As I sat watching 60 Minutes dismantle the godlike aura that surrounds Three Cups of Tea author and philanthropist Greg Mortenson on Sunday, I felt sick to my stomach. Like many of you, I have read Three cups of Tea several times. I followed the Central Asia Institute, (his non-profit) on Facebook and wondered when the Norwegians were going to get with the program and give him the Nobel Peace Prize. I also teach his book, and have been for the last four years, in Spanish. I have held him up as an example to my students, showing them that a virtuous man can make a difference in the world, and that they can too, as long as they find in themselves just a pinch of the character that makes Mortenson tick. I even encouraged people to donate to CAI and to attend his speaking engagements. Now, it appears, Mortenson is making me look like an asshole.
I think that whether or not Mortenson actually does good work in Asia is irrelevant to this argument. Sure, he builds schools, and he has undoubtedly improved the lives of many thousands of school children, especially girls. He also turns out to be a liar, and in doing so risks alienating the very people (me) who have been singing his praises.
I have felt this way before. Somewhat coincidentally, I was also a big fan of James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, the Oprah Winfrey Book Club endorsed memoir about his battle with addiction. It turned out that parts of Frey’s descriptions of events were exaggerated for dramatic purpose and when Oprah realized that she had been duped, she made Frey come back on her show where she kicked his ass all over the stage. He left the building with his tail between his legs.
I am willing to give Frey a pass on his exaggerations for two reasons. First, A Million Little Pieces is a great book and a resource for anyone wanting to tackle addiction without all the “give yourself to a higher power” nonsense that apparently happens in most drug treatment programs. In Frey’s view, if you really want to stop using, you stop using.
Second, Frey’s book is a memoir, just a memoir. While he made a good deal of money exaggerating his story, in the end that’s all it was – a story. All memoir writers change things to make them interesting, and frankly I am glad that they do, because it makes their books better. The difference with Mortenson is that his book is more than a memoir, it is a major fund raising tool that is used by the CAI to raise the millions of dollars that they bring in every year.
Unfortunately, according to CBS, very little of that money goes to building schools. Much of it goes to travel expenses related to Mortenson’s book tours and speaking engagements. Mortenson himself admits that the CAI takes a portion of its funds and dedicates them to its endowment. That makes good business sense to do so, but when you have school children around the country giving up their time and collecting change in order to build a school for other kids that they have never met before halfway across the world, then you better use that money to build a school. If any of the money school children donated to the CAI went into the general fund for the organization – and therefore went to pay for airfare or payments to the endowment, then Mortenson owes the children of America an apology. In fact, somebody call Oprah before she retires so he can issue the apology to a national audience. I could really go for a good ass whipping right about now.
In about a month, I will be leaving for rural Latin America, where I have been bringing American and Canadian students for four years to participate in a long term service project aimed at developing a relationship between North and South American students based on the shared experience of working and living together as equals. This year we will be constructing a number of greenhouses to help villagers to grow vegetables at over 13,000 feet in elevation.
I don’t have a book to use to help us raise funds. In fact, what my students do is actually not that interesting of a story. We have a great ongoing relationship with the village, and students come up with great fund raising ideas, but it is not that flashy - certainly not worthy of a memoir. In four years time, my students have sold chocolate, written letters, and given speeches and in the process raised almost 10,000 dollars for our projects – pennies compared with what the CAI raises. I can say, however, that 100% of that money goes to our projects. Not one single cent is spent on travel expenses or advertising.
I wish that I could buy into the idea that I should give Mortenson some slack because of all of the good that comes out of what he does, but I can’t. I just keep thinking about an important part of Three Cups of Tea where he turns down funding from the Pentagon because of what would happen if the people in Pakistan found out that his schools were being funded by U.S. military. He showed a great deal of wisdom and understanding in that moment. He stood on the side of honesty - at least I think he did. Now, I only hope that he will do the same the next time he cashes a check from American schoolchildren.