The Agony and the Ecstasy (But Mostly the Agony) of Mike Daisey

22 Mar
The Agony and the Ecstasy (But Mostly the Agony) of Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey likes to talk.  A lot.  You get the impression pretty quickly that the actor/ performance artist is maybe more than a smidge self-absorbed.  No doubt this must come from the turf of doing solo theatre, one-man monologues that can easily run past three hours, night after night.  Them’s alotta words.  And that might be part of the problem, but the cure for monologorrhea isn’t only using fewer words; it’s making damn sure they are the right ones. The other part of the problem is when you fuse your zest for flair with a truth quest, mingling ego’s ambition with the greater collective good.  If you already think you’re pretty good at saying something, and you have found something genuinely important to say, one’s soapbox becomes a powder keg.  This isn’t necessarily bad; deployed wisely, you just might have an idea that can change the world.  But used incompetently, the mea culpa of your grand finale monologue may well be what is etched on your professional epitaph, summed up glibly in just one word: “Sorry.”

It has been a very busy couple of months for Mike Daisey.  For those of you who may not have been following the fol-de-rol, below is my earnest attempt at a recap.  (By all means skip ahead if you know all about this already!)

Mike Daisey is a well-known performance artist who delivers monologues extemporaneously while sitting at a desk on stage before an audience, a glass of water before him.  Think Spalding Gray, but less sexual, Jungian, or neurotic.  A consummate raconteur who articulates with acicular precision, he has made a career for himself doing monologues for years now, launching into subjects as wide and varied as cargo worship in the South Pacific to the neutron bomb to Nikola Tesla to the subway system of New York City to working for, to rattle off just a few.  Most recently he has been in the public eye for his latest monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which combines Daisey’s admitted adulation for all things Apple, the quirky tinkering of Steve Jobs himself, and most controversial, a trip to China that Daisey took in 2010 pretending to be a journalist and posing as a businessman in order to glean the working conditions at the unbelievably humongous factories where our beloved gadgets are made and how the lives of the workers who make our crap are led.

Daisey’s background is in the theatre; he is a gifted storyteller whose knack for tone and timing, pitch and delivery, is smooth and precise.  His voice is enchanting, evocative.  In addition to these basic trades of the stage he is quite clever at threading together unlikely subjects spanning centuries and continents with a skilled blend of belly-laughs, heartbreak, and spot-on truths.  “The Agony” is arguably his most political piece, one that prompts his audience not only to care, but care enough to do something about.  In this case the factory conditions of Chinese workers making Apple products.  The piece is so moving — you may download the transcript for it here, as he has given it away for free — that the host of the public radio program This American Life, Ira Glass, approached Daisey after seeing a performance and asked if he could create a shorter version of the monologue for the radio.  This they collaborated on, and it was aired last January.  (Here is the link to the program.)  It went viral.  Within weeks it became the the show’s single-most downloaded episode.  Daisey was interviewed left and right in newspapers, radio, television.  Almost overnight what had been one man’s lover’s quarrel with Apple became a cause celebre, and he was the spokesperson, the go-to activist responsible for it all.

Well, that’s only partially true.  New York Times investigative reporters David Barboza and Charles Duhigg have been covering this story for months now in a series of articles (that I for one would like to call “iConomics for Dummies”) about the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China (which incidentally manufactures 40 percent of all the world’s electronic devices).  It would be naive and discourteous to give Mike Daisey or This American Life the lion’s share of credit about the working conditions, but surely their coverage of it brought more attention to the ongoing story, particularly amongst younger generations (who, like me, may well have heard the episode on an iPod, that either was or might as well have been made at the same factory — full disclosure).  And it was Rob Schmitz, a reporter for a different public radio program, Marketplace, who brought Daisey’s shady details to light.

