Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Journalism drama, part 2

Over on The Daily Beast, Jacob Bernstein quotes an associate of Mike Daisey about where the playwright-performer went wrong:

“One of his weaknesses is his sanctimoniousness,” says this person, who wished to remain anonymous. “That’s true with most artists. Most playwrights don’t like to see other people’s plays, most writers are not kind of about other people’s writing. Mike has made himself an easy target because he can’t keep his mouth shut. He got really excited about the press.”

While I’m not prepared to issue a blanket indictment of “most artists” as being sanctimonious, I’ve caught myself at it in the past, and I’ve seen it in plenty of other artists and non-profit arts organizations. We do like to think we’re changing the world for the better. So perhaps Mike Daisey’s story is not one of perfidious self-service (I hope not); perhaps it’s one of hubris, of honest error, and of getting caught up in his own press. I just wish he’d clarified the lines between fact and fiction.

I think we should also mention that it’s not just artists who try to change the world. Business does that too. I remember the argument by the Clinton administration during the NAFTA debates that the best way to improve the lives of people in other countries was to welcome them into the big economy. In spirit, I agree with that, and that is the argument underlying many of the pro-Apple comments found on various sites covering this story (including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal):  that conditions in Chinese factories will improve precisely because Apple is there, subcontracting these people. The argument is also occasionally expanded to claim that doing work on Apple products is already better than the alternative. As the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal Business & Finance section reports:

The company [Apple] also went on a media offensive of its own, inviting ABC News into a Foxconn factory. An ABC reporter found evidence of teenagers doing work of “soul-crushing boredom” that was better than the conditions where they were from in the countryside.

Why is Apple making these products in China in the first place? According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, it’s because Chinese factories were able to implement changes almost overnight — in keeping with Mr. Jobs’ mercurial personality. When Jobs decided he didn’t want plastic for the first iPhone screen, Tim Cook, now the CEO of Apple, realized that U.S. factories couldn’t shift to manufacturing the necessary specialized glass screens in time to make their proposed launch date, and he moved the company to manufacturing in China, where employees could be made to live on-site, and be awakened at any moment to be put back to work.

Why are factories able to enforce such work conditions in China? Because of government complicity and the lack of labor unions. And what led to the creation of government oversight and labor unions in the U.S.? Grueling work conditions and workplace calamities such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Those 146 garment workers who died in that fire in 1911, most of them young immigrant women, were the Chinese factory workers of their day. As China (and India) spring into modern industrialism, they will find that brutal government repression is required to keep their work standards low. That, and the sort of cold heartlessness almost all people everywhere thankfully lack.


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