This American Strife: What Happened To The Working Class In The Mike Daisey Retraction?

On March 18, the popular public-radio program This American Life issued an unprecedented retraction of the now-infamous episode in which performer Mike Daisey recounts his supposedly firsthand experiences of exploitative labor practices at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China that produces Apple products.  The issue was not that Daisey had misrepresented the company’s labor practices.  Instead, the concern was Daisey’s misrepresentation of his interactions with Foxconn workers.  A full explanation of the inconsistencies in Daisey’s story and the subsequent fallout can be found in the retraction itself, in which both Daisey and TAL host Ira Glass suggest that Daisey’s theatrical untruths serve a broader existential truth, namely that Apple conceals from view the kinds of inhumane and unjust employment practices to which Daisey supposedly gives a human face.  The situation raises several issues related to the ethical standards of theater and journalism, particularly how these standards apply to depictions of the working class.

Public radiophiles have been buzzing for weeks with the revelation of these fabrications, but what has gone largely overlooked and uncommented on, despite write-ups from outlets as diverse as Slate, Entertainment Weekly, and The Washington Post, is how Daisey’s own business practices— the concealment of fact, the smoothing over of complexity in order to form a sleek, streamlined narrative— mirror those of the company whose exploitation he claims to have “outed.”  No doubt Apple understands the centrality of narrative to its marketing success more thoroughly and successfully than any other contemporary corporation.  Suppressing the unpleasant reality of its production practices, Apple peddles a lineup of sleek, minimalist products expressive of an existential “truth” for the consumers who buy them.  We buy iPhones, in other words, not because they have the fastest download speed or the largest screen of any phone on the market— in fact the iPhone remains stunningly behind in both of these categories— but because Apple has wrapped the phone, like all its products, in a narrative of which we want to be a part, a narrative of youth, fashionability, and cleanliness.  (It is one of the damning ironies of the company that one of the adjectives most often used to describe its products, assembled by workers who often work 24-hour shifts in dust-choked factories, is “clean.”)

While Apple conceals its outsourcing of exploitative working conditions in order for its consumers to preserve an image of themselves as socially-conscious global citizens, Daisey conceals actual working conditions in China in order to create the “clean,” streamlined narrative that we, as theatergoers and consumers, want to hear.  Daisey’s stage-performance works not because it peddles an objective glimpse behind the curtain of Apple’s business practices, but because it sells us the story of our lives that we desire, a narrative of ourselves as committed, well-meaning liberals.  Daisey’s story does implicate us in a system of social and economic exploitation, but its ultimate effect is to numb us to this complicity by reassuring us that we somehow transcend this exploitation simply by knowing about and acknowledging it.

In this respect, Daisey’s show is the theater version of the “slacktivism” that so often clutters our News Feeds with links to “KONY 2012” or Mother Jones graphs of American income distribution.  This kind of slacktivism may indeed be consciousness-raising, but it gives us a false sense that we are taking real action toward addressing the root causes of the problems these links point to.  Not only should we acknowledge the limitations of working-class slacktivism, we should also endeavor toward action in the real world of protests, picket lines, and legislation.  It is not enough, in other words, to post links in support of the working class, especially if we’re doing it using products, including the MacBook on which I write this, that undermine the sentiment behind those links; from the beginning, this kind of protest participates in the very practices it condemns.  And this is the genius of Daisey’s show, that it allows us to feel outraged— and self-righteous and angry and indignant and betrayed— but has the added bonus of permitting us to take no real action against the source of our outrage.

This is not to say that conditions at Foxconn, or at any other factory in China, are more pleasant than Daisey makes them out to be.  Workers, to cite an example from Apple’s own supplier standards, are often pressured to work 60-hour weeks on “sped-up” assembly lines at wages low enough to ensure a marginal profit for the corporations that employ them.  Between January and November 2010, a wave of suicides at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen prompted the company to install suicide-prevention netting around its buildings after 14 workers hurled themselves from the factory roofs.  And workers at an Apple factory in Turkey, who sometimes work 30-hour shifts, have been instantly fired for attempting to join a union, even after sustaining workplace injuries that could have been avoided had Apple taken basic safety precautions.  Recently, the Fair Labor Association issued its own critical report on Foxconn labor practices, noting widespread worker dissatisfaction with these kinds of abuses.

