The Veracity and the Vicissitude of Mike Daisey

Listening tonight to the nearly-unbearable “Retraction” edition of “This American Life” in which Mike Daisey is taken to task for his fabrication of details about his experiences in China, I kept waiting for Daisey to more effectively counter the assertion by Ira Glass that people who come to see a monologue expect that every word of it is true.
Perhaps it’s because Glass and the myriad bloggers and reporters feasting on this story are themselves journalists, and therefore can’t help but expect something like this to be akin to what they do, a retelling of actual events. And perhaps it’s because my roots are in theatre that I feel like Glass is wrong; one may not even think about it consciously while watching a show, but I feel that people on the whole do understand that a show is a show. I know that when I saw Daisey perform his excellent How Theatre Failed America in DC a few years ago, I certainly had no illusions that he was giving a 100% factual account of his life in theatre. Of course he was going to embellish, exaggerate, and invent. Why? Because he was spinning a tale, based on facts but not relying on them, that told a larger truth.

I understand that at least as far as “This American Life” and, perhaps even more damning, his op-ed in the New York Times are concerned, it’s the packaging of his story that matters. It does indeed sound as though Daisey offered his play as an entirely factual retelling and therefore worthy of being used as such on the show (and that his manufactured experiences could be written as though they were actual reportage for his New York Times piece). There’s no excusing the presentation of fiction as fact to news outlets.

But I have to wonder at “This American Life” for even wishing to do so with Daisey’s play. If they wanted to use his piece as a springboard, why not simply excerpt some pieces of a performance, make clear that what we’re hearing is a story told by an actor in a play, and then delve deeper into the very real, no less serious issue at hand? Why even decide to hand essentially an entire episode over to what they know is a piece of theatre? Glass says not killing the show after being thwarted in their attempts to contact Daisey’s translator was their big mistake. I think their big mistake was in thinking that a play might possibly be, not just the inspiration, but the substance of one of their reports. I find it hard to believe, but I am forced to believe, that Glass and company are as naive as he claims they are when it comes to credulousness about the veracity of performance art.

I don’t know what Mike Daisey was thinking. He’s such a brilliant writer and performer, and I think it would be a genuine, substantive loss to the culture if we were to lose what he does because of this — particularly since his larger motive was so crucial, so real. I can only presume that the idea of getting his show on “This American Life” and of getting to be treated with a kind of reverence by the media became con-fused with that larger motive. He is an actor, after all, and we are nothing if not attention whores of the worst kind. (Hey! Go download my music!!!!) I wish so badly that he had handled this all so differently. All he had to say to Glass, to the media, to his audience, in any subtle form he wished, that his play is just that, a play, but that it is based on many true events and reports. Done.

I also wish that when Ira Glass pressed him as to whether it was acceptable for his play to be in part constructed of fictions that he had said, proudly, that the art of storytelling has a different goal than journalism, and that his job is to get his audience to think and to feel something. Daisey does that extremely well, and the things he wants us to care about remain worth caring about.

Side note: I am more than a little sickened by many of the tech bloggers and journalists whose work I usually think extremely highly of, but are now dancing on Daisey’s reputation’s grave, almost delighted that Daisey is facing this new firestorm. This seems to me to be borne out of nothing other than their own desire to not have to feel anything about the source of the gadgets off of which they base their careers. Now they’re off the hook, so they believe, and they have someone to put in the stockades for his heresy. It’s deeply disappointing.

David Mamet Exchanges One Herd for Another

The National Review has a must-read cover story on David Mamet’s (de)evolution toward conservatism, and despite my loathing of everything the magazine stands for, Andrew Ferguson does a marvelous job of putting Mamet’s beliefs into context, and exposing his subject’s reasonings and inconsistencies.

And that’s what catches my eye. For as something of an idiosyncratic liberal (my sympathy for nation-building, my alignment with Sam Harris on our conflict with radicalized Islam, and other positions which I feel stem from a liberal humanism but challenge liberal orthodoxies), I can see why Mamet feels like he must turn accepted conventions of progressivism on their heads, but the evidence from Ferguson’s piece suggests that Mamet has, as Ferguson even suggests, traded one set of unquestioned tenets for another.

For example, in a new book, Mamet goes on the attack against Bertolt Brecht, a hero to we theatre folk for his revolutionizing of the form, and to liberals for his attacks on capitalism and war. But Mamet saw a problem. From the National Review piece:

The reverence came to an end when [Mamet] finally noticed an incongruity between Brecht’s politics and his life. Although a cold-blooded—indeed bloody-minded—advocate for public ownership of the means of production and state confiscation of private wealth, he always took care to copyright his plays. More, he made sure the royalties were deposited in a Swiss bank account far from the clutches of East Germany, where he was nominally a citizen.

