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.
  • Time for a design / Gehry / public space update

    It has been a while (background here, begin from the bottom). Four correspondents weigh in, starting with a response to the previous post about Frank Gehry's Stata Center complex at MIT.

    An MIT grad student writes:

    A reader you quoted the other day on your blog reported that a certain seminar room in Gehry's Stata Center at MIT causes vertigo and is no longer used.  I happen to work in that building as a graduate student, and the story isn't quite as juicy as your correspondent told it.

    It's true that according to old-timers, when the room was first built, it caused some people to experience vertigo.  But according to the same story as I've heard it from many people, they swiftly put in some large conspicuously vertical objects like rolled-up rugs and the problem was solved.  In any case, the room is regularly full for seminars and I've never heard a complaint of vertigo in the present.

    The building certainly has its practical problems, though.  For one thing, it's said to cost twice as much to maintain per square foot as any other structure on campus.  For another, it's tremendously spendthrift of MIT's only resource even more costly than money -- space. For most of the building's height, the floor plan contains only two towers dwarfed by the sprawling footprint at ground level.  An aerial photo [by Philip Greenspun] illustrates this very well:

    stata-center-5.jpg

    Another reader writes, sort of in defense of Gehry:

    So far none of your correspondents has taken up the relationship between single buildings -- which is what architects, especially stars, mainly produce -- and public spaces.  Spaces need design, but it's a different skill than creating a building -- a complementary one, and not usually found in the same person.  (The Campidoglio is the exception that proves the rule: not only was Michelangelo, obviously, exceptional himself, but his design separates that space from the bustle of urban Rome.)

    I'm inclined to tolerate arrogance on this matter in a Gehry, even when genuinely offensive, because I think the responsibility for public spaces has to be shared more broadly -- just as the monuments, if any, are plums in the pudding of the urban design, the architects can be expected to be outliers in the design community.

    Reader #3, more fully in defense of Gehry -- and certainly more critical of his critics -- says:

    I wanted to chime in a tiny bit about the Gehry thing, with some context. I think it's fair to say that Fred Kent is a widely known but not particularly liked figure in the architecture world-- or perhaps I should say the "capital-A architecture" world. Project for Public Spaces, the organization Kent founded and runs, has a regressive streak that is at odds with a beliefin architecture as a potentially provocative, avant garde, response to the world. I don't have to tell you Gehry epitomizes that sensibility, nor that the hero architect shtick regularly backfires, with occasionally disastrous consequences for cites and "public space."

    But-- and here's where I cheer Gehry on, and tell Kent to take a seat-- that's not a reason to stop believing in the transformative potential of buildings, which is what the pabulum Kent spouts seems to argue. Especially not when there are architects like Gehry who come around every once in a while.

    More »

  • The boiled frog goes PoMo

    I mentioned two days ago my satisfaction that Paul Krugman had seen fit to declare the boiled-frog canard* false, before saying it was still useful to illustrate a point about political inaction. 

    Now I am happier still that my friend Michael Jones has put a fancy Postmodernist gloss on the whole topic. He writes:

    "Are you familiar with the late French writer and philosopher Jean Baudrillard? My favorite memory of his insight was his comment on the progression of societies' images from reality toward unreality in identifiable stages.
    1. It is the reflection of a basic reality, 
    2. It masks and perverts a basic reality, 
    3. It masks the absence of a basic reality, 
    4. It bears no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.

    "The stylized sport of wrestling as it advanced from Greek olympics to modern television might be an example of this progression, with Lou Thesz somewhere in the middle range. This last stage was his area of fascination; the progression itself is mine. The Onion is #4, but intentionally as humor."

    (Lou Thesz, as PoMo counterpart to boiled frog, from Plan59.com)

    lou_thesz.jpg

    Jones says that the frog story is in stage two; I think it has skipped ahead to stage four, where we don't care (a la Krugman) whether it's true or not because it's become a convenient way to convey a message ("raining cats and dogs"). Either way, it's nice to be literary about it.

    ___
    * Yes, I know what canard means. A little joke.

  • Let a thousand flowers bloom again, Atlantic style

    Here is a genuine strength of the community assembled at the Atlantic. We all take our work and the issues we're exploring seriously -- but we don't agree always or even a lot of the time about important issues. The closest thing to an across-the-board outlook was during last year's presidential election, when only a couple of people on the staff were rooting hard for the McCain-Palin ticket. But before the Iraq war, there was a really deep split, with our then-editor and many prominent writers strongly in favor of the war, and our then-managing editor and many others strongly against. Those differences were apparent -- I think in a useful way -- to anyone reading the magazine in those days and seeing the different perspectives argued out. Right now there are real differences on economic-policy matters, various aspects of foreign policy from Afghanistan to the Middle East to China, the futures of the Republican and Democratic parties, defense issues, and a lot of other specific points.

