Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Downfall Of A Giant Ego Named Mike Daisey


Seems that New York theater's wunderkind Mike Daisey got caught having fabricated large parts of his current hit show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. He was caught because This American Life aired an excerpt of the show in January and he, presumably for the first time in his life, got fact checked. And not only was his show found to be filled with lies, he lied to Ira Glass and the TAL producer while they were doing said fact checking. Not just sticking to his claims of his stories being true but also lying about the name of the translator he used while in China and even claiming her phone number no longer worked. An avalanche of lies in a desperate attempt to cover up the original lies. Unfortunately for TAL they aired the excerpt before they discovered they had been duped. But at least they did finally discover the truth and made an immediate move to remedy the situation and offered a retraction.

Before we go any further, a disclosure of my bias when writing about this: I can't stand Mike Daisey. I knew him years ago in Seattle when we were involved in the same theater company, I directed him in one show, assistant directed him in another, and was around when he began his monologue shows. He is the most shameless self-promoter I've ever met in my life, is amazingly self-aggrandizing, and has an ego that outweighs even his 300-something pound frame. (My main reason for turning down his friend request a couple of years ago on Facebook was basically because I knew his sole reason for using Facebook is so he can promote himself rather than actually using it to catch up and stay in touch with old friends.) And his shows, monologues sold as true experiences from his life that has made him very successful and mildly famous, never passed the smell test in my mind.

I have been telling people for a long time that Mike Daisey's shows were bullshit but not too many people seemed to take me seriously. I think there were many who thought I was just jealous of his success but that's not the case. I've never been jealous of impressing wine-spritzer-drinking, upper-middle class white liberals with shallow, pointless shows that they are convinced are the deepest pieces of art they've ever seen. I certainly didn't succeed in my theatre career and eventually moved on from it, but I never wanted what he's got. I would admit that it annoys me that I know so many more talented and more honest writers/performers who have gotten nowhere while he succeeds in selling his drivel as "provocative art" to moneyed theater companies around the country.

But several people I knew in theater from my time in Seattle have stayed fans and friends with Daisey. I don't get it. I suppose there are many people who find his shows witty and entertaining. I never did, but that's just personal taste. People like what they like. The real issue here is credibility and Mike Daisey's lack of it.

Since getting caught in his fabrications he posted a statement on his website. It's fairly sort so I'll post the whole thing here.


"This American Life" has raised questions about the adaptation of AGONY/ECSTASY we created for their program. Here is my response:

I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.


There are several issues with this statement. First off, really Mike, you're sticking by and claiming to be proud of a show that has been exposed as a fraud? Are you kidding me? And you say allowing your monologue to air on This American Life is your only regret. What about including some of those same falsehoods in an op-ed in the New York Times? Don't you regret that, too? Probably not. The New York Times does, though. They've removed the offending paragraph and posted a statement with the piece on-line. What about all of the TV, radio and print interviews you've done with these personal experience stories as the base of your supposed "expertise" on the subject of workers' rights in China? Fact is, you did a hell of a lot more media appearances than just TAL, things that had nothing to do with using a "dramatic license" and you never once clarified that there were parts of your show that were not true. Your claim that the show has integrity is laughable. You say your ONLY regret was letting TAL run an excerpt of your show, doing your best to make yourself seem naive about this thing called the media - or that you were even aware that TAL is a news show - but don't address the fact you lied out your ass to them during the fact checking process.

The most infuriating part of your statement is the horribly (but typical) self-aggrandizing claim that your show is responsible for sparking a "growing storm of attention and concern" about these issues. Maybe the kind of people who pay $80 to see pretentious theater were completely unaware of the fact that the oppressive regime of China has slave labor conditions in factories that make products we buy but not those of us that actually pay attention to what is going on in the world. This issue has been in the media for a long time. You jumped on a bandwagon. And you did it for less than altruistic reasons.

OK, I'll stop pretending to talk to Mike Daisey now. Thing is, this is typical Mike Daisey moral rationalizing. He got caught in his lies so he plays the theater card, using the catch-all phrase "dramatic license." He tends to redefine his work to whatever is most convenient for him at the time. He calls himself an actor until he wants to separate himself from theater, then he calls himself a monologist. He's denied what he does is theater until he needs it for cover. Early in his career he denied that he was influenced by Spalding Grey, claiming it was his own thing. Later, after Gray committed suicide, Daisey published a tribute to him that went on about Gray's influence on his own work. Not coincidentally I'm sure, he had a show opening about that time.

