Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Truth and Fiction

Last night I finally had the chance to hear This American Life's retraction of the Mike Daisey story.  I had already read Mike's response to the retraction, as well as listened to Luke Burbank's interview of Mike that occurred well before the brouhaha.  I felt empathy for Ira, who felt both betrayed and sorry for his own mistakes.  I respect him for owning up to his own mistakes.  I think Mike is trying to own up to his own mistakes, but he is not communicating his point well.  This is ironic (don't you think?) given his acumen as a storyteller, but perhaps the emotions are too strong for him to speak clearly about it. 

One thing is absolutely clear: Mike Daisey lied to the TAL staff repeatedly during the fact-checking on the story.  He represented his story as holding up to journalistic vigor in various emails with producers when he knew some parts of the story were not accurate, and he lied about the name and contact information of his translator.  He should fess up to that, strongly and in no uncertain terms when he talks about this issue.  Admitting it on the Retraction piece was like pulling teeth, and in his subsequent statements he ignores this fact (hah!) completely.

Less clear is Mike's credibility on the rest of the story.  I understand why Ira doesn't trust him when Mike disagrees with the translator's version of events.  But I also heard clearly that the events took place two years ago, and were not necessarily a big part of the translator's life.  So her memories aren't guaranteed to be 100% accurate.  Plus the translator does still live in an oppressive regime, and may not want to publicly confirm some facts, like underage workers, that could anger the government.  So there is the possibility Mike is telling the truth about those facts.

This gets us to the big picture.  Mike Daisey says that despite the deliberate inaccuracies, his monologue is still truthful.  I've written before that artistic discourse can contain paradoxes, and that logic can contain irrational elements.  I do believe that fictional art can lead us to understand ourselves better, and perhaps lead us to have greater empathy for other perspectives.  Self-awareness can be truth, but I don't know if I can define empathy as truth.  Empathy is a good thing, no, a great thing.  But is it truth?  This is where Mike falls down.  I believe he should stand up for his monologue as a work of beauty, something that will make you feel more.  As he puts it, "But understand that if you felt something that connected you with where your devices come from—that is not a lie. That is art. That is human empathy, and it is real, and even if you curse my name I hope you’ll recognize that and continue reading, caring, and thinking."  I agree that it is art.  But it is not truth.  

I enjoy watching biographical movies.  Ray, Man in the Moon, Topsy-Turvy, all very entertaining.  I gain greater respect for the artists represented in these movies.  I also know that the movies aren't 100% factual.  Andy Kaufman had several girlfriends who were composited into one character in the movie.  Ray had scenes "fictionalized for dramatization purposes."  That would be great if Mike Daisey would say, "some scenes of my monologue were fictionalized for dramatic effect."  And if he were to make clear in the monologue or in the program notes for the monologue that it uses a "combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story." But he seems to have a hang-up about 'fiction.'  I think he is afraid that if he admits the work is fictionalized, people won't have the emotional connection he is trying to make.  I also think he truly believes in the cause of the Chinese workers.  That is his truth.  But he oversold his work in trying to convey this truth, which will only hurt his efforts in the end.

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