We Will Be Fooled Again

Paul Allen and Greg Mortenson Write from Peculiar Points of View

by Chris Barsanti

19 April 2011

The scandal over the possible truthiness of Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea leaves us with a lesson that apparently needs to be taught again and again.
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Idea Man: A Memoir by the Co-Founder of Microsoft

Paul Allen

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time

Greg Mortenson, David Oliver Relin

The 17 April edition of 60 Minutes was surprisingly book-heavy for these tweetable times, with two segments being focused on recent books and, more particularly, on the men who wrote them. The second was the less eye-opening of the two, being a somewhat quizzical take on the new memoir by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. This is the same Allen who cashed out to a tune of some $40 billion, which he then spent on philanthropy, but more eye-catchingly on a Jimi Hendrix guitar, his own ocean-going yacht that’s bigger than a football field, and a hanger full of vintage war planes, not to mention a couple of pro sports franchises. Leslie Stahl looks at Allen crook-eyed while he awkwardly tells stories about what a screaming jerk Bill Gates was, and tells him that she’s getting a certain Howard Hughes vibe, as are those viewers paying attention…

The Gates story – about how he and Steve Ballmer supposedly conspired to dilute Allen’s share of the company after Allen was diagnosed with cancer – was the book’s attention-grabber that hooked people in. But pretty quickly it becomes apparent that that’s not the narrative 60 Minutes wants to pursue. The feeling the whole piece leaves one with is pretty sour, and will likely not result in anybody rushing out to get Allen’s book, Idea Man; a pretty astounding thing given that this is the man who was instrumental in creating the dominant corporate-technological apparatus of the late 20th century. The book is hobbled before it even gets out of the gate.
The lead piece, however, was of a more familiar narrative: the con man unveiled. Greg Mortenson, the author of the bestsellers Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, has long run a charity called the Central Asia Institute, whose avowed purpose (according to its website) is “to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Mortenson’s books are touted as nonfiction accounts of his travels and labors to bring schools and schooling to these regions.

Three Cups of Tea in particular has proved a smashing success, with millions of copies sold and readers thrilling to Mortenson’s stories from the ends of the world, which seem to be equal parts hair-raising adventure and heartbreaking pathos. The stories which 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft relates from the books – Mortenson dragging his exhausted self into a remote village whose poor residents then took care of him, his later kidnapping by the Taliban – are all the sort of thing we want to believe can happen. A harrowing adventure, followed by coming face to face with abject suffering, concluded with a firm resolution to do something about it.

These can be mean and blinkered times, with the cult of the individual growing ever larger and more rankly selfish. The man who goes off in search of inequities to even out is that rare kind of hero not delivered to us via Marvel Comics 3D spectacular.

But Kroft isn’t the one who tells us that Mortenson’s stories might all be bunk. He leaves that to former Central Asia Institute donor Jon Krakauer (Where Men Win Glory, Into Thin Air), exactly the kind of tenacious bloodhound nobody wants on their tail. Krakauer alleges that Mortenson has done many great things for education in Pakistan and Afghanistan:

But if you go back and read the first few chapters of that book, you realize, “I’m being taken for a ride here.”

It’s a fairly damning spectacle over all, with the show systematically calling into doubt not only the veracity of Mortenson’s more dramatic stories – one of the supposed Taliban kidnappers appears to have been a respected Pakistani intellectual utterly confused by the whole affair – but raising concerns about financial improprieties at the Central Asia Institute and even the charity’s track record.

The result is the beginning of a James Frey-level scandal. Viking, the publisher of Three Cups of Tea has announced that they’re going to “carefully review the materials with the author,” a process that rarely has a pleasant ending for anybody involved.

Mortenson has already issued the expected statements about how one incident that Krakauer called into question he wrote about were “a compressed version of events” and even making the inventive argument that some of the people he traveled among in the Himalayas “have a completely different notion about time.”

Where all this will leave readers and Mortenson is hard to say. Even Krakauer, for all his criticisms of Mortenson – written up at further length in the online-only long-form piece, “Three Cups of Deceit”; shrewdly published the day after the 60 Minutes broadcast – takes pains to note that Mortenson is indeed a philanthropist worthy of recognition. This is not a scorched-earth campaign in the style of Christopher Hitchens’s assault on the saintly carapace of Mother Teresa or Oprah’s vendetta against Frey. While Mortenson isn’t accused of consorting with dictators (like Mother Teresa), his stories do seem to have a Frey-like scent of puffed-up look-at-me egoism to them. Whether Mortenson’s readers will care is anybody’s guess

In the end, the early rumblings of this affair leave us with this truth, which apparently we need to learn over and over again, in the manner of unsustainable market bubbles: when the story is just so impossibly dramatic and life-affirming and heroic, it’s just about never as strictly truthful as the teller would have you believe. This is a lesson that must be repeated in this era of truthiness, until the teller’s throat goes dry.

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