Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Book Review: Three Cups of Deceit

Want to know the true story behind Greg Mortenson? Read Jon Krakauer's short book, "Three Cups of Deceit", to find how Greg was able to fool millions of people.

Greg Mortenson is a person who runs the Central Asia Institute (CAI), where they collect charity money to construct schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His book, "Three Cups of Tea", has sold many copies, and is popular in the West. Greg claims that he stumbled into the town of Korphe, and was so moved by the poverty that he made a solemn vow to return and construct a school there. In his books, he recounts this journey, and the difficulty in building a school in such a remote place. He claims to have been apprehended by Taliban, and describes how he was released on the promise of building a school. His story is a miraculous tale of transforming hotbeds of fundamentalist religion by building schools.

It would be fantastic, if it were true. Jon Krakauer shows how much of Greg's story is a fabrication. Jon supports his claims with real proof. The most damning evidence is Greg's photograph alongside people whom Greg claimed were Taliban. In reality, they were his bodyguards through dangerous territory. Greg is shown holding an AK-47, and happily posing for the photograph with his tormentors. Jon also shows how other claims of success are completely hollow. Not only is the CAI building far fewer schools than it claims, but also the schools are mere buildings. There are no students because there are no teachers.

Jon Krakauer writes beautifully. From his book about Everest, "Into Thin Air", to the insightful account of Mormons, "Under the Banner of Heaven". Get this book now. It is a quick and captivating read.

We're done with the review. But there is a lingering feeling in my mind that something has been left unsaid.

A passage in Jon's book made me think deeply. On Page 68, Jon says how Greg was able to fool his audience.
It soothed the national conscience. Greg may have used smoke and mirrors to generate the hope he offered, but the illusion made people feel good about themselves, so nobody was in a hurry to look behind the curtain. Although it doesn't excuse his dishonesty, Mortenson was merely selling what the public was eager to buy.
This brilliant passage made me think of more than just Greg Morentson's fraud. People have an inherent need to believe in a feel-good story. We want to believe happy stories from hopeless areas because we are so eager for hope. This is as true in yogi-infested India as it is in the West. Many babas and yogis originate in rural India. We are eager for stories that show India in a good light. We want to believe the lies that India has a stronger spiritual connection with God than the rest of the world. We want to believe that India has all the mystic and spiritual men, the land that gave birth to five religions. In the absence of good news about the economy, or education, or political progress, we'll believe in far-fetched stories about how God favors Indians. In our eagerness to believe such stories, we are fooled by crooks posing as saints.

I am glad that Jon wrote a book exposing Greg Mortenson. But the real people I applaud are his audience. People realized that they were fooled, and they admitted this. Jon himself was a supporter of Greg's work, and had donated more than $77,000 of his own money to support the effort. It takes a lot of courage to investigate someone's fraud. But it takes a log more courage to admit that you have been fooled. I applaud the people for realizing their deceit, and having the strength to end the charade.