Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Sunshine Lies - Matthew Sweet (mp3)
God's Got It - The Black Crowes (mp3)

A man has a story. The story changes lives. It changes the way entire groups of people deal with situations, with other people, with themselves. It reroutes armies.

But wait.

You begin to realize this story is not entirely true. You begin to realize that the man, the storyteller, knowingly embellished or even fictionalized a portion of this story. And yet, parts of the story remain true, and its telling has unquestionably affected people for good, and its ripple effect of positivity cannot be questioned.

How big must the lies be before they become inexcusable, before the good accomplished is eclipsed by the interwoven acts of deception?

If you think I’m talking about Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea, you’re only partly right. I could also be talking about Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard, or some could even say I’m talking about Jesus Christ himself.

60 Minutes did its expose, complete with damning info from investigative studpuppy Jon Krakauer. It took a few days of follow-up shock in newspapers and blogs, and then the invevitable backlash to the backlash began. If you read the comments section of the 60 Minutes link, a majority of the 376 (and counting) commenters are incensed that the show dared to investigate such a great hero.

That Mortenson has been the central figure in acts that have positively changed the lives of hundreds of people, possibly thousands, is indisputable. But couldn’t the same be said of Scientology? Or Latter Day Saints? Or Christianity?

Sure, we can all talk about how these religions have caused problems or used deceptive practices or whatever, but it's also indisputable that they have positively changed the lives of thousands if not millions. Does all that positivity that make the Original Sin of foundational lies OK?

As a Christian, obviously, I don’t believe Jesus was a liar. As a non-Mormon and non-Scientologist, I believe Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard very much were. Such is the unavoidable dividing line between believers and skeptics. Faith often requires us to believe true that which is difficult to accept as true.

But with Greg Mortenson... at the very least he tells convenient half-truths, and he (er, his organization) mishandles more money in a month than most of us see in a year, and he gets his ego stroked by reporters, military generals, politicians, and untold thousands of Americans and poor foreigners.

Disclosure: This story hits very close to home.

Two years ago, a nearby school, a school my daughters will soon attend, put most of its focus on fundraising to help Mortenson’s organization build a school for girls in Afghanistan. They raised over $60,000. Mortenson even came to the school and spoke to them. Now there’s serious doubt the school was ever built, and even if it was, there’s doubt it’s being used as a school and not sitting empty or being used for storage.

When these students saw or were told about the 60 Minutes report, you can only imagine how devastated they were. Mortenson's defenders may be right in part -- we don’t know the extent of Mortenson’s deceptions and incompetencies -- but even the true believer must accept that he has overstated his accomplishments and understated his own profiteering. The most common defense: surely there are worse people out there for journalists to investigate.

Do the schools Mortenson actually built that have real girls in them excuse that he or his organization mishandled this school's $60,000, money raised for a specific purpose that was never met? If Bernie Madoff started a world-changing charitable foundation with the millions he bilked from unwitting investors, does that make him less of a thief?

I find myself fairly ripped apart by these questions. I don’t like having to ask them, and I don’t like the answers my heart and head offer back. Instead I think of The Watchmen, and about Serenity, and many great works of more traditional literature that suggest that large-scale lies and cover-ups in the name of the Greater Good are never, ever OK.

Times like these, I wish reality were as easy as fiction. Is our sin here in making a hero out of a human, or is the sin that the human insisted on believing too much of his own hype? Can we ever get far enough past our own miserable flaws to do truly heroic things for very long, or if we keep flying, are we destined to eventually find ourselves a little too close to the sun?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the honest and clear-eyed commentary on Greg Mortenson, from the true believer's point of view. Unlike so many other TBs, you have the courage to acknowledge the dissonance between what you want to believe and what the evidence now shows to be true about Mr. Mortenson.

Takes guts to admit the hero is not a hero, truly.