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.
  • 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.

  • 'Unsavory Elements' in Reddit AMA

    Foreigners on the loose, available in an Ask Me Anything session.

    Unsavory Elements is a new book of reflections, tales, and memoirs of China by 28 foreigners who have lived there. It's edited by Tom Carter, and among the contributors is my wife Deb, known to the reading public for Dreaming in Chinese and imaginatively but more or less realistically portrayed in the cartoon above. See if you can pick her out. I feel fully entitled to reprint the cartoon, since I bought a color original from the artist

    Starting at 8am Eastern time on December 6, the Unsavory authors and their editor Tom Carter will be doing a 24-hour-long AMA on Reddit. You can find a Facebook description of the event here; an Atlantic interview of Carter by Matt Schiavenza here; another Q&A with him here; a list of the contributors' books here; and a link to Reddit Books, which will host the chat, here. I can think of a few questions I would like to ask one of the contributors.

    Here's the cover. Ask away.

  • Events: Pritzker; Simon, Doctorow, Gessen, & Nafisi; Kummer & Levenson

    Three interesting events; hope you can catch some or all.

    In the world of modern journalism, sometimes you are traveling around and learning things as a reporter; sometimes you are sitting in a room and going crazy as a writer; and sometimes you get to ask people questions as a moderator and live-event appearance-maker.

    The next two days hold a rich offering of live-event possibilities for me. Please join in if you can:

    Atlantic Small Business Forum, which runs through the morning of tomorrow, December 4, in Washington. You can see a live stream here. I get to interview the new Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, about her "Open for Business" agenda and other initiatives at 9:30 a.m.

    PEN - Google - Atlantic Forum, "Who's Afraid of Free Speech?" tomorrow afternoon, December 4, in Washington starting at 4 p.m. You can find information about attending or seeing a livestream here. I get to interview an astonishing panel including E.L. Doctorow (any book you can name); David Simon (The Wire etc); Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran etc); and Masha Gessen (The Man Without a Face etc), at the Newseum in Washington.

    MIT Writing Program, "Long-Form Journalism: Inside the Atlantic," on Thursday afternoon in Cambridge, 5pm-7pm, details here. Tom Levenson, Professor of Writing at MIT and author of the Inverse Square blog, will interview the Atlantic's Corby Kummer, who has edited my articles for 30+ years, and me on specifics of how articles go from inchoate concept to (we hope less inchoate) published reality. 

    Then it will be back to the reporting and writing mode. I was going to take a stab at adventure/reporting by flying myself up to Boston for the MIT event, but ominous weather forecasts for the return on Friday morning leave me in the hands of US Air. 

  • Chessmaster or Pawn: Now, It's China's Turn

    Is the Chinese government falling into traps? Or setting them for others?

    Everyone knows the "chessmaster or pawn" puzzle. As applied to President Obama's leadership style, it's the question of whether he is thinking five steps ahead of his adversaries, luring them into self-destructive over-reach -- or whether, on the contrary, he is the one always falling into traps. Here was my best attempt to wrestle with that topic as of early last year.

    The same question applies to the Chinese government in its international dealings. Some people think that any step it makes reflects the far-sighted shrewdness of Chinese strategists from Sun Tzu (at right) onward. For whatever reason, such an outlook is particularly popular among Australian analysts. Eg this about the ADIZ and this more generally, though here is one from an American.

    Others note that foreign policy is usually the lowest-priority item on the Chinese leadership's (collective) mind. What really matters in Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party's command center, is domestic security, stability, and growth, with anything beyond that as an afterthought. By this logic, China's foreign-policy and defense moves, far from fitting into a decades-long master plan, often seem ad-hoc at best and self-defeating at worst.

    I'm in the second camp. On the grandest of all grand-strategic levels, I do think that both China and the United States have done an impressive job keeping their relationship as positive and cooperative as it has been these past 35+ years, despite the obvious conflicts and disagreements. No joke, I think that administrations from Nixon's onward on the U.S. side, and Deng's onward on the Chinese, deserve recognition for managing the relationship much better than anyone might have expected when Nixon first meet Chairman Mao.

    But when it comes to moves below this grand-strategic level, I'm skeptical of interpretations that assume a seamlessly executed Chinese master plan.

    Let's apply this to the current ADIZ flap, previously here, here, here, here.

    1) "They're bad at predicting foreign reaction (as a result of only being able to read slanted news)." From a person I've known over the years, and who has an extensive background in U.S.-Chinese security issues. He starts by referring to the flap over China's test of an anti-satellite weapon six years ago: 

    Just came across this [from the original post]:  " The most closely studied example of "creating new realities" was the Chinese test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, which left debris in the path of other satellites and was roundly criticized worldwide. Even now people debate who exactly gave the go-ahead for this move: someone inside the PLA, or the civilian leadership of then-president Hu Jintao."

