Thursday, June 7, 2012

Mike Daisey and the (re)Orient Express

Posted by Jon Santiago on Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 3:47 PM

In last night's brand new, as-yet-untitled monologue, Mike Daisey gave his audience a travelogue roughly hewing to the path of the fabled Orient Express. London, Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Istanbul, with diverting side-trips to Berlin and Prague. How did this recent tour of the continent come about? In the wake of his media scandal, Daisey and his spouse/director Jean-Michele Gregory had suddenly found themselves with "a gap in the calendar."

If Daisey's audience had hoped for yet another mea culpa from him, they got one. As a bonus, they got a retina-burning glimpse of what it means to become a bit player in the public story of your life.

Daisey spoke for nearly two and a half hours. Approaching the 120 minute mark (we were still in Vienna), some people left the theater. There aren't many laughs in the tale of how a person whose life is all about story suddenly loses his sense of self when that story is torn away. Daisey said the scandal broke him in half. Sewing himself back together meant confronting some fiercely defining moments.

Here's another fiercely defining moment far afield from Spoleto and its artists.

Last night on BBC Radio's news program The World Today, a Syrian civilian made this comment about being trapped inside his country's on-going conflict: "We used to be regular people, but now we are journalists."

The BBC reporter peppered the Syrian with questions: What had he seen? How many dead? Who was responsible? How could he verify that the Syrian government's official account of the massacre he'd witnessed was, as he claimed, a lie?

That last question is the Rubicon. That last question is the boundary that divides being a "mere witness" to events and the fact-gathering, information-verifying role we imagine belongs to the professional journalist. Which brings up some issues.

At some point, we'll probably have to decide what "citizen journalism" means and re-define what "journalism" means. We'll have to decide how far we'll trust one another to point in the direction of the truth. We need to decide how much verifiable verity and unwavering consistency we require.

Because if we want complete, unwavering consistency in the information we receive, we want advertising. And political talking points. Either of which may veil an elaborate lie. Ask Colin Powell how he feels about his United Nations presentation in advance of the Iraq war.

If we want unwavering consistency, we don't want journalism either, not the home-grown or the professional variety. And we certainly don't want art. Because the closer we get to life as it is lived, the more blurry things get. Stories, even factual ones, evolve. They come to us incomplete, broken up. We see and accept these fuzzy approximations all the time. But story will out. Stories populate our world. (See Jack Hitt's Making Up the Truth.)

Ours is a lightning-paced information environment where categories are not as clear-cut as we'd like. But we stride forward with our uncertainty, course-correcting as we go along. It's a process. Information is not free. It has a price tag. We must pay attention. Not paying attention gets us into trouble. Creates scandals.

I think of that Syrian who spoke to the BBC and the price he may yet pay for sharing that "unconfirmed" story, for bending to the need to get the story told. For the news audience, his is another headline in the crawl running across the lower third of the TV screen. For the Syrian, it's his life. Perhaps that's the distinction Daisey highlighted best in his new monologue. Daisey is not a journalist. He's clear on that. Now. But did his theatrical work The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs point toward the truth as Daisey himself had lived it?

Author Ray Bradbury passed away yesterday. His novel Fahrenheit 451 has a few things to tell us about the slippery nature of the information we receive. Here's a quote from that book.

“Don't ask for guarantees. And don't look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were heading for shore.”

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