"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Monday, March 19, 2012

when the truth becomes a lie

Mike Daisey, a story-teller/monologist who was recently featured on This American Life criticizing Apple and "exposing" their seemingly atrocious labor practices, has now been publicly exposed (also on This American Life) as a "liar." it turns out that Daisey fabricated a majority of the vivid and extremely personal stories he shares in his one-act, The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. (and Ira Glass is ostensibly pissed!!)

while this perhaps causes some Mac enthusiasts to rejoice, i am personally unswayed. and while i believe in the importance of journalistic integrity, i also hate to see a well-meaning story-teller publicly (albeit gently and rightfully) skewered at the hands of Ira Glass. the thing is, while it is now clear that some of what Daisey said was not 100% true or accurate, in the sense that it did not happen in the perfect story, movie-like way he describes in his monologue, there were essences and bases of truth in what he said. and while i was initially somewhat upset with Mike Daisey for seemingly misleading lots of people, i think the work he did was extremely important, if only because he personified and made tangible/personal the human injustice problems underlying the manufacture of our first-world luxuries. he exposed and made visible the human factor that is sacrificed at the altar of Commodity. granted, the details of Daisey's stories were tweaked and altered to achieve maximum impact, but sometimes the greater "truth" is best achieved thru some tactful lying. this brings to mind the chapter of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in which he describes the difference between "truth" and "story-truth" and how sometimes you have to build compelling stories around a truth to give the truth even more truth. in both cases, the "truth" being served justifies some lying, wouldn't you agree?

furthermore, the "truth" in this situation is arguably subjective and particularly difficult to determine. as someone who works in a chinese manufacturing company, very similar to ones that work for Apple and FoxConn, i have seen the way these internal audits are run. i've also seen how things in the company are done, from concealing misdeeds, to ensuring "outsiders" don't see the true operations of the company. i would not be at all surprised if it turned out Daisey's translator was paid off by someone from FoxConn to make adjustments to her story. she might even feel some fear in being complicit in Daisey's takedown of FoxConn and Apple. furthermore, i'm struck by how strange and very messed up it is to hear multiple American journalists working somewhat hard to justify the working conditions in China, basically to the effect of "oh, it's China, and they do stuff like that there. we can't compare working conditions there to America, that just wouldn't be 'fair.'" statements like these, by Americans working really hard to justify a shitty system of labor and economics that makes profit and products on the backs of unprotected and un-unionized foreign workers, make me extremely angry all over again, and make me realize just how important Mike Daisey's work was, and make me sad that now it may be forever discredited for being a "lie." it's clear, from hearing so many Americans rushing to defend Apple in the wake of the original story and even more fervently after its retraction, that the problem with America and capitalism and all of its conveniences, is that products such as the iphone are an entity more real than the workers who make them. this is a serious problem. Daisey's stories were important, because they forced us to care about something we previously took for granted. we'd never before thought to ask ourselves who the person behind our iphones/ipads/ipods was, never thought to question the existence and practices of the supply chain that supplies an endless number of goods to enable our very convenient, modern lives, and never thought to question our own place in that economic ecosystem and the moral implications of such a passive stance. the really sad thing is that now that Daisey has come forward for fabricating his story, 

when i listen to the retraction episode, i'm struck by how badly Mike Daisey wanted his American audience to feel something, to feel empathy for the Chinese factory workers, to feel some sense of consumer conscience and responsibility and feel incited to change. even if he achieved this in a deceitful way, is it so bad he tried to get us all to feel something, and do something about it?

even if the details of Daisey's story are not completely true, the truth underlying his story is, and that has yet to change; the working conditions at Chinese factories such as FoxConn are not fair, and the subpar working conditions continue to be condoned and widely practiced because companies like Apple have not yet taken adequate action to prevent and stop them, and because American customers have yet to express their demands for change.

what follows is an excerpt from the end of the retraction episode i find particularly pertinent: 

Ira Glass: But to get to the normative question that’s kind of underlying all the reporting and all the discussion of this, the thing that we all want to know when we hear this is like, “Wait, should I feel bad about this?” As somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad? […]

Charles Duhigg: Let me pose the argument that people have posed to me about why you should feel bad, and you can make of it what you will.
 And that argument is there were times in this nation when we had harsh working conditions as part of our economic development. We decided as a nation that that was unacceptable. We passed laws in order to prevent those harsh working conditions from ever being inflicted on American workers again.
And what has happened today is that rather than exporting that standard of life, which is within our capacity to do, we have exported harsh working conditions to another nation.
So should you feel bad that someone is working 12 to 24 hours a day in order to produce the iPhone that you’re carrying in your pocket? […] Should you feel bad about that? I don’t know, that’s for you to judge, but I think the the way to pose that question is… do you feel comfortable knowing that iPhones and iPads and other products could be manufactured in less harsh conditions, but that these harsh conditions perpetuate because of an economy that you are […] supporting with your dollars. […] You’re not only the direct beneficiary [of those harsh conditions]; you are actually one of the reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then those conditions would be different overseas.
Ira Glass and Charles Duhigg of the NY Times, discussing working conditions in Apple factories in China [from This American Life’s recent episode, in which they discover Mike Daisey fabricated parts of his story on working conditions in FoxConn factories in Shenzen, China].

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