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.
  • A 4th-Generation Orange Farmer, on Why He Sticks With It

    "I was born in the grove. I was raised in the grove. I developed an intense dislike of farming in the grove." Yet after 20 years around the world he has come back.

    This afternoon Marketplace will have an American Futures report on Redlands, California. This smallish town still styles much of its identity around its orange-growing industry, even though its remaining groves are a tiny fraction of those that made this area the center of world navel-orange production through the mid-1900s.

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    I expect that the report will include some comments from Bob Knight, who now actively farms some of Redlands's groves and has been leading efforts to develop better business models for the industry and prepare for the seemingly unstoppable spread of an insect-borne disease that has ravaged much of Florida's citrus groves. At top you see one of Knight's groves, with small younger trees, in the Crafton district on the east side of Redlands. At the end of this post you'll see him -- on the left, in brown shirt -- leading the visiting Marketplace and Atlantic team through an old-growth grove in San Timoteo Canyon, on the south side of town. 

    Next week we'll hear more from Knight and others about the pest problem. For now, courtesy of Marketplace, here are some clips from his original interview that give a flavor of how he thinks about the role of this old industry in a growing town.

    1) Two kinds of oranges. Knight explains the difference to Kai Ryssdal.


    2) How the orange industry shaped the culture of this area. Why it relies less on migrant workers than other crops.


    3) The economics of orange-growing. Why fruits costs more than ever, and farmers get less than ever -- and what they can do about it.


    4) Why he came back. After 20 years in New York and around the world.


    5) How people in this small town think of themselves.

    Below you see Knight making these comments and showing off his trees. Listen in this afternoon for more from him and others. (Both photos by Deborah Fallows.)


  • On the Limits, but Also the Power, of Local Narratives

    The stories cities tell about themselves, and the difference that makes.

    The WPA-era historic Redlands City Hall, now a police station, in Southern California. That's the base of an enormous flagpole at the right. Photo, yesterday, by Deborah Fallows.

    This afternoon, Friday, our Marketplace partners will have their next report in our "American Futures" series. This one is from Redlands, a smallish town that is part of the unglamorous "Inland Empire" of Southern California. In addition to being the place where I grew up and still feel that I am from, Redlands is also the home of a hugely successful, 3,000-employee software firm. This company, Esri, was founded and is still run by a family friend, Jack Dangermond. It is the world leader in the technology known as GIS (Geographic Information Systems) that forms the backbone of commercial, governmental, environmental, and other mapping services around the world. It is also our mapping partner in this Atlantic-Marketplace project.

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    My wife and I will try to describe in the next few days what we've learned over the past few days of our return here. The thought on my mind right now involves the limits but also the power of the stories people tell themselves about where they live. I think this will also be part of Marketplace's angle in the next report. 

    First, the limits. "Positive attitude," civic responsibility, and what I have come to think of as local patriotism matter only so much when matched against the largest forces of geography, demographics, of economic change.

    For instance: in our previous stop, the tiny settlement of Eastport, Maine, entrepreneurs are trying to tap the Bay of Fundy's tidal flows to generate sustainable, zero-fuel, zero-emissions electric power. And this screenshot from a GIS map, whose original you can find via Georgia Tech, suggests why. This map shows tidal-energy potential around the American coastline. The very peak of potential power, shown in red and helpfully highlighted with a red arrow, happens to be exactly in the waters off Eastport, Maine:

    That's an advantage: Eastport can do something that no town in Kansas or even most of the Atlantic coastline could. But the town also faces huge obstacles. Here's another GIS map from Esri illustrating median income across the country. You can click into a zoomable, scrollable interactive version here. This screen shot conveys the point about Eastport:

    Median household income in the city is barely half that of the U.S. as a whole, less than $27,000 per year. The blueish areas stretching from Boston up toward Portland and Bar Harbor are high income. If you could see New York, the color would be bright red, for wealth. The tan areas of the rest of Maine are poor. These realities mean fundamental challenges for Eastport and other parts of "Down East," no matter how great their determination. 

    One more illustration: young people vs. the elderly. Here's a similar map of Maine, shaded according to median age. Eastport, the speck in the southeast outlined in light blue/cyan, has a median age of 55, versus 37 for the country as a whole. (Interactive version of the map is here.) This helps explain the intensity of the effort, described last month by my wife Deb, of Eastport-area people to attract families to the city and children to the schools.

    These limits are real: no amount of positive-thinking can change a city's location or, at least in the short run, offset its demographic or transportation obstacles, as our teammate John Tierney has described.

    But -- and here we come to the positives -- the further we go in this journey, the more impressed I have become with the importance of the stories people tell themselves about their city's or region's success.

    First, they have to think of themselves as a city -- a distinct region and culture, not as part of an urban sprawl. The places we've been most definitely have a sense of themselves as distinct entities, with their own traits and strengths. I can name half a dozen places (but won't) in the Bos-Wash corridor or LA Basin sprawl that don't have that distinct sensibility and just happen to be where you live.

    What are those identities? Yes, yes, any answer is an oversimplification (like answers about the American Dream or the Chinese Dream). But, to oversimplify:

    • In Holland, Michigan, the civic story was that local business successes would stay locally focused and should/would use their wealth for civic benefit;
    • In Sioux Falls, South Dakota: that the city's growth provided wide-open opportunity for a steady flow of migrants from the smaller-town Plains regions and from troubled areas overseas, which the broad-shouldered city was remarkably successful in absorbing;
    • In Burlington, Vermont: that people had deliberately come to a special place to create special circumstances;
    • In Eastport, Maine: that the handful of people who remained would do whatever it took to make the place survive; and now  ...
    • In Redlands, California: that a place considered boring and tacky in the world's eyes was in fact special and precious, thanks to wise decisions by its founders and forebears -- and that its current residents, beneficiaries of this heritage, had an obligation to live up to that past standard.

    That is enough for now. Tomorrow, before the Marketplace broadcast, I'll try to do a feature on one of the clearest examples of this civic self-understanding in Redlands: a fourth-generation farmer who, after a successful two-decade telecom career overseas, decided that his real business and personal destiny was to take over the family citrus-tree acreage and try to make a remote city a center of local-food consciousness. 

  • Inside the Packing House

    Viewing an ordinary fruit with new respect.

    I mentioned yesterday that it was surprisingly odd to visit, as a reporter, a place I thought I knew by heart. It turns out that I didn't -- or that it has changed, or that you see different things this way, or some combination of the above. In any case I am seeing things in Redlands, California, that I hadn't seen through the years of my youth. Overall they are encouraging.

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    Yesterday we went out with the Marketplace crew to see the last operating fruit-packing house in Redlands, and for that matter in all of (enormous) San Bernardino County. When I was growing up, there must have been 20 of these operations within the city itself. Since then the citrus groves have largely -- though not completely, as we'll explain --  moved to cheaper land and larger tracts in California's Central Valley. And as computerization has come to the packing houses, a single facility can handle as much fruit as three or four of them would have done in the 1960s. Volume is high and times are good for the Redlands Foothill Groves packing house, we were told, as it handles fruit from a wider geographical range of groves for a still-growing global market. But it's the only one that is left.

