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.
  • The filibuster: let's talk about it

    In a discussion with Guy Raz this afternoon on Weekend All Things Considered, after he evoked a chagrining personal admission*, we touched on a point that I think needs to be elevated from a background/insider's issue to absolutely first-tier consideration in mainstream political discourse. It has to do with the distorting and destructive effect of the Senate's modern "60 votes to get anything done" system of operation.

    I say "modern" because, contrary to the tone of most day-by-day political reportage, this is not some timeless feature of American constitutional design. In newspaper accounts, you read things like this -- the second paragraph of an (otherwise very good) NYT story today on the struggles over health care reform:

    "To get the 60 votes needed to pass their bill, Democrats scrapped the idea of a government-run public insurance plan, cherished by liberals, and replaced it with a proposal for nationwide health plans, which would be offered by private insurers under contract with the government."

    Of course, the number of votes the Democrats need to pass their bill is a simple majority -- 51 votes at most. ("At most" because a 50-50 tie would be broken by the Vice President, who of course is now a Democrat.) The reason we talk and act as if "majority" = "60 votes" is that in the past 25 years, something that was an exceptional, last-ditch measure has turned into a damaging routine.

    The history here is well known to everyone interested in politics but worth summarizing. For most of the first 190 years of the country's operation, U.S. Senators would, in unusual circumstances, try to delay a vote on measures they opposed by "filibustering" -- talking without limit or using other stalling techniques. For most of those years, the Senate could cut off the filibuster and force a vote by imposing "cloture," which took a two-thirds majority of those voting (at most 67 of 100 Senators). In 1975, the Senate adopted a rules change to allow cloture with 60 votes, and those are the rules that still prevail.

    The significant thing about filibusters through most of U.S. history is that they hardly ever happened. But since roughly the early Clinton years, the threat of filibuster has gone from exception to routine, for legislation and appointments alike, with the result that doing practically anything takes not 51 but 60 votes. So taken for granted is the change that the nation's leading paper can offhandedly say that 60 votes are "needed to pass their bill." In practice that's correct, but the aberrational nature of this change should not be overlooked. (The Washington Post's comparable story is more precise: "A bloc of 60 votes is the exact number required to choke off the filibuster, the Senate minority's primary source of power, and the GOP's best hope of defeating the bill.")

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  • I will say this for the WaPo! (updated)

    Somehow they managed to get a newspaper to our house in DC this morning.


    Yeah, yeah, I know this would be nothing in Chicago, Duluth, Buffalo. etc. But this is quasi-Dixieish DC. I also realize that the NYT might be under there somewhere, to be discovered come the springtime thaw.


    Update: it's now 4:30, and too dark to take a picture, but snow about a foot 9" deeper than shown above.

    Update 2: My friend CK reminds me that I have found the answer to my rhetorical Mais où sont les neiges question posed recently. Les neiges, elles sont arrivées.

  • You too can have the glamorous life of a journalist (updated)

    Sample message from today's email inbox:

    Dear James,

    Hope all is well, I wanted to follow up and see what you were working on and if you would be interested in speaking with Dr. Irwin Smigel, the "Father of Aesthetic Dentistry" and the 1st and only dentist to be inducted into the Smithsonian.

    Dr. Smigel has always been at the forefront of cosmetic dentistry and has put the field on the map, changing the face of dentistry forever with his inventions of bonding and veneers. It wasn't until June 2009 when he was officially recognized by the National Museum of Dentistry, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, in a permanent installation called "The Smile Experience", a two floor exhibit which pays homage to his contributions to the field. Along with being honored, Dr. Smigel received a plaque bearing his likeliness, which will be affixed to one of the soaring pillars in the museum's atrium.

    Visitors can take a digital snapshot of their unique smile and instantly upload it to a monitor in the gallery. Visitors will also be presented with a multimedia experience on the evolution of the smile, including a video presentation that shows how people have enhanced their smiles throughout history, from the ancient Mayans who decorated their teeth with jade to Dr. Irwin Smigel's introduction of tooth bonding to the American public on the popular TV show "That's Incredible," which marked the beginning of the modern age of cosmetic dentistry.

    Dr. Smigel maintains a cosmetic dentistry practice on Madison Avenue in New York City, which has become a multi-million dollar company with revenue reaching an estimate of $20 million in sales each year! Dr. Smigel also treats some of the most recognizable smiles in the nation including; Jimmy Fallon, Kelly Ripa, Johnny Depp, Diane Von Furstenberg, Elizabeth Taylor, Justin Timberlake, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, and Calvin Klein.

