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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 big parade

    As I mentioned in real time while watching the 60th anniversary festivities from Beijing on middle-of-the-night Chinese language TV, the whole event was a surprising relief. It had been shaping up ahead of time as a mammoth and imposing display of military hardware. The hardware and missiles were there -- but there was, to put it mildly, a lot of other stuff too.

    As anyone watching in real time can attest, the appearance of this troupe was the first time that Hu Jintao, from the reviewing stand, broke into anything that looked like a relaxed expression:
    LadySoldiers.jpg


    What this picture (by Diego Azubel / European Pressphoto Agency) tragically doesn't convey is that members of scarlet-miniskirted division were actually goose-stepping.

    A wonderful video summary from Dan Chung and Xiaoli Wang, of the Guardian, below, boils the many hours of the parade into four minutes -- and conveys the dramatic shift from tanks-and-missiles, to Mardi Gras/County Fair, at about time 1:55 of the clip.


    Two other nice summaries: a live blog from the WSJ's China staff here; and a comparison of the parade to the movie Hangover here.

    Here's one of the groups that came soon after the tanks. As I say, I'm relieved to see this chaos diversity, which reflects some of the wild range of Chinese life. Congrats to all involved.

    FlagWavers.jpg


  • More about visualizing words

    I mentioned two days ago the very nice tool for mapping word-use in presidential inaugural addresses, created by Jonathan Feinberg of IBM.

    I should have mentioned the underlying open-ended tool Wordle, also by Feinberg, which allows you to create "word clouds" from any arbitrary piece of text (or web feed etc). You can find it here, and I've used it just now to create clouds from two recent Atlantic web posts. This is how one recent post about obesity-and-class looks when word frequency is converted to graphics (most of the contents here comes from readers' letters; click for larger):

    Wordle1.jpg



    And here is how my post from a few hours ago about David Petraeus's comments looks with a slightly different layout scheme:
    Wordle2.jpg


    No cosmic point here, but interesting. Try it out -- an email from the boss, company vision statement, etc.
  • At the F'DOH

    Today and tomorrow, most of the Atlantic's staff is at the Newseum in Washington, for the "First Draft of History" conference. Live streaming webcast here, along with pictures, real-time updates, after-action analyses, and so on. Atlantic staff members are rotating in the role of Official Recording Secretary (aka blogger) for each session. My duty today was the Brian Williams-David Petraeus discussion. First dispatch here; longer followup, with four clips of Petraeus in action, here.
    __
    I spell F'DOH with an apostrophe in homage both to Homer Simpson and to Portuguese Fado music. Although I realize that for Homer alone, it should be FD'OH.

  • Village Dreamers

    In Yunnan province, two Americans struggle to save an ancient town from kitsch.

  • I take it back

    Have been watching live coverage of the 60th anniversary festivities from Beijing for the last two hours (on the local Chinese-language TV station in DC). Nice blue-sky day in town! Yes, they had the giant and threatening-seeming military displays I mentioned earlier.

    But they were intermixed among mass pageantry of every imaginable campy Rose Parade-type variety. For each deployment of tanks, there has been a Farmers' Coop float. For each regiment of goosestepping female soldiers, all exactly the same height and with skirts exactly the same length, there has been a group of Clean Energy workers, accompanying a display of wind turbines and solar panels -- or a group of athletes from the Phys Ed university. Plus some pompom group whose ID on the screen I couldn't understand, and miscellaneous other celebrations. And a float from each province or region, with waving local beauties! This is becoming truer to the randomness of China as I think of it.  Happy 60th birthday.

  • Emptying the obesity-and-class mailbag

    I will say goodbye for now to this topic, which began with an offhand mention that America didn't seem as fat as I "expected" after three years away. An unprecedented amount of mail came in; below and after the jump, samples of some of the themes I hadn't previously gotten to. Thanks for the responses.

    Eating as an available pleasure. From a reader in South Dakota:

    "An overlooked connection between obesity and class, I believe, stems from varying quantity of personal enjoyment and anticipation of enjoyment.