“His protestations [against capitalism] were not borne out by his actions, nor could they be,” Mamet writes. “Why, then, did he profess Communism? Because it sold… .”

This is disingenuous, it seems to me. I don’t profess to know anything about Brecht’s biography, but at least in the abstract, this much is true: Brecht was not operating within a communist utopia, he was operating in a world in which one had to protect one’s work within the context of capitalism and ownership. What does Mamet expect? That Brecht should have thrown his works into the public domain and denied himself an income all in the name of ideological consistency? To do so would have been akin to playing under the rules of baseball in the middle of a football game. One must operate within the world in which one finds oneself. Does Mamet propose to deny himself the use of highways and police protection because he doesn’t like the government?

Later in the piece, Mamet rails against what truly sounds like a ridiculous example of local government overreach that truly was absurd, involving the regulation of how folks had to maintain their hedges on private property. But Mamet takes this aberration and inflates it to represent “all government”:

“It made no sense,” he said. “But this is how government works—all government. I saw there’s no difference between the hedge commission and the U.S. government. It’s all the same principle.”

No it’s not, actually. Local pols over-regulating something banal for whatever parochial reason is not, in fact, the same as, say providing for the common defense, guaranteeing basic human rights, or even regulating the monstrous health care industry. This is the kind of overgeneralization that Mamet seems to think is a unique sin of liberals.

Mamet focuses very much on what he sees as the ‘liberal herd,’ in which folks of one ideology react in tandem regardless of even their own best interests. Lefties like myself attribute this kind of behavior much more to the right, particular in regards to teabaggers or theocrats. But Mamet thinks that the right’s uninformed mob rage is less of a problem than, say, liberals’ nausea over the prospect of a Palin vice-presidency:

“So I was watching the [2008] debates. My liberal friends would spit at the mention of Sarah Palin’s name. Or they would literally mime the act of vomiting. We’re watching the debates and one of my friends pretends to vomit and says, ‘I have to leave the room.’ I thought, oh my god […] This is the reaction of the herd instinct. When a sheep discovers a wolf in the fold, it vomits to ward off the attacker. It’s a sign that their position in the herd is threatened.”

Mamet runs into the herd instinct every day.

“I’ve given galleys of The Secret Knowledge [his new book] to some friends. They say, ‘I’m scared to read it.’ I say, ‘Why should you be afraid to read something?’

“What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of losing their ability to stay in the herd. That’s what I found in myself. It can be wrenching when you start to think away from the herd.”

As one who wanders regularly from the herd, I agree, it can seem wrenching if one cares about what the rest of the herd thinks. But Ferguson does a service by putting a mirror up to Mamet’s complaint:

The conversion is complete: This is not a book by the same man who told Charlie Rose he didn’t want to impose his political views on anybody. At some moments—as when he blithely announces that the earth is cooling not warming, QED—you wonder whether maybe he isn’t in danger of exchanging one herd for another. He told me he doesn’t read political blogs or magazines. “I drive around and listen to the talk show guys,” he said. “Beck, Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved.”

Yeah. You think global warming is a hoax and you listen to Glenn Beck and his raving ilk. Welcome to your new, angrier, dumber herd, David. Make sure you don’t get out of step. I hear this herd is particularly merciless to its own when they stray.

Hume and the Panhandler: The Chief Triumph of Art and Philosophy

I am directed to a quote of David Hume’s, whose 300th birthday is this week, from Robert Zaretsky in the New York Times, which for me sums up beautifully my best hopes for art, theatre, literature, and deep, considered thought. Though Hume himself (at length) expresses his “doubts” about their overall power, he still nails it:

Here then is the chief triumph of art and philosophy: It insensibly refines the temper, and it points out to us those dispositions which we should endeavor to attain, by a constant bent of mind and by repeated habit.

When folks see well-done Shakespeare or read a brilliant novel, particularly when they might not otherwise have done so, this is what I hope will be the effect. As my former boss at the American Shakespeare Center Jim Warren put it, every performance helps make the world a little bit better.

But since Hume was in fact dubious of art and philosophy’s efficacy as a whole, seeing it only as a small influence over the powerful pull of raw emotion and desire, I think my own position is best bolstered by the panhandler interviewed in Al Pacino’s wonderful Looking for Richard:

We should introduce Shakespeare into the academics. You know why? Because then the kids would have feelings. We have no feelings. That’s why it’s easy for us to shoot each other. We don’t feel for each other, but if we were taught to feel, we wouldn’t be so violent. Does Shakespeare help us? He did more than help us. He instructed us… . If we think words are things and have no feelings in words then we say things to each other that mean nothing. But if we felt what we said, we’d say less and mean more!

So art and philosophy are not just mitigators of our baser desires, not just  helping hand, but a way to reframe, express, and refine our thoughts and feelings into something more constructive.

