Sunday, May 22, 2011

Three Cups of Deceit

The Tale: Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian, Lost His Way

The Writer: Jon Krakauer

The Dealio: This is the first of a possible series of non-fiction presentations on Kindle, meant to be read in a single sitting. Which I did not do. Hope I didn't break some sort of Kindle law and don't wind up going to the Kindle hoosegow!
This story was also related on 60 Minutes in April of this year, which motivated me to download Three Cups of Deceit.
Read the original 'source material', when it first came out. In hard cover, no less. Right away, I got a vibe. A scent of- at the very least- self-glorifying writing. Never could figure out whether it was Greg, himself, who was putting forth the propaganda, or his co-writer. But the fact that I truly wanted to believe that here was a man who was making a visible, important difference- providing opportunities for education to empower a disenfranchised, often invisible group-made the sense of uneasiness even greater.
Krakauer- already established as a writer of weight, (Into Thin Air and Into The Wild, to name two)- was one of the earliest supporters of Mortenson's Central Asia Institute. Like many others, famous and anonymous, he had contributed lavishly to the effort of providing funds to build schools for the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan, often in the most inaccessible of locales. Now, this, I thought, is some kind of great guy!
As the story proceeded, Krakauer began to see that certain small, very basic facts did not line up: dates were contradicted, locales were muddied, people were misidentified. Upon closer inspection, Krakauer discovered a complex mesh of tiny cracks in the story: misinformation- at the very least- and perhaps worse, fraud and misrepresentation of the mission, the methods, the accomplishments and the use of funds. Now, keep in mind, this is a man who got kids in grade schools all over the US to start collecting pennies to support the building of schools. He appears to have been on the road almost constantly, and, as Krakauer discovered, people who paid huge fees to address them in person, were underwriting, not the CAI, but Mortenson himself and his book sales. Further, many of the funds collected for turning Stones into Schools (his second CAI-themed 'novel'), wound up being used to provide Mortenson with first class airfare, pretty nice accommodations and other such unrelated-to-the-cause items.
Karakauer crisply describes the frustrating process of trying to interview Mortenson, the unanimously sad, and sadly negative input of highly-regarded people who had once worked for/with CAI but had come to the parting of the ways- sometimes at their insistence, sometimes due to a Mortenson-inspired climate of toxic paranoia. Most importantly, he presents a carefully researched and stomach-souring tale of a great ideal gone madly awry.

The Grading Session: 4.71 pengies out of 5. It absolutely breaks my heart to even blog on this, because of the enormous sense of being conned, while trying to do something fundamentally life-changing and positive. Shame on you, Greg!

Lessons Learned: Nothing new under the sun, here. But it does bear repeating: good-hearted, generous people, some of whom gave all they possibly could to a cause they believed in, need to read this, and approach with caution when the next ballyhooed, game-changing charity comes along.
I am also thinking about the lessons learned by the children who saved their pennies, energetically canvassing neighborhoods and donating their spending money. I suppose it is never too early to learn the ways of the world are often deceptive and misleading...but, oh! how I wish the adults of tomorrow didn't have to learn this one lesson quite so early.

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