-Federico Fellini, flinging himself from an exploding taxi at 37,000 feet
So I’ve been devoting a lot of thought cycles over the past week to the Mike Daisey controversy. For those who haven’t been following it (i.e. pretty much everyone outside of the arts community), he’s a storyteller who’s been called out for pretty baldly misrepresenting some information in a political/autobiographical show. I’d say that it’s probably best summarized here, though in the interest of fairness it’s worth noting that Daisey himself took issue with its representation here. I’d also suggest that this is a must-read.
So why have I been so preoccupied with it? Particularly as someone who typically has zero interest in celebrity scandals? For one thing, I think it has some bearing on how storytellers are viewed by the general public. For another, because I think I’ve got something to say about it – if there’s any title I can reasonably be said to have earned in the course of my career (er, other than “pompous douchebag”) it’s that of a storyteller. Ultimately, though, I think it’s because it raises some important and worthy questions about the nature of what we do.
(It’s also worth noting that I had a similar, and similarly ugly, exchange in last year’s Fringe. Most of my colleagues responded with eye-rolling bemusement, claiming that it was ridiculous that anyone would care about the misrepresentation of history in a freakin’ Fringe show, and, well, maybe, but fuck, *I* care. In fact, one of the major themes of the show I produced for that Festival was examining how it’s possible to find an objective history in one that’s been warped to so many different agendas.)
(Which, okay, I’m tangenting again here, but I think it’s worth examining; one of the key questions here is *audience complicity*. While I think it’s likely that Mordred was a historical figure and Lancelot a literary one, the point is that, when I hit the stage with a Southern accent, camo pants, a tape recorder, and a wheelchair, people know that they’re not getting a literal representation of fifth-century Britain.)
(This is, sort-of-incidentally, also why I love schlockfests like John Boorman’s Excalibur and loathe movies like the Clive Owen King Arthur in equal measure: because the former’s all about *magical* truth (awesomely uber-cheesy, B-movie magic), while the latter’s every bit as bullshit, but hell-bent on convincing you of its historical veracity.)
(Two, four, six…fourteen! Fourteen parentheses! Ah, ah, ah.)
This is something that I’ve struggled with in my own career. Descendant of Dragons – my own political/autobiographical show about going to China – was originally titled *Descendants* of Dragons, since in its original conception it was supposed to be a collection of family histories. But as I conducted my research, and the various accounts became more entangled and contradictory, the title had to shift, because it stopped being an objective history and became a personal one – it stopped being about *them*, and it became about *me*, and the only way to respond to my loss of detachment with integrity was to embrace it.
(It’s also a quirk of my autobiographical shows that I only very rarely write *dialogue*, because I’m not comfortable putting words in people’s mouths when I’m not 100% certain of what they said. There are times when it becomes necessary, but generally I’m more comfortable *describing* conversations that *enacting* them. This is one of the reasons I so ardently defend my use of notes for autobiographical shows – I may be *performing*, but I’m not doing impressions, I’m not acting, and I want the audience to be crystal-clear about that fact.)
But I’m a liar, too. To pick a moment at random: towards the beginning of Pissing on the Great Wall, I describe myself sitting and listening to music, unaware that my kitchen is on fire. I don’t remember what song I was listening to, but in the show I claim it was Cab Calloway’s “Chinese Rhythm.” I claimed that because I wanted to use the song there. There’s a number of ways I could have approached that – I could have done some cutesy, meta “I don’t remember what was playing, but it might have been this” thing – and it probably would have been fine, but it would have deflated the momentum of the scene. So I lied.
This is comparatively trivial, but I’m mentioning it for two reasons. The first is because I suspect that most autobiographical shows are full of dozens of moments like these, moments where action is compressed or dialogue is moved to create a more logical flow of action and emotion. (Attributed to Mark Twain: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”) The second is because I’m a hypocrite: in doing this, I demonstrated that, whatever I may say or choose to believe about myself, on some level I think it’s okay to lie onstage – I’m just quibbling over the scale of that lie.
(That was actually kind of painful to write.)
So, yes, I may be deluding myself, but I believe that Daisey’s broken through to a wholly different level of deception, for three reasons:
2) That he has consistently maintained falsehoods, *outside of the context of his own show* -- to fact-checkers, in public interviews, et cetera.