Mike Daisey will use whatever he can to promote himself and he always has. His "crusade" against Apple and Chinese labor issues is no different. I never bought for a minute that it was about anything but advancing his career and heightening his fame. He couldn't give a shit about Chinese workers.

I can't believe no one, especially producers who paid for it, didn't have more suspicions about this show from the beginning. How could it be that I seem to be the only person who thought his work smelled of garbage? All of it. And this one seemed to have the potential to be the worst one of all. When I first read about The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs the description said that Daisey had asked the Chinese government permission to go to the factories and interview workers but they said no. So he decided to go and do it secretly. A 300+ pound white American in an Asian country with an oppressive regime and we're told that he succeeded in staying under the radar. Really? How is it that anyone bought this shit?

As I suspected, what Daisey basically did was spin a tale based on previously published media reports about conditions in Chinese tech factories and packaged it all as his own personal experiences. He's only admitted to the specific things he got caught lying about (and has now excised them form the show for the remaining performances at the Public Theater while also adding a prologue about this being dramatic piece.") but I, like a lot of people now, find it hard to believe that TAL caught the only lies in the show. Surely there are many, many more. In this show and others. Let's not forget that Daisey has always marketed his shows as memoirs of personal experiences, it is the basis of his entire success.

The Seattle playwright Paul Mullin has posted a lot on his Facebook page about this. We are actually not friends on Facebook but have several mutual friends that have commented on his posts, which is why I saw them. I kind of knew Paul in passing in my Seattle theater days in the 90s but I was in one of his short pieces once and we've had maybe a handful of short conversations. But I do have a lot of respect for him as a theater artist and writer. He made this comment in response to something someone wrote about why Daisy didn't just sell his work as fiction:

"...sadly I think it's as simple as fiction doesn't get Frey to Oprah or Daisey to Ira. And Frey and Daisey damn well know it."

I think he really nailed it with that comment. I know there are people who think Mike Daisey is witty and entertaining regardless of whether or not his shows are true. But I think they're wrong. Daisey's whole aesthetic depends on the audience believing these events really happened to him. Without that his stories are a lot less interesting and nobody knows that more than Mike Daisey. There is a big difference between telling you a story about a guy who got struck by lightning on a road trip or telling you about when I was on this road trip and I got struck by lightning. This is a claim in Mike Daisey's first show. Like most of the material in that show I didn't buy it when I saw it opening night. I didn't even buy most of those stories when I heard them months earlier over drinks at The Frontier Room. He rang false to me from the beginning. If Mike had stuck to stories that happened when he was supposed to be alone this may have never happened to him. He made the mistake of doing it in a situation that could be followed up on. I suppose getting away with it for so long caused an amazing amount of hubris.

Dammit, context matters. If an entire body of work is presented as fact then it should be fact. Not some of it. Not most of it. All of it. And you don't get to change the context after the fact.

Hopefully this will cause a closer look at all his previous work and it is long overdue. I'm not sure what will come of this. It is quite possible that he comes out of it more famous and more in demand. He will certainly do his best, opportunist that he is, to make that the case. Remember folks, Karma isn't real no matter how much we wish it so. But what I hope happens is a complete repudiation of him and his work. No theater should ever produce him again and anyone that has him booked for upcoming shows should cancel just like TAL did for the Chicago performance they were sponsoring.

I'm not sure what The Public theater will do. Their current public statements of support and the editing of his show to excise the discovered lies may just be an attempt to save face. Maybe after the show closes they will wash their hands of him and publicly acknowledge they never should have produced his work. One can hope. If I ran that company I would demand he return all the money.

It would be nice to see all the media outlets that brought him on their shows and treated him like an expert on the topic of slave-wage labor, like Bill Maher, will offer apologies to their audiences. It does look like at least the New York Times will likely never let him write another op-ed in their paper, though I guess you can't be too sure seeing how they let Ross Douthat bend the truth week after week.

He also released a book based on his show about his three years working at Amazon.com in Seattle. It was sold as a non-fiction title. I imagine there may be someone finally taking a longer look at that, especially over at the Amazon board room.

