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.
  • More slippery slopes

    This is not the only subject on my mind at the moment (eg, the Redskins' unimpressive victory over the Rams just now, Barack Obama's more impressive TV fandango this morning, the ever-interesting Chinese tire tariff question, etc)  but it's the one with the biggest backlog of worthwhile incoming material. From reader BJ in Florida:

    "Three thoughts on your "slippery slope" dialogue:

    "1) As your reader Webster Marquez hinted, the frequency of a slippery slope argument actually bearing out seems to be quite rare. In fact, if a scientist or statistician was looking at this question, it seems to me that they would be comparing the number of times that a "slippery slope" argument did NOT bear out, versus the number of times that one actually DID bear out. When looked at this way, history is seemingly littered with thousands of failed "slippery slope" arguments, versus a precious few arguments that may have been considered true.
     
    "2) One good, general recurring slippery slope argument may be the drawing of colonial boundaries that ignored the indigenous geography of ethnicity, language, culture, religion, etc. Once formalized, the results appear to inevitably be tragic whether it's Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kenya, Nigeria, etc.
     
    "3) I'm almost ashamed of myself for suggesting the following, but not ashamed enough...If there was ever a valid "slippery slope" in politics (albeit not policy-related), it surely must be (literally and figuratively) the initiation of an extramarital sexual relationship. Once that "little step" is taken, the results are almost universally predictable:

    More »

  • Harmonic convergence dept: frogs, China Daily, etc

    I realize this may be more interesting to me than to the public at large, but: Somehow I feel fulfilled to find my favorite newspaper, the China Daily, taking my favorite factually-erroneous cliche, the boiling frog, and putting it to excellent and unexpected use. Today's China Daily illustrates the frog problem -- but, for once, in an accurate way! As the water is getting hotter, the little froggies are jumping right out. Just like in real life, except for the tiny backpacks. (Parachutes?)

    FrogChinaDaily.jpg

    The editorial is about universities in Australia making things "hot" (get it?? ho-ho!) for international transfer students, including those from China. Great headline too:
    FrogHeadline.jpg
    Well done all around. Let's learn from Asia! Thanks to numerous informants.
    _____
    Harmonic convergence part deux: Article six years ago in another of my favorite publications, Legal Affairs, that melds boiling frogs and slippery slopes in a less factually scrupulous way.
  • Thomas de Quincey on slippery slopes

    Profundity from the author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater:

    "If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time. Principiis obsta-that's my rule."

    Principiis obsta -- resist the first inklings, "nip it in the bud" -- is of course the slippery-slope concept with a college degree. Thanks to J. Stein, even though this one does not win the "most convincing real world example of a slippery slope" award. More to come.

  • Slippery slope updates

    A few more from a very nice array that has arrived. Original post here.

    Serious:

    "With the exception of the birth-death sequence of life, our notion of free will tends to negate the unavoidability of the slippery slope - to our great benefit, I would have thought."

    Serious in a different way:

    "Trying is the first step towards failure."
    Homer Simpson, The Simpsons

    A powerful real-world example:

    "The birth-to-death suggestion is not a valid example of a "slippery slope," in that it is not so much "slippery" as perfectly smooth. Mortality is an inevitable straight-line progression missing the essential element of choice. There is no option to "back up" the slope, to pause, or to go faster. In principle, the reader's example is no different than that of striking a match in a windless room, something that will inevitably turn the match to ashes. Nothing slippery about that, although matches flame out quicker than lives.
     
    "The best example of a "slippery slope" in the realm of public policy may be the American journey toward racial equality. It's taken more than 100 years. There have been pauses along the way, with some temporary backtracking. We've gone from the Emancipation Proclamation, to the Anti-Slavery Amendments, to the Jim Crow era of "Separate but Equal," to Brown v. Board of Education, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to improvements in these statutes, to the Supreme Court's abolition of antimiscegenation laws (Loving v. Virginia). Focusing only on the "de jure" aspects of this, African Americans have traveled the complete journey, beginning as the lawful property of white men and ending with full legal equality. "

    I think there is a lot to this last point. (Indeed, to all of them.) In American history the  slippery-slope Cassandras whose worst fears have been most vividly realized were the segregationist hard-liners of the pre Civil Rights-legislation era. They warned that once you blurred the racial barriers you'd have race-mixing of all sorts, including intermarriage. And once you headed down that road, you'd have these mixed people all over the place... in the extreme nightmare version, even at the White House.

    More in the queue. And later today, a long-promised update on whether slippery-slope thinking applies to the Chinese tire tariffs.

