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.
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.
Monument to the three victims of a lynch mob, in downtown Duluth.
The real importance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Reparations article, which is still attracting deserved attention, is that it is not mainly about repayment in a literal, financial sense. Instead, as I understand it, it’s about a larger historical reckoning or awareness. “Truth and reconciliation,” you might call it.
By analogy: Whether or not Germany had ever made monetary restitution to Israel or to other victims of the Nazi era, to know anything about modern Germany is to recognize that it has attempted to face its past. In contrast, to know anything about modern Japan or China is to recognize their difficulties in facing episodes from their 20th century past, mainly of the '30s and '40s in Japan's case, and the '50s through mid-'70s in China's.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
The importance of recognition is why I was so struck by the monument (shown above) in downtown Duluth, Minnesota, to the three victims of a famous lynching there 94 years ago this month, in June 1920. A traveling circus had visited town; a local white young woman was allegedly raped; six young black men were rounded up and taken to jail. Then a mob of many thousands of white people stormed the jail, seized the black men, "tried" them on the spot, and convicted three. Those three men—Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie—were hanged that evening from a lamppost in the center of town, while the police did virtually nothing to interfere.
A history of the episode, The Lynchings in Duluth by local author Michael Fedo, includes a photo of the murdered black men, two still strung up and one's body lying on the street, as a rapt white crowd looks on. That photo was made into a popular postcard, and a cropped version of it, minus the bodies, is the cover of Fedo's book, as shown below with a related work. The full-frame photo of the lynching is too gruesome to include here—but again, in keeping with Ta-Nehisi's theme, it's important to note that there was a time when people bought it and sent it through the mail. This happened more often in the South than elsewhere, but it was an American rather than a Southern evil.
In another book of essays about his growing-up in Duluth, Zenith City, Michael Fedo (whom we happened to hear speak in Duluth earlier this month) describes the region's long, willed suppression of all mention or memory of the lynching, which naturally made me think of the forced-forgetting of Tiananmen Square in China. He had barely heard of it as a child but stumbled upon a reference to it in the 1970s, and wrote his history, which was originally called They Was Just Niggers, after a remark by someone in the lynch mob.
In 2000 a local group began a movement to commemorate the episode. Three years later, the dramatic public-art memorial shown in the photo at top was dedicated at the very site of the lynching. It has full-sized bronze renderings of the three men, unsparing descriptions of the violence, and a large quote from Edmund Burke: "An event has happened upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent."
The monument is in a still-rough area of Duluth's unevenly improving downtown. Here is the scene directly across the street, looking from the memorial plaza toward the Paul Robeson ballroom and the site where the three men were hanged.
Still the monument is there, barely one minute's walk from the main-drag Superior Street. I can't confirm what I heard from several people in Duluth: that this is the only such monument of its type in America, or at least the most detailed and personalized about its victims. (For a somewhat skeptical perspective on the monument from a Duluther, see this on NPR a few years ago.) But it's different from, and more un-ignorable than, anything I've seen elsewhere, whether in the deep South or in some of the Midwestern states where the Klan flourished in the 1920s. It is in the spirit of the reparation of which Ta-Nehisi writes.
Duluth is a city I've long enjoyed and admired, and in upcoming dispatches my wife Deb and I will go into some of the business-and-technology reasons to pay attention to it now. (Plus, it just won the meaningless-but-interesting Outside magazine 2014 poll on overall best place to live, edging out Asheville, N.C. in the semifinals and Provo, Utah in the finals.) For the moment I'm concentrating on its role in "reparations," and the surprising step this far-Northern, always overwhelmingly white city decided to take.
With that prelude, let's dig back into the mailbox on the "Endless Civil War" theme, especially in the wake of the narrow but welcome defeat of neo-Confederate candidate Chris McDaniel in Mississippi. Say what you will about why Sen. Thad Cochran felt that he had to appeal to black voters, the plain fact of his doing so is a plus. Much of what we have reported from the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi has also been on-balance positive about the state, for instance here, here, here, and here. Readers agreed and disagreed here and here and here.
In our previous installment, I quoted a Jackson-area attorney, Zachary Bonner, on how tired everyone in Mississippi was of being treated as a specimen of America at its most benighted and, well, Faulknerian. He specifically complained about a CNN "Parts Unknown" feature on the state by Anthony Bourdain. Now some reader response to his views.
"Disappointed." From a reader in Philadelphia:
I have to say I’m a little disappointed in your giving so much valuable blog space to someone like Bonner.
I’ll take the multicultural take of Bourdain, PyInfamous, Stacey Winters, Geno Lee, Willie Seaberry and Willie Simmons every day and twice on Sunday over that of a privileged-for-life white dude with a JD who works for a suit and tie law firm and lives in the lily-white enclave of Ridgeland. A law firm, I might note, that contains not a single woman or person of color, but plenty of names like [a classic Southern name, ending in III]. So much for the lip service to “it doesn’t matter if the man is black or white”.
Rich white dudes like Bonner and his law firm buddies have been speaking about and controlling the narrative of Mississippi for 400 years. We don’t need another one telling us how Bourdain got it wrong and we certainly don’t need him speaking for Geno Lee.
