In my previous post on what I have now seen referred to as Daiseygate, I criticized the overly simplistic terms in which Mike Daisey and Occupy Wall Street confront the challenges facing a global economy in the 21st century. And while I do not retract, so to speak, my opinion that the fabrications in TATESJ were specifically intended to make the case against Apple simpler, I do think Daisey has come under far too brutal an attack in the past few days. People lie. People lie all the time for exactly the same reason Daisey did. Two recent examples come to mind. President George W. Bush exaggerated the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003; and President Barack Obama embellished the story of his mother’s battles with insurance companies during her treatment for cancer. Both of these lies helped to bring about major US policy changes, by making the argument in favor of them less complicated and more obvious: we went to war; we reformed heath care. This is exactly what Daisey did, and I think it is fair to say that the results of his lie are much less questionable.
In 2004 I was in a production of Glynn O'Malley's A Heartbeat to Baghdad at the Flea Theater. Glynn had gone to Fort Campbell Tennessee (home of the 101st Airborne division) shortly after the beginning of operations in Iraq. His play was based on his interviews with military members and their families; in fact, most of the lines were taken word for word from those interviews. This was not an anti war play. The horror of war was displayed by a gut wrenching scene in a which a wife learns of her husband’s death, but we also saw, in several monologues, that husband, a Captain in Iraq, describe the progress being made, and the important work being done. (Interesting side note, a main character was based on the wife of the then Commanding Officer of the 101st, one David Petraeus.) I take Glynn’s word on the fact that he used the real words from the interviews, but that does not make the piece objective.
There is no doubt that Glynn had many more interviews than he was able to use in the play, just had Daisey surely had interviews that he left out. This act of reshaping the chronology and context of words for dramatic purposes is perfectly natural to theater. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce writes that “Truth is beheld by the intellect which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the intelligible: beauty is beheld by the imagination which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the sensible.” In theater these two opposing appeasements intermingle, and in fact muddy each other. Daisey wanted people to hurt, for people to sense guilt, not intellectually, but as an emotion. However, at the same time, Daisey appeals to the intellect, showing us the intelligible examples of worker abuse. Even if Daisey’s quotes had been accurate, it would be wrong to think that they revealed truth. A dry statistic that says “95 percent of Chinese Ipad workers have never seen an Ipad in operation” can provide one with information that is true (assuming the fact is accurate), however, the story of one disfigured man who sees the screen light up for the first time and describes it as magic, cannot. It is one man, and China is rather well populated.
Mistaking anecdote for broader truth is a common mistake in this, our Society of Outrage. The anger that Daisey brought out in his audiences made them feel like they were experiencing truth. But as Joyce points out, you don’t feel truth, its not an emotion. Anybody who left TATESJ believing that some truth about Apple or Foxconn or China had been related to them was fooling themselves to begin with. In the Society of Outrage every individual example of police harassment indicts the entire NYPD as a repressive regime, in the Society of Outrage, every single bank that commits fraud reveals the broad evil of capitalism, in the Society of Outrage even discussing the constitutional issues surrounding birth control proves that there is a war on women. Truth does not exist in captioned photos with snarky quips, truth does not reside on Youtube, no status update will ever leave you in possession of truth. Truth is a process of discovery, in all likelihood an endless one.
Oskar Eustis, in his defense of Daisey, said that theater’s job is to create fiction that reveals truth. He could not be more wrong. The emotional manipulation common to all theater renders it incapable of this task. If Daisey’s stories had been true, or if he had left out the fabrications, everything would be the same as it is now. The very positive investigations into abuses that his play helped to launch still happened. The emotions of guilt in his audience still flicker when their Ipads light up in their hands. Daisey offered something to think about, something to find out about for ourselves. His lies don’t change that. He has apologized, I see no reason that he should not be forgiven.