    I mention this as a strength of the organization internally and also, I think, a virtue from the reader's point of view. The real differences but also real sense of community and respect can encourage people to explain and argue-out their positions more carefully rather than just assuming agreement. It's like "not Red States or Blue States but the United States of the Atlantic Monthly"!

    In that spirit of respectful disagreement with a colleague and friend, let me say that Robert Kaplan's "we" does not speak for the whole magazine's staff when he says just now about China:

    For years we had perceived China as a state galloping ever forward, en route to peer competitor status with the United States and its military. We forgot that foreign and defense policy emanates from a country's domestic conditions, and that if its domestic conditions are less than harmonious, its policy toward the outside world, too, may be less than robust. In other words, China's rise cannot be taken for granted. To wit, China is also grinding away at its environmental base. Its water table is diminishing, along with the nutrients in its soil. But the regime cannot afford to slow down its economic growth for fear of a popular eruption far broader than what we just saw in Xinjiang....Remember, nothing is destiny.

    The limits on China's "galloping" rise and the "nothing is destiny" perspective on its future are points I've tried to convey so often that many readers may be going crazy from the repetition. (Eg here or here or here.) In a sense the heart of my disagreement with Niall Ferguson at the Aspen Ideas Festival was his seeming confidence that anything at all could be assumed as certain about China's future -- either the rise that seemed inevitable to some people until recently, or the breakup with the U.S. and the outside world that he says is now certain to come. That's my disagreement with Bob Kaplan's statement of previous views on China: "we" may have seen things that way, but "I" most certainly didn't.

    Arguing for uncertainty, or for many possible futures that will in fact be shaped by real choices by real human beings, may seem weak and unsatisfying. On the other hand: it conforms to the facts, and, at least as important, it focuses attention on the difference that "we" can make through our choices, wise or foolish, about China policy and other matters from economic interaction to environmental protection. And by "we" I mean political leaders and the politically-interested community in the United States, and China, and around the world.

  • Another full Aspen session on line

    Ten days ago, I said that when the full tape of the "Feeding the World's Billions" session of the Aspen Ideas Festival went on line, you should be sure to check it out. This is the one in which (a) Monsanto's CEO, Hugh Grant, answers questions arising from the Robert Kenner movie Food Inc, and (b) more new information, per minute, appears than in other sessions I have seen for a long time.

    Well, it's now up, here, so check it out. 

    Update: The bounty never stops! Another session I wrote about as interesting and worthwhile, "Re-Greening the Emerald Planet," is now on-line, here. Check this out too.


  • Here's something I've learned!

    If you get a hotel room for $49 per night all-in -- free internet, free breakfast -- in Linyi, China, it's pretty nice! (Scenic central Linyi, where I was a few weeks ago on a story, below.)
    LInyi.jpg


    If you get a get a hotel room via a special internet deal for $49 all-in -- free internet, free breakfast -- in San Jose, California, all of your neighbors are hookers! (Scenic central San Jose, where I am on a story, below.)
    SanJose.jpg

    No one can resist that free internet. I guess I better start acclimating -- ie, getting used to paying more than $49 for a hotel -- faster.

  • Now if I were really ambitious in my flying plans

    I mentioned recently a small-plane caravan flight along the route (more or less) of Lewis & Clark's trip to the Pacific. The same company, AirJourney.com, is sponsoring a more ambitious trip later this year.

    EuropeTrip.jpg

    Now, I'm not actually going to do this. Reason 1: I don't have an airplane any more. Reason 2: the landing in Narsarsuaq, Greenland for refueling is one I've heard about many times without ever wanting to attempt myself. (Problem: it's a landing you have to make, given the huge expanses of ocean on either side; the runway has ocean on one side and mountains on the others; the weather is often snowy, foggy, gusty; etc.) Reason 3: you have to wear a survival suit on the long over-water stretches, which makes you uncomfortable in the airplane and probably wouldn't save you in the frozen water anyway. Reason 4: expensive. On the other hand... flying at low altitudes over Europe! Approaching Greenland, Iceland, Scotland from the sky! Landing in Paris! Dreaming about it -- especially on Bastille Day: priceless, as they say.

