Maybe we could do without the word “hero”

On April 17,  60 Minutes aired a report questioning the veracity of Greg Mortenson’s story and accomplishments. Steve Kroft’s report seemed to be balanced. The Mortenson camp belatedly challenged the facts, and it becomes  a he said-he said story.

Some people didn’t even stop at the red light at the intersection of Hope and Disappointment. They flew past Disappointment Street and quickly were driving down Anger Street. I guess it’s understandable, particularly if you had made significant financial contributions to Mortenson’s non-profit Central Asia Institute. Some were so mad at Mortenson that they compared him to Bernie Madoff.

For balance, it was refreshing to see Nicholas Kristof’s April 20 op-ed piece in the New York Times, Three Cups of Tea,’Spilled. Kristof states that he and Mortenson are friends; something that should not be surprising. since they’ve both been strong advocates for the poor and disenfranchised in developing countries. If the charges against Mortenson are true, Kristof does not try to excuse his friend; he only tries to explain what might have happened.

Mortenson has long described himself as a poor manager, and Kristof seconds that. It seems rather clear that Mortenson did not staff the Central Asia Institute with accountants and financial advisors who would be responsible for (a) ensuring that donations went to Mortenson’s projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and (b) scrupulously filing all necessary reports to the I.R.S. It’s also possible that Mortenson either has a poor memory or is prone to confusing fact with fantasy, and his stories are false, but not necessarily in a malicious manner. In any event, Kristof served as both a friend and a measured voice when Mortenson needed both.

There may be a lesson to be learned from this episode that extends far beyond Greg Mortenson and his work. Many in the press and the broader public have referred to Mortenson as a hero. But the term hero is a two-sided coin. defines hero as “a man or woman of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his or her brave deeds and noble qualities.” While this definition works when someone performs “brave deeds and exhibits noble qualities,” the compliment can become a curse when someone fails to live up to these standards. The bottom line is: Who actually lives up to these standards without exception throughout his or her life? When someone is called a hero, it can be an act of cruelty rather than admiration. This is because there is only one direction for an individual to go after being deemed a hero, and that is down.

Even if some of the charges on 60 Minutes about Greg Mortenson are false, it’s clear that he is not the person those who lavishly praised him thought he was. Perhaps more importantly, he is not the person who he describes as himself.

The term fallen hero generally applies to a soldier who is killed in combat. But there is another kind of fallen hero; an individual who has been characterized as a hero but who has fallen from grace. Mortenson is not alone in this regard.

Names that come to mind include Charles Lindbergh, James Frey, Tiger Woods, John Edwards, and Buzz Aldren.

Why do we deem certain people to be heroes? Certainly there is the positive side of wanting to honor someone for outstanding achievements, particularly ones that most people would not or could not accomplish. But a second reason may relate to what’s happened to Mortenson. We build them up to knock them down.

There’s a parallel between this and how we build our own self-esteem. We feel good about ourselves when we do something well, especially when it is acknowledged by others. But so long as competition exists, be it formal or informal, we seem to have an innate desire to do better than others. If we can’t do well, then we may want someone else who we consider a peer or a rival to do poorly. We can tell ourselves, “Everyone thinks so and so is great, but look, I just did something better than he or she did.”

There’s a fine line between calling someone a hero and simply praising him or her. In the category of true confessions, I must acknowledge that a year ago, almost to the day, I wrote a piece on Occasional Planet, entitled “Night and day with Greg Mortenson and Stan Kroenke” right after having heard Mortenson speak at the Maryville University St. Louis Speakers Series. At the same time, Walmart heir (by marriage) Stan Kroenke was jacking around the people of St. Louis about keeping the St. Louis Rams in St. Louis should the National Football League approve his bid to purchase the team (a still-unanswered question).

I wrote,

I wonder how Greg Mortenson and Stan Kroenke will sleep tonight. Mortenson may have pocketed more money between 8 and 10 pm tonight. I’m sure the speaker’s fee for the Maryville / Powell Hall series is considerable. But unlike what we might expect from Kroenke, I doubt that Mortenson’s fee will go to buy another home, a yacht, or another sports team. Rather, he may be thinking about starting another school or two with the fee, or perhaps replenishing existing ones with basic supplies such as paper and pencil. He may be wondering how to keep his schools safe from the Taliban.

Well, if 60 Minutes is correct, I certainly got it wrong about Mortenson. 60 Minutes contends that the $30,000 average speaking fee that he receives goes right into his own personal account, not to the Central Asia Institute.

I don’t know if I was engaging in hero-worship with Mortenson, but I certainly was lavishing praise upon him, was accentuated by the foil of Stan Kroenke. Should I have put qualifiers around what I said about Mortenson? I don’t know; our language is cumbersome enough without the added burden of constant qualifiers.

I looked at next year’s speakers at the Maryville /Powell series. I see that former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson will be speaking on November 29. Their accomplishments  are real and now are perpetually preserved in celluloid through the recent movie “Fair Game,” starring Naomi Watts as Plame-Wilson and Sean Penn as Wilson. I would just as soon not have my high regard for them tarnished. Tom Brokaw’s another speaker and I don’t want him to fall from grace.

However, our best protection is to simply refrain from using the word hero. We might on occasion call an act heroic because that’s a description of what someone did rather than a characterization of their persona. Hopefully, the significance of the 60 Minutes/Greg Mortenson piece will be the obvious: sometimes we do well; sometimes we don’t. That’s it.