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.
  • Google and China: The Two Big Unknowns

    Two ways to figure out whether the result will be win-win-win or lose-lose-lose.

    How will the latest round of the Google-Chinese government showdown end? (Google's announcement from last night here; other Atlantic interpretations here and here.)

    Honestly, it is impossible to know. That is because each side faces a big choice.

    On the Chinese government side, the question is: Do they have any incentive to step back from the brink and accept Google's cosmetic change as a real change of heart or behavior? Google's cosmetic change, in essence, is to stop automatically routing users from the Chinese mainland site Google.cn to the (uncensored) Hong Kong-based site Google.com.hk. Instead, the mainland home page will now have a link which users must click to be taken to the Hong Kong site. Although the results Google gives on the Hong Kong site are not "filtered," they must pass through the Chinese "Great Firewall" on their way back to users in the mainland.

    If the Chinese government is looking for a way to resolve the fight, play nice internationally, reduce complaints that it is becoming a hostile environment for foreign businesses, etc, it could decide to view this step as "compliance" with Chinese law. But if, on the other hand, the government is looking for a way to rub Google's nose in the consequences of its defiance and generally assert its refusal to be swayed by outside tut-tutting, it could decide to look through the ruse and revoke Google's license to operate in China, which is due for renewal very soon. (Below: the new Google.CN home page, with link to Google Hong Kong.)

    GoogleCN.png


    On Google's side, the question is: if it comes to an all or nothing choice about operating in the Chinese market -- "all" meaning genuine compliance with Chinese censorship laws, "nothing" meaning pulling out altogether -- are they prepared, really, to close down all their operations? All 500+ engineers in the mainland? All of the advertising, mobile, and other business operations that have little directly to do with search? When Google first announced this decision, it appeared they could have it both ways: international acclaim for taking a stand for free expression, but still a significant premise in the fastest-growing information market on earth. If they have to choose, which way will they go?

    At the beginning of this controversy I quoted a friend in China who said that this could end up as a "win-win-win" situation, for Chinese Web users, Google, and China's technological development -- or "lose-lose-lose," depending on subsequent steps. As a betting man, I am now leaning toward lose-lose-lose. But it will depend on the way these two questions turn out.

  • Excellent Interactive Oil-Spill Map

    A governmental map for tracking the effects of and response to the BP spill

    Via the federal government's Environmental Response Management Application, from NOAA, a powerful interactive map that lets you add and subtract layers to show areas closed to fisheries, beaches where oil has hit and is expected, emergency-response centers, satellite images of the spill, visible slicks, etc. You can zoom in and out and pan the map all around.

    Spill1.png


    If you zoom in, you can get very detailed images -- for instance this of the coast and delta region east of New Orleans.

    Spill3.png

    The occasion for this display is unbelievably depressing, but the imagery and presentation demonstrate a "Gov 2.0" approach to interactive use of geospatial imagery at its best. The map seems sufficiently detailed and configurable to be of real practical value to people in the region. Thanks to SSS and reader WRM in Louisiana.

  • "Avatar" Life in the Digital Age

    When everything is on the record, how do you create a new zone of privacy -- or discretion?

    I mentioned recently, in light of the turmoil over the WaPo reporter fired because of leaked  emails, that this could be the end of innocence for a generation accustomed to living in public. It turns out not really to be true that if everything is on the record, nothing can be embarrassing. "Will S," a college student whose real identity I know, writes to describe the way he has prepared for this new reality:

    The most interesting part of the "anything you write will inevitably become public" reaction is that it falls exactly in line with Mark Zuckerberg's [of Facebook] panned* comments about the end of privacy. Essentially, we have come close now to placing all written work (save handwritten diaries) into the public sphere. Jefferson and Adams famously began to preserve their letters as they (supposedly) came to realize the historical value of what they wrote; how long until e-mail inboxes are archived, to be opened 50 years later?