Maybe there will be even more repercussions on the stolen material front. It is looking like some of the stories that Daisey sold as his own experience were based on information from work done by actual journalist. I'm fairly uneducated in the legal qualifications for something to be plagiarism or copyright infringement but hopefully all the reporters out there who wrote about Foxconn and other Chinese factories are looking at the script for Daisey's show and seeing if they have any case for suing his ass for stealing their intellectual property.

You may be wondering if this matters or if it is that big of a deal. It does and it is. When Mike Daisey made the decision to use oppressed workers' plights for his own personal gain - especially in making false accusations against the factory owners when there were plenty of real ones to use - he hurt the credibility of a worthy movement. There are people on the ground doing real work on this cause and now they may have been tainted by Daisey's credibility problems since he tried to make himself a prominent figure on this issue. Who knows how far their hard work has been set back? Look at how unions in our own country have been easily painted as corrupt organizations run by mobsters because of those who decided to use labor organizations for their own agendas.

One of Mike Daisey's excuses to This American Life after he got caught was that he took shortcuts (his word for his lies) in his "passion to be heard."

This reminded me of Newt Gingrich's reasoning that he committed adultery because he loved his country so much.

And just like Gingrich, the real reason Mike Daisey did it is because he's an despicable narcissist.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Who I Plan To Vote For

I had some email exchanges last week with my step-dad. This is a guy who married my mother when I was 16 (and was smart enough to divorce her by the time I was 29) and despite his conservative political bent I have always adored the man. But like so many other conservatives in America in recent years he has jumped on the batshit-crazy train.

This whole email back-and-forth started with him forwarding (does everyone over 60 only know how to hit the forward button on email?) an email about some ad in a newspaper taken out by some doctor who states that he and his staff paid over 270,000 in federal taxes last year but that wasn't even enough to cover Michelle Obama's recent Hawaiian vacation, which supposedly cost $1.4 million.

So I responded with a bunch of various points. I asked if this doctor had ever taken out the same kind of ad when George W. Bush was taking a record number of vacations at a similar cost. I made the point that it was the President on that trip as well, so it wasn't just Michelle Obama's vacation and wondered why he was picking on her, suggesting that he probably wanted to call her an uppity nigger bitch in his ad. I brought up many other points about not hearing any bitching from conservatives about fiscal responsibility when Bush was driving our economy in to the ground and suggested that maybe race was a factor in conservatives' opinion of Obama.

In one reply I made a point that the Obamas were exactly the kind of black people that conservatives claim to love: Worked hard to get where they are, were never on welfare, had their kids after marrying and have stayed married, and have never in their lives played the so-called race card. The response I got to this was that my step-dad said he didn't have a personal beef with the Obama family and think he's a good family man. No he doesn't hate Obama personally, it is (and I'm not making this quote up) "the deliberate destruction of our free society that I decry."

Seriously.

How do you have a rational conversation with someone who would say that? The answer is, you can't.

Now we all have heard this before in the rhetoric that comes out of the right-wing establishment. But we all know that most of what the lunatics running for the Republican nomination and the opposition party members of Congress say are just empty statements made for political positioning. I seriously doubt that mitt Romney really believes that Obama is "waging war on free enterprise." (Well, I seriously doubt Mitt Romney believes anything.) I don't think Newt Gingrich really believes that Obama wants to destroy the Catholic Church or that the President supports "infanticide." I don't think that even Rick Santorum, a holder of three college degrees, believes that getting an education is snobby. And certainly no Republican who has called Obama a Socialist (pretty much all of them have) really thinks he's a Socialist, unless they really don't understand the definition of that word.

No, they just say a bunch of incendiary shit because they are trying to win elections or block legislation supported by the President. Nobody really believes any of this nonsense. Except, apparently, people like my step-dad. I always heard people like this existed in real life and not just on YouTube videos but I never really believed it until now. (To be fair, it is not totally the fault of the nutjob Republican politicians and their incendiary rhetoric. After divorcing my insane mother my step-dad married a crazy born-again Christian and this is when the journey from fiscal conservative Reagan Republican to Glenn Beck-like insanity began.)

