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A Re-Examination Of Mike Daisey. I Just Don’t Know.

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On May 7, 2011, I wrote a post, The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs. Laugh Out Loud Insight On China’s Factories.  I wrote this post after returning from an amazing one act play/performance by Mike Daisey. As you can see from the below, I raved about Daisey and his show:

Just got back from watching Mike Daisey’s one man play, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” at the Seattle Repertory Theater.  It was an absolutely amazing show and I highly recommend it. It was hilarious, thought provoking and, near as I can tell, unfailingly accurate.  I cannot recommend it highly enough; it is truly a must-see.

To grossly summarize the play, Steve Jobs is an “asshole-visionary” who has done amazing things at Apple, but in doing so, willfully ignores how Foxconn, which makes “all of our shit” grossly mistreats its workers, some of whom are as young as twelve. Daisey spent weeks in Shenzhen talking with factory workers and factory owners there to gather up material for the play and what he describes completely jibes with what I have seen there.  His recounting of meetings with factory owners in conference rooms with business cards and interminably boring Powerpoint presentations definitely was totally spot-on and had me laughing so hard I could barely stop. As Daisey so aptly puts it, Powerpoint is to communicate with other people in the same room as us.

During the show, I thought often of the book, The China Price, by Alexandra Harney, which I have previously discussed here and in this post on the ten best books on China business.  If you watch this play or read that book, you are forced to conclude that factory life in China is mostly brutal and that Western notions of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) have had very little impact on that. Daisey talked a lot about how the Western media is failing to report what is really happening there because as he put it, governments seek to block information getting out because that works.

At one point in the play, Daisey referred to a Wired Magazine article, written soon after the Foxconn suicides, as having been written by “useful idiots.” My problem with applying that term to Westerners who are always so quick to whitewash what is really going on in China is that few of them are idiots. Rather, they are calculating businesspeople who have chosen to come down on the money side of the equation.

What do you think?

UPDATE: A number of commenters have rushed to defend Foxconn with the argument that it treats its workers better than many/most other companies in China. My response to that is that I do not believe Daisey would necessarily say otherwise. I think he focuses on Foxconn simply because it is so big and because it is so representative of what goes on in China’s factories.

A reader sent me a link to a just out PC Magazine article on Foxconn, entitled, “Foxconn Factories: How Bad Is It?” Pretty bad, according to the article.

I realize it is easy to criticize Foxconn without providing any solutions, but that is not the point of this post. My only goal with this post is to put out there the way things are so as to make it more difficult for people who should and do know better to act as though things are otherwise.

On March 25, 2012, in Mike Daisey Is A Liar-Asshole, I wrote very differently about Daisey, after having learned that he had made up a number of facts in his monologue:

The more I read and think about l’affaire Daisey, the more pissed I get. And it has nothing to do with the fact that he completely duped me.  Honestly it doesn’t.  I raved about Daisey’s one man show in my post, The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs. Laugh Out Loud Insight On China’s Factories.  I “wrote” that post in my head while watching the play and then wrote it on the blog in about ten minutes as soon as I arrived home. I wanted people to know.

I was not going to write about Daisey again, because so much good stuff has already come out about him since the “retraction,” including the following by eminent China bloggers:

But I am changing my mind mostly because I am pissed and, needless to say, nobody has expressed MY personal views. The more I hear Daisey, the more pissed I get. Strangely enough, I also think there is a lawyer-advocate perspective to all this. So here goes.

I chose the title because Daisey early on in his monologue calls Steve Jobs a “visionary-asshole”

The reason I am so pissed at Daisey is two-fold. I am pissed because of the harm he has caused and I am pissed because he refuses to accept what he has done and the harm he has caused. Please forgive my rambling but here goes.

Will Moss does a great job dissecting Daisey’s alleged mea culpa, which consisted of Daisey stating “I apologized in this week’s episode to anyone who felt betrayed.”  Moss sees this statement for exactly what it is, which is no apology at all.

The first is the passive language. Now, I have no problems at all with passive voice in writing (or with starting sentences with conjunctions, or parentheticals, or many other things they told you were bad in your high school comp class). But that passive language is such a trope of public apologies that we pretty much take it for granted these days. It’s so common that Wikipedia has an entry on itVanity Fair, also citing Wikipedia, has a small collection of examples. ”We apologize if anyone was offended,” was even trotted out recently by Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in response to the (silly) Linsanity flavor scandal.

