Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Trouble

CBS News’s 60 Minutes has broadcast an exposé of Greg Mortenson, author of the bestselling Three Cups of Tea, featuring interviewees who allege that Mortenson has lied in his books and has mismanaged the funds of his charity, the Central Asia Institute — see the transcript of the 60 Minutes program: “Questions over Greg Mortenson’s stories” — also see Mortenson’s response to the charges in this PDF.

This isn’t the first time an author has been called out and accused of lying in a published memoir. I’ve read the CBS transcript and Mortenson’s response, but from those sources I still can’t say that I know all of the details — far from it. I haven’t read any of his books and I haven’t been to Afghanistan or Pakistan, the settings for his accounts and the target areas for his charity.

But this scandal does cause me to reflect on some of the responsibilities of a writer. I’ve written stories that were fictional, stories that were true, and stories that were mostly true, and it seems to me that an author has a responsibility to his readers, to his editors, to his publisher, and to himself to make sure that everyone concerned knows what’s what with the piece of writing in hand.

How do inaccuracies creep into true-life accounts? I think you have to acknowledge that life and the events that make it up come at us in a messy way. When we construct a narrative after the fact, we run a risk of ignoring the nuances and ambiguities and portraying the story with undue certainty, or, worse, added details that improve the narrative as a narrative but at the sacrifice of absolute accuracy.

In the case of Mortenson, some of the ambiguities seem to rest around what it means to call someone a Talib, and the linguistic peculiarities of a remote cultural group in Pakistan. No doubt, further investigation will reveal whether the writer was dishonest or simply failed to portray the subtleties of some of the events he wrote about. And it wouldn’t be unheard-of for a news organization to overreach itself in its efforts to produce a story that gets eyeballs.

As writers, some questions we might ask ourselves include:

  • If the real-life events you’re writing about involve nuances, uncertainties, ambiguities — have you acknowledged these in the piece?
  • What’s your intent? When you examine yourself, do you see in yourself any intention to slant the truth so as to tell a better story or to make yourself look better?
  • How do you represent your work in your marketing efforts? Does the pressure to make sales color your communications efforts?
AB — 18 April 2011
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The Twitterati Feeds

[Note: This article is a rhetorical exercise in style imitation. The content here is fictionalized, although based on a number of real people and their activities in social media. The original text for imitation is Tom Wolfe’s “The Saturday Route,” from The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.]

1. Is that Jennifer Lopez, the glamorous actress and singer, sending out a tweet from her house in LA? With that glamorous heart-shaped cafe-au-lait face, that cascade of Iced-Out-silver bling around her neck and the most gorgeous seductive brown eyes since Van Morrison slipped and slid along the waterfall with his brown-eyed childhood sweetheart? Awesome when JLo tweets!

“@shamyhart: I am so loving the new @JLo song!!!It makes me wanna get #onthefloor”

2. And there through her Twitter feed, followed by 1,574,868 raving fans, JLo, just declared the “World’s Most Beautiful Woman” by People, giving her even greater glamorosity to a celebrity-adoring public, responds to her fans’ adoring praise of her new highly-produced and -Autotuned Hip-Hop hit “On the Floor”:

3. “Thanks to you guys!!!!!! “@JennyLopezTEAM: @JLo – On The Floor | 2 weeks ago | 45,148,863 views on youtube!!! AMAZING! 🙂 RT” … #LOVE?RS I just found out that #onthefloor just went to #1 on the dance charts!!! THANKYOU!!! to all my peeps @ idj & my of course #LOVE?RS …”

4. Her gratitude to the adoring multitudes has to go on hold for the moment, though, because she has to hop a plane. JLo makes an outstanding contribution to the Twitterati Feeds over the next couple of weeks. Tomorrow she’s doing a show in the Dominican Republic with Marc Anthony. Then on Wednesday she has a video rehearsal and then two days later barrels off to Mexico to shoot a video of her next hit “I’m Into You” in a glittering flowing gown on the Maya ruins at Chichen Itza and then back to LA on Monday to be there in time for American Idol Wednesday night. And after that, she’s on to shoot a L’Oreal spot then a new album release and the Today Show and a new single and American Idol again.

