Friday, March 23, 2012

No, It Doesn't Help.

Come on!  It's just a little cockroach!
I was listening to a very painful episode of This American Life the other day in which they were re-interviewing someone they had done a show on earlier in the year, someone who had lied to them. The someone was Mike Daisy, a performance artist who has been doing a one-man show in New York about his experiences "investigating" the appalling working conditions at Apple's manufacturing plants in China. I remember that previous episode and remembered how outraged I felt that I was listening to it streaming from my iPhone, which had itself been assembled at the very factory where underaged slave laborers were worked to death, where suicides were rampant, where workers were suffering from all sorts of work and environmental-related illnesses. I felt betrayed by Apple and my rage knew no bounds.

But it was a lie. Maybe not all a lie, but enough of a lie to cause you to distrust any further stories you heard from Mike Daisy, and possibly any further stories about working conditions in offshore factories. Ira Glass, TAL's host, was holding Daisy's feet to the fire and asking him point-blank why he betrayed him, why he lied. Long seconds of excruciating silence followed each question (usually death for a radio program) as Daisy tried to screw up the courage to admit he had lied, or to say why he had done it. You felt for the guy. Sort of.

But after those long silences, what followed was not a contrite, considered confession, but a rationalization. He was a performance artist, he whined, not a journalist, and he had done it for the art, "to get to the greater truth."  He claimed that it was "some of the best work I'd ever done." He said that in dramatizing a "truth" he believed in, it was necessary to make stuff up. Stuff he couldn't prove. And he believed that in order to get people to be aware of the problem, it was acceptable to invent the details. That's what art is. And I thought, what a sanctimonious dunderhead!

A week previous, we had all been regaled with another example of someone, Jason Russell, making stuff up to get to the greater "truth" about the fugitive war-criminal, Joseph Kony, in his beautifully produced "documentary" Kony 2012. His video went viral in a huge way. It was moving. Even my own daughter called me from college to urge me to see it and sign whatever petition was attached to it. But, as a little time went by, it was also revealed that the facts in Kony 2012 were kind of fast and loose.

Okay, Kony is  a bad man. And should be tracked down and stopped. Got it. But what Russell did was use "art" to dramatize something that didn't need dramatizing, and ended up doing more damage than help by sullying the veracity of the story.

But wait! There's Moore!
And then there's Michael Moore, a documentarian with whom I happen to agree on most things, but who can't leave well enough alone by simply presenting the bald facts about gun violence (Bowling For Columbine), the Bush administration's manipulation of terrorism (Fahrenheit 911), and health care in the U.S. (Sicko). No, he has to exaggerate and go just a little too far to make a point, making you question the whole premise.

And may I bring up another social crusader/entertainer, Morgan Spurlock, who, in Super Size Me, his 2004 expose of the fast food industry (the shocking revelation that it was not health food), conducted an experiment in which he left several samples of french fries from a variety of establishments and watched all but the McDonald's fries go bad and moldy over time. Hm, he suggested, there must be something sinister about the ingredients in the McDonald's fries. Yes, Morgan, that sinister ingredient is salt, a preservative known for thousands of years. But the way he presented it was to make it seem as if this evil corporation was up to no good. Okay, so he had to cheat a little to get to the bigger truth.

What these noble social motivators don't get is that when you do that, when you stretch the point, when you fudge the data, you knock the legs out of your whole argument. One little lie is too much. It's like just a little cockroach discovered in your salad. It ruins the whole salad. The size of the cockroach is not the issue.

But, they say (and Mike Daisy said), isn't it better to tell a little lie to get people to move? NO! Because if the people you're trying to move discover you've lied to them, they don't trust anything you say. Ever. Moreover, they tend not to trust anything that's said about that subject coming from anyone, even legitimate, truthful journalists. So the whole truth gets trampled on by your little cockroach of a lie. When you lie, you betray the entire cause.

So, the next time somebody like Mike Daisy, or Jason Russell, or Michael Moore, or Morgan Spurlock feels like helping The Cause, my advice to them is: Shut up. That would be a big help.