James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: India

  • What's Under That Sari? (TSA vs. Indian Ambassador Dept)

    Indians make allowances for a "paranoid" outlook by those wacky Yanks

    Ten days ago, the Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg reported on an embarrassing TSA episode in Mississippi. India's ambassador to the United States, Meera Shankar, was subjected to "enhanced" pat-down procedures at the airport in Jackson, apparently because security officials were suspicious of what might be under her sari. In principle, foreign ambassadors with proper credentials are (like various US government officials) exempted from some or all screening. In this case, that didn't work. And two days after that, India's ambassador to the United Nations, Hardip Puri, a Sikh, went through a "turban pat-down" in Austin Houston. [News accounts saying that it happened in Houston were apparently inaccurate; see here. Thanks to reader DP, of Houston.]

    (Amb. Meera Shankar in a happier moment, while presenting her credentials to another American official. FWIW, people meeting the President usually go through metal detectors but are not frisked.)

    meera_shankar_rep_india_600_1.jpg

    Not surprisingly, these episodes have caused a huge fuss in India. In much of the world, ambassadors move around as mini sovereignties; people who live in New York or Washington know the headache of trying to get them to obey traffic or parking laws. But another (former) Indian ambassador, TP Sreenivasan, wrote an interesting essay in an Indian publication saying, in essence, that Indians should calm down and make allowances for the excesses of today's security mentality in America. Eg:

    >>The first thing to remember is that the security culture in the US is vastly different from ours. It is not wrong to characterise it as paranoid. But that is the reason why no terrorist attack has taken place in the country since 9/11.... They take no chances at all, not even with ambassadors and Nobel Peace Prize winners. When Mohamed El Baradei arrived at the airport in Boston weeks after he won the peace prize on the invitation of the secretary of state, he too was accosted by a "pat-down" expert.<<

    Worth reading as a counterpoint to the explanations of John Pistole, head of the TSA, that the agency is trying to move to a less "cookie-cutter," more "risk-based" determination of who really needs an enhanced pat-down; and also as another entry in that evergreen topic area, "see ourselves as others see us."

  • Why Americans and Aussies Can't Think Straight About China

    An observer from the subcontinent explains: it's the Grass Is Greener principle.

    In response to this item and related stories, on the substantial minority of Americans and absolute majority of Australians who believe that China is already the world's "leading economic power," a reader originally from India and now in the U.S. offers this explanation:

    I remember laughing when you I read your "44% of Americans are insane" headline.... It is rather funny that so many Americans would think that about China although I think the representations of China in the media (magnetic trains, the Olympics, missiles and nuclear weapons) have something to do with it. [JF: I agree.]

    But I think it has something to do with what I call "siege mentality" of people. What I am going to say is probably banal. "The grass is always greener..." and all that. But FWIW, here goes.

    Back home, when I lived in India, I thought India had it bad when it came to political parties. We don't have the neat liberal vs. conservative divide back home, like it is in the US. Instead there are a plethora of positions that our political parties take: religion-based (hindutva-leaning vs. secular -- although our secular parties pander far too much to Muslim clerics), economics-based (privatization-oriented or quasi-socialist). Not to mention the whole caste angle which is far too tangled for me even to talk about.

    But I tended to attribute evil motives to parties whose positions I didn't agree with; it wasn't just that I doubted their means, I also doubted their ends. This was particularly true when it came to the communist Parties in India (the CPI and the CPM): I didn't really believe that they had the nation's good at heart....  With such political parties, I thought, India has a bleak future. Of course, I believed that in other countries (which I hadn't yet experienced, but only read about) it was different: political parties probably didn't agree on the means, but they were in widespread agreement about the ends.

    Imagine my shock when I came to the US in 2002 and started reading widely on the web. The amount of rancor that I saw was shocking - and then, with a little reflection, not so shocking.
    The liberals in the US found that conservatives just didn't care for certain sections of American society (the poor, African-Americans) while the conservatives didn't believe that the liberals had the interests of the country, as a whole, at heart. It was depressingly similar except that this time I was detached enough to appreciate both points. I found that, despite what they thought of each other, conservatives and liberals did have the same ends in mind. E.g. it was inconceivable to me that conservatives and liberals in the US would react differently to an attack on American soil -- and they didn't and won't.

    But while I can see the analogy with the situation in India, it's still hard for me to think well of the Indian communist parties. Perhaps I am just way too invested. I suspect it would be the same for an American conservative in India; he would find widespread agreement about the ends as well as the means of politics among the ideologies in India but that would still not convince him that American liberals have the good of the country at heart (but it might give him a slight push in that direction).

    I guess what I'm trying to say -- in my long-winded way -- is that we always think that other countries have it better than us; that they are united while we are divided, that they are all in uncommon agreement over both means and ends, but we have traitors in our midst, etc. etc. Which is probably why 44% of Americans think that China is a superior economic power. And now Australians too. What Indians think about China, well, that is another story ...

    More »

  • One more on China, India, and the Western media

    In two previous posts, here and here, overseas Chinese readers have presented very different views on whether Western press outlets were ganging up against China, and whether India was by comparison getting a free ride.