At the risk of apologizing for Apple, however, examining the intricacies of these situations— for example that thousands of workers “voluntarily” enroll at these factories, which offer some of the “best” jobs in China, or that Apple is merely one offender among thousands in a globalized system of labor abuse— requires the kind of time and detail that would disrupt the gripping narrative that Daisey constructs.  And in constructing this narrative, he misuses the working class in a manner similar to, though less severe than, Apple’s own mistreatment of its workers.  By fabricating his encounters with the workers of Shenzhen, Daisey transforms human individuals into cogs in the machine of fiction, mere characters designed to plug a hole on the assembly line of rising and falling action.

Even This American Life‘s “retraction” of the Daisey episode ends up oversimplifying, if not ignoring, the working class with which the story began.  In issuing its own quasi-apology for misleading its listeners, TAL wraps itself in the narrative we’ve always wanted to hear from our journalists, the narrative that, despite increasing pressure from a host of complicated factors, journalists continue to hold themselves to a higher standard of truth.  We need only look at the fabrications of a Jayson Blair or a Michael Olesker— or any program on Fox News for that matter— to understand how dangerous this narrative can be.

To its credit, TAL does not defend Apple, but nor does it attempt to interview a single worker at Foxconn or contextualize the experiences of those workers within the bigger picture of the globalized economy.  And while it discredits Daisey in order to prop up its own ethical stance, the show fails to point out that Daisey’s analysis remains an accurate, if mishandled, assessment of the working class both at home and abroad.  Indeed, TAL‘s apologetic hand-wringing conceals how the show utilizes Daisey and the abuses on which he “reports” to paint itself as a bastion of journalistic integrity, while ignoring, like so much American journalism, the broader systemic injustice of which those abuses are a part.  The narratives of both Daisey and Glass employ the working class, like Apple, as a mere tool to bolster each entertainer’s professional reputation.  As consumers of these narratives— and of all popular media in which workers’ voices remain suppressed, mediated, or misrepresented— we should recognize that the true narratives of the working class can only be constructed by workers themselves.

Christopher Kemp

Christopher Kempf is an adjunct faculty member at the Indiana Institute of Technology, and will be a 2012-2014 Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University.

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6 responses to “This American Strife: What Happened To The Working Class In The Mike Daisey Retraction?

  1. Pingback: Christopher Kempf

  2. I’m glad that Christopher took on this complicated issue. I would just add one thought. I think there is something to be learned about how personal narratives can humanize abstract issues. The exploitation of Chinese laborers has almost become a truism, and it seemed (maybe I’m wrong on this) that Daisey and This American Life helped people re-connect to the issue of the exploitation of factory workers in ways that standard journalism (whatever that might mean) has not. In the Retraction episode, Daisey and Ira Glass disagree about whether or not journalism has that power, and I would also throw scholarship into that mix. Why did Mike Daisey’s account draw people in? I would argue that it’s not just because he sensationalized (which seems to be the dominant narrative about the story now) but because he humanized the issue by telling the story in the first person; by “recalling” things that he saw with his own eyes and conversations he had; and by making the workers into actors in their own right, with hopes and fears of their own.

    A lot of this may have been condescending, and it may, as Christopher says, not result in any real action. But it gave me a lot to think about in terms of how the general public connects to an abstract issue.

  3. I’m right with Christopher Kemp throughout his thoughtful commentary – right up to his very last line (“We should recognize that the true narratives of the working class can only be constructed by workers themselves”). That’s where his ship springs a leak and the moldering, romantic notion of “the worker” makes its appearance.

    Too bad that, as narratives go, it’s no less useless or damaging a narrative than the ones Kemp skewers in the rest of his article.

    The reality is that “the workers themselves” are often poorly positioned to communicate in ways that can spur effective activism or social and legislative change. In no small part, that’s a result of the fact that they’re often busy *working*.

    Meanwhile, writers and journalists (who also *work* by the way, and may well be among the working class) tend to have access to resources that workers may not. What they produce tends to be disseminated across platforms that make information instantly, internationally available, something “the workers themselves” often cannot accomplish.

