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“You don’t have to believe me,” admits Mike Daisey late in his massively controversial solo show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. “I am a noted fabulist.”
We’ve covered that fact, and at some length, but to recap for the uninitiated: Daisey’s passionate takedown of Apple’s supply-chain excesses—and the consumer appetites that drive them—originally described in-person encounters that never happened, along with supposedly first-hand observations that turned out to be lifted from others’ reportage. When public-radio producers investigated, Daisey lied to them, though eventually he came clean.
Ethics aside, what makes that fakery so frustrating is how powerful Daisey’s storytelling is. Any self-respecting radio talker would kill for his voice, which scales from a purr that makes you lean in and listen to a splintering, outraged bark that’ll startle you out of your chair. His rhythms are precise and deliberate, his phrases chosen for specific impact, whether it’s subtle and musical or stark and horrifying. His body language is just as effective; without ever rising from behind his standard wide table, he creates a sense of motion and momentum that’s captivatingly cinematic. (His conjuring of Hong Kong’s seedy Chungking Mansions district practically comes with its own pervasive odor, and I half-remember seeing him throw a chair to punctuate an anecdote comparing Steve Ballmer’s charisma to Steve Jobs’, though of course he never did.)
In short, the man has few peers when it comes to what he does, and he engages with his topics so intensely as to inspire what he himself describes, in Steve Jobs, as a critical shift in thinking: that all-important moment when we go from seeing something as a problem to seeing it as a problem to be fixed. You want to believe him; more, the force of his moral indignation makes you want to believe in him.
And there’s the rub: An artist who’s made a name by marrying serious craft with serious concerns has, in a crucial way, denatured the part of that equation that matters most. It’s not that sinners don’t deserve forgiveness; it’s that thundering righteousness sounds unattractively pious on the lips of even the truly contrite.