The Cretan Paradox

He was praised for exposing the hidden cost of capitalism; lauded for taking for his unsparing take on life. With talents like these, Mike Daisey could afford to treat the truth as optional.


Even with his credibility in tatters, actor and Apple critic Mike Daisey received a standing ovation today following the final New York appearance of his one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

The New York Times quoted the Daisey on himself on the subject of telling tall tales. “What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism.” Bill Maher would understand, as the comedian has himself been at pains to distinguish himself from a mere talk show host. He can call political figures four letter names and be funny, while Rush Limbaugh using less inflammatory language is by contrast being abusive.  Here’s Maher interviewing Daisey on the subject of his performance, the Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

Both have argued that context matters. Heads you lose and tails they win.  If you believe them when you shouldn’t it is only because you are too unsophisticated to situate their intent in its proper setting. As Daisey put it, “You can trust my word in the context of the theater.”

Bob Garfield of the Guardian rather impertinently asks why Daisey’s performance, which is billed as serving the ‘larger truth’ shouldn’t simply be called lying. “Poignantly describing an older laborer who, for the first time, saw an iPad switched on, Daisey whispered a description of the fellow brushing his hand over the screen and marveling at the ‘magic’. Silly me. I believed that had actually taken place – because, amid other assertions of observed fact, Daisey said it had. We have different notions of integrity, he and I.”


Even the New York Times feels somewhat betrayed. “I certainly believed that the stories Mr. Daisey told — of seeing guards with guns at the Foxconn factory, of interviewing a 13-year-old girl who worked at the factory, of talking to an elderly former Foxconn worker whose hand had been destroyed — were true. According to Ms. Lee and the producers of ‘This American Life,’ they were not.”

It is commonly believed that without the facts there is no truth. But that would be incorrect. Without the truth there are no facts.  The lack of facts for example, didn’t stop Daisey’s audience from giving him a standing ovation. It didn’t stop his career in its tracks. “His show is scheduled to appear next in Washington, D.C.” He ought to feel right at home there, where it is not unusual for people to argue that they must lie in order to tell the truth.

Jason Russell, who helped make KONY 2012 video which has since been exposed as being deceptive and who himself was recently arrested for running naked in the streets behaving incoherently, made an eloquent case for shading the truth. If were accurate, people might get the wrong idea.

“KONY 2012 portrays, in no uncertain terms, the image of a madman who manipulates children spiritually for his own tactical gains. In our quest to garner wide public support of nuanced policy, Invisible Children has sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format, focusing on the core attributes of LRA leadership that infringe upon the most basic of human rights. In a 30-minute film, however, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked. The film is a first entry point to this conflict for many, and the organization provides several ways for our supporters to go deeper in learning about the make-up of the LRA and the history of the conflict.”


What both have left out of their explanations is a single relevant word. Money. It is more lucrative to gild the lily than to stay true to events.  Forbes noted that the truth is rarely as exciting as made-up fantasy. And therefore in a day and age when traffic is lucre both Daisie and Russell were seduced by the Dark Side of the Force.

Perhaps the almost true is potent precisely because the audience has to bridge the gap of truth and in so doing become complicit in its viral spreading. The almost true needs us in a way that the actual truth does not. This is an established principle of theatre, of art, that the audience completes the illusion—makes it more real than real. Advertising uses similar techniques to increase consumers’ alliance with a brand. Now Daisey is clearly an artist, and a good one at that, despite the over-reachings. Russell is clearly a marketer, and an incredibly skilled one at that. And both were motivated, at least at first, by an honest passion for their subjects.

The poor souls, corrupted by capitalism! But that begs the question of why the audience should believe that these admittedly misleading narratives are as in the words of Forbes, “almost true”. The usual process in dealing with lies is to regard all declarations from that source as suspect unless corroborated. “Falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus”.


The answer, as supplied by Stanley Fish of the New York Times, is that certain doctrines are so true that in order to falsify them you must go byte by byte, from the beginning of the record to the end of it, leaving no slice unrefuted if you are to falsify them in their entirety. False in one, or two, or n, and n+1, but true in all.  The liberal narrative is like a self-sealing fuel tank of political truth. You can shoot as many holes in it as you like, but the rest of the container oozes over the breach and the whole remains intact. Fish writes:

Obligations are not owed to everyone, but only to those who are of the right sort.

If we think about the Rush Limbaugh dust-up from the non-liberal — that is, non-formal — perspective, the similarity between what he did and what Schultz and Maher did disappears. Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice. Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy. Why should he get an even break?

There is no answer to that question once you step outside of the liberal calculus in which all persons, no matter what their moral status as you see it, are weighed in an equal balance. Rather than relaxing or soft-pedaling your convictions about what is right and wrong, stay with them, and treat people you see as morally different differently. Condemn Limbaugh and say that Schultz and Maher may have gone a bit too far but that they’re basically O.K. If you do that you will not be displaying a double standard; you will be affirming a single standard, and moreover it will be a moral one because you will be going with what you think is good rather than what you think is fair. “Fair” is a weak virtue; it is not even a virtue at all because it insists on a withdrawal from moral judgment.


One might be forgiven for thinking that Fish was describing a fanatical religion rather than a political philosophy based on empirical truth. For only the fanatical can continue to believe in the Wizard of Oz after the curtain has been pulled away. In this case the curtain is returned over and over,  complete with that maxim without which no fanaticism is complete: “it’s always the infidel’s fault for not believing in the Great and Wonderful Wizard”.

But there is a further objection. While Daisie may be right in saying that the conventions of fiction apply to the theater, that is not the same as arguing they apply to reality. The “liberal calculus”, in substituting a screenplay for the facts, is making the fundamental mistake of replacing actuality with their desires and risking all the consequences that entrain.

It is alright to use kiddie rules with kiddie cars, but when it is applied to the prospect of a World Without Nuclear Weapons, the likelihood of a grand bargain with Iran, the sustainability of Green Energy and the reality of Climate Change, what could go wrong?

The self-deception would be alright if the liberals were prepared to personally pay the costs of acting out their fantasies. But perhaps Stanley Fish’s argument really wants to go further. If you “treat people you see as morally different differently” then why not pay for the gains of the one at the expense of the other? Why be “fair”? Why not privatize the “gains” and socialize the costs?  Why give a sucker a “break”?


A world divided into two classes of people where those who are always right get preference over those who are adjudged defective is not one in which  Rush Limbaugh is on the “side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy”. It is not a democracy at all. It is a world of aristocrats and serfs.

And if aristocrats denied it, would you believe them? Or would those denials be of the same order as Russell’s or Daisie’s? Maybe we owe those two a debt of gratitude for suggesting not that they peform in a theater but the alternative: that perhaps we, surrounded by network news and somber journalistic broadsheets, are in a theater ourselves, and maybe we should look around and recognize it as such.

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