Monday, August 03, 2009

Three Cups of Tea... over coffee

I spent the last four days up in the Sierras at San Jose Family Camp (our city's socialized but market-priced camp site), blissfully reading Three Cups of Tea in between poker matches with kids, beautiful hikes with friends into the Hetch Hetchy/Yosemite watersheds... and lots of coffee (in socialism, bad coffee will be available for free in copious quantities, as long as policemen's pensions can be capped at under 95% of salary...that last strictly for San Jose insiders).

Anyways, odd that the two premier development blogs (Blattman and Easterly) apparently have never mentioned Mortenson (at least a search of the blogs was empty on both sites). Too bad, because it's a good book, with lots to discuss, and more importantly, is probably the single most widely read "tract" about development aid in the last decade, and so what it says, or does not say, is probably shaping the perceptions of millions of persons around the globe, far more than the development studies academics' wishy-washy "we don't know the answers" style.

So just so you know the book's main message: heroes are taking care of the problems, just like they always did. Sure, things were smelly in the Augean stables, but Hercules was ready! So here comes Mortenson, ready to tackle world poverty (one girl at a timeTM).

So I'll say up front that while I obviously find Mortenson's work and devotion and success very inspirational and fantastic and laudable, I find the book raises all kinds of interesting questions, and raising those questions will inevitably make me appear less laudable than Mortenson. But hell, I'm an academic and the whole schtick is to raise questions.

And questions to be raised, there are. Only two paragraphs in the 330 page book are "questioning," in the sense that they diverge from the standard 40-something-American "it's all good" refrain, and these deal with an important issue, non-profit governance. Otherwise there is nary a questioning attitude to be seen. Weird, cause the guy writing it is a journalist (David Oliver Relin, who keeps himself completely out of the text, but must have insisted on inserting two photos of himself that make no sense at all... the captions just use his last name, and for 2/3 of the book I thought the guy in the pictures was some Pakistani dude who would be introduced later on).

So we have a book about a hero. It's a thrilling book, but it brings to mind the Brecht line (yes, Michael Watts did influence my reading habits...) from his play Galileo: “ANDREA: Unhappy the land that has no heroes! . . . GALILEO: No, unhappy the land that needs heroes.”

I could go into literary analysis- what is a hero and all that... but since this blog is about development and literacy, better to focus on that. Mortenson is basically doing what FAVL would have been doing if someone had given *us* a million dollars! So of course one can't help the sour grapes. But I do feel that gives me a rather unique perspective. Most people reading the book probably feel unqualified to be critical. They have never slept with a yak, nor befriended an authentic representative of "The Other"... Haji Ali. Of course, Haji Ali turns out to be Yoda, a very nice, reasonably wise uncle figure prone to platitudes about listening to the wind. Anecdotes and trials and tribulations are played to maximum effect... and some are downright bizarre- Mortenson's "bodyguard" beats up someone leering at his wife breastfeeding. A Pakistani general cowboying around with Mortenson in a helicopter buzzes "like an angry bee" the compound of some local chief who's fallen afoul of Mortenson. These anecdotes, and much of the book, serve to make clear to the reader that there are good guys (hero allies) and bad guys (hero enemies) and the hero can tell the difference (loyalty... everyone is ready to "give their life for Mortenson") except when the hero is tricked. Oops, no more literary analysis!

One more aside. My overall impression is that Relin was more interested in name-dropping mountaineers killed here and there than Pakistanis or Afghans killed during the various stages of the wars in the region. The brand-name turn in American literature is there, instead of riding around in an "old helicopter" it has to be an Alouettte. Instead of wearing an "old parka," he has to give the brand name. I confess I never understood the reader interest inknowing the brands of their book-characters, but then again, I wear a cheap watch, cheap pants, and cheap shoes.

As you can see, I am meandering around my thoughts, and it is now late, so I'll come back to the development and literacy stuff tomorrow.

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