    Narsarsuaq on a nice day (from "Most Dangerous Landing Strips in the World" site).
    061709_0638_10MostDange8.jpg

    How it looks at ground level, from this site:
    Greenland2.jpg

    Pilot suiting up for the run to Narsarsuaq in his Cessna 172, from this site:

    SurvivalSuit3.jpg

    In response to some previous queries: the planes making these journeys are typically very small craft flown by enthusiasts, not corporate big-shots in their jets (who could go nonstop anyway), and the fuel use/emissions factor is not that different from people taking long vacation drives. Overall climate-strategy discussions for another day. In response to another line of inquiry: I have no relationship of any sort with the AirJourney company -- don't know 'em, have never done business with them. Just tantalized by these plans.

  • A Uighur speaks about pork

    After I posted this picture from Shannon Kirwin, three days ago, of a help-wanted notice at a restaurant in Kashgar that said "Han Chinese only," one response ran through the vast majority of messages from readers in China. It is the argument I quoted here. "Uighurs are Muslim," many correspondents said. "Chinese restaurants serve pork. It would be an insult to the Uighurs to suggest that they apply."

    I had my own guesses about the response, but I asked another correspondent who (to the best of my knowledge) is a Muslim Uighur who reads Chinese. I asked: would Uighurs in Kashgar view the sign as a favor to them? Here is the reply I just received, with some addenda from the same correspondent after the jump.

    "Han Chinese only" simply is a discrimination.  Uyghurs are desperate to have jobs and long have been complaining about "Han Chinese only" requirements.  Uyghurs don't eat pork, but "Handling pork" doesn't mean eating pork. That ad includes not only chef position but also waiter/waitress and supervisor positions, which don't require to taste the food.  In fact, I've seen many Uyghur students both in United States, Europe and Japan work as waiters/waitresses. They don't eat pork and bacon,  but happily perform the task. They have no problem with carrying the plates, and cleaning them. 
    "The job ads I've sent to you earlier [quoted after the jump here, and very much worth re-checking] was posted on Kashgar Teacher's College web site. One of them is about "Dean of College" position, which also has "Han Chinese Only" requirement . The other ad is about several positions, including computer instructor and lab assistant position.   Most of them have "Han Chinese Only" requirements, which explain that an Uyghur can not apply for the jobs even if she/he has the similar educational background and skill set to her/his Chinese counterpart, simply beacuse she/he is Uyghur.     

    "Postal service is a government institution in China. "Postal Hotel" [the one with the "Han only" sign] is Postal service owned company. The Kashgar Teacher's College is, an institution which has has more than of half of the student population is Uyghur, also a government owned institution.  If the job ads by government institutions are so discriminative, the situation in private chinese companies is anybody's guess."

    More »

  • Full Aspen session, Fallows v Ferguson, now posted

    In several posts from Aspen (here, here, and here) I mentioned my "full and frank" discussion, as the diplomats would say, with Niall Ferguson over the future of Chinese and American interactions. Main summary of our disagreements is, again, here.

    A streaming video of the whole session is available now, here. My memories of it are clear enough that I don't think I need another immersion. But if you missed it and/or are interested, it's now online.

  • On Uighurs, Han, and general racial attitudes in China

    Three more views on racial attitudes and tensions in China, following this and previous dispatches.

    From a foreigner with experience in China
    :

    Regarding the "no Uighurs" sign, that type of thing is pretty common in China.  Many advertisements for foreign English teachers will include something like "Whites only" or a "Looking for Caucasian teachers" sentence somewhere in the text.  Additionally, many a native speaker have flown from their country to China only to find upon arrival that  regardless of the applicant's qualifications, the job could only be performed by a white person.  At these times the Chinese are usually polite and a little embarrassed (most Chinese are very nice people and mean no harm), but they will remain very firm in their conviction that a person with darker skin than theirs could not possibly make a good teacher.

    I have experienced this on a number of occasions.  But after living in China for a while I realized that what we would consider racism in the West is simply a deeply ingrained cultural characteristic of mainland Chinese people.  White skin (the Chinese like to consider themselves white) and or being a Han (the dominant ethnic group) means a person is good.  Dark skin or not being Han means a person is inferior (and more likely to be a bad guy/a thief/incompetent etc.).  It does not equal KKK style hatred.  It does not even mean a Han Chinese wouldn't be friends with a person from India or Africa.  It simply means that if a person is non-white or a member of certain Chinese minorities, they simply are to be considered less smart, less competent and less trustworthy than the average white person or Han. [Ed note: This accords with my observation, with the caveat that I have observed this all as a middle aged white guy. Early discussion of Obama in China fit this pattern -- but changed after he took office.]
     
