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: Islamophobia

  • The Hip Hop Guide to Foreigners and Their Ways

    Modern media help us learn about the world

    The meaning of Islam:

    The meaning of Chinese philosophies:

    The first video is from TheYoungCon / Geno.tv and NuevaBox and has a number of impressive touches. I especially like the rhythmic horn-section flourishes starting around time 0:40, the "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you 'cuz..." refrain, the mismatch of the guy and the lyrics, etc. Subtle, no. Funny, yes. Actually, subtle in some ways too. Eg time 0:35-0:36 and 0:46-0:52 plus others.

    The second, which is more homemade in production values and more sincere in intent, is from a recent graduate of Colby College, who made the rap video as a project for his class on Eastern philosophies. The creator, David Havlicek, writes:

    >>The lyrics stick very closely to the primary texts of Confucianism, Legalism, Daoism, and Buddhism.  The music is from a song by Afroman called "Palmdale" but I have inserted my own vocals.  Unfortunately, my vocal performance is far from professional, but it certainly adds to the humor of the piece.<<

    Each video is valuable in its own way. Next up in this space: a ton of reports from Airbus and Boeing pilots, plus aircraft engineers, about AF 447.

  • A "Global Movement of Moderates": Speech of a Muslim Prime Minister

    A Muslim leader calls for a shared effort to oppose extremists

    There is lots in the queue about different observations of Islam in different parts of the world, about America from afar, and all the rest.


    For the moment, a notable speech yesterday at the United Nations General Assembly from Najib Tun Razak, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, about the need for members and leaders of the world's major faiths to censure and reject their own extremists and jointly support a "movement of moderates." That is him giving the speech, at left. Eg:

    >>The real issue is not between Muslims and non-Muslims but between the moderates and extremists of all religions, be it Islam, Christianity or Judaism. Across all religions we have inadvertently allowed the ugly voices of the periphery to drown out the many voices of reason and common sense. I therefore urge us to embark on building a "Global Movement of the Moderates" from all faiths who are committed to work together to combat and marginalize extremists who have held the world hostage with their bigotry and bias. We must, and I repeat, we must urgently reclaim the centre and the moral high ground that has been usurped from us. We must choose moderation over extremism. We must choose negotiations over confrontation. We must choose to work together and not against each other. And we must give this effort utmost priority for time is not on our side.<<

    And this conclusion to the speech:

    >>It is time for moderates of all countries, of all religions to take back the centre, to reclaim the agenda for peace and pragmatism, and to marginalise the extremists. This "Global Movement of the Moderates" will save us from sinking into the abyss of despair and depravation. This is an opportunity for us to provide the much needed leadership to bring hope and restore dignity for all. With greater will and collective determination, we will build a more peaceful, secure and equitable world.<<

    OK, it's just another UN speech; talk is cheap; and so on. The significant point is: Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country. Over the decades, PM Najib's predecessors would sometimes have crafted such a speech to emphasize the Zionist menace or Western hegemonism as trumping all other threats. This prime minister took a different approach. The next time someone asks, Why is there no Muslim voice of moderation? you can say: Well, here's one.

    After the jump, an additional quote, and some Malaysia-specific info. Congrats to the Malaysian leadership.

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  • Peretz-Harvard Finale

    A wrapup of this weekend's events in Cambridge

    For the record, a compendium of reactions and events at this weekend's 50th Anniversary of the Social Studies program at Harvard:

    1) As mentioned before, a dramatic video has been posted of Martin Peretz (accompanied by, among others, an understandably stricken-looking Michael Walzer) walking through chanting protesters on his way from Harvard's Science Center to Adams House, where a celebratory lunch for tutors in the program, including him, was being held.

