Greg Mortenson and his group have built some very admirable things in the mountains of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the rest of that part of the world, material and organizational. But I am convinced that he, deep down, is a dangerous and willing tool of the authoritarian right wing and that we should all be damned careful before giving him or his group a penny of our money or a second of our support. You want to help children in that part of the world? Wonderful. Find other ways to do it.
Not only that, but any techniques his group, the Central Asia Institute, put forward as models for wider use should be strictly cost-accounted, broken down to their constituent tasks, and then reviewed with a fine-toothed comb and run past others for confirmation who have done similar work in similar parts of the world before being adopted or publicized.
I'm taking this opportunity, with the New York Times having just name-checked him yet again, to say again that I find many things about "Three Cups of Tea" and Greg Mortenson morally repellant and that I look forward with fervor to the day that people realize that it's no coincidence that Mortenson's strongest Congressional supporter featured in his books, Mary Bono, is a mainstay of the authoritarian Christian right.
I found it interesting and non-coincidental that his writing partner for his first book, David Oliver Relin, is never even mentioned in Mortenson's second book. I suspect that they are no longer even on speaking terms. I'm betting Relin's patience ran out. That the mixed feelings he alluded to in the introduction to Three Cups of Tea shifted further over to the negative as time passed and that Mortenson and his people have erected as tall a barrier as they can manage to block off any role Relin might have in speaking about what's really going on. In fact, I'd give it about one in three odds that Mr. Relin is under continuing pressure to keep his mouth shut or be faced with attack by Mortenson's allies. Allies who I would equally bet have long since threatened Mr. Relin in no uncertain terms with retaliation if he should say "the wrong things" in too loud a voice.
As I read Three Cups of Tea and then Stones Into Schools, a lot of subtle things kept sounding somehow off to me. Credit seemed oddly disproportionate to contribution and was weighted far further to authoritarian, conservative sources than their role would seem to merit. Groups I had heard about doing related work seemed oddly absent. Major help from people here in the Pacific Northwest was glossed over, while much smaller efforts by midwesterners got paragraph after paragraph if not page after page. An especially odd thing given that his coauthor was a Portlander. Gender issues in the areas he was working in were addressed, but in an odd tone. One that would fit well in a 1980's Mormon document trying to show that, no, we're not racist at all. Never were. And some of his actions in the mountains just somehow didn't sit right with me. Didn't quite match what I had heard from mountaineers and other people who had been there about what was possible, viable, advisable.
But, well, I've never really even been out of America's big cities. Certainly never really spent time overseas. Maybe I was wrong. I'm just a techie and publishing guy. What would I know?
So I asked around a bit. And I've got to admit the details escape me at the moment. Well, other than my sources being able to rattle off half a dozen agencies getting more schools built with far less fanfare. Or the mahooah I already knew he was spouting about the availability of earthquake-resistant building techniques. Or the presumption that nobody could have been expected to notice the massive fraud his later "partner" was pulling off as his first big third round funding came in. Or the details of his "lucky" chat with Congresswoman Bono and the military connections thereof.
I've spent plenty of time in my life around the charismatic leaders of do-gooder organizations, from senior officials in the Salvation Army to managers of anarchist community centers, and they all have a certain vibe to them, to some degree or other. A certain sense they give off of how much they're sanding off the serial numbers of other people's work to build their own legend or clouding up the record to cover up the shortcuts they've taken or making their agendas seem more in line with what the general public will find palatable. And I'm telling you that based on those two books and a bit of looking around I've done, Mortenson is over on the greasy-haired preacher end of the equation.
I'm telling you, eventually the honeymoon will end and left and right people will be distancing themselves from Greg Mortenson. And, crucially, making heavy pronouncements that "there was no way we could have known".
Yeah, well. I knew. And I'm just a crippled guy with no special access reading a couple of library books and making a few phone calls in a barely heated studio in a cheap part of town in a city far away indeed from the halls of power.
But even so, I'm telling you, don't believe the hype.