There is a whole lot of goodness in what Felix Salmon has to say about Mike Daisey. This part really got my gears turning, however:

It’s a lot easier to tell a great story if you don’t also need to be factual about things. Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are fiction; Richard III and Henry V are mostly fiction, albeit based on historical events. And it’s precisely because they’re fictional — because Shakespeare was always storyteller first and foremost — that they’re still performed so regularly, all over the world, and that they have had such powerful emotional resonance with billions of people over the centuries since they were written.

But here’s the thing: Shakespeare never lied. He never sat down in front of thousands of people to tell a first-person story, over and over again, about events which he had simply invented. He never ended that story with an exhortation which would carry no weight if his audience thought the story was fiction

There are two types of truth at play here.

  • One is an accordance with reality — factual truth.
  • The other is transcendent — the communication of fundamental principles about the world.

I suspect Mike Daisey is referring to the latter when he says that he’s not lying in a theatrical setting. This translates problematically into journalism because journalism (even partisan journalism) is strictly concerned with the first type of truth.

Mike Daisey is firmly with Shakespeare in his attempt to convey a higher truth through fictional narrative. Daisey blends factual truth with fiction to tell a story that he believes communicates a moral truth about the injustice of working conditions in some parts of China.

The problem is that Daisey is simple and manichean, He’s not a genuine philosopher. Shakespeare wasn’t occupationally a philosopher himself but had an uncanny grasp of moral philosophy that he fluidly wove into his prodigious talent for narrative. Thus, the “truth” as told through Shakespeare, while a moral and abstract truth, greatly resembles the complex and multi-layered nature of factual truth. Great moral narratives are often marked by deep moral tension at their completion. Some of the most profound works of fiction leave people distraught, questioning, pensive. They strike at your core.

A notable exception is Aesop. Aesop was very insightful, and gave us an oeuvre of simple fables that communicate the simplest and most fundamental moral virtues. But the simplicity of the narratives, and hence their suitability for children, is ironically dependent on the indisputably clear moral conclusion. Trying to approach the complexity of the real world muddles the ability to communicate clear and unitary moral conclusions. Mike Daisey wanted to approach and almost touch reality while leaving no room for moral interpretation other than his own. It’s no wonder he failed.

Then there’s propaganda. Propaganda can be factual truth even as it muddles the transcendent truth. But the crucial characteristic is it’s selective. It incites people to moral outrage. It is the feeling of being morally moved + the courage of conviction, because the “truth” seems so clear and distinct. I’d give this much to Mike Daisey. Theatrical narrative, fast and loose with concrete fact, in the service of a subjective conception of justice.

This is enough to be dismissive. But the form makes it all the worse. Everyone (almost) seems to get that. Sitting on a stage and delivering a monologue suggests to people that one is telling a narrative based on pure factual truth. Daisey seems to think that people know they are seeing fiction. That sounds like bullshit to me. This false pretense means that Daisey is lying to people even as he peddles his morality.

That’s just the worst. And I really like what Salmon wrote because I think his quote implicitly encompasses all of these distinctions about meaningful truth, and how heinously unfaithful Daisey is to truth in both relevant forms.


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