Listening to the idiots who want to be President and their followers has made me really think a lot about how I feel about our President. Like many Progressives I have my issues with Obama. Unlike conservatives, my issues are based on reality and not shit that I make up. Those on the right seem to have issues with Obama being a Socialist, not being born in America, being a secret Muslim, waging a war on Christianity, creating our economic woes, hating Israel, slashing our military budget, wanting to open our borders to illegal immigrants, being soft on terrorists, etc. See, none of these things are true. Obama saved Capitalism, was born in Hawaii, is a Christian, pretty much saved our economy from collapsing in to something worse than the Great Depression, has the same Israel policy as every president since the creation of that country, raised the Pentagon's budget, has deported more illegal immigrants every year than Bush ever did, and fucking killed Osama bin Laden* and several other leading terrorists, including an American citizen in Yemen.

[*To be clear, I actually don't support such a thing as what he did here. Osama bin Laden, based on all accounts of the raid in Pakistan, could have been easily taken alive and had charges of mass murder brought against him in an international criminal court. I understand the arguments for what we did, but I firmly believe we should show the world why we do it differently. We believe in solving our problems and our crime, even egregious ones, with due process and a rule of law. That does not mean two bullets to the head without a charge or trial. We showed the world what our ethical standard should be when we gave fair trials to the surviving Nazi leadership at the end of World War II. If you think Osama bin Laden committed worse atrocities than the Nazis you are out of your fucking mind.]

It is not just the weird Birthers and insane Rush Limbaughs of the world who make up shit about him. Mitt Romney has made a whole campaign about accusing Obama of having policies that are the exact opposite of Obama's actual policies. Not only that, but Romney touts policies that are the exact same as Obama's. Romney calls Obama's Israel and Iran policies dangerous and wrong, but when you read his they are EXACTLY the same. And the guy who wrote Obama's health care bill, that Romney calls the path to Socialism and takes away our personal liberty, is the same EXACT guy that wrote Romney's health care bill in Massachusetts. Those two plans are so alike it's ridiculous.

My criticisms of Obama are based in reality. Guantanamo Bay prison is still open despite the order he signed on inauguration day for it to close within one year. Extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects to other countries - ones with looser laws and morals about torture - still goes on. Halliburton continues to receive no-bid contracts from the government to do their evil in the name of America. Obama has continued the stance that the President has the right to hold any terrorism suspect he wants, for as long as he wants without charge or trial. I also think he could have done more for the economy, including standing up to the Republicans to end the Bush tax cuts for the rich. And his health care plan, while probably an improvement, still falls about a million miles short of the single-payer system that we should have - you know, the one they have in the rest of the civilized world. There are other things, but you get the point.

But the mindless attacks on him from the right have made me think about the things he has done that wouldn't have been had John McCain become president.

Obama has stood up for gay rights more than any other president in our history. You may or may not see letting gays and lesbians getting killed for their country as an improvement of their rights and their dignity. But if you've seen that picture of the Marine just home from deployment - in the hangar on a military base in front of everyone - being held up by his boyfriend with his legs wrapped around his boyfriend's waist while they kiss passionately...., well tell me their lives aren't better.

He stood for the rights of women's health over religious dogma. Woman have a friend in the White House like never before (not counting Eleanor Roosevelt).

We were saved from having the Greatest Depression. Period. If you doubt that you are not looking at the facts. Things have been bad, yes. But I think people don't understand how bad it could be. If McCain won we;d be wishing we were as well off as Greece right now.

The health plan ain't great but at least we have something. You think McCain was going to write one?

Two great appointments to the Supreme Court. Can you imagine a continuation of the ideology that gave us Roberts and Alito?

There are other things, smaller issue but no less significant. Like cutting the banks out of the federal student loan program, which saved the taxpayers money. And you can read more of them here.

Point is, we are better off with him than the alternative offered last time and will be A LOT better off than with any of the alternatives being offered this time.

Would like to have a Dennis Kucinich-type president who would have a Department of Peace in the Cabinet, give us a single-payer health care system, and free college for everyone? You bet I would. Am I going to get that choice anytime soon? I'm not going to hold my breath.

The more I've thought about it over the last year or so, while listening to these bizarre ad hominem attacks on him, the more I've come to the realization that Obama is the best president we've had in my lifetime. It is really no contest for me. (I was born during Nixon, if you need context.)

I've spent much of my voting life casting my ballot for third party candidates who had no chance of winning and will probably do so many more times in my life.

But not this year. I'm voting for Obama, again. Without reservation and without hesitation.