  • Early "slippery slope" contender

    Many fine entries in hand; keep them coming.  One line of reasoning predominates, well illustrated by this submission:

    "Birth consistently leads to death.  There are often events of interest to someone between the two.  Aside from fairy tales, I know of no more reliably consistent slippery slope.

    "More pop into my head, but following on their heels are exceptions.

    "Here is a chain of events for you:

    "Birth leads to toilet training.  Toilet Training leads to puberty. Puberty leads to adulthood.  Adulthood leads to death.  Of course, it isn't entirely consistent given that some do not achieve all steps."

    More later.

  • Political rhetoric question/contest: "slippery slopes"

    Due no doubt to the few years I spent producing political rhetoric and the many decades I have spent ingesting it, I'm obsessed with endlessly interested in the connection between the words we use about public life and the decisions we make and attitudes we hold. For instance, that's the point behind the "God bless America!" or "boiled frog" watch. These are cases where language actually takes the place of thought. Yes, I realize that I'm not the first person to have noticed this connection. Indeed in my GBA/frog campaigns I am remiss in not having quoted Rule #1 from the modern classic work on the misuse of language in political discourse:

    "1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print."

    Which leads to this open question, suggested by reader Webster Marquez:

    "The health care debate (and, indeed, the debate around Obama's and Democrats' agenda) is filled with rhetoric about "slippery slopes." To wit: health care reform => government takeover => tsarist communism! Somehow!

    "Can you find any examples of a slippery slope argument actually bearing out? A leads to B, which leads to C, all the way to Z?

    "How is it that an argument that is considered a "classic informal fallacy" (per Wikipedia, but I remember this family of concepts from college philosophy) is given so much currency across the media and political spectrum?"

    slippery.png

    Although the finest and most famous example of pure slippery-slope rhetoric is Ronald Reagan's renowned 1961 broadcast about the risks of socialized medicine, it's worth noting that this reasoning can be applied from any part of the political spectrum.  Eg: Patriot Act => elimination of civil liberties => fascism in America. Just this morning I heard a representative of ACORN used the "criticism of us => return of McCarthyism" form of the argument. Similarly, most objections to the Obama Administration's decision to cancel European missile-defense plans concern not the Czech/Polish sites themselves but the "sign of weakness => encourage agressors => appeasement brings on Another Hitler" concept.  (Image from here.)

    I know that for some people, Mr. Marquez's question is too easy to answer. If you think we already live in Fascist Amerika, or that it's been a one-way trip down the road to moral collapse since [Elvis Presley, the Miranda ruling, choose your starting point], real life is a living confirmation of slippery-slopeism. But as a de-politicized, purely analytical question, I wonder what the best real-world example of this phenomenon is. To be clear, we're talking about a situation where one step leads unavoidably to another -- in which people end up with Consequence Z, which they never would have chosen, purely because they took initial steps A and B. Almost as if they started down a slope, and began to slip, and then...    Nominations welcomed; results will be announced.

  • Discussion with John Podesta at Gov 2.0 conference

    Last week Tim O'Reilly held his debut "Gov 2.0" conference in Washington. All the parts I saw were interesting and provocative. For a list of clips, podcasts, and so on, go here. For the record, here is a clip of a session I did with John Podesta, former Clinton White House chief of staff and now head of the Center for American Progress. We decided to do it as a split-shift Q-and-A: first, improbably, he asked me questions, and then I asked him some. We ran out of time before I could get many details on something I really wanted to know about: what it was like to spend time with Kim Jong Il, when Podesta accompanied Bill Clinton to North Korea this summer.

     

    Seriously, the conference was a valuable series of presentations, worth perusing especially if you're feeling blue about the general tone of American political "discussion" these days and the fecklessness of many public efforts.

    A nice place to start is with this presentation by Carl Malamud, whose efforts to open public data to (gasp) the public I've often noted over the years. I return to the theme: we take our encouragement where we can find it.

  • "God bless Precinct 8"

    Courtesy of a reader in Texas who has my undying gratitude:

    "State Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, said today he will not seek re-election.

    "The announcement comes two months after he was indicted by a Travis County grand jury. He is accused of omitting hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of income from financial statements that elected officials are required to file with the state...... 

    " 'As my former boss, the late Bob Bullock, used to say, he left Texas better than it was,' Flores said in the press release. 'Well, as anyone can see, there is no doubt that I will leave House District 36 better than it was. God bless Texas, and God bless District 36.'"