    "It is one thing for a successful, financially comfortable, socially accepted and respected person who has multiple things happening every day that are pleasurable (golf, driving a nice car, nice home, stylish clothing, success at work, interesting social events, kids doing well, planning vacations, etc) to take just one pleasurable aspect of life (overeating) and sacrifice some of that pleasure for the good result of losing weight.

    "Now, for people struggling financially and socially, trying to just get through the day and keep their lives together to varying degrees...their meals are often the only consistently happy and pleasurable events they can count on each day. 

    "Obviously, a generalization.  But, if one gets up and faces a day with a tedious and unfulfilling job, not much money to spend on anything but necessities, and no "fun" things ahead, how much more difficult it is for that person to also think ahead to a day of denying themselves the pleasure of their mealtimes...."

    The processed-food factor:

    "I was quite surprised to note the glaring lack of an obvious contributing major factor in your recent post on obesity: processed foods.

    "I was first struck by the weight of this factor (pun intended) during a trip to Buenos Aires a couple of years ago. During my stay, I was absolutely astonished to find such a small percentage of fat people given that:

    "a) the per-capita consumption of meat (in Argentina) is the highest in the world.

    More »

  • Beijing, 3am

    Well, we're going to see a lot of these shots in the next 24 hours out of Beijing, as the 60th anniversary celebrations for the founding of the People's Republic take place. This is from a reader looking down Xidawang Lu, not far from our former home, at 3am local time October 1-- a few minutes ago as I write.

    DSC_0705.JPG


    This item, "China's Looming PR Disaster," at the Interpreter site from the Lowy Institute in Sydney, makes the point I've made frequently (including once on a live Chinese government TV show in Beijing) since the plans for a gala military parade were announced this spring: In showcasing endless seas of Chinese soldiers and weaponry, the regime may make itself look stronger to its people -- at the cost of looking threatening to everyone else. (Versions of this argument here and here.) As Alistair Thornton says on the Interpreter site:
    "I have a sinking feeling that this could turn out to be the worst PR stunt of all time. To me, it screams, 'Hey! You in the West! How's the recession? We just nailed 9% growth. Scared of a rising China? Check out all of our tanks and never-seen-before missiles'. It's not really the vibe you want to give off in the midst of unprecedented shifts in geopolitical power."
     But the other obvious point is that all politics is local, in China as well as anywhere else, and impressing the home crowd will always outweigh the hand-wringing concerns from the diplomats. So, the show begins. I will leave most further photos to the news services, but thought it was worth kicking off the observations with this pic.
  • A nice tool for envisioning rhetoric

    At this IBM research site, an interesting way to assess the themes in presidential inaugural addresses. The researcher, Jonathan Feinberg, uses fancy math to analyze which words in an address are most similar to those other presidents have used -- and which are most distinctive. The larger the words in the diagram, the more often a President used them in a given speech -- and the bluer they are, the more unusual their use is, compared with other speeches. The pink words are ones "conspicuously absent" from a speech -- ones showing up in other inaugural speeches but not this one.

    For instance, this is the graph of GW Bush's Wilsonian-sounding Second Inaugural Address, with its commitment to "the expansion of freedom in all the world." Blue words are those distinctive to this speech; pink ones, those strikingly missing.

    WordMap.jpg


    Disappointingly, the tool is not yet sufficiently honed to track the Reagan-era-onward emergence of "God bless America!" as the unvarying conclusion of presidential speeches. (In fairness, Obama left it out of the prepared text of his address this year.) And it's not set up to let you feed new rhetoric into it for analysis -- for instance, the tantalizing possibility of sluicing in newspaper columns, to depict the phrases a writer stresses and avoids. That's why researchers must still toil on. Thanks to Henry Farrell.
  • Update on McCaughey and tobacco

    Yesterday I reported this exchange with a representative of the Manhattan institute, where Betsy McCaughey was based when she wrote her "No Exit" attack on the Clinton health reform plan:

     "I wrote back to Lindsay Craig asking which of these options the Manhattan Institute was saying:
    "A: The Rolling Stone contention that tobacco companies collaborated with Ms. McCaughey and M.I. is totally false; there was no such contact or collaboration.

    "B: We are confident that Ms. McCaughey's opinions were not influenced by tobacco companies, even though she may have worked with them.
    "Her immediate response:
    "A.   Betsy never worked with Phillip Morris." 