    On a lighter note, the Chinese are not inflexible and when exposed to nice people of color they usually will change their minds quickly.  [Agree, as with Obama.] However, the tendency towards ethnic and racial chauvinism is a current running through Chinese culture that is unlikely to change in any meaningful way anytime soon.  "Truths" are rarely challenged here.

    From a person with a Chinese name:

    Your mentioning the sign ["Han Chinese only"] in Xinjiang provides half the question.  It's pretty obvious why the Uighurs are angry, but that doesn't explain why Han Chinese in Xinjiang are angry. I think that if you see this simply as a majority group trying to crush a minority group, then you miss the fact that the average Han Chinese in Xinjiang probably feels as oppressed and repressed as the Uighurs, and since they are competing for the same pool of jobs.  Just because you are Han Chinese doesn't mean that you are going to be in the Politburo.

    More »

  • Peace on the boiled frog front

    I can have no complaints about Paul Krugman's use just now of the hoary (and phony) parable, which begins this way:

    "I'm referring, of course, to the proverbial frog that, placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, never realizes the danger it's in and is boiled alive. Real frogs will, in fact, jump out of the pot -- but never mind. The hypothetical boiled frog is a useful metaphor for a very real problem: the difficulty of responding to disasters that creep up on you a bit at a time."

    If this becomes a "hypothetical" frog, a "proverbial" frog, a "useful metaphor" to get across a point, then it enters the company of "the streets were paved with gold" or "his eyes were bigger than his stomach" in being a useful way of conveying an idea, although no one thinks the image itself is literally true. At it can exit the realm of the "cautionary revelation from the world of science" that it typically occupies in political speeches or, sigh, the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. It's still a cliche, but you can't have everything. I had not previously thought of Paul Krugman as a peacemaker or placater, as opposed to a provocateur, but he may now have shown a new field of achievement.

  • Haibao is happier now!

    WildWestHaibao.jpg

    As mentioned earlier (eg here), America's participation in the impending Shanghai Expo 2010 has been in question, because of disputes and uncertainties about who would design, build, and (especially) pay for the US pavilion. Likely consequence was much shame and embarrassment for the U.S. and loss of face for its would-be Chinese hosts. Left: Haibao, beloved mascot of the Expo, in Wild West Americana gear -- from this gallery of Haibao in an assortment of folkloric outfits.

    On Friday a deal was struck to finance and move ahead with the pavilion. Official announcement here, from the site of the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai. Update on Adam Minter's Shanghai Scrap site, which has been following the action, here. More news to come on various sponsors,  supporters, and consequences. Phew!

    By all reports. Sec. of State Hillary Clinton played a crucial role in making sure the Expo bid happened. Here we see the victorious team: Sec. Clinton (left); Jose H. Villarreal, the newly appointed U.S. Commissioner General to the 2010 World Exposition (right), who worked hard to put a deal together after his appointment on July 1; and Haibao (center). Another excuse to get back to Shanghai...

    Thumbnail image for clinton-villereal-7012009a.jpg

  • Weekend Gehry / public spaces update

    (Following this and this and earlier items mentioned in links.) I've received a fair amount of ad-hominem comment about all participants in this discussion -- Frank Gehry, Fred Kent, moi-meme! I'll do my best to leave that out and convey the points of substance. Granted, it's tricky to separate comments about Gehry's work, admiring and critical, from comments on his persona, since he is the world-renowned star architect whose impact is part of what's being discussed. Herewith, three recent views:

    From a reader in the Washington DC area, who included photos with her message. (Reminder of reader-mail policy: I will assume that I can use anything that comes in, and I will assume that I should not use your real name unless you explicitly say otherwise.)

    "Everybody has an opinion, including me. (A trained landscape architect who practices antitrust law to pay the bills, which makes me nothing more than an educated amateur.) I personally like Gehry's Bilbao building. And some others. But I was appalled in 2005 when the Corcoran Galley + School of Art planned to put a Gehry piece behind its Beaux Arts building on the corner of 17th and New York Avenue. What a beautiful model.
    Corcoran1.jpg

    "It would be a wonderful building on a 1 or 2 acre lot, but not crowded onto this tight urban spot. (Compare, for example, I.M. Pei's National Gallery East Building, which is not squeezed into its space.) [pic below, from the reader, is of the Corcoran's site.]
    Corcorn2.jpg

    "Personally, I was relieved when the Corcoran decided they couldn't afford the thing. Of course, all the architectural journalists grieved, but I think the neighborhood is better off. (I love Frank Lloyd Wright, especially the Guggenheim, but lots of people thought it was out of place and shoe-horned into its site. Oh, well. )

    "Celebrity architects and good urban design don't necessarily go together, as the architects tend to focus on their building and not the overall neighborhood."

