[W]hy was this guy [Mortenson] a household name and international hero when so many of his truly deserving fellow speakers at that conference were not? And what about other, anonymous educators in Afghanistan? There are, I gather, real heroes of education in that country. They’re nameless and faceless; they work quietly, with dedication, and at low pay as part of large enterprises that they don’t run. Their work doesn’t allow them the time to jet from one U.S. city to another promoting themselves. Most real-life heroes are like that. Real-life heroes don’t write books about their heroism. Is that so hard a fact to grasp? (When the Church is thinking about canonizing a guy, it doesn’t call him in to testify to his own sanctity.)
In recent days many commentators have lamented that it is dismaying to know that Mortenson’s a phony. No, what’s dismaying is that so many people were taken in in the first place. What’s dismaying is that so many people don’t seem to recognize a huckster, a con artist, a flimflam man when they see one — and, by the same token, don’t seem to recognize authentic virtue, selflessness, and humility either. Have we become so coarsened by celebrity culture, so accustomed to slick showbiz packaging and self-promotion, so habituated to feeding the ravenous narcissism of the famous, that we’re no longer capable of detecting what Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof called “a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity”? Hemingway said that the one thing a writer needed most of all was a foolproof “bullshit detector”; are twenty-first-century Americans’ bullshit detectors hopelessly out of whack? Have the glossy, streamlined, highly polished and tidily ordered versions of human reality served up on all too many “reality” programs and Oprah-type talk shows destroyed our very ability to separate the genuine from the bogus, the real article from the counterfeit, and even caused us to turn our noses at the imperfect, unprocessed, clunky, smudged, and pockmarked real thing? Do we want to be fooled?
Some might suggest that the elevation to the presidency of Barack Obama, an empty sales pitch in a snappy suit, answered these questions definitively...And that "some" would be correct. Obama's another scam artist with a slick line who thinks the world of himself. But as my wise old Bubby used to say, "it takes two to tangle," and you can only be conned if you allow yourself to be.
Update: Three cups of snake oil.