    I got to interview several PLA officers (including a couple at flag rank) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials about the ASAT [anti-satellite] decision.  The version I heard was that the decision to launch went through military channels to the CMC [Central Military Commission, the highest command-level of the military], but was not coordinated with any civilian agency including MFA (which learned about it from reading the newspapers the next day).  

    One PLAN [Navy] Admiral told me “we have nothing like your National Security Council” and that stovepiped decision-making was common and a potential source of miscalculation.  All of the members of the CMC are military except for the Chair (Hu, In this case).  It would be like a much more insular Joints Chief of Staff making decisions without consulting State or the economic agencies.

    It’s a decision-making process designed to miscalculate and it may explain the recent decision to create a National Security Commission - they've been thinking about this on and off for 20 years.   To put that in context, we’ve been struggling to find Chinese counterparts to [Pentagon] civilians – they don’t exist.  The Party exercises oversight, not the government.  In one meeting one of my colleagues said “what about civilian control of the military and a Chinese official snapped back “that will never happen here.” ...

    Stove-piped decision-making (along with insular views) is a major source of risk for relations with China. Another interesting part was that having used an insular, stove-piped process to decide to launch the ASAT, the Chinese told me that they were surprised at the outcry.  They’re bad at predicting foreign reaction (a result of being able to read only slanted news).  Sounds like the ADIZ decision.   

    2) I highly recommend this analysis by Francesco Sisci, an Italian writer who has reported for a very long time from China. It opens with the same genius-or-blunder question about the ADIZ:

    If it was part of a strategy, well, this is almost useless to think about because this strategy would be self-defeating and bound to take China down the path of self-destruction because it has too many powerful neighbors to try to expand at their expense.... 

    If it was a gross mistake, then China's poor assessment of the balance of power starts with miscomprehension of the strategic importance of the American presence in Asia. 

    The reason I hope you'll go on to read Sisci's whole essay is that he builds to an important and non-obvious point. He observes that every level of the Chinese leadership still harbors "strategic mistrust" of American intentions. Yes, yes, those smiling Americans may begin every speech saying that "America welcomes China's rise." But deep down they must still be plotting to block its way forward and impede its progress. 

    Sisci argues that if the United States really wanted to make trouble for China, it would -- paradoxically -- greatly pull back its military presence in Asia, and avoid steps like immediately sending its B-52s to challenge the new Chinese ADIZ. I'll leave the rest of the explanation to him, but his main point is that without the buffering U.S. presence, all other countries in the region would already be reacting more nervously, harshly, and dangerously to Chinese moves. Eg:

    When China declared this ADIZ, what would have happened if America were not in the region? Japan would have had to defy the ADIZ to prove that it was not under the Chinese thumb, and even if Japan didn't, many others would have come up with ways to counter the new Chinese ambition...

    China would then have to consider countermeasures; things could easily spin out of control. The fact that America decided to fly its planes in the area is a way of softening the Japanese reaction, and it immediately took hold of the situation... If it were Japan defying China, Chinese domestic opinion would put a lot of pressure on the leadership to respond to Tokyo.

    3) To wrap up for the day, let's bring in our friend Mike Lofgren, author of The Party is Over and long-time Republican congressional staffer:

    1. Geography: China, for all its economic clout, is an incredibly constricted country geographically. What are its natural routes to the world? North into Siberia is hardly an attractive trade route. All through the northwest, west, and southwest of the country, it is flanked by a semicircle of some of the highest mountains on earth. It has a long coastline, but this access to the open ocean is constricted by (from north to south): the Korean peninsula, Japan, Japan’s long extension of the Ryukyu chain, Taiwan, the Philippines, the Malaysian/Indonesian archipelago. The coastline is much longer, but strategically it is just as hemmed in as imperial Germany’s route to the open ocean was. These unalterable geographic factors will always constrict China’s strategic military reach, regardless of whether they build a technologically proficient and well-trained navy (which they emphatically do not have now).
     
    2. Trade patterns: China possesses six of the world’s ten busiest container terminals. This is in itself a staggering fact which tells us a lot about the thrust of world industrial and trade development. But in the present context it also suggests an extreme strategic vulnerability, given the inflexible nature of geography. This is a windpipe that could easily be closed.
     
    3. Comparative strategic advantage: Now and for the foreseeable future, the U.S. Navy paradoxically has easier strategic access to the East and South China seas than does Beijing.
     
    4. Conclusion: China’s only rational option is to pursue an exclusively peaceful commercial path to greatness, as did Germany after 1945. The other alternative for Germany had unpleasant consequences, as a glance at twentieth century history demonstrates. Of course, the peaceful path requires rationality among China’s neighbors and the United States as well, which is not a given. The Pentagon’s “pivot to Asia” is unnecessary, because there is no vulnerability to be addressed. The last thing the world needs is a tit-for-tat competition between the U.S. and China in the manner of the Anglo-German naval competition prior to World War I.

