Watch Live: The Washington Ideas Forum 2014

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: Life

  • When a Man Is Tired of Wingsuit Videos, He Is Tired of Life ...

    The world is big and interesting, chapter 438.

    ... as Samuel Johnson might have sayeth, if he had gotten a look at these things.

    We've previously explored the wonders of wingsuit-flying in China and assorted sites in Europe (plus underwater). Now I give you Switzerland, via Epic TV* and our friends at AOPA:

     

    And in case you missed the flying-and-diving video the first time around, here it is again.

    Plus, for some terrifying/riveting wingsuit video. check out this.

    I love flying airplanes but would never dare try one of these wingsuit stunts. I also never get tired of seeing them. They have a dream/nightmare quality that is immediately recognizable though hard to define.


    * Tech note: Sometimes this video displays an annoying Epic TV banner announcement across its upper half through its whole duration. If that happens, try refreshing the page and viewing the video again. That seems to thwart it.

  • A Whole New Way to Think About House of Cards: 'Throwing Like a Girl'

    What "The West Wing for werewolves" tells us about political satire

    To avoid spoilers, I won't tell you why Kevin Spacey is standing here, or what comes next. ( MLB.com )

    This post will end with the significance of how Kevin Spacey throws a baseball --in real life, and on screen (above). But it will take a little while to get there, and I hope you'll bear with me along a twisty trail.

    1) A contrast in styles: drama versus melodrama. I'm watching the original U.K.-BBC version of House of Cards, and its U.S.-Netflix remake, more or less in sync. Right now I've seen about half of Season Two of the U.S. version, and three of the four episodes of To Play the King, which was Season Two for the BBC. 

    I like them and recommend them both and will be sorry when I reach the end of either. But as time goes on, the contrasts between them become more evident.) For previous comparisons, see installments one, two, and three.

    Ian Richardson, the original FU, with his
    trademark line

    One difference is simply scale: Netflix offers more than three times as many episodes per season, 13 versus 4, and about ten times as many plot twists, sub-characters, shifts of scene, and so on. It's just bigger in every way, symbolized by the modern HD color that makes the original seem like black-and-white. The sex scenes are far more numerous and explicit. (Which is also a 1990s-broadcast vs 2014-non-broadcast shift.) The characters are louder, broader, and less subtle. Michael Dobbs, who wrote the British novel that begat this whole dramatic lineage, and who worked as a consultant on both renditions of the shows, has described the Netflix version as "The West Wing for werewolves." If you've seen them both you know what he means.

    Which leads to the other, related difference, that of tone. If I say it's drama (BBC) versus melodrama (Netflix), that sounds like a put-down but isn't. And remember, I am the farthest thing from a knee-jerk "Oh, the Brits are so classy!" guy. It's a difference in the palette with which the characters are drawn. Ian Richardson, as the British politician FU—Francis Urquhart—is a study in cold, controlled malice. As Frank Underwood, the American FU, Kevin Spacey is by comparison hamming it up and camping it up in every scene. For me, he is too obviously having fun—or so I thought until last night.

    2) A weak character: defect, or diabolically clever design? By a million miles, the least convincing character in the American House of Cards is the supposed President, Garrett Walker (played by Michael Gill—a capable actor who I assume is taking direction). Movie-and-TV presidents have varied widely, like their real-life models, but except in farces all of them have projected a sense of there-ness, in the Gertrude Stein definition. Martin Sheen's President Bartlet in West Wing and Dennis Haysbert's President Palmer in 24 are the clearest examples: you see these characters and think, OK, I understand how he got elected, and why the people around him defer to his judgment. Garrett Walker? Unt-uh. This guy is a peevish assistant-secretary type.

    I had considered that this was a weakness in the show, or a sign of its melodrama-rather-than-drama aspirations. But I have begun wondering whether I'm selling their producers short. It's all because of the "Frank Underwood Learns to Throw" sequence midway through Season Two, which I've just seen and is where the picture at the top of this post comes from.

    3) "Throwing Like a Girl," redux. Back during Bill Clinton's first term, I wrote an Atlantic article called "Throwing Like a Girl." I had a wonderful time reporting it, since that involved: interviewing the actor John Goodman (a former athlete who had learned to throw with his left had for his movie role as Babe Ruth); sitting with the tennis coach Vic Braden to watch bio-mechanics videos about the "kinetic chain" that leads to a proper throwing motion; and learning the simple trick that can make almost anyone "throw like a girl." You'll have to check out the article to see what that was.

    The article began when I saw side-by-side front-page photos of Bill and Hillary Clinton throwing out the first pitch at season-opening baseball games and wondered why they threw so differently. The obvious-when-you-think-about-it conclusion I came to was this:

    Throwing is a motion nearly anyone can do, but that no one starts out knowing how to do. That is, it is not like crawling or walking -- which children innately figure out -- and is like riding a bike, which anyone can do but only with opportunity and practice. (If you've never seen a bike, you're not going to be able to ride one. The first dozen times you try, you are going to fall down.) For whatever reason, the typical 12-year-old boy has spent more of his life throwing balls, stones, and sticks than the typical 12-year-old girl. Thus more boys than girls learn how to throw, and more girls than boys throw the way you do if you don't know how.

    (If you've read this far, I'll reward you with the secret: the way to prove this to yourself is to throw a ball or stone with your "off" hand -- the left, if you're right- handed. Most people have no practice throwing that way, so generally they will "throw like a girl." That's what John Goodman did when he practiced throwing leftie -- it took him a year to get ready to do it in front of the camera -- and is what I did when "researching" my article.)

    Update! Thanks to reader KG, here is a fabulous video, via Kottke.org, of men throwing with the "off" hand. The French music background makes it special.

    Men Throwing Rocks With The Other Hand from Juan Etchegaray on Vimeo.

