Monday, April 25, 2011

Three Cups of Bitter Truth

There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful. 
-Theodore Roosevelt


I distributed to a large number of my mentors and former board members a stinging, brutal treatise of muckraking by famed author Jon Krakauer. It is called Three Cups of Deceit.  It deals with a just-as-famous author and humanitarian, Greg Mortenson, who was the author of Three Cups of Tea. I have been thinking a lot about this indictment over the last week, because, quite coincidentally, I am totally absorbed in the gripping Mortenson memoir-cum-novel.

The hot water for this beautiful cup of tea was dispensed from a copper spout no less than a meter in length at a restaurant on my street, Longli Lu. The taste, if you can believe it, matched the exquisite beauty. 2011 (c) Alexander Lee  
One obvious response to this falderal is to say that Gandhi beat his wife and Martin Luther King, Jr., plagiarized, but, like these men, Mortenson has done some great work, even if it is not all that he claims and even if it is more symbolic than real at times.

A second obvious response is to say that Krakauer has done a great service by exposing the duplicity of and mismanagement by the Central Asia Institute's raison d'être, Greg himself; however, any such observation is quickly tempered by the obvious conclusion that Krakauer let his information bake for a long time and the rage that could lead somebody to undertake a project such as Three Cups of Deceit is palpable and rather concerning.

This is certainly more than Lloyd Bentsen exclaiming, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." It is not an ad hominem attack, but one that takes Teddy's charge--"[remember] that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful"--and metes it out less with a rake and more with a sledgehammer. 

For me, TR's admonition is missing an important extra caveat. The truthful attack upon a person's character and flaws is not useful inasmuch as it serves only to discredit a scoundrel, it must also lead to societal soul-searching and reform. It is not, for instance, sufficient to say that Mortenson should never manage another nonprofit unless he gets adequate training and demonstrates contrition on par with the gravity of his errors. We must also ask: How do we avoid creating more monsters like Mortenson? What is broken with the way that we run nonprofits? Why do people, who succumb to some of the temptations that Greg has, buckle? What inexorable pressure is there upon those of us who are considered prophetic or pioneering to keep upping the ante?

Some of these questions certainly arose for people who watched The Social Network (2010). Did the twins with the original idea (an arguable point itself, which I hope my reader will concede for sake of this discussion) deserve the credit for Facebook or was it the masterful nerd who executed their idea to the tune of several billion dollars?

I would really be interested in hearing some of your thoughts on this unfolding human drama. I am less interested in the question of loyalties or, whom do you sympathize/empathize with most?  I am much more interested in the questions of reform that this story begs us to consider.