    When I first started into social media, on Wikipedia, I made a set of deliberate decisions about what would be "[his real name]" (wikipedia, Facebook, blog, twitter, tumblr) and what wouldn't be, written under a pseudonym (social media site, Daily Kos, RedState). As a result, I have created two online personas of written work that aren't essentially different people - and because I can't trust that they won't be dug up someday (even the fake name), neither of the accounts is actually "me," but instead only aspects. The pseudonym, for example, is much more willing to be opinionated.

    My existence on the internet might be with my real name, but my suspicion is that the vast majority of people are creating Avatars of themselves on the internet, untagging Facebook photos and writing blog posts to fit the image they wish to project. Weigel is jobless because he chose not to maintain the avatar.
    ____

    * I wrote back to say that I thought Zuckerberg had been justly panned, since he had arranged Facebook with a "nudge"-style bias toward making, tricking, or luring people into revealing more about themselves than they really should. "Will S." replied

    Zuckerberg: Certainly tasteless in terms of Facebook's policy approach of making more stuff public by default, and making some info impossible to hide.

    I would agree that privacy should be the default, despite the monetary incentives to choose otherwise. Facebook has a responsibility, especially since reactions are muddled given our lack of a established electronic etiquette...

    It's also bound up in that trust used to be opt-in; finding out someone's preferences and personal background had to be accomplished by hearing from people individually. Now that we post those things online where they can be shared universally without effort, to deliberately withhold them is a different message of mistrust that we may not feel comfortable sending out. I'm not sure where this market force will lead.

    Lastly, I don't know if we want to protect these spaces - electronic communication are already cold and prone to misunderstanding; perhaps it's best to encourage face to face Skype, iPhone, etc. conversations as the definite vehicle for private talks (medium = message, etc). But that leaves out the historic long letter - now relegated to e-mail, where heartfelt messages of emotion and more standard communications like this one are put in the same medium. We still need a paperless way to be formal.
  • Wimbledon Reading

    David Foster Wallace on how the game looked up close

    I mentioned several days ago how completely different it is to see pro tennis players in person, versus watching them on TV. A reader writes to remind me that the late David Foster Wallace insisted on this point in two of his most justly-famed pieces about tennis. 

    His best-known tennis article was this one, four years ago in the NYT Magazine, about the unique beauty and intelligence of Roger Federer on the court. That's worth reading again during Wimbledon. It makes me regret that I've never seen, and probably will never see, in-person Federer play singles in his prime. (Unusual live doubles viewing here, and below.)

    Thumbnail image for IMG_5044a.jpg

    But if anything, this article, from ten years earlier in Esquire, is even more interesting about the almost-unfathomable distance between top-level athletes and everyone else. In this piece Wallace describes the first time he'd ever seen professionals in person. He had been a serious junior player, and he says that from watching TV he thought he might be able to hit with some of the lesser pros. The article chronicles his discovery, at a satellite/qualifying tournament featuring players he had never heard of, that he was wrong. Sample:

    If you've played tennis at least a little, you probably have some idea how hard a game is to play really well. I submit to you that you really have no idea at all. I know I didn't. And television doesn't really allow you to appreciate what real top-level players can do -- how hard they're actually hitting the ball, and with what control and tactical imagination and artistry. I got to watch Michael Joyce practice several times right up close, like six feet and a chain-link fence away. This is a man who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot square area seventy-eight feet away over a net, hard. He can do this something like more than 90 percent of the time. And this is the world's seventy-ninth-best player, one who has to play the Montreal qualies.

    Both articles stand up very well. The Esquire one also has charming time-warp notes like, "Agassi, who is twenty-five," and, "Pete Sampras [then age 24] is mostly teeth and eyebrows in person and has unbelievably hairy legs and forearms -- hair in the sort of abundance that allows me confidently to bet that he has hair on his back and is thus at least not 100 percent blessed and graced by the universe." Thanks to reader RG in Tokyo.





