I have a few questions I’d genuinely like to ask everyone who’s been responding to recent events surrounding Mike Daisey and The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs:
What is your relationship to the truth? What are your personal beliefs about it? What’s your history with it? What does truth mean to you?
And, most importantly:
Do you believe your ideas about truth are either universal or morally preferable to others’ ideas? Do you believe there are multiple perspectives on truth that might be valuable, even if you don’t share them?
I ask these questions with genuine sincerity. I’ve been asking them of myself, over and over again, for the last four days, and I’m not coming to any easy answers. The one thing that HAS been getting clear to me: these are important things to be thinking about.
The reason for my introspection here is simple, though I’ve been a bit scared to admit it publicly: I cannot seem to muster even close to the same level of ire several of my friends and colleagues and other notable commentators have been expressing these last few days. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, I’ve felt (ulp) almost nothing at all, other than a kind of detached intellectual interest.
This is not to say, I must add quickly, that I don’t both understand and sympathize with those who’ve been furious. I do, to be sure. And I am very clearly NOT saying they shouldn’t have the feelings they’re having, or that they’re wrong. That’s not for me to judge. I’m simply saying that I don’t share those feelings, and it’s made me ask myself: what’s wrong with me?
Why, to be specific, doesn’t it bother me one whit that elements in his show, which he labeled a work of non-fiction, were either wholly or partly fictionalized?
(A brief diversion: I understand that Mr. Daisey evidently engaged in other morally questionable behavior in working with the producers of This American Life, among others. Given that those things don’t involve me personally, I’m not going to respond to them. I’m only going to respond to the work itself, which—for the record—I listened to online.)
Before you read any further, however, I want to ask you a favor. Check in with yourself for a second. When I just confessed that I’m not bothered by what Mike Daisey did, did you judge me a little? Did you get frustrated or angry? If so, I’d like to ask you another favor: set those feelings aside for a second. I’m not trying to invalidate them; I’m merely asking for a bit of indulgence. Bear with me.
Again, I’ve been asking myself pretty regularly the last few days what might be the matter with my mind. Everyone else seems to be so upset: why not me? What makes me different? Am I morally misguided in some way? And the answers to those questions keep leading me back to the same place: my father.
Between my father and I there was always great love; there was never, however, anything even remotely resembling verifiable truth. My father had an immensely difficult childhood; if you recall the very worst stories you’ve ever encountered and then imagine something far worse, you’re still probably only on the outskirts of the neighborhood in which he lived. As a result, for a variety of complicated psychological reasons, my father was never fully truthful with me in my entire life; actually, it would be more accurate to say that, of all the thoughts and feelings and facts he shared with me in 43 years, I may never know with complete certainty which were real, which were not, and which were “based on a true story.” Before you ask, yes, that was immensely difficult… and yet, as I’ve said, we had tremendous love: a real love that I have no cause to doubt whatsoever.
Being my father’s son has forever changed my relationship to the truth. I’m thoroughly accustomed to living without it. I never, ever expect it, even when someone has promised to give it to me, and I never believe it when I am actually given it, either. I’m a skeptic. I believe in nothing, or almost nothing. I live to question; my work as a playwright comes from that place, as does my writing and thinking about the arts, as does my devotion to science and the scientific method. I married a woman who lives to ask questions; it’s almost her religion. My own assertions and pronouncements are often invitations to question my point of view, too, whether I realize it or not; in fact, I find that the more assertive I am about the veracity of something, the more (deep down) I just want to be questioned.
My father told me lots of outrageous things were true; some I was able to verify, some I refuted, some I determined were half-truths, and the rest are still mysteries. In fact, in later years, I stopped trying to assess the truth value of things he said almost entirely. I learned to ask myself other questions about the stories he told instead, like What do I think about this? What would it mean if this was true? What feelings am I having as I listen to this story? How do I want to respond?
Do you see where I’m going with this? I think the reason I’m not bothered by what Mike Daisey did is that I simply never assumed that his story was the full truth in the first place even though he said it was. That’s simply what I do. I do it when I listen to politicians, when I read the news, when I talk with friends, and when I experience art. It’s unconscious. I can’t help it. Or if I can, I’ve long since forgotten how.
When I listened to Daisey’s piece, I believed in some sense that he did the things he said he did “for real,” like everyone else… but I believed without being “attached” to that notion, which means that I’m relatively unaffected by the revelation that he didn’t do some of those things. I still haven’t fully parsed which things were “true” and which weren’t, in fact, because I just can’t be bothered. The story he told is what matters to me. The story he told and the various thoughts and feelings I had in response.