    Obviously there are some interesting connections and implications among the three perspectives shown above. But if I take time to spell them out, I will never get this finished. And I'll turn a minus into a plus by remembering the wisdom of Billy Wilder (left), as relayed to Cameron Crowe: "Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever."

  • Free to the Right Owner: A Five-Star Resort in Western China

    Visionaries, looking for someone to continue what they have started.

    Part of the village of Yellow Sheep River, at harvest time. That's a fiber optic cable, part of the effort to modernize rural China, running through the middle of the scene. This and next photo by James Fallows.

    Five years ago, my wife and I traveled to the remote village of Yellow Sheep River, in the arid and impoverished Gansu province of far northwestern China, to report on an ambitious philanthropic-plus-business effort underway there. I wrote an article about what we found, called “How the West Was Wired.”

    The main characters in the story were the people of the village, and the two successful tech entrepreneurs from Taiwan who decided they had an ethical duty to use their resources and know-how to improve prospects in a very hard-pressed area. The local people in the village were mainly children who had to walk long distances to a rudimentary public school; their parents, who mainly had traveled hundreds of miles to factory jobs in the big cities; and their grandparents, who mainly cared for the children and tended the farms. Here's a view of the oldest and youngest generations bringing in the crops.

    The entrepreneurs were Sayling Wen, who founded and ran an info-tech business, and Kenny Lin, Wen’s classmate from Taiwan, who had gone to the U.S., become an American citizen, had a successful career at Bell Labs and NYNEX — and then come back to China to help Sayling Wen with his project. After Wen suddenly died in 2003, at age 55, Kenny Lin took over the project as his own. For more about their story, which obviously moved me (my wife and I have remained friends of Kenny Lin and his family), you can see the article

    Kenny Lin, on a hill overlooking Yellow Sheep River.
    Photo, from the original article, by Ariana Lindquist.

    Now we reach the current news. Part of Sayling Wen's vision for revitalizing this part of China was creating a spectacular and modern five-star conference and resort facility on the border of the Yellow Sheep village. The scenery of this part of Gansu is breathtakingly beautiful in way that recalls Wyoming, and Wen's ambition might be compared with that of Jackson Hole -- or Aspen, or Banff. Along with other plans to bring industry to the region and improve the profitability of its farms, he had a plan for making it a corporate and governmental retreat-and-conference site. My wife and I stayed at the resort and can attest to its comfort and up-to-date ness.

    The Yellow Sheep River conference center, at upper right, with the village to the left. By Ariana Lindquist.

    The family-foundation board that has run the Yellow Sheep River conference center has now decided that it no longer wants to keep it in operations. But it has decided that rather than sell the facility, or simply turn it over for commercial development, it would like to give it -- in its entirety, with no debt or other encumbrance -- to anyone who would like to operate it for similar philanthropic ends. For example, a foundation that would like to use it as a regional headquarters, or other non-strictly commercial group looking for an outpost in western China.

    Conference at Yellow Sheep River, via Kenny Lin.

    If you are interested, please contact Kenny Lin directly, in Beijing. His email address is KennyKSLin <at> gmail.com. Or I will be happy to forward messages to him. I can't speak to the practicalities of running a facility in Yellow Sheep River, but I know the Lin family well enough to vouch for the sincerity and idealism of this offer.

    Scene on a horse ride from the conference center. This and the next photo by James Fallows.

    One more view, of the ancient Great Wall not far from the resort. Let Kenny Lin know if you are interested.

  • In Honor of the Chinese ADIZ, Today's Novelty Aviation Footage

    The people who drive on China's roads may soon be able to fly in its skies!

    This is not part of the Chinese ADIZ. 

    [See update below.] The planning behind, and consequences of, China's expansion of its Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, in the East China Sea remain obscure. Of the various attempts to explain it, for now I like Robert Kelly's on Asian Security Blog best. It emphasizes the contradictory possibilities -- expansionism, miscalculation, domestic posturing -- that might all simultaneously be true. Previous coverage here, here, and here.

    Related question: Should we worry that the U.S. government, having quickly taken a "this is bullshit!" stance by sending B-52s through the new ADIZ, is showing contradictions of its own, in urging U.S.-based airlines to file flight planes with the Chinese authorities?

    No. This isn't the airlines' battle.* They already file flight plans for every operation with various national and international authorities. It's no harm to them to copy the Chinese in too. The immediate danger of this ADIZ is that it will be one more occasion for national-pride chest-bumping among Chinese and other (Japanese, U.S., South Korean, Taiwanese) military aircraft, in an already tense region where an accident or miscalculation could have big and dangerous consequences. It makes sense to minimize the chance that passenger airplanes could be involved.

    And to be clear: this is a potentially very dangerous situation. The build-up to it has involved animus from many players, but this latest move is all China's doing. 

