Sunday, October 13, 2013


The great advantage of frontiers is that people can change their identities.  In fact, they almost MUST in order to survive in a tumultuous environment that displaces people from their usual practices and supports.  Many of the great stories are about these transformations from one category of roles to another, either a fall from privilege or the leap to greatness that had no use in the old situation.  Always dangerous.

Maybe we haven’t thought enough about identity in the cyber-age, particularly when so much of identity now depends on documentation, google, self-presentation on social networks -- all of which can be faked -- but also can be confirmed by fingerprints, DNA, retinal scans, face biometrics, and (vaguely) by video surveillance.   Add to that our need to confirm skills, reliability, confidentiality, and simple virtue in jobs and public roles -- which is always tearing holes in our assumptions about what people are “supposed to be,” particularly in public life.  We are obsessed.

This shows up on the “frontier” that is now communication -- should I say communication “arts”?   Playing with identity and role are major elements of creation, but we are so uncertain and spooky that accusing an author -- Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” comes to mind -- can cause him to be accused of “misrepresenting” that cost him thousands of dollars in lawyer fees, loss of his vocation, and damage to his charity work.  Mortenson’s co-writer, David Oliver Relin, who did more of the writing than Mortenson, committed suicide.  The accuser, Jon Krakauer, was paid for his story.   The handful of upscale self-righteous readers who sued claimed they were each defrauded of $15 because they bought the books believing they were getting the absolute truth.  To me they are simply predators. 

Mortenson & Relin


One wonders where they were educated to have such expectations in the modern world.  Or, for that matter, the old-fashioned world. Quite apart from philosophical ideas about the knowability of reality, what makes these readers think they in particular are “entitled” to the absolute truth?  Wouldn’t you think the price would be higher than $15?  Will the next step be suing the church because absolute virtue turns out not to save people, though the church is assumed to promise that?  If we can demand the birth certificate of the President of the USA, should we demand the birth certificate of Jesus?  Speaking of God -- and Jesus -- those two identities are so controversial that people are actually selling biographies of them.  Are affronted readers suing the authors for not being literally factual?   Jesus doesn’t ask “Who am I?”   He asks “who do men say I am?”  But who knows what the implications are if you’re speaking Aramaic, which he was?

Terribly sophisticated post-everything French-speaking writers have been trying to get us to see the politics underneath all writing, the covert motivations and goals, and how they control writing.  Under “Three Cups of Tea” is a roiling lethal set of opposing forces about mountain climbing, some of them informed by the location of the famous mountains, often places that are Third World or conflict-ridden.  In the case of Mortenson, there is a formal charity in question and -- properly -- its vulnerability was addressed and remedied.  But that wasn’t what the readers were angry about -- they could have addressed that directly through existing law.  Instead they were sniffily offended by not being told the “truth.”  Evidently thousands of other readers didn’t share their unreal expectations.

Jon Krakauer has based a whole career on sensational and controversial competitive exploits.  I don’t know who has checked him for accuracy, if anyone.  His writing philosophy seems to be informed by the scandal angle, revelation compilation.  Publishers dearly love it, since it sells copies and makes free publicity.   Behind the scenes publishers use their power to edit, their ownership of the capital and contacts that make publication possible, and negotiation of the author’s payment to intensify, sharpen, urge risky assertions -- sort of like Photoshopping an ordinary sunset into flourescence.  They say they are “finding the REAL story.”  This is deceptive talk:  they subscribe to the doctrine of always choosing the myth rather than the actuality -- a long-standing policy of media.  Then they shamelessly claim they are deceived victims of the authors to avoid lawsuits.  The public is so convinced of the authority of book publishing that they never figure it out.

In my senior class play (1957) I portrayed the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, who was trying to determine whether a stray young woman (one of several) were Anastasia, the rightful survivor and inheritor of the assassinated Romanovs when Revolution took hold.  The ambiguous story is romantic and political enough to be recreated over and over in various media.  In the end the “truth” is a choice: yearning for a reunited family and restoration of a beloved past are facing grim forensic evidence about a mass grave, things we might not want to know as facts.  (We are so determined to find the original identity of remains.)  Examining the consequences of whatever decision is made may be the most sensible way to proceed.  It is vital to keep alive the awareness that new evidence might surface that changes everything.

Krakauer got his start the same way that Quammen did, writing for Outside magazine.  But Quammen took his exploits in a different direction, combining it with literary natural history and hanging out in the library, while the others kept the testosterone level high.  In general, this whole context of mountain climbing is a Pacific Northwest sort of deal.  (My father was a Mazama and climbed the iconic Cascades, including one climb now impossible:  Mt. St. Helens, which we could see from our house in Portland.)  I have a passing acquaintance with Bozeman, where there is also a successful culture that combines the Outside zeitgeist with ranching.

Our cultural frontier seems stuck at the identity confrontation between hero and anti-hero.  Who should we admire?  Jesus or Lucifer?  Esp. now that we’ve been badly tricked by fake chest-pounders into loss and expense over drummed-up wars.  Outside thinks it is on the side of the right -- which evidently boils down to corporations who sell outdoor equipment and  travel venues.  They think they stay willing to unmask wickedness, if you can figure out what that is in a world where we are aware that religious institutions fuel war and injustice, and that compassion is often a disguise for control.

In the end, the real deception is the cover and title of “Three Cups of Tea,” which suggest a doll’s teaparty.  In fact, the three cups of tea are ceremonial preparation for survival councils among fierce mountain chieftains trying to keep their people alive in the face of economic hardship and American attacks.   The equivalent in Montana college towns might be three shots of whiskey, three mugs of microbrew, or three lids of weed.  Men’s drugs.  Literacy is of little use to little girls who have been gutted by predator drones.  This is what Mortenson’s complainants should have addressed.  What they hated was facing the reality.

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