Sunday, April 24, 2011

Defending Greg Mortenson

Greg Mortenson does more good in the world in one month than most people do in their entire lives. He should be given the Nobel Peace Prize, not be subjected to an attack on his character and a financial audit of his nonprofit, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which primarily builds schools for impoverished children. Mortenson repeatedly risks his life to promote education and improve the lives of people living in the most distressed communities in the world.

Now Journalist Jon Krakauer has surfaced information that seems to prove that Mortenson’s story in Three Cups of Tea was not entirely true, resulting in a feeding frenzy in the mainstream media, beginning with none other than 60 Minutes. Why Krakauer would choose to spend his time tearing down the good work of a selfless man such as Mortenson is mystifying. Aren’t there enough scoundrels out there to expose without setting one’s journalistic sights on discrediting a man dedicated to healing the world?

Shame on Krakauer. Of what significance are the discrepancies that he has found in Mortenson’s story? And why dwell on them? Brief excerpts from Three Cups of Tea have been put to more productive use and resulted in more positive change in the world than everything Krakauer has written in his entire life. Three Cups of Tea, required reading by U.S. military personnel, has put a face on the people living in countries in which American troops must make life and death decisions on a daily basis. So who cares if Three Cups of Tea is entirely factual? What difference does it make if Mortenson, at the advice of his ghost writer, took certain liberties with the facts of the story? Does this suddenly negate everything Mortenson has accomplished?

Mortenson has arguably done more to bridge the cultural divide between Americans and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan than any other person in history. He has succeeded in teaching American schoolchildren about the lives of Afghanis and Pakistanis and has inspired them to care about these Muslim children on the other side of the world who are so different from them. He has succeeded in engendering empathy for the Afghani people in those serving in the U.S. military. Who knows how many innocent lives have been saved and how many innocent individuals have escaped harm because members of the U.S. military have read Mortenson’s book? He has helped dispel negative stereotypes about Muslims, has illustrated the difference between the violence of Islamic extremism and the everyday gentle beauty of other Muslim sects, and has proven that education has the potential to eradicate terrorism and violence.

So the million-dollar question is: Why is the mainstream media in the U.S. so eager to get their hands on Krakauer’s story; so lip-smacking delighted to discredit a man who has done so much good? Why attack Greg Mortenson? Who or what benefits from discrediting him? And why now? The timing of this is suspect.

What is the one area of government spending that has remained untouchable in every discussion about balancing the federal budget and reducing the deficit? Defense spending. It is the sacred cow. But what if defense spending was placed on the chopping block with everything else? What if the U.S. called off the War in Afghanistan? Mortenson’s work challenges the necessity of the War in Afghanistan. If he is successful in educating the next generation of Afghanis, then that war becomes irrelevant, even counterproductive. In order to be successful, Mortenson must continue to raise money for the CAI. The greatest immediate impact of the 60 Minutes story attacking Mortenson is that the CAI will have more difficulty raising money. Mortenson already pushes himself on a brutal touring schedule to raise funds for the CAI’s work. He spends far more time away from his wife and children than he does with them, while at the same time jeopardizing his health. Do you really think that his deepest motive is to get rich? A man who is quite happy to spend months at a time wearing the same pair of pants and sharing a tooth brush? Get real, people.

If the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, and from Iraq and Libya as well; if the U.S., for the first time since entering the Korean War, is no longer at war with anyone (and Obama actually earns his Nobel Peace Prize); if the U.S. wages peace; then the defense industry will shrink dramatically. All those bazillion-trillions of dollars being spent by the federal government on manufacturing weapons, waging foreign wars, and killing Afghanis (and occasionally reducing CAI-built schools to rubble) will be redirected to expanding the Head Start Program, supporting the American public school system and system of higher education, saving libraries, Medicaid, Medicare, mental health programs, and other health and human services programs, such as those that support the poor, the marginalized, the sick, children at risk, the elderly, struggling families, and so forth. People here in the U.S. are suffering and they are being told there is no money to spend on providing them with relief, which is simply not true. From national budgets to household budgets, how money is allocated and spent is all about priorities.

Back in the days of the Vietnam War, there was a bumper sticker that read “What if the schools had plenty of money and the military had to hold a bake sale to buy a B52 Bomber?” That’s what this attack on Mortenson is all about. That’s why the mainstream U.S. media are into it up to their eyeballs. The military industrial complex is the largest industry in the U.S., the lion’s share of money pouring into it comes from the federal government, and a deep discussion about cutting federal spending is currently underway in the halls of Congress. Meanwhile, the more successful Mortenson is in making real change through education, then the more the activities of the defense industry become obsolete. Mortenson is therefore a serious threat to that industry, because he has completely, successfully, unequivocally demonstrated that bullets can be replaced by books; and no one will get rich off that.

[In an unrelated note: I want to acknowledge that today would have been my mother's 80th birthday. She was also someone who did a great deal of good in the world. In a more quiet and less dramatic way than Mortenson (because that was her style), but with just as much commitment to helping others.]

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