    On the other hand, I regret to announce that a previous dispatch scoffing at the idea that John Adams, rather than Ronald Reagan, had started the country down this unfortunate rhetorical path seems to have been, ummm, flat wrong. Several readers wrote in to make this point. Let me give the microphone to Joshua Friedman, who adduces actual historical evidence:

    "Abigail Adams wrote a letter to John on July 21, 1776, describing her experience of hearing the Declaration of Independence read aloud from the balcony of the Massachusetts State House. 'As soon as [it] ended," she writes, 'the cry from the balcony was, "God save our American States," and then three cheers which rended the air. The bells rang, the privateers fired, the forts and batteries, the cannon were discharged, the platoons followed, and every face appeared joyful.'

    More »

  • Better news: 'Hawk and Dove'

    Nicholas Thompson's new book The Hawk and the Dove has received admiring reviews and was the subject of a wonderful feature story this past weekend in the New York Times. It's a very good work -- not least because it takes a gamble on a "high concept" for the book, and pulls it off.

    hawk-190.jpg

    Actually there are two high concepts here. One is that a paired biography of two often-contending figures of the Cold War era -- Paul Nitze and George Kennan (left and right, respectively, in the photo, often with the opposite orientation in their policies) -- will work in literary and intellectual terms. The other is that the author's relationship to one of the subjects -- Nitze was his grandfather -- will give him extra insight without warping his perspective. It succeeds on both counts.

    Nicholas Thompson is 34 years old; I first met him a dozen years ago, when he was part of a student group pressuring US News to change its benighted college-ranking system. (I was then US News' editor. Story for another time.) Since then he has worked for great magazines -- the Washington Monthly, Legal Affairs, now Wired -- and been part of the New America Foundation. With all the woes of journalism, it's encouraging to see ambitious and talented people giving it their best.

  • Sad news: Jody Powell

    I had intended to finish up a big "how to think about the Chinese tire tariff" item, when instead I heard the news that Jody Powell had died. This is sad in its own right, and when coupled with the death last year of Hamilton Jordan is unexpectedly poignant. Jimmy Carter, who will soon turn 85, is in the position every parent dreads, that of outliving the children.

    Powell and Jordan were of course only virtual children to Carter, slightly older than his real offspring and having a work-centered relationship with him. But they'd driven with him across Georgia in the early days and to fund raisers and stump speeches when he was starting his improbable run for the presidency. In the public imagination they survive as the jaunty young characters -- "jaunty" to their friends, "cocky" to their detractors -- they were when Carter took office, as captured in the classic Rolling Stone cover published 32 years ago. (Media fans: click on the cover for a larger version, and study all the names there.)

    RollingStone.jpgMy own relations with Powell were often tense during the campaign and the two years I spent in the White House. He was de facto overall boss of the speechwriting operation, and -- in contrast to the Reagan or Obama administrations -- speeches were often a source of public disappointment and therefore of internal disagreement and friction. Reporters generally respected his intelligence, his toughness, his honesty, his hard-bitten sense of humor, and his unparalleled knowledge of the President's mind, manner, and temper. Long after the Carter team had left office, I came to a much more positive relationship with Powell. This was especially so after each of us had published books on what was wrong with the press. His is here.



    Powell and Jordan, paired 30 years ago by their precocious achievement and now paired again by death in their 60s, were much better and more admirable human beings than the standard Washington view held. Jordan, gentler and more thoughtful. Powell tremendously loyal and intelligent and honorable, and a devoted husband and father.

    I can't help noting Carter's statement on Powell's death, as reported by the Washington Post:
    "I could always depend on his advice and counsel being candid and direct." That would have made Powell give one of his tight grins, because it's Carter's way of saying: He wouldn't hesitate to tell me when I was screwing up.

    UPDATE: The main site for Powell Tate, the public relations firm Jody Powell co-founded, now has a tribute page for him, with statements from friends and colleagues and details about services.

  • Our second president on "God Bless America"

    As noted here more than a few times (eg this), U.S. presidents before Ronald Reagan did not end their major addresses with "God Bless America!" to indicate "The speech is now over, and I'm not going to bother thinking of a real concluding sentence." Presidents from Reagan onward have used the phrase in an "Amen!" sense. The anonymous author of the Jotman blog writes in with new historico-linguistic evidence, of the biopic variety:

    "In a recent post you complained -- yet again -- "about the trite hackneyedvacuousportento-pious lazy comforting and beloved three-word ending for all presidential addresses since the time of Ronald Reagan: 'God bless America!'" 

    "You are clearly mistaken.  If I may set the record straight...

    "The "God bless America" tradition did not begin with Reagan.  In fact, the tradition goes all the way back to the the first reading of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. 

    "The proof is on video.  Watch this YouTube clip from about the 6:00 mark until 6:40 and you will see what I mean."


