Tuesday, March 20, 2012

This American Lie

Last week, NPR's Marketplace broke the news that Mike Daisey lied. Daisey, you may remember, is the monologist who offered "first hand" testimony of abuse at the FoxConn plant in China where Apple products (among others) are fabricated. iPods, however, are not the only things fabricated and assembled in Shenzhen, China. That city is also where Daisey created his moving and largely fictional account of abuse.

Daisey's fictional account had been a hit on stage as a one man play (called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs) for about a year and a half -- even though it purported to be nonfiction. The current problem arose when This American Life (TAL) dedicated an entire hour to the monologue without any basic fact checking. Some of the most poignant and damning details from Daisey's story -- underage workers, a man with a withered hand, exposure to toxic nerve gas, armed guards, etc. -- turn out to exist only in the storyteller's imagination. He grossly exaggerated some details and imported other details from other news stories in order make his story more compelling. Sadly, Daisey's piece now casts a shadow of doubt on the real stories of abuse documented by journalists.

TAL's critical mistake was taking Daisey at his word with no corroboration of his "findings". This is the first time in 15 years of broadcasting that TAL has had to retract a story. And while it is not really a news show, TAL ran a follow-up interview with Daisey as part of an hour long "Retraction" episode. Daisey somehow maintains he did not lie even though he readily admits -- now that contradictory evidence has surfaced! -- that he knowingly exaggerated many of the claims he made about Apple and the treatment of its workers at the FoxConn plant. What's the difference, you might wonder? Daisey -- like an earlier liar, James Frey -- tries to distinguish between theatrical or emotional truth and verifiable, empirical truth. (Remember our Truth vs. truth distinction from first semester?).

While fiction certainly can lay claim to truth (there are, for example, truths about human nature to be found within the fiction world of White Noise), nonfiction announces itself as interested in verifiable truths, to the best ability of the writer. You can't have it both ways.

A fascinating moment in the "Retraction" episode occurs when Daisey says he deliberately tried to avoid corroborative fact-checking because it would "unpack the complexities of how the story gets told." In other words, he cared more about storytelling than truth

Daisey says he was "terrified that if [he] untied these [complexities], that the work that [he] know[s] is really good and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where it would ruin everything." 

Is "making people care" ever justification enough for lying? At what point does "oversimplification" become a lie? What connections can you make between this episode and White Noise? Between this episode and our class this year? 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

White Noise

Like many of you, I've been inundated with news about the Ugandan butcher Joseph Kony over the past week. Given the sudden and spectacular media coverage, it's hard not to hear this all as White Noise. A few of you (notably Ross and Emily and Paddy) have already written thoughtfully on this connection, drawing out DeLillo's line "For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set" (66). Or, perhaps their computer screens, the author might have said in 2012.
Suddenly a man perpetrating horrendous atrocities in a remote part of the world (remote to us, that is), finds himself turned into a celebrity. A quick quiz: Who is he? A foreigner. (The Other would also get credit here). Where does he live? Elsewhere. (Famously, almost 2/3 of Americans surveyed could not find Iraq on a map -- even after the invasion; about a third could not identify Louisiana -- even after all the coverage of Hurricane Katrina).  

This is not, by a long shot, the first time Ugandan atrocities were covered. But it was never done in such a slick and sexy way before. And it couldn't have been done it without star power. Justin Bieber, Oprah, Kim Kardashian all tweeted (and can you think of a more astute observer of  global politics than Kim? I'm going to use her first name because I see her more than I see most of my friends). Rhiana even went topless on her tweet to lend a... hand(?) to the cause.

GettyIn fact, the big story, as of a few days ago, was whether or not the Kony 2012 video could "go viral" as fast as Susan Boyle. (I mean, people, please: How many innocent people does one genocidal lunatic have to kill to surpass the talents of Susan Boyle?). I'm happy to report, he's done it! Or, not Kony, of course, but the Invisible Children organization that sponsored the video.  

The Kony 2012 video taps into the American self-image of a nation of do-gooders. Why can't the whole world be well-off like the blonde family that opens video? (The video also self-referentially turns the film maker into a star, a hero in his own campaign).

Hearing this latest example of Carnage Elsewhere, is anyone else struck with a case of deja-vu? "What [does] it all mean? Is it possible to have a false perception of an illusion?  Is there a true deja-vu and a false deja-vu?"  (122). 

To the media -- a tired loop of inanity orbiting in the same constellation of movie-stars -- isn't Kony just the another "Hitler-come-lately" -- a boogeyman to whom we can attach all our fears and nightmares?   As the Daily Kos wonders, does anyone think "all Ugandan problems would be solved if we took out Kony"? To simplify the storyline, filmmakers seem to think, there needs to be a single clear villain and an "interactive" audience who can donate money and tweet their outrage in order to thwart him.   

There are so many competing causes, inconceivable levels of poverty and suffering worldwide. Even in our country, the richest nation in the history of the world, 46 million Americans live below the poverty level, according to the most recent census data. To do nothing is unacceptable to most Americans, but what is there to do? 

But the solution is not simple. It's not a tweet and it's not a donation. It's not a wrist band or an action kit. As I am sure the Invisible Children organization recognizes, these gestures may provide means, but hardly ends.  

Samantha Power delivered a riveting TED talk on the topic, discussing some of the complicated politics involved in responding to genocide. But Power's own sweeping examination of American response to genocide, in the book "A Problem from Hell", ends with a series of rhetorical questions. This final one is this: "How can it be that who fight [genocide] are the ones deemed unreasonable?" (516). Isn't it less reasonable to do nothing?

Global problems are massive, though, and must be confronted by the entire international community and not just the United States -- and certainly not through the glossy sheen of star power. Yes, friends, this is a problem Hollywood can't solve. This problem is even bigger than Bieber.

Maybe a reality show in which 10 genocidal maniacs are forced to live on an island. Each week, you the viewer gets to decide....