What Now? After The Controversy with Mike Daisey

What does the day or week after controversy look like on a human face? Can you notice fatigue, or despair, or stubborn resolve etched into a person’s skin? How long after a controversy should you wait before you get back into the ring? Can we conceive of an etiquette of controversy? With these questions in mind, I went to see the much maligned Mike Daisey speak last night at Symphony Space.

In speaking with the Symphony Space staff, I learned that numerous people called to cancel their tickets, and they sold an underwhelming number of seats. One person, I was told, called to say they planned on protesting Daisey, which seemed a bit overwrought, though the planned protest entailed yelling during the show and throwing flour at Daisey. (A bit baffling, because why they would call to tell the staff about this one person protest? Also, no protests happened.) Additionally, Heidi Schreck, an actress/storyteller that Daisey enlisted for his show, told a delightful story of her time in Siberia though I cannot imagine Daisey put her in the most comfortable position.

More importantly, Daisey’s performance evoked a whole host of questions for me that I could not answer. He didn’t look physically effected at all, but should he? He made no apologies to the audience, nor did he thank us for coming regardless of the controversy. But again, should we expect anything different? Much of the intellectual argument over Daisey’s lies has already taken place, but I still find the emotional component compelling. Should I clap when Daisey comes out? Should I boo? Most of the audience did clap, but I didn’t. Of course, I didn’t accomplish anything with my stupid protest, but I couldn’t clap for him. Which is odd, because Daisey not only apologized, but never really slighted me. I never heard of him before the controversy and yet, I felt a visceral anger, bordering on disgust, inexplicable almost, towards his performance. I felt like a scorned lover who, though initially found all of my partner’s idiosyncrasies and jokes delightful and hilarious, once scorned, I immediately saw these attributes as faults. I couldn’t laugh at any of Daisey’s jokes. Don’t get me wrong, the man is a master storyteller, and a funny one too. However, the whole time, my thoughts kept on intruding into the experience. When he told over a juicy fact all I could see was a ridiculously huge lit up sign that flashed Liar, Liar, Liar over and over again. When he made a joke, instead of laughing, I saw the same neon sign now lit up to flash Asshole, Asshole, Asshole. Interestingly enough, most of the people there yucked it up at all the right times during his performance, so either they forgive more easily, or they don’t care, or they didn’t actually know about the controversy.

All of this raises questions about when we do forgive him. An apology in of itself doesn’t repair a relationship, it only starts the reparation process. Daisey needs to build our trust, but how? How can he actually earn our trust again, and was this performance too soon? Does it make sense to feel such strong emotions, to call him an asshole, or to feel slighted or do these signify childish responses? All of these questions put focus on the central issue of the place of the artist in our society, a question that this controversy destabilizes. Because so many people do feel slighted by Daisey, personally, in a way perhaps incommensurate to the immediate effect on their lives.

Daisey recently wrote on his blog, “These have been some of the hardest weeks of my life, and I don’t know what the future holds. But I look forward to digging back in and using everything I’ve learned to do right by my audiences and my work.” Yet, I must say though, that Daisey didn’t help the situation. He didn’t explicitly address the topic — his prerogative of course — but he did belligerently badger his points in the argument home, as if somehow we the crowd had done something wrong. He told a fascinating, but ultimately self-centered, story about his time with an ancient tribe that worships a cargo culture. He started the story in saying that as you know, I am not a journalist, so he doesn’t know the truth as to when this idea first came into being, but there exists an idea that certain cultures believe in totem animal spirits for each person. I didn’t record the quote, but I going to call a Mike Daisey on this one, so trust me. (I couldn’t resist not turning this into a verb.) He then ended the story saying that he transformed into his spirit animal, a crow (the jokes are too easy here) and then finished by describing the most beautiful image he ever experienced which was, “true for him.” I found his whole shtick annoying, bordering on immature and appalling.

I listened to the speech Daisey gave a week ago on March 20th in Georgetown. He essentially told a story as to how his lies came about, and though he apologized numerous times, he did spread the blame pretty far. Not that I disagree with his points: It is true that the bigger story should be the actual situations in Apple factories, and it is true that all the people that interviewed Daisey should have done better fact-checking, but come on, use some tact. Let someone else defend you, or at least take a break before you start making excuses for yourself.

Overall, besides all of these questions I still don’t know how to answer, I think this highlights the precarious nature of information in our globalized, Internet-obsessed society. Each day millions of small facts bombard our senses. The Internet has grown to a size that we need websites devoted to telling us which other websites to check out. We need websites to parse out the important information, because if we tried to do that ourselves we would do nothing else all day. In this overwhelming sea of information, we increasingly rely on other people to ascertain the truth of a situation. Consequently, the trust between purveyors of facts becomes that much more important as the information world grows. Daisey broke this implicit promise, time and again, and simple apologies will not suffice.