On Fulfillment: The Noble Pursuit of 10 Percent

The wife and I are in something of an existential pickle. Here we are, resettling ourselves (ever-so-slowly and awkwardly) in small town southern Maine, trying to make a good long-term home for our family. At the same time, Jess and I are artists, we’re performers, and recent years have proven to be lean ones in terms of flexing those particular muscles.

Here’s the big problem: we both suffer from the illusion that it is our day job that defines us as people. When we were doing Shakespeare for a living, that defined us. We were Shakespearean actors. When I moved on to politics, I presumed that that would define me as well. (“I’m a professional progressive/reformist/secularist activist!”) But it didn’t feel like it was sticking. I wasn’t really being fulfilled as I expected when I shifted careers. Likewise, Jess muddles through a 9-to-5 admin job which, while being for an extremely noble cause, does not lend fulfillment, and does not provide identity.

Well, something I’ve learned, and that Jessica is learning, is that very few people get to have their rent-paying job be the thing that makes their life worth living. But, as she put it, we were “sold a bill of goods” when we were young and idealistic, thinking that we would find that perfect artsy career, and live lives of constant inspiration.

We know that it doesn’t quite work that way now. But here is where the wife and I are differing in our attitudes. I’ve come to accept — by working several jobs in recent years that have utterly failed to move me — that one’s Reason for Being is not necessarily to be found at work. Particularly with the birth of our son Toby, it is all the clearer to me that there is Reason for Being to be found in many corners of our lives.

Here’s where Jess needs some help. Now, don’t get me wrong, she is the best wife and mother to my son that I could ever hope for. But she feels a gaping hole in her life that acting used to fill.

But then I thought back. Even when we were professional actors, doing the best material in the world and doing it in the best theater in the country, how much of that time was actually — genuinely — fulfilling? Of course it was wonderful to perform in all those fantastic roles, to speak those words, to move those audiences. But what percentage of our daily work actually consisted of all that Elizabethan sublimity?

Think about it. There are the weeks of rehearsal, which have their own magic, but are also mostly made up of drudgery. There is the line memorization. Lots and lots of it. There is the business of getting set up for shows: fight calls, music calls, costumes, makeup. If there were school performances, it meant doing shows at 9:30 am. If you were doing a Christmas show, forget it, you’d be conscripted to 30 days of mind-numbing jolly repetition. If you were on tour, as I was twice, there are the endless van rides, the crummy hotels, the setting up and breaking down, etc., etc.

The good stuff was actually squeezed very tightly in between all that less-than-good stuff. It was completely worth it most of the time, but it was, still, a small percentage of what we actually did. How small? For the sake of this discussion, let’s guess 10 percent. That’s probably generous. As much as I loved shows likeMuch Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, and Love’s Labour’s Lost, much of my memory of those productions were not necessarily of the performances, but ofrushed costume changes. Indeed, the longer a show was in production, the more it felt like an exercise in changing awkward clothes in the dark as quickly as possible without hurting oneself or others. Or the costumes.

10 percent. Again, presuming for now that this number is correct, that reminds us that the rest, the 90 percent, was just work. Regular, unpleasant, boring, stressful, work — like everyone else has to do. The 10 percent made it worthwhile, but it was just that.

To the point of this shoddy attempt at fulfillment quantification. You see, the 10 percent number, while seemingly small, is a huge advantage. Why? Because it means it’s not out of anyone’s grasp, no matter what they do in their day-to-day lives. Think about it: as actors, we happily carried that 90 percent burden so we could have a taste of that 10 percent, and it was worth it. Now, if you work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, is it really so hard to imagine where one might fit one’s own 10 percent somewhere else in your life? Must it absolutely manifest itself during one’s office hours? Of course not.

The task, then, is to find where we can fit our own, self-made 10 percent, no matter what our “day jobs” happen to be. If we work 40 hours a week, it’s not such a leap to imagine how I, for example, might find 4 hours within that week to work on composing and recording new music. And for Jess, there’s nothing stopping her from finding her own 10 percent, her own 4 hours (if it must be strictly quantified by time) to write a book of essays, to write a hilarious television pilot, to do more stand-up comedy, to find an outlet for her acting and theatre talents. That 10 percent can happen just as easily after the baby goes to bed as at any other time.

The point is that it’s completely doable. If 10 percent is enough for the super-fulfilled working actor, it’s enough for us as former-super-fulfilled working actors. I’m trying to carve out my 10 percent, and I hope Jess will begin to scratch out hers. Yes, working plus parenting is rough stuff. But we’re smart enough and creative enough to grab that 10 percent, to really milk those 4 hours.

Presuming we’re not too lazy, of course. Perhaps this new realization will help give us the kick in the creative butt we’ve been needing.