    No larger point here, just in the "world is full of wonders" category. The Smithsonian angle is the intriguing part.

    Update. The world is full of additional wonders. From a reader just now:

    "The Father of Cosmetic Dentistry is also the Father of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.  That is, Irwin Smigel is the father of Robert Smigel, arguably the funniest comedy writer alive. 

    "It's a unique name, and I remember hearing that Robert Smigel quit dentist school before turning to comedy.  I googled him and sure enough that's him.  By "sure enough" I mean "possibly, since that's what Wikipedia says."

    I don't know that I've ever seen a picture of Robert Smigel's smile...

  • Mais où sont les bureaux d'antan?

    This morning I went to interview an Administration Official in what used to be known as the Old Executive Office Building, was known in the 19th century as the State, War, and Navy Building, and is now known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It is this familiar, ornate, French Second Empire-style structure, called by Mark Twain "the ugliest building in the world," which is immediately to the west side of the White House. (Wikipedia photo - with West Wing of White House barely visible on left side of shot):


    One happy surprise is that the security arrangements were less onerous than I expected, and less obviously heavy-handed than around the modern, embunkered U.S. Capitol complex. Check in with name and photo-ID at a Secret Service guard house; run bags through an airport-style screen (but leaving your shoes on!); then you're on your own.

    Personal surprise: en route to the appointment, I took a glance into what had been... my own office, back in the Jimmy Carter era. The speechwriters didn't have much influence in those
    days, but we had great offices! The colonnade in the photo below (from The American Interest - corresponds to farthest right-side corner of building in photo above) surrounds the balcony outside what was then the speechwriters' suite. Now, it belongs to a big shot from OMB.


    The big shot turns out to be Jeffrey Zients (whom I know, but didn't know was in this office), the first-ever Chief Performance Officer of the United States and a genuine business-world hotshot whose presence in the administration should be a reassuring sign of professional acumen in public service. This is probably a better use of such palatial quarters than the production of presidential rhetoric. Mixture of pride and wistfulness in seeing the same physical structure in such different times.
    (I have learned to be explicit about these things: if you're curious, Mais où sont is based on this ballade.)
  • NW flight 188: the pilots speak

    If you're still curious about NW 188, the flight whose pilots "missed" Minneapolis and realized their error halfway across the next state (background here and here), via AVweb here is the NTSB's extensive full docket of info on the case, including interview summaries with the two pilots, the airline's dispatchers, and others.

    Chronicles of aviation mishaps can be very gripping, as my former Atlantic colleague William Langewiesche has demonstrated many times. In this case (as with the "miracle on the Hudson, subject of Langewiesche's latest book) the fascination is guilt-free, since there were no fatal consequences. Sample detail from this new info: whatever the root of the problem here, it certainly wasn't lack of experience. The Captain had 20,000 hours of flight time (a lot), and the First Officer began flying at age 14 and had been an F-111 pilot in the Air Force. Reading the comments of these very, very experienced people who realize they have done something .... inexplicable is surprisingly absorbing.*

    Also several graphics, including the one below plotting info from the Flight Data Recorder ("black box"). The original, as a PDF, is here, and you can click on the image below for a larger version. What's we're seeing here: the two vertical, magenta-purplish text boxes mark the last radio transmission before the roughly 80-minute period of being out of touch with controllers, and the first radio transmission afterwards. In between that time, we see: autopilot turned on (steady red line at top); unchanging horizontal and vertical guidance from the autopilot (steady black line at the top and steady green line); stable altitude (steady blue line); slight variations in aircraft heading (lower black line), because of wind or other factors; and apparently no attempts for 80+ minutes to make outbound radio contact (orange "Key VHF" line at bottom of screen). You could write a real-life aviation drama based on this chart.

    After the jump: Since a previous colloquy, here and here, about the legal implications of the terms "frolic" and "detour" also arose from NW 188, two final reader dispatches on the legal semantics of the question.

    * Speaking of gripping and inexplicable: this story, by Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post magazine, recounts the horror and living hell of parents who... somehow... forgot that they had left an infant in the back seat of the car on a broiling hot day. I read it when it came out early this year and can't get it out of my mind. By comparison, the NW 188 story is light comedy.