5. Also tweeting away is Justin Bieber, the 17-year-old with 9,263,358 followers — nothing retiring about The Bieb on the Twitterati Feeds, videos with Usher on YouTube, selling locks of his hair for $40,000 on eBay. And so are bad-boy Charlie Sheen and his female trainwreck counterpart Lindsay Lohan, but not Nicolas Cage, whose only tweet was two years ago: “[Nic Cage] has been so busy working he hasn’t had time to set up his twitter! argh!!” Charlie isn’t giving up on the Twitterati Feeds just because the scandal rags run headlines like “Wanna work for Charlie Sheen? Fired actor seeks intern.”

6. And so are Ben Stiller, Paris Hilton, Nathan Fillion, Demi Moore, Stephen Fry, Tom Hanks, David Lynch, Dr. Phil, Danny Glover, Pee Wee Herman, Rainn Wilson, and, well, you know, everybody.

7. The thing is, any regular old working stiff or struggling student or desperate family person knows how social networks work in the real world. You open a web browser or check your cell phone to monitor Facebook statuses or Tweets or LinkedIn updates, and what matters most to you really is sending out a tweet to your 36 followers or finding out where your friends are going Friday night or posting a blog entry late at night or seeing what new pix your sister has posted of the baby or discovering the newest hilarious cat video on YouTube. Mostly what everybody does with social media is share and connect with the people you know next door or maybe on the other side of the world.

8. But what about the world of the glitterati? If one is famous and is Justin Bieber, it means something more. Never mind the humdrum lives of the great unwashed. In the rarified world of celebrity, there is the new search for meaning in one’s life, the accumulation of millions of Twitter followers and Facebook Likes. And none of your cat videos. In celebrity these days, there is a new way to buff your ego with Twitterati Feeds that send out the details of your marvelous life to millions of adulating fans. And, naturally, nobody cares what you the average slob are doing on Friday night. In the Olympus of the famous, they give each other La-La Land’s most gracious gesture of support and esteem, the Celebrity Re-Tweet.

9. As the interconnections of mutual-admirational re-tweets begin ricocheting around the rarified Twitter feeds of the glitterati, you get the sense that the Twitterati are propping each other up. Paris Hilton describes herself on Twitter as a model and actress but also as a philanthropist and a brand and an “empire.” She retweets what Bryant Storey found out happens if you search on YouTube for “the world according to paris,” she tells Nayla Alkhaja what a lovely time she had with her in Dubai, and then makes a showing at Coachella followed by a visit to her chiropractor, informing 3,856,001 people along the way. She has legions of Twitter followers. So does Regis Philbin, 80-year-old TV personality, and his co-host, the gorgeous, verbose Kelly Ripa, who run a jointly-branded Twitter feed (“Regis and Kelly”), so one kind of wonders whether their fascinating tweets are really coming from the old boy himself or from Kelly or from some factotum. So do all the true Twitterati, because they work hard at developing a fascinating or notorious public persona worthy of the attention of the masses.

10. “I LOVE YOU PEOPLE!!!” “Pure BEASTMODE!!” “OHMYYYYY IM GETTING GOOSEBUMPS!” “@KimKardashian love this song baby & luv u! MY NEW FAV” And Jennifer and Kim connect and Jennifer re-tweets Kim and Kim re-tweets Jennifer, and Ashton re-tweets Alexis, and Alexis re-tweets Ashton, and then JLo and Rob trade them and Nathan and Oprah and Jonny and Shakira and Ryan and Khloe.