    As a teenager I'd earned money picking oranges, which is unbelievably difficult and skill-demanding work, and managing smudge pots on cold nights. But until this week I  had never been inside a packing houses.

    We had a tour of this one, courtesy of its manager, Manuel Martinez, which was impressive in two ways. One was the speed, volume, intensity, and industrial scale of the process as a whole. The other was the combination of early machine-age and recent computer-age technologies embodied there.

    In the first category: belts, bins, pulleys, boxes, and other devices to handle huge quantities of freshly picked fruit, plus the human inspectors and sorters who judge the oranges as they go by and pack them accordingly. In the second: computerized scanners that quickly conduct 360-degree views of every one of the millions of oranges that speed along on a belt, to detect any blemish or color variation.

    You'll hear the sound of the packing house, and the narration of Manuel Martinez, in Marketplace's report on Friday. Here is some idea of how the place looks, and why it is oddly reminiscent of the site we visited exactly four months earlier, the Padnos Scrap Metal facility in Holland, Michigan.

    Manuel Martinez (white shirt); Kai Ryssdal (tan pants) and Marketplace crew; Atlantic rep (black sweater) at Redlands Foothill Groves packing house.

    At the Padnos scrap metal works, a combination of visual, magnetic, and other sensors, plus human monitors, separated a mixed slurry of material into usable scrap. As described here. In the packing house, visual and other sensors, plus human monitors, separated oranges into different grades -- based on size, color, blemishes, etc. 

    As these oranges zoom by, each one has been scanned from all directions by a computer, and based on size and color they are sent to different conveyer belts.

    Then the choice ones are re-inspected and re-graded by a team working by eye, most of whom (we heard) had made their careers at this packing house.


    After they've all been sorted -- the smallest or most blemished sent off to juicing facilities, the largest and most lustrous prepared for shipment to markets in Asia -- the oranges are packed into their shipping cartons, each with a label indicating the grove that it came from and when it was packed. The oranges bound for the national and global markets go out under the Sunkist brand.

    A Sunkist inspector takes sample boxes from the line and checks the oranges for size, appearance, and quality when cut and tested.

    Most are put in cartons, but some go in large containers for sale at grocery stores or Wal-Mart.

    I have seen oranges all my life, and have had a sense of how hard it was to grow and protect the trees and to harvest their fruit when ready. Now I have a sense of the additional complexity of bringing each individual orange to market. I will view them now with even more respect, as I do Manuel Martinez and his crew for what they do. More coming soon from Marketplace. [All photos by Deborah Fallows.]

  • Today's Aviation Videos

    A disaster that didn't happen, a challenge that's just beginning, and other aerial tales.

    The image above, the aviation- & retro-California-themed label for one of Hangar 24's popular beers, is the slender-reed connection between where I am at the moment, reporting in Redlands, and the videos and items below. 

    1) "Just stop!" What air traffic controllers do. The video below, via our friends at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), depicts an incident nearly 15 years old. It covers a near-disastrous misjudgment at the airport in Providence, RI back in 1999. It still seems very fresh in offering a vivid and gripping view of how aviation procedures (usually) work and how they might break down. 

    The heroes of this episode are very clearly the members of the USAir crew who decide, at around time 3:30 of the video, to refuse a take-off clearance and instead stay put until they figure out which planes are where on the fog-obscured runways, which the tower controller simply can't see through the mist. A similar decision by any of the crews in Tenerife back in 1977 might have saved nearly 600 lives.

    [UPDATE: as my wife has written, our respect for air traffic controllers has only increased as we've been flying around the country. But if you listen to the Providence event, you'll see that the controller doesn't come across as the "better safe than sorry" participant -- in clear contrast to the USAir crew. So the subhead of this item is meant two ways: usually they do a very good job, and occasionally they too err. This in response to some pilots who have written in to say that no one would use this episode as a model of ATC behavior. I agree.] 

    2) "Will he make it?" The next endurance challenge. Over the months we've followed the achievements of Solar Impulse, the Swiss-made experimental airplane that has flown cross-country, round the clock, and through long hours of darkness without using any fossil fuel or external power at all. Previous updates from 2010, 2012, and 2013.

    As the Solar Impulse team prepares for a trans-Atlantic flight (and eventual round-the-world journey), here is one of several videos about the preparation:

    3) Silver Comet vs. the World. One of my big themes, from Free Flight onward, is that the most remarkable aspect of America's transportation patrimony is one most Americans ignore: Our landscape is dotted with 4,000+ small airports, probably more than the rest of the world combined. 

    The WSJ (paywalled) has a report on one of the implications: the efforts of the small Silver Comet field (aka Paulding), outside Atlanta, to absorb a tiny share of Delta's flights into Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the world's busiest airport. OK, this may be more about Delta's corporate strategies than larger transport questions, but it's an interesting story. While I'm at it, here is another WSJ item (also paywalled), on China's version of similar struggles.

    I don't have a video for this third item, but instead here is an interactive map from our friends and partners at Esri, based on the FAA's "VFR Sectional" charts from the entire country. It starts with a view of the Atlanta area, with the main airport shown with a big red bulls-eye and the smaller one shown in blue. You can scroll around, zoom in or out, and search for any city. The map takes quite a while to refresh, as the very complex chart images load from the FAA's servers. But you'll be able to see the local small airport near almost any place you choose. The ones with control towers are shown in blue; the ones without (the great majority) are in magenta, a word I use only in this context.  

    By the way, there is a great NASA guide to reading FAA charts here. Feel free to use it in connection with the maps above.
  • North Korea, Iran, and the NPT

    Correcting an earlier post.

    The "Great Successor," via Kyodo and NPR.

    A few days ago I recommended an article on China by Shlomo Ben-Ami and one on Iran by Robert Hunter, both of which hold up well and which, if you missed them, I again suggest you read. And if you'd like a little more in Ben-Ami's vein, you might check out this dispatch today from China's state-controlled Global Times, about why Westerners should stop lecturing China about press freedom and so on:

    Information security is among China's core security concerns. China is willing to communicate with the world, but it won't yield its own agenda-setting rights to the Western media... 

    Chinese authorities are breaching their duty if they allow Western media to work in China unchecked.

    Wow. Or Sigh, depending on your mood. The "reform" administration of Xi Jinping really is digging in its heels. It is going to be a tough time ahead.

    In that same earlier post I also quoted a reader, Carlyn Meyer, who was worried that North Korea's rush to nuclear armament was being used as the main historical analogy for thinking and worrying about Iran. The situations were different for many reasons, she argued, importantly among them that Iran had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and North Korea "never had."

    That last claim is wrong. North Korea had in fact signed the treaty, but then withdrew as part of advancing its nuclear plans. Here is a sample of many messages I received on that point:

    This is just to add a small - but EXTREMELY critical - correction. North Korea did in fact sign the nuclear NPT in the mid eighties, but then withdrew during the tensions of the mid-nineties. They are the only country to have done this, a point which extremely undercuts the argument your reader was attempting to make....

