An open letter to This American Life

19 March 2012

Dear Ira Glass and the staff of This American Life,

Four of us gathered around a laptop in Brooklyn last night to listen to the live broadcast of the retraction episode of This American Life. We started with a real feeling of respect for the idea that TAL would spend an entire episode fact-checking its own broadcast, coupled with worry that the problems with Mike Daisey himself would lead to a lessening of concern about Apple’s labor practices. We came to the show with varying levels of familiarity with TAL. All but one of us had listened to the original Daisey episode, and two of us are regular TAL listeners.

In the initial segment, in which Rob Schmitz tracked down the translator, we all found ourselves asking several basic questions:

  1. Why was the translator any more credible than Daisey? What about this was different from any “he said/she said” argument?
  2. What, if any, influence did Apple, Foxconn or the Chinese government bring to bear on the translator or on This American Life?
  3. Is it just a coincidence that the retraction episode aired just as Apple launched a new iPad?

During the interview with Schmitz, Glass and Daisey, we were struck by Daisey’s unfortunate inability to better frame his performance. Rather than simply saying “some of these characters were composites of people I met and stories I heard from workers who had first-hand knowledge,” he stumbled around and sounded very insincere. It’s important to say that we all felt, upon hearing this segment, that the original story shouldn’t have been broadcast as aired on TAL. That might also be true even if TAL had included a disclaimer about the composite nature of some of the characters, although that’s harder to judge.

The most disappointing part of the show was the final segment in which Glass spoke with New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. This entire segment came off as an ill-informed or willfully ignorant dismissal of the role of first-world consumption in harming the lives of the people who make what we consume.

For example:

Duhigg: We know from Apple’s own audits and the reports that have published that at least 50 percent of all audited factories, every year since 2007, have violated at least that provision. More than half of the workers whose records are examined are working more than 60 hours per week.

Glass: Now, is that necessarily so bad? I mean, aren’t a lot of these workers moving to the city to work as many hours as possible? They’re away from their families; they’re young; and they’re there to make money and they don’t care.

This exchange is built on the idea that there’s no possible way to run the world other than the way it’s currently being run. Are you seriously suggesting that anyone wants to work 60 or more hours per week and wouldn’t gladly trade that for 40 hours at a decent wage? Have we really become so inured to human suffering that we actually believe people want to work at slave wages for giant multinational corporations? Is this the most we can imagine for our fellow human beings?

This segment of the show also suffered from a very first-world-centered opinion about how other cultures work. For example:

Duhigg: That being said, I think that China is a little bit different and that the expectations, particularly as a developing nation of workers, are a little bit different. I don’t think holding them to American standards is precisely the right way to look at the situation.

There’s a lot wrong with that statement. To begin, it’s maddening to hear two well-off white American men talking about what the Chinese want from their working lives. How do you know? And what would make you assume that what they want is different from what you want?

Additionally, it’s hilarious to hear about “American standards.” Our guess is that there are quite a few people within walking distance of the New York Times building or the WBEZ offices who could tell you a thing or two about what it’s like to be a worker in America. Particularly a non-union worker, as almost all private-sector workers are. Of course, it would be a challenge to ask an American about what it’s like to manufacture electronics, given that we have people in developing nations do that for us now.

The final nail in this coffin was Glass’s remark toward the end of his talk with Duhigg:

Glass: But to get to the normative question that’s kind of underlying all the reporting and all the discussion of this, the thing that we all want to know when we hear this is like, “Wait, should I feel bad about this?” As somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad? And I don’t know that I feel so bad when, when I hear this.

To Duhigg’s credit, he seems fairly surprised by this statement and offers several reasons why Glass should feel bad, although he says it’s not his job to tell Glass how to feel. But Glass’s statement struck us as the fundamental problem underlying this episode, which was that people of privilege with little sympathy for workers were much more concerned with protecting their own reputations than exposing injustice.

When the show ended, one of the regular TAL listeners in our group said, “I feel like I want to take a shower.” We all felt that way. It was extremely disappointing and a perfect example of why more people don’t know or care about the plight of workers here and abroad.

Sincerely,

Jake Aron
Jason Crane
Emma Goldsmith-Rooney
Kate Moser

Brooklyn, NY

Saying goodbye to Macs? I think so.

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My son John tries out the new Linux laptop

I’ve been using my new Pangolin Performance laptop from System76 for a couple weeks now, and I’m impressed. It came with Ubuntu Linux installed, and all the hardware just works.

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It’s true that Ubuntu is slightly less “out of the box” ready than the average Mac or PC, but only slightly. I had it out of the box and was checking e-mail and Web sites within minutes, and I was watching a DVD within half an hour, after downloading a few things. Installing new software is a snap. And it’s all free and open source, which feels great.

I’ve been a Mac user since Macs came into being in 1984, and I was a little nervous about taking a step this big. For example, my PDA is an iPod Touch, and I’ve been using Apple’s MobileMe cloud service to sync my contacts and calendars between my home computer, my work PC and my iPod. As it turns out, the completely free NuevaSync service does the exact same thing, except it use Google Calendars as its platform. I already use Google Reader, Picasa and GMail (for some purposes), so it was a snap to decide to export my calendars from iCal and import them into Google Calendar. I set up a free NuevaSync account, which took about 25 seconds, and then posted on my Linux laptop using the Google Calendar program (which is Prism-based, whatever that means). All I know is that the event instantly appeared on my iPod. But would it work the other way? Yup. I posted an event on my iPod, refreshed the Google Calendar, and there it was, immediately.

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I’ve already been using the open source audio editor Audacity to produce The Jazz Session on my Mac, so I don’t even have to change software. Jen’s been using the new laptop, too, and she’s quite comfortable with it.

All in all, I think we’re ready to say goodbye to PCs or Macs and hello to the world of open source software. Wow.

UPDATE: A big “Huzzah!” goes out to my good friend Kevin Baird, who showed me the way to open source. It was Kevin who recommended Ubuntu, and he’s been slowly and steadily open-source-ifying me for years now, starting with Ogg Vorbis back in the day. Thanks,man!