Of Daisey, Kony, Conmen, Journalism, and Activism

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I. A monologist named Mike Daisey struck guilt-over-white-privilege gold when he started touring with his monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Interspersed with Apple history in Daisey’s carrying, fat man voice is a tale about his trip to Shenzhen, ostensibly to meet the sort of people who were assembling his Apple gear. In his tale, he interviewed workers outside a Foxconn plant and eventually attended an underground meeting of workers attempting to unionize. He saw people poisoned by n-hexane. He saw many underage workers. We were outraged.

A filmmaker named Jason Russell struck guilt-over-white-privilege gold when he released his viral film online as part of his Kony 2012 campaign. Beginning with a seemingly innocuous portrayal of the possible recruitment base of Facebook users, he traveled to Uganda to bring to light the havoc wreaked by Joseph Kony as a response to ethnic cleansing in Uganda, havoc that resulted in a child army and much suffering. He showed us blanket violations of the sanctity of life. He showed us that John Kerry and Mark Zuckerberg aren’t enough to stop this monster. We were outraged.

II. What’s the first thing a confidence man says to you? “If I could only have a few minutes of your time..” That Jason Russell begs for thirty minutes on the Internet when you could be looking at cats or pornography shows that his belief in his confidence trick is unparalleled. He starts with you, the Facebook member, since Facebook was probably how you first caught wind of the video, and he spins slacktivism into a tale of hope for former child soldiers in Uganda. Has it worked? #kony2012

Mike Daisey, meanwhile, is taking his monologue across the country. Daisey was making waves with his monologue prior to his segment on This American Life, but it was that segment that catapulted the narrative to Facebook statuses everywhere. Pieces fall into place; a New York Times exposé comes out not long after Daisey’s segment had caught fire; Apple announces that it’s finally going to start taking its supplier code of conduct seriously. He is clearly having an impact on the subject of worker treatment in China.

III. Kony 2012, being a child of the Internet, was ultimately devoured by it. Any idiot can type “Kony truth” into a search box and further turn the turbines powering the echo chamber. The charity Invisible Children only sends a small amount of aid to Ugandans. Joseph Kony’s power is diminished; in fact, he is no longer even in Uganda. What was this campaign about, exactly? And now Russell has been driven to destruction by Atë. We are still outraged, but our outrage seems to have a different outlet now.

Ira Glass devotes an entire show to tearing apart the treatment of workers detailed by Mike Daisey and built up in the earlier episode. He spends arguably more care on the teardown than he did the buildup. In the second segment, he asks Daisey painful questions as we feel the burn of the police interrogator’s lamp on him. Daisey takes long pauses, making us wonder if we’ve lost our connection. It’s clear that Daisey is a terrible liar who has conned us all into believing that his characters were really real people. We are still outraged, but our outrage seems to have a different outlet now.

IV. Something about Ira Glass’s piece seemed fishy. Glass vacillated between gloom and mirth; gloom during the segments when he beat his chest and cried about how he had never had to make an admonition like this previously on the air, and mirth when he was able to grill Daisey about exactly how old the workers outside of the plant were. Did he actually talk to an eleven year old? Does he remember exactly how tall they were? How does he feel about the fact that he lied to us, that he’s hurt us all so deeply?

Daisey plays the part of the worm, and it’s clear that some blame is due to him. He realizes that the This American Life segment is a misrepresentation too far, even as he leaves loaf-sized breadcrumbs such as the appearance of guns in the security guards’ hands. All for dramatic effect, of course. But why will he not bow to the ultimate authority of truth in Ira Glass? Why can’t Mike just admit that he was a bad boy? Is Ira not hitting him hard enough with the rolled up newspaper? Daisey claims that that painful fifteen minute segment was masterfully crafted out of four hours of interview. Was there any question before about the craftsmanship of This American Life? The silence was quite powerful, nearly as powerful as the silence in Daisey’s monologue. Because Ira Glass is cloaked in the mantle of investigative journalism, and because he is able to cut his source down to whatever he feels best represents his point, he is unassailable. He paints Daisey as a liar and terrible fat man, and the best way Daisey can respond is to post, like, his opinion, man, on his blog.