    For what it's worth, I doubt there will ever be anything remotely like a 'next North Korea.' Another rogue state with weapons of mass destruction? Sure. But one that kidnaps actors and actresses from other countries in order to make domestic films, reverse engineers Mercedes for the ruling elite, and invites Dennis Rodman to visit? I don't think so.

    And, from another reader who is in the nuclear-policy business:

    Perhaps Meyer's point is right overall, even though the reason is wrong. Others have pointed out the differences in the two situations. But at the time of the Agreed Framework, North Korea was a signatory to the NPT. It withdrew because of US failure to hold up its end of the bargain, as you will see if you click that link, or perhaps it would have anyway. 

    In response here is a note from Carlyn Meyer:

    I apologize for the factual mistake.  But it doesn't change my premise.  The comparisons by some politicians equating the current Iran situation with the current N.Korea status are still invalid.  

    North Korea is not a current signer of the NPT.  Iran is.  North Korea has no inspectors on the ground, Iran does.  North Korea is open about having a nuclear weapons program.  US intelligence says Iran hasn't made that committment.  Iran, like North Korea, could certainly pull out of the NPT, stop the current negotiations and kick inspectors out. Then the situations would be comprable.  But that doesn't seem to be Iran's intent.  

    It is still my understanding that the sanctions and P5+1 negotiations are legitimized by Iran's signing and continued acceptance of the NPT.  The situations are not equal.

    This is to close an open loop. Tomorrow morning, will dig into more updates on what's really on my mind, the surprises that await when you visit, as a reporter, a place you thought you "knew" by virtue of having grown up there. It turns out that you Can Go Home Again, mainly to discover that the place is not exactly what you thought. More ahead.

  • Reports From the Road: Hangar 24 and a Student-Run Farm

    The variety of America, chapter 12,825

    It's been a very long day of interviewing and visiting, and before an early start tomorrow and some "real" reports on this next American Futures stop, here's a shot from one of the moments that makes the reporting life worthwhile.

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    Early this morning Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal (and team) and I got to talk with Ben Cook, head of the Hangar 24 craft brewery in Redlands, California, about how his little company has become one of the fastest-growing startups in its field. Five-plus years ago, when I first began visiting, Hangar 24 was a two-person operation in a wasteland adjoining a tiny airport, very far from any big city. Now it employs more than 130 people, has had annual growth rates of between 50% and 100%, and is expanding its footprint all over the West. More of its background on the airwaves and in this space soon. (That's Cook on the right, Ryssdal in the middle, local guide on the left, at the H24 brewery.) 

    A few miles away, my wife and I visited the Grove School, a local charter school that, among other things, operates its own student-run farm. A locally owned grocery store had just sent in an order for fresh lettuce, which the students were picking -- and which we'll look for in the store tomorrow.

    Meanwhile other students in the school were working through their math problems:

    This is a different range of activities from what I recall of my school days here. My wife Deb, who has reported on schools in Eastport, Sioux Falls, Burlington, and elsewhere will follow up here. Signing off now, and getting ready for tomorrow's interviews and reports.

  • When Rails Make the Difference, From Down East to the Southwest

    The loss of rail service into a small Maine town has been crippling.  By John Tierney

    [Introductory note from JF: As mentioned two days ago, my wife and I are now in Southern California, in my original home town of Redlands, applying the "what makes a city resilient?" test to a place I'm well familiar with. I'm not sure whether it makes me feel better (about the processes of journalism) or worse (about myself and life in general) to realize that I've learned things in several days of interviews I never heard while growing up. 

    One of those things, to be explored this week with our Marketplace partners, involves the complex role of transportation in making, breaking, and refashioning local economies. There will be a lot more to say, in this space and on the radio, about the specific place of railroads in what we think of as the car-based life of Southern California. This include the historic role of the Santa Fe "Kite-Shaped Track," as shown above, which ran from Los Angeles out to Redlands and whose orange-hauling freight trains were still running when I was growing up. The local station, amazingly, is still preserved and looks like this:

    Redlands Santa Fe station. Armantrout Architects, via Press Enterprise.

    In keeping with the principle that the real goal is to draw connections among developments in different parts of the country, here is John Tierney's installment on what railroads, and their lack, have meant for prospects in our previous stop at the other extreme of the country, in Eastport, Maine. The interactions between Eastport's rail situation and its efforts to remake its economy are also part of our upcoming print-magazine article. Now, over to John.]

    By John Tierney

    You don’t need to have a degree in regional planning to know that transportation modes can make a big difference in the economic vitality of a city. 

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    The small cities visited so far in the American Futures series provide cases in point. We’ve seen what the arrival of the railroads meant for the phenomenal growth of Sioux Falls, South Dakota in the 1880s – and how the greater difficulty of getting rail service into Rapid City, SD, helps explain its historic economic disadvantage, relative to Sioux Falls. 

    Burlington grew to be the largest city in Vermont because its position on Lake Champlain enabled it to be a center for trade, and when railroad service arrived there, it helped turn Burlington into a busy lumbering and manufacturing center. And some of the most important industries in Holland, Michigan, have thrived over time in part because of that same combined presence of water transport (via Lake Michigan) and rail connections. 

    A different story emerges from tiny Eastport (population 1330), located on the coast at Maine’s northeastern tip. Unlike the other cities profiled so far, Eastport has seen its population decline over the years; the population now is one-quarter of what it was in 1900. And Eastport has suffered economically to a greater extent than the other cities we’ve looked at. Some of Eastport’s decline and hardship can be traced to its loss, in the 1970s, of a railroad connection.

    The herald of Maine Central Railroad

    Maine Central Railroad, which had been losing money on its branch line to Eastport, finally abandoned the line in 1978. The rail service had been important to Eastport in the days when it was home to sardine canneries, but that industry had long since faded, so Maine Central pulled the plug. The trains stopped running, and in 1980 the track was pulled up from the rail bed. 

    Timing, they say, is everything. The port facility that is now one of Eastport’s chief economic engines was still in the early planning stages in the 1970s. So, when the town had rail service, it lacked a port facility. And now that it has a port facility, it lacks rail service. Eastport has had each, but not both at the same time. Both modes of transportation are required to make Eastport into the kind of heavily trafficked port it aspires to be. Now, as one port observer has noted, “Eastport is just about the only port without a rail connection in the country.” 

    If people in Maine could go back in time and undo the decision to abandon the rail link to Eastport, they would. But they’re left with the current reality, which is that the impediments to rebuilding the rail line are formidable: the costs would be high, because not only are the tracks gone, but also much of the right-of-way has been sold off, so a new route to the port would have to be found if rail service were to return. 

    A strong push for finding a way to restore the rail line has been coming for years from the Eastport Port Authority and its allies. The Port director, Chris Gardner, says restoration of the rail line would be “a game-changer” for Eastport and for all of Washington County, Maine’s poorest. 