    Now let's look on the brighter side, all still in the aviation theme.

    1) Private pilots' licenses come to China. Huzzah! This is one more step down the path I examined in China AirborneThat is, China's determination to will itself into leadership as an international aerospace power, despite its lack of (a) airports, (b) airplanes, (c) an advanced aircraft or engine-building industry, (d) flyable airspace, and (e) pilots. Everyone knows about its efforts to address the first three shortages -- or would, if they'd read my book! Last week I mentioned a long-awaited move on the airspace front: reducing the amount under the military's control. And yesterday we hear: easier requirements for certification as a pilot.

    This is good news. Though anyone familiar with road traffic in China will pause for reflection on reading this quote, via the NYT:

    On Friday, The Beijing News carried the headline: “In the future, getting a private pilot’s license will be just as easy as getting an automobile driver’s license.” 

    2) World's shortest commercial flight: the apparent champ. Via the very interesting site of Matt Dearden, a UK-born bush pilot working in Indonesia, this clip of a 73-second flight from one hilltop airstrip to another. Between the two airstrips is a very deep valley. The dramatic part of the video starts about 30 seconds in, with an approach to one of the tiny airstrips.

    World's shortest commercial flight? from IndoPilot on Vimeo.

    Passengers pay $5 apiece to save the many hours the steeply down-and-up-hill journey would take on foot. In case you're wondering, the locale of this flight is West Papua -- which is on the western, Indonesian half of the island whose eastern half is the nation of Papua New Guinea.

    Also in case you're wondering, the elevation at these airfields is around 4500 feet, which is high-ish; and the landing strips appear to be around 1000 - 1200 feet long, which is short. Impressive. (Photo at top of this post is from Dearden's site. And here is a sample dramatic entry from his Papuan flying adventures.)

    A different pilot's video of landing on one of these airports is here.

    3) World's shortest flight: runner up. It's from my ancestral homeland of Scotland, and it's about 90 seconds from takeoff to touchdown -- as you can see in the video of one entire flight, below. You'll note that about 40 seconds after takeoff the pilot is already reducing power to prepare for landing.

    Compared with normal commercial journeys, this up-and-down flight path seems very odd -- but it's not that different from the routine training exercise of "flying the pattern" that all pilots have gone through. Pattern work involves taking off, climbing to 800 - 1000 feet above the ground, and doing a series of four right- or left-hand turns to make a rectangular path above the ground before coming in for landing again, a minute or so after takeoff. My point is simply that reducing power and speed very soon after lifting off is a familiar rather than an alien thing to do.


    * Airlines have identifiable home countries -- American Airlines, All-Nippon, Singapore Air, etc -- but those with international routes truly do operate, like shipping lines, in a beyond-national-borders, international-commons regime. It would make a bad situation worse to bring airlines further into it, as players, or pawns.


    Update I've heard online from a number of people who disagree about airlines and the ADIZ. Their main point is that China's goal is to change the status quo in the region, and any step that accommodates the new, unilaterally proclaimed Chinese rules effectively recognizes this new status quo. Eg:

    The thing is we didn't have to issue guidance - the airlines could have complied on their own in order to deal with the potential safety issues - without the USG weighing in and undermining our position on the ADIZ and putting space btw Washington and Tokyo/Seoul in a really high profile way at an awful time. Major unforced error on our part.

    I don't think "strategic ambiguity," in the form of letting the airlines comply but not saying so in public, would necessarily be a more forceful or sustainable position. And officially telling U.S. airlines not to follow the new Chinese rules would have raised the problem I mention, of putting normal businesses in the midst of an international struggle.

    In any case, I think a U.S. goal should be to put airline operations to the side, as a minor, routine part of the drama. The real question is what the U.S. and other governments do to contain (and not stoke) the tension in the region, and to respond to this expansionary move on China's part. 

  • Building a Museum: Report From Down East

    A Maine couple defies the odds -- and helps to build community in the process.
    By John Tierney

    The restored facade and new civic space in front of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art.

    By John Tierney

    If you’ve been following the reports here by Deborah and Jim Fallows in their American Futures series, you know that the small city of Eastport, Maine, a town that has faced hard times in the past, is a place with lots of good things going on. Most recently, we’ve learned from Deb about the positive, “yes-we-can” attitude that has become widespread there, reaching into (and being reinforced by) the language people use. And from Jim, we’ve heard about efforts to build harbor traffic for the deep-water port there and an ambitious, large-scale project to harness the hydro-kinetic power of ocean tides and river currents.

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    Now let’s look in on another bold venture in Eastport, this one of much smaller scale and different orientation, but no less important in the way it’s helping to revitalize this coastal community. This is the story of how an art museum -- The Tides Institute & Museum of Art -- got started there in the past decade, and what it’s come to mean in the life of this small community of 1,300 people. 

