Friday, March 16, 2012

Juzza Fax, Ma'am

My disappointment with Mike Daisey goes far beyond his betrayal of Ira Glass personally and the listeners of This American Life in general. In his traditional Tesla-loving fashion, Daisey has become the lightning rod for everything about post-modernism and fabrication-as-performance-art that I've despised in recent months. But to explain that aspect, I'll have to go back a few weeks to a cover review in New York Times Book Review.

On Feb. 26, the front cover of the review featured the book The Lifespan of a Fact, co-authored by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal. Reviewer Jennifer McDonald did a decent job explaining why an essayist and his fact-checker would want to write such a book (and why Fingal may have lowered himself by even collaborating with D'Agata in any way), but what really shone through is what an utter asshole D'Agata was. He was an asshole because he took the post-modernist position that, since all narratives are equal, striving to discern what really happened in the physical world was not important. All was subject to interpretation.

Call me Old School, but if I stub my toe hard enough on a table, it's gonna hurt and I might break something. While I inhabit a body on this particular physical plane, I must render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and that means facts matter. Yeah, yeah, you subjectivist fools, you can tell me that all information processing in a discrete human brain is subjective, that we re-invent a series of events every time we attempt to remember, but that is what the scientific method is for. We develop hypotheses, test them in the physical world in ways that can be replicated by others, and develop a narrative that corresponds to events that have been validated to have taken place in the physical world. And such a description of the world is stronger than Revolutionary Truth as imagined by Stalin and Lenin, is stronger than any faith-based truth as imagined by any of the modern or ancient religions, and stronger than any silly-ass narrative that Derrida or Foucault may pull out of some magical realm.

Obviously, I think post-modernism is important to the extent it brings to light the stories of women, gays, subjugated peoples, etc., but often the narratives of dead white guys have withstood the test of time because they were based on empirical studies. Not always, to be sure. The so-called objective history of the post-Civil War Reconstruction, as taught by white social scientists in the 1920s and 1930s, was an elaborate suite of consensual fabrications that was not fully exposed until the 21st century. That kind of thing will always happen. But it doesn't mean that when someone decides to tell a lie, that this is the moral equivalent of telling what one believes to be an accurate description of the physical world.

Mike Daisey started out being a story-teller of the Spaulding Gray or Laurie Anderson variety. As such, he could take liberties. But once he decided to contract with This American Life to tell the story of workers slaving over iPhones and iPads in the Shenzhen region of China, he had a responsibility to tell that story as accurately as possible. Let's face it, conditions in Foxconn and other companies have been bad enough to spark mass suicides. Workers have been contaminated with benzene and hexaphene derivatives. But if Daisey overstates the case, he ruins the argument.

Plenty of working journalists have been caught in this kind of thing. Some just have corrections published, some have been fired from jobs, some have been shamed from the profession. But the difference between sloppy or plagiarizing journalists on the one hand, and fraudulent story-tellers like D'Agata, Daisey, and such fake-memoir-writers as Anthony Godby Johnson and Herman Rosenblat, is that everyone in the latter group says, "I am a performance artist. I am a teller of tall tales. I have the right to lie."

From a legal standpoint, they are right. In fact, I hope the Stolen Valor Act is overturned, because the mere act of lying should never be criminal in its own right. But when you make an implied contract with your audience to represent facts on the ground as honestly as possible, and then go ahead and make shit up, and laugh it off as irrelevant, you have lost any claim to ethical behavior. You are no longer righteous. You are a lying charlatan. And far too many "artists" in the 21st century think this is OK. They are wrong.

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