    Gardner is probably right about that. Eastport has great natural advantages as a port. The most easterly port of the U.S., at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy on the Canadian border, Eastport is the closest U.S. port to Europe by one day. 

    But that hoped-for economic revival will be difficult to pull off without a rail link, and some skeptics are not certain that even the presence of rail service would be sufficient to spell a strong rebound for Eastport. 

    Sunrise Trail photo from DiscoverDowneastMaine.com

    Meanwhile, as efforts continue to restore rail service, the old railroad corridor, like many of its kind around the country, has undergone a rails-to-trail transformation as part of the Downeast Sunrise Trail. Now, visitors and residents use the trail for a full range of outdoor activities like hiking, bicycling, snowmobiling, etc.  

    Welcome as the trail is, as a regional amenity and as a component of the area’s social-capital mix, the Maine Department of Transportation made it clear when drafting its management plan for the corridor, that “the number one priority is to preserve and protect the corridor for future rail use. The . . . trail is intended to provide an asset to the communities in the interim, until rail returns.”

    At least that posture shows some eagerness to avoid the mistakes of the 1970s when a sad lack of foresight led to the abandonment of the Eastport rail spur. As Skip Rogers, manager of Federal Marine Terminals in Eastport has said, “We’re going to have to be smart about transportation in the future.”  That’s an admonition that communities around the country should take to heart.

    John Tierney.     Email: TierneyJT at gmail.com      Twitter: @_JohnTierney_

  • American Futures Heads West

    Back on the road and in the air.

    Through the month of November, my part of the American Futures convoy was in the hangar, because of two long-haul business trips I was making, to Australia and China. John Tierney and Deb Fallows have been skillfully reporting in the meantime. 

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    Very soon, the next issue of the magazine will appear with an article about our project, and starting this weekend we'll have reports online and with our Marketplace partners about the next stop along the way. 

    This next town is different from others in two ways. For one, we flew here via a United Airlines Airbus, rather than a Cirrus SR22 -- it would be a very long way in a little airplane.

    For another, this is a place I'm trying to look at through a new lens after knowing it all my life. Now that we have considered examples of resilience and of comebacks, successful or merely attempted, in South Dakota, western Michigan, northern Vermont, and far Down East Maine, we're asking some of the same questions about the small town where I grew up, in the baking and once memorably-mocked (by Joan Didion) "Inland Empire" of Southern California.

    The surrounding area of San Bernardino and Riverside counties has been one of the ground zeros of the subprime-mortgage disaster. The town of Redlands itself has long prided itself on an unusually high level of "social capital" -- parks, libraries, concerts, civic groups, historic homes, a university -- but has suffered its own setbacks. My half-joking shorthand for my hometown has long been "the poor man's Pasadena," not because Redlands is so poor (it isn't) but because Pasadena, from Caltech to its Craftsman-architecture neighborhoods, is the grander version of how this small town looks.

    A century ago Redlands was one of the world's famed orange-growing centers, as shown above. In the 1960s, which when I think about it was half a century ago, orange grove jobs, as a picker and as a smudge-pot handler, provided my first paying work. But most of those groves are now paved over, and the remainder are in a struggle against a new biological threat.

    Without anyone talking much about it, this was a military-dependent town, which had to reconsider a lot of things when a giant nearby Air Force base closed down. Now it is the improbable home to a tech company that is a powerhouse around the world but not yet a household name in the United States. This is our other American Futures partner, Esri, and its creation story -- why, exactly, its thousands of employees are based here, so far from San Francisco or Seattle or Cambridge; and how they have changed an insular place by arriving -- is part of what we have come back to find out.

    Over the next week-plus, we'll be comparing what we've found in this small(ish) town with its analogues in Holland, Sioux Falls, Burlington, and Eastport. Then, after a holiday break with our children, we'll be back into the Cirrus and headed south, for stops in the Carolinas, Georgia, northern Florida, and Mississippi and Alabama. Watch this space. And eat navel oranges.

  • Your Thursday Night Reading List

    What Holland, Michigan tells us about the Redskins madhouse, and other themes involving the rise and fall of empires.

    1) Washington football melodrama and American Futures, together at last. I am on the other end of the country from our nation's capital, on another American Futures journey, about which more details tomorrow. Therefore I am able to regard the absolute nuthouse of DC football merely as an absolute nuthouse, which even Belushi/Farley-like madcap Toronto Mayor Rob Ford can tut-tut about, rather than as a local tragedy whose twists I have to follow obsessively on sports-talk radio and blame the reviled owner for. [If you don't know what I'm talking about, move on to the next item.]

    Still I note for the record: (a) in his sports-talk radio incarnation Chris Cooley has become quite the informative "let's look at the tape" analyst; and (b) everyone wonders why Kirk Cousins is being so self-effacing and gracious in an impossible situation. 

    I know why! He's from Holland, Michigan, and from one of the Christian high schools whose situation I described here. And he was back in town (Holland) almost the same time we were there. So near...  

    2) On China's predicament. A very good article by Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Israeli foreign minister and ambassador, on China's emerging predicament. It is called "The Rise of an Insecure Giant" and concerns the tensions between China's domestic and international imperatives. Eg:

    China’s regional exceptionalism has landed it in a strategic trap. It is unwilling to accept American leadership in Asia; but it is also reluctant to assume a more prominent role in promoting regional integration, fearing the concomitant pressure for more economic liberalization, adherence to international norms and rules, and a more transparent approach to its military buildup....

    Despite bold reform plans – outlined at the recent Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party – China’s prospects remain compromised by deep-rooted contradictions. For example, the inherent tension between the social change that development demands and the imperative of political stability required by authoritarian rule makes the current situation unsustainable in the long run.

    Also relevant, this new study finding that Chinese people don't mind America but are suspicious of its government. Another plank of US-Chinese solidarity!

    3) On the Iranian-US opportunity. It's now several weeks old, but this assessment by Robert Hunter, long-time U.S. diplomat and national-security staffer, is worth going back to read. We always hear, Hunter says, that the devil is in the details of such negotiations. But:

    Devil and details, yes; but if there is such a thing, the “angel” is in the “big picture,” the fact of the agreement itself – interim, certainly; flawed, perhaps; but a basic break with the past, come-what-may. It will now become much harder for Iran to get the bomb, even if it were hell-bent on doing so.  The risk of war has plummeted.  Israel is safer – along with the rest of the region and the world — even as Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu denies that fact.

    This is the end of the Cold War with Iran, (accurately) defined as a state when it is not possible to distinguish between what is negotiable and what is not. 

    4) What Iran is, and is not. For another time, the debate about which historical analogies, if any, usefully inform the Iran situation.  For now, this note from Carlyn Meyer, of the Chicago area, about a comparison that does not apply:

    One of the more dangerous and irresponsible uses of false equivalence is being repeated by Iran hawks from both parties.  In this article, Rep. Ed Royce, Chair of House Foreign Affairs Committee, talks about not letting Iran become 'another North Korea'.  This terribly misrepresents Iran's posture in the nuclear negotiations.  