    Hugh French, an Eastport native, and his wife, Kristin McKinlay, were living in Portland, Maine, in 2002 when they decided -- in the great American spirit of mobility -- to move. Where, they weren’t exactly sure.

    The former Eastport Savings Bank building before renovation.

    But on a visit back to Hugh’s hometown, they saw an old, dilapidated building for sale, the former home of the Eastport Savings Bank, and decided, virtually on the spot, to buy it and create an art museum there.

    Laughing at the memory, McKinlay told me: “We went through the building. It was in dire shape, and yet we came out saying to each other, ‘We have to do this.’” Laughing harder, she said, “It was somewhat a matter of putting the cart before the horse.” What she meant was that they hadn’t previously made a conscious decision to move back to Eastport, much less looked for or purchased a home there, but they bought the building anyway, planning to create a museum. Their thinking, I realized as McKinlay explained to me the origin of the Tides Institute, was akin to Ray Kinsella's inspiration in the 1989 film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

    Workers removing bank vault from building.

    They saw something in that run-down building: hope -- and a future. “We realized there was a need here for the kind of cultural institution that could help revitalize the town,” French said. “We knew that Eastport needed a cultural anchor; that was the genesis of the concept. Of course, we knew it would be hard: the town has a small population, there’s little money here, and there’s no big urban center nearby.” But they went ahead anyway, believing in the project -- and in the town. “We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t feel Eastport was already moving in a positive direction,” McKinlay said.

    They started out, McKinlay told me, by “putting up a website first. We did that even before we moved from Portland to Eastport. We wanted to elicit responses from people up here about what was needed. So, having a website made it useful to gather ideas about collections, research resources, and so on. Also, potential funders were able to look at it.”

    They chose the name with deliberation: rejecting Eastport or Passamaquoddy in favor of Tides, thinking it to be less limiting geographically, but still suggestive of the area and the community's aspirations for connection to the world beyond. (“Tides connect everywhere,” French noted.) And they chose Institute because they felt it implied the kind of innovative institution they were hoping to create, with an educational mission and “an open-ended institutional capacity.” French explained, “We didn't want to needlessly box ourselves in.”

    Painting by Arthur Cadieux, in collection of Tides Institute.

    Thanks to family heritage, French already had a collection of objects on which to build -- paintings, historical photos, oral histories, and the like -- much of this, cultural material about the sardine canneries that once dominated the economic life of Eastport. But they knew that building a museum meant they’d have to add substantially to their collection.

    Helping to make that happen was the French family name, well known in town. McKinlay explained: “It’s been crucial to our success to have a known quantity in town doing this. Previously, there wasn’t an institution here that people knew and trusted, so people who had artwork, documents, or other valuable things to donate sent their items elsewhere – to other museums around the state or beyond, to the archives of their alma maters, etc. But because people knew Hugh, knew the Frenches, they were willing to give us their items of value. So, things started coming in.”

    Main Room in the Tides Institute and Museum of Art

    The museum’s collections cover different time periods and places, but are regional in many respects. Included among the kinds of items in the permanent collection are Native-American basketry, hand-painted ceramics, boat models, portraits of ships, and photographs from the sardine canneries. The total museum space is allocated roughly evenly between the permanent collection and special exhibits.

    Native-American basket in collection.

    Once their extensive reconstruction of the building was completed, French and McKinlay started doing exhibits right away. That helped to build the collection, too. “People would come in to see exhibits and say ‘Oh, I have something you might want to add to your collection.’”

    One of their recent exhibits showed the work of Andrea Dezso, a well-known artist who happened to come through Eastport, saw the museum, and approached French and McKinlay, saying, “I’d love to work with you.” So, she put together an exhibit based on her research on the area. Some of her work was her take on the imagination of a child working in the sardine canneries, one piece of which is shown below.

    Eastport school children viewing TIMA exhibit of work by Andrea Dezso 

    Another exhibit, this past summer, featured the installation of a separate structure on the plaza in front of the museum, containing a large camera obscura. McKinlay said that the exhibit, called Vorti-Scope, was “terrifically engaging to people of all ages.” (This video shows Vorti-Scope when it was installed in Fredericton, New Brunswick.)

    When the Tides Institute first opened, it was one of the few places in Eastport open on Sundays. Sometimes the fledgling museum had only one or two people come in over the course of a Sunday – or nobody at all. Now, on Sundays in the summer, it's not uncommon for as many as 150 people to come through.

    Pottery by Tom Smith 

    Apart from building their collection and attracting an audience, another constant worry for French and McKinlay has been financing. But they’ve had some encouraging success on that score, too. For example, they applied for funding from ArtPlace, which is a collaboration of national foundations, banks, and the National Endowment for the Arts, aiming to promote public interest in the arts, encourage “creative place-making,” and support efforts to transform communities that are making strategic investments in the arts.

