Sunday, March 18, 2012

ugly truth

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

-- attr. to Benjamin Disraeli

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism.

-- Mike Daisey*

Beauty may be truth and truth beauty as Keats said, but not in the short run. The Grecian urn speaks not to our present condition but to a transcendent Truth. To write what Keats wrote, or to affirm it as I have done,** is an act of faith. In the short run truth is often ugly, and any beautiful statement of our condition is suspect because of its beauty. That's why we have journalists.

It's a journalist's job to find out the truth about our present condition -- to publish both what we want to know and what we don't want to know. The mayor says the water is safe to drink; the general says there's light at the end of the tunnel; the vice-president says the insurgency is on its last legs; the congressman says we can lift the recession by putting people out of work. The journalist tells us what they said, but cannot stop there -- he must also inform us how much of what they said is wrong, how much a lie, how much a misleading statistic, and how much a damned lie. The journalist makes these determinations on the basis of facts. The official statement is one fact, the documents or statements that belie it are other facts. It's easy to be a stenographer, but finding out the whole ugly truth is very difficult. Journalism is difficult and sometimes dangerous. Persons of stature gather stenographers around them, but they keep journalists at a distance or hate them openly. Journalism is essentially anti-institutional and liberal. And unpopular.

There's a television art-form in which well-known people portray themselves unflatteringly, and their self-deprecation encourages their famous friends to satirize themselves as well. Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Warwick Davis in Life's Too Short, bring us to the boundary of life and art. Their imagery is both true and untrue.  That's really Warwick Davis, we say, and yet we know it is not the reality of him. There is a strange safety in self-pillory; if Larry David knew himself to be so shabby as all that, he wouldn't publicize it. This can be uncomfortable to watch, and very amusing.

It's as if the last few weeks have brought us to a threshold of confusion between the ethics of reality and the ethics of fiction. The quarrel of an essayist with his fact-checker recently became a national spat.***  And now Ira Glass has withdrawn one episode of This American Life because it contained fabrications, accounts of conversations with Chinese factory workers, conversations that did not happen.  These accounts were excerpted from a performance monologue by Mike Daisey, entitled "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." The workers were portrayed as complaining about the working conditions at a Chinese company called Foxconn that manufactures parts for Apple products. The question posed to Glass, a question that he now admits he answered incorrectly, was this: in a radio show of spoken art that sometimes but not always commits journalism, were these factual-sounding statements on a public ethical issue true in the way that journalism requires? It turns out that the monologist made these conversations up for dramatic effect.

These distinctions need not be complicated, but have gotten so. There is a long tradition of social commentary in fiction, and it's not hard to identify it. The author is obliged merely to follow the rules of literature. He changes the names and a few of the circumstances, admits he is an author, and makes it clear he is manipulating an imaginary world. In return for this concession, the artist wins the rights of poetic truth, to imagine what she cannot prove to have happened; and the beautiful resemblance of her imagination to reality changes the real world with every reading. The genres of art -- the novel, the sonnet, the short story, the monologue -- are created to bracket the fact-like statements of artists, saying "this is not to be checked because it is not a fact-claim;" but the artistic bracket also says, as a pedal-point to all its themes, "Look at the world and you'll see it's like this." There was no Nicholas Nickleby and no Smike, but there are people like them, and the one's compassion for the other must be realized in the world. There was no Anna Karenina and no Levin, but Levin is on the right path for the real world and Anna is not.

These matters are not hard to understand, if you care about literature and have learned from its history. You have a right to your opinions, and you have a right to your vision; but you don't have a right to your own facts, even if you are an artist. It's fun to play around the borders of life and art, but if you want to use the transgressive authority of a fact-claim -- if you want to say to your audience This really happened to me -- you must also accept the responsibilities of a journalist.  Daisey's maneuver was phoney journalism and false art, and raises not only ethical but esthetic questions about his other work. He seems to lack respect for the truth claims of art, the shattering power of the probable impossible that Aristotle thought better than any history. If he understood the power of fiction he would not have tried to pass it off as fact.

Novelists of the last century learned the art of unreliable narration, as we have learned in modern times that no one including a narrator possesses whole truth. But to banish the idea of truth just because you don't have it all is to commit the philosophical howler of post-modernism. It's a juvenile act. A grownup doesn't sweep the pieces off the chessboard just because he can't win.

These unnecessary confusions prove that free inquiry, and journalism, are necessary. We have to keep the faith with truth, precisely because she is never fully revealed.

*Mike Daisey: His Secret Fortress on the Web,, March 16, 2012

**"Still hope," December 11, 2011

***"Deconstructionist Word," March 3, 2012

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