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Why Mike Daisey's Fabrications Don't Bother Me

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Mike Daisey is a man damned -- or so the blogosphere, journos and pundits the world over would have us believe. He conflated fact and fiction, and he lied to both the producer and the host of "This American Life" in a radio show they aired in January 2012.

But what if fiction can be truer than truth, more accurate than fact, more revealing than reality? What if the devil's not in the details?

What if Oscar Wilde was right, that the truth is rarely pure and never simple?

I get that Daisey was wrong to present his play as nonfiction, which he clearly did in the playbill for The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. It unapologetically says, in all caps, "THIS IS A WORK OF NONFICTION."

I get that we don't like to learn we've been had.

I get that Dante reserved the eighth circle of hell for frauds.

But in my book Mike Daisey won't be joining the ranks of ruined writers for this. James Frey he is not.

I saw the show on November 13th last year, and I saw it again on March 18th -- the final performance at New York City's Public Theater. I've seen hundreds of shows -- yes, hundreds -- in the past decade, and Mike's stands out as among the most brilliantly conceived and brilliantly executed of all. You cannot not be moved.

And, crucially, this holds true whether the young female factory worker with whom he spoke was 13, as he recalls, or 12, or 14 -- or even 16 or 18. Her precise age is beside the point. She could have said she was 13 even if she wasn't. Maybe she was older, or maybe she was younger. Maybe she didn't say she was 13. We'll never know. The point is this: she was young. Very young. And doing difficult work over long hours for little money -- a situation we would not tolerate in twenty-first century America.

And the point is also this: in a 2010 audit, Apple itself discovered 91 instances of underage workers in 10 of its factories in China -- workers under 16, the minimum age to be employed in the People's Republic. That the occasional worker is underage isn't surprising, and that Daisey would have met at least one such worker isn't implausible. (Remember the scandal with the Chinese women's -- girls' -- gymnastics team at the 2008 Summer Olympics, which won the gold medal? Age-fudging seems to be something of a national sport in China.)

On Sunday, Daisey spoke to the audience briefly before the metaphorical curtain rose. To my eye, he appeared nervous and pained. The words did not quite flow as they would in the show itself.

The telling of the truth, he told us, is an almost impossible thing.

He's right.

He knows what Emily Dickinson knew all too well -- that truth-telling isn't a straightforward act, and that fiction can be truer than fact:

"Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind--"

Here's the truth: Daisey's show has been a tremendous success -- and rightly so. Conditions at Foxconn and other Chinese factories are likely to improve because of Daisey's work, not despite it. Were it not for Daisey, we -- the general American public -- wouldn't be talking about Foxconn.

Theodor Adorno once wrote, "Art is magic, emancipated from the lie of being the truth."

Daisey's show -- like Apple's products -- is art, and magic, and truth.