  • In-House Links: Byrd, Coates & Goldberg, Epps & Kagan

    A profile of the late Sen. Robert Byrd as a young(er) man on the rise

    1) The Atlantic has just scanned and digitized an excellent 1975 profile of Sen. Robert Byrd, who of course died early this morning. The article is here; it was by Sanford Ungar, my immediate predecessor as "Washington Editor" of the magazine. (In days of yore, the Atlantic was in Boston, and the head of the one-person DC operation -- Elizabeth Drew in the late Sixties, then Ungar in the mid Seventies, then me starting in 1979 -- was dignified as the Washington Editor. Now all our editors are Washington Editors!) There are a few small OCR errors still in the piece, which will be cleaned up soon; thanks to members of our staff for doing it right away.

    The Ungar piece is fascinating as an illustration of how much has changed in 35 years -- Byrd at the time was the junior Senator from West Virginia, and enjoyed toying with the idea that he could be a presidential contender -- and how many of the dramatis personae are the same. Joe Biden appears, for instance, as a tyro first-term Senator. Josh Green on this article here.

    2) For the record, as followup on the controversy over David Weigel's departure from the Washington Post, which I mentioned here, I should mention the back-and-forth between my colleagues T-N Coates and J Goldberg. TNC here and here; Goldberg here, and with an invitation in response to Glen Greenwald's critique of him, here. I am noting this rather than getting in the middle of it, on the principle that there are no longer any unexpressed thoughts on the topic.

    3) Bonus in-house update: Garrett Epps, a distinguished historian and novelist, a longtime friend, and a wonderful addition to our Atlantic lineup, on what Elena Kagan really should say at her hearing, though she probably will not. Also, on the historical/legal background to the McChrystal case, here.

  • "How Crap It Is To Be English"

    The marvelous self-loathing of this sceptered isle

    Previously on the deliciously masochistic self-loathing of English sports fans here. I thought I had some vague appreciation of the phenomenon -- and it turns out that "vague" is the crucial term. From a wrap-up of what went right and wrong for the English side at the World Cup:

    Negatives?

    Almost the entire England squad.
    I will give Dawson and Hart a break. They never got a chance and look good for the future. Carrick and Warnock also never played, but perhaps thankfully in that case. So there are just 19 negatives. Plus the English FA. I have no faith in its ability to learn anything from this very, very poor World Cup in every respect.

    The entire English system.
    Too many games. Too few young players getting opportunities in domestic games or good enough to get opportunities in domestic games.

    The entire English media.
    Fire the manager, don't blame the players, get a new manager, change the tactics, don't change the system, don't blame the players, fire the manager, don't blame the players, get a new manager ... rinse and repeat.

    England.
    Americans will never completely understand how crap it is, most of the time, to be English. We might have cute accents and be good at cocktail parties. But we are mostly losers.

    After the jump, some on-scene observations of this phenomenon from a Yank who watched World Cup play in England. I do understand that the "how crap it is" tone is wry, but it is a particular kind of wryness you really don't find in other places when talking about themselves. And it adds a nice edge to Andrew Sullivan's reminder that for countries that care about it, soccer/"football" really reflects national spirit and is war by other means.

    More »

  • One More View of "Breaking Teeth" (Afghanistan)

    A case for staying in Afghanistan until... when, until the "end"

    Previously here and here. As mentioned earlier, I don't know enough about Afghanistan to oversee an ongoing debate about the trends and evidence there. But after an initial dispatch saying there was no hope, and a second saying there were problems but of a different sort, here is an argument from reader John Dowd, a Vietnam veteran, for sticking it out as the least-bad option. This will be it for now.

    There is no doubt that Afghanistan and our policy there are in disarray....

    I read the [Dalrymple] piece and found it pessimistic in the extreme and, not all that relevant to the current situation. Much of the article is devoted to the British debacle in the 1840s and the hard lessons learned therefrom. It is my view that we have learned them. I don't think the U. S. Army is going to lose 18,000 men marching through the mountainous valleys south of Kabul. Does Mr. Dalrymple think that the U. S. military men have not read the same accounts of the British route that he has?