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  • Felica Naskotago, Dro. Zamenhof!

    For experimental purposes I'm sticking with Bing this week, but a friend said I really had to see the Google home page before December 15 had passed.  Indeed! I look at it just now and see an unusual green and white flag over the logo. And not just any flag:  Estas la Esperanto flago!  150 years ago today, in the town of Bialystock (then in Russia, now in Poland), L.L. Zamenhof was born -- the idealist and linguist who invented the language of Esperanto and preached it as a means to fraternity and harmony all around the world.

    My wife and I and our small sons cram-learned Esperanto in several weeks in 1986, as a way of getting a visa into China to attend the World Esperanto Congress in Beijing and then travel around the country. We had many adventures, including when kids played with a young girl with English-speaking parents who had decided to raise her as one of the world's few native speakers of Esperanto. "Cu vi volas ludi pupojn kun mi?" she would ask our sons, only to hear "Mi volas jeti pilkon."  ("Do you want to play dolls with me?" "No, let's throw a ball.") If you want to read more seriously about Zamenhof's achievement, you can start here and with some quizzical views here and here. For myself and my family I simply say, Felica Naskotago Dro. Zamenhof!

  • Raymond Haight Jr. (updated)

    In the public schools of Redlands, California, I had a number of truly outstanding teachers. I think they would have been seen as such in any setting, but of course I can't compare. Mathilda Phillips, in English; Jack Nagasaki, in chemistry; William Cunningham, in physics;  Gertrude Baccus, in speech and debate -- and that's just a few from high school. (Update: How could I have forgotten Lois Gregory, in French?) This was back during what seems in retrospect California's golden age, the time of big ideas, big ambitions, big possibilities, and of course big budgets, for the state's schools, parks, universities, and freeways. Now....
    One of the most memorable was Raymond Haight, the history and social-studies teacher who was really my first contact with the world of politics and public affairs. I was sitting in his 10th-grade world history class when news came of John F. Kennedy's assassination; he talked about what that would mean, in ways that stood up very well over the years -- including what might become of the early commitments Kennedy had made in Laos and Vietnam. I learned long afterwards that "Mr. Haight" -- in his early 40s then -- represented a strain of California culture that was unusual in our very conservative small town in California's southern "Inland Empire." During the 1964 election, he raised questions about the locally-popular "Proposition 14," designed to overturn a "Fair Housing" act and, in effect, legalize racial discrimination in real estate sales and rentals. (Prop 14 passed but was then declared unconstitutional by the California supreme court. Too bad the disastrous Prop 13 never met the same fate.) Barry Goldwater was also locally very popular, and Mr. Haight had a few of us read Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative analytically (rather than as a holy text) and debate its strengths and weaknesses. The point is not that he was more liberal than the surrounding community, though that was so; rather, that he urged teenagers to think their way toward independent conclusions.

    Most students at the high school had at best one generation of college attendance behind them. (Ie, many but not most of my classmates had a parent who had gone to college. Very few had college-grad grandparents.) Raymond Haight's great-grandfather, Henry Haight, had gone to Yale before the Civil War and became one of California's first governors. He signed the act creating the University of California and helped establish Golden Gate Park; the Haight district of San Francisco is named for their family. Soon after I went away to college, Mr. Haight and his family moved back to central and then northern California. He launched a quixotic campaign for governor in 1970, running as an anti-Vietnam War candidate. He came in well down the list for the Democratic nomination; the nominee, Jesse Unruh, went on to lose big to Ronald Reagan, running for reelection.

    Because he'd moved away, I didn't see him on my visits to my home town, but I have often reflected on how much difference he made in my life. I learned just recently that he and his wife, the writer Mary Ellen Jordan Haight, had died this fall, within weeks of each other, at 88 and 82 respectively. I mention them to honor their memory, achievements, and influence; as testimony to what the public schools meant at that time; and as a counterpoint to the news this week of another round of teacher layoffs in my hometown's school system, as a result of California's budget disaster.  His life made a difference. The picture below is from the high school yearbook, the Makio, when he was chosen "Teacher of the Year" in his late 30s, via the Redlands Daily Facts obit.

  • More on frolics and other language points

    I mentioned recently the odd use of the term "frolic" in the FAA's complaint about the pilots who "forgot" to land in Minneapolis, and also my friend Cullen Murphy's exercise in writing an entire article in "E-Prime," a form of English that excludes "is," "are," or any other form of the verb "to be."

