The Agony and Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

I’m sure that my 7 or so readers now know who Mike Daisey is, and why anyone cares. For those who don’t here’s a synopsis.

TL;DR: Mike Daisey is a third rate Spaulding Gray who used a greatly embellished story about Apple’s treatment of Chinese workers to secure his own fame. He represented his story as fact in the press, and recently had his lies exposed.

Daisey ultimately feels justified in lying to his audience and to the press because he feels that the labor issues weren’t being taken seriously, and customers were unaware of the problems.

There has been a lot of conversation about this controversy, and it’s not my aim to rehash all of the points that others have been making. What I did want to do is talk briefly about a few topics I haven’t heard discussed or argued.

No one is taking this seriously!

Mike’s core justification for his lies is that people weren’t sufficiently outraged by conditions at the Foxconn factory in China and that raised public awareness was worth deceiving people over. As others have pointed out, Apple itself has reported on most of the workplace abuses Daisey built his performance around. The “new” information he gleaned from his own trip to China is, as far as anyone can tell, entirely fabricated.

Daisey here reminds me of a zealous college freshman who gets his first unfiltered look at the stark despair of normal human existence outside the pampered confines of the western world. The visceral and immediate response is something like “How did I not know? Why isn’t someone doing something about this? I must become the voice of the suffering and downtrodden!”

Your next encounter with said freshman can largely be summarized thusly:

Freshman: Were you aware that there are vast disparities of power, influence and money between labor and capital?

You: Yes. I was.

Daisey’s self-righteous fury bathes his listeners in one of two possible judgements, either you’re ignorant and didn’t know, or you know and you’re so enamored with your iPhone that you’re fine with child labor and hexane poisoning.

Either way, the implied argument is: “this is your fault” and “I’m the only person with a working moral compass in this country”.

Both of which are over-simplified, childish and offensive.

Systemic, chronic, long term inequality is an exhausting and demoralizing problem. It takes generations to change, and allows for very little influence on the part of one person. It’s easy to become lost in the effort and it feels overwhelmingly hopeless. Trying to fix major gaps in long term human behavior is a monumentally hard problem.

As much as Mike may hate it, we all have some tolerance to injustice. We have to, because the world is full of injustice and we have extremely limited amounts of time and energy to set it right. We have to choose our battles.

Mike at some level does realize this. That’s why he had to exaggerate. He wanted his listeners to choose the same battle that he chose. But people already had the information they needed to make that choice. And they chose differently than he did. He was so convinced that they made the wrong choice, that he didn’t mind lying to them to get them to change their minds.

This is why Daisey’s audiences should hate him. Because he thinks he’s better than they are. He thinks he knows what’s worth fighting for more than they do. Mike Daisey doesn’t trust your moral decisions when given the plain facts, but he certainly doesn’t mind abusing your trust to accomplish his own goals.

But hey, never mind that. You should be consumed by guilt for your part in the “blood iPod” economy.

Hey man this is art!

Sickeningly, now that he’s been exposed, Daisey has decided to shield himself from criticism by claiming artistic license. He feels he had no obligation to tell the truth because he’s not a journalist, he’s a performer.

This despite repeated assurances he has given over the years to people outside the theater that everything in the show is true.

What’s more, he has declared his show to be in service of “essential truth” which apparently transcends and invalidates “factual truth” whenever necessary.

I’d happily agree that the line between art and advocacy is extremely blurry. But if your art can’t accomplish your stated goals as art, and you instead have to present your fictional work as fact in order to get the response you crave, then you are a fraud who can not and should not impugn the true artistic community with your cowardice.

No easy answers

Absent Daisey’s fantastic adventure, the fact remains that abuses do happen in Chinese factories. Workers do commit suicide. Conditions are terrible compared to most western countries.

But I’m still unclear as to what Daisey would have us do beyond signing a petition and demanding that Apple change things. What actions should Apple take? What’s the end game here?

Is the ideal that every Foxconn worker earn the same pay an American would? That Chinese workers never have to work over 40 hours a week? That workers don’t need to stay in dormitories, but instead have cheap local housing available?

It seems incredibly easy to implement right? Just cut larger checks and cap hours. What’s the big deal?

Well, if there’s going to be pay equity, why not just hire Americans? Move the jobs back here. Then all the folks working for Foxconn can enjoy returning to work for companies that pay even less in a market that now has tens of thousands fewer jobs.

So there has to be some imbalance between American and Chinese workers, some difference that still makes economic sense. So then the question becomes, when does inequality become abuse? What line would Daisey feel comfortable drawing? And how would he feel defending himself from the next performance artist who decides it’s not enough and wants to tell the “essential truth” about Daisey’s carefully decided compromise with no regard for the actual facts.

Daisey has no insight, no staggering revelation of macroeconomic theory to provide a better life for these workers. The painful and widely acknowledged answer, that slow but consistent economic growth seems to work the best to lift communities out of poverty isn’t good enough for Daisey. But he has no other solutions to offer.

Lets wrap this up

So my takeaway from all this is: this is a man who is clearly attached to his cause. So attached, that he didn’t give a shit about the complex truth of the matter. So attached that he feels justified in lying to you to enlist your help, your better judgement be damned. So attached and afraid of discrediting his cause once his lies were uncovered, that he can’t simply admit his cynical manipulation or its negative effects.

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