Jon Krakauer has produced an investigative expose of Greg Mortenson and his memoirs about building schools in Afghanistan, Three Cups of Tea
and Stones Into Schools
(available for free at byliner
until April 20th). Krakauer seems mostly pissed off because the dramatic story was used to solicit donations for the Central Asia Institute - Krakauer gave them $75,000, and Obama gave them $100,000 - and there are now questions about fraudulent financial statements and misuse of CAI funds by Mortenson, as well as falsehoods about how many schools have been built. Three Cups of Deceit
is pretty short (89 pages). The first chapter is about inaccuracies in the "creation myth," as Krakauer calls it, about how he found this village that he pledged to build a school in (let's call it dramatic embellishment - what's worse is that he backed out of a promise to build a school in the village he actually went to post-K2, and then accused them of greed in his book for trying to hold him to the promise). What's most aggravating is that Mortenson apparently portrayed a friendly visit to a Pakistani village where Mortenson was treated like the guest of honor as a Taliban kidnapping. I mean, if that's so, that's not mixing up dates or locations - it's slandering a whole village of people, mislabeling photos of them as being of their "sworn enemies," etc. Krakauer writes:
A preponderance of evidence indicates that Mortenson manufactured his account of being kidnapped by the Taliban out of whole cloth, apparently for the same reason he’s invented so many other anecdotes of personal derring-do in his books and public appearances: to inflate the myth of Greg Mortenson, “the astonishing, uplifting story of a real-life Indiana Jones and his remarkable humanitarian campaign in the Taliban’s backyard,” as the back cover of Three Cups of Tea puts it. The likelihood that anyone in the United States would ever discover the truth about what happened in an exceedingly isolated Pakistani village must have seemed infinitesimal to Mortenson.
If that's true, that's gross. One of the people he's portrayed as a Taliban kidnapper says: "“Years later,” says Naimat Gul, “when I scanned through the book Three Cups Of Tea and read that Greg had been abducted and threatened with guns, I was shocked. Instead of telling the world about our frustration, deprivation, illiteracy, and tradition of hospitality, he invented a false story about being abducted by savages. I do not understand why he did this.”" Mortenson has implied in reply
that those who have contradicted his story are those who "do not want our mission of educating girls to succeed."
The second chapter is about a lack of communication between Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute's board, lying in the book about turning down raises when he actually got even bigger raises, more making up stories about real people, using CAI "as his personal ATM," and generally being an egomaniac. Particularly hilarious:
According to one of Mortenson’s friends, when he learned that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love had bumped Three Cups of Tea from number one down to number two on the New York Times paperback nonfiction list, “Greg was furious. He started buying books like crazy, with the CAI credit card, to try and put Three Cups back on top.”
Krakauer estimates CAI's actual budget to be 50% fundraising and administrative funds, as opposed to the 15% they claim goes to fundraising and administrative funds on their web site (because they count book advertising and charter jets as program funds, not fundraising and administrative funds).
Then in chapter 3, more lying about places in Afghanistan ("The most troubling irony is that the focal region of Mortenson’s work—the Shia region of Baltistan with its Tibetan-Buddhist heritage—has nothing to do with the war on terror, yet is primarily viewed through this lens in [Three Cups of Tea]."), abandoning schools after the physical building has been built, short of supplies or teacher training ("The statement about students learning five languages is absolutely false, says a CAI staffer, “not even true for a single school.” Most teachers, this staffer also reports, have never received any training from CAI."), simply lying about the existence of some schools, CAI filling in the many holes in their expense accounting, not listening to what the needs of the area are ("Their rationale for ranking clinics above schools, Callahan explains, was the appalling infant mortality rate in the Pamir. As one Kyrgyz elder told him, “If 50 percent of the children die before age five, who is there to educate?”"), driving away talented people at CAI, more lying about actual people, and unforeseen consequences:
The Afghan government provides a teacher who holds classes inside a yurt right in his camp, he pointed out, “so why would our children want to walk all the way down there to go to school, and then have to walk back up at the end of the day? The school is pointless. It’s empty. The border police seem to use it sometimes.”
Defrauding people is one thing - and an important thing, because of the bad name it gives to altruism and the betrayal of people's trust, etc. - but for me, the worst part is the creation of villains and danger, essentially just to make the plot more exciting, and slandering various remote but real people and communities to do so. And then there's the role Mortenson plays in the greater U.S. narrative.
And, this is my other issue. My personal opinion is that Krakauer is right to call Mortenson's central argument - that increasing secular education in places like Afghanistan will discourage and eliminate terrorism - "uncomplicated." It's part of a package of basic liberal common sense, and goes along with the health clinics mentioned above. Everybody agrees that education and healthcare are good antidotes to the "primitivity" of terrorism. And hey, education and healthcare can't hurt, from a basic standard of living perspective. Then some people add economic development and other people add democracy and suddenly what cures terrorism is for "them" to be more like "us." Which... seems kind of circular. Education doesn't stop the U.S. from bombing weddings, doesn't close Guantanamo Bay, doesn't cut small arms supplies from Militant A to help fight Militant B. But those are things that Mortenson's argument allow us not to think about. Although I don't agree with Mark Juergensmeyer
that secularism has created terrorism, he does have a much more nuanced understanding of terrorism-in-society, and his book is a decent antidote to this line of thought. This facet of liberalism doesn't seem to have changed since the Dutch were trying to justify colonizing Indonesia with the Ethical Policy
. And basically, I just don't think it's enough. Saying off-handedly that "oh, education will solve it" basically implies that properly-educated people are above this foolish behavior and there's no need to look at the behavior any deeper, because it'll just die out on its own when we hit them over the head with our logic hard enough. Again... I don't buy it.
I think this is particularly important:
“The way I’ve always understood Greg,” Callahan reflects, “is that he’s a symptom of Afghanistan. Things are so bad that everybody’s desperate for even one good-news story. And Greg is it. Everything else might be completely fucked up over there, but here’s a guy who’s persuaded the world that he’s making a difference and doing things right,” Mortenson’s tale “functioned as a palliative,” Callahan suggests. It soothed the national conscience. Greg may have used smoke and mirrors to generate the hope he offered, but the illusion made people feel good about themselves, so nobody was in a hurry to look behind the curtain. Although it doesn’t excuse his dishonesty, Mortenson was merely selling what the public was eager to buy.