I often have a similar reaction when encountering a homeless person holding a sign with a brief narrative designed to move me to generosity. Stranded in DC, trying to get home to my ten month-old baby – I saw that one just today. I never ask myself whether the signs are true or not; in this case, I typically assume they’re all false, but I don’t care much either way. I note instead whether I’m moved by the story, do a quick assessment about what a reasonable response might be (give some money, walk away, buy the person a sandwich), and act.
Would it change my response if the sign in question said “This is a work of non-fiction?” Or, as some have suggested would have been appropriate for Daisey’s piece, “This is a work of fiction?” I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. I don’t think I generally let the author of a piece (or the context in which it’s presented) tell me whether a story is fiction, non-fiction, or somewhere in between. I think I either figure it out for myself, or I ignore the question entirely… because I don’t care.
I find myself thinking these last few days about Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America. Roth’s story is a kind of imagined history; it’s written as if it’s an autobiography, except that in relating the story of his childhood, he alters a few key details in American history: notably, he depicts FDR as losing the 1940 election to Charles Lindbergh. As the story of Roth’s “life” progresses, we watch as America succumbs to rabid anti-Semitism. It’s chilling. The reason the novel is so powerful, for me, is that it lives in a complicated space between fiction and non-fiction. The novel works precisely because “real facts,” slightly altered truths, and fully imagined events are pressed up next to one another.
I have similar thoughts about Charlie Kaufman’s film Adaptation: fiction about non-fiction (very roughly speaking). About reality television: fiction presented as non-fiction. About Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of nature dioramas: fiction about non-fiction. The whaling passages in the middle of Moby-Dick: non-fiction inserted into fiction. We clearly have a long and fertile cultural history of creative tension between what’s true and what’s imagined… at least in art.
We do not, however, have the same tradition in journalism. (With notable exceptions, of course.) We have, instead, a tradition of objectivity, one that (I hope we’ll all agree) has been at least significantly tested these last few decades, by both outright fabricators and by more subtly biased news producers of one kind or another. Given what I’ve shared about my own family history, I assume it will come as no surprise that I read most news with a great grain of salt. I stopped believing in objectivity a long time ago. To the extent that I think about it, I typically assign (sub-consciously) a degree of objectivity to every news story I read… and I never get to 100%.
(It’s not that I don’t want the news to be 100% objective and true. It’s not that I don’t value what fact-checkers do. It’s that I don’t expect them to get it right all the time, or to eliminate all sorts of biases from the stories I hear. Not even close.)
This is why I’m not bothered by the fact that Daisey’s piece appeared on This American Life. I don’t consider the show—which is one of my favorites—to be tarnished in any way. I don’t think the estimable Mr. Glass owes me any kind of apology as his listener, and I (politely) decline to accept the one he offered. In fact, I have to admit that it never even occurred to me to consider the show journalism at all. (I suppose it makes sense in hindsight, but the thought never entered my consciousness in all the years I’ve been tuning in.) I have the show squarely in a “storytellling” bucket in my mind, which means Daisey’s work is still, at least as far as I’m concerned, a natural fit… even after the recent revelations.
I think the real, primary question we all ought to be asking is why we’ve been blurring the lines between fact and fiction in our narratives for the last, oh, 150 years. What is the blurriness doing for us? Do we want it to continue? Do we want to try to reinforce some clear distinctions between fact and fiction in our culture, and if so, why?
It’s clear, from the vitriol I’ve been seeing in blog posts, tweets, and comments that some people DO seem to want a clearer distinction. Frankly, some of the vehemence I’ve seen scares me, and I’m not sure I understand it. It’s as if some people loathe (or fear?) the category error of finding fact in their fiction or fiction in their facts. My mind, as I’ve said, doesn’t usually work that way.
Yes, I get angry as hell when I read (for example) some conservative commentator’s lies about President Obama’s birth country, but it’s not the surface untruth (that he was born in Kenya) that bugs me as much as the deeper untruth (about the legitimacy of his leadership). Likewise, I don’t particularly care whether Mike Daisey met a 13 year-old factory worker or a 17 year-old factory worker; I care about whether our world is structured in a just and fair way.
But you might care differently (or about both truth and fairness/justice); I get that, and I respect that. I don’t need you or anyone to hold the same ideas about truth that I hold. I don’t think I’m right here, and I don’t think you’re wrong. I just think I have a different perspective on the truth than some people, owing (at least in part) to my family history.
I would, however, like to suggest (humbly) that you ask yourselves the questions I’ve been asking. What is your relationship to the truth? What are your personal beliefs about it? What’s your history with it? What does truth mean to you? Do you believe your ideas about truth are either universal or morally preferable to others’ ideas? Do you believe there are multiple perspectives on truth that might be valuable, even if you don’t share them? Maybe you’ll arrive at the same answers you’ve already arrived at; maybe the deliberation won’t even take you that long. But maybe you’ll find, as I think I have, a new perspective. You never know.