    Illuminating comments from readers on both points below: one in derogation of the skills of the FAA letter-writers, the other in praise of a writer who underwent a discipline much more demanding than E-Prime's.
    About "frolic" in the FAA complaint:

    "A comment about your discussion of the legal significance of the word "frolic":  The legal term is "frolic and detour,"  which refers to a case where an employee stops doing what he is being paid to do and goes somewhere (detour) to do something for himself (frolic).  A bus driver who turns off his route onto the street where his girlfriend lives would be committing a "frolic and detour."  The legal significance of this is that the employer would not be responsible for an accident caused by the bus driver while on the frolic and detour.  Ordinarily an employer is responsible for the negligence of an employee happening during the course of employment.  This is an exception to that rule, or, more precisely, it shows that the negligence did not happen during the course of employment in the first place.

    "I do not believe that the concept of frolic and detour has any relevance to this case [of the pilots who "forgot" to land].  The pilot simply made a mistake and overflew his objective.  He did not intend to land elsewhere to visit his bookie or girlfriend.

    "In my estimation, the FAA letter was written by a non-lawyer who had heard the legal phrase but did not really know what it meant.  The letter was neither unusually colorful, nor employing legal terms of art, but merely badly written."

    And, about E-Prime and its variants, a pastiche of several emails I received from well-informed readers:

    "I was interested to see your and Mr. Murphy's experiments with e-prime...  This is nothing when compared to Georges Perec who wrote a novel, "La Disparition" without using the letter "e." The novel was translated into English as "A Void" also without an "e." Perec was probably the most renowned member of the French literary group. Oulipo, which emphasized writing under artificial constraints - although Perec took the idea further than others. It is not as if he was a minor writer showing off to gain notoriety. His novel, "La Vie Mode D'Emploi", is one of the great works of 20th Century European literature. An updated translation of which has recently been released as "Life A Users Manual."

    A picture of M. Perec below. After the jump, an extract of his e-less novel.

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  • More on those crazy 44% of Americans

    I mentioned several days ago that, according to a recent Pew poll, 44% of the U.S. public thinks that China is the "world's leading economic power." OK, I can understand why some people might think so -- what with the trillions of dollars of U.S. debt to our Chinese overlords, the ubiquity of "Made in China" products wherever you shop, and the precision and scale of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Still, people who think this are wrong.

    When reading the Pew poll, I immediately thought of a scene, from Gansu province, that gives an idea of how hundreds of millions of people get by in today's "all-conquering" modern China:


    And of the view from our apartment window in Beijing a few weeks before the opening of the Olympic games. The point of this one, of course, is that en route to industrial development, all countries have gone through their blacken-the-skies dirty industry stage. That is where China is now, though with serious efforts to get out of it:


    For readers in China, let me be 100% explicit and clear that the point is not to put down China's people or its system for the things the country has not yet achieved and the gaps not yet closed. Those achievements are phenomenal. But some people outside China have evidently developed a wholly unrealistic, fantasy-world concept of a China that has no remaining problems and is surging effortlessly ahead. A more realistic view -- of a country that is advancing dramatically, but from a very low level of average wealth -- is better for all concerned.

    Below and after the jump, a note from an American financial-industry expert who has returned from a trip to China. He shares my wonderment at the views of the 44%:

    "I am just back from a whirlwind eight day business trip to BJ and SH where I am doing work for an American financial services company. I wanted to let you know a few things:

    "I used Postcards from Tomorrow Square as part of my trip preparation and it was terrific help on a number of fronts. [Forgive the self-promotional inclusion of this note; relevant in context - JF.] Coincidentally I found myself having a 5 star gourmet lunch at the Tomorrow Square hotel restaurant, where after some uncomfortable formalities with my Chinese hosts we ended up having a remarkably open and lively conversation about the realities of being a Shanghai businessperson, among other things... (some hopefully pertinent points below).

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  • Weeklong experiment: Bing vs Google

    In the interests of science, I've undertaken various first-hand user testing experiments over the years. I haven't gone as far as did Cullen Murphy, then the Atlantic's managing editor, when he demonstrated that one could write an entire article without using the words "is," "are," or any other form of the verb to be.* But, as a similar experimental stunt, I once wrote an article without touching a keyboard, relying strictly on voice recognition software to see how well it worked. (The software worked fine; unfortunately, I discovered that I couldn't think without using my fingers.) And I let Air Force pilots wring me out in a deliberately-nausea-inducing mock-combat drill in an F-15, just for the hell of it.