    4) Which brings us back to Kevin Spacey. In a Season Two episode I've just seen, Kevin Spacey throws on-screen, and he is terrible. I would use a video clip if I saw one from Netflix online, but take it from me. 

    "Bad" throwing means: having your torso face the target head on, rather than being turned at an angle; having your elbow below your shoulder as the throw comes through; pushing the ball, with bent elbow as you release it, rather than hurling the ball with your elbow whipping to a straight position as you let go; and so on. Every one of them you see from Spacey's Frank Underwood. The muddy little screen grab at right understates the problem.

    When I first saw this I thought: Spacey's kidding himself! He in inside his own information bubble and doesn't realize how bad this looks on screen, just as he hasn't realized how weakly written or weakly acted the saga's President Walker is, and how overdrawn some of the others are. To be fair, I gave the writers credit for the ball-throwing homage to the brilliant opening passages of Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes (a very mild spoiler on my part). 

    Then, through the magic of the Internet, I started prowling around for other pictures of Kevin Spacey engaged in ball sports. And I discovered that the real-life Spacey had thrown out a first pitch at a real-world major league ball game. He did so last summer at Camden Yards, before an Orioles game. And—well, read the Charm City headline for yourself:

    So a person who in real life can throw perfectly well, is for dramatic purposes all-too-convincingly pretending that he can't. And what if ...  this means something about the series as a whole?

    5) Which really means coming back to Verbal Kint. Suddenly I was thinking of Spacey in the final few minutes of his breakthrough role in The Usual Suspects—when we see that pitiful Verbal Kint, shuffling and stuttering, is capable of a whole lot more than he has let us know. And suddenly, with this TV series as in that movie, you're looking back at the old evidence through a different lens.

    Maybe the President and other politicians come across as two-dimensional figures not because the writing and acting are bad—but because they're good, and the impression of two-dimensionality is what the series means to convey. Maybe Spacey's FU, unlike Ian Richardson's FU in England, is an exaggerated hambone villain not because he's self-indulgent but because he's being precise. That's how he sees, or wants to present, political leaders—and their consorts, like Robin Wright, and before her Kate Mara, as soap-opera villainesses?

    That's as far into the weeds as I can go right now. Any TV series that can make you wonder what it means has done something valuable, and by that standard both FUs have proved their work. On to more episodes this evening.

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  • 3 Different Topics, 3 Works Worth Reading

    The publishing industry is in terrible trouble, as we all know. But more high-quality work keeps getting published than anyone could possibly read. A few suggestions for today

    Roger Angell, via PBS

    1) You don't often read things in the periodical press and think, people will still want to read this many, many years from now. But I had that feeling when reading Roger Angell's remarkable "Life in the Nineties," in The New Yorker.

    Roger Angell has one of the longest and most distinguished writing careers in American letters, but I think this is his very finest work. You have probably heard about it by now. It is extraordinary.

    2) Angell is of course best known as a literary-sportswriter. A different kind of sports-and-society work is The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. This is hardly a darkhorse book, having been a best-seller list perennial since its appearance last year. But it is genuinely interesting on many levels, from the psychology (and physics and sociology and anatomy) of the once wildly popular sport of competitive rowing; to the class tensions and national rivalries in that sport; to the foreboding drama of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; to the particular culture of the Depression-era Pacific Northwest, especially Seattle.

    From Daniel Brown's site

    The shot above, from a promotional video for the book, shows (I am pretty sure) boats racing through the Montlake Cut in Seattle. "The Cut" is part of the canal between Lake Washington and the Puget Sound, and it is where the heroes of the tale, the nine-man University of Washington crew, were based. I assume this picture is of that boat, which means that it was taken nearly 80 years ago. The races on the Cut didn't look much different when we watched them while living in Seattle in the early 2000s.

    I could say more about the book and its obvious parallels, from The Amateurs to Chariots of Fire to Jesse Owens's story. Instead I'll just say that I'm glad to have read it and think most people will be too.

    3) I know John Judis somewhat and respect him greatly. His 1980s biography of William F. Buckley was penetrating and surprisingly sympathetic, given Judis's standing as a man of the Left. (He co-founded the magazine that became Socialist Review and wrote for In These Times.) Soon after George W. Bush became president, Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority, which made a case that seemed unlikely at the time but almost too obvious now. (In brief: that demographic and educational changes were working powerfully to the Democrats' advantage on the national level.) 

    John Judis, via CEIP

    John Judis has spent nearly a decade on his new book, Genesis, the story of how Harry Truman decided to throw his and America's weight so strongly behind the creation of Israel. The book also explores what long-term tensions Truman's decisions both resolved and increased. This book has the same careful, deliberate authority, but with an edge, that has characterized Judis's other work. You can read a New Republic excerpt from it here. For instance from that excerpt:

    Truman was not a philo-Semite like Balfour or Lloyd George. He was skeptical of the idea that Jews were a chosen people. (“I never thought God picked any favorites,” he wrote in his diary in 1945.) He had the ethnic prejudices of a small town Protestant Midwesterner from Independence, Missouri. He referred to New York City as “kike town” and complained about Jews being “very very` selfish.” But Truman’s prejudice was not exclusive to Jews (he contrasted “wops” as well as “Jews” with “white people”) and did not infect his political views or his friendships with people like Eddie Jacobson, his original business partner in Kansas City. He was, his biographer Alonzo Hamby has written, “the American democrat, insistent on social equality, but suspicious of those who were unlike him.”

    There were two aspects of Truman’s upbringing and early political outlook that shaped his view of a Jewish state. Truman grew up in a border state community that had been torn apart by the Civil War. That, undoubtedly, contributed to his skepticism about any arrangement that he thought could lead to civil war. And Truman, like his father, was an old-fashioned Democrat. His political heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and he shared Jefferson’s insistence on the separation of church and state. He blamed Europe’s centuries of war on religious disputes, which, he said, “have caused more wars and feuds than money.” That, too, contributed to his skepticism about a Jewish state.