    He discusses his trip to the mountainous north in terms that are frightening and one wonders if this can possibly be the same land in which Greg Mortenson is building schools ("Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones into Schools"). His statement that a foreigner cannot walk the streets of Kabul without an armed guard strikes me as highly over-stated. I suspect foreigners walk the streets of Kabul every day. And he says:
    "Certainly it is becoming clearer than ever that the once-hated Taliban, far from being swept away by General Stanley McChrystal's surge, are instead regrouping, ready for the final act in the history of Hamid Karzai's western-installed puppet government. The Taliban have now advanced out of their borderland safe havens to the very gates of Kabul and are surrounding the capital, much as the US-backed mujahedin once did to the Soviet-installed regime in the late 1980s."
    I don't think there's any evidence to support this rather wild claim. McChrystal's "surge" was intended to neutralize the Taliban by forcing them to defend their home turf (Marjeh, Kandahar and the Helmund River valley). The Taliban in response to that initiative have stepped up their attacks outside that region, but have resorted primarily to suicide bombings, assassinations and the like. The surge may not be going as well as we had hoped, but there is no evidence (of which I am aware) that the Taliban are re-grouping. For the most part, I think they are doing what they always do, hiding out and making occasional strikes.

    More »

  • The Wonderful Self-Loathing of the English Fan (Updated)

    The team is a loser, but the reaction is world-class

    I feel bad for the English soccer/"football" team, but their travails are worth it for the response they evoke in the UK press. We have a nice, wry local sample here in Clive Crook's column. But for an extended specimen, see Scott Murray of the Guardian with his real-time blog of the 4-1 rout by the Germans. Remember that he is describing his country's team:

    67 min: THIS COULD BE IT FOR ENGLAND. Germany 3-1 England. The ball having bounced off the wall, four German players stream upfield, no red shirts bothering to chase back and help. Down the inside left, Schweinsteiger rolls the ball wide right to Muller on the right-hand edge of the England box. James gets a hand to the shot, but it was hit hard as you like and flies into the bottom-right corner....

    70 min: THIS IS SO EASY NOW. Germany 4-1 England. England have a throw in on the edge of Germany's area. They quickly lose the ball, which is walloped up the left wing. Ozil gets there ahead of Barry, and of course - need I bother saying this? - the defence is nowhere to be seen. Ozil makes it all the way to the area, before clipping the ball across to Muller, taking out James. Mulller lifts the ball into the net. It is over...

    74 min: As things stand, this will be England's worst-ever World Cup finals defeat...

    76 min: England are a pathetic rabble now...

    79 min: "Is it true that the England fans at the game are now singing 'It's just like watching North Korea'?" asks Ted Lee. Heh. I have no idea, but to be fair to England's support, they have moved from being rightfully livid at half time to enjoying the gallows humour.

    "Pathetic rabble"! You have to acknowledge greatness when you see it. I submit that no other national press culture could really pull off this bleak gallows-humor tone. American accounts of the loss to Ghana yesterday sounded... sad. This is why, despite Clive Crook's suggestion, England must surely play on. (From the Guardian's site, below.)

    defeat.png

    UPDATE: Howard Weaver has a better example:

    When I was at Cambridge in 1992-93 I read this in one of the national papers (probably the Guardian) and have saved it ever since:

    "The England cricket team - failing, morally shifty, globally insignificant, distracted by irrelevant attention to demeanor, run by discredited leaders insolently continuing in office - may not be a credit to the nation, but is a perfect reflection of it."
  • Pushback on "Tribalism"

    Is "tribalism" the right way to think about Afghanistan?

    After quoting a reader's comment last night, I signed off by saying, "Another way to put this 'nationalism without a state' is of course 'tribalism,' a great blight domestically and internationally."

    The reader says that he meant to convey the opposite. An emphasis on tribalism, he says,

    is precisely not what I was trying to say. I understand the notion of comparing tribal affinities and relationships for stateless nationalism, but the central point is that a relatively coherent and enduring "national" identity exists independently of any combination among tribal affiliations. The basic way that I see this is by a simple question: do Afghans with connections with well-defined tribal communities, whether large (i.e. Pashtun, Uzbek, etc.) or small (i.e., locally specific with strong familial ties), still see themselves as Afghan?

