misrepresented his show in multiple places reinforces my belief that Daisey deliberately wanted his audience to believe that everything he said was true. If he promoted his show as “non-fiction”, then it should have been just that—nothing but the facts. As I said before, I am not surprised that that he is a liar, but I still was duped into believing him. I believed that his interviews with the 13-year-old Chinese girl who worked at the factory, and the former Foxconn worker whose hand was destroyed, were true. Even though I want to be mad, I am not. Daisey shed light on the harsh labor conditions that these people really do work in. Maybe Daisey’s fifteen minutes of fame will ultimately lead to change in China. Then again, maybe not.


If Daisey were Pinocchio, I wonder how long his nose would be by now…

You’re Only In Trouble If You Get Caught

What do you think of this question?

175210-aladdin_super As I was writing my post for this week, the phrase, “You’re only in trouble if you get caught,” popped into my mind.  It seemed fitting.  To jazz up my blog this week, I tried to google this phrase and see if I could find a cartoon or clip that I could present to all of you.  I figured I had heard this phrase several times before, so it had to come from somewhere. That’s when I discovered it.  This quote is from Aladdin, my favorite Disney movie of all time, making this even more perfect for my blog.

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