11. Irresistibly, this firehose of singers, models, actors, rappers, and Twitterati begins to attract an explosion of followers, connections, and friends they’ve never actually met. One whole set is what one might call ‘Second-Tier Twitterati’ — that is to say, ‘wanna-be’s’ — other actors, singers, and wealthy partiers who are friends with the top tier and would love to climb the rungs of celebrityhood. Also a vast crowd of journalists watching for a breaking story or a new scandal or some juicy gossip or a chance to cop an interview. And pop fans, acquaintances and faux-friends, stalkers, dreamers, and people old and young who are fascinated by the cult of fame and who presumably don’t have enough going on in their own lives so they try to live vicariously through the glittery lives of the famous. So every day through Facebook walls and Twitter feeds and videos and talk-show appearances, the Twitterati send up this enormous fireworks display lighting up their amazing lives.

12. At the villa where she’s staying in Piste after the Chichen Itza video shoot, Jennifer Lopez, dressed-down to a tee and jeans, is standing at a picture window looking out over the grounds of the compound at night, a dark mass of trees beyond the lights and security fence, a reminder of the jungle where the ancient Maya ruins stand and where Club Med has plunked down a sliver of civilization conveniently in the midst of the Yucatán. She is alone now, the twins asleep in their room, and having dismissed Rebeca for the night and asked Rebeca to turn away any late-night callers. She takes a deep breath and lets out a sigh. Jennifer can see her own reflection in the picture window. The World’s Most Beautiful Woman: Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer, JLo, Jennifer, JLo, JLo, Jlo.

13. Where it sits on the coffee table, her phone buzzes. She picks it up and checks her texts. A tweet from a fan she follows: “@JLo FANS!!!!! ATTENTION JLO FANS!!!! OUR LADY LOVE JLO NEEDS US!!! CHECK IT OUT!!! A MUST SEE PLEASE! PURE AWESOMENESS”

She re-tweets one of the messages, then sends a final tweet: “Have sweet dreams #LOVE?RS!!! I’m gonna go do some work now that the coconuts are sleepy sleepy. Tweet you tomorrow…:):)” then the World’s Most Beautiful Woman shuts off her phone for the night.

14. Across the world, riding in a limo, on a street in Jakarta near where the National Monument juts up from the skyline, a great spire like an enormous dart, is Justin Bieber, teen heartthrob of his generation. He is wearing a leather jacket over a tee-shirt and is peering up at the Monument. He can see a faded image of his fresh baby-face in the car window against the afternoon street scene rushing by. He thinks about that girl Maribel from the video in the bowling alley. He sent her a text yesterday. He checks his phone. Nothing from her. He thinks about sending her another text. Would she be annoyed? He swallows, blinks. Instead, he does the sure thing and sends out a tweet to the 9,263,358: “Indonesia is so #BEAST !! I can tell it’s gonna be a good show tomorrow. #myworldtour”

15. 10,000 miles away, in Fort Lauderdale, Charlie Sheen walks out of his hotel and down the street toward the early-morning lights of a convenience store a few blocks away. Charlie, self-proclaimed winner and warlock and possessor of tiger blood, youngest son of the great Martin Sheen, now on a tour called “My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not An Option,” is one of many doped-up, boozed-up Twitterati looking like a train wreck in progress, recently fired from Warner Bros.’ hit comedy Two and a Half Men. Right now, though, on Charlie that whole saga, like any attention-getting scandal, sits perfectly on the bad-boy image he’s cultivating, like a favorite well-worn baseball cap, one of which in fact he is wearing right now pulled down low over his face. And now, on the dark street in Fort Lauderdale, he stops to take a look in the front window of a darkened electronics store. And as he’s taking an idle look at the cameras and clocks and music players, a car cruises by on the street behind him, and as its headlights pass he gets a flash of his reflection in the window, unbuttoned untucked shirt over a dark tee-shirt, and for a moment the face peering out from under the baseball cap looks like a stranger’s. How did his face get to be so thin?, he wonders for a moment. A police siren breaks out howling somewhere in the distance. Then Charlie blurts out a laugh and digs into his jeans pocket, pulls out his phone, and 3,713,863 followers receive: “FT LAUDERDALE!! who wants tix for tonights epic event..?! Give me your full name! I’m giving away at least a dozen…cause I can!! My show!”