    My point, if I may, is to argue that the fundamental misjudgment with counterinsurgency is the idea that counterinsurgents can and must embed in insurgency-prone target societies from the bottom up with the expectation the individual "sites" (as in villages, towns, clans, etc.) can be coopted individually and that the aggregate will create the premise for collective action... but that this is no substitution whatsoever from a concerted study and understanding of the context in which these events will play out.

    Another reader writes to say:

    I am not sure it is helpful to look at tribalism in this way in the Afghan case. Afghanistan became a problem for us after the Taliban managed to subdue the entirety of the country and begin building a centralized state. I tend to think that one of the big challenges for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is coming to the realization that polyarchy (i.e. tribalism) is a fairly stable end state for the region. Indeed that efforts at state building may be counterproductive. It's likely better to leave the Taliban to compete in a decentralized, federal (i.e. tribal) Afghanistan than leave them the opportunity to take over a well-defined and powerful state apparatus.

    Noted in both cases. Again, as from the start, I am explicitly not an authority on Afghan circumstances. I do, though, stick with my view that "tribal" style thinking, which I'll define below, is a surprisingly big drag on human betterment, but perhaps I should not have complicated things with that unexplained theme.
    ___
    Tribal thinking: Viewing all issues a priori by who supports them -- our friends? or our enemies? -- rather than on their merits. Simple example in U.S. politics: your party endorses a policy, like an anti-deficit commission. Then the other party decides to support it -- so the original supporters switch to opposing it, simply because it's now the other side's issue. Corollary outlook: whatever hurts my enemy is good for me, even if it hurts me too. Obviously this is a kind of thinking that applies much more broadly than to "tribes" as usually discussed -- Ashanti, Uzbek, or whatever. I'll leave it at that for now.

    Update. another reader adds this suggestion:

    Seeing the exchange regarding Nationalism and Tribalism prompts me to recommend "Afghanistan, A Cultural and Political History", by Thomas Barfield. The recently published book provides a very good picture of the area and put to rest some misconceptions I had about the history and people of that area. I use the word "area" because the country is more a construct of colonial border drawing than the evolution of a discrete nation.
  • Another View of "We Will Break Your Teeth"

    An argument from the field about how US troops are treating civilians in Afghanistan

    Yesterday I mentioned William Dalrymple's report on resentment of US/NATO troops in Afghanistan. An American enlisted man now serving there writes back:

    Having just read this morning's post regarding Mr. Dalrymple's experiences in Afghanistan, I am uncertain as to when he was in the country but it seems like it can not have been recently. I have been deployed here since March with my Army Guard infantry company in Paktia Province. Paktia is part of RC-East, the most active part of the country after Helmland and Kandahar in RC-South.

    Theater-wide rules of engagement do not permit us to fire warning shots in convoys. This was a controversial decision made almost a year ago by General McCrystal to placate Afghan citizens and advance the COIN cause. I would submit to you that Mr. Dalrymple's material is outdated based on this alone.

    Additionally, the unquestioned allegation that coalition forces drag any local nationals out of their homes by their hair and kick Afghan kids should raise a few alarms as soon as it is heard. There is no context to the elder's motivations or affiliations, which is all-important in this very complex environment. An event of this sort, even a single one, would be cause for serious disciplinary action of the U.S. serviceman in question, up to and including court-martial.

    More »

  • One Company Saw The US-Ghana Matchup Coming

    United Airlines' marketing campaign proves clairvoyant

    Not everyone in the U.S. foresaw three months ahead of time that the American team would be meeting the Black Stars of Ghana in the World Cup round-of-16. But one major American airline did! I found this in my mailbox a few months ago. It mystified me then, but now all is clear.


