Mortenson’s feet of clay expose far more than one fantasist: they also reveal a lot about the naivety of Americans concerning the world and their role in it. No one questioned him too closely, and, more importantly, no one listened closely enough to what the Pakistanis themselves had to say: the unravelling of the Mortenson fable has come as no surprise there. Even in such a highly connected world, some forms of information still don’t travel and certainly make no headway against the word of an American hero. Americans swallowed his tale because they wanted to. What empires – particularly those involved in violent conflict – need, above all, is heroes.
Madeleine Bunting, in today’s Guardian, on the sorry tale of an American hero found wanting (following a 60 Minutes report on CBS that uncovered the tale). She makes a valid point, but I do think she needs to add a qualifier: many, possibly even most, Americans. I know and work with many Americans who are true citizens of the world and who do not fall under such a broad generalization in any way.
Anyway, like so many, I was taken in by Mortenson’s tale of naive bravery and his American ‘can do’ attitude. Three issues in particular are at the forefront of my mind as I consider this tale unravelling so sadly, and rightly, about the man.
First, how on earth did he think he would get away with it? I cannot help but conclude that he really did not think anyone in the part of the world he visited woud have the nous or the wherewithall to challenge his version of events or, indeed, to have a sufficiently loud voice to make themselves heard in the USA and elsewhere. Perhaps he even thought they were all too remote to ever hear about his book and about his misrepresentation of events? It’s hard to say. I can only think that there is an underlying racism, or at the very least ethnocentrism, in Mortenson’s attitude to this – a mindset that simply dismissed the possibility that these rural people stuck in the back of beyond, as he must have seen it, could possibly be heard or listened to in the West.
Secondly, what was the role of his co-author, David Oliver Relin, in all of this? There have been some questions anyway about how much of the book Mortenson actually wrote.
And thirdly, as the cover displayed here shows, his publishers produced a children’s version of the book, adapted in good faith by Sarah L Thomson, with a foreward by Jane Goodall. I wonder how those kids who have read the book will react to finding out it’s largely a work of fiction?
It will be interesting to see how it all plays out, and especially how the publishers will react to a situation in which a publishing success has now been, it seems, hugely tarnished.
Technorati Tags: greg mortenson, three cups of tea, david oliver relin, fiction, racism, ethnocentrism