    Iran is a signer of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and supporting accords.  Iran has had international inspectors on the ground inspecting facilities continually since signing.  Iran is in violation of access, reporting and verification requirements under the NTP, which it voluntarily signed. The authority to impose sanctions as well as the basis of the P5+1 talks flows from the NPT.  Iran has denied access to facilities that it claims are not part of a nuclear military program but which inspectors insist they must see in order to verify Iranian claims that its program is civilian only.

    North Korea never signed the NTP and its program remains closed and opaque.  Israel, Pakistan and India are the three other nuclear countries that haven't signed the NPT and therefore are not subject to international inspections and don't have international inspectors flying in and out of the country implementing other monitoring/verification actions.

    We learned the dangers of politicians use hype, exaggeration and misrepresentation of an adversary's posture from the War in Iraq.  One thing the two sides in the Iran negotiations agree on is that failure of the talks could lead to war even though US intelligence still finds that Iran has not decided to proceed with a weapons program.

  • China Aviation Update: Let's Look on the Bright Side

    Why China's pilots have the opportunity to be the world's best.

    On the bright side, another barrier removed as China progresses toward aerospace eminence! As reported by a writer for my favorite newspaper, the China Daily, more people will soon be able to learn to fly:

    The report also pointed out the opportunity China has to close the gap in this field as in so many others:

    Fewer than 100 Chinese people are receiving training for private licenses, and the relaxation will unleash a market that has huge potential, [aviation spokesman] Qian said.

    Zhong Ning, a spokeswoman for the Civil Aviation Administration, said only 345 people in China have private licenses. 

    As a benchmark for the 345 private pilots in China, there are about 600,000+ active certificated pilots in the U.S.

    On the other hand, the Chinese pilots will face a new test of their skills. Via the South China Morning Post:

    And also Reuters:

    For more, naturally see China Airborne. And soon: how we should feel about the testimony today of an Asiana pilot that he was "very concerned" at the prospect of making a visual landing without instrument guidance at San Francisco Airport, before the fatal "landing short" episode this summer.  

    (Initial reaction: What??? Visual landings are what pilots first learn to do -- and what you do in most instrument approaches, once you finally break out of the clouds and are relieved to see the runway. And what about the other pilots in the cockpit, at least some of whom should have been comfortable with visual landings? But all this is what the NTSB will look into.)

  • '50 Social Innovations That Changed the World'

    Another front in the hardware-vs-software debate. 

    In my article accompanying our "50 Greatest Inventions [since the wheel]" project last month, I said that since such a list was inevitably arbitrary, its real value would be the discussion it provoked about what else could have been considered and why. 

    [Not that our list itself wasn't good. I think it stands up very well. One of many reasons to subscribe! Or give a gift.]

    Herewith, a small sample of the "well, what about ....?" correspondence that continues to flow in. First, from a reader in Indonesia who offers a list of 50 social breakthroughs that, in his view, made the 50 tech breakthroughs possible. A few of these overlap with our list, but many are new:

    50 Social innovations that changed the world more or less in chronological order.  Rank order in top 10 shown in [ ]

    1. Irrigation that
    2. created a structured bureaucracy, land measurement and administration in Egypt and Mesopotamia
    3. mathematics [3]
    4. creation of nations as workable structures  
    5. empires based  on bureaucracy and military discipline
    6. writing, instructions could be sent over distance – Incas used knots [1]
    7. written rules and laws - the lawyers and courts as independent
    8. alphabet [11]
    9. agriculture and and animal husbandry skills that could be recorder and spread
    10. history as peoples myths and lessons
    11. democracy in Athens - 
    12. rhetoric - philosophy – applied mathematics 
    13.  0 zero [12]
    14. Universities, scientific societies, [13]
    15. religious orders, The church built on Roman Model
    16. The  Holy  Roman Empire
    17. currency and letters of credit [2] money
    18. double entry bookkeeping
    19. money and banking by goldsmiths in Amsterdam, Florence  
    20. paper money in France 
    21. Treaty of Westphalia (1648) nation state
    22. Joint Stock company (mutual fund) to spread risk of merchant adventurers 
    23. Insurance 
    24. the stock market 
    25. corporations [4]
    26. copy rights, patents, 
    27. colonial administration - East Indies Company
    28. federalism - US constitution
    29. income taxes [5]
    30. payroll deductions
    31. social security
    32. civil service as in Germany [10]
    33. public schools Land grant colleges
    34. scientific agriculture [8]
    35. science  in medicine [9]
    36. public health by Florence Nightingale and JS Mills [6]
    37. international press - media (WWI) and propaganda
    38. research organizations such as bell labs, Medlo Park
    39. The League of Nations and UN
    40. international organizations such as the postal union, maritime, trade, standards  
    41. United Nations (UN), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Council of Europe (CoE), [7]
    42. European Union (EU; which is a prime example of a supranational organization), and World Trade Organization (WTO). 
    43. NGO Red Cross, YMCA, boy scouts 
    44. social media facebook G+
    45. Chess
    46. sports clubs and leagues 
    47. open society rational secular practical
    48. records census, birth and death - statistical vital information
    49. economics
    50. political science  

    In my article I said that one of our experts, Padmasree Warrior of Cisco, had suggested "the concept of the number zero" for our list. Many readers have written in to say that numbers, per se, should be added:

    I found the list of greatest inventions and the story that accompanied it very interesting.  I kept waiting for the printing press to appear and then I found it - number one on the list.  While your story mentions the mathematics of calculus, I wonder if the concept of "number" was ever mentioned by the panel of experts?  Was it considered and rejected for some reason, or was it not at all mentioned?  I think "number" and concept of "numbers" is so ingrained in modern society it is easy to forget it was a human creation.  It created a way to differentiate between "some" and "any".

    Without the concept of "number" or "numbers" mathematics wouldn't exist.  Base two mathematics is the framework on which the computer is based.  I would consider the concept of "number" right up there with alphabetization (number 25 on the list).  Clearly without written language or the concept of "number" the printing press would be of little use.  What would one print?

    There is a great book on the concept of "number", simply titled "Number", written by Tobias Dantzig in 1930..  Dantzig was born in Latvia in 1884 and moved to the United States in 1910, taking a job as a lumberjack in Oregon.  He received a Ph.D. in mathematics from Indiana University in 1916 and taught at Johns Hopkins, Columbia University and the University of Maryland.  He died in 1956 and sounds like an interesting character.  I mean, how does one transition from being a lumberjack to getting a Ph.D. in mathematics?

    And finally for now, one of the many people stumping for an equestrian breakthrough:

    In addition to the thousands of other additions being proposed to your list of historic innovations, consider:

    The saddle stirrup, which made armored knights and then cavalry possible.  Before the stirrup, horsemen were archers, incapable of staying in the saddle after the shock of impact.  Enormously significant in the wars of the last several hundred years. 

    Fertilizer, first natural then artificial.  Without it, agriculture couldn’t be productive enough to support the population of the last millennium, never mind the next one. [We got at the artificial side of this, via #11 of our top 50, nitrogen fixation.]

