Yet another hero is toppled as critics claim that an inspiring bestseller contains lies and its author is hiding money. How to react?
I’ll start this off by stating some of my biases: I have read Three Cups of Tea, I have heard Greg Mortenson speak (at UNC Greeley, Feb 10, 2010) and I have given the Central Asia Institute (C.A.I) money. I’ve never been head-over-heels in love with Mortenson (he wasn’t a very good speaker and the book does reek of “noble savages”) but as a climber who changed his life to help others (or so the story goes) I’ve respected him as someone who managed to do something to improve the world.
I was surprised and disheartened tonight to read about the current controversy surrounding him and his organization. Below are links to some of the stories. The last link is an in-depth collection of writings about this controversy.
In short, “60 minutes” aired an exposé (see below) of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute last Sunday. Since the “60 minutes” piece, others, notably Jon Krakauer, himself an acclaimed author/journalist, have come forward with more information. The critics are claiming that Mortenson’s book contains gross inaccuracies (including his claim to have been nursed to health in Korphe and having been kidnapped by Taliban), that he claims more schools have been built than actually have, and that there are financial issues with the amount of money from donations actually going to the schools and the amount of money from the C.A.I. going to promote Mortenson’s books.
• 60 Minutes April 17, 2011 story (video)
• Outside Online article (no date posted)
• Three Cups of Deceit (I haven’t read this; it costs $2.99 and is apparently a 75-page article by Jon Krakauer about the controversy)
• A great collection of many writings about this controversy: as of this writing, this website has collected almost 150 different articles about the controversy and a few background articles about the work of the C.A.I. The same website has an excellent discussion (here) of this scandal as part of the larger issues of global aid and philanthropy.
What do I want to say about this controversy? Again, there is the I Don’t Know What I Know problem that I have written about before. I am forming all my opinions on the writing and research of others; I have no idea how accurate that work is. With the media and names such as Jon Krakauer and 60 minutes involved everything gets even more confusing.
My second thought is the now-cliché idea that we need to always topple our heroes. Greg Mortenson is clearly not perfect, as a climber, a fund-raiser or (I suspect) a manager. I’m now reading concepts that building schools wasn’t helpful to these kids, instead, training and paying teachers may have helped more.
But he still did something.
I don’t know if he did get off track, if C.A.I. became a money-maker for him through book tours, if he lied about the first time he went to Korphe. From what I’ve read, I suspect that he had good intentions but his skills were overwhelmed. Perhaps building schools for girls wasn’t the most helpful thing for the area. I suspect the organization was poorly managed and inefficient. I’m not giving Mortenson a free pass for his errors; it is each of our responsibility to recognize our weaknesses and improve or ask for help.
But right now, knowing the little that I know, I give him kudos for doing something.
Emily Gubler lives with two wonderful special needs dogs in the mountains of Colorado. When she isn’t walking her dogs, she is contemplating and writing about the ordinary contradictions of life here.