"Whites in Mississippi won't help blacks." On a parallel theme, from a reader in Texas:
About seven years ago I attended a conference of Catholic charities that had received funds from [a large] Catholic foundation. The purpose of the conference was to train the attendees in good corporate governance and financial sustainability because the foundation's grants only lasted three years and would not be renewed.
One of the nonprofits attending was one founded by a Jesuit in, I believe, northern Mississippi. That agency served poor rural African Americans.
At lunch after a fundraising presentation the ED of the Mississippi agency expressed frustration and concern to our table at the inapplicability of the recent training to their situation. Fresh from the training and full of hope among like-minded folk we offered thoughtful suggestions.
The ED just shook her head and said something to this effect:
In Mississippi white people do not give to nonprofits that serve African Americans.
"At least some hope for a better future." Ronald Parlato, who now lives in DC, writes:
I've been reading your articles about Columbus and the Golden Triangle of Mississippi with great interest.
I am a Connecticut Yankee, longtime resident of DC, but Columbus is my second home. I have been traveling through the Deep South and especially Mississippi for years. As many have said before me, "You cannot understand American history without understanding the South", and through my many visits I feel I have at least begun to understand what the South was and is.
When I first told my Northern liberal friends that my wife and I were going to Mississippi for vacation, I got more than the usual quizzical stares. "You shouldn't do that", they said. I was going into the maw of the beast and my visits legitimized an eternally racist, ignorant, and backward society. I was, in other words, a traitor.
My wife was told to remove the cotton plant from her desk at the office because it was racist and oppressive, a reminder of the chains of slavery.
Photographs of meticulously restored antebellum houses were off-limits. How could I have stayed in those symbols of a brutal Southern past?
The more I stayed in those wonderful houses, of course, the more I learned.
In one, I read the plantation logs and journals of the original owner. What I had read in Time on the Cross (the economics of slavery) became real, immediate, and instructional. I could see what this particular slave owner had spent on his slaves (food, shelter, clothes, health care, etc.) and what was his return.
Along the way I stopped in eateries, antique stores, gas stations, police stations, and fire houses. People were always willing to talk, and old folk went on and on about the way it was. I didn't bring up civil rights, nor did they, and as a result I heard about the regular, ordinary life of small Southern towns.
Southerners themselves say that they have an inferiority complex and are very welcoming to Northerners who seem to take a genuine, non-judgmental interest in their lives and their history.
On more than one occasion, I would be asked by a curious passers-by in out-of-the way places in Mississippi, "What on earth are you doing here?". In other words, why would a Northerner, of all people, voluntarily visit the South. Northerners, when hearing of my sojourns in Mississippi were no different and would always ask, "Do you have family there?" - the only possible reason for visiting such a benighted place.
After these many years and a lot of Southern history (if you haven't already, I would suggest Eric Foner's work on Reconstruction, the best of the lot [JF note: Yes, I have, and agree]), I have begun to understand Southern resentment, conservative politics, and the cultural distinctness of the region.
Not only is Mississippi on the bottom of the all socio-economic indicators, is is the most fundamentalist of any state. Dismissal of evolution and acceptance of the Bible as the literal word of God are common.
Conservative politics are easier to understand if observed through this lens.
I return to Columbus every year for at least two months, and I am now on the board of the fledgling Tennessee Williams Foundation. [JF note: Williams was born in downtown Columbus, and his birth house is now a museum.] I have taught literature at Mississippi University for Women, helped produce the yearly performances of Williams by the Tennessee Williams Tribute, and write for a local paper.
Most importantly I have made many friends - many I would never have met back home. I keep intending to write the stories of many of my local heroes who despite everything - poverty, prison, backwoods upbringing - keep working and working hard. Their refusal to take 'government handouts' is not political, but personal.
I have been looking for [Mississippi] success stories for years and maybe with Severstal, Yokahama, the Air Force Base, the W, Eastern Mississippi Community College, and Tennessee Williams there is at least some hope for a better future. I have seen too many Mississippi towns die a sorry death, and I want Columbus to thrive.
Yesterday I presented William Polk's assessment of America's strategic opportunities, and limits, in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the environs. Among other things this was a caution against continuing to make things worse through continued use of America's most obvious, though often least appropriate, means of influence: its military.
Now George Friedman, of Stratfor, has an analysis of U.S. options in Iraq and Ukraine that is very much worth reading as a complement. Over the years I've agreed and disagreed with various Stratfor presentations. This one seems very sensible and useful for me. You can read the whole thing at the original site—it's not even very long—but here are a few samples.
An obvious but often overlooked truth:
Military operations that cannot succeed, or can succeed only with such exorbitant effort that they exhaust the combatant, are irrational. Therefore, the first measure of any current strategy in either Ukraine or Iraq is its sheer plausibility.
That truth applied to Iraq:
There is no native power that can unite Iraq. No one has the strength. The assumption is that the United States could hold Iraq together -- thus the demand by some in Iraq and the United States that the United States massively intervene would make sense....