    Results of the experiments: Cullen still uses "is"; I still use my fingers; and I have stayed far away from F-15s.

    Spurred by this report on the Atlantic's site about a new Bing-vs-Google flap (previously here), I have resolved to try another experiment. I will spend the next week, during which I must finish a "real" article, using only Microsoft's Bing to track down facts online, rather than my usual Google. After-action reports will appear here once I've turned in the "real" article. Necessary disclaimer: I have close friends at and various entanglements with both companies. Watch this space.

    *Actually, now I have, at least on mini-scale.

  • Fair and balanced bug reporting

    I've loved every one of the 40 or 50 computers I've owned through the decades, starting with the Processor Technology SOL-20 I got in 1978. Actually, all of them but one. I won't rub it in, but the Vista-burdened Lenovo ThinkPad T60 I bought in 2006 caused me so much grief, for so long, for hardware and software reasons alike, that starting 18 months ago it switched me from career ThinkPad allegiance over to the Mac side.

    Having aired my grievances about that benighted machine month by month, for equal-time purposes I should record the first significant hardware problem with any of the three Macs I now own: an sudden intense whine from my three-month-old MacBook Pro's fan, so loud and piercing that I can't stand to use the machine any more until it's fixed. I put on my active-noise-reduction headset while making sure all its files were safely backed up in The Cloud.

    Apparently this is an all too well-known issue, but one of the established solutions (deleting any queued item from the printer device - go figure) didn't help, and I don't feel like opening up the system's housing to re-seat the fan myself (another recommended fix). On to the Apple store for my first repair experience there. Just for the record.

    And for antiquarian purposes: how the SOL-20, still looking quite sprightly in our basement, appeared in its youth. Only known computer with rich walnut-wood case! No, it didn't come with a "monitor." People were tough in those days.


  • If you've been wondering about NW flight 188 (updated)

    That's the one that "missed" Minneapolis, overshot by 150 miles or so, then did a U-turn over Wisconsin before returning for a safe landing. Afterwards the two pilots said they had been "distracted" by a discussion about new scheduling software on their computers and therefore just didn't notice that they were out of touch with air traffic controllers for 90 minutes. The FAA, in no-nonsense fashion, soon revoked the pilot certificates for both men.

    The always-informative AVweb has an update on several developments.  A PDF of the original emergency-revocation letter from the FAA is here; a PDF of the pilots' legal appeal is here. Selections from the recordings of Air Traffic Control attempts to reach the plane are here.

    I am not a lawyer or an airline pilot, but it seems to me that the heart of the two sides' cases are the contentions below. First, from the FAA letter explaining the emergency revocation. Click for a larger view, plus a chance to see the surprisingly colorful language government officials chose to use ("while you were on a frolic of your own" etc).


    Now, one of a long series of defenses offered by the pilots' attorney -- in this case, that controllers (in some unspecified way) didn't do their duty and therefore added to the problem.
    As always, judge for yourself. I will be interested to hear the full arguments about dereliction of duty on all sides.

    UPDATE: Well, I said I wasn't a lawyer! Apparently the "colorful" language I noted, "on a frolic of your own," is a known term of art in the law world, sort of like "high crimes and misdemeanors" or "Oyez! Oyez!" (It involves whether an employer is vicariously liable for the deeds or misdeeds of an employee.) Now I know! Thanks to legally-educated readers for the info.
  • Historical precedent for Obama's Oslo speech

    As noted yesterday and before, William Faulkner's practically-haiku-length acceptance address on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 is the best known of these presentations.

    But reader Ken Weisbrode pointed me to the address that may have most in common with Obama's speech yesterday morning, and to a fascinating background account of that speech. Fifty-six years ago today, on December 11, 1953, George Marshall gave his Nobel Lecture, which explained, among other things, the effort to reconstruct Europe generally known as the "Marshall Plan." Yesterday Obama named Marshall among the "giants of history" who had won the prize and in comparison with whom "my accomplishments are slight."

