Greg Mortenson: We Stand By You

One of the most memorable stories of the decade, at least for me personally, was this:

Full Story here.

Briefly summarized, after the terror attacks, a German Naval vessel conducted a “man the rails” ceremony, and signalled the U.S.S. Winston Churchill “We Stand By You.”

Greg Mortenson, in the wake of the 60 Minutes attack on you and the Central Asia Institute, as an American and a Pakistani, we stand by you. I don’t know if you’re going to take a hit in your fundraising – unfortunately I suspect you will – but I will do my little bit to offset that.

To any reader who is having doubts about Greg or the Central Asia Institute: I’m from Pakistan. I read the entire book. I’ve read both books. I’ve seen every Greg Mortenson interview I could on C-SPAN etc.

Believe me, the stories ring true. There has been a fair bit of international writing about Pakistan in the past 60 years that sends my BS-detector ringing. His account wasn’t one of them. And if I’m gullible, thats been the reaction of every Pakistani I know. That group includes some of the most hardbitten and cynical folk on the planet.

I understand that critics are carping about his explanations and denials as being less unequivocal and categorical than they would like. Well gee, do you think the experience of being skewered on prime time TV for alleged inaccuracies – and the distinct risk that it will wreck your life’s work – might make a man cautious with his words?

Certain details don’t match up with what others say? Really?

Well, lets see what the main point of the book is:

The man climbed K2. He promised to build a school in the area. He kept his word. And then some. He is building to this day.

Those facts are not in dispute. What is in dispute: the exact sequence of when, if ever, he got lost? Did he get kidnapped in Waziristan? And does he spend too much on himself?

Lets take the first two first. He climbed K-2. So some accounts of his getting lost cannot be reconciled with some witnesses on TV. Eighteen years later, with some of the key witnesses gone or displaced, thats supposed to be damning evidence? And when Greg points out, correctly, that time in a remote Himalayan mountain village doesnt exactly mean the same thing that it does in Washington D.C., (which explains some of the confusion), that is supposed to be splitting straws aka “depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is?”

As for the kidnapping, anyone with even a glancing acquaintance with the tribal badlands will find that story ringing true. And to treat the denial of a purported kidnapper as conclusive impeachment of the victim is enough to make the head spin.

The most hideous attack though, is that he’s in it for the money. The man spent years toiling in obscurity, living in conditions that most english speaking Pakistanis (myself included) would recoil in, to make money? (A diesel truck ride wrapped in sheeps’ offal comes to mind) – because of the money?

The man suffers from agoraphobia and goes on tours, and that is supposed to be high living?

The man who won’t ink a movie deal with Hollywood because he’s protecting his students and people on the ground is a jet setter in it for the money?

He works 365 days a year, the vast bulk of it away from his family, in incredibly squalid and dangerous conditions for 180K a year – probably what his smirking inquisitor spends on make up – and its all about the money?

Hang in there Greg. Like Dale Carnegie wrote, “remember, no one ever kicks a dead dog.” You’re a moral giant. The people attacking you are… not.

Hang in there. And yes, I contributed today, and I hope readers do likewise.

A better and fuller response, courtesy Ethan Casey:

“ The fact that I don’t have to worry about fundraising twenty years from now, because Greg is worrying about it now – that is genius. He still lives in that two-bedroom house. He still wears the same suit he wore a decade ago, and a tie that has the fashion sense of 1992. He wears an old pair of loafers that are worn down. Every single dollar that CAI earns is because of the outreach that Greg does. He spends 200 days a year away from his family, because he truly believes in the empowerment of women and girls.”

Then there’s the matter of the accuracy of portions of Three Cups of Tea. We could argue about where to draw the line between “a compressed version of events” (Greg’s words in the Bozeman Chronicle) and “a lie” (Jon Krakauer on 60 Minutes), but let’s note the double standard that’s too often applied to books and authors. A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article about journalist Bill Steigerwald’s exposure of inaccuracies in John Steinbeck’s ostensible nonfiction classic Travels with Charley. It turns out it wasn’t just Steinbeck and his dog driving across America; Mrs. Steinbeck was with them much of the time. And he didn’t sleep in his pickup truck after all, but in hotels, sometimes nice ones. As Steigerwald pithily put it, “If scholars aren’t concerned about this, what are they scholaring about?”

Greg Mortenson, we stand by you.

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