    2) Robert Paul Wolff, the first head tutor of the Social Studies program, was the main speaker at that lunch. He is not at all a fan of Peretz's and has a very tough post-event report on his site, here. For example:

    Let me back up a bit and try to get some perspective. This was a gathering of more than four hundred former and present Social Studies majors -- possibly the largest assemblage of sophisticated social theorists since the last garden party of the Frankfort School for Social Research. These are people who think nothing of discerning the deeper ideological meaning in Afghan popular music or Tibetan architecture, or teasing out the epistemological filiations between Foucault and Montesquieu. And yet, confronted at their own conference by a massive protest, the best they could come up with was "Marty is a nice guy."

    That's not even the tough part.

    3) Brad DeLong of UC Berkeley gave a speech at the morning session on the "Barrington Moore Problematic." This is a reference to the great sociologist Barrington Moore Jr, whose Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, which explored the conditions that gave rise to political progress or disaster, was mandatory reading during my college era. DeLong's speech is very good in its own right IMHO -- text is here, audio here -- in assessing the ways in which Moore's model still applies and doesn't. He also addressed, with Peretz sitting in front of him, the "Muslim life is cheap" column by Peretz that has been the most recent source of controversy.

    4) Account of the weekend's events in the Harvard Crimson here.

    5) To the best of my knowledge, Peretz's latest word on the matter remains his Yom Kippur "Atonement" item at the TNR site. But according to Wolff, Michael Walzer did speak on his behalf, thus:

    Walzer began by telling the audience that in 1969, when Harvard students seized the administration building in an anti-war protest, he and Marty formed a committee to defend them, and most of the advocacy for the students was carried out by Marty. This, we were supposed to conclude, earned Peretz a pass on four decades of ugly racist rants. Then Walzer, widely considered one of the preeminent political philosophers of the present day, sank to a really appalling low. He looked at one of the questioners who had attacked Peretz and said, "Have you examined every writing and footnote and every email of each member of the Standing Committee?" At that, the audience groaned, and he shut up.

    I have not seen any accounts from Walzer or others of the same events. UPDATE: You can see Walzer in fact making this point at around time 6:30 of this YouTube video. His is preceded by E.J. Dionne and Jamie Gorelick talking about their affection for Peretz as teacher.

    There will be more to come over the next few days about attitudes toward Islam, pro and con; but this is it from me on the Peretz controversy, which I never intended to get involved in anyway. It's probably also the time for an all-fronts disclosure/reminder recap: I have known Peretz slightly since the time he was a young instructor at Harvard and I was a student there, but I've never worked with or for him, studied under him, or been in frequent contact of any sort. On the other hand, several of my close friends are former students, proteges, or employees of his and are generally very loyal to him. All around I am sorry that things have ended up this way.

  • Peretz and the Power of Shaming

    A messy controversy comes to a strangely 'encouraging' end

    (Update, with video, at the end.) Today the Social Studies program at Harvard will celebrate its 50th anniversary, and at noon Martin Peretz of the New Republic will (as noted here) be recognized, along with other past head tutors in the program. A fellowship fund raised by former students in his honor -- originally $500,000, which swelled to $650,000 from supporters during the controversy over Peretz's infamous "Muslim life is cheap" column -- will be accepted and launched. A simultaneous protest is planned.

    I was among those on Peretz's back for the bigotry of his comments, so let me explain why I think this outcome is OK.

    1) Money: It was never likely that Harvard would turn down this scholarship fund, which was raised by Peretz's students in honor of his role (by all accounts excellent and devoted) as teacher and mentor. I haven't gone back to do the research, but I am 100% sure that through the centuries Harvard -- like Yale and Oxford and the church next door and every other dependent-on-donations place -- has happily accepted money under far shadier auspices. Yes, there are contributions so toxic that you can't touch them. And, yes, institutions can get into self-justifying trouble by telling themselves, "I'll do so much good with this money, it doesn't matter that it's from Idi Amin!" But this doesn't seem to me such a case.

