“I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment
on my life.”
― David Ignatow
David Ignatow’s little poem has always worried me. When I think I’m writing about someone else, say my son, am I really writing about myself? If I take action to solve a problem, have I seen the actual problem or only an aspect of myself?
In a passage I’m fond of quoting, the Talmud puts it this way:
You don’t see things as they are. You see things as you are.
A PROBLEM IN THE O.R.
Many years ago I was giving anesthesia to a patient when the nurse from the operating room next door hurried in with a worried look.
“Dr. Pascoe, could you come in and help Dr. M?” she said.
It’s not customary for an anesthesiologist to leave a patient unattended during an operation, but the nurse’s tone told me I should make an exception, at least long enough to have a look.
My patient was healthy and medically stable. The case was uncomplicated. I told the circulating nurse in my room to watch the monitors and call me if anything changed. I accompanied the nurse back to her room a few feet away.
The surgeon was in a panic.
“Wolf, the blood’s dark,” he said.
So were the patient’s fingernails.
“I can’t see the problem,” said the anesthesiologist, Dr. M. “The ventilator’s working and the patient’s intubated.”
I was going through my mental checklist when I noticed something abnormal about the way the ventilator was functioning. The bellows didn’t seem to be filling properly. Then I saw that the conduit from the anesthesia machine to the ventilator—a rubber tube carrying all the anesthetic gasses, including oxygen—had become disconnected.
Everything resolved in my mind. I re-connected the ventilator, whispered to Dr. M. what the problem had been, and returned to my room. Dr. M’s patient still had a strong heartbeat and would soon be fine. My patient was unchanged. The whole trip had taken less than a minute.
I tell this story because of its I came, I saw the problem, I corrected it essence. Probably you have a similar story—you walked in as the baby was about to put a piece of broken glass in its mouth, you stopped it. It’s the way problems should be solved. It’s the paradigm, the mythos, for solving problems that holds place in the psyche. And it works—on a small scale, a micro scale.
The difficulties come when the problems are large.
Along with everyone else, I was fascinated when Ira Glass released the “Retraction” show last month on This American Life. This was the episode where Glass revealed that Mike Daisey, a theatrical monologuist, had lied to him about what happened on his visit to the Foxconn factory in China, where Apple products are made.
Daisy tells the story of his China visit in a one-man stage show, excerpts of which had previously aired on This American Life as “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” Daisy told Glass that the events he reports in the stage show were true—they really happened to him.
But they didn’t. Daisey had made them up.
It’s fine to make things up in the theatre. More problematic in radio journalism. Daisey did himself no credit when he later claimed that his report on working conditions at the Foxconn factory contained a higher, metaphorical truth.
What his reporting really contained, as Stephen Colbert would say, was “truthiness.”
Glass was right to devote a whole show to his retraction, but he was also aware that he hadn’t exactly covered himself in glory by airing “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” in the first place. This is because part of Glass’s job is to verify facts before he broadcasts them.
Fans know that normally Glass signs off every This American Life episode with a fake quote making fun of his boss, Tory Malatia. “Retraction” ended with Glass in this glum state of mind:
“WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Tory Malatea . . . And . . . I think this is a week I am just not in the mood for an extra quote here from Tory.”
If there was a hero in this business it was Marketplace’s China correspondent, Rob Schmitz. Like many reporters in China who heard “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” Schmitz felt it didn’t ring true. Unlike all the other reporters, he set out to learn what had really happened on Daisy’s trip.
Schmitz found the Chinese translator who had accompanied Daisey on his tour, a woman named Cathy, and gave her a tape of “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” to listen to.
“Not true,” said Cathy.
So began the unraveling.
THE MAP IS NOT THE TERRITORY
Of the many things that may be said about the rippling effects of Mike Daisey’s trip to China, one stands out to me above all else: we’re a long way from I came, I saw the problem, I corrected it.
Some people credit Daisey with shining a light, however diffused, on something important. Here is one comment I found amid the media firestorm:
No doubt about it – telling lies and misrepresenting fiction as fact are flat wrong. So is publishing unverified reports as though they were documented facts. Still, from such multiple “wrongs” it seems something “right” m[a]y have emerged. We consumers have been inspired by Daisey and other[s] to take a good hard look at ourselves and ask if saving a few bucks on a device is worth the moral cost of engagement with the most murderous regime that’s ever existed on the planet.
The guy had me until that last line. The leap to hyperbole is stunning. Most murderous regime ever? Really? It might even be true if you’re thinking of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which was 40 years ago. Of course, it leaves out villains like the Nazis. In any case, it seems a long way from Foxconn.
Nearly three-quarters of a century ago, S.I. Hayakawa wrote a passage called “The Word is Not the Thing” in a book that should still be required reading for every high school student. Hayakawa meant that people should be careful what they talk about, because the act of talking begins a process of abstraction that leads away from the thing itself. No matter how good the map is, it isn’t the territory.
Mike Daisey is a map seller. So is the guy I quoted above who defended him. Like the map? Pass it around. Like it on Facebook! Start a discussion!
One trouble with a virtual culture is nobody’s on the ground. Everybody is in a map in their head. The exact nature of a problem, to say nothing of what to do about it, gets pushed further and further away.
It’s better to wander alone in uncharted territory than to have a map made by tourists. — African proverb.
I admire Rob Schmitz, the Marketplace reporter above, because he sniffed out a problem with the tourist map and and wandered around by himself on the ground.
HOW TO FIX AN ANESTHESIA MACHINE
When I walked into the OR and fixed that machine, I wasn’t exactly a tourist. I had a pretty good map, surely a better one than Mike Daisy’s map of China. But was it really?
A few years after the incident with the ventilator, manufacturers of anesthesia machines changed the connectors to make it less likely for them to come apart. That was some map they were working with.
I had thought the problem was that Dr. M. hadn’t paid enough attention to what he was doing. But somebody else looked more thoroughly, and saw a deeper problem: connections needed to be fail-safe.
Perhaps someday a fail-safe connector will fail. Then a deeper problem will have been uncovered.
The fundamental difficulty with talking about the world is that there is no world. There is only what someone is looking at, and how she’s looking.
A thing is what it is will conclude in two weeks with: Appearances
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