    No question that writers and journalists mustn’t make stuff up; no question that the writer’s subject, whatever it is, is always “exploited” in the service of the article, the book, the film, the interview, the documentary.
    But if exploitation is the issue, activists (even working-class activists) do precisely the same thing: “exploiting” a death, an outrageous example of corruption, an egregious personal injustice in order to energize “the masses.”

    At best, that exploitation may be mutual – at times, turning to the media is one of the most effective tactics workers can use. At others, the victim of an injustice may benefit personally from journalistic or activist attention.

    But the idea that “the workers themselves” are the only ones who can speak “truth” about their conditions –indeed, that they are the only ones who should – strikes me as sentimental, anti-intellectual, and dismissive of the long tradition of writers and journalists (Upton Sinclair, Studs Terkel, Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Moore) who, though they were not “the workers themselves,” used their talents for good.

    I don’t say that those who can speak for themselves should let others with media access and savvy speak for them. I do say that romanticism about who is “allowed” to speak is unhelpful, as are tiresome inquisitions regarding writers’ bona fides and “anti-revolutionary” agendas, as if objectivity (or a party line) actually existed.

    I would also argue that it is naïve to imply that media “narratives” must be 100% pure and unassailable. Yes, we should be frustrated by the oversimplifications-for-a-good-cause of the KONY 2012 campaign; the recent film, _Bully_; and even the activist hyperbole surrounding Trayvon Martin’s murder—a case so outrageous that it speaks for itself and ought not to require any “spin” whatsoever.

    But the response to such distortions ought to be to educate ourselves as sharper media consumers; it ought to be the creation of more diverse “narratives.” What it ought not to be is to stand around with pointed sticks, looking for a messenger to deflate.

    • Thanks for this helpful corrective, and for reminding me, as does Kathy below, that the middle class has much to offer in support of the working class. My intention was to urge caution in granting credence to media depictions of the working class and its supporters, such as the myopic and stereotyped coverage of OWS. In doing so I perhaps neglected how writers “use their talents for good,” though I think “good” is, again, an evaluation we should make carefully.

  4. Thanks to Christopher Kemp for his thoughtful entry. I will disagree with his analysis in part, aqnd then try to suggest ways forward.

    Christopher, what you say about the initial broadcast on This American Life is fully justified. What I heard when I listened to it was a skillful theater piece (I have not seen Mike Daisey’s one-person show, but believe that it has served a useful purpose in raising consciousness about Apple’s assembly lines and thereby putting pressure on Apple to hire the Fair Labor Association to make its report). I was quite surprised when I realized that the show’s producer seemed to be asserting that it was a literally true narrative. I know that could not be the case (I have worked extensively on this issue and am one of the advisors for SACOM, the Hong Kong based NGO which has been the most effective advocate for Foxconn workers).
    Yes Daisey fabulized and This American Life did not fact check its first program. On the other hand, I rather liked This American Life’s Retraction show and thought it useful, especially the detailed interviews with Rob Schmutz of Marketplace and NYT reporter Charles Duhigg. In the end Apple did have to commission the FLA Report, and that report is in fact quite useful (I suggested reading it and all its appendices on the FLA website).
    In the next couple of years the key thing to monitor in China itself is whether Foxconn workers actually can create and control an effective and autonomous union, and if Foxconn and the official ACFTU union structure allow this to happen. The second thing to work on globally is whether Apple and other global electronics companies are willing to pay their suppliers an adequate price to permit substantial improvements in wages, benefits and working conditions for the production line workers who assemble their products. Apple et al will do this only if their Western consumers demand it.
    That is our job.

  5. Kathy M. Newman

    This is a very interesting post. I agree that the Chinese workers ended up as pawns (of a sort) in both Daisey’s and This American Life’s work. However, I think Daisey actually brought more than “slacktivism” to the cause, and there is movement at Apple right now to call for improvements in working conditions at its factories in China. I also believe that those of us in the middle class, myself included, can do real, legitimate work on behalf of the working class. Still, I very much appreciate your post! Your point about the similar uses of “narrative” in the products produced by Daisey and Apple was quite original!

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