The second (and I must thank my partner in crime, Brendan O’Kane for this) is the use of the word “felt.” The passive voice subtly shunts responsibility onto the victim. The use of “felt” suggests that problem itself doesn’t even exist, and is merely some kind of unfortunate vapor or misunderstanding. You felt betrayed, but I didn’t actually betray you.

That’s just the half of it. Daisey elsewhere insists he did what he did for”the cause.”  For the poor Chinese working person. To which I have two words (and then many more).  1) Bullshit.  2) So what?

I simply do not believe that is why Daisey did what he did. I think he did what he did for his own benefit and nothing else. Let me make one thing clear. I side with the Chinese worker.  Yes, probably 99% of my law firm’s clients are companies, but that does not stop me from believing that workers are entitled to a safe working environment, to respect and to fairness.  It also does not stop me from believing that companies should follow the law. I do not typically put my opinion out there on things like this because it usually is of no relevance and I am always concerned it might stifle comments and conversation. In this case, I think it relevant because it explains (at least in part) my anger at Daisey and why I think I am correct in calling him a liar on his motivations and his apology.

What so angers me is how Daisey keeps acting as though he had some justification for what he did and as though his having done it helped the Chinese worker overall. As a lawyer-advocate, I vehemently disagree with him on both points. One little lie revealed means you will not be trusted on anything.  In “How To Choose Your China Attorney. Quality, Quality, Quality,” I talked of the importance of credibility in the context of what makes for a good Chinese (or any other) litigator and I did so by quoting the following email from co-blogger Steve Dickinson to me:

The reason ______ has influence with the court is NOT because he is a powerful person. He has influence because the judges TRUST and RESPECT him. He never betrays the trust, and so the judges basically do what he says. That allows him to get judges to issue orders by telling them that something is true and that they will be getting the documents that support that. As lawyers, we completely understand how this works.

I think clients sometimes do not understand this and so when you talk of how ________ has so much influence with the court, I worry they might think you are telling them he gets this influence improperly, which you and I both know is not the case.

The reason Daisey has so greatly harmed the cause of China’s workers is because nobody with any sense will or should believe a word he says. The problem with this is that almost everything Daisey said of import probably was true. Daisey himself did not experience it or talk with anyone about it, that may be true. But somewhere in China it is probably true. Take under-aged workers for example. It is now pretty clear Daisey himself never met anyone at Foxconn who admitted to being 13 years old, but I would bet anything that there are plenty of 13 year-old children working in China factories. I would also bet (though I want to stress that I don’t know this as fact) that there are some 13 year-olds working at Foxconn or at least at a Foxconn subcontractor, but I also believe that high profile companies like Foxconn probably do a better job at following the law than the average company in China.

Daisey is way too smart not to have realized the harm he would do to the cause if he were to be found out. But he did it anyway.

Daisey also could have accomplished pretty much all that he sought to do by having made clear that his monologue was “somewhat fictionalized” or “based on fact.”  That would have been fine.  But Daisey seemed to require more than that. He seemed to want the world to view him as more than just a great storyteller. It seems Daisey wanted the world to think he came away with scoops that nobody else had been able to get.

Again though, so what?  Daisey’s brushing off what he did only tells us who he really is. He lied. Stop. Period. End of story. His apology should have been as follows:

I lied. I shouldn’t have. I apologize for lying to all of you. It was unnecessary and I shouldn’t have done it. I did it because I wanted the world to know more than I knew. I wanted the world to think more of me. I not only apologize for lying, I also apologize for the harm my lies have caused. In particular want to apologize for any harm my lies may have done and will do to China’s workers and I ask that when looking at their lives, you do not hold my works against them in any way as that would not be fair. I lied. They didn’t.

We all deserved better from Daisey and as talented/brilliant as he is, I’m done.

And I was done.  I did not read anything more by Daisey nor did I ever attend another of his shows. And I certainly did not write anything more about him. Until now, when out of the blue, I received an email from him with the subject, “From Your Liar-Asshole,” and the full text stating the following:

Dan,

Never figured out if you saw that I gave the kind of apology you were looking for in this post

http://www.chinalawblog.com/2012/03/mike-daisey-is-an-asshole-liar-the-legal-perspective.html

the same day you posted it

http://mikedaisey.blogspot.com/2012/03/some-thoughts-after-storm.html

Best,

md

Is it really from Daisey?  I think it is, but I cannot be certain.  Interestingly enough, the email address from whence it came is ________@mac.com.  My plan was to respond to him directly by email, which I do intend to do, but then I decided I should also blog about it even though my initial instinct is that few readers will really care.  But I then decided that not blogging about it would not be fair to Daisey, who deserves the right to cross-examine and to have his side or his update heard.

