Apples and Tomatoes; or, Mandatory blog about Mike Daisey day

You’ll all have heard by now that “This American Life” retracted a story they had aired featuring theatrical performer Mike Daisey, which related in one-man-show-monologue form his visit to an Apple, Inc. factory in Shenzhen, China. Twitter and the Web are aflame, largely with criticism for and mockery of Mr. Daisey, who states:

“Look. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work,” Daisey said. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

I think much of the criticism is misguided. Let me explain how I see this.

The journalism/theater distinction that Daisey invokes hangs on a more fundamental distinction between Capital-T Truth and empirical facts. Jacques Derrida has smart things to say about this in an essay called “Poetics and Politics of Witnessing,” from a volume called Sovereignties in Question. He says, in effect, that the truth to which we witness is a different kind of thing than the fact to which we demonstrate: witnessing makes a kind of value-laden claim beyond that which is attainable by fact. Facts, no matter how many, and no matter how undeniable, do not add up to testimony. Testimony has something extra. Daisey got caught trying to trade up from empirical fact to testimony, in order to access a more substantive ethical claim, the invocation of which might conjure something like responsibility in his listeners. In other words, he got caught counterfeiting that “something extra.”

(One is reminded of the story of the holocaust deniers using small factual discrepancies in the work of Elie Wiesel — who had apparently forgotten how many smokestacks there were at Auschwitz or some bullshit — to attempt to discredit him. Disturbing stuff.)

But, and this is important, whether or not Mike Daisey actually met the workers poisoned by n-hexane gas, there actually were such workers, and their poisoning, if not their meeting with Daisey, did in fact take place. The story is about them, not about him. If Daisey bent the story somewhat to make his piece more compelling, in order that he might bear witness for these workers to This American Life’s audience of hundreds of thousands, well, I agree that that is regrettable. His decision to punch it up, to “take a few shortcuts in his passion to be heard,” was a poor decision, and one which will probably, understandably, and — again — regrettably have the effect of undercutting what it was he sought to achieve. But a lot of things are regrettable. Also regrettable is how difficult it is to bring this sort of information to broad awareness. It can be hard to get a hearing for the unimaginable, but just as hard to get a hearing for that which everyone already knows. Also regrettable is how difficult it is to mobilize action on the basis of such information.

More regrettable still is that these sorts of labor-safety issues still exist.

Interestingly, few would — or should, anyway — dispute the basic significance of the piece, which is that our enjoyment of the fruit of the Foxconn factories in Shenzhen blinds us to the violence and exploitation carried on within. I like my iPhone and MacBook a lot, just like everyone else; it’s easy to forget, as you swipe lazily through, the way the tendrils of the supply chain tie you to those workers; the relationship you are willfully blinding yourself to as you read. As Marx would have it, you mistake a relationship between men (you and the worker) for a relationship between things ($499 for an iPad).

This experience is, I think, what the most interesting of Daisey’s falsifications is grasping toward: the injured worker who “strokes the screen” of an iPad “with his ruined hand,” and then says, through the translator, that “it’s a kind of magic.” The mystification of the commodity fetish even works on those who know better, even those who have themselves been most directly injured by the manufacturing process. Maybe especially them. I think that this counts as a genuine insight, but a more speculative insight which would not have possible in the same form had he stuck strictly to what he had literally seen.

That said, I still would have strongly preferred that he be more honest with his audience about what he had seen in China and what he merely thought about it. Daisey has thought about this a lot; his thoughts are nuanced and interesting in and of themselves, and should not require misrepresentation to be relevant. Sadly, though…

Many have pointed to the NYT series on Apple’s Chinese factories, but one connection I have not yet seen today is any link between those pieces — presumably legitimately journalistic; it is the Grey Lady — and Daisey’s more fictionalized account. If Daisey has stretched the facts in service of the Truth; the NYT piece has soft-pedaled the Truth in service of the facts. Apple gets the blame, in those pieces, because the story needs a boundary in order to be journalism: but they acknowledge, at moments, that almost all electronics are made by many of these same contractors, and under very similar conditions. The problem with the Times stories is that, in order to get space — “in their passion to be heard,” Mike Daisey might say — they choose a company to pick on, Apple, whose every move is newsworthy these days. Apple gets to be singled out from a whole NYSE of companies guilty of similar offenses, because there’s no way the story would top the “Most E-mailed List” if it were talking about LG or Samsung or Sony Ericsson.

In so doing, they deemphasize that very nearly everything we consume, with far too few exceptions, is the product of exploitative labor relations. The series would have trouble cohering as a work of journalism if it actually made the kind of broad indictment of the inhumanity of the workplace conditions in which so many billions of human beings labor that the actual state of the actual world requires. Not only in China, not only in the developing world: everywhere. There are practices in Florida Tomato fields, which have been linked to human trafficking and slavery, which make Shenzhen seem downright humane. Worker safety in extractive industries like mining has been a pervasive problem for centuries.

That the efforts of Daisey and the NYT journalists may have prompted Apple to allow independent examination of their contractors’ factories, even if there are questions about the particular group they’ve chosen, is a positive development. This sets an expectation, a standard of behavior, which should be brought to bear on all electronics firms; indeed, on all employers, in all fields. We cannot simply push the undesirable consequences of our goals halfway around the world in order to help us ignore them. Human dignity is valuable, too, even if its value is harder to quantify than a P/E ratio.

Daisey was wrong to misrepresent what he knew and how he knew it. But the countervailing emphasis on a callow empiricism, divorced from any theoretical effort to actually understand what is happening in the world, is also wrong.