Perhaps the most damning part is the final segment, in which Glass speaks with Charles Duhigg, a New York Times reporter who, to his chagrin, was late to the Americans exploiting Chinese labor exposé party. After listening to Duhigg present facts and only facts on what are, by American standards, harsh and unsustainable labor practices in China, Glass provides us a glimpse into his character: “To get to the normative question that’s kind of underlying all the reporting and all the discussion of this, the thing that we all want to know when we hear this is, ‘like, wait, should I feel bad about this?’ And I, and I, you know, I mean, as somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad? And I don’t know that I feel so bad when I hear this.”

Duhigg, also wearing his journalist’s mantle, nevertheless stops just short of telling Glass how outraged he should be. “Let me pose the argument that people have posed to me about why you should feel bad, and you can make of it what you will. And that argument is. There were times in this nation when we had harsh working conditions as part of our economic development. We decided as a nation that that was unacceptable. We passed laws in order to prevent those harsh working conditions from ever being inflicted on American workers again. And what has happened today is that, rather than exporting that standard of life, which is within our capacity to do, we have exported harsh working conditions to another a nation. So should you feel bad that someone is working twelve to twenty-four hours a day in order to produce the iPhone…” Glass cuts him off. “Now, when you say it like that, suddenly I feel bad again!” His journalistic peers have made it okay for him to care about labor conditions in China. The world is saved.

Why did This American Life decide to write mea culpa in teacher red all over their original Mike Daisey segment? Glass is, on the face of it, personally and emotionally obsessed with the lying, and so now we’re obsessed with the lying, because we’re obsessed with Ira Glass. Daisey has no credibility apart from having started the narrative in the first place, but we’ve forgotten it already thanks to that scumbag.

Glass did it because that was the price of admission. Daisey has short circuited the news cycle, and he has commanded the course of the narrative about labor practices in China as a result, and Ira Glass declares over the course of an hour about how unfair that is to journalists, about how he just can’t do that and get away with it, and look upon our works, ye mighty. So now he won’t get away with it.

Kony guy (really, did you remember his name?) has gone on a public rampage. “Allegedly vandalised cars and made sexual gestures while wearing his underwear.” The Guardian has made up its mind about him after we’d made up ours. This is vindication; he’s a nutjob. He never expected the response he clamored for over the course of a half hour. Criticisms of the campaign are abundant and far-reaching. There is so much less to say about it here because so much less has been said about it elsewhere.

V. On the face of it, Daisey and Kony are doing the exact same thing. They are walking advertisements, one for a monologue and the other for something you’d be forgiven for thinking is a charity. They are men with causes, and their sincerity is not a factor beyond the work they put into “raising awareness.”

Their similarities disappear at closer examination. They pick significantly different subjects in scope and stature. While both are moving targets, Apple’s fortunes have been rising seemingly without bound (and trading above $600 a share), and Kony’s fortunes have fallen considerably below those of his digital counterpart. They are both selling themselves, but Kony does a poor job of promoting himself along with the Ugandan guy, so now we don’t even remember what his name is, and we’re far too lazy to scroll up to find out. Daisey, in stark opposition, has had his entire face in the pie. They also picked targets whose importance differs to People Who Matter. One must wonder if the filmmaker picked Kony for the aural similarity to Komen, the empire to which he aspires.

Ultimately, Daisey gets a pass over Kony because Daisey does not presume to know what the workers of Shenzhen want from us. Kony2012 is about how Uganda or someplace in Africa will not be saved from one warlord, nevermind its own installed elite, without the intervention of the white man or suggestions from the people it intends to save beyond those few who participate in the narrative. Daisey’s work has a fairly weak activist tone; his post-performance tip sheet suggests that we contact Apple about their labor conditions and upgrade less often. These are practical and achievable, and he doesn’t require that we buy his wearable charms in order to demonstrate our fervor. The visceral, emotional reactions to the outing of Daisey and the tepid, measured responses to Kony show that we prefer a world in which our support involves buying more trinkets manufactured overseas without thinking too much more about the people involved in making them. That is, of course, unless we think they’re slaves. Then it’s advisors and air strikes all the way. 

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5 Responses to Of Daisey, Kony, Conmen, Journalism, and Activism

  1. BHE says:

    I’m glad someone addressed these on here. Hot-button topics that say a lot about what is going on in this culture.

