Making sense of Mortenson

All day long I have been utterly fascinated with the revelations about Greg Mortenson’s falsehoods and mismanagement of his organization, the Central Asia Insitute, which he created to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I vowed to write a lengthy essay tonight to get out all the thoughts this episode has provoked — but it’s 1:00 AM and I still haven’t finished the esteemed Jon Krakauer’s 75-page exposé, “Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way.” Thus, I offer just a few disjointed comments, pending my completion of the article and, ahem, the book.

First, let me suggest a partial reading/watching list, which my Twitter feed should continue to augment in the next few days:

  • Ideally, at least one of Mortenson’s books, especially Three Cups of Tea. In fact, I haven’t read them, though they have been recommended and gifted to me on numerous occasions.
  • The 60 Minutes episode from Sunday, 4/17/11.
  • Mortenson’s response in an Outside magazine interview.
  • CAI/Mortenson’s response to 60 Minutes’s questions (I believe they came too late to make it into the program).
  • A blog of the Economist parsing of one of at least two insidiously racist assertions in Mortenson’s Outside responses: that the “archaic” Balti language makes locals unfit to retell the dates of his arrival in their village. As a friend who is an anthropology professor specializing in this region wrote to me: “I find that claim to be rather dubious. Even if their language is an archaic dialect of Tibetan, Baltis have been Muslim for centuries and are presumably well acquainted with the Islamic clandar. Also presumably there would be at least one or two teachers or officials in even the smallest village who would be invested in being modern. Or there would be in China at any rate…”The other insidiously racist passage (and shameless passing of the buck) is Mortenson’s suggestion that there is something called a “confidence trick” in “Africa and Asia” whereby local staff take advantage of donors after years of gaining their trust. While certainly possible, this is not limited to Africa and Asia (dude, I’ve heard about some stuff working for the San Francisco city government, believe you me), and is just a lazy reference to a trope, which is an artifact of colonial times, about the dangers of the wily native.
  • Finally, and most importantly, read Krakauer’s article (downloadable for free for about the next 48 hours). It’s astonishing —  even if I haven’t finished it yet — not least because the CAI/Mortenson fabrications occurred in plain view for a decade and a half.

This affair illuminates an intersection of many social and political issues. It’s about much more than the individual, Mortenson. I’m thinking here of the narratives of GWOT; the fundamental problems with accountability of private nongovernmental work overseas; the unquestioning of the American public when we are spoon-fed facile stories of foreign lands populated with casts of wild-eyed fundamentalists, noble savages, and their helpless babies, who need us oh so much.

More deeply, it makes me suspicious of charity as a solution to complex problems. The violence and inequality in regions such as AfPak — and indeed the world — are political in origin and demand political solutions. To the extent that we can ameliorate problems with charity, without also reforming the power imbalances, laws, and crippled economies beneath them, we sometimes risk simply whitewashing, and we will necessarily create cases like Mortenson/CAI.

And the truly saddening thing is that a lot of evidence shows we want to continue believing fairy tales like Mortenson’s rather than face the difficult necessity of reforming our relationship with the world. A saccharine story and a donation are exponentially easier to digest than the systemic reform that is truly needed for any lasting change.

Take the fan base’s responses to Krakauer and 60 Minutes. Monitoring the comments to the articles above and the #Mortenson Twitter feed, it is easy to see that many, many people are ready to forgive Mortenson, without further ado.

His heart was in the right place. He really raised awareness about the need for education. Sure, some money was wasted, but a lot of it ended up in good places. The media is sensationalist. It’s a beautiful vision.

Please, please, don’t take our easy, breezy bedtime story away from us…

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