    AccraUnited.png
    Until I saw how the World Cup brackets worked out, I had thought that perhaps this was personalized for my family. My wife and I actually spent the first few months of our married life together on work camps in inland Ghana, in the cities of Bolgatanga, Tamale, and Assin-Fosu. Improbably, we are still married. We liked Ghana and Ghanaians a lot, so we wish the Black Stars well. Still: USA!

    PS. Not to add to the pressure, but: Here is what the Ghana Football Association site says before the match:

    On Saturday, it would be a meeting of a familiar opponents but Ghana's Kevin-Prince Boateng, playing in his debut World Cup says the Black Stars are not only playing for a country, rather they are carrying the hopes of an entire continent.

    "Now we're playing for all Africa. Ghana is the standard-bearer for the whole continent. The African fans will be behind us as we do everything we can to reach the quarter-finals," the Ghana midfielder said.
  • On Weigel v WaPo, Today's Inside-the-Beltway Journalism News

    The journalistic emergency of the moment clarifies views about the prospects for the press

    Normally it's not my place to weigh in on an issue lighting up the blog world. But because this is emerging as an unexpectedly polarizing moment in conceptions of journalism in general, web-based journalism in particular, the predicament and future of the Washington Post, the consequences of an "always on the record" culture, the differences between "objectivity" and "fairness," etc, I feel I should say:

    I agree with my Atlantic colleagues Marc Ambinder, Andrew Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf, and (in guest role for Megan McArdle) Julian Sanchez that the Post was wrong to force its reporter David Weigel out today, after some of his reckless private emails were leaked. This means disagreeing with my Atlantic colleague Jeff Goldberg's initial condemnation of Weigel, later modified in several posts.

    Going through all aspects of the issue would require many thousands of words, on top of the zillions already written. In brief: I agree with Friedersdorf's explanation of what should and should not count as bias in journalism; Sanchez's warnings about where the veneration of faux-objectivity would lead (as opposed to fair-mindedness and transparency); and Ambinder's account of the kind of reporting Weigel actually did. Weigel was foolish to put the things he did into emails, but the posts above do a good job of explaining why that folly shouldn't disqualify his reporting. One obvious lesson: never say anything negative about a specific person in email or other digital media. Sooner or later, the person will see it. There is no exception to this rule.

    To say two other things: 1) Why is this different from the recklessness of Gen. McChrystal's associates, which I said couldn't be tolerated? Because there is a difference between the military chain of command and the varied menagerie that is any healthy news organization. 2) Might this episode mark a change in the digital-generation's tragic imagination about the consequences of "living in public" through social media etc? Yes, the emails shouldn't have been leaked, and even when they were the paper shouldn't have gotten rid of Weigel. But until now, many tech viziers have said that the whole idea of discretion and privacy was antique; that when all opinions from everyone were on the permanent record, nothing could prove embarrassing; that everything should hang out. Maybe not. UPDATE: An interesting video on the "Think Before You Post" theme, plus a change of mind on the virtues of living in public, here.

  • The Glamorous Life of a Journalist, Cont...

    Welcome to (outlet name).com !

    From the inbox just now:

    Juno2.png


    Previously in the glamorous life series here, here, and here.

    To head off a little freshet of peeved mail I got last time: I am not, in any way, at any time, complaining about any aspect of my life as an (outlet name) writer. I am the world's most fortunate guy, in having just the job I want for all these years. I am instead amused at the PR, umm, wizardry of some people making contact with journalists. It started with a release on the "Father of Aesthetic Dentistry -- see this one for details.

  • "We Will Break Your Teeth": The Prospect in Afghanistan

    The case for cutting losses while we can

    I have never been to Afghanistan. In that I am like most Americans -- and virtually all Americans who are not part of the military (or contractors etc).

    Therefore when I hear and read reports about how things are going there, I have no first-hand grounds for judgment. This is hardly an Afghan-specific problem -- the world is too big for any of us to know more than a tiny sampling. Most of us have never been to Darfur, worked on a deep-sea oil rig, been part of the Iranian resistance, lived in North Korea, etc, just to mention several other topics now in the news. But we're expected to support, oppose, or at least acquiesce to policies on those topics.