    Matthew Yglesias has argued strongly that people shouldn't give money to rich private universities in any circumstances, since the money will make a much bigger difference at a cash-poor public college. OK. But in reality, Peretz's friends and proteges were not going to give that $650,000 for fellowships at Cal State San Bernardino. Harvard can presumably put the fellowship to some beneficial use -- and, as I've suggested several times earlier, if they're queasy about Peretz's anti-Muslim diatribes, they could use the occasion to raise more money for new scholarship favoring Muslims.

    2) Speech. It should never have been anyone's goal to keep Martin Peretz from speaking, at this ceremony or any other time. As the homily goes, the cure for bad speech is more speech. For a Harvard student argument to the same effect, see here.

    Being honored at a ceremony as the featured speaker -- that is something different. Which brings us to:

    3) Shaming, and boundary-drawing. No matter what anyone says at the Harvard observances today, Martin Peretz has been undeniably shamed. And lastingly shamed, unless he sets about building a new reputation. A month ago, he was an editor-in-chief who had many devoted proteges, some persistent critics (to name two, Matt Duss and Eric Alterman, plus this), but a general position of respectability. Now the reaction to his writings is such that even the president of Harvard had to hold him at arm's length in saying that she still would accept the scholarship money; and he has been criticized eloquently in his own magazine (by Todd Gitlin: "The life of the mind is not the life of the spleen") and, inter alia, in the Tablet (by Marc Tracy: "This is not the first time he has written something racist, and it isn't the fifteenth time, either").

    Peretz -- and everyone else -- must know that if his legacy were to be settled as of today, it would be mixed at best. Beloved by many students and respected by some magazine colleagues, but broadly considered in his 70s to be a bigot. It's certainly in his power to change that, in applying in future writing the spirit of his Yom Kippur "Atonement" for wrongs done to "our Muslim brothers and sisters." But the real point is one that the Economist's "Democracy in America" columnist noted: the controversy had helped clarify what is decent, and indecent, in public discourse, for people who want to be seen as more than mere tribal-loyalists and haters. (In reading back through Peretz's comments of the past two decades, I am struck by how angry most of them sound.) The Economist said that the controversy over "honoring" Peretz was "exactly the sort of conflict that helps to delineate the boundaries of acceptable discourse in America. In this sense the whole incident might be seen as encouraging."

    So, happy 50th birthday to the Social Studies program, and let us take the proper encouragement from the episode.
    UPDATE: Video from the protests today here. Eg:


  • On Halal and Kosher Butchery

    A case of equal treatment between Muslim and Jewish practices?

    As mentioned yesterday, it's time to start working through reader responses on "bigot" issues, interesting new software, aviation innovations, beer, etc. Let's start with butchery.

    Earlier this week a reader in London pointed out a Fleet Street headline on the "outrage" of (Muslim) halal rules for slaughtering animals, and suggested that the same papers would-- at least these days -- hesitate before expressing "outrage" about (Jewish) kosher slaughter practices, which are from the animal's perspective just the same thing.

    Some readers have written in to say that in Europe (and New Zealand), kosher practices are coming under serious pressure too. They may not be get the tabloid front-page "outrage!" treatment of the recent halal flap in England, which in turn suggests that the UK press is less worried about seeming "anti-Muslim" than of seeming anti-Semitic. But all practices of this sort are subject to increasing criticism from animal-rights groups. For instance, reader Miguel Cardo of Madrid writes in to say:

    While I totally agree with the main point of the article (typical braindead tabloid bigotry), there's something about halal, and also kosher, sacrifice rituals that pushes the limits of what kind of rules a society should allow because of religious reasons.

    My brother is a veterinarian, and for a while worked in England as slaughterhouse inspector. Among his duties were making sure that hygiene regulation and animal welfare rules (i.e. avoiding unnecessary suffering) were respected; that is, as long as 'regular' slaughtering was performed. When the slaughterhouse was used for religious killing, everything was relaxed: hygiene (biblical ritual instead of a proper disinfection of the butcher's tools), animal welfare (instead of stunning the cows before, badly sharpened knives were used on still conscious animals).