16. But a couple of days later, at Lincoln Center overlooking Columbus Circle in New York City, the blonde smiling woman seated at a table with Jennifer Egan, Blake Lively, Seth Meyers, Wael Ghonim, and Bruno Mars, and wearing a long black fur-collared jacket over a black blouse and gold slacks and with several strings of glistening pearls around her neck is the publisher and television personality Martha Stewart. What’s she doing here? Well, she is attending the annual Time 100 gala, where Time magazine lauds the world’s greatest illuminati.

17. But when Martha sits at her banquet table or instructs the TV audience in making an arrangement of beautiful spring wildflowers or writes a reflective essay for The Martha Blog, in her serene, smiling way she stands out from the great booming sparkly fireworks display of the Twitterati. But that’s all right, because Martha’s 2,214,559 followers aren’t expecting tweets from a hearthrob or a warlock or the World’s Most Beautiful Woman, just something kind and interesting and cordial that you might expect from a 69-year-old grandmother and consummate expert in the art of etiquette:

“Bruno mars is now singing to us. And he is charming as is his ensemble” and “Blake lively’s here as an honoree- check out my twitpic of her easter dessert buffet. Amazing talent” and then “Gov chris christie is honored and is speaking about his sicilian grandma!”

18. To the beautiful people of the Twitterati, however, it does not matter in the least that pundits and social critics and cynical rhetors look down on all the fireworks as a superficial and not very meaningful spectacle. The fact is, however it came about, these are their lives, and on a human level they are working and pursuing goals and trying to grow friendships and take care of families and gain some self-esteem and a sense of purpose in life. And for all that the Twitterati feeds and the Facebook walls and the blogs and the videos and the tabloid headlines spotlight inflated egos and ugly rants and superficial trivia, they also convey a hint of vulnerability and a need for love and positive regard and affirmation like the rest of us.

19. And now Nic Cage sits on a bench in back of his house in New Orleans, one of his few houses that have not been seized in foreclosure. His arrest a few days ago for domestic abuse battery, disturbing the peace, and public intoxication nearby in the French Quarter has left a hard lump in his gut. But Nic always finds peace when he sits here in the walled garden in the late afternoon. Birds love to come here, and now they’re flitting around in the trees and bushes — and twittering, as it happens. Nic has no picture window or car window or glass storefront nearby to give him a glance at his face, but the twittering birds do make him think now about Twitter. Seems like everybody’s doing it nowadays. Maybe when he gets back inside, he’ll get on the computer and figure out how to send out that second tweet. 577 followers are hoping he will. It would be a start.

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Enthymemes: The Folly of Youth, Singing ‘Kumbaya,’ and Keeping Your Day Job

Following is a rhetorical exercise — I’m trying to analyze some popular sayings.

1.Enthymeme: Youth is wasted on the young.

Major Premise: Because of their strength and good health, young people are in a position to get the most out of life.

Major Premise: Because of their age and poorer health, older people are not able to get the most out of life.

Major Premise: Only those who make good decisions will get the most out of life.

Major Premise: The ability to make good decisions only comes with experience.

Major Premise: Young people do not have enough experience to make good decisions.

Young people make bad decisions and mess up their lives.

Old people make good decisions, but it’s too late for them to benefit from those good decisions.

Conclusion 1: Young people don’t get the most out of life.

Conclusion 2: Older people don’t get the most out of life.

Conclusion 3: The game is rigged.

2. Enthymeme: They’re singing “Kumbaya.”

Major Premise: In the 1960s, “Kumbaya” was the song sung by hippies to express their peace and harmony.

Major Premise: Peace and harmony are impossible and are a foolish goal.

Minor Premise: The group we are criticizing today is trying to reach consensus, or establish peace and harmony.

Minor Premise: Because they are trying to reach an impossible and foolish goal of consensus, the group we are criticizing deserves to be ridiculed with the “Kumbaya” reference.

Conclusion: Because their efforts are futile and ridiculous, the group we are criticizing should be ignored – no one should agree with them or join in their efforts.