    As a followup, I asked Ms. Craig whether there was any significance in the distinction between "tobacco companies" in the question and "Phillip Morris" in the answer. She said: No.  Her flat denial applies to "Tobacco companies (plural -- though the document in question is from Phillip Morris)."

    Clear enough. So we now have documents, reported in Rolling Stone, in which a tobacco lobbyist claims in detail to have worked with McCaughey as she put together her articles -- and a categorical denial from the Manhattan Institute that she worked with tobacco firms. Yet again it would be helpful to have Ms. McCaughey address the specifics of the lobbyist's claim.

  • Local boys make good, China version

    In an article this spring about China's recovery from the world slowdown, I mentioned a visit to the BYD company in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, where a materials-science PhD named Wang Chuanfu was leading the development of advanced battery powered cars.

    IMG_5920A.jpgOn that trip I also visited the nice-but-nothing-fancy dorm-style quarters where Wang and the rest of the BYD management lived. Here's the punchline from that article (with a shot of Wang from the press conference in December announcing his new cars):

    "The company's official goal is to be the biggest automaker in China by 2015, and the biggest in the world by 2025. Wang's unveiling of the car in Shenzhen coincided with U.S. congressional debate about emergency aid to GM and Chrysler. I asked Wang if he had any tips for the U.S. companies. He is a quiet, nerdish man who seemed to blanch as he heard the question translated. "For 100 years, nothing has changed in Detroit," he finally said (through the interpreter). "I think they need to reconsider their product lines."


    Now, according to this report, Wang has become the richest man in China, thanks to a rise in BYD stock and a stake from Warren Buffett. That is a volatile distinction, with people's fortunes rising and falling, but impressive as an up-from-nothing manufacturing success story.

    And in this article in 2007, I discussed the amazing Chinese "reality" show Win in China, which was a kind of super-capitalist version of The Apprentice. One of the finalists in the show was an earthy,  non-college-grad character named Zhou Yu and generally known as the "Lone Wolf."  Ole Schell, who has made a great new documentary about Win In China, has just posted an online report about the Wolf and his lingerie factory in Shandong province. Congrats all around. 


    The moment of truth on the show, as the Wolf dutifully claps for the just-announced winner, Song "Social Conscience" Wenming, who raises his hands in victory.
    win2guys.jpg

  • A nice offhand allusion in the NYT

    The third paragraph of Sharon LaFraniere's story today in the NYT, about the Chinese government's obsessive over-preparation for the 60th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People's Republic, on October 1 (background on the celebrations here):

    "China's government at times resembles an exasperated parent trying to rein in a pack of rebellious children. Its edicts are persistently flouted by censor-dodging Internet users, wayward local officials and rioting Uighurs."

    Two things strike me about this. First, it's good to see correspondents flat-out saying how things look to them, rather than having to rely on "Some observers say" or "Mr. X of YY think tank observes..." Second, this little context-setting aside is so much more realistic than the standard Western press references to a big, omniscient, all-powerful Chinese regime effortlessly working its will on the populace, whether in a good way by installing green technology or in a bad way by squashing dissent.

    Over the past three years, I've emphasized maybe a million times how diverse, churning, individual-minded, and generally resistant to control much of today's China seems. If I were writing LaFraniere's sentence myself, I'd say "often resembles" rather than "at times resembles," and I'd replace the reference to the Uighur uprising (an exceptional, real emergency) with something about one billion rule-evading ordinary citizens. But this is a worthy step toward a sane perspective on China -- worth bearing in mind as we prepare to see the (deceptively) precise and orderly displays on October 1.
     
