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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Greg Mortenson: What We Lie About When We Lie About Love

                    Next Cause: Equal Rights for Imaginary Friends


In the wake of allegations that the author of the wildly successful and inspirational Three Cups of Tea fabricated the story that many hoped would usher in worldwide peace and change, the world, thankfully or unfortunately (all about perspective),  has gotten right back on that old path with reinforced resolve...

Oprah, duped for the second time in four or five years, will need to wipe egg off her face once again; but don't think for one moment that someone won't pay, finding themselves with a beard of meringue soon enough.

Author Jon Krakauer, who apparently owns every mountain in the world, is telling us so: this is what happens when other people write about adventure.

And the millions who bought the book are finding solace that Three Cups author, Greg Mortenson is taking his, and that his work is now being dismissed as propaganda and mass marketing.

Question: As marketing assesses the demand and then supplies accordingly: we all know Mortenson was out to sell us something, but what did he know  we were looking to buy?


Let's forget about his questionable repelling, or how the schools are functioning, or even what his exact profit has been ( I believe that all 501c 3s need only give a certain percent- there is profit in non-profit).

Most significantly and as it happens most interestingly, Mortenson lied about his inspiration for doing his good, and the people he was doing it for.

The story goes that in 1993 Mortenson failed in an attempt to climb K2. Upon his descent, he got lost and was weakened. He was taken in by a village chief and family who nursed him back to health.

There was no interaction with villagers, and maybe no village ( well, the village was there, he just didn't spend any time being saved there).

There was no wool blanket- "their most valuable possession" cloaked over him. There was no sugar- a rare and "precious" commodity in the village- that was so generously expended on his cups of tea.

There was nothing that he needed to "repay" despite his claiming that he "could never repay them". And building the schools that served the impoverished village were not the "least he could do".

Yes, the villages are poor. Yes, the schools were inadequate. Yes, the villagers died of illnesses "easily cured in the U.S.". Why do we need a mythical night of goodwill that earns supporting anyone who believes in addressing this?

I'm willing to overlook the other fraudulent claims of run-ins with the Taliban (God, you're over there, who could resist?...I once lied that I gave up a cab in NYC to Deniro), the schools not working or having poor attendance (SEE: EVERY MAJOR U.S. CITY PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL).  His making money? Man's gotta live.

But this lie, that he based the book around; the night of tea that gave the book its name. I can't stomach it.

And there can be only one logical reason:

Mortenson lied because helping people in war-torn, impoverished, poorly educated, bullied, diseased and angry areas is a complex enterprise. The people are not always nice, as was the actual chief of Korphe who allegedly strong-armed Mortenson to choose his village for the first school.

When foreign teams are coming in to help build your schools and hospitals, yours is not a success story. There might be a lot about what's going on being the scenes that might not look too good.

Mortenson tapped into the reigning notion that the people we help must be likable; they have no differences from us ("at heart"); they  have nothing questionable about them ; and for whatever they're deprived by being poor and in need of help, they are really of the greatest spirit (SEE: The photo of GM with the villagers).

 2006 was a bad time for an American to release a book about bringing democratic education and restructuring to Afghanistan and Pakistan; a man who is so repulsed by the conditions of the society that he sets out to rebuild smacks of colonization.

And people with the best of intentions who have earnestly pursued social justice throughout our more recent history have been called imperialistic, racist, expansionist, hateful and other epithets that would really displease their parents.

Mortenson created the kind villagers because he couldn't tell the truth. And by endowing the villagers with this unquestionable, virginal goodness, he can make us all follow  The Star with him.

And he is the Messiah. He is swaddled and loved by decent peasants who are without sin- who are only trying to maintain a humble home and fend off the pressure of evil kings.

The issue I take with this is that Mortenson has pulled the biggest good-cop/bad-cop bit in history. As if the discourse about helping wasn't toxic enough, we have to get this sugary-sweet nonsense?

In the 1960's,  Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan's "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action" came under attack from a generation of academics, and those who are supposed to care about social change, as a "racist affront" to society.

Today the work, while still controversial to some, is widely accepted as a legitimate (and, unfortunately, prescient) study of black culture. And with the backing of current-day African-Americans such as socio-economist Walter E. Williams, it is being revisited.

But as DPM remarked about the initial response, had his "head been on a spike" it couldn't have been more hostile.

Should he have invented a Harlem family who took him in on a snowy night when he was suddenly taken with the flu? The report would have been more widely accepted.

But would it have caused the focused commitment to the issues? Probably not.

That said, it would have stood a greater chance of making it to Oprah's Book Club.


As with most fraud, the literary heist reveals as much about the duped (the readers) and their prejudices as it does the perpetrator.

 In the early 2000's, a writer by the name of JT Leroy (forgive the formal introduction if you're familiar with story) was creating a wave in literary and celebrity circles with several novels reported to be semi-autobiographical accounts of a childhood of vagrancy, teen prostitution, abuse and, of course, literary travails:

"At 15, Leroy carried around a fax machine, plugging it into convenient store jacks and sending out the author's writing samples and notes. It's now the thing of coffeehouse legend."

His work was compared to Flannery O'Connor and William S. Burroughs. Celebrated writers such as Michael Chabon and Tobias Wolff endorsed Leroy.

Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder, a "confidante" of the writer, both expressed interest in taking on roles created by the transgender author.  Fans and supporters included Diane Keaton, Tatum O'Neal, Liv Tyler, Shirley Manson and (big surprise here) Madonna, who sent him Kabbala readings.

They admired his talent and, more, his struggle .

 Ultimately, it was revealed that the androgynous Leroy, who claimed to be HIV positive, was in fact an otherwise healthy actress playing the young man at appearances, and the author of the books was really a struggling 30ish writer named Laura Alpert.

She had created Leroy in an effort to sell her books.

Celebrities cried deceit. This I took to be like the reality star who thinks she's marrying a millionaire and is really getting a brick mason cries "How could he do this to me?"

They did not care for Leroy (couldn't really, right?) , did not really know "his" personality, they didn't know him and while Alpert probably did a good job creating the persona, I can't believe that any of these celebrities who claimed Leroy a friend had any significant or meaningful interaction with them.

It was superficial and shallow, and Alpert, if guily of anything, is indictable for pandering to people with biased notions of struggle.

And more, for all their love of literature, these celebrities who name their guitars and children ( in no order of importance) after their favorite characters, they seemed to bail on the literary "brilliance" that really belonged to Alpert.

(For the record, the writing community continued its support of Alpert and her work.)

I don't know about you, but if it turned out that the works of Flannery O'Connor were churned out not by the lupus-afflicted Georgian but by an insurance salesman  from Sandusky, Ohio, I would still think "Everything That Rises Must Converge" was the most brilliant story I ever read.


The old Snake-Oil Salesman who traveled with his wagon full of miracle elixirs had the most success with two sorts: the stupid and the pious.

The stupid, well, you know about them.

The pious had other reasons for buying. With the snake-oil came a presentation about its creation. The salesman would fill in the blank depending on who he was pitching it to.

The self-righteous are more inclined to believe that a man was momentarily divined and created this cure-all  than that some mortal chemist theorized, dabbled and came up with a logical cure.

Mortenson wanted a cure. But his readers didn't believe a mortal could make it.

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