    When Truman assumed office in April 1945 after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he had little knowledge of Palestine and even less of what Roosevelt’s policies in the region had been. What immediately concerned him was what to do about the Jewish refugees, the survivors of the Nazi’s final solution, most of whom were stranded in ramshackle displaced person camps in Central Europe, and some of whom wanted to migrate to Palestine. Truman was deeply sympathetic to the Jews’ plight and defied the British, who still controlled Palestine and were worried about the Arab reaction, by calling for 100,000 Jewish refugees to be let in.

    I mention this book both because I learned a lot from it, and because it was the object of a churlish put down on (surprise!) the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. For instance, and incorrectly, "Genesis reduces [Truman's] tortuous deliberation into a simplistic tale of Jewish bullying."

    You can read what strike me as more accurate, though sometimes critical, assessments in the Jewish Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The American Prospect, and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

    "The press" is in trouble, as we always hear. But more high-quality work keeps appearing than anyone could possibly read.

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  • In Which I Develop New Respect for the Wedding-Industrial Complex

    We know that football players are brave. But spare a thought as well for bride-magazine models.

    I have no world-changing point to make, but the scene below, this weekend, was quite amazing. Here is the back story:

    Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I came back to DC after a productive initial visit to Greenville and its environs in "the upstate" of South Carolina. We'll go there again, with a lot more to report.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    As always, I'd been obsessively studying the aviation weather forecasts to figure out the right time to make a shortish (two-hour) flight. We couldn't start too late in the day, to avoid worries about racing sunset. We wouldn't go at all if there was a prospect of icing.* I was looking for surface winds within the comfort zone, and so on.

    The result was that early afternoon yesterday looked like the sweet spot. The same jet-stream "clipper" pattern that has brought yet another polar freeze to the eastern United States had pushed away most of the clouds -- both the low-level clouds that complicate the process of landing, and the ones that, at altitude, would make you worry about airframe icing. The winds would be strong but would diminish through the day, and were lined up directly with the runway at our destination. And if, as we were traveling, they turned out to be worse than expected, we could land somewhere else with bigger runways, better aligned with the wind, and wait them out.

    It was cold enough yesterday morning in Greenville to ice up a fountain in front of the landmark Poinsett Hotel.** After taking off we encountered, as foreseen, very cold and fairly bumpy conditions.  At 7,000 feet, the winds aloft were blowing at 50 to 60 knots, or almost 70 miles per hour -- similar to when I flew with the Marketplace crew into Eastport, Maine. This makes for a kind of jostling that isn't dangerous but can be unpleasant. Through most of this flight it wasn't bad at all.***

    Here is the FlightAware track of the journey, more accurate than Flight Aware sometimes is. The dotted blue shows the Victor-airways based initially cleared route; the green, the route we actually flew, including shortcuts we were given along the way.

    As we made the fishhook turn toward Montgomery County airport, in Gaithersburg outside Washington, the reported surface winds were strong -- 16 knots, gusting to 23 -- but still directly down the runway. Recall that in the jet crash in Aspen early this month, the wind was even stronger -- but was a tailwind, which makes it difficult and dangerous to land. A gusty headwind requires concentration on landing, because the plane can speed up and slow down unexpectedly. But a strong down-the-runway headwind can add a slow-mo effect to the landing process, which gives extra time for landing adjustments.**** 

    So we landed; and got out of the plane; and were instantly blown halfway over by the strong Arctic wind. I was wearing a sweater and quickly pulled on a leather jacket, and still I felt within five seconds as if all the heat had left my body and my ears and fingers were crystallizing. The temperature was in the low 20s, and so was the wind, with a resulting wind chill in the Green Bay-like single digits.

    Then -- we saw the models! A debonair young guy wearing a light shirt and a tuxedo jacket draped over his shoulder, a beautiful young woman in a shoulderless white gown. And they were standing there, calm and smiling and, far from shivering uncontrollably, not even displaying goose flesh, in conditions that made me want to cry or run for shelter. 

    Through chilblains I finally asked them a version of, What the hell? It turns out that this was a photo shoot for a high-end bridal magazine, which when it comes out in a few months will look like some springtime idyll. We had unloaded bags from our plane while shivering and moaning, and the photo crew asked if we'd leave them there as background for a serendipitous white car / white gown / white shirt / white airplane look. You can see the bags underneath the plane in the shot at top. So we stood and watched while, with incredible stoicism, the young couple gave an impeccable impression of people enjoying a clement early-summer day. 

    What's the uplifting moral? 

    Lots of things have gotten way bigger during my time as an American. People themselves. Houses. Everything about pro football, which for some reason is on my mind today. And of course the wedding industry. ​Usually I mock or marvel at it. For now, I offer it my respect. 


    * The danger you must avoid in the summer: thunderstorms. In the winter: being inside a cloud in below-freezing temperatures, which can cover the wings with ice and turn an airplane into a non-flying brick.

    ** The Poinsett's transformation from a lawless crack house to a local-landmark status is a featured part of the downtown-renaissance saga in Greenville. And, yes, it is that Poinsett -- Joel Robert Poinsett, for whom the famous seasonal plant is named. That's the the hotel at right, also conveying an idea of the gelid-blue skies. Below we see Mr. Poinsett commemorated in front of his hotel -> crack house -> hotel.

    *** The blue line in the Flight Aware graph below shows speed across the ground, in the second half of the flight. Until the big slowdown at the end in preparation for landing, the plane's airspeed through this whole journey was constant. The fluctuations up and down in groundspeed were all about shifts in the wind's speed and direction. (The tan line is altitude; the spike on the left side is some anomaly.)

    **** Why am I going into such detail? If you read the journalism of the 1920s and 1930s, you see that the practicalities of aviation were a part of normal discourse, they way descriptions of computer or smart phone use is today. So, ever a traditionalist, I am reaching back to the finest part of our heritage. 