    Finally, the barometer.  Until the invention of the barometer (and the understanding of the natural world it reflected) weather wasn’t predictable… indeed, predictability wasn’t even thought of.

  • Mike the Cat

    The gregariousness of a dog, the dignity of a cat.

    We take animals into our lives knowing that, in the normal course of events, we will see them leave. Over the ages people have written about the satisfactions and heartbreak of this cycle. When I was a kid, we had Old Yeller and the then venerable animal-consciousness tearjerker Beautiful Joe. My parents gave their hearts to generation after generation of beloved dogs: bumptious and uncontrollable as puppies, hobbling and rheumy a dozen years later, thumping their tails even when they couldn't stand. Very recently Andrew Sullivan has written about the wrenching end for his beagle Dusty, and Kevin Drum about his cat Inkblot

    Nothing lasts forever, and small animals are here for only a brief while. I learned this raising dogs, cats, hamsters, pigeons, plus fish and a steer in my 4-H days. But our cat Mike, always known as Mike the Cat, pushed the limits, reaching the age of 21 and 1/2 before the end came shortly before Thanksgiving.

    This weekend, just before the snows in Washington, my wife and I had a little remembrance for Mike in the bamboo where he had spent many an afternoon, putting his ashes beneath a clay statue we'd bought long ago because it reminded us of him. You see his site in the bamboo above. Rebecca Frankel, with whom Mike the Cat happily spent the final third of his life -- the transfer of custody was by far the most emotionally wrenching part of our deciding to move to China -- was there to say goodbye, as she had been there for him through seven years.

    How old was Mike? So old that, as a Humane Society kitten, he was named for my then-young kids' favorite athlete, the then-rising star pitcher Mike Mussina who was then of the Orioles. Here is how our Mike looked at around age 11, halfway through. His left eye is closed because he has attitude, not because of some vision problem.

    And here he was in his mature years, in a variety of poses. Helping Becky Frankel write, as he so often helped me:

    Displaying his trademark snowshoe-sized furred paws:

    And posing thoughtfully, probably thinking about food.

    These animals make a difference, and leave a hole. This one had a particularly big personality -- the gregariousness of a dog, combined with the dignity of a cat -- and made a big mark. Enough time has passed that all of us feel more grateful for the experience of living with him than sorrowful that he is gone. Barely.

    Stephen Budiansky and his family were also part of the loving chain of custody for Mike the Cat and his much less hardy and long-lived sibling, Whitecap. I have always thought it was no coincidence that Steve's wonderful book The Character of Cats came out soon afterwards. The first two photos above are by me, and the other three by Rebecca Frankel

  • PEN, Google, China, Goliath: A Follow-Up

    Eight companies take a stand. What about number nine?

    Statement from today's Reform Government Surveillance ad.

    These follow last week's item on various ramifications of free and controlled speech around the world:

    1) I said that when it was available, I would put up the video of the Newsweum session sponsored by PEN, Google, and the Atlantic and featuring the formidable lineup of E.L. Doctorow, Masha Gessen, Afar Nafisi, and David Simon. The video is now ready (if somewhat grainy). You can read the background, and see a number of backstage photos, at PEN's site, or see the embedded version below.

    2) As mentioned earlier, and as you can see starting around time 1:06:40 of the video above, there was some heated back-and-forth among panelists and Ross LaJeunesse of Google about whether civil libertarians should consider the company friend or foe. Friend: its stand in China etc. Foe: panopticon data collection.

    You'll see that I weigh in mainly "Friend," in large part because of Google's China stand but for what I know about their privacy practices. (Routine disclosure: one of my sons works for Google.) Judge the on-stage discussion as you will; but include today's encouraging news that eight normally rivalrous companies of the tech world have joined to protest the all-fronts overreach of government tech-surveillance programs. "The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual," the statement says. 

    As the PEN panel pointed out, these companies need to be more careful too. But it's much better for them to speak up about state overreach than to stay quiet.

    Aol, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo -- glad you said this.

    Hey. Amazon, what about you?  (Yes, I have a query in.)

    3) The Chinese situation continues to darken, on the environmental and the free-expression fronts alike. For one of many environmental accounts, try this from Rob Schmitz in Shanghai, where the recent air emergency has been worse than anything previously known. For one of many on free discussion, see this by Emily Parker in TNR. More on both fronts soon.

    4) In the previous item, which discussed the controversy over Max Blumenthal's Goliath, I said that his preceding, also-polemic-style book American Gomorrah, was about the rise of the Tea Party. That was careless; it was really about the rise of the Christian Right within the GOP, which immediately preceded the Tea Party's emergence. They're related but different.

    I also mentioned that the treatment of his book was strikingly different in the English and the Yiddish editions of the Jewish Daily Forward. The English review was 100% negative, and the Yiddish one was described to me as on-balance positive.

    Since then I've heard from my friend Robert King, who is the former chair of the Linguistics Department and dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas. He is also the Audre and Bernard Rapoport Regents Chair Emeritus of Jewish Studies and an academic specialist in Yiddish. (And was my wife's dissertation supervisor.) He describes himself as "very, very pro-Israel" but also "a First Amendment near-absolutist." He read the two versions and said this:

    Without question the Yiddish review is much, much different and far less hostile, especially in tone. For one thing, it spends much more time telling us what Blumenthal writes and less time criticizing or making snarky comments about what he writes. Second, the reviewer writes that he (or she) has had several interviews with Blumenthal, and when he brings those in it is to make something Blumenthal wrote in his book softer, less edgy.

    The last two sentences give the mild flavor of the Yiddish review:

    "He presents to the reader either new facts or reports or the freshening-up of themes already out there; he is after all a foreign journalist in a foreign land. And let's not forget that while it's not always pleasant to be told about difficult problems, it's definitely better not to ignore those problems."

    This is offered to close a loop opened previously. As many other readers have pointed out, a Yiddish-language review is less significant and reaches a smaller audience than one in Hebrew, but the same point would apply: it's easier for any group to have frank discussions within the family than "in public." Emily Hauser has a very interesting post about this phenomenon in the Daily Beast.  

  • 'Springbok, Cleared for Landing': More on the Language of the Skies

    By Deborah Fallows.

    Real Time Flight Tracking via Flightradar24. Sunday 10:30 AM ET, Dec. 8, 2013

    By Deborah Fallows.

    [See update* below.] On our recent flight home in our small plane from Eastport ME, to Washington DC, we were listening, as we often do, to the air traffic controllers (ATC). They were talking back and forth with various aircraft in the usual manner:

           Pilot: New York Center. American 935. fifteen thousand feet.

    And the air traffic controller’s response is: Acknowledgment. Altimeter reading (necessary gauge for determining altitude)

           ATC: American 935. New York Center. New York altimeter  30.14.

    Then a little while later, we heard a callsign I had never heard before: Brickyard. It was an exchange something like this:

            Pilot: Washington Center. Brickyard 215. nine thousand.

            ATC: Brickyard 215. Washington Center. Washington altimeter  30.10.

