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.


Geithner, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, offers us the following vignette:

My wife occasionally looks up from the newspaper with bewilderment while reading another story about people in the financial world or their lobbyists complaining about Wall Street reform or claiming they didn’t need the Troubled Asset Relief Program. She reminds me of the panicked calls she answered for me at home late at night or early in the morning in 2008 from the then-giants of our financial system.

His wife. Huh.

Why is she there?

Timothy Geithner, you see, is a real flesh-and-blood man, as the preceding hackneyed attempt at gesturing towards the attitudes of everyday Americans is supposed to remind us. His real flesh-and-blood wife, invoked prosopopeia-ically, is the only thing that keeps Geithner anchored to some approximation of Life on Earth.

(Apparently they went to Dartmouth together. That’s adorable.)

In a game with some friends on Twitter, I suggested and others contributed novelistic touches, to complete the gesture.

I especially like Neil’s imperceptible moaning. Nice touch.

Jokes aside, the Treasury is not a person. The Treasury can accuse no one of ingratitude, a slight which it is unable to feel, not being, you know, a person. If the Treasury were to have a wife, however, who really keeps it/him grounded, well, it would be possible to authorize a new kind of moral claim, one grounded on mores grounded in human sociability, from which institutions are ordinarily excluded, even those institutions with regulatory authority over those who treat them so shabbily. This is the obverse of the right-wing claim in which the government, like a household, should “tighten its belt” in hard times. That argument is pro-cyclical and stupid, of course, and I agree with Geithner’s argument for regulation. That said, it’s important to recognize that the two arguments share a rhetorical basis.

(A related note on the Treasury Secretary’s prose: His sentences are long and curiously comma-less, and they plod along breathlessly, as if Geithner no longer needs the register of speech. Seriously: try to read that passage aloud. The ‘or their lobbyists’ in the first sentence is just agony.)

Hitchens is “Complicated.”

A quick post: Much of the press on Christopher Hitchens’ passing has called him “complicated.” If you’ve read even a few of the pieces of opinion from the usual suspects, you get this (I like those pieces, BTW: recommended). We hear a lot about his courage, the clarity of his moral vision, the force of his prose, and then we hear about his alcoholism, his irritability, his misogyny: you see, he was a complicated man.

But does any of this amount to complexity? Leaving aside the man — it seems to me that prickly, high-functioning alcoholics whose views run to the misogynistic are actually and unfortunately a staple of our literary culture — was Hitchens’ work really so complicated?

While I haven’t read so much of his work to really say, my suspicion is that it was not. His humanitarianism could be quite admirable, but he loved to over-simplify complicated moral questions and press them into service as bludgeons. He was uninterested in detail and *often* wrong. The link in the embedded tweet above is to a John Barrell review of Hitchens’ book on Paine; he found it to be basically an extended string of solecisms. His take on religion can be most generously described as tedious (cf. Terry Eagleton); it cannot be described as complex. I have long suspected that his position on the Iraq War was self-serving: it was a good career move, c. 2003, to be, not quite but almost literally, the only intellectual in the world in favor of the invasion, a view he never gave over.

That’s contrarianism, not complexity.

My take is that “complicated” is a symptom: it refers less to Hitchens than to the form/content contradiction he posed to the intellectual class he leaves behind. Culturally, he was identifiable in broad strokes as one of ours, a late exemplar of that unicorn-rare entity (in American media, anyways) the public intellectual, but I have great difficulty recalling any of his positions that I have found even minimally interesting, let alone agreeable. He offered all of the downsides, the bluster and egotism of the real thing, with none of the actual thought-provoking substance. Hitchens papered over these cracks with a well-chosen word or a metrically-balanced phrase; we’re left with just a few ill-chosen words to do that work.