I hope it quite unnecessary to point this out, but Ira Glass is a reporter in every sense, a renowned one at that.  What This American Life does is use the tools of journalism to tell stories.  The standards it imposes upon itself are rigid and formidable.  Not so for Mike Daisey.  He is an artist, a performer; his taking licenses is taken for granted.  Remember the old advice about never letting the facts get in the way of a good story?  That’s the root of the imbroglio.  Daisey’s monologue does not meet the standards of journalism, so it was an unusual anomaly for This American Life to devote an entire hour to this one story (not that it doesn’t merit such attention).  True to form, the staff and crew at This American Life sank their teeth into vetting and fact-finding every dotted i and crossed t in the monologue.  And this they shared on the original broadcast.  Still though they ran the story, in part after taking Daisey’s word to be absolute and bona fide.

What Mike Daisey is guilty of, in the end, are little white lies, fibs, and stand-ins.  In order to weave together the best monologue, one with the most passion and pathos, woe and awe, Daisey fabricated a kind of connective tissue between actual factual events that were otherwise unrelated.  For example, on-site accidents in one plant that manufactures Apple crap a thousand miles away from where Daisey visited is used in his material in the first person as having been witnessed or directly spoken to.  There are several examples of this.  It’s like walking into a room and seeing two people — one with a pie on their face, the other laughing and licking his fingers.  You infer that the latter threw the pie onto the former’s face, and you’re probably right, but in the end you do not know with 100 percent accuracy.  Journalism finds out for sure, the theatre allows you to interpret as you will.  This doesn’t invalidate the reality of such events having happened any more than it calls into question Mike Daisey as a skilled storyteller; it does however forfeit his credibility as a journalist.  And while he disclaims any such conceits in the episode of This American Life, he should not have let his photo-shopped, cut-and-paste pastiche stand for journalism or stand in the company of such integrity.  Last week This American Life devoted an entire show to retracting the episode back in January.

So that’s the backdrop.  I won’t lie with 20/20 vision and say that I was suspicious when I first heard the piece.  No, frankly my first reaction was wanting to throw my iPod out the window and smash it to smithereens.  (Until it dawned on me, a couple seconds later, that deliberately destroying a product that has destroyed and maimed some of the people who made the product in the first place would be not only a stupid impulsive waste, but rather irreverent to those very factory workers.)  But I was not surprised in the least when I heard about the flap last week and the retraction.  There is no art that is independent of artifice.  But artifice and artificial are not the same and should not be rendered as such.  All stories are fiction, there’s no getting around that.  That said, artistic license does not give the privilege of falsification to a storyteller, particularly when the story being told is framed around a masquerade of muckraking facts.

That Mike Daisey comes from the tradition of the stage makes this whole story all the more intensifyingly fascinating, because the artist becomes a character in a work not entirely his own.  All the elements of classical tragedy are here, and the end result itself is as old as irony itself.  If you listen to the interview of Daisey in the “Retraction” episode, you will hear — in addition to excruciating silences of dead air — one man’s very earnest defense of and belief in the importance of his work.  He returns to this point several times, so much it treads a line turning pathetic.  (And by “pathetic” I don’t mean the usual sense of being lame, but the traditional meaning of sympathy and emotional pity.)  I know exactly what he means — the importance of the work, nothing but the work itself matters, it’s all about the work.  Every artist knows this in her soul.  It was his conviction in and consecration to the people who make our electronic crap that drove Daisey to do what he shouldn’t have: concede to the medium of journalistic radio and assume the risks inherent with it.

I don’t blame him.  I wanted to, when I first heard about this.  Mike Daisey strikes me as someone who is highfalutin and full of himself; plus the stentorian self-importance of theater-people always nettles me.  And mostly because I love This American Life and have nothing but utter respect and appreciation for Ira Glass and everyone behind the show.  When I first moved to Chicago I didn’t have a single friend.  My Friday nights began (and sometimes ended) with listening to the new episode of This American Life on WBEZ; it was part of my routine, it was my company.  Host Ira Glass has taken this Mike Daisey fiasco very seriously.  If only for his sake — Ira’s — I was disappointed by Mike Daisey.  Disappointed, but not deceived.  For just as in politics, sometimes some things must be sacrificed in order that the ultimate goal be achieved.  It can get a little sloppy and choppy along the way, and egg shells must be broken if we’re to eat omelets, etc., but is the risk worth it?  What it comes down to is whether the end justifies the means.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings are notoriously shoddy in certain structural aspects; heating, ventilation, leaky ceilings.  Either corners were cut or they were details skipped over; regardless, something was sacrificed for Wright’s greater good.  Or take Pink Floyd.  The kids who sing the schoolchildren choir in “Another Brick in the Wall” on The Wall — the same ones David Gilmour sings “Hey teacher, leave them kids alone” — they weren’t paid for their time.  By no means a child labor violation, but the fact of the matter stinks like a rotten fish.  And yet it’s a great song.  So does the end justify the means?