    I wondered about Brickyard, and learned that it belongs to Republic Airlines, a regional supplier that operates flights for major national brands. I know that airline as one that sometimes flies the daily nonstop as US Airways Express between Washington DC, where I live, and Sarasota FL, where my mom lives. Republic also operates service for a number of other airlines, like American Eagle and Frontier.

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    But Brickyard? Well, according to Funtrivia.com, Republic is the regional airline out of Indianapolis, home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, nicknamed The Brickyard.

    A few weeks later, I read my husband, Jim’s, post about the enormous 747 “dreamlifter” cargo airplane that landed at the wrong -- and much too small -- airport in Kansas.  I heard on the recording between the ATC and the pilot that the big plane had the callsign Giant. Fitting, I thought, when I learned that Giant is the callsign for Atlas Air.

    Many of the major airlines use callsigns of  their standard company names, like American, United, Lufthansa, Alitalia, and Delta. But then there are the other creative and curious ones, which we hear regularly along the east coast through New England and MidAtlantic states. Ones like Citrus, Cactus, and Waterski.

    Cactus? US Airways merged with America West Airlines, and based out of Tempe AZ, home to so many saguaro cacti.

    Citrus? AirTran Airways, headquartered now in Dallas, but at one time in Orlando.

    Waterski? Trans States Airlines, another regional airline which operates for United Express and US Airways Express. It was originally Resort Air, which ferried vacationers (and presumably waterskiiers) to Lake of the Ozarks.

    So that got me wondering about all the callsigns. Who are they? What are their etymologies? Do they fall into categories? I did some digging and here’s what I discovered:

    First, this can get overwhelming very quickly! As I look right now, I see live tracking of every airplane in the air. Delta has 388 planes flying. United has 351. Southwest has 345, and American 205, and on down the list of hundreds of individual airlines. Their callsigns are right there, too. And if that isn’t enough for you, go here to see a complete list of airlines, beyond those that have planes in the air right now. I can’t even count the total.

    As a way to get a handle on this, I decided to see if I could find any interesting categories or patterns among the callsigns. Here is a makeshift taxonomy:

    Animal names: Of course, bird names are well represented, but there are lots of other land creatures as well.

    Speedbird, British Airways

    Eagle Flight, American Eagle

    Flying Eagle, Eagle Air from Tanzania

    White Eagle, White Eagle Aviation from Poland

    Twin-Goose, Air-taxi from Europe

    Kingfisher, Kingfisher Airlines from India

    Rooster, Hahn Air from Germany (Hahn is German for rooster!)

    Jetbird, Primera Air from Iceland

    Bird Express, Aero Services Executive from France

    Polish Bird, Air Poland

    Bluebird, Virgin Samoa

    Songbird, Sky King from the US

    Nile Bird, Nile Air from Egypt

    Nilecat, Delta Connection Kenya

    Flying Dolphin, Dolphin Air from UAE

    Deer Jet, Beijing Capital Airlines

    Dragon, Tianjin Airlines from China

    Longhorn, Express One International from the US (Texas, I suppose)

    Springbok, South African Airways

    Bambi, Allied Air Cargo from Nigeria (At least I like to think it references Bambi)

    Simba, African International Airlines

    Go Cat, Tiger Airways, Singapore

    Polar Tiger, Polar Air Cargo, Long Beach


    Sky Themes, with many evocative references to space flight and fantasy:

    Flagship, Endeavor Air from Minneapolis 

    Blue Streak, PSA Airlines from Ohio

    Star Check, Air Net from Ohio

    Air Thunder, Thunder from Canada

    Sky Challenge, Challenge Aero from Ukraine

    White Star, Star Air from Denmark

    Mercury, Shuttle America from Indiana

    Archangelsk, Nordavia from Russia


    Something about the Country of Origin:

    Glacier, Central Mountain from Canada

    Shamrock, Aer Lingus

    Iceair, Icelandair

    Bearskin, Bearskin Lake Air Service Ltd. from Canada

    Sandbar, Mega Maldives

    Gotham, Meridian Air Charter from Teterboro NJ

    Vegas Heat, Corporate Flight International

    Lucky Air, Lucky Air from China

    Viking, Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia

    Great Wall, Great Wall Airlines

    Fuji Dream, Fuji Dream Airlines

    Jade Cargo, Jade Cargo International from China

    SpiceJet, SpiceJet from India

    Salsa, SALSA D’Haiti

    Delphi, Fly Hellas from Greece


    And just for fun:

    Lindbergh, GoJet from Missouri

    Wild Onion, Chicago Air

    Rex, Regional Express from Australia

    Suckling, Scot Airways from the UK*

    Yellow, DHL Aero Express from Panama

    There are many, many more. But these alone are reason enough for passengers on commercial planes to request listening in on the chatter between the ATCs and the pilots. 

    To contact the author, write DebFallows @ gmail.

    * UPDATE A reader fills in the background of the callsign Suckling:

    ScotAir's mom-and-pop parent firm, before a lot of corporate chopping and changing, was a couple named Suckling. It's a common name in East Anglia. Sir John Suckling, poet and inventor of cribbage, came from those parts.

    They ran off of a grass strip in Ipswich, to Edinburgh and Manchester. The in-flight meals were cooked in their kitchen and driven to the plane. A wonderful story, and a BBC documentary. But 9/11 and a bunch of mergers ended that. In Apri1 2013 the entity disappeared and its call sign went with it.

  • Afraid of Free Speech, on Many Fronts: PEN, Google, China, Goliath

    Free societies depend on free-swinging critiques, even those that are "unbalanced" or "go too far."

    From left: Atlantic moderator, Doctorow, Nafisi, Gessen, Simon. Twitter photo by @David_MSullivan

    On Wednesday afternoon, as previewed earlier, I got to serve as moderator for a panel of four very eminent writers: E.L. Doctorow, Masha Gessen, Azar Nafisi, and David Simon. The discussion was co-sponsored by PEN, Google, and The Atlantic, and was held at the Newseum in Washington. Its topic was “Who’s Afraid of Free Speech,” which led to everything from the legal or extralegal controls on expression in China, Russia, Iran, etc.; to the ramifications of the NSA era; to the economic pressures affecting journalism, publishing, and academia; and a lot more. The “more” included some heated back-and-forth about one of our hosts, Google, and a literal call to the barricades by the senior person on stage, Doctorow. 

    I found it surprising and informative, and I hope you will too. For technical reasons, a webcast version of the program is not yet available. I’ll put up a link to it as soon as it’s ready. 

    As it happens: Just two hours earlier that afternoon, I was in the audience at another D.C. discussion. (And that morning, I'd had a chance to interview Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker at another Atlantic event, with transcript here.) The afternoon event was at the New America Foundation, and I mention it here on its own merits and because of a connection to the “Afraid of Free Speech” theme. 

    I’ve been involved with New America since its beginning in the 1990s, initially as chairman of its board and still as a board member. New America puts on well over 100 events each year—in D.C., New York, California, and elsewhere. To the best of my knowledge, this latest session was the only time we’ve been under public or private pressure to rescind an invitation for someone to speak. There could have been other cases, but I don't know of any.