    From a reader in Mexico.

    "Just wanted to comment that the dispute Fred Kent has provoked with Gehry seems to me an example of a frequently encountered problem with American approaches to discussions: the tendency to fall into black and white camps.  Gehry's architecture is unique.  That his Disney hall isn't likely to fit into a dense urban street doesn't make it unacceptable: a whole neighborhood of Gehry architecture would be overwhelming, but pieces here and there keep things interesting. And Mr. Kent might remember that thriving cities aren't created from the top down or by city planners or by dictates based on social science surveys.

    More »

  • Atlantic interview with Eric Schmidt

    As part of the series of shortish interviews of big shots by Atlantic staffers at the Aspen Ideas Festival, our they-never-sleep web team has posted this Q-and-A between me and Eric Schmidt of Google:

    I'll confess that the most surprising aspect of this brief discussion is all the whitish stuff that is flying around the screen while it goes on. That's not some technical video-quality glitch. The city was just full of fluff, or seeds, or whatever (maybe "cotton") from cottonwood trees in the last week of June. Nonetheless we bravely went ahead. The same stuff had been in the air in Beijing two or three weeks earlier, giving me the rare opportunity to find an environmental similarity between bustling big-city China and pristine Aspen.
    _______

    More »

  • Weekend Xinjiang / Uighur / 愤青 update, #2

    More from the mailbag:

    1)  A reader with a Chinese name points out another aspect of the story -- the extreme reaction inside Turkey, where the "reality" of events appears to be as one-sided as it has been portrayed within China:

    "Have you noticed the reaction in Turkey?  Here's what appeared in today's two big papers.

    "The nationalist Hurriyet reported the riot "has claimed the lives of hundreds of ethnic Uighur Turks." The other big daily reports the released breakdown of the death toll but as background reported the retaliatory attacks by Han against Uighurs but did not mention Uighur attacks against Han. And the Prime Minister stepped in to declare that the riot was "almost genocide."
    "I'm amazed that despite the free flow of information, open parts of the world can still live in different universes.  A reader in London will read an article in The Times about the "butchered" Han family while on the same day a Turkish reader will read about the massacre of Uighurs."

    The point about separate fact-universes is one of the sobering marvels of the modern info-age. It's true within the United States, as discussed long ago here; and it's true between countries, as China, Turkey, and the rest of the world all digest different versions of the Xinjiang "truth." Main point: the internet, mobile phones, and other info technology, far from eliminating the country-by-country differences in information and belief, in some ways may increase them, as each little info-sphere is able to reinforce its own view of the world.

    2) From reader Yuan Song:

    "To be frank, I'm astonished to see such a big post [the "Han Chinese only"] sign, explicit, yet cold. If I were a Uighur that could read Chinese, I would have felt so insulted. Last time, one of my Canadian friends told me he that when he traveled in Austria, he saw an advertisement to let room saying "no Jewish or Northern Italians" (I forgot the original German word he used that actually means people from Northern Italy.) My Canadian friend was obviously very much annoyed by that advertisement. So was I. Then I had worsening impression of Austria after that.

    "Anyway, thanks a lot for giving me more insights in the situations in Xinjiang. I've never been there personally. The fact that I, being a native Chinese, rely on this source of information to understand Xinjiang, is funny, though. The Chinese media should have done better job. I don't know whether you have heard of Phoenix TV, a mandarin TV station. They have good reputation for giving objective and insight reports on different issues. [Agree]

    "Are you from US? I heard in US, there is a law that guarantees the proportion of employees from different ethnic groups hired by each employer should resemble that of the whole society. Is it true?"

    3) A reader with a Chinese name points out that the real news is not the "Han Chinese only" aspect of the sign but rather the "ages 18-30 only" part. The reader says:

    "And, because the problem is bigger, discrimination against minority (and favoritism toward minority, as adding grade points to minority for "Gao Kao" [the nationwide university admissions exam]) is not actually that unique, or big, a problem.

    More »

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