    Photo from the NYT about the kind of precise pageantry we'll be treated to. Don't be misled.
    29beijing_650.jpg


  • More on Ls and Rs in Japanese

    As mentioned yesterday, the risk in correcting others is that you get exposed to correction yourself. So it turns out to be -- sort of -- with my comments about the L and R sounds in Japanese. Major point: it remains correct to say, as I did, that Japanese speakers do not "lallate" -- use Ls in place of Rs, and vice versa. Minor refinement! It's not quite right to say, as I also did, that the Japanese phonetic system "has no L sound." Its writing system has only Rs instead of Ls (when represented in the western alphabet), but the sound is more complicated. Representative messages:

    "I think it is more accurate to say that Japanese has a single sound that is somewhere in between English 'l' and 'r'.  The Japanese 'r' is certainly not standard US retroflex 'r'.  Say the name "Richard" and feel where your tongue goes (it's back towards the roof of your mouth).  Now say "baseboru" with your best shot at a Japanese accent - you'll find that your tongue is further forward in your mouth and just taps the ridge of your gums.  Now say "Lilly" - your tongue will be even further forward.  The 'r' in 'baseboru' is somewhere in between  "Lilly" and "Richard". " [JF note: this corresponds to my experience in coping with Japanese.]

    And, from someone raised in America whose husband was raised in Japan:

    "Yeah - they use "R" when they write those syllables in Roman alphabet.  I've learned though that my pronunciation is somewhat less comical to the listener if I pronounce it closer to the English "l" sound.  As best I can make out, the tongue position makes it something of a cross between our "r", "l", and "d".

I believe there is research showing that a newborn is able to "hear" most any of the sounds you can make, but by the time you are 3 or 5 (or somewhere in there) your brain has specialized for the sounds you normally hear.  My husband simply cannot hear the difference between the spoken "l" and "r", because there just aren't those distinct sounds in spoken Japanese.
"

    More »

  • The obesity / class / region express rolls on

    In response to a reader's comment that a pack of buffed-up CPAs "built like lumberjacks" took on construction workers and held their own, plus another about slimmed-down med students, this reponse:

    "I agree with many of the observations from your med student correspondent. I work for a mid-sized management consulting firm comprised almost entirely of former Big Four consultants. We employee many CPAs and MBAs. Other people have different higher degrees. Though we have offices all over the Midwest as a group the employees are not merely trim but fit. Just in my office in Kansas City (traditionally considered one of the fattest cities around) we have several triatheletes, lots of marathon runners and long-distance cyclists. Having a personal trainer is not consider out of the ordinary.

    "It is assumed that everyone has an athletic hobby. To be unfit would be a career-limiting trait. To be obsese would be career suicide. No one munches chips at their desks.

    "Management consulting can be a bit of a macho world. Some guys compete, even place bets, when they participate in local charity runs. To lose is to invite gentle (or not so gentle) ribbing from other males. Our firm regularly competes in Corporate Challenge, which is taken quite seriously by the leadership. To win an event merits a mention at office-wide meetings.

    "I think fitness is seen by the leadership as a proxy for discipline, self-control, and health. We are forbidden by HR from asking certain questions during interviews so questions about excercise and visual inspection of candidates can be used to gather important data about perspective hires. All things being equal, a big fat guy would not be hired.

    "Most of us have to visit clients and it is believed that the appearence of fitness and vitality gives clients confidence in our skills, our ability to work long hours, our discipline.

    "Not all of this is class. Many of the partners and employees, including myself, come from working class, rural or near-rural childhoods in small towns thoughout the Midwest or South. Some come from extremely small towns in western Kansas. A few were overweight or obese earlier in life and have worked hard to overcome that. I guess a lot of this is self-selection but I think most is a by-product of ambition and peer pressure. Somewhere along the way, we picked up the idea that to rise in the corporate world you had to have a certain look. This look includes being trim, having no facial hair, having enough muscle to fill out a suit but not so much you're conspicuous, and having nice teeth."

    After the jump, a report based on compare-and-contrast observations in Kansas City and Chicago.
    _____

    More »

  • Manhattan Institute replies (re McCaughey and tobacco lobby) UPDATED

    In response to this item today, concerning Rolling Stone's claim that Betsy McCaughey worked secretly with tobacco lobbyists when preparing her 1994 New Republic article about the Clinton health reform plan, I have just received this note from Lindsay Craig of the Manhattan Institute:

    "Below is a letter to the editor of Rolling Stone from Lawrence Mone, president, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
    "In his article "The Lie Machine," Tim Dickenson asserts that former Manhattan Institute scholar Betsy McCaughey's work was influenced by Phillip Morris.  This conclusion is false.  Betsy McCaughey wrote two articles for the Wall Street Journal on the Clinton Health Care plan and an additional article for the New Republic which was solicited by its publisher.  At no time were her ideas influenced or controlled by anyone but the author herself."