    The event in question featured Max Blumenthal, who was being interviewed about his book on Israel, Goliath, by Peter Bergen, the well-known writer on war-and-terrorism topics. (Bergen is also a New America fellow; the latest of his many books is Man Hunt, about the Bin Laden raid.) In the week before the event, items like this one in Commentary had said that New America should not provide a platform for what it claimed was destroy-Israel hate speech. Some members of the board got personal email pitches to the same effect. 

    I wasn’t involved in inviting Max Blumenthal, but having read his book before the session and now having heard him speak, I am glad that New America and its president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, stood by their invitation. That was the right call on general free-speech principles, and also because this book should be discussed and read. [Extra disclosures: Both Slaughter and Bergen are long-time friends of mine, as well as colleagues via the The Atlantic, New America, and elsewhere. My wife and I have also been friends of Max Blumenthal’s parents for many years.]

    The case against Goliath, summarized here, is that it is so anti-Israel as to represent not journalism or reasonable critique but bigoted propaganda; plus, that in being so anti-Israel it is effectively anti-Semitic. With a few seconds of online search, you can track down the now-extensive back and forth. The furor has certainly helped publicize the book, but to me those claims about it seem flat mischaracterizations. Goliath is a particular kind of exposé-minded, documentary-broadside journalism whose place we generally recognize and respect.

    The purpose of this book is not to provide some judicious “Zionism at the crossroads” overview of the pluses and minuses of modern Israel. That is not the kind of writer Max Blumenthal is. His previous book, Republican Gomorrah, was about the rise of the Tea Party and related extremist sentiment within the GOP. In that book he wasn’t interested in weighing the conservative critique of big government or teachers’ unions or Medicaid. That’s Brookings’s job. Instead his purpose was to document the extreme voices—the birthers, the neo-secessionists, the gun and militia activists, those consumed by hatred of Barack Obama—who were then providing so much of the oomph within Republican politics. 

    That book was effective not because Blumenthal said he disagreed with these people. Of course he did, but so what? Its power came simply from showing, at length and in their own words, how they talked and what they planned to do. As Blumenthal pointed out in this week’s New America session, that earlier book argued, a year before the Tea Party’s surge victories in the 2010 midterms: These people are coming, and they are taking the party with them. His account wasn’t “balanced” or at all subtle, but it was right.

    His ambition in Goliath is similar. He has found a group of people he identifies as extremists in Israel—extreme in their belief that Arabs have no place in their society, extreme in their hostility especially to recent non-Jewish African refugees, extreme in their seeming rejection of the liberal-democratic vision of Israel’s future. He says: These people are coming, and they’re taking Israeli politics with them. As he put it in a recent interview with Salon, the book is “an unvarnished view of Israel at its most extreme.” Again, the power of his book is not that Blumenthal disagrees with these groups. Obviously he does. It comes from what he shows. 

    To see for yourself, just watch a few minutes of the video Blumenthal and his associates made a few months ago, about recent anti-African-immigration movements. The narration obviously disapproves of the anti-immigrant activists, but that doesn’t matter. The power of the video comes from letting these people talk, starting a minute or so in.

    Someone other than me can put in perspective all the offsetting forces within Israel’s current political-social dynamics. But I can say that Blumenthal has made a sobering prima facie case that there are extreme forces to be aware of, and reckoned with more fully that American discourse usually does. And, very importantly, his doing so is no more “anti-Israel,” let alone anti-Semitic, than The Shame of the Cities and The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath were anti-American for pointing out extremes and abuses in American society.

    Or Death At Any Early Age or The Octopus or Black Like Me or Gentleman’s Agreement or An American Dilemma or The Other America or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Mississippi Burning or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or any other documentary/dramatized polemic about American injustice. Or any more than David Simon’s magnificent The Wire saga was anti-American in portraying a society that, from top to bottom and in ways big and small, was violent and predatory and corrupt. To return to our PEN panel: Free societies need this kind of cleansing discussion, and they need to be able to tolerate and hear it even when it’s “unbalanced” or "goes too far."

    Here is the video of Blumenthal at New America two days ago. The first half is his recitation of his case, which frankly comes across like a recitation. I suggest you start around time 41:00, when the questioning begins. In the questions Blumenthal addresses two significant points.

    One is the very first question Peter Bergen asks him: Why, why did he use language notorious from the Nazi era—“Night of Broken Glass,” for instance—to talk about Israeli extremists? Many of his critics have claimed that he is likening Israel to Nazi Germany, which if you read the book you'll see is not true. But you can’t count on everyone having read it. So, Bergen asks, What was your intent in using language of this sort?

    Blumenthal’s answer was that he used these terms purposefully, to draw the universals from the “never again” message of the Holocaust. In its scale, he says, the Holocaust was uniquely devastating; but—his argument—the lessons of respecting rights and avoiding group discrimination should be more broadly applied. Logically he has a case, but this leading-with-the-chin bluntness gives critics too easy a target and tool.

    The other point, familiar to anyone with even modest exposure to Israeli discussion, is how broad the range of debate on Middle Eastern topics is within Israel itself, compared with the usual range in the United States. Israeli writers, politicians, citizens, etc., say things about modern Zionism, the “peace process,” the future of their country, and everything else that would seem dangerously inflammatory in U.S. discourse. In part that’s natural: We feel free to criticize our own but don’t like outsiders doing it. Yet Blumenthal had an illustration of its odd effect. In its English version, the Jewish Daily Forward excoriated his book: “Max Blumenthal’s Goliath Is Anti-Israel Book That Makes Even Anti-Zionists Blush.” Whereas the Yiddish edition of the Forward has a review that (I am assured by someone who can understand it) is quite respectful of the book and the importance of such criticism.  

    Maybe Blumenthal’s perspective and case are wrong. But he is documenting things that need attention; no one has suggested that he is making up these interviews or falsifying what he's shown on screen. If he is wrong, his case should be addressed in specific rather than ruled out of respectable consideration. If he's right, we should absorb the implications. 

    Let me bring this back to my normal turf. The China news of this past month involves ever darkening press prospects, for both domestic and international media. This is a genuinely bad situation, about which I'll say more soon. At the moment please check out Evan Osnos's update for the New Yorker. It includes this crucial passage:

    China is gradually losing interest in soft power. The Party spent much of the past decade seeking to project a more attractive and welcoming image to the world; [now] the leadership is signalling that it has concluded being liked is less important than simply surviving.

    I spent some time with a senior Chinese diplomat recently, and when I asked what motivated the threat of expulsion, the diplomat said that the Times and Bloomberg were seeking nothing short of removing the Communist Party from power, and that they must not be allowed to continue. That argument surprised me: I had expected a bland procedural defense—this was a blunt expression of fear.

    At a time when we're upbraiding China for trying to silence awkward critics, the last thing we should be doing is acting afraid of free speech, even the awkward kind, ourselves.


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