3. Enthymeme: Don’t quit your day job.

Major Premise: Everyone needs a day job to meet their necessary expenses.

Major Premise: Beginning novelists don’t make any money.

Minor Premise: You are a beginning novelist.

Conclusion: You are not in a position to meet your necessary expenses working as a novelist.

Conclusion: You must keep your day job to meet your necessary expenses while working on your novel.

AB — 21 March 2011

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Pitfalls of Starting a Business

I’ve written an article called “Don’t Blind Yourself to the Pitfalls of Starting a Business,” but I thought it was appropriate for my “Reluctant Guru” blog, so I have posted the full text there —  follow this link to see it. This was written as a rhetoric assignment.

AB — 5 March 2011


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The Plague of Litter: Conjecture and Definition

(The following is a rhetorical exercise. My objective here is to write at the level of conjecture and definition, but using the verb style rather than the conventional academic noun style. See Richard A. Lanham, Analyzing Prose, New York: Continuum, 2009, pages 11-28.)

The Plague of Litter: Conjecture

Litter surround us on city streets and county, state, and federal highways. It blows around our feet, collects in ditches, rots (or refuses to rot) along the side of the road; it blights the landscape.

In this country, litter surely arrived with the first human settlers. Archeologists who unearth the habitations of Indian and European settlers find piles and pits of bones, seashells, pottery shards, broken bottles and jars, cast-off rags, and bits of metal. Certainly among those settlements lived people who carelessly tossed aside any item that had lost its usefulness.

But in those earlier days, people constructed more articles out of biodegradable materials and simply fewer of them. Fewer human settlements dotted the landscape, so litterers found fewer opportunities to spread their plague.

However, today’s society manufactures increasing numbers of products and containers from materials that refuse to decompose. The human population swells, along with the number of those who are happy to cast to the ground whatever object loses its purpose.

The Plague of Litter: Definition

The person who litters flaunts his disregard for the beauty of the earth and deprives his neighbor of nature’s enjoyment. When a person litters, he allies himself with corporate polluters; he joins with thieves in robbing others of their right to a healthy and pleasant environment.

We recognize, though, that litter appears in various forms and arises from various sources. The purest litterer, the brazen, selfish, lazy litterbug, simply throws his cup, wrapper, bottle, or cigarette butt on the ground. But others of us contribute to the plague by carelessly driving uncovered loads in pickup trucks, allowing loose trash to blow out of car windows, or simply deciding that we are too busy to pick up our napkin that just fell to the ground.

AB — 21 February 2011

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The Virtue of Those Who Listen to What Others Have to Say

(Note: The following is written as an exercise in rhetoric — it’s exploratory and is not meant to be exhaustive. The format is based on the outline given in Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee, Pearson, 2009, pp. 154-156.)

Progymnasmata: Common-Place

The Virtue of Those Who Listen to What Others Have to Say

(PROLOGUE): The world would be a more peaceful place if everyone were willing to engage in real dialogue with others and consider without prejudice the opinions and points of view even of those they disagree with, at least to the extent that the other party doesn’t directly mean harm.

(CONTRARY): Consider the results when individuals don’t listen to one another, or when groups or communities fail to consider the points of view of other groups: unproductive and time-wasting arguing and wrangling; unhealthy and dangerous distrust and hatred of others; violent confrontations within communities, between ethnic or political groups, or even between nations; failure to cooperate and collaborate for the general good. And there is always the possibility that the one who refuses to listen is actually missing out on valuable knowledge and insights.

(EXPOSITION): Those who are willing to listen to others with contrary opinions are acknowledging the fundamental value of other humans and affording them the dignity of expressing themselves to a good-faith listener. They are showing themselves able to rise above selfishness and narrow-mindedness. They are promoting peace and an environment conducive to collaborative work and innovation.

(COMPARISON): Being certain your point of view is just and correct surely gives you self-satisfaction. But if you have listened to and seriously considered the other side, you achieve a higher satisfaction – that of one who has shown respect for others and is in a position to choose his point of view based on greater knowledge.