    I have written back to Lindsay Craig asking for clarification on what, exactly, Mr. Mone is saying. The Rolling Stone documents say that Ms. McCaughey worked, in secret, with tobacco company lobbyists in preparing her articles. Mr. Mone's statement says that she was not "influenced or controlled" by anyone else. I have written to ask whether Mr. Mone is saying that she never worked with tobacco representatives (whether or not she was "controlled" by them); and whether the Manhattan Institute was aware of any such collaboration. More info as it arrives.

    UPDATE:
     I wrote back to Lindsay Craig asking which of these options the Manhattan Institute was saying:

    "A: The Rolling Stone contention that tobacco companies collaborated with Ms. McCaughey and M.I. is totally false; there was no such contact or collaboration.

    "B: We are confident that Ms. McCaughey's opinions were not influenced by tobacco companies, even though she may have worked with them.

    Her immediate response:

    "A.   Betsy never worked with Phillip Morris." 

    Is this a question of a lobbyist grossly exaggerating his "influence" to impress bosses and funders? That's a very familiar pattern in Washington. On the other hand, the lobbyist's detailed knowledge of Betsy McCaughey's writing plans suggests some interaction. I don't know the underlying truth here. It would be valuable if Ms. McCaughey, who has specialized in detailed textual analysis, would address in specific what these documents contend.

  • One crucial B. McCaughey update

    I have deliberately laid off the Betsy McCaughey theme for the past month-plus. I had my say; she continues to have hers; people can make up their minds.

    But revelations late last week by Tim Dickinson, of Rolling Stone, are at face value so important that they deserve to be underscored. It's worth reading Dickinson's whole dispatch and studying the on-line scans of the documents he has found. But to me the real news is the evidence that tobacco lobbyists secretly worked with McCaughey to prepare her infamous 1994 New Republic article "No Exit." 

    As I argued back in 1995 in "A Triumph of Misinformation," everything about McCaughey's role in the debate depended on her pose as a scrupulous, impartial, independent scholar who, after leafing through the endless pages of the Clinton health proposals, had been shocked by what she found. If it had been known at the time that she was secretly collaborating with one of the main interest-group enemies of the plan, perhaps the article would never had been published; at a minimum, her standing to speak would have been different.

    (For the record: Yes, I am aware that my friend and current Atlantic colleague Andrew Sullivan, who was then TNR's editor, is the one who decided to publish this article. In the 15 years since the article's appearance, the magazine and its writers have, to their credit, repeatedly pointed out its errors and apologized for spreading its misinformation. Mickey Kaus was doing so immediately after the article's embarrassing selection for a National Magazine Award for "Excellence in Public Interest." Jonathan Cohn, author of the indispensable book Sick, did so early this year. The TNR site has a "link" to the original McCaughey piece, but it's not connected to the article itself.)
     
    Now Tim Dickinson produces documents from a tobacco lobbyist about his efforts to derail the Clinton health bill, including this one involving McCaughey and her then employer, the Manhattan Institute:
     
    Thumbnail image for RSMcCaugh2.jpg
    In case that's blurry, here is what Dickinson says:

    "What has not been reported until now is that McCaughey's writing was influenced by Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco company, as part of a secret campaign to scuttle Clinton's health care reform. (The measure would have been funded by a huge increase in tobacco taxes.) In an internal company memo from March 1994, the tobacco giant detailed its strategy to derail Hillarycare through an alliance with conservative think tanks, front groups and media outlets. Integral to the company's strategy, the memo observed, was an effort to "work on the development of favorable pieces" with "friendly contacts in the media." The memo, prepared by a Philip Morris executive, mentions only one author by name:

    ' "Worked off-the-record with Manhattan and writer Betsy McCaughey as part of the input to the three-part exposé in The New Republic on what the Clinton plan means to you. The first part detailed specifics of the plan." '

    "McCaughey did not respond to Rolling Stone's request for an interview."

    Maybe there is another side to this story, but if unrebutted it is damning.

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