At the end of the year, the temptation to pass judgment on a calendar’s worth of successes and disappointments becomes hard to resist. We feel the need to distill a year of experiences into an unambiguous truth. But as we yearn to find closure and move forward, perhaps we should resist the urge to simplify.
So what should we make of allegations that Greg Mortenson, best-selling author and humanitarian seraph, has an uneasy relationship with the truth? Mortenson, who chronicled his inspiring tale in his memoir “Three Cups of Tea,” is principally known now as the founder and director of the Central Asia Institute, which builds and manages schools in remote areas of the l’Stans. But according to a recent report on “60 Minutes,” Mortenson is a liar: his fibs range from the precise nature of his first encounter with Pakistani villagers to the ultimate destination of the donations his organization receives. In a sharply-written attack on the book (“Three Cups of Deceit”), writer Jon Krakauer quotes a former organization treasurer who claims that Mortenson considers the nonprofit “his personal ATM.”
These allegations are damning for a man whose organization claims to have established over 170 schools and educated over 68,000 students. Critics now claim that many of these schools are the work of other people, currently empty or entirely fictional.
But before we pass judgment, we should remember that the media loves a good fall from grace. The public loves to hate the duplicity behind appealing facades. And running anything in Afghanistan is frightfully difficult. The country hasn’t been unified under a functional central government in about 32 years — this in a place where life expectancy is just under 44. Simply getting from place to place is nightmarish, and information is distorted not only by logistical issues but also by language barriers, cultural obstacles, and personal, tribal or ethnic rivalries. Afghanistan is an administrator’s hell, and accomplishing anything that tangibly improves lives — however few — is a feat.
So I’d sincerely like to believe Nicholas Kristof’s recent column, which crosses its fingers in the hope that disorganization is more at play in the Mortenson case than downright fraud. Kristof asks that we remember the undeniably good work that Mortenson has done, whatever the outcome of the inquiries. He cautions that the biggest casualty of Mortenson’s public shaming may be our spirit of charity itself. Every story of humanitarian wrongdoing, true or not, wounds our idealism.
To pose the question in the extreme — is it better for people to give more money to organizations that are somewhat murky, or no money at all to those organizations that survive investigative purging? In Afghanistan, the best intentions can be near-impossible to carry out; or when someone claims they have been carried out, that can be near-impossible to verify. Kristof, Krakauer, “60 Minutes” and the BBC all found very different truths when they attempted to investigate Mortenson’s work. Ultimately, the true story may combine both perceptions — Mortenson may be both a life-changing champion of the downtrodden and a self-aggrandizing liar. If that should be the case, does our relationship to his mission need to change? Or can we, if you’ll excuse the inversion, love the mitzvah and hate the mitzvah-doer?
During Passover, perhaps the most abundantly symbolic of Jewish holidays, these questions of truth take on special significance. Scholars like Carol A. Redmount have tactfully argued that we shouldn’t think about the Exodus narrative in literal, historical terms. The hard evidence for a vast population displacement from Egypt to Canaan in the second millennium B.C. — let alone for transforming rods to snakes, turning water to blood, or parting seaways — is slim and unconvincing. It is the narrative that holds true power and relevance: an enslaved people struggling towards a hard-won freedom and a reconstituted society. It is more than parable — it is even today the lived experience of the persecuted, the abused, the survivor. There is much more Passover truth in the testimony of any refugee than in an archaeological tide chart of the Red Sea.
Our school’s motto dedicates us to Light and Truth. Throughout this year, we’ve witnessed the myriad difficulties of illumination and revelation. We’ve seen flashiness confused with light and facts confused with truth. We have demanded clarity and gotten only equivocation. Whatever the outcome of the investigations into Greg Mortenson’s work, we might do well to close this year by adopting some Seder-plate thinking: the truths of symbol and signifier, of intention and outcome, of spring and redemption.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.