    When French and McKinlay applied for an ArtPlace grant a couple years ago, theirs was one of approximately 2,200 initial applications, out of which 200 were invited to make final applications. Only 47 grants ultimately were awarded – one of those (for $250,000) to the Tides Institute. “We’re the only institution in Maine ever to get money from them,” French told me, attributing that success to the attractiveness of the idea behind one of the Tides Institute’s missions, “to build connectedness and engage people in the community, including across the border in Canada.”

    New StudioWorks building, under reconstruction.

    The ArtPlace grant helped subsidize the restoration of another old (1887), rundown building nearby that French and McKinlay acquired. This second space, now renovated, houses their StudioWorks facility, providing studio space, with print-making equipment, a letterpress, and assorted digital resources. The building also serves as home to an artist-in-residence program that has grown rapidly in popularity, receiving 70 to 80 applications for the four sequential residencies available this past summer. The program is attracting the attention of artists, in part because it provides recipients with a stipend, along with free housing in an attractive space a block away. 

    Artist Christine Wong Yap, at work in new StudioWorks space.

    The artist-in-residency program is dear to McKinlay and French because it helps meet their purpose of engaging the community. They want people to see artists at work in a studio, and they ask the artists to do work that people can participate in. Similarly, they run an educational program that, in addition to bringing school kids into the museum on field trips, also sends artists into the local schools to talk to kids about what artists do and to show some work. “We want kids to know that becoming an artist is one potential path ahead,” said McKinlay.

    In the spirit of trying to strengthen the bonds of community, another important venture of the Tides Institute is its New Year’s Eve Celebration, which started about six years ago. French told me, “We commissioned an artist to create an 8-foot sardine that gets lowered from the roof of the museum at midnight, like the crystal ball at Times Square. It’s a very popular event. Hundreds of people come out for it.”

    New Year's Eve celebration, 2012, in square in front of TIMA's main building in Eastport

    Looking back on what they’ve accomplished, French and McKinlay are proud of seeing their two buildings restored and happy to see how their efforts are contributing to the growing vitality of this small city. They’re gratified, too, French said, at how the Tides Institute & Art Museum has “encouraged cooperation and exchange among communities here on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.”

    Brochure created by TIMA and community partners. 

    Not only would they do it all again, despite the formidable challenges they’ve faced, but they’d offer encouragement to others considering starting new ventures in the arts. As McKinlay put it. “I’d say to them, You can do it. You can be creative. You can be innovative. Yes, it’s true: you have to be a little crazy. And you have to be willing to make some sacrifices and take some risks. But there’s a great opportunity to make a difference, especially in small towns.”

    French and McKinlay are the first to say that they didn’t do all this on their own. “This is a tight community. People here work together,” McKinlay told me. “But I think it’s true everywhere that people will try to be helpful when they see something coming along that promises to be beneficial to the whole community. That’s certainly what we've found. So, my message to people would be: Take that gamble.” 

     

    [All photos provided by the Tides Institute and Museum of Art.]

    ________________________________________________________ 

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

  • More on This Strange Chinese ADIZ: 'Sovereign Is as Sovereign Does'

    Which explanation is less worrisome: calculated expansion, or miscalculated blunder?

    Overlapping areas of Chinese and Japanese airspace claims, from China Military Review. The legend says that the red line shows the new Chinese ADIZ area, and the black line shows Japan's. The gray is the overlap.

    Following yesterday's item on the newly expanded Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, that China has announced in the East China Sea, these links and updates. Also, please see the discussion from our partners at ChinaFile

    1) From The Interpreter, the excellent blog of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, an overview by Rory Medcalf of the things to worry about, and not, in the ADIZ announcement. (By the way, you pronounce this A-dizz, with a long A, not spelled out as A-D-I-Z.) Summary of what's worrisome:

    • It is a unilateral step, announced suddenly and apparently without consultation with two countries whose civilian and military aircraft will be most affected, the US and Japan.
    • It includes a contested maritime area, notably the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and thus can be seen as a deliberate effort to change the status quo, even a provocation.
    • Its ‘rules’ demanding that aircraft identify themselves and obey Chinese direction on flight paths seem to apply to all aircraft in the zone and not only aircraft en route to China...
    • It looks like a pretext for one of two undesirable security outcomes. If foreign aircraft now regularly obey the new Chinese rules, we will see precedents set for the unilateral expansion of Chinese authority over contested maritime territory. Alternately, if foreign aircraft contest or ignore the Chinese zone and a dangerous or deadly incident occurs (such as a collision or a forceful encounter), then China will have prepared the way to absolve itself of legal or moral blame, making it easier to use the incident as a justification to escalate the crisis if China so chooses.