In Daisey’s case probably not, but it may be too early to tell.  One wag has already satirized a picture of Daisey at his desk with the tagline “Foxconned” emblazoned.  I don’t think that’s deserving.  The gist of “The Agony” is we all should be taking a good long cold look within ourselves any and every time we see the words “Made in China” on a product we buy.  If we are to be decent, we must care more about other human beings than slick, fancy products that in the end truly are solutions to no known problems, cute inventions that are so far from being necessary it’s almost immoral mentioning it.  But we all take our gadgets and widgets for granted.  Everything comes from China, what’cha gonna do?  Care, that’s maybe a first step.  Exercise your consumer power.  Demand better.  Stop buying into this insane assembly line of flashy crap.  Writing a letter to Apple or signing some petition, while sincere and genuine, does not compare (or compute) with purchasing power or boycotting.  And what’s an email petition going to matter if we still keep supporting the products we wish were made more humanely?  Nothing.  Apple is the richest company on planet Earth, pretty much because we keep buying their crap.  Mike Daisey is guilty of that.  I am guilty of that.  All of us are in one way or another.

This story is not just about truth, it’s about mortality. It’s about loss, but it’s also about connection. It’s about storytelling itself, a story familiar to Mike Daisey, and, of course, to all of us. This story is comical without ever being smug. This story is redemptive without ever being maudlin. This is a true story in the best and fullest sense of the word.”  This is an excerpt from an NYTHEATRE.COM review of a different monologue of Mike Daisey’s, this one called Truth.

It concerns the embarrassing imbroglios of two famously false “memoirs” that were published in 2006: James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” and J.T. LeRoy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.  I found myself writing about James Frey in what began (but has since been mercifully abandoned) as a kind of in-your-face preface to a meta-memoir of my own.  I think also there is something irresistible about casting reflection on someone in your trade who has disgraced themselves.  I don’t mean mere schadenfreude, but an intuitive recognition, an “at-onement” atonement born of a more intimate empathy.  That Daisey wrote and performed an entire monologue about this, only to commit his own blunders about “truth” is spectacular.

The word agony comes from the Greek for struggle, but in the sense of a contest.  The word protagonist comes from this, someone who is in a contest.  Ecstasy also comes from the Greek, meaning essentially to fall.  (The ec- is the same as an “ex-” meaning no longer or to undo something.  The -stasy part is the same as in stasis, or to be steady, to stand.)  Mike Daisey chose the wording for his monologue about Apple and Steve Jobs, but the terms easily apply for himself, in the fallout (so to speak).  Like Icarus, he reached for the sun, for the pinnacle, and this has caused his downfall.  He must have known this all along.  For he alone knew what he did and didn’t see, what was and wasn’t said directly to him.  He knew that.  And yet, when given the opportunity for his work and the didactic morality invested in the work to reach an even larger audience than he could have imagined, he let temptation get the better of his judgment and he ended up misrepresenting himself and the staff at This American Life.  Now that this has come back to bite him in the ass, an air of cold irony prevails: for what he set out to do has unerringly boomeranged to undermine that very work.  Unlike every other wrong example in the Alanis Morissette song, that really is ironic.  And perhaps a little pathetic too.  That’s for Mike Daisey to reconcile within himself.  It does not entitle us to use Daisey’s debacle as an excuse to suspend our own responsibility to our relationship with Apple — or any of our crappy products.


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One response to “The Agony and the Ecstasy (But Mostly the Agony) of Mike Daisey

  1. dennis

    March 28, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    This is wonderful writing. It reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins. You’ve got an ear for the musicality of language, the way your thoughts flow. Great stuff. Keep it up!


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