What I do believe about "Three Cups of Tea"

Greg Mortenson might have lied about many things. But that doesn't change the essential truth of his book.

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    Mortenson's silence in the face of the charges leveled against him last month has not been encouraging.
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"NO!!!" That was my first reaction to last month's headlines charging philanthropist and "Three Cups of Tea" author Greg Mortenson with deceit. "There must be an explanation."

But it didn't look good and Mortenson's silence since has not been encouraging. So this week, with a heavy heart, I finally downloaded and read Jon Krakauer's short work "Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way."

I was still kind of hoping against hope that I wouldn't find Krakauer's accusations convincing. After all, I was as moved as any of Mortenson's millions of other readers by his dream of building schools for children in remote corners of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, however, Krakauer's book pretty much bludgeons Mortenson. Even if there are explanations for some of the charges, the overall pattern of lying seems too pervasive to be easily explained away. To my regret, I found Krakauer's words to be quite powerful.

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Right up until the final pages. There, Krakauer poses a question: "How could those of us who enabled his fraud – and we are legion – have been so gullible?"

He lets another disappointed former Mortenson colleague provide the answer: "Mortenson's tale 'functioned as a palliative'.... [T]he illusion made people feel good about themselves, so nobody was in a hurry to look behind the curtain.... Mortenson was merely selling what the public was eager to buy."

But as a member of that deluded legion, I'd like to offer another explanation. I think we believed Mortenson because much of what he said was so utterly grounded in a deeper kind of truth. Even today, having read and fully digested "Three Cups of Deceit," I can still identify five fundamental truths in both of Mortenson's books, "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones Into Schools."

They are:

1. In the long run, books are more powerful than bombs.

2. A good education – not an indoctrination, but a genuine opening of the mind – is the most powerful tool that there is.

3. Every child – male or female – deserves a chance at education.

4. The vast majority of human beings in this world can find common ground in our deep caring for children.

5. Whoever we are, wherever we live, each of us shares a certain fundamental responsibility for all the children of the world.

Believe me, I'm not excusing any lies that Mortenson may have told. If he is guilty of even a fraction of the deceit that he's been charged with then that's a very sad thing and his culpability is huge.

And neither am I going to argue that it's okay to lie if it's done in support of noble goals. It's not.

But this I will argue: Even by Krakauer's admission, Mortenson has "established dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that benefited tens of thousands [of] children, a significant percentage of them girls."

Most of us, if we had established one such school – or even played a part in doing so – might feel that we had justified our very existences by that act. Mortenson has done this many, many times over. I'm not saying that this makes any wrongs he has committed right. It doesn't. But it certainly ought to be weighed in the balance.

And when it comes to those basic truths at the core of "Three Cups of Tea," I don't care what Mortenson has done. I'm still buying them.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.

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