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Three Cups of Snake-Oil



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Following the recent exposé of Greg Mortensen and his Three Cups of Tea, Bruce Bawer is merciless:

Mortenson’s shameless self-celebration in Three Cups of Tea left me speechless. As Oscar Wilde observed of Little Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop, how could any sensitive reader react to such nonsense with anything but derisive laughter? Yet untold numbers of people took every word of Mortenson’s self-hagiography as gospel. Not until Kraft and Krakauer came along, however, did I understand just how widely revered this fourflusher was. Not until they came along did I learn that while the Central Asia Institute — which is registered as a 501(c)3 non-profit — footed the bill for splashy ads for Mortenson’s books, paid for private jets to fly him from lecture to lecture, and purchased the copies of his books that were sold or handed out at his lectures, Mortenson pocketed his lecture fees as well as the income from book sales. (One striking detail was that the CAI did not avail itself of Mortenson’s author’s discount when buying his books, thereby inflating his sales figures and allowing him to receive royalties for these purchases.) Out of the millions Mortenson made from his books, moreover, he contributed a relatively tiny sum to the CAI, the overwhelming majority of whose income came from public donations.

Indeed, it turns out that the CAI has spent far more money subsidizing Mortenson’s lavish lifestyle than it has on schools in Afghanistan. Practically speaking, then, the whole dog-and-pony show wasn’t really about Afghani children; it was about Mortenson and his book.

At one level, Mortenson’s is merely the latest fake memoir to which sentimentalist rubes are prone. But it’s a more ambitious scheme than most: As Bawer tells it, the principal purpose of this 501(c)3 is to facilitate Mortenson’s jetset lifestyle and inflate his book royalties. To that end, “Pennies for Peace” – a moniker so obviously bogus it’s “the 2009 recipient of the Mom’s Choice Award!” – has insinuated its way into zillions of American grade schools, including, I regret to say, my own kids’. In the very same year that the Mom’s Choice saps honored the “program”, US schoolchildren donated $1.7 million to Mortenson’s 501(c)3. In return, the 501(c)3 spent $612,000 on its ostensible purpose – Afghan school supplies, teachers’ salaries, etc. The remaining $1.1 million raised by American children went toward the $1.4 million spent flying Mortenson around from one speaking engagement to another on private jets.

Oh, well. Oprah-watchers are suckers, our schoolhouses are gullible. But what’s the Pentagon’s excuse?

By 2009, Mr. Mortenson had become an unofficial adviser to the United States military in Afghanistan. That summer, Colonel Kolenda has recalled, Mr. Mortenson was in meetings in Kabul with him, village elders and at times Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, then President Obama’s top commander in the country.

A self-enriching huckster is embedded at the heart of the United States military’s “hearts-and-minds” strategy in Afghanistan. How’s that working out? Great! Maybe Nato and the Taliban can share the 2012 Mom’s Choice Award.

Bruce Bawer concludes his piece by linking Mortenson to a certain other flimflam peddler with a “compelling personal narrative” – President Obama. It’s striking that, in seeking words to expose the tea salesman’s racket, Bawer quotes dead fiction guys – Wilde, Hemingway, etc – to illuminate reality. We live in an age where most folks prefer things the other way round, and so large numbers of people seek real-life “heroes” who conform to the tritest of formulaic fairytales. When they’re doing it at the Pentagon, you’re in serious trouble. 



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