  • What Is a 'Class-A War Criminal'? More on the Yasukuni Controversy

    The complications of wartime memory, continued

    Westboro Church protestor, AP photo via NPR.

    If you are joining us late, background on why it matters so much in China -- and Japan -- that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, and whether it should in fact matter, is in previous installments one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Now, additional recent readers' views.

    1. "Imagine if the Westboro Baptist Church happened to own Arlington." From Noboru Akimoto:

    I've been watching your back and forth on Yasukuni with some interest, and I generally agree with the commentators that say the issue is more with the Yushukan than with the shrine itself.  [JF note: Yushukan is the "historical" museum near the shrine, with a very tendentious view of Japan being forced into the war by Allied encirclement.]

    I do think a part that's not been mentioned is that Yasukuni Jinja [Shrine], because of the separation of religion and state of the post-war constitution, is NOT a part of the Japanese government, nor does any of the Imperial family have control over its actions.

    We know from the Tomita Memorandum that the Showa Emperor [aka Hirohito] was furious about the chief priest's decision to include the Class A 14 into the shrine in 1979, but that as a matter of politics, neither the Emperor nor the government can actually compel Yasukuni, a private religious institution, from acknowledging the 14 Class A criminals nor force it to disinter their spirits.

    As a Japanese individual and Shintoist, I would like to see the priests separate the class A war criminals from the others, but I also understand that as a practical, constitutional matter, having the government force the issue would be a step in the wrong direction.

    If we had to have some sort of strange analogy, I would ask American readers to imagine if the Westboro Baptist Church happened to own Arlington.

    Also, I've put up a short primer on the subject.

    2. By the way, who are these "Class-A War Criminals" anyway? From a reader in Singapore, with a point I should have clarified earlier:

    In your recent posts about the Yasukuni shrine, the inclusion of WWII era Japanese Class-A war criminals is mentioned with no explanation of the term "Class-A". I've noticed that this is common in news articles about Yasukuni in recent decades, though in your article you do note that the war criminal trials in Japan held by the Allies were at least somewhat controversial as to their basis in law and morality.

    It is almost natural for the casual reader (or writer of articles) to assume that "Class-A" in this context simply means the worst kind of war criminal, a sort of Japanese equivalent of an Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler, Amon Goeth or some such.

    As you likely know, "Class-A War Criminal" had a very specific meaning in the context of the Tokyo trials. "Class-A" war crimes were defined as "crimes against peace". Crimes against humanity, such as genocide or the Nanking massacre were "Class-C" crimes while the more usual war crimes, such as shooting helpless prisoners, were "Class-B" war crimes.

    The 25 Japanese officials tried for Class-A war crimes were tried for plotting and waging war, i.e. crimes against peace. Some of them were tried additionally for Class-B and Class-C crimes, and all those multiply convicted were executed.

    But at least two of those charged with Class-A crimes resumed civilian life, in the Japanese cabinet in the 1950s and as the CEO of Nissan, respectively.

    In 1929, Japan signed (but did not ratify) the Kellogg-Briand Pact formally titled the "General Treaty for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy". The treaty made declaration of aggressive war illegal, but not prosecutable by other signatories to the treaty. "Declaration" was the weasel word in the treaty, which many nations, including Japan took full advantage of in the years to come.

    And it was on this basis that the Class-A charges were prosecuted in the 1946 Tokyo trials. Except for the Imperial Family and the Showa Emperor, Hirohito, who were protected by Douglas MacArthur, this meant that practically the entire Japanese cabinet that had anything to do with the conduct of war was thus indicted.

    I think it would help if a brief note were made in the article about the terminology. I'm not suggesting moral or legal exoneration of these individuals but context matters. The term "Class-A" plays straight into the hands of the Chinese Government which has its own questionable agenda in kicking up a protest about Yasukuni every year. I would have thought that it is the inclusion of the Class-C criminals that would be more morally disturbing to non-Japanese victims of the war, though in the case of China and Korea at least, the Buddhist value commonplace in Japan, of letting go of the grudge against the sinner (not the sin) after his death, is not exactly unknown or alien. Quite the opposite.

    3) An American equivalent? From a reader on the West Coast:

    In “Episode Six” your “American who lives in Japan…and has a Japanese spouse” observed that "The museum (Yushukan) is shocking in its mendacity (in its willingness to change or omit events entirely) and audacity … I struggle to think of a comparable hypothetical for US history - if the Vietnam memorial in Washington also had an exhibit attached that lauded the use of napalm and the actions at My Lai?”

    In fact, the same sort of mendacity and audacity did almost occur at the Vietnam Memorial. Then President Ronald Reagan, his Interior Secretary James Watt and their supporters were adamantly opposed to Maya Lin’s design for the memorial, precisely because it did not glorify an unjust lost war while memorializing the soldiers who fought it.

    After Lin won the competition and it became apparent they could do nothing to stop it, opponents of her design tried to have a much more mundane, representational sculpture (“The Three Soldiers”) placed at the apex of the memorial. While The Three Soldiers neither lauds the use of napalm nor glorifies My Lai, those opposed to Lin’s Wall knew full well that placing the statue at the apex would reduce her design to mere backdrop, negating it’s abstract emotional power and timelessness. If not for the courage of Maya Lin (then a 21 year old Yale undergraduate) The Wall would indeed have become mere background to one more forgettable representative sculpture lost in the expanse of the National Mall . One could argue that was the objective of the right-wing opponents of the Vietnam memorial all along.

    While recognizing the left is just as capable as the right at papering over history we should avoid false equivalency here. One regrettable quality of the right wing mind seems to be the unique skill it brings to the revision of history, the negation of fact and the power of forgetfulness. Unfortunately this is every bit as true here in America as it is in Japan.

    Vietnam Veterans Memorial, via this site.

