May 1, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
Americans have a yearning to believe not only in a hero’s good deeds but in his goodness as a person.
The quote is from a provocative piece in Newsweek about Greg Mortenson (of Three Cups of Tea fame) and his quick fall from grace following allegations by 60 Minutes and an expose (Three Cups of Deceit) by Into the Wild and Into Thin Air author Jon Krakauer of fabricated claims in Mortenson’s memoir and about his charity’s school-building in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as serious questions about his non-profit’s financial dealings and management.
I’ll let you read the details and sort through the hundreds of blogs, posts, websites, news stories, and online sources about the story to get to the truth.
I’m more interested in what all this says about us – and about why Mortenson’s grand story, as Krakow notes, went unchecked for years.
Plain and simple, we prefer our heroic leaders perfect, saintly, and on a pedestal.
It’s hard for us to look too close because we’d have to see them as human and acknowledge that imperfect or flawed people can still do great things.
Hampton Sides ties our preference for “neat” heroes to the quintessential American longing for the guy in the white hat – the perfect personification of our nation’s strengths and Manifest Destiny through a monochromatic Puritan lens.
I see it another way. If heroes are perfect, then I’m off the hook. Ordinary people like me don’t have to step up, speak out, take risks, or take a chance. We can just wait for the next perfect ones. And when their humanity begins to show, we can use our new-found social media capacities to take them down at break-neck speed too – or, as we do with our political leaders, throw them to the pundits and vote them out of office as soon as we can. Once free of these disappointing human beings, we can search for another perfect leader and again place all our hopes, dreams, and needs on that person. And the beat goes on.
There’s a simple alternative that will serve us better. We can all look for the leader within and act. Accept the fact that despite our foibles and imperfections, we can do great things – and in the process, learn compassion for the imperfect others attempting to do the same.
There’s something deeply heroic – deeply American – about that.
 Hampton Sides (2011). Shattered faith: What the fall of Greg Mortenson tells us about America’s irrepressible longing for heroes. Newsweek. May 2, 2011. pp. 5-6. Available online at http://www.newsweek.com/2011/04/24/shattered-faith.html