Is it the story or the storyteller?


On the 1999 album Fellow Workers, a collaboration between the late great folksinger and storyteller Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco, Phillips said this:

"When I went to high school–that’s about as far as I got–reading my U.S. history textbook, well I got the history of the ruling class; I got the history of the generals and the industrialists and the Presidents who didn’t get caught. How about you?

I got the history of the people who owned the wealth of the country, but none of the history of the people who created it…  So when I went out to get my first job, I went out armed with someone else’s class background. They never gave me any tools to understand, or to begin to control the condition of my labor. And that was deliberate, wasn't it?"

That's the best thesis statement I can think of for Mike Daisey's 18-episode epic takedown of US history, currently unfolding at the Guthrie. Starting with the actual history textbook he was handed in high school, Daisey is working, step by step, to unravel the tidy, enlightened version of history that the majority of us were taught in school.

Over his career, Daisey has become America's premiere monologuist. His shows consist of him sitting at a desk, talking at the audience, and not much else. For the uninitiated average theater-goer looking for sets and costumes and characters and effects, it's stripped down to the point of the unnerving (for those who remember Spalding Gray, you can yawn, call it old hat, and feel smugly superior right now). However, Daisey's skills at relating to the audience and spinning out a narrative are almost preternaturally good, and he can very easily win over almost anyone who sits in front of him.

Before I dig into the actual performance that I watched, I must add a few asterisks to the commentary. Back in 2012, This American Life adapted a portion of Daisey's monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which chronicles his obsession with Apple products and his quest to uncover the dirty secrets behind how they get made. In it Daisey describes going to China, visiting a factory and meeting clandestinely with workers, many of whom are overworked and underage. After that episode went to air, fact checkers determined that Daisey's account, which he presented as fact, did not happen the way he said; he may have gone to China, but his heartbreaking account of meeting personally with mistreated workers was simply untrue. Furthermore, he appeared to have lied to TAL's producers so that they could not follow up with his Chinese guide/translator to confirm his account. It resulted in a tense, unprecedented follow-up in which TAL actually retracted Daisey's episode.

A second thing to note is Daisey's main source material for rebutting his old high school textbook: Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. When it was first released in 1980, Zinn's book was revolutionary and even a little dangerous. It was definitely the sexiest history book that anyone could recall, and it was furtively passed on from one college dorm room to another, with students quoting from it in an attempt to show up their lame old history teachers. Since that time, Zinn's book has become required reading in many of those history classes and is now the go-to counter narrative against the classical Great White Man theory of history. However, Zinn wasn't always a very careful historian, and he often made edits of his own to history when they suited the narrative he wanted to relay. You don't even have to consult with a right-wing, spittle-flecked John Bircher to get this opinion. I can throw articles at you from left-wing bastions at Stanford, The Atlantic and New Republic saying much the same thing.

This isn't to dismiss Daisey's current show. He already worked his way back into the liberal world's good graces with his excellent, nuanced and eerily prescient 2016 pre-election explainer on Donald Trump, The Trump Card (which he has since made free to watch and free for anyone to perform). This is to say that both Daisey and his source material have a past track record of bending the facts in order to tell a better story. For a concrete example of why you still need to be on your guard, look at the bio of Daisey printed in the Guthrie's program. The only reference to the This American Life fiasco says that "the two episodes dedicated to him are among the most listened to and argued about in that program's history." You could say that some salient facts were omitted there.

Back in 2012, Daisey's defenders argued that Daisey's lie was necessary for unveiling a larger truth. To a journalist or a historian, this is a horrific affront. To a storyteller, though, sometimes a story is larger than facts. All that matter is that it feels true, especially to someone whose podcast is entitled "All Stories Are Fiction."

So, going into a Mike Daisey show, I have to remember that when someone is spinning a yarn, they usually have an agenda. My old textbook definitely had one. So does Mike Daisey. I may agree with his agenda; it may be a good and noble one; but any historian worth his salt would remind me that you should never rely on a single source.

This is especially necessary to remember, because, damn, Daisey is good at his job. Starting with a hilarious personal story about the power imbalance of dealing with a previous landlord over his shitty New York apartment, he deftly transitions into picking up the alternate story of US history where he left off. In this, the sixth installment, he is covering the last few decades before the Civil War and the 12 or so years after, skipping over the major battles and troop movements that were described in mind-numbing detail in your standard textbooks. Instead, Daisey's attention is on now-forgotten developments like the Anti-Renter Movement (or Anti-Rent War, depending on who's telling the story), the New York draft riots, the simultaneous creation of both trade unions and effectively immortal corporations (that last one thanks to Daniel Webster) and the brief window of time during Reconstruction where it actually looked like black people might actually become full and equal citizens of the country (spoiler: that didn't end up happening). This is all shot through with crass language, humorous asides, verbatim readings from historical documents and plenty of moments where it's very clear that you, the audience, are very much complicit in all the injustices he is describing.

Daisey is both high-minded and profane, witty and deadly serious, able to sound professionally polished and simultaneously as if he is delivering this monologue off the cuff for the very first time. He is a master at his form and is very good at getting people who are even slightly inclined to agree with him to come along for the ride. I was definitely along for it.

However, there were moments when I stepped back and realized that, as skilled as Daisey is, a lot of his type of verbal theatrics can and are used very effectively to argue on the opposite side of the political divide. I've had the unfortunate opportunity to listen to more than one whole episode of Alex Jones' show, and I recognized a few rhetorical tricks that Daisey and Jones could share notes on. At least Daisey is citing actual things that really happened in an effort to get you to learn more about your world, whereas Jones is constructing a kooky nightmare fantasyland where the only thing that can save you is buying his overpriced supplements. Then again, a good propagandist doesn't worry too much whether something is factually true or false. All that matters is that it feels true.

Daisey's performance is not all just propaganda for the converted, though. In one moment, he can throw out red meat to his liberal audience like "When oppressed people share information, sometimes shit gets better" and "When people have power over you, the easier thing to do is erase you" and receive enthusiastic, vocal support. In another, after describing the rise of a contented, sedate bourgeois in America that is more than willing to look away from atrocities happening right in front of them, he can look right at his audience of mostly well-dressed, upper-middle class white people and say, "I'm talking about you." That last one didn't exactly bring home uproarious applause.

But that's what Daisey does best. He can be a harmless clown in one moment and then punch you in the gut in the next, and when it's done you strangely feel like he's done you some sort of great service.

A People's History is a highly ambitious project. Indeed, each nigh of his run at the Guthrie is a completely different show, a different chapter in this long story, which means that a properly motivated person would need to sacrifice 27 hours and spend $162 just to take it all in from start to finish. That's a lot to ask of an audience. Then again, it's a small price to pay compared to the huge deficit of knowledge that your standard high school history textbook left you with. And I can't think of a more deft and compelling figure to tell the story than Mike Daisey.

Of course, you should probably do some reading of your own, too. Just in case some salient fact was… skipped in the service of that story.

Headshot of Derek Lee Miller
Derek Lee Miller

Derek Lee Miller is an actor, puppeteer, writer, designer, builder and musician (basically, he'll do anything to make a buck). He is a founding ensemble member of Transatlantic Love Affair.