    I well remember that the controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was bitter and intense. As it happens, I think the final outcome is the right one -- artistically, historically, culturally. Maya Lin's wall endures as a real work of genius, and it regularly has a larger crowd of up-close visitors than any other site on the Mall.  Usually families or friends looking at names of loved ones. (You can contrast this with the stupid, ugly vapidity of the recent World War II memorial, a subject for another time.) The addition of Frederick Hart's "The Three Soldiers" statue, nearby but not surmounting the wall, I think adds to rather than complicates the commemorative power of the memorial. The more recent addition of a realistic statue of combat nurses also is, in my view, a dignified plus.

    4) Self-identity as victim. From an American who recently visited Japan:

    Last year, when we visited the moving Atomic Bomb museum in Nagasaki, I was surprised to find that the timeline on the wall gave the name, "War of the Pacific", to WWII and explicitly blamed the U.S. for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which was shown only by a single photo on the wall.  Apparently, the Yasukuni representation is not isolated. 

    I had the same impression on my first visit to the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima back in the 1980s. Its historical account began with something like, "In the springtime of 1945, the U.S. Army Air Corps launched a campaign of firebombing against major cities in Japan..." with no mention of what might have happened beforehand.

    I no longer have a photo of that account and don't see one online. I do note that the online "Kids Peace Station" run by the Hiroshima museum has a very fair-seeming account of the origins of the war.

    The scholarship on how modern Japan does and does not remember its war history is vast and complex. The best single account remains John Dower's Embracing Defeat, but, for instance, you could check out a 2010 paper by Mindy Haverson, then of Stanford Law School which makes this point about Hiroshima:

    The dominant postwar messages that war, particularly nuclear war, is evil and destructive serve as universalized constructions in which the aggressor/enemy is neither the colonial, militaristic Japanese state nor the US [which dropped the bomb]  but "war" itself. As such, Japan can avoid both self-identification as an aggressor vis-a-vis the rest of Asia and the denigration of the U.S. as an enemy, a move that Japan's leaders have sought to avoid in light of the country's economic and security dependence on the US.

    In the absence of an entity "responsible" for wartime suffering, Japan has positioned itself as the ultimate victim and articulated a role for itself as international spokesperson for world peace.

    5) The power of "encirclement" thinking, and other dominant images. Another Westerner in Asia writes:

    In some future post or roundtable perhaps it's worth exploring the encirclement theme that has come up in the Yasakuni/Yushukan discussion.  It certainly drives behavior from China and Iran today, and perhaps Russia, Pakistan, and a few others.  

    I agree. Because it is geographically almost impossible for America to be "encircled," many Americans have a hard time even imagining the power of this threat/concept in many other countries -- including the Japan of the 1930s and the China of today. Even enormous China? Yes, given that its sea-lane access is subject to many choke points -- and that across many of its borders it sees concentrations of American or U.S.-allied troops. More on this later; for now, an example of the kind of map I've often been shown by Chinese strategic experts. (The black plane-symbols are US or allied bases):

    The same reader quoted above adds:

    I'm an American resident in Hong Kong doing business across Asia for 20 years, and I don't think most Americans have any concept of just how deep and state sponsored the Japanese vs Chinese racism goes.  It has ebbed somewhat in the younger generation through positive exposure - the nearest analogy I can think of is gay rights in the US - but the government uses mass media to perpetuate the most ugly stereotypes at every opportunity.

    I agree with this too -- and the whole Yasukuni/Yushukan controversy may have the virtue of giving the Western public an idea of how powerful and dangerous these emotions can become.

  • Robert Pastor

    An influential and original participant in international affairs

    Robert A. Pastor, American University photo.

    It seems hard to remember, but four months ago the United States was on the brink of launching cruise missiles and intervening directly in the Syrian civil war.

    Just a few days before President Obama made his dramatic decision to involve Congress in this choice, which itself was a few days before Vladimir Putin came up with his plan to avert a showdown (though not of course to end the killing) via international control of Assad's chemical weapons, Robert Pastor wrote an article in this space. It was called "There Are More Than Two Options for U.S. Policy in Syria." In it he argued that direct U.S. military involvement -- which, again, at that moment seemed all but inescapable -- would be a grave mistake; that there were more options to consider than either doing nothing or sending troops; that diplomacy offered better prospects than intervention; and that it was time to involve the Russians, even if this made the U.S. lose face.

    His analysis was not what you were reading in the standard op-ed piece. And it was -- in my view, and as I think subsequent events confirmed -- correct. In both ways it was typical of other things Pastor had written during his time as a participant in and analyst of international affairs.

    Bob Pastor, a good friend of mine since the late 1970s, died last night, at age 66, nearly four years after he was told he had only a few months left because of cancer. We first met during the embattled days of the Carter Administration, when I was a speechwriter and he was the National Security Council's expert on Latin American affairs. We often sat together on trips, when he would reel off endless tales of his adventures a few years earlier as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia. He was stationed in a district rich in durian trees -- whose bowling-ball-weight, spike-covered fruit posed a lethal threat as they fell from branches on high. Bob said that he dealt with this peril by routinely wearing a football helmet as he went about his Peace Corps duties. 

    Bob's diplomatic and academic achievements will be noted elsewhere. He was an original and influential thinker about relations within the Americas; he did valuable work on improving the mechanics of democracy -- in the United States as well as in other countries; he worked with Jimmy Carter in Atlanta at Emory and at the Carter Center, and then was a senior figure at American University in DC. When Bill Clinton came to office, he nominated Bob as his ambassador to Panama -- where Bob was a well-known and -liked figure because of his work on the Panama Canal Treaty. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved him on a 16-3 vote; but then Jesse Helms, poison-toad-like, used his Senatorial "privilege" to prevent the nomination from coming up for a full Senate vote, ever. 