(INTENTION): One who engages in true dialogue and listens to the other side shows that he has positive intentions toward others, even those who are his opponents at controversy. He shows a sincere desire to treat others with respect and dignity. He is consciously rejecting the selfish, small-minded point of view of the stubborn, prejudiced ideologue.

(DIGRESSION): Obviously, none of us is perfect and it would be a rare person who had no mental “blind spots.” So occasionally, even one who is inclined to listen to others might fail to do so. Also, there are some opinions that can’t truly be construed as worthy of respect – for example, ethnic or racial prejudice, justifications for terrorism, or malicious efforts to undermine others’ goodness. So, in some cases, a normally open-minded person need not feel obligated to listen to the other side, as long as such refusal is well-founded and not simply based on prejudice.

(PITY): Think of the feelings of the many people in the world who feel that nobody cares about them or their point of view; and think of how refreshed they might feel simply because another human has shown them the respect and dignity to consider their thinking. Also, consider the feelings of those belonging to unpopular minority groups who are misunderstood or portrayed in a negative light, even though they have not had an opportunity to be truly heard.

(LEGALITY): People need to communicate and engage in genuine dialogue for a truly open, cooperative society to function. In the United States, such communication is fostered and sanctioned through legal guarantees of freedom of speech and religion, freedom of the press, the right to peaceful association and assembly, the right to petition for redress of grievances, and similar rights. Such guarantees provide legal protection for minority opinions and are established to create an environment in which citizens freely exchange ideas and opinions without fear of suppression. If such guarantees are enshrined in the legal structure, doesn’t that suggest that citizens should value them as well, and take advantage of them by openly engaging in discourse?

(JUSTICE): It is just to afford others the human dignity of listening to their views without prejudice, as long as such views are not malicious and clearly unjust in themselves.

(ADVANTAGE): If an individual shows an openness to others’ thinking, then this will affect their own social and professional relationships in a positive way. Likely such an open-minded person will gain more peaceful relations with others and will find others more open to his ideas in turn. Such a person will be fostering an environment in which ideas will more freely come out into the open, presenting greater opportunities for collaboration, innovation, and success in all kinds of endeavors. Being open to new ideas in this way could expose the individual to valuable, even life-changing new insights.

(POSSIBILITY): Listening to others is not difficult – it can be accomplished by devoting a little more time and attention to others, and by developing basic skills in interpersonal communication. We have many opportunities to interact with others – in the home, in school, in the workplace, through online social media, in public places such as stores, even on the street. We can take opportunities to speak to our friends and acquaintances, as well as to strangers – interesting thoughts and ideas are available all around us.

AB — 13 February 2011

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Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’: Brilliant Rhetoric

I’ve long admired Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” as a masterful and powerful composition.

King wrote the letter from the Birmingham, Ala., city jail April 16, 1963, where he was under arrest as a result of civil rights demonstrations that had taken place in the city. The essay is written as an open letter in response to a public statement written by a group of white Alabama clergymen — see “Statement by Alabama Clergymen.” The clergymen had criticized King and other “outsiders” who had sparked “unwise and untimely” demonstrations in the city.

In his response, King makes a strong logical argument in favor of civil disobedience. He also calls forth the ethos of an impressive list of authorities — the biblical prophets, the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as well as Jesus Christ himself.

But to me, King’s most powerful argument is a pathos-based appeal targeted at one of the most basic and common of human experiences — the regard of a parent for the feelings of his child.

The clergymen that King writes to (and the larger audience he surely has in mind) would like the African-American citizens of Birmingham to be more patient and wait for the larger society to move forward on civil rights. But, King argues, “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.” For those who have never experienced segregation, it might be easy to urge others to wait. But when you’ve witnessed lynchings and police abuse and the enforced poverty of millions, and

… when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people ….

… it’s understandable why people would have a hard time waiting, King argues.

The whole letter is fascinating and offers deep insights into King’s thinking. But to me, it is that single passage that stands out above all.

AB — 11 February 2011

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