3) Because his primary intent was something other than personal narrative. This is where his defenders claim that he was on some level justified – “the ends justify the means” – whereas in my view this is the very thing that makes his actions most damnable – that he appropriated these falsehoods in a show that he intended to weaponize – to suggest that it’s okay to do evil, even small evil, in the service of what they have deemed to be a Great Cause.
I would cautiously identify myself as a fan of Daisey’s – cautiously, because I’ve had fairly limited exposure to his work; I followed his blog for a while, and watched some clips of his shows online (of which his How Theater Failed America is a favorite – I don’t wholly agree with his thesis, but it was thrilling to watch him ridicule so many of the sacred cows in our profession). It’s been strange to watch his response to the scandal, in which he wildly oscillates between being the startlingly thoughtful, articulate writer I’ve come to admire, and writing infuriating shit like this:
"In the last forty-eight hours I have been equated with Stephen Glass, James Frey, and Greg Mortenson. Given the tenor of the condemnation, you would think I had concocted an elaborate, fanciful universe filled with furnaces in which babies are burned to make iPhone components, or that I never went to China, never stood outside the gates of Foxconn, never pretended to be a businessman to get inside of factories, never spoken to any workers.
Especially galling is how many are gleefully eager to dance on my grave expressly so they can return to ignoring everything about the circumstances under which their devices are made. Given the tone, you would think I had fabulated an elaborate hoax, filled with astonishing horrors that no one had ever seen before."…which is just so damn many levels of missing the point.
(I also, as a theatre practitioner, don’t find his “It’s theatre!” defense terribly convincing. At times, I find it troublingly familiar to the kind of two-step Michael Moore pulls: y’know, how when he’s called an “entertainer” he becomes indignant and claims that he’s an activist and this is social justice and such, and then when he’s called on his deliberate misrepresentation of information, Moore shrugs and claims that he’s “just an entertainer.”)
In their interview, Ira Glass cornered Daisey on the “theatre” line, suggesting that he was kidding himself if he truly believed that the distinctions he was drawing were ones that his audience was cognizant of. (He made a poor choice of words in saying “normal people”; “laymen” might have been less divisive.) And I do think that Glass is absolutely right: Daisey has been been kidding himself. He’s kidding himself when he suggests that it’s not that big a deal; he was kidding himself when he thought that no one would notice; he’s *definitely* kidding himself with the implication that the people who feel hurt and betrayed are somehow out to get him.
But this, I think, is one of the great existential battles that we as storytellers have to face: not the conscious deception of others, but the far more insidious *self*-deception. Studies have suggested that every time we remember events, we subtly rewrite them. I find it unlikely that the factory guards that Daisey witnessed were actually armed; by the same token, I find it equally likely that at this point, he genuinely recalls that they were. The implications of that, for all of us, are profoundly terrifying, if you give it a moment’s thought.
(Nancy Donoval, a local storyteller who tells many stories about her late father, expressed a similar fear to me: that on the one hand, her stories are a way of keeping her father alive; on the other, her actual memories may be being replaced by the stories. How much of my relationship with my own father is real, and how much is a false narrative that I’ve constructed in the course of writing two shows about that relationship?)
(One of the Catholic-school arguments I found compelling when I was – well, going there – is the idea that the earliest Gospels *must* have some semblance of (capital-T) Truth, because at the time they were written, people who had known Him were still alive. I’ve since lived through two W. administrations, and realized that a populace will continually rewrite its own collective Truth *as it’s actually unfolding in front of them*. I don’t think I’m stretching to suggest that politics, like storytelling, revolves around the construction of narrative.)
I believe that relativism is absolutely (tee-hee) the wrong answer to this problem: to claim that everybody lies, so lying is therefore okay. The ends, as far as I’m concerned, emphatically do *not* justify the means. Mr. Daisey’s going to have to wear this albatross around his neck for the rest of his career, justifiably or otherwise. But in my view, the fact that self-deception is such a perpetual peril for those of us in this profession means that we must remain vigilant against it.
It’s my view that the pursuit of truth is the most critically important of all human endeavors. Deception obfuscates that.
Just ask Fellini.