    Despite his professional achievements, for me Bob Pastor's most distinctive traits were always his warmth, energy, and subversive humor. One of many times I got a scowl from foreign-policy bigshots in the Carter days was when I couldn't stop laughing, at a Serious meeting, about something Bob had just said to me as an aside. Before my wife and I moved to China, he gave us an expensive-looking piece of Chinese lacquer ware -- which on the back said in big letters, "Best Wishes for Mutual Prosperity from Jiangsu Province Industrial Development Commission." He had received it on an official trip there and knew it reflected the spirit of modern China.

    Bob is survived by his siblings, his wife Margy and children Kip and Tiffin, plus other relatives; and is fondly remembered by a very large number of friends.

  • Because We Haven't Heard About My Favorite Coventry-Based Band in a While ...

    I could have written this item decades ago if my last name were Smith.

    I give you, yes, The Fallows, a rising indie-acoustic band from the English Midlands who for understandable reasons have commanded attention in our household since their debut in 2012.

    Tragically none of the band members has the actual last name I am looking for. Their real last names turn out to be Darby, Rutherford, Stokes, Pointon, and Corkerry. May these some day be numbered with Lennon-McCartney or at least the revered Clapton-Bruce-Baker! On the other hand, their base is very near the ancestral homeland of the few Fallowses in the world, so we will overlook such technicalities (plus plural-spelling fine points) and proudly claim them. Here is a sample of their music:

    With more here. And hey, guys, when your tours take you to the New World, let us know. 

    I think henceforth I will introduce myself as "footstompin indie/folk." It's in the blood.

  • How the #1 'Breakthrough' Helps Modern Communities Survive

    The importance of communities, imagined and real.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
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    Last week, in the "50 Greatest Breakthroughs" story from the current issue, our panel of experts decreed that the printing press was the #1 most important technological advance since the wheel.

    Last month, as part of our chronicles from Burlington, Vermont, I quoted Paula Routly, the co-editor of the (successful!) local weekly there, Seven Days, on the virtuous cycle that she thought had kept the paper going:

    "People look at our paper and it makes them happy and interested to be here. That motivates them to do something, and participate -- which makes it more a community, and gives us something to cover. It’s a cycle that works."

    Throughout this trip --in Michigan, in South Dakota, in Wyoming, in Vermont, and now in Maine -- we've been struck by the power and importance of "local patriotism" as expressed in efforts to strengthen downtowns, school systems, civic culture, local arts, and the other elements that make life more livable.

    Now a reader on the West Coast ties this all together:

    Regarding the comment from the Seven Days editor about "a cycle that works"

    This reminded me of Benedict Anderson's book, Imagined Communities. To greatly oversimplify, Anderson argues that the rise of the concept of the nation state was driven by the printing press and by the spread of newspapers, which both unified areas around the vernacular language and -- significantly here -- gave readers a sense that they were part of a community defined by the news they were reading.  

    I have many, many things to say about where newspapers have gone wrong, but one of the foremost is that so many of them have paid less attention to local news than to other things.  

    Since I lived in the District until a few years ago, I'll take the Washington Post as an example.  Its market power has been that it was the newspaper for the DC metro area.  But I think it's pretty clear that its reporters were much more interested in the national news, and that the metro desk was not treated as a priority.  When printing presses were expensive, the Post (like other papers) could afford to ignore this, so I suspect many people there have so internalized the status hierarchy on the reporting side that they have completely lost touch with the role they play locally.  

    I live in San Jose now, and wish the Mercury News had the same attitude as Seven Days.

    The various strategies through which people define and sustain communities, imagined and real, is a theme we keep being exposed to, keep trying to learn about, and keep viewing as more and more significant. It is part of a different and more encouraging kind of America than the one our national-level political news usually conveys.


    I am sure there is a quote from Democracy in America that would work well here. I will fish it out when I have the book at hand.

  • An Ad Campaign Don Draper Would Have Loathed (but That Worked)

    "Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal!"

    Mad Men has given us a picture of what advertising was like before the Don Drapers and Peggy Olsons began pulling it toward what we think of as cool modernity.

    Here's an ad that  represents the very opposite of what Don and Peggy believed in, yet which in its time was very successful. The first 30 seconds will give you the idea.

    The ads for Cal Worthington's car lots always looked home-made. They always featured the same jingle, they ran so often that they seemed to constitute their own TV channel, and most of them featured the "dog Spot" schtick. "Here's Cal Worthington and his dog Spot" -- which was an anaconda, a bison, a camel, a horse, a pro football player, a killer whale (seriously), or anything but a dog.

    The "two free dinners" offer shown at the top of this post, and that appears about 30 seconds into the clip, illustrates the tone I remembered from seeing these things on Saturday morning TV shows. Cal's ads came across as campy and self-mocking even then, in the 1960s. But they were effective because they also had a non-joking aspect. I always thought that their cornpone approach connected with the sensibility of a lot of Californians who, like him, had grown up or farms or amid Dust Bowl devastation on the prairie and had come west during the Okie-era and post-WW II great migrations. 

    Cal Worthington died over the weekend, at 92. The NYT and the LAT have nice obituaries. Below is a highlight reel of his ads, including the orca segment and his wing-walker performances (he had been a bomber pilot in WWII). The airplane stunt was in keeping with his slogan, "I will stand upon my head until my ears are turning red to make a deal." This is America.

  • Summer Weekend in the City

    U-S-A! U-S-A! And then, I-P-L!

    JuneBeer1.png


    Yeah, yeah, we're turning into a Panopticon police-surveillance state; and we have Blimpish foreign pooh-bahs to point out our flaws; and we are as always going to hell; et cetera,

    But in what other country can you go around the corner to the Kwik-E-Mart and come back with the haul shown above, representing breweries on the east coast and the west coast and in the Rockies, on a warm-but-not-sultry early-June afternoon? After a healthful and bracing run, of course, in designed-in-the-USA Vibram Five Fingers shoes.