    At one level this is a reminder of the importance of journalism (of traditional and new-media varieties); usually, that's the only way we know anything about situations beyond our immediate experience. It also raises questions about how we know what we "know" about the world. Yes, yes, I realize that much of the electorate "knows" things mainly by tribal loyalty, resentment, party-line-ism, etc. But if you really wanted to make up your mind about things you haven't experienced, how would you do it?

    This long-term question is on my mind now because of a column in the New Statesman by William Dalrymple. It argues that the U.S./NATO military effort in Afghanistan is doomed. Since I can't judge first-hand its assessment of conditions there, I compare its outlook to what I have seen in other parts of the world, and the predictions I've seen proved true or false about similar efforts over the decades. And based on what I know about the rest of the world, I'm inclined to believe reports like this. Which is why I opposed the expansion of efforts in Afghanistan last year and think the U.S. must concentrate on curtailing its exposure now. Part of what Dalrymple says:

    After the jirga was over, one of the tribal elders came over and we chatted for a while over a glass of green tea. "Last month," he said, "some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, 'Why do you hate us?' I replied, 'Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time.'"

    What did he say to that? "He turned to his friend and said, 'If the old men are like this, what will the younger ones be like?' In truth, all the Americans here know that their game is over. It is just their politicians who deny this."...

    Now as [for the Brits in the 1840s], the problem is not hatred of the west, so much as a dislike of foreign troops swaggering around and making themselves odious to the very people they are meant to be helping. On the return journey, as we crawled back up the passes towards Kabul, we got stuck behind a US military convoy of eight Humvees and two armoured personnel carriers in full camouflage, all travelling at less than 20 miles per hour. Despite the slow speed, the troops refused to let any Afghan drivers overtake them, for fear of suicide bombers, and they fired warning shots at any who attempted to do so. By the time we reached the top of the pass two hours later, there were 300 cars and trucks backed up behind the convoy, each one full of Afghans furious at being ordered around in their own country by a group of foreigners. Every day, small incidents of arrogance and insensitivity such as this make the anger grow.

    For the record: Yes, I have argued the U.S. should have borne down much harder in Afghanistan in 2002, rather than switching to Iraq. Like so much from that era, that's a permanently lost opportunity. Things are different now.

  • More on Seeing Big Servers in Person

    Why the Isner-Mahut match went on for three days

    That's tennis-type servers, not network-type. Previously here. A reader who has seen Wimbledon matches in person, as I have not, writes:

    I would say that your viewing of Isner actually understates the situation. If you ever have a chance, take a look at him (or some other boomer) up close on grass!

    25 years ago I was wandering around the side courts at Wimbledon and caught the South African Kevin Curren, "only" 6' 1", serving and destroying Stefan Edberg. My reaction was "his first serve is literally impossible to return, it can't be done." It turned out, I was right. Curren was in a groove and didn't lose a service game en route to the finals, blowing away not just Edberg, but then McEnroe and Connors.

    His performance in the quarters and semis was incredible:

    Then he ran into Becker in the finals, and started missing his first serve, and that was that. He's now mainly forgotten. It was about five days of fleeting brilliance.

    My learning from this was, if a guy with a big serve just winds up and fires on grass, and can hit them with about 60-70% (I'm guessing, there), or more accuracy, he wins his service games. It doesn't matter who's across the net. It defies human capability to hit it back.

    CurrenBecker.jpg

    The Isner-Mahut match, with 183 service games and (I think) only three service breaks, illustrates the reader's point. As for Kevin Curren -- at left above, entering for his finals against Boris Becker at Wimbledon -- he was on the University of Texas tennis team while my wife was in graduate school there, and I would sometimes see him play when I was at the university courts. We were also living in Austin when Roger Clemens was a pitcher for the UT baseball team. Hook 'em, Horns! Go, student-athletes.

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