    What strikes me most about both issues is the way in which people use them. The Kony video was nothing short of marketing genius, pure and simple. A direct appeal to every jackass with a facebook account who wants to believe that they are a decent person, but who knows in their heart that they don’t actually give a shit. Cold and indifferent to a world with more problems than you can keep straight, and bred to obsess over nothing more than appearances, this video provides in explicit details a quick answer to the identity crisis. Simply watch it and share it and sleep better at night knowing you’ve done your part. You’re a good person, you really are. Maybe toss $10 at a Kony charity if you’ve been really bad lately. Your status as a decent human being on display on your facebook timeline for years to come. No one has to know what you’ve been doing behind closed doors.

    Anybody give a shit how Haiti is doing these days, by the way? Didn’t think so.

    Similarly the backlash. Tired of your jackass friends one-upping you by getting the video posted before you did? Are you looking like a poseur who just tagged along for the ride–is your desperate clinging to identity a little too transparent? Well let’s tear down that motherfucker as fast as possible.
    Then post the link to the masturbation article with a little gloat to feel better about ourselves. ‘I never gave a shit in the first place–but that looked bad–now I can put that inner conflict to rest.

    As for Apple–it is no surprise that there would be a backlash amongst its strongest supporters. After all, I’d wager big money that NPR listeners have been the ones on the front lines for any new Apple product since before it was cool. But the company that helped sell them an identity as a hip and innovative person has now gotten so big that your grandma owns an iPad, and this same base–despite their love for and use of the products–cannot reconcile this. This is the same consumer group who as a mantra hates large (read “soulless”) corporations: banks, public media companies, Starbucks. But finds itself inexorably tied to these same companies. They want to see themselves as liberal, forward-thinking, local community recycling green earth *good people*, as people who are different from all of those slack-jawed, unthinking, Wal-Mart shopping hicks, and Apple used to help sell them that identity. But now those hicks have iPhones, and what does that say about you? Time for a little Apple outrage, and better yet a dose of well, that was all a lie so I can live in both worlds.

    Don’t worry about the working conditions in the plants that make your car parts, clothes, kids toys, and other electronics, etc. etc. etc. by the way. No one cares about that shit.

    It is impossible to care about everything, plain and simple. But we live in a world where people don’t care about anything and know it, but don’t want it to be known. Cue ‘outrage’. Today Kony, tomorrow Apple, next week some teen in Florida gets gunned down. Text HELP to 10457 and $7 will be added to your bill.

    • operator says:

      It is impossible to care about everything, plain and simple.

      It’s possible to narrow the scope a bit, though – if one confines one’s sphere of influence to a sufficiently restricted subset of “everything”, one can claim moral superiority over those who thoughtlessly impose their wanton desires upon whichever in/animate objects happen to be within reach.

      … and, better still for everyone, there’ll be no one forced to listen to the boasts of moral superiority. #hikikomori

  2. DataShade says:

    The visceral, emotional reactions to the outing of Daisey and the tepid, measured responses to Kony show that we prefer a world in which our support involves buying more trinkets manufactured overseas without thinking too much more about the people involved in making them.

    Or, perhaps, we’re all less prepared to support military intervention in foreign nations without the specter of terrorism to motivate us, whereas many of us make innumerable calculations, daily, about self-branding via consumption, and can thus fit Daisey’s recommendations into our normal operational loop.

  3. V.V. says:

    Who past the age of reason was surprised that Apple products are assembled by pitifully paid ( by U.S. standards) workers? Okay, other than Thomas Freidman groupies, too. Apple has $100 billion gathering interest overseas that it doesn’t bring home because it would be taxed again. In a couple of years, some say that will be $200 B’s. Okay. Apple would rather keep the cash than pay higher wages. How human. What Apple is really good at is taking the pulse of the most sought-after commodity in consumer-dom: cool. I’m sometimes surprised Apple even has an advertising budget. All they have to do is release a new product and every media outlet within ear shot jumps to help promote it. Who else gets that kind of help? I’ve been using Apple a long time. Yes, I’m a cool customer. The product works, it is well supported, they make it easy for English majors, and most of the virus mayhem is pointed at PC products. China will take care of China. Apple will take care of Apple. I’ll care for the things I can control. Maybe I’ll get one of those jazzy French-made models. What? They don’t make any? Never mind.

  4. thestage says:

    When our entire world is defined and regulated by consumerism, so too will the inevitable, marketable solutions to our problems. Even if those problems are the direct result of our religious consumerism. Especially those problems.