    The out-of-focus bottle at the bottom center is worth noting, alongside the familiar stalwarts in their six-packs. It's the new "Double Agent IPL" from Boston Brewing / Sam Adams. Here is what the label would look like if it were in focus:

    DoubleAgent.jpg

    Instead of IPA for India Pale Ale, we have IPL for India Pale Lager. Again I say: match this, you ever-rising Chinese with your REEB and Snow, you stylish Koreans with your OB.
  • Clash of the Titans: Chinese State Media vs. United Airlines

    Why does this make me think of the Iran-Iraq war?

    UALPeoplesDaily.png

    This is now more than a week old, but in case anyone has missed it I wanted to take note.


    I bow to no one in my devotion to the works of the Chinese state media. And I bow to very few in my accumulation of miles on United Airlines over the decades, with resulting expertise in its corporate culture and the pre-flight-video stylings of its CEO, Jeff Smisek.

    I had intended to give both themes a well-deserved rest. But they have come together in an irresistibly delicious combination. 

    Over the past few months, the (state-run) People's Daily in China has launched a lovely series called "Dishonest Americans."  Supposedly this is meant to give Chinese readers a more balanced and "objective" picture of American life, when juxtaposed with their own overly rosy impressions. Or so the PD editor has claimed: "Most Chinese people think that Americans are honest, reliable, and righteous. However, once you live in that country for a while, you may discover the descriptions above are a bit misleading."

    For me the irresistibly delicious part was the recent Those Dishonest Yanks item about a bad experience a Chinese family had had with United Airlines. And the People's Daily conclusion was that the family had endured huffy and put-upon-seeming treatment from a United rep  ... because they were Chinese!  

    Yes, I am sure all members of the U.S. traveling public will agree that this is the only possible explanation for passengers having a less-than blissful experience on America's largest airline. 

    Humiliation.jpgYou can read the whole account here. If you need to crank out a "China and the world" seminar paper this weekend, I recommend these extra-credit points:
    • The "disrespect and humiliation" angle. As I've argued many times, in a country as huge, shambling, and diverse as China, flat-out nationalistic tension is rarely the first thing on people's minds. Before someone responds as "a Chinese," he or she is likely to react as "a person from Sichuan," or as "a member of the Wang family," or as "a school classmate of Mr. Chen," or as "your friend," or as "someone who sees a chance of profit," or any other natural sub-unit of a billion people. But the ever-present apprehension about "disrespect" from the outside world, especially the mighty and mainly white North American/European world, always has the potential to evoke a purely nationalistic/tribal response. Bonus reading on this point: Never Forget National Humiliation, which always seemed as if it should have an exclamation point at the end of the title. 

      Thus I am fascinated that this is exactly the context in which the United problem is presented: as a matter of "insulting" and "bullying" the Chinese travelers. The next time I have an airline-hell experience, I will have to protest about being "bullied" and "humiliated."

    • The "hey, wait a minute" angle. The growth of the Chinese economy is of course now supporting a surge of outbound Chinese tourism, which I view as beneficial for just about everyone involved. (Good for foreign economies; good for the Chinese to see more of the world first-hand.) But it also means that China is encountering its version of the "Ugly American" backlash that U.S. tourists and expats started experiencing long ago. Early this month, a prominent politician, Wang Yang, warned his fellow citizens that their boorish behavior overseas was hurting the whole country's image. A few days later, a huge uproar began in Egypt about a Chinese teenager who etched his name and "I was here!" in Chinese characters on an ancient temple at Luxor. It is coincidence that the Chinese media are portraying Chinese travelers as pushed-around innocents at the moment when the contrary impression is growing. (And, for the billionth time, among such a big and varied populace, there are plenty examples for any impression you'd like to find.) But the coincidence is interesting.

    • Truth squads and the netizens: The most significant part of the whole episode may be the backlash from much of the online Chinese populace, examining why the state media are making this case just now and whether national stereotypes about dishonesty make sense at all. Here are English-language summaries in Global Post, the NYT and China Digital Times.

    That is all. Now if only the family had tried to sneak a boiled frog, or a leafblower, or an open bottle of beer, or an Atlantic subscription card (etc)  onto the flight, it would be the ideal item I have been hoping for lo these many years. Thanks to Adam Minter, Damien Ma, Ben Carlson, and many other friends in and around China for the leads.

  • 'It Had Been Alive': An Essay on Guns

    A Marine and CIA agent explains why he has had enough.

    John Stockwell is a Marine and former CIA agent, known for (among other things) his book In Search of Enemies.

    He sent this message about why he, as a person well familiar with guns and shooting, no longer had any stomach for them. For reasons I will describe at the end, this resonated with me. John Stockwell writes:
    I was around guns much of my life. Grew up in the Congo, hunting.  Marine Corps recon, professional training and use. CIA paramilitary, more training and use. Three wars: upcountry in Vietnam I had a bunker full of exotic weapons that had been collected over a ten-year period but were not on the inventory and could not be taken home by our military when they left -- we'd take them out and fire them every week; we carried guns everywhere we went, again upcountry just a few miles from the enemy's battalions; then in the Angola War I hired and organized three bands of professional mercenaries, killers by definition. 

    In the consulate in the Katanga I had an impressive collection, bought out the weapons of the retiring elephant hunter. And I hunted. And at the family ranch in South Texas I hunted deer and javelinas.  

    Then I lost all interest in hunting. I killed a beautiful animal and looked at the carcass thinking how much more beautiful it had been alive. I shot a bird and had the same feeling. Both dead so I could have the dubious Freudian pleasure of pulling a trigger and killing them.

    The Katanga had been flush beautiful wildlife; it had been alive, the hills crawling with beautiful animals.  Then came independence and arms turned over to the new armies.  And our war in the Katanga (JFK/CIA), thousands of modern semiautomatic and automatic weapons left in the hands of our disbanded army, and the animals were broadly exterminated, the rolling plains were lifeless--we could drive all day and not see an animal.

    In Burundi, where I served, President Micombero got himself a helicopter. Began flying around the shores of Lake Tanganyika machine-gunning hippopotamuses in the water.

     Recalling as a boy in the Congo driving with my father in a truck across the plains area.  We came on a Belgian who had been hunting all day, had a camera, wanted my father to take a picture of him with his trophies. He stood with his gun and his foot on a pile of 26 heads of little gazelles he had killed. In later years we drove through the same plains, and never ever saw another antelope.

     Even here in Austin, we are retired across the street from a lovely quiet park on the river. I walk my dog. Talk to the squirrels - - they sit on limbs not far above my head. Then one morning I found my neighbor down in the park with his son and a 22, killing the squirrels to "teach his son how to hunt." I pleasantly explained to him that he could teach his son how to enjoy live animals, that the squirrels he had killed were gone, dead. (He won-- the park no longer has any squirrels.)
    Here is the part that connected with me, and that has kept me from giving the standard "I love to hunt, but ..." preface to discussions about gun policy. When I was a Boy Scout long ago, learning to shoot was part of the drill. One time I was out in the canyon and, with our scoutmaster, we were shooting at rabbits. I shot one, and then it was dead. And I thought, I never want to do that again.
  • 'Watching the Lights Go Out'

    A brave chronicle of an inevitable decline.

    teachers-686x455.jpg

    In school many students have been exposed to Daniel Keyes's book Flowers for Algernon. It came out in 1966, when the author was in his late 30s; it has sold millions of copies and remains in print; and Keyes himself is still active in his mid 80s.


    The narrative concept of the Algernon book, and of the Cliff Robertson movie Charly based on it, is to present the self-chronicles of a mentally disabled man, Charlie Gordon, as he is artificially raised to super-intelligent status -- and then goes back down again. The power of the book comes from the changing tone and sophistication of Charlie's observations as he is rising in intelligence, and more poignantly his awareness of what is happening to him as he declines.

    I don't want to make too much of the comparison, but I couldn't help thinking of Algernon when, thanks to a tip by David Grann, I came across David Hilfiker's account of his own ongoing experience with Alzheimer's disease. Hilfiker's back story is of course completely different: he was an outstanding student at Yale who went on to become a doctor. He has spent most of his career in poor rural and big-city communities and has written books on questions of personal and social justice. For instance, his Healing the Wounds was about the ethical complications of working as a doctor. That's a picture of him at the top of this item, from the Joseph's House organization for sick and dying homeless people where he has worked in Washington.

    Hilfiker is 68, and he was diagnosed a few years ago with "progressive cognitive impairment" in the form of Alzheimer's disease. He has been carefully chronicling the things he can do, and remember, as he notices the things he can't. He gives the big picture in a brief autobiographical essay called "Watching the Lights Go Out," and he has been providing ongoing diaries the most recent of which are here. These self-examinations are exceptionally brave, honest, and clearly written. Among their most striking parts is Hilfiker's confronting the certainty of the unintended ways in which he will reveal his impairments, and his awareness that as a person who had largely defined himself through his intelligence, including his ability to write, he will watch those things go away. An example of his sensibility:
    >>Garrison Keillor said recently, "Nothing bad ever happens to writers; it's all material."  So, at least for a time, this Alzheimer's disease will become material for my website and for a blog.  I want to write about what Alzheimer's is like from the inside.  What is the experience of losing one's mind?  Do I still experience myself as the same "self"?  Obviously, I don't know how long I can do this, although my good friend Carol Marsh has volunteered to keep it going with interviews when I can no longer write.  We'll have to see.<<
    Hilfiker deserves great respect and careful attention for the memento mori he is creating.
  • Where Are They Now? Atlantic Guest-Blog Alums Make Good

    They grow up so fast.

    Two years ago I was holed up for a few months in Beijing, finishing the writing of

    China Airborne. For a ten-week stretch I was fortunate to turn this space over to a series of guest bloggers, who appeared in squadrons of three or four each for week-long stints.

    Relevant to the recent focus on paid and unpaid web contributions, my pitch to each of them was this: I have admired and been interested in the issues you explore and the ways you discuss them. I'm going on a several-month leave from the magazine and won't be running a blog during that time. I can't offer to pay you for what I'm about to suggest, but: if it would be fun or valuable to you to be part of what is shaping up as a stellar guest team, and to to present your views and sensibility to the audience of what was then the Atlantic's "Voices" section, I hope you'll consider this opportunity. 

    Not everyone was interested, and one or two people who thought they could do it ended up not having the time. But an amazingly high-end group of people joined in. The full list, which I can hardly believe in retrospect, is here.

    This is build-up to noting a landmark for one of those contributors. In those days he wrote as Tony Comstock. The name was a sarcastic homage to Anthony Comstock, the 19th-century postal inspector and anti-indecency crusader. This Tony Comstock made his living producing sexually explicit documentary films. In the last of his posts here, he said that he was getting ready for a change. As he put it then:

    Faced with mounting evidence that my films were born of a time and circumstances that had passed, I resolved that Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl would be the last film, and that it was time to move on to something else.

    So what did I decide to do?

    I decided to start a sustainable energy eco-tourism project in the community where I live. This project has a educational component for local school children which I hope we'll be able to provide at little or no cost. That's my attempt to skip as much of that "flinty middle stage" of life as possible and get on with the giving back part of my life while my heart still beats strong and true.

    Now he writes and works under his real name, David Ryan; and this week he reached a milestone in the project announced two years ago. His Polynesian-inspired catamaran Mon Tiki,  whose building he chronicles here, passed an important Coast Guard safety-certification test despite several unconventional environmentally-friendly design approaches. You can read all the details here, and see the boat below. Congratulations to him and his family.


    MONTIKI01.jpg

    And meanwhile I will see about the sort-of similar ambition I announced at the same time ... Actually, there is related news on that front coming in a little while .

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