This morning I finished reading “Three Cups of Tea” about Greg Mortenson, a U.S. man who was an avid climber and mountaineer. As a young man he attempted to summit K2 in the Himalayas, the world’s second highest peak, only to fail and get separated from his guides. Lost, snow-blind, left freezing and without food or supplies on the descent, Greg faced a certain death, until a local Sherpa saved his life and nursed him back to health over months in his remote, impoverished village high in the mountains of Pakistan. Greg decided to repay his debt of gratitude by building a simple school for the village’s children, most of who had no formal education. The book retells that odyssey, and what grew into a lifelong mission of building schools and educating Pakistan and Afghanistan’s poorest, forgotten children, especially their girls. He pressed on despite political opposition, being kidnapped, lack of funding, extreme climates, local warlords, and even Taliban opposition as 9-11 transformed those tranquil apricot orchards and fields of well-grazed goats into a bombed-out, barren war zone.
It was a fascinating and emotionally moving book, and I found myself falling asleep with it on my chest and picking it up again the moment I woke up a few hours later. Others shared my opinion because this book has hit the New York Times best seller’s list and years ago Greg was vaulted into the national spotlight as a speaker, advisor to politicians and military generals, activist, and full-time fundraiser for his Central Asia Institute, which continued to build over 100 schools. In short, Greg was a hero, and a hell of a human being.
The only problem is that he’s being called a fraud. A detailed 60-Minutes report raised numerous allegations of blatant fabrications in the book, co-authored by David Relin, as well as financial misappropriations by Mortensen and ineffectual management by the CAI. In short, the story and his accomplishments were bloated to James Frey-like proportions, and once again we see a hell of a human story fall in disgrace.
Mortenson has been discredited by a number of sources; fellow climbers, people who are supposedly in the book, and a host of charity watchdog groups. He still tours promoting his mission and fundraising (and selling a shit-load of books) but he’s been shockingly mum in his own defense. Sadly, Relin took his own life last November after sinking into a deep depression brought on by the scandal.
I don’t know what to believe when it comes to the Greg Mortenson situation. Some of the improprieties I believe can be explained by trying to assign bright, shiny American scrutiny to accomplishments in a vastly different cultural landscape, where bribes and complications are a simple part of life and no one stops to issue a receipt. A big part of me thinks "who the hell cares?" for 75% of a truth that does that much good in the world, with that much sacrifice, is far better than 100% of a truth that does nothing. It's easy to armchair quarterback, and there is nothing worse. But when I Googled his name followed by the word “scandal” an alarming amount of links appeared from credible news sources. But like everything, the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. It's incontrovertible that Greg has built schools and done more to win the hearts and minds in a very volatile Pakistani and Afghan community than all of our trillion dollar CIA and military operations have in the same time span. But if I were a donor I would demand transparency, like so many have. I think John Krakauer said it best when he stated (paraphrasing) “I believe Greg has done a lot of good, probably more than anyone else for education the poor and girls in that part of the world, but by lying about so much he threatens to bring it all down.”
John Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, a mountaineer himself, was one of Greg’s biggest advocates in the early years. But upon further research he’s withdrawn his support, and calls the charming story of the weakened American taken in by the good people of a Pakistani village and nursed back to health a flat-out lie. In fact Greg descended K2 with another climber and didn’t even visit that village for another year, and many of the other tales in the book have also been romanticized into a wonderful marketing ploy that is simply untrue.
Again and again it seems we are seeing this brand of ascension in the mythos of our heroes, only to fall to earth like Icarus as their wings burn up in the flames of truth. Lance Armstong recently fell from grace as an admitted doper and cheater on the cycling circuit, thereby not only tarnishing his own name, but also causing irreparable damage to his charitable organization.
Do you remember that Kony guy, Jason Russell? I can’t think of a better example of what seemingly started out as a well-intentioned person being consumed by his own passion and turned into a social media-fabricated cautionary tale. His video condemning Joesph Kony, a Ugandan warlord notorious for recruiting child soldiers and perpetrating unspeakable acts, went viral of all virals, reaching 100 million views on YouTube in only six days, a record. The last I heard homeboy went bonkers and was found running around naked in traffic foaming at the mouth, his involvement and the validity of his quixotic-quest scrutinized and shot through with more holes than Swiss cheese.
Why, oh why, do these men, who are obviously capable of great things, fall victim to the legend of their own greatness? The only answer I can come up with is that the unwavering passion it takes to ascend such great heights also has a byproduct, and that is a slippery slope into megalomania, albeit for the right reasons. As if our world wasn’t skeptical enough it makes one, in the words of Marvin Gaye, “Want to holler and throw up both my hands,” and never get behind a charitable cause again. However, if any good can come out of these strange hero-to-zero phenomena perhaps it will initiate a conversation about the very nature of philanthropy, as it did for me. After reading “Three Cups of Tea,” (which I still highly recommend not as a factual monument to the man’s work but a cultural attaché to the amazing common people in that part of the world) I am questioning exactly where and how it’s best to give back, so this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often. However I would be remiss if I didn't thank Greg for all of the good things he's done, and there certainly are a lot.
Read Part 2, Where and how should I give? The answer is 'Yes'.
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The Queens of Dragon Town!
Norm Schriever is a best-selling author, expat, cultural mad scientist, and enemy of the comfort zone. He travels the globe, telling the stories of the people he finds, and hopes to make the world a little bit better place with his words.