EDIT: This American Life has retracted the episode after Mike Daisey was found to have fabricated some of the information he presented in the episode. Links to clarifying information and my take here.
If anybody didn’t catch last week’s episode of This American Life, “Mr. Daisey and the Factory,” you should listen to it right away. The episode is an hourlong excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one man show, The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs, a timely monologue about Steve Jobs and the working conditions in the factories in China that make most of the world’s electronics, from iPhones to Xboxes.
One thing that I was thinking about while I was listening to the episode was what it means, in this day and age, to be a prophet. Because Mike Daisey sounds like a prophet. I think we have a confused concept of what a prophet is, because the word is so close to prophecy. Clearly, the word comes from what a prophet does, but I think there is a big difference between prophecy and the message that the prophet delivers. I was reminded of the passage from the 2nd book of Ezekiel, where God comissions Ezekiel to deliver a message to the Israelites:
And the spirit entered into me when he spake unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spake unto me. And he said unto me, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, [even] unto this very day. For [they are] impudent children and stiffhearted. I do send thee unto them; and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD. And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they [are] a rebellious house,) yet shall they know that there hath been a prophet among them.
Our concept of prophecy has everything to do with visions of the future, reducing the prophet to a divine fortuneteller, but I think it’s clear that the role of this prophet has very little to do with warning about the future, and everything to do with recontextualizing today. Prophets are there as a destabilizing force; they demand that you consider the possibility that what you consider everyday life is actually the perpetration of a great evil. And because these prophets make us really look at the way that we live our lives–and because they see with long sight–it is in their nature to be hated by the power structure that feeds on the status quo, despised by the masses that have become used to the inertia that prevents change, and beloved by the generations that come after them.
I cannot say where Mike Daisey’s story leads, or what the end of the struggle that he is a part of is. Just as there have always been prophets, there have been false prophets, but I don’t think he’s a false prophet. I do know that I never would have sought out his monologue, or the information he uncovered if it hadn’t appeared on TAL. When his monologue first began attracting attention, I saw the title of the show, rolled my eyes, and closed the tab. I believed in the economic (now) conventional wisdom that as much as modern offshore manufacturing may pair 16th century beliefs about individual worth with 21st century labor management technology, the only thing worse than sweatshops for poor countries is no sweatshops. And I may still believe in that empirical argument. But Mike Daisey does force you to confront the fact that every cheap computer that you buy, every Xbox, every Apple device, is subsidized–made cheaper–by wear and tear on real people’s bodies. There’s a staggering quotation from his Chinese interpreter that Daisey uses to great effect, a quotation so perfect that I winced when I heard it, “You hear stories, but you never think it will be so much.”
Indeed. Listen to it.