Read the rest of On Violence's Most Intriguing Event of the Last Six Months here:
At the end of 2009 and 2010, we decided to choose our “Most Thought Provoking Event of the Year” (Iran’s Green Revolution and WikiLeaks respectively). Well, half-way through 2011, it’s pretty clear what is 2011’s most intriguing event--*cough*Arab Spring*cough*.
Unfortunately, this year has just had too much thought provoking stuff. For an idea of how big this year has been, the Osama Bin Ladin take down is only in third place. To shoe horn in another week on just one topic, we decided to invent "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Event of the Last Six Months: the Three Cups of Tea Fiasco".
We mean, of course, the tag-team take down of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute by writer Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft. We waited until July to see if Mortenson could debunk his debunking. Since he hasn’t, and instead remains mired in legal controversy, it’s pretty safe to say that Krakauer/Kroft effectively rewrote the public narrative on a former hero.
Why does this debacle intrigue us more than, say, the bin Ladin killing? Because it touches on so many of the issues we write about at On Violence from war to counter-insurgency to memoirs and truth.
So over the next few days we’ll provide a few thoughts on the implications of the Three Cups of Tea fiasco, first with Michael C’s thoughts on Mortenson’s larger legacy with respect to philanthropy, and on Wednesday how he killed counter-insurgency; on Thursday, Eric C takes on the lifetime of a lie, and on Friday, what Mortenson means for memoirs.
First Thought: Mortenson was not an Ugly American
In a weird change of language over time, the phrase an “ugly American”--which currently means an overweight American tourist yelling loudly in English at a French waiter for serving water without ice in it--originally meant something positive.
The original phrase “ugly American” comes from the title of the book The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, which was also the subject of a glowing review by me (Michael C) a year ago. The titular “ugly American” is just ugly in appearance. But he’s an amazing foreign diplomat, aid worker and human being.
Sadly, we’ve ruined this phrase, turning it into an epithet, when it should be a compliment. (It didn’t help, as well, when the “Ugly American” was played by not-ugly Marlon Brando in the movie.)
Which is an even bigger shame because we need “ugly Americans” now more than ever. The Ugly American takes place during the ideological Cold War between the U.S. and Russia in the fictional country Sarkhan. The “ugly American” of the title, with others, struggles to promote the interests of America as the military and State department unintentionally derail most of that good will.
The “ugly American” is, in other words, a great counter-insurgent. He let’s the people of the fictional Sarkhan solve their own problems, and puts a Sarkhanese face on the solutions. He helps people and shows them the virtues of American values--ingenuity, self-reliance, and creativity. The war in Sarkhan isn’t a shooting war, but it’s hard not to see a similar ideological war raging in contemporary times between Islam, Western secularism, Christianity, Judaism and whatever ideology China ends up adopting.
I feel like I need to explain the background of “ugly American”-ness because, until I read Jon Krakauer’s essay Three Cups of Deceit, Mortenson fit into this mold. (Example: “We need more people like Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute. He uses a budget of only a few million dollars to build hundreds of school. Imagine if the US could send hundreds of Greg Mortensens armed with tens of millions of dollars.”) An American with an inclination toward languages who could seamlessly blend between Pakistan and Afghanistan and America and builds hundreds of schools for several hundred thousand dollars each? Sounds like an “ugly American” to me, in the original, good sense of the phrase.
Unfortunately, it’s likely that Mortenson spends more time telling stories about his “ugly American”-ness then he does “ugly American”-ing. That, in short, is a shame.
So the question becomes, do Mortenson’s actions condemn the idea of “ugly Americans”? Does this mean that philanthropy and development and foreign aid are farces?
Not at all. If anything, good “ugly Americans” keep themselves out of the spotlight, which Mortenson clearly did not. And, more importantly, Mortenson will be replaced. As soon as the fiasco broke, Rye Barcott released his book, It Happened on the Way to War. Then NPR’s Planet Money podcast aired a few shows about their attempts to build a school in Haiti and the lessons they learned. And then the Economist ran an article about new, more intelligent ways to use philanthropic dollars.
Simply because Mortenson was not the “ugly American” we thought he was doesn’t mean we don’t need more “ugly Americans”. We do. And we have them. We just need more. Let’s hope this fiasco doesn’t derail those efforts.