THE BLOG
04/18/2011 03:32 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2011

Greg Mortenson Redefines "Doing One's Best"

We need to believe that the world, and/or our situation in it, can be improved, or else there really isn't much point in getting out of bed in the morning. That's the real issue at the heart of the controversy being raised by the 60 Minutes story on Greg Mortenson. And the real question is: What are you doing to make the world a better place?

I got out of bed early today to write this article. I have other things to do -- and, more to the point, so does Greg. But I welcome the opportunity to defend and, inshallah, maybe even help enhance the urgently important good that Greg and others are doing in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The news flash that is occasioning a heap of ill-founded insinuations is that neither Three Cups of Tea nor Greg himself is perfect. I have no affiliation with the Central Asia Institute, except as a supporter and friend, and can't address questions about its management and finances any better than Greg himself has already done in an article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. What I can do is share the comments of his outreach coordinator, Sadia Ashraf, who is a good friend of mine. Sadia and her husband Tauheed are a very ordinary young couple raising two children in a Chicago suburb, who somehow manage to accomplish extraordinary things in support of both CAI and Pakistani pop star Shehzad Roy's Zindagi Trust.

"Last year we had a disgruntled employee [in Pakistan] who made some fringe attacks on CAI," Sadia told me. "Those allegations were based on his own frustrations about being released from CAI. Greg has always taken the high road and not wanted to expose that man." Sadia cites an Urdu proverb: "When someone splashes mud on you, it's better to stay away. Otherwise, you'll get splattered."

She also addressed the financial allegations, as Greg himself has done in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. "What we're doing with that money is we're keeping it," Sadia told me, "so that every one of the CAI schools can have an endowment. The fact that I don't have to worry about fundraising twenty years from now, because Greg is worrying about it now -- that is genius. He still lives in that two-bedroom house. He still wears the same suit he wore a decade ago, and a tie that has the fashion sense of 1992. He wears an old pair of loafers that are worn down. Every single dollar that CAI earns is because of the outreach that Greg does. He spends 200 days a year away from his family, because he truly believes in the empowerment of women and girls."

In a comment on one of the first reports on the controversy, U.S. Army Major Jason B. Nicholson makes a relevant point: "It takes a lot more money spent to raise money in the U.S. than it does to build schools in remote parts of developing countries." This calls to mind a point we've been hearing Greg himself make lately: that it costs $1 million to maintain one American soldier in Afghanistan for one year -- thus, we could fund Afghanistan's entire higher education system for a year by sending 240 troops home. The U.S. economy makes very heavy demands on the world's resources, and the American public is chronically distracted, so to influence this society requires sustained and consistent attention and enormous material resources.

Sadia points out that, while educating girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan is CAI's primary mission, equally "priceless" (her word, which I endorse) is the education and enhanced empathy of American readers and audiences. "Ignorance is everywhere, unfortunately," she says. "There are people in America who don't want Muslims to have a voice, and there are people in Central Asia who don't want women to be empowered." Or, as she puts it in a statement she emailed to me on Sunday:

The world is becoming a very small planet indeed. No more can we afford apathy or disinterest in the lives of those thousands of miles away. Like a butterfly effect, what happens in Egypt, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan creates ripples in our insular part of the planet. The success of Three Cups of Tea internationally testifies that readers around the world are thirsty for that knowledge.

I want to address two other points. One is that even world-famous humanitarians have a right and a need to draw an income to support their own livelihoods and families. I structure my own work as a for-profit business, but I make a very small fraction of Greg's $180,000-a-year CAI salary. So what? What entitles anyone to question either Greg's motivations or, hypothetically, mine or yours? From his salary, Greg covers his own extensive travel expenses. It's a non-issue. I'd rather talk about the obscene salaries and bonuses "earned" by Wall Street executives -- wouldn't you?

Then there's the matter of the accuracy of portions of Three Cups of Tea. We could argue about where to draw the line between "a compressed version of events" (Greg's words in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle) and "a lie" (Jon Krakauer on 60 Minutes), but let's note the double standard that's too often applied to books and authors. A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article about journalist Bill Steigerwald's exposure of inaccuracies in John Steinbeck's ostensible nonfiction classic Travels with Charley. It turns out it wasn't just Steinbeck and his dog driving across America; Mrs. Steinbeck was with them much of the time. And he didn't sleep in his pickup truck after all, but in hotels, sometimes nice ones. As Steigerwald pithily put it, "If scholars aren't concerned about this, what are they scholaring about?"

Well, it seems Steinbeck scholars are blithely unconcerned. "Any writer has the right to shape materials," rejoined Susan Shillinglaw of San Jose State University and the National Steinbeck Center, "and undoubtedly Steinbeck left things out. That doesn't make the book a lie."

Hmm. Shillinglaw is glib, and I'm pretty sure I disapprove of Steinbeck's falsifications. But regardless, it's not okay to give Steinbeck a pass but attack Greg Mortenson for what likely are much lesser literary evasions, inaccuracies, or whatever you want to call them. And on this point I would like to hear from David Oliver Relin, the writer who shares authorship credit and royalties 50/50 with Greg. Relin has rarely been acknowledged as he should be for having actually written Three Cups of Tea. Now would be a good time for him to step forward and shoulder the responsibility that goes along with authorship.

One reason we feel a need to set up heroes to worship is to let ourselves off the hook. If Greg Mortenson, or Dr. Paul Farmer in Haiti, or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Aung San Suu Kyi can do good on what seems a superhuman level, then somehow admiring them, and tossing them a dime now and then, seems enough for the rest of us. If we can show such a figure to be flawed, which is not hard to do, so much the better because we can tell ourselves such feats are impossible anyway. But as Tracy Kidder puts it in Mountains Beyond Mountains, the book on which Relin told me he modeled Three Cups of Tea, Farmer makes us uncomfortable by redefining the phrase "doing one's best."

This is what Greg Mortenson also does, and this is what I tried to say in my remarks at a Chicago-area CAI fundraiser three years ago:

One thing we all know darn well is that it's just plain wrong for children in Baltistan or anywhere else to be without schools. Greg Mortenson allowed his experience of Baltistan, filtered through the personal character his parents had instilled in him in Tanzania and Minnesota, and refracted by human sympathy, gratitude, and friendship, to influence the choices he made about how and where to deploy his talents and effort during his time in this world. The choices he made have directly and demonstrably made the world a better place. What the rest of us are doing here tonight in support of his work is the least we can do.

ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). His account of his February-March 2011 trip to Pakistan, titled "After the Flood," will be published as a stand-alone electronic book and as a chapter added to the next printing of Overtaken By Events. He is currently writing Bearing the Bruise: A Lifetime in Haiti, to be published in fall 2011, and collaborating with filmmaker Naeem Randhawa on a collection of stories by and about Muslims living in America. Greg Mortenson honored Ethan with the 2010 Spirit Award at a Central Asia Institute fundraiser in Santa Clara, California, on September 26, 2010. Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans