It’s tempting to expect perfection from those we admire, but we romanticize lone heroes at our peril. A few years before one-time supporter Jon Krakauer challenged the truthfulness of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, a professor asked me my thoughts on using the book as a reading for first-year students, to encourage them to become more engaged with global issues. I hesitated. Mortenson was doing valuable work, I said. The book was a great read. I admired his creativity and courage, and the leap of faith he took to begin building his schools without the slightest guarantee of success. I admired how he persisted through seemingly endless obstacles to sow seeds of hope. His approach seemed a powerful rebuke to Bush administration assumptions that if the U.S. just bombed enough of the bad guys, the region’s problems would disappear. Mortenson also appeared to respect local Pakistani and Afghan culture in a way that seemed to offer key lessons for America’s broader relationship with the world.
But even before the Krakauer revelations, I was wary of heralding Three Cups as a prime model for engagement. The same story of unimaginable individual heroism and sacrifice that drew people in could also leave them feeling insignificant in comparison. “Three Cups is an inspirational story,” readers would tell me. “But I can’t climb Himalayan mountains. I can’t go into an Afghan village and build a school from scratch. I can’t raise millions of dollars for projects halfway around the world. It would be great if I could be Greg Mortenson, but I’m not and can’t be, so the best I can do is support his good work.”
Three Cups still presents an infinitely more hopeful message than that of detached cynicism. But the story, as Mortenson presents it, can easily buttress the myth that those who make change have to be almost superhuman, or saints. It can feed what I call the perfect standard trap, where people convince themselves that unless they’re some kind of unimaginably perfect hero, supremely eloquent, confident, and capable and of immaculate moral character, they’re not going to be able to make change. Stories of courage in seemingly impossible situations can inspire us to act in more modest ways, but the more their protagonists choices seem drawn in larger than life strokes, the harder it is to make this link. So while it’s not Mortenson’s fault that he’s lived his life in dramatic relief, there’s a limit on the lessons we can draw.
But Mortenson’s story, at least as he’s presented it, focuses so much on his own individual action and choices that everyone else appears to act most effectively as spear-carriers for his cause. As we learned from the amazing revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, institutional change, in contrast, requires common action, initiative, and voice, not just supporting the work of charismatic leaders. The story Mortenson presents leaves few ways for those it inspires to act, beyond raising money to promote his initiatives.
The arc of Mortenson’s fame also reminds me how much our culture enshrines lone entrepreneurs as the ultimate change agents, while displaying a commensurate disdain for those who’ve long worked in the trenches. We see this in international development, where businesspeople or celebrities receive massive publicity for their glamorous new projects, while groups like Oxfam or CARE that work year after year in local communities are left invisible in the shadows, or presented as dull, bureaucratic, and retrograde in comparison. We see the same thing with America’s educational debates, where those who talk glibly of solving poverty and inequality with the instant solutions of high stakes testing, charter schools, or eliminating the long-held rights of teachers receive massive attention, while the experiences of those who’ve actually spent 20 or 30 years in the classrooms are disdained and ignored. Sometimes fresh approaches can shake things up, and Mortenson’s focus on getting Pakistani and Afghan girls enrolled in school may well be one of those transformative ideas. But his books still feed the narrative that the best way to make change is to ignore pretty much anything that anyone else has been doing all along, and to charge ahead with your own Lone Ranger initiatives. So even before the Krakauer revelations, I believed that Mortenson’s books had their limits as models for how ordinary people can create social change.
Now we learn from Krakauer and 60 Minutes that key parts of the story were fabricated, or at least grossly embellished. There’s something profoundly disturbing in turning a Pakistani community that went out of their way to host him into narrative cannon fodder by presenting them as Taliban kidnappers. Or by apparently manufacturing the book’s powerful opening story about his stumbling into a Pakistani village half-dead and being nursed back to health by a community where he would build his first school. Or by profoundly exaggerating both how many schools his institute has helped build and the number where students actually ended up enrolling, as opposed to the institute funding empty buildings that ended up converted to storage sheds. When a foundation solicits the money of tens of thousands of donors by saying they’re using it to build schools, the majority of the money shouldn’t be going to promote a book.
I don’t know why Greg Mortenson decided to play fast and loose with the facts. Maybe he felt the actual story wasn’t dramatic and enticing enough to inspire people to care. Maybe he was distracted and overloaded, and left the writing to his co-author. Maybe he’d told the questionable stories so often he’d come to believe them. None of this erases his important work, or genuine humanitarian motives. Those of us who work for change all have our faults, and if we waited until we were impossibly perfect people we’d, never find the moment to act. But for all Mortenson’s valuable work, the gap between the worlds he purported to depict and the words through which he described them can’t help but undercut his message, because we no longer know which stories are real and which are not. Had he presented a more modest and accurate tale, where it was clearer that he was only one courageous human being among many, it might have actually presented more useful lessons to spur the action and involvement of others. Or maybe it would have sunk without a trace in the sea of distraction we call our culture, because we’re so primed to respond only to the larger than life. The risk now, though, is that the debunking of his work will feed cynical withdrawal from those who previously placed him on a pedestal. That would be a tragedy because we need their involvement if we’re to move toward the kind of more humane world that, for all Mortenson’s flaws, I believe he has still worked passionately to create.