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.