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.
  • Two views of SECDEF Gates

    In response to this item yesterday, noting Robert Gates's mention of John Boyd as one of the "transformative figures of American air power," two reactions. The first is from a relatively recent product of the Air Force Academy (whom I don't know). The second is from a long-standing friend who is a quite experienced veteran of the defense business. First up:

    "I graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2002, and while I was there Boyd was taught in our Military Strategic Studies courses as though he was the latest in a line of military theorists that stretched from Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Jomini, Douhet, Mitchell, Liddell Hart, Boyd, and Warden.  In fact, Boyd's OODA loop was taught with such reverence that I distinctly remember making light of it with my classmates.
    "I am a few years to junior for such an assignment, but were I on the the staff of Secretary Gates assisting with the preparation of speeches, I would not have batted an eye at the inclusion of Boyd among that line up, and I doubt any officers from my cohort would either.  If anything, LeMay strikes me as out of place and far more controversial in today's Air Force."

    Now, from Charles A. Stevenson, a friend and former professor of mine who has written a book, SECDEF, about the "nearly impossible job" of running the Pentagon:

    "I share your surprise and satisfaction over the performance of Bob Gates...  I fully expected him to follow the Laird model: wind down the war in Iraq, cut deals with the senior military on other issues, end-run the White House types on issues that mattered to him. From his long government service and membership on the Iraq Study Group, that seemed likely. His appointment by Obama suggested that the new team liked his style and welcomed the political cover he provided as a Republican.

    "Now I think his closest model was the first SecDef Gates, Tom Gates, who had served several years in the Pentagon under Eisenhower before being elevated to SecDef.

    More »

  • I keep waiting for SECDEF Gates to do something really stupid ...

    ... and I'm sure his time will come. (Most likely occasion of error: Afghanistan.)

    But for the moment, he keeps offering surprises in the opposite direction. Including last week, with this speech to the Air Force Association convention, the ending of which is exemplary in two ways.

    For one thing, it ends with what used to be known in speechwriting land as an "ending," rather than the boilerplate that has become standard in presidential addresses. The ending is nothing special, but at least he tried. (And he didn't take a shortcut with "God bless the Air Force.")

    More important is this peroration, which starts with an appreciation of Billy Mitchell and goes on to say:

    "It strikes me that the significance of Mitchell and his travails was not that he was always right. It's that he had the vision and insight to see that the world and technology had changed, understood the implications of that change, and then pressed ahead in the face of fierce institutional resistance.
    "     The transformative figures of American air power - from Mitchell to Arnold, LeMay to Boyd - had this quality in varying degrees. It is one I look for in the next generation of Air Force leaders, junior and mid-level officers, and NCOs who have experienced the grim reality of war and the demands of persistent conflict. These are men and women we need to retain and empower to shape the service to which they have given so much."

    Whoa! To have John Boyd -- fighter pilot, theorist of combat, unbelievably persistent thorn in the Air Force establishment's side from the late 1960s through his death a dozen years ago -- become part of an offhand, last-name-only allusion to the "transformative figures of American air power" is something like the moment when establishment economics began including "Keynes" in their list of major figures.* Gates had done homage to Boyd before, for instance as discussed here. But this is a further, interesting, and deserved step. The Gates-misstep watch perforce continues.
    ______
    * For as much more as you would like to know about John Boyd, you can follow the links in this previous item, or of course read Robert Coram's wonderful biography Boyd. On the Keynes comparison, I don't mean that Boyd ideas have affected as many people in as many countries through as many decades as Keynes's have; but the vindication of ideas previously considered total heresy is comparable.

  • I love this on so many levels

    It turns out that the "Chinese site" with dramatic photos of rehearsals for the 60th anniversary commemorations in Beijing on October 1, which I mentioned this morning, is a straight-ahead, flat-out, unblushing rip-off of this "The Big Picture" feature three days ago from the Boston Globe's site. I don't see any mention of the Globe on the Chinese site, either in English or what I think is the Chinese version (Boshidun Huanqiu - 波士顿 环球 ?).

    I should have guessed. (Why would a Chinese site have bothered to include translated English captions? Why was there a semi-edgy photo of a lone man and a tank?) My reflexes must be going. I'll have to re-sharpen them with a visit soon. Thanks to C. Wang and others for the heads-up. Apologies to the Globe.

  • Book list: Repeat After Me

    Rachel DeWoskin's Foreign Babes in Beijing -- a memoir of her unlikely career as a vampy soap opera star on Chinese TV in the 1990s -- is deservedly on the list of books that expats in China tell new arrivals they should read for a pop-culture feel of the place. My own reaction, when newly arrived, here.

    file_528.jpg

    DeWoskin's new book, Repeat After Me, is different: novel rather than memoir, set half in New York and half in Beijing rather than all on-scene in China. But the voice and nervous/sassy sensibility are similar, and similarly memorable. When I was reading it this summer, I marked a few passages that made me miss Beijing (no small achievement, just after I'd left) or that rang particularly true. The book's not at hand at the moment, so I'll just say: a book worth finding out about for yourself.


  • The 60th anniversary celebration is almost here!

    From this Chinese site, with English translation, some appropriately amazing pictures of the preparations and practice runs for the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, on October 1. (Previous mention here.) A few samples:

    Nightime practice drill last month.
    PracticeMarch.jpg


    Tank practice parade two days ago
    Tanks.jpg

    An unintentionally evocative picture of a lone man and a tank.
    ModernTankMan.jpg

    And a photo of a women's militia unit that is more in the spirit of the way I usually saw soldiers (and people in general) carrying themselves in China.
    ChineseWomenSoldiers.jpg

    This should be interesting. Very sorry I won't be there to see it in person. (Thanks to various readers in China.)
  • 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.

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