Mr. Daisey Goes to Shenzhen
And Comes Back as Saint Mike the Evangelist
courtesy of Kevin Berne
Mike Daisey, the master storyteller, has turned journalist. And he is a master storyteller—Daisey has reached a new peak in his game as a man behind a desk with a glass of water and tales to tell. Smart, crass, and funny, Daisey has a comic precision and conversational eloquence that should be universally envied. There's no performer alive whom I'd rather listen to for an hour and a half. If Daisey ran for president, he would surely win both the I-trust-his-brain and the I-wanna-have-a-beer-with-him constituencies.
Most of Daisey's monologues, dating back to his 2001 breakout hit 21 Dog Years (about working at Amazon.com), are a loose marriage of historical research and whatever's knocking around inside his brain. Mike Daisey is at his best when he's talking about what it's like to be Mike Daisey. But with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey has positioned himself in a new role, as an Ida B. Wells–style revealer of hidden, horrible truths.
The Agony and the Ecstasy runs parallel narrative tracks between the rise and fall and rise of Steve Jobs of Apple Computer—whom Daisey describes as both "techno-libertarian hippie" and "visionary asshole"—and Apple's labor abuses in Shenzhen, China, which makes more than 50 percent of the electronics in the United States. It is the place, as Daisey puts it, "where most of your shit comes from."
Daisey, a lifelong tech geek who has a violent love/hate relationship with both Apple and Jobs, took the first steps on his China sojourn after happening upon some photos on the internet one day—four photos, left over on a factory-fresh iPhone, that should've been deleted in the factory but weren't. In the photos, Daisey sees a conveyor belt, a worker flashing peace signs at the lens, a blurry shot of nothingness. He is fascinated. This is, apparently, the first time he's considered that there are people in faraway lands who make the electronics he obsesses over, and he books a flight to the city in China where the photos were taken.
He is horrified by what he finds in Shenzhen—specifically the Foxconn factory, which produces the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. (Foxconn is the biggest exporter in China.) There's child labor, suicides, days-long shifts, no health care, repetitive and hideous work conditions, brutal crackdowns on unions. He interviews workers who have been maimed and union organizers who run the risk of jail time for just talking to him. All Americans are complicit in this situation, Daisey rails at us in a 20-minute sermon at the end of The Agony and the Ecstasy. The next time we open our MacBooks, he tells us—really—we will see the blood of Chinese children welling up from our keyboards.
And Daisey alone knows this truth; Daisey alone has emerged from the heart of darkness of Asian industrialization to bring us the horror. In Shenzhen, he says several times, "there's no journalism." The "BBC fixer" who was supposed to help him out? Useless. The New York Times? It merely reprints press releases from Shenzhen boardrooms. Thank god Mike Daisey has crawled from the maw of capitalism to tell us the truth.
Except that he's not telling us the truth. After getting home from the show, opening up my MacBook, and wiping the blood off the keyboard, I did a little Googling. In under a minute, I learned some things: The New York Times that Daisey derides as being nothing more than a mouthpiece for Shenzhen corporate interests? It's been writing about labor abuses in the city—child labor, days-long shifts, etc.—for at least five years. The BBC has written several stories about Shenzhen, including the suicides that Daisey talks about. Looks like there's journalism about Shenzhen after all.
That wouldn't be damning—every good storyteller builds on the foundation of forebears—except that Daisey is extremely disingenuous about the story, his relationship to it, and what his forebears have said about it. And if he's disingenuous with the most basic, verifiable facts, why should we trust him with the complicated, unverifiable facts—like those of his trip to Shenzhen, for instance?
When a storyteller moves from memoir to reporting, he incurs a new set of responsibilities: the responsibilities of verifiable fact. And as a reporter as well as a theater critic, I'll admit that facts are a bitch. They're messy, they screw up your well-calibrated plotlines, and they'll leave you in a ditch without a second thought. But facts matter. And if you start faking some of them, you put everything you say in peril. The real casualties of Daisey's fibbing aren't him or the audience—screw him and screw us. The real casualties of his fibbing are the Chinese people (probably real, but who knows?) on the production lines whom Daisey says he interviewed. The man whose hand was ruined, the child worker, the people whose backbones were fused together by standing for hours at a time: They deserve an advocate who will be scrupulously honest.
Daisey is an awesome storyteller—as I said earlier, there's nobody I'd rather spend an hour listening to. (Excepting his blood-welling-up-from-the-keyboard homily, which is easily the most ridiculous, sanctimonious thing I've heard from his otherwise brilliant mind.)
But if Daisey wants to play truth-teller, he'd better learn how to tell the truth.