Monday, April 18, 2011

Afghanistan, Graveyard Of Lies: A Tribute To Jon Krakauer's 'Three Cups of Deceit.'

"The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact. And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. It turns out that Greg Mortenson’s books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem. Mortenson has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built. Three Cups of Tea has much in common with A Million Little Pieces, the infamous autobiography by James Frey that was exposed as a sham. But Frey, unlike Mortenson, didn’t use his phony memoir to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers, myself among them. Moreover, Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, has issued fraudulent financial statements, and he has misused millions of dollars donated by schoolchildren and other trusting devotees. 'Greg,” says a former treasurer of the organization’s board of directors, “regards CAI as his personal ATM. . .' "

That's from Jon Krakauer's just-released extended-play investigative essay into the construction of celebrity-philanthropist Greg Mortenson's elaborate, profitable and spectacularly vile charade. It can now be downloaded at Byliner Originals, here. Krakauer's work substantially informed last weekend's CBS 60 Minutes inquiry into the sordid mess.

Krakauer is a writer well known for abiding by the most rigorous standards of literary journalism, a genre sometimes called long-form narrative non-fiction and also, unhelpfully, "creative non-fiction." It's a genre that expects a particular duty of care from its practitioners. First: tell no lie. By all means, borrow from the devices of the novel or from any literary genre you might like; you're just not allowed to make stuff up. Produce something approaching a work of art if you can. You can even be forgiven for making honest little mistakes. You're just not allowed to invent something and say it's real. Do as you will, but never, in any way, violate a reader's trust.

What you're obliged to work with are the found materials of the known world. Think of it as a trade, like wooden boatbuilding. The boat actually has to be made of wood. You can affix imaginative little brass embellishments in the brightwork so long as they're not fobbed off as facts. It can be whatever design you like, but please, a fibreglass hull scored with bow-to-stern lines to made it look like it's built of cedar planks is not a wooden boat. And whatever name you want to give a fantasy novel loosely based on a memoirish autohagiography written in the third person, it is not non-fiction. It may turn out to be a long-running New York Times bestseller, but it will still be bullshit.

Even Krakauer got taken in by it all. As far back as 2004, Krakauer noticed that there was something definitely amiss. By then, Krakauer had donated $75,000 to Mortenson's Central Asia Institute. But how could everyone have been so gullible? The Mortenson affair is even more lurid than the James Frey case. It's worse than the invention of Nasdiij. It's a scandal much more disturbing that the conjurings of JT LeRoy.

Anthropologist Ted Callahan, who worked for Mortenson's CAI, calls Mortenson "a symptom of Afghanistan." Mortenson's fictional account of himself “functioned as a palliative.” says Callahan. "Things are so bad that everybody’s desperate for even one good-news story. And Greg is it." But here's the really twisted part. Things are nowhere near as bad in Afghanistan as most North Americans seem to think. If it's uplifting stories you want, you certainly don't need to make stuff up.

And don't for a moment think, well, hey, Mortenson is well-meaning, look at all the good work he's done building all those schools, after all it's not like he robbed a bank or anything. Well, no. For one, it's not at all clear what good work he has done, with schools that actually don't exist, schools that turn out to have been built by other people, empty schools, and schools that are cabbage sheds. For another, the damage he has done is incalculable.

He's brought shame and disgrace to every Afghan and Pakistani associated with the Central Asia Institute. He betrayed tens of thousands of American schoolkids who contributed to the institute's so-called Pennies for Peace program. He's told outrageous and slanderous lies about the people of Baltistan - which is not a savage Taliban hotbed at all, but one of the most peaceful and welcoming corners of Pakistan - and about Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor, which is not a "front line in the war on terror" but a place that bears more resemblance to Shangri-la than to Kandahar. On and on and on.

Back in January, a tax attorney wrote to Mortenson's Central Asia Institute (which appears to consist solely of a revolving door for starry-eyed people who go in all uplifted and come out downright disgusted). The lawyer warned that there was huge trouble in store, with the Internal Revenue Service on the horizon: "Mr. Mortenson could owe CAI up to $7,263,458.13 for excessive benefits received during fiscal years 2007, 2008, and 2009…. [I]f Mr. Mortenson fails to timely pay the correction amount, he could face a total liability ranging from $7,868,746.31 to $23,606,238.62. . ."

As Krakauer's investigation reveals, it's far worse that the mere glimpse CBS provided on Sunday. Read Krakauer and you will blush with embarassment at headlines like this one: "Mortenson concedes he conflated parts of his memoir." Conflated?

I am now going to head down to the beach to singlehandedly "conflate" a vast life-sized sandcastle exactly replicating the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. I'll be back before lunch. Then I will send you a bill.


Blogger Kanani said...

What an excellent post. I really enjoyed your description of "Creative Non Fiction," which I could never really figure out when they first started touting in in the writing programs at universities. I think it was just another way to get students in through the door.

I've read all 79 pages and have responded to this debacle on my own blog, The Kitchen Dispatch. It is a particularly bitter pill to swallow, especially coming on the heels of finding out that The Wounded Warrior Project only gives 66% of its funds to programing for injured service members. It just seems this explosion of new non profits and causes over the past ten years had led to a lot of fraud and misuse of funds.
It just makes me sick, and Mortensen's outright fraud is in with the rest.

11:54 PM  

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