Did Mike Daisey Sprout A Flower Of Truth, Or A Bed Of Lies?

I’m a little split on the whole Mike Daisey issue; on the one hand theatre should be free to present anything it likes, and use storytelling for effect. On the other hand, up until now, Daisey hasn’t presented anything he’s said as being anything but the truth.

When the story broke over the weekend that Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” contained elements of either fabrication or embellishment — depending on which aspect of the monologue you’re talking about — it struck me as interesting, if only because the treatment of employees in Foxconn factories is one of those stories that just seems to revolve around and around in the IT consciousness. Those who want to use Foxconn as a purely Apple whipping boy will do so, people will discuss the realities of life in China in any case, others will bring up the other companies that use Foxconn’s facilities by way of comparison, and very little changes, except our outrage at how terrible it all is.

Then we go and line up to buy iPads anyway.

I should make it clear that I’ve not seen Daisey’s monologue myself, and that’s important; I’m going off the details of the story as well as discussions with those that have seen it. Gimzodo’s Elly Hart reviewed the monologue when Daisey came to Sydney, and labelled it as “nonfiction”, because that’s the way Daisey presented it. Her comments to me were that it was presented dramatically, but never as anything but factual.

Therein lies the rub. When you watch a movie that features the tagline “Based on a true story”, you can go in with the correct frame of reference, because you’re aware that a quantity of creative licence was taken with the original tale. The intent and actions could be 99 per cent accurate, but there’s that one per cent that’s been used for dramatic purposes.

Daisey’s quotes in regards to this are quite interesting in this context:

“Yeah I think the truth always matters, truth is tremendously
important. I don’t live in a subjective universe where everything is up for grabs. I really do believe that stories should be subordinate to the truth.”

But not that subordinate:

“…everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end – to make people care. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care…”

So on the one hand, you’ve got what appears to be an earnest attempt to raise awareness about the plight of our fellow human beings. That’s got to be a noble cause, and on the surface it’s something I’d support.

At the same time, however, Daisey’s heavily undermined the credibility of both the “theatre and memoir”, and thus his eventual message in doing so, and especially in that this wasn’t made clear upfront. Reading through the transcript, he’s what I’d classify as evasive on several issues, and that doesn’t bode well for trusting anything within a monologue that he’s clearly made a fair amount of money on.

In the end, Daisey’s story doesn’t serve either purpose; anyone wanting to use it as proof of the poor treatment of Shenzhen workers can’t trust it to be true; anyone who wants to argue against reports of the life of factory workers has some ripe ammunition to do so. It’s apparently very compelling theatre — so much so it reportedly made Steve Wozniak cry — and if its sole aim was to make folks cry, then it’s achieved its mission. By not being upfront about its construction, however, Daisey’s poisoned the wider intent he had for the work.

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