    As a worthy complement to these arguments, an email from reader Shreeharsh Kelkar, giving an overseas Indian perspective:

    I was pleasantly surprised to read the email you published from an overseas Chinese citizen who thinks the western media treats China unfairly and that he would like to see China being treated the way India gets treated.  As an Indian who lives in the US, I have many many Indian friends who complain that the media here only talks about the poverty in India, that they emphasize only what's wrong with the country and not what's going right with it, that they talk only of the poor and not of the middle class.  Etc, etc.  

    I think both these complaints -- the Chinese and the Indian -- are, in some sense, two sides of the same coin.
    The key word, I think, is "threat".  At the risk of giving bringing in vague things like "feelings" into the explanation, I will say that the when most people -- Indians or Americans -- think of the Chinese -- especially the Chinese Government -- the word "threatening" is always hovering around, even if left unsaid.  There's always the sense that China wants to conquer the world.  Now, as you've pointed out infinite times in your blog-posts and articles, this is far from being the case.  China (like India) is a desperately poor country that has more pressing things than world domination on its brain.  But that vague threatening feeling remains and the fact that the Chinese possess nuclear weapons doesn't make any one else feel better.

    And so it goes with the media coverage.  Many Indians living in the US hate the fact that Western newspapers often have photographs of slums and the almost mind-numbing poverty that exists there.  But as someone who reads a fair amount, I must say I have very rarely seen pictures of back-breaking poverty from China, the photographs I do remember are those of the huge factories, the magnetic trains, the Olympics.  I am not sure why this is so.  And feel free to point me to stories that do have such photos.  But I think when the public image of a country is associated with back-breaking poverty, the media can't help but be lenient towards it.  And when the public image of a country is a mix of the magnetic trains, huge buildings, the Olympics and Tibet, with nuclear weapons never far behind, then the media will tend to be a little harsh tending to, as your correspondent notes  not "tolerate the minor human rights problems and individual sufferings which are common in any developing country".  

    It was funny for me to read that your Chinese correspondent actually wanted his country to be treated the way India is treated in the media here.  There are hordes of Indians who would wish that India was treated in the Western media the way China is: with a mixture of fear and admiration rather than what they interpret as condescending pity.  

    I should add that I don't think it is the media's business to "positively represent" any country -- their business is to write good, interesting, powerful stories.  Those who don't like it should try and do something about it, rather than complaining.  But that's a topic for another day.

    More »

  • It's not just the Chinese

    Recently I mentioned the near-universal modern Chinese belief that a mobile phone, when ringing, should take precedence over anything else that might be going on -- in particular, the person you are talking or dining with at that moment. From a reader, the cross-cultural angle:

    The mobile phone versus face-to-face thing is the norm in India as well, and again, is not considered rude or even unusual by the locals. I attended a family wedding in New Delhi a couple of years ago, and the priest took several calls during the ceremony. Taking our cue from the bride's parents, everybody paused while he took each call, and then resumed as if [nothing had happened]. Apparently another priest had failed to show up at a wedding across town, and that family were ringing round all the possibles...

    This is one of the few India-China similarities I have come across.

  • DayJet may have struggled in America....

    ... but its goal, operating plan, and marketing language live on in India!

    Check out the site for MyJet, based in Mumbai, and its upcoming "Per Seat, On-Demand" air taxi service in the subcontinent. "Values" rendering from the site:

    graph_value.jpg

    For background on this whole concept, see this article and this book. For the sad story of DayJet, which has just now filed for Chapter 7 ("no light at the end of the tunnel") bankruptcy, see the long skein of postings here. As for MyJet, I say: Godspeed! Attentation of success! And all other appropriate good wishes.

  • Not 100% sure this would be legal in America

    Beautiful evening in Bangalore; big schooners of draft Kingfisher beer on the garden-veranda of a luxurious hotel in the center of the city. Evening falls. To perfect the experience and make sure we are not bothered by mosquitoes attracted to the ornamental pond nearby, a helpful touch from the hotel management: our own chemical fogger.



    Kingfisher with an overlay of aerosol insecticide -- hard to beat!

  • The first thing you notice when you come to India after China

    India and China are so fundamentally different in so many ways that it is amazing that Americans often talk about them as a twinned pair. The Rising Asian Titans, The Billion-Strong Powers, the countries whose people will take our jobs, etc. They’re similar only in the grossest ways - big populations, economies that are rapidly growing, many many citizens who are poor and a few who are very rich.

    As for the differences, there are a zillion for later exploration, and one that is stunning the instant you set foot in India (where I have been before, but not recently). The difference is, children
    Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

    This photo, like those below, comes just now from the waterfront in Mumbai (nee Bombay). The instant my wife and I walked around town we noticed how different the role of children was here from any place we had seen in urban China.

    In Shanghai — or Beijing, or Shenyang, or Hangzhou — children not in school are seen in the presence of one and usually more adult supervisors: parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, people from the neighborhood. But in this one afternoon in Mumbai we came across many scenes of what can only be called roving bands of kids. They were playing cricket in dirt lots. They were throwing stones. They were playing tag. They were running around without watchful adults immediately in sight.

    I know the policy background here (one-child mandate in China), and the statistical manifestations of the difference. China’s median age is in the mid-30s; India’s, the mid-20s. India’s population growth rate is about three times faster than China’s. China has an aging-population problem; India has a plain old population problem, etc. But those don’t prepare you for the way a country full of children looks, in contrast to China. It looks like this:
    Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

    Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

    More »

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