Mike Daisey’s Agony and Ecstasy

Just listened to This American Life’s unprecedented retraction of Mike Daisey’s story about Foxconn (Apple’s primary manufacturer in China). I hope it gets at least the attention that the original show did.

Basically it turns out that every element in the story with an emotional punch was either definitely bullshit or very probably bullshit. And once these are removed, all you have is a guy speaking annoyingly slowly telling you the same shit everyone already knew about Apple’s supply chain.

Of course when faced with the mounting evidence that he was full of crap, Daisey attempted to justify his work by going for the ‘it’s true in spirit’ defence; an attitude for which I have virtually no sympathy. It reminded me a piece from On The Media last month titled Lifespan of a Fact, in which essayist John D’Agata defends his art on the basis that people have been making shit up and serving it as Truth for thousands of years– and why should we let facts get in the way of a good story? Honestly, when such writers pat themselves on the back for ignoring mundane evidence-based truth for something that just feels true, I want to spit. It takes a whole lot more talent to weave a good story around the facts than it does to massage the facts to fit a ready-made story.

Mike Daisey will go on insisting that his work has been instrumental in increasing the pressure on Apple to do more to reform its suppliers, and therefore he is still the good guy. Never mind that the whole story was serving him very well indeed and raising his profile considerably (even now it’s unclear whether he’s better or worse off than before the original story aired – here’s his most recent blog post about it all).

For my part, thanks to the disingenuous Mike Daisey, I now feel less guilty for liking and buying Apple products than I have for years, because in order to make me feel more guilty in the first place he had to make shit up.

In a fact-based followup, a comparison was drawn between factory conditions in China today vs the US early last century, which were of course terrible. In America, decent people worked and fought to institute fairer labor laws as well as health and safety conditions that made life better for everyone. No American worker today would tolerate the conditions and pay of a Chinese factory, so maybe we in the west should feel bad that shitty factory conditions have merely been exported…

The thing is, Apple doesn’t have the power to enact Chinese labor laws. And most people accept that it doesn’t have the option of taking its business elsewhere. It is likely they could push harder and see some positive results in the conditions at Foxconn. But last I checked, China wasn’t some shitty little third world country under the thumb of the west… it was a terrifyingly huge emerging world power. Is it so strange to imagine that ultimately it’s the Chinese people who might win for themselves better working conditions, to be codified in law? There’s a lot of socio-economic change going on there right now, with a rapidly growing middle class, and I can’t help thinking that working conditions are going to be changing a lot more due to this than any outside pressure.

The best way to get rid of a sweatshop is to make it illegal to run a sweatshop, and Apple simply doesn’t have that power. What they’re doing right now… I think it might actually be enough for my conscience to bear.

Also, I really wanted Ira to ask Daisey to ‘field-strip’ his Macbook right there, as he claimed he liked to do in the original monologue.

Counterpoint: Mike Elk sees things rather differently and applauds Daisey’s passion.