Cult of 'Three Cups of Tea' Should Have Known Better
A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders
The first tip-off that Greg Mortenson's memoir "Three Cups of Tea" has some credibility issues comes in the book's introduction. Co-author David Oliver Relin writes that as Mortenson is flying over Pakistan, the helicopter pilot marvels to Mortenson, "I've been flying in northern Pakistan for 40 years. How is it you know the terrain better than me?"
The pilot also confides, "Flying with President Musharraf, I've become acquainted with many world leaders, many outstanding gentlemen and ladies. But I think Greg Mortenson is the most remarkable person I've ever met."
People don't talk like that. Books don't lead with that level of self-aggrandizement. Unless they want to induct you into a cult.
Last Sunday, "60 Minutes" reporter Steve Kroft ripped into Mortenson's claim of stumbling years ago into a Pakistani village as he descended from a K2 climb and meeting a young girl who asked him to build a school. While he refused Kroft's request for an on-camera interview, in a statement, Mortenson admitted his version of events was "condensed."
It seems Mortenson also fabricated a story of being kidnapped by the Taliban. Kroft interviewed Mansur Khan Mahsud, the research director of an Islamabad think tank, who was surprised to see himself in a photo that Mortenson had claimed showed his 1996 captors.
In the statement, Mortenson explained that "Talib" means student of Arabic. And Khan wants to sue him for defamation.
The worst part: "60 Minutes" checked out 30 of the 141 schools that Mortenson's charity, Central Asia Institute, claimed to have built in Afghanistan and Pakistan "mostly for girls." Kroft reported, "Roughly half were empty, built by someone else or not receiving any support at all."
American Institute of Philanthropy President Daniel Borochoff found that in 2009, CAI spent more on "domestic outreach" -- largely advertising and travel promoting Mortenson's books, "like a book tour" -- than it spent overseas.
"Into Thin Air" author Jon Krakauer, who is mentioned in "Three Cups" as a CAI supporter, charged that Mortenson, who has made millions in book sales, used the charity "as his private ATM."
That revelation must have hit "Three Cups" fans in the gut. The memoir asserts that Mortenson made repeated sacrifices -- such as living in his car rather than pay rent -- because "every wasted dollar stole bricks or books from the school."
But there were so many other signals that the book was problematic.
In "Three Cups," Mortenson charmed his Taliban kidnappers by asking for a Quran and showing his devotion -- and so they let him go. Which is amazing.
More amazing was the claim that they gave him money, saying, "For your schools. So, Inshallah, you'll build many more." (It helps if you forget how bad the Taliban take on education for girls is.)
There were other signals. Writer Ann Marlowe questioned some of the "anti-military nonsense" in a 2008 Forbes commentary. Mortenson claimed that during his stint as an Army medic in Germany, Vietnam veterans were hooked on heroin and died "in their bunks and we'd have to go and collect their bodies." Marlowe suggested that readers take his tales with "three grains of salt."
Instead, he sold 3 million books. Why? Through the pouring of "Three Cups," Mortenson came to personify every liberal conceit. He pushed books, not bombs. He had a nuanced take on Islamic extremism. He's not afraid of terrorism; for him, "the enemy is ignorance."
Marlowe observed, "The implication is that this solitary do-gooder's work is a better model for helping the rural poor in areas that are a breeding ground for Islamic extremism." While to the contrary, the U.S. Army built more schools in just one Afghan province in 15 months than CAI built in a decade.
Listeners of KQED-FM's "Forum" last week were outraged and perplexed. On the one hand, Mortenson has done a lot of good for a lot of children. On the other hand, the "60 Minutes" story makes his fans look gullible.
A caller asked: How are we supposed to know a book is a phony?
Hmmmm. If the cash-giving girls-school-loving Taliban tale doesn't ring a bell, if the constant reminders of Mortenson's greatness -- and modesty -- don't do the trick, maybe there is another warning sign. Global Fund for Women Vice President Shalini Nataraj warned about any memoir that hails "the white savior who's going to come in and save the local people."
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