    As a work of sheer rhetoric, Marshall's Nobel speech is not that memorable. He preemptively apologized, in forelock-tugging fashion, by saying that "I lack the magic and artistry of that great orator whom the Nobel Committee in Stockholm so appropriately honored yesterday" -- Winston Churchill, who had just accepted his (improbable) Nobel Prize for Literature. Certainly Marshall's most memorable major speech was his Harvard commencement address in 1947, which laid out the necessity of helping Europe recover after World War II. That speech began with remarkable directness:

    "I need not tell you, gentlemen, that the world situation is very serious. That must be apparent to all intelligent people."

    But two aspects of Marshall's Nobel lecture make it valuable reading now. One is its parallel with Obama's argument that military power, and in specific American power, was necessary but not sufficient for maintaining durable peace. For instance, after describing the emerging Cold War tensions in divided Europe and the ongoing war in Korea, he said:

    "These opening remarks may lead you to assume that my suggestions for the advancement of world peace will rest largely on military strength. For the moment the maintenance of peace in the present hazardous world situation does depend in very large measure on military power, together with Allied cohesion. But the maintenance of large armies for an indefinite period is not a practical or a promising basis for policy. We must stand together strongly for these present years, that is, in this present situation; but we must, I repeat, we must find another solution, and that is what I wish to discuss this evening."

    The other timely aspect is an essay published six years ago today, which, if I ever noticed it in the first place, I had forgotten about until Weisbrode pointed it out. It is by Andrew Goodpaster, former NATO supreme commander, and it describes the background of Marshall's speech, which Goodpaster helped write. If Goodpaster, who died in 2005 at age 90, knew the name "Barack Obama" at all, it was probably only as a speaker at the Democratic convention in 2004. But his description of the thinking behind Marshall's speech is a surprisingly interesting complement to the decisions Obama made in presenting himself as a Peace laureate who had just ordered additional troops to war. Worth reading.

    Also: Weisbrode is author of the new book The Atlantic Century, which is great despite my initial disappointment in realizing that it is not the story of an outstanding American magazine.

  • Obama's Nobel speech

    Just after Barack Obama was chosen for the Nobel Prize, I confidently predicted that his acceptance address would not become the second-ever truly memorable address in the long history of such presentations by storied writers, thinkers, leaders, etc. The only acceptance speech that is still remembered and quoted is William Faulkner's three-minute address on receiving the prize for literature in 1949.

    I believe that prediction is still safe; and in terms of Obama's own political reputation and momentum, today's address will not supplant the most important speech he has delivered: the one he gave in Philadelphia, about race relations, in March, 2008. But this was a very good and serious speech, which like many of his major addresses -- the Inaugural address, the one in Prague about nuclear weapons, the one in Cairo on relations with the Islamic world -- will stand re-reading and close inspection, and which shared an obvious intellectual and structural architecture with all his other major addresses. Those trademark elements include:

    The embrace of contradictions (in this case, a defense of war as a means to peace); the long view; the emphasis on institution-building; the concern about the distortion of religious and ethnic loyalties; and above all a consciousness that was once called Niebuhrian and at this rate will someday be "Obamian," which emphasizes the importance of steady steps forward in an inevitably flawed world. As Obama said near the end of this speech:

    "Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.

    "But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected."

    Operational and lower-level political notes: Obama mentioned the past winners who did long-term architectural work in a violent and difficult world -- George Marshall, Henry Dunant of the Red Cross -- along with the King / Mandela idealistic examples. He mentioned, favorably, former presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan; but did not speak the names of the two recent American Peace Prize winners Carter and Gore. As with his Philadelphia speech, he made the speech about the most awkward issue of the moment, rather than trying to avoid it. (In Philadelphia, the racially inflammatory rhetoric of Rev. Jeremiah Wright; in Oslo, his predicament as a war president getting a peace price.) I don't think he provided even a five-second passage of the speech that could be isolated by U.S. opponents to show that he was "apologizing" for America. Also, a fascinatingly direct touch in the "presentation speech" by the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel committee. With Obama sitting next to him, he said:

    "Commenting on the award, President Obama said he did not feel that he deserved to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honoured by this prize, and whose courageous pursuit of peace has inspired the world. But he added that he also knew that the Nobel Prize had not just been used to honor specific achievements, but also to give momentum to a set of causes. The Prize could thus represent "a call to action".

    "President Obama has understood the Norwegian Nobel Committee perfectly."

    Main point, which is consistent across Obama's major addresses and different from most presidential discourse: this will probably seem better, on re-reading and with passage of time, than it did when coming across live. Faulkner is safe, but Obama rose to the moment.


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.



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