I’ve always been curious about the world, and from a young age this manifested as an interest in the scientific process. Which, of course, is why I believed in Santa Claus. I had, after all, empirical proof! No, not the “Santa knows where I am even if I’m not home,” or the “Santa ate the cookies and drank the milk” sort of proof that most kids have. That, after all, can be easily explained by other means. No, I had proof. I had sleigh bells, hooves on the roof, and gravel (because in Arizona, there was no snow) dropping off the roof as the reindeer and Santa left. And after that, there were presents around the tree and missing cookies and milk, so clearly Santa existed. The sleigh bells, the hooves, the stuff falling off the roof — clearly that’s something that could never be faked.
Of course, my truth as a child — that Santa Claus existed and I had proof — is a lot different than my truth as an adult: when you get my uncles together with the rest of the family, mischief of a most impressive variety occurs. And as an adult, I can see that what I know now (a relative on the roof, recorded noises, coordination between all the adults in the house) is certainly the truth, and what I knew as a kid was not the truth but an elaborate fantasy. But it leaves me sympathetic to the idea of “different languages for what truth means,” which is Mike Daisey’s excuse for the Foxconn falsity/fiasco. I understand that the truth of a child is different than the truth of an adult.
And, on top of that, I am fond of narrative framing for stories. The hook of a narrative is an excellent way to get attention, and telling a story is always an effective way to share knowledge. Narrative, after all, matters.
So in many ways, I am perfectly set to be receptive to the basic argument Mike Daisey is trying to sell; so why am I not buying?
Well, the simple thing, I suppose, is the dishonesty — the same thing that shot James Frey’s credibility into a million little pieces (sorry). It’s not that Daisey presented narrative non-fiction, or advocacy journalism, or whatever anyone wants to gloss his lying with. It’s that he knew he was lying, and he attempted to hide it by providing This American Life with a false translator name in order to stymie their fact-checking prior to the story being released.
Daisey’s piece — the outrage and the empathy and the demands for justice and parity and all those things — all depended upon his bearing actual witness to what he said. “Oh hey, I heard about X situation and it sucks” is informative, but rarely as moving as powerful description of events witnessed firsthand. (This is why there is such a rush to collect the stories and memories of The Greatest Generation, and survivors of the Shoah, but I digress.) “Knowing” Daisey talked to poisoning victims, people who’s been injured in the pursuit of electronics, created a direct connection between audience and performer and the people supposedly on the other side of that performance — only they weren’t there, at least, they weren’t there in any more concrete way. Daisey violated the audience’s belief that what they were being told was not only real, but witnessed by the person in front of them — and he showed his knowledge of his violation in his shoddy attempts at cover-up (and his now shoddier attempts at passing the buck).
The sad thing* about this is that Daisey is a talented writer who has the ability to move people with his words and plays, and he likely could have created that same emotional resonance while just being honest — that this play was a play, based in truth but not the truth. But instead he attempted to pass it off as the truth when the reality is it was not the truth of a child, not the truth of an adult; it was, plainly, simply, not truth.
*I’ve seen people say “the saddest thing” in regards to Daisey’s talent and the magnitude of his fuck-up, but let’s be realistic here: the saddest thing is still the manufacturing problems that do exist in Shenzhen and other Chinese manufacturing cities. The problems are still real, even if Mike Daisey is not.