    Coming from a country with very little religious diversity [Spain], I was amazed about what the British are ready to put up with for the sake of tolerance. Why are some minorities exempt of complying to some quite reasonable rules? Couldn't any group of people invent their own religion to avoid some civic duty or law?

    You can guess I am not much of a believer in any deity... but I would really like that all citizens have the same rights and obligations.

    After the jump, two more perspectives on the same theme.

    More »

  • Resolution of the Peretz / Harvard Controversy

    Harvard's Social Studies program releases the schedule for its 50th anniversary celebration

    The "final" version of the planned program honoring the 50th anniversary of the Social Studies program at Harvard has been published on the Social Studies website. I won't quote it all here, but the newsworthy part is this:

    12:00               Lunch      

                            Welcome from Grzegorz Ekiert

                            Recognition of Head Tutors and Directors of Studies:

                                        Robert Paul Wolff, Richard Hunt, Martin Peretz,

                            Michael Donnelly, Cheryl Welch, Judith Vichniac, Anya Bernstein

                                        Principal Speaker:  Robert Paul Wolff *

    That is, recognition of those who have been dedicated teachers through the history of the program, but a scheduled speaking role for only one of them. (*Underline and link added, and the link is interesting.)

    The Harvard Crimson has reported (and I have heard from several other sources) that during this past week's "Muslim life is cheap" controversy, a new flow of donations on Peretz's behalf has come into Harvard. They have increased the total for the fellowship named in his honor from $500,000 to $650,000. I mentioned recently a possible win-win resolution from Harvard's point of view: creating another, paired fellowship, preferentially for an American or foreign student of Muslim background. This new money provides a start. Just a thought.

  • It's Not Just America: Halal 'Outrage' in the UK

    How would the same practice be described, if undertaken by groups other than "the Muslims"?

    A reader writes from England:

    >>>Sadly, the kind of "permissible" bigotry which appears to be gaining ground on your side of the ocean is common currency here in the UK, too.

    Yesterday's Sun (for those lucky enough to be uninitiated, Murdoch's UK mass-market daily and an organ with a well-deserved reputation for having its finger pretty accurately on the murkier end of the nation's id) carried this headline: "Outrage over halal meat.". The gist: some restaurants had the temerity to serve halal without telling customers.

    I can kinda understand that, from a "choice" point of view, restaurants should be coming clean on this one. But "outrage"?

    As so often with this sort of thing, the only sensible way of reading the piece - it seemed to me - was mentally to swap the word "halal" for "kosher" and then try to imagine if it would have warranted either a full-page story or the word "outrage".

    Somehow, I doubt it.

    (Which, in a way, is an advance: if the same paper with the same mores had been publishing between the wars, I fear it wouldn't have had much trouble treating Jews the same way, as may have done some of the UK's more pro-Hitler papers in the 30s. But that's just swapping one bogeyman for another.)<<<

    Full-page image from the Sun, including somewhat grisly large photo, after the jump.

    More »

  • 'Muslim Life is Cheap' Cont.

    The three-year-old face of the "Muslim world"

    A reader in New York named Yasser writes to ask:

    >>Is it unfair to say that part of the Muslim life that is cheap is my three-year old. I can't tell you the anguish I feel right now raising a child in this climate. I live right next door to ground zero and the ugliness I saw this past 9/11 as flag-draped anti-mosque protesters screaming all sorts of absurdities.<<

    Thumbnail image for IMG_1190A.jpg

    In sharing this picture, with the sender's permission, I do not mean to say, "adorable children render all political analysis or criticism moot." I mean to say, consistent with previous posts, that it is important for Americans at this moment to try to imagine the variety contained within phrases like "Muslim life."

    Yes, yes -- as they should about "Jewish life," "African-American life," "African life," and, well, life life. But "Muslim life" is the one whose variety seems most in danger of being overlooked just now.


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