(Well it had to be something like that.)

I have three thoughts on This American Life‘s retraction of its episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” If you do not involve yourself with public radio, Apple, or the Internet, briefly: Mike Daisey likes Apple products but stories about how they were made in China concerned him. So he went to China and developed a one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Taken by the show, This American Life aired an episode consisting largely of extracts from it. Hearing the program, people who knew things about China, particularly Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, began asking questions about oddities and discrepancies in the story, many of whose factual details then, I think it’s fair to say, fell completely apart under examination, as this exchange between Ira Glass and Daisey in the “Retraction” program illustrates:

Ira Glass: … I think it’s OK for somebody in your position to say it isn’t all literally true, know what I mean, feel like actually it seems like it’s honest labeling, and I feel like that’s what’s actually called for at this point, is just honest labeling. Like, you make a nice show, people are moved by it, I was moved by it and if it were labeled honestly, I think everybody would react differently to it.
Mike Daisey: I don’t think that label covers the totality of what it is.
Ira Glass: That label – fiction?
Mike Daisey: Yeah. We have different worldviews on some of these things. I agree with you truth is really important.
Ira Glass: I know but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on stage and says ‘this happened to me,’ I think it happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled as ‘here’s a work of fiction.’

It’s important, I think, if you’re considering this story, that you listen to the last portion of “Retraction,” in which Glass talks to NYT reporter Charles Duhigg about scrupulously factual accounts of Apple’s manufacturing in China.

Now, the thoughts.

(1) The first, Felix Salmon touches tangentially on here.

Ira Glass says that This American Life should have scrapped the idea of doing a Mike Daisey show the minute he told their fact-checkers that he had no way of contacting his translator. But maybe the mistake was made even earlier, when This American Life decided that a theatrical monologue could ever be held to standards of journalistic accuracy. This one certainly couldn’t, and in that I think it’s more the rule than the exception.

The thing is, This American Life has always aired a range of narratives, from straight-up fiction through to (what I presume to be) carefully reported journalism. It has aired plenty of dramatic monologues, and I have never supposed them to be verifiable reportage.

I mean: if tomorrow David Sedaris’s sisters should come forward and say, yes, they were mean to him, but they didn’t say this insult on that trip to the North Carolina shore … I’m not sure how rocked my world would be. Is the error entirely Mike Daisey’s, in supposing This American Life would be okay with a dramatic story rooted in, if not consisting entirely of, fact?

That said, or asked, I think it’s clear that at some point in the fact-checking process Mike Daisey should have realized that TAL were asking more of him than they ask of dramatic monologists.

(2) The second thing is this. Salmon says, the thing that should tip us off in the Daisey story is “the white man’s burden: the idea that a white American like Mike Daisey or Jason Russell (or Jeff Sachs, for that matter) is a selfless hero, doing good for the poor and exploited in other continents.”

Yes … and yet. There is something about this idea, that you holding an iPad or iPhone are implicated in a morally dubious structure that you can change almost as it were with a click of the home button … there is something about this idea that seems like the right idea. It reminds me of Thomas Haskell’s account of the relation between capitalism and the humanitarian sensibility.

We cannot regard ourselves as causally involved in another’s suffering unless we see a way to stop it. We must perceive a causal connection, a chain made up of cause-and-effect links, that begins with some act of ours as cause and ends with the alleviation of the stranger’s suffering as effect. We must, in short, have a technique, or recipe, for intervening – a specific sequence of steps that we know we can take to alter the ordinary course of events.

This sense not only of connection to another’s suffering, but capacity to act in relief of that suffering, was – Haskell tells us – an artifact of the capitalist marketplace in the eighteenth century and an essential element in the development of abolitionism. You could do something – something, Haskell says, that is itself ordinary, of such “ease of operation that our failure to [act] would constitute a suspension of routine, an out-of-the-ordinary event, possibly even an intentional act in itself.”

Capitalism, Haskell says, contributed “[o]nly a precondition, albeit a vital one” to abolitionism – “a proliferation of recipe knowledge and consequent expansion of the conventional limits of causal perception and moral responsibility”. Capitalism lets you involve yourself, by your purchases, in the lives of distant others. By the ordinary choice of what to buy you support certain systems of production.

Pressed to come up with a modern analogue to abolitionism, Haskell thought of vegetarianism. Writing in 1985, he supposed that later generations might regard the benighted meat-eaters of our time as involved in an obviously immoral system of production, one that they should have found easy to abandon precisely because they lived among vegetarians, and knew that it was sustainable, this life without meat.

I wonder whether, if Haskell had written the same essay twenty-five years later, he might have found it easier to reach for worries over the working conditions in offshored manufacturing as an analogue to abolitionism.

(3) There is a Gresham’s law of argumentation, and Mike Daisey’s bad story has crowded out good ones, at least for now.