    Then Jotman moves out of sarcastic mode:

    "P.S.  Of course, Americans of the founding generation weren't such ninnies.  They would not have sought  "comfort" in such a banality as this phrase.   The inclusion of this modern abomination not only ruined the whole scene for for me, it also broke the "historical spell."  I no longer believed I was watching a serious attempt to portray events as they might have actually have happened in 1776.  The director lost my trust.   Actually, hearing the phrase misused in a historical drama irritated me exponentially more than having to listen to any modern American politician.   It's one thing when politicians help to ruin the American character of the present generation through repetition of a lousy rhetorical innovation, but it's far worse when the custodians of American culture project our flaws backward in time; when they make it appear as if the lamest, most pathetic inventions of our own times have deep historical roots. 

    "It's a slippery slope.  At this rate, some future documentary about the Revolutionary War is bound to include a water-boarding scene. Or show Alexander Hamilton founding Homeland Security in 1790."

    After the jump, a Marine combat veteran with thoughts on patriotism.

    More »

  • Right of fair reply: Apple, Adobe, Broomfield

    Several days ago, in the finale to a nerds-only discussion that began with a discussion of whether Apple's new "Snow Leopard" used "huge pages" and 64-bit code, I quoted several readers who didn't want their names used. They were objecting to previous comments by someone who had used his name, Ken Broomfield. He reasonably asks for the chance to defend his views. Below and after the jump, his reply, which fundamentally has to do with what he considers lapdog coverage of Apple in the press:

    "The bigger point that animates me (and which only applies a little to the Ars article) is that coverage of Apple and a lot of the popular tech press in general is pretty fawning or fluffy. (Have you seen the David Pogue kerfuffle?) It's a bit like the debate over healthcare reform: the details are complicated and the history poorly understood, so people often fall back on tribal affiliations (especially in the Church of Appleology).

    "The full story on 64-bit apps is even less complimentary to Apple.

    More »

  • Another traveler to Yunnan

    In my story in the current issue about Xizhou, a small but historically prosperous and architecturally rich village in far southern China, I mention the cautionary example of the city of Lijiang. In the 1990s, Lijiang was also small and charming. Now, most foreign visitors instantly recognize it as a combination of Atlantic City, a discount mall, and a turnpike rest stop. The Chinese domestic tourism industry, which is developing very fast, is in the stage where it is processing huge numbers of necessarily low-end travelers. As sites become popular, many of them end up looking like Lijiang. That's the fate the friends of Xizhou are trying to avoid.

    KKLijiang.jpg

    Kevin Kelly, "Senior Maverick" at Wired, has traveled widely in Asia, including to both Lijiang and Xizhou. That's his picture of "old" Lijiang, to the left. His account:

    "Every regular visitor to China has their own story of headsnapping change. Mine has to do with Lijiang. I first visited Lijiang in the mid 90s on a month-long trip with my two daughters who were 8 and 10 at the time. Lijiang was our starting point for an excursion into the north beyond what is now called Shangrila (Zhongdian back then) into the Tibetan areas around Litang. I've spent a lot of time in the Himalaya and so was quite taken by Lijiang. It seemed to have everything a Shangrila was supposed to -- views, climate, music, and a strong unique, even isolated, culture. One could see how the fantasy began there. I wanted to return with my wife and son someday.


    More »

  • If you thought the Olympic opening ceremony was impressive...

    ... just wait for the parades and public ceremonies in Beijing on October 1, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

    For the past few months I've heard from university contacts in China about students being marshaled for long drill sessions before the massed exercises for the 60th anniversary celebrations. Courtesy of Glenn Mott, this slide show (text in Chinese) of soldiers, police, and others getting ready for the big day. Eg, soldiers being checked with tape measures and plumb lines to be sure they're standing straight.

    Sohu1.jpg


    More pictures in the same vein, from Sohu, here -- for instance:
     
    Img266632378.jpg

    I can't emphasize enough how much this is not the way most Chinese life seems most of the time. The main mental pictures I recall are people doing their own thing, in their own way, with only reluctant and enforced attention to the "rules." But, as with the Olympics, it is certainly the face that official China wants to present -- even if the effect is to make foreigners unrealistically alarmed about a big, single-minded, perfectly-organized Rising China emerging to crush all in its path. Since so many of the people working in unison on October 1 will be actual soldiers carrying weapons, the international fluster effect will be all the greater. Check out the two minute video here (sometimes slow to load) from the 50th Anniversary commemorations ten years ago, for the general idea.

    If I were a US defense contractor, I'd show that video at every Congressional hearing about the "Chinese threat." But since, as always, the Chinese government cares a million times more about looking strong, successful, and in control to its own people than about whatever foreigners might think, we'll soon see endless waves of goosestepping soldiers. Then life will get back to normal.

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