So how do I feel about Daisey now?  Not sure.  First off, I am not sure that the apology he gave was exactly what I demanded, but who the heck am I to be writing someone else’s apology?  And who the heck am I to be so critical of someone else’s mistake?  There is I think only one line in the New Testament that I ever quote and that is the one about letting he who is without sin cast the first stone.  What I like about that line is not the sin part (as I never use that word because I don’t like it) is how it tells us to judge others not by the standard we would like to see everyone achieve, but by the reality of how we ourselves really are.  What it conveys is that we (and I am absolutely including myself) are often too quick to judge others.  In writing this blog, I often criticize China and its legal system while thinking that I hope everyone realizes that I fully realize that the United States and its legal system is not without its flaws.  I oppose the death penalty not because I have a problem with executing someone like Ariel Castro — I don’t — but because I know that our system is not good enough to prevent the occasional innocent person from being executed.  And I also know that innocent person is far more likely going to be African-American and/or poor than White and/or rich. So when I write of China, I do not believe for a moment that I am coming from some perfect place.

So back to Daisey.  What do I do?  I recently saw Woody Allen’s latest movie, Blue Jasmine and I thought it was great.  When I tell people that, probably one in five will talk about how they cannot see his movies because they find him so morally objectionable.  My response to that is always something along the lines of how I am not willing to limit my partaking of movies and books and paintings to only those created by people I do not find morally objectionable because to do so would mean my missing out on far too much great stuff. But that is not really the issue with going to see something by Daisey.

I love both fiction and non-fiction, but I have always had trouble with works that blur the line, whether honestly or not.  I simply do not like not knowing whether what I am watching or reading is true or not.  Can I ever know with a Daisey piece?  Or is he even more likely to tell the truth in one of his works than the next guy simply because he is now under so much scrutiny?  Was his lying in his Steve Jobs monologue just the result of a young artist too caught up in his own work and simply having gone off track that one time or is Daisey permanently flawed such that his works can never be trusted?  Would I even enjoy another one of his works if I possess so much doubt? Fool me once…?  We can’t ignore someone because they have lied once; if we did so, we’d be ignoring everybody. Daisey is undeniably a brilliant writer/raconteur and if he uses that for good, or even just for entertainment….

I just don’t know.  I do know though that I am certainly NOT calling for a boycott of his works and that it would not be fair of me to discount his attempts to very clearly make amends.  And I certainly do not think that Daisey as artist should be judged solely or even mostly on this one piece. I also know that most of you do not care one bit about my thoughts on this and are probably thinking it presumptuous of me to even be musing on morality on a blog like this. Trust me, I would be thinking the same thing of you if you had written this.

But it’s driving me crazy because I just don’t know…

I am going to end this post the same way I ended my last one on Daisey, “Thanks for listening to my ramblings. We will be returning to our more normal posts tomorrow.”

Please give us your thoughts.

  • http://www.qualityinspection.org/ Renaud Anjoran

    That guy wasn’t just giving a monologue as some sort of artist. He was going on serious TV shows, and saying “I saw these kids with my eyes” (this is not an exact quote, but from memory that’s the essence of what he was saying).
    I don’t care how many apologies he makes. He is a liar.
    And no, he hasn’t helped Chinese workers’ cause. Their problem is NOT child labor. It is NOT compliance with laws (they want to work over the limit, seriously). It is (1) an often unsafe environment and (2) a division of work elements that emphasizes short cycles, high repetition, and no intellectual engagement.

    • theoriginaljedi

      I completely agree with every aspect of the above.

  • Bob Heilman

    Even in my retirement, I struggle to find the time to absorb a small fraction of the ideas, stories and opinions that pass by. I devoted some of that time to listening to Mike Daisey. After he was revealed as a liar, I won’t read or listen again. There are too many others out there that have a better track record of honesty. So far…

  • nathan

    By no means do I do everything by the book but I definitely have a clear line that I won’t cross and I’m very aware of the fact that people judge us by the worst of our behaviour, not the best. I’m surprised at how often I find myself thinking ‘If you or I were willing to do X then how could we trust each other in future knowing our willingness to do questionable things’. When you’ve displayed a precarious relationship with the truth on one issue why not another?