    The third point on Medcalf's list is one I should have highlighted more clearly yesterday. The borders of the United States are also ringed by ADIZs. But here the ADIZ rules -- mainly, a requirement for a pre-filed flight plan showing who you are and where you're going -- apply only to planes headed to destinations in the United States. They don't affect planes passing through en route to somewhere else, say from Canada to the Caribbean. The new Chinese claim is that even planes merely passing through must comply with their ADIZ requirements.

    Also see Andrew Erickson, mentioned previously as a go-to source. If you'd like to see an outright "sky is falling!" reaction to the events, check out Politico.

    2) "Sovereign is as sovereign does." From a reader:

    Your article about China's ADIZ didn't explicitly recognize a major component of the move. Namely, in international law a major way by which states acquire sovereignty over an area is by actually exercising sovereignty (i.e. administering) over it for a "reasonable" period of time and especially having other states acquiesce to its administration. As one famous court opinion put it:

    "The modern international law of the acquisition (or attribution) of territory generally requires that there be: an intentional display of power and authority over the territory, by the exercise of jurisdiction and state functions, on a continuous and peaceful basis."

    Even if it has little real practical effect for airliners, by having them identify themselves to China Beijing will be exercising sovereignty over the area and can claim that others are acquiescing to its claims of sovereignty. This is why the U.S. and Japan immediately announced they wouldn't comply with China's demands and the U.S. is openly defying the order already.

    Of course Japan has anADIZ over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands but at the very least by establishing its own ADIZ (and patrolling the waters below) China is chipping away at Japan's int'l legal claim of sovereignty. This is also why China has made a point of increasing its patrols in the South China Sea and is acquiring the necessary capabilities to constantly patrol the skies over the South China Sea.

    3) A Chinese Caribbean. A reader who has worked in politics:

    Re: "Why are the Chinese doing this?"

    Obviously as you point out it's opaque and we can only speculate to Zhongnanhai's [rough equivalent of the White House] motivations but I think a helpful way to think about is their view/ambition for the East China Sea is that it is/should be a Chinese Caribbean.

    Think about the US role there in the late 19th century - the Venezuela thing/ Roosevelt Corollary/ getting the British out).  Which is the tack I would take if I were sitting in Beijing.

    4) "A generally more emboldened China." A reader with a lot of experience in the defense world:

    I would draw your attention to the Defense Ministry spokesman’s response to the question regarding if China intended to set up ADIZ’s in other areas (e.g., the South China Seas):  “China will establish other Air Defense Identification Zones at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”

    I believe that the central question that this new provocation raises is what accounts for it?  Of course, longstanding tension over the Daioyu/Senkaku issue has been rekindled and that offers a proximate explanation; the arrival of Abe into office in Japan, another. 

    But what I fear we may be seeing is a generally more emboldened China. There is a lengthening bread crumb trail of recent PRC activity that leads me to this observation (not yet a firm conclusion). 

    I’m not referencing the (still) ongoing detentions and boardings that occur with regularity over the Spratleys, the Paracels, and Scarborough Shoals, but to chest-thumping behavior such as the recent Chinese news releases covering the capability of the PLAN’s SSBNs to lay waste to much of the western United States with 20 nuclear weapons. Yes, it did come to us via the Global Times, and yes, I’m well aware that even Beijing is rapidly losing its ability to control much of what comes out of China’s increasingly pluralistic press. That said, Beijing most certainly has proven itself capable of fully controlling what is being uttered in public about its nuclear weapons capabilities.

    To be clear, the concern is not on the substance – or even veracity in this latter case of the story – the Xia class SSBNs with their JL-1 SLBMs remain the Chinese maritime equivalent of the Edsel, while the JIN-class (094) SSBNs (with the JL-2 SLBMs) are not yet on operational patrol.  So, again, why the chest thumping?  

    Well, here’s to hoping that we aren’t witnessing the emergence of a new hawkish China.

    Yes, I agree with that hope. To me, the evidence in recent years has been equivocal, even random -- a lurch forward here, a retreat there. A few days in, the ADIZ expansion appears to have been either a coldly calculated expansionary step, or a wildly miscalculated gamble. Neither is a great option from the rest of the world's perspective, but the blunder option is less worrisome.  

  • How to Think About the Chinese Air-Defense News

    The latest escalation in the East China Sea marks a worsening of relations between the world's second and third largest economies, and puts the U.S. in a lose-lose predicament.

    Chinese map of its new Air Defense Identification Zone, from Xinhua.

    This is a strange development—China's establishment over the weekend of an ADIZ, or Air Defense Identification Zone, in an expanded area of the East China Sea, eliciting alarmed reactions from Japan, the United States (which today sent two B-52s through the zone), South Korea, and other countries in the region. A few points to bear in mind as you follow the story:

    1) What is an ADIZ, anyway? Many news stories have presented the ADIZ as if it were comparable to a no-fly zone, or an extension of territorial sovereignty. It's not quite that. All four words in its full title are important, including the least obvious third one: Air Defense Identification Zone. The idea is to create an area where the relevant authorities have a right to know who is flying, and where they are going. It doesn't necessarily mean that flights are going to be challenged or interfered with.

    For reference, here is the way the ADIZs around the continental United States look:

    In practice the U.S. zones mean that aircraft entering ADIZ space—most of the time, those bound for U.S. cities from other countries—must have filed flight plans and been cleared along their routes by Air Traffic Control. Virtually all of the world's airline flights operate on filed-and-cleared flight plans anyway, so the ADIZ makes no practical difference in airline operations. (The Chinese have said the same will apply in their new zone.) You can get extremely detailed info from the pertinent FAA regulations. They include this definition:

    Air defense identification zone [ADIZ] means an area of airspace over land or water in which the ready identification, location, and control of civil aircraft is required in the interest of national security.

    "Control" in this sense means subject to the directions of an Air Traffic Controller—"turn right, heading 270"—rather than something more forceful.

    So this move is aggressive and expansionist, in asserting a Chinese government right to know who is traveling in its (enlarged) vicinity. But some stories have suggested that it would lead to an immediate struggle or challenge over the right to fly, which it (probably) will not.

    2) Why are the Chinese doing this? As a general proposition, this is of course one more sign of worsening relations between China and Japan, focused in this case on the tiny islands both countries claim to control. As for the immediate reasons for this move, no one outside the central leadership can say with any certainty, and perhaps not even anyone there.

    The lines of authority and communication between civilian and military officials in China are murky in the best of circumstances. (Remember, the People's Liberation Army technically is commanded by the Chinese Communist Party, not the Chinese state.) The concept of a civilian commander-in-chief is not built into China's governing structure. Most people think that newish president Xi Jinping enjoys more support from the military than his predecessor—which most outsiders consider to be a good thing, since it reduces the chance of the military setting policy or creating new realities on its own.*

    The ADIZ move is is a big enough step that Xi Jinping himself would presumably have been aware of it, and again-presumably would have thought it a worthwhile demonstration of Chinese "strength" and refusal to be pushed around. But for now that is guesswork rather than knowledge. 

    3) Is this likely to do China any good? The puzzling nature of Chinese foreign policy, especially its generally self-defeating "soft power" aspects, is a subject too vast for our purposes right now. In brief: the very steps that, from an internal Chinese-government perspective, are intended to make it seem confident, powerful, and attractive often have exactly the opposite effect on audiences outside China.

    One famous illustration followed the world financial crisis of 2008. The Chinese economy recovered much more quickly than others; the U.S. looked like a house of cards; and the Chinese military made a number of expansionist-seeming moves in the South China Sea that quickly got the attention of neighboring countries. The result of this "over-reach" episode, as it is described now even in China, was to bring Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other countries into closer alignment with the U.S. than they had thought necessary before. By acting super-tough, the Chinese military made its real situation weaker.

    This ADIZ case may become the next famous example. Whether it seems, either now or later, worthwhile from the Chinese leadership's perspective I have no idea. But at least in the short term, it appears to have alarmed the South Koreans, with whom Chinese relations had been steadily warming, plus introducing new friction into China's most important relationship, which is with the United States. 

    Which leads us to ... 

    4) So what about the U.S. reaction, including the bombers? The worsening Japan-China struggles are, for the United States, the opposite of the cynical view of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. Back then, as the wisecrack held, the U.S. wished both sides could lose. This time, the U.S. would prefer that both sides win—or, more precisely, that they not fight. A struggle between the two, especially over the contested tiny islands, puts the U.S. in a lose-lose predicament. Public mood and government policy in each country is increasingly hostile to the other—but we're deeply connected to both of them, plus we have a treaty obligation to defend Japan against attack. We want this fight to go away, without our being forced to take a side.

    Why risk getting involved, plus angering the Chinese, by sending B-52s through the new ADIZ? I think the Pentagon's initial explanation is the right one—on the merits, and as a matter of public diplomacy. The United States is not taking sides in this Japan-China island dispute, but it is against either side unilaterally changing the status quo. Also, in continuing "routine training flights"—which is how the B-52 mission was described—it is underscoring the U.S. commitment to existing rules on access to international air space. It was mildly risky to send that flight, but it would have been riskier not to react at all.

    5) How Can You Learn More. This will be all over the news, but a go-to site is that of Andrew Erickson, a defense expert who is fluent in Chinese and is providing a steady flow of documents and analyses from Chinese sources.

    And then there are our friends at NMA in Taiwan. Of course they're critical of the P.R.C., but ... well, see for yourself.


    * The most closely studied example of "creating new realities" was the Chinese test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, which left debris in the path of other satellites and was roundly criticized worldwide. Even now people debate who exactly gave the go-ahead for this move: someone inside the PLA, or the civilian leadership of then-president Hu Jintao.

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