The U.S. invasion ultimately failed to create a coherent government in Iraq and helped create the current circumstance. As much as various factions would want the United States to intervene on their behalf, the end result would be a multi-sided civil war with the United States in the center, unable to suppress the war with military means because the primary issue is a political one.
As applied also to Ukraine:
When we consider Ukraine and Iraq, they are of course radically different, but they have a single thing in common: To the extent that the United States has any interest in the regions, it cannot act with direct force. Instead, it must act with indirect force by using the interests and hostilities of the parties on the ground to serve as the first line of containment....
It is not possible for the United States to use direct force to impose a solution on Ukraine or Iraq. This is not because war cannot be a solution to evil, as World War II was. It is because the cost, the time of preparation and the bloodshed of effective war can be staggering.
A golden rule of warfare:
Limiting wars to those that are in the national interest and can be won eliminates many wars.
The wisdom of Ike:
Dwight Eisenhower was... far from a pacifist and far from passive. He acted when he needed to, using all means necessary. But as a general, he understood that while the threat of war was essential to credibility, there were many other tools that allowed Washington to avoid war and preserve the republic.
Eisenhower was a subtle and experienced man. It is one thing to want to avoid war; it is another to know how to do it. Eisenhower did not refuse to act, but instead acted decisively and with minimal risk. Obama's speech at West Point indicated hesitancy toward war. It will be interesting to see whether he has mastered the other tools he will need in dealing with Ukraine and Iraq. It helps to have been a warrior to know how to avoid war.
Now he is back with an assessment of how the United States ended up in the situation it now confronts throughout the Middle East, and what if anything it might do to improve—or at least avoid worsening—its and the region's prospects. Whether or not you agree with all details of his analysis, I hope you will find it useful and clarifying, as I have, in showing the connections among the crises throughout the region, and in suggesting guidelines for U.S. response. I am posting this in full, with his permission and at his request. Now, over to William Polk:
The Mental Block and The Broadside
by William R. Polk
Analysis of foreign affairs problems often ends in a mental block. As we have seen in each of our recent crises—Somalia, Mali, Libya, Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine and Iran—"practical" men of affairs want quick answers: they say in effect, 'don't bother us with talk about how we got here; this is where we are; so what do we do now?' The result, predictably, is a sort of nervous tick in the body politic: we lurch from one emergency to the next in an unending sequence.
This is not new. We all have heard the quip: "ready, fire, aim." In fact those words were not just a joke. For centuries after infantry soldier were given the rifle, they were ordered not to take the time to aim; rather, they were instructed just to point in the general direction of the enemy and fire. Their commanders believed that it was the mass impact, the "broadside," that won the day.
Our leaders still believe it. They think that our "shock and awe," our marvelous technology measured in stealth bombers, drones, all-knowing intelligence, our massed and highly mobile troops and our money constitute a devastating broadside. All we have to do is to point in the right direction and shoot.
So we shoot and then shoot again and again. We win each battle, but the battles keep happening. And to our chagrin, we don't seem to be winning the wars. By almost any criterion, we are less "victorious" today than half a century ago. [continued]
Professionally, I find it disturbing to keep repeating such simple observations. Like some of my colleagues, I had hoped that the "lesson" of Vietnam would be learned. It was not. Indeed, the guru of the neoconservatives, Sam Huntington, memorably proclaimed that there was no lesson that could be drawn from Vietnam. He led the way, but today he has had many acolytes. They are still acting as guides of our government and the media.
So what do they tell us? Like Huntington they say that we have nothing to learn from the expenditure of our blood, sweat and tears—not to quibble about the trillions of dollars. As each crisis explodes, our guides told us that it is unique, has no usefully analyzed background, is not to be seen in a sequence of events and decisions. It just is. So it requires immediate action of the kind we know how to take—a broadside.
Also never-mind what motivates the "other-side." What they think might be of interest to ivory-tower historians or a few curious members of the chattering class, but in the real world they do not command attention. Real men just act!
Examples abound. Take Somalia: those wretched people are just a bunch of terrorists living in a failed state—the pirates of the modern world. Simple. We knew what to do about them! That "appreciation," as they say in the intelligence trade, was reached some years ago , and we are still doing "our thing."
As a few of us pointed out, "our thing" did not stop out-of-work, hungry and able men from doing "their thing." When fishermen found their fishing sites virtually destroyed by industrial-scale fleets, armed with sonar, radar and mile-long drag nets and, unable to catch fish and they faced starvation, they discovered piracy. Since they already had boats, were good sailors and were near a major cargo-shipping lane, transition to that new trade was easy. We knew the answer: military force. However, we have seen that sending the Navy is expensive and it did not stop desperate men. No one considered stopping the overfishing before the fishermen turned pirate.
Also, in Somalia, we smugly talk about the "failed state." But, as the Somalis see themselves, they are not a state at all; rather, they are a collection of separate societies living under a shared cultural-religious system. That, in fact, is how all our ancestors lived until the nation-state system evolved in Europe. Now most of us find it almost inconceivable that the Somalis do not adopt our system. Why are they so backward? If they would just shape up, piracy would end and peace would come. So we try to attach our institutions to their social organization. But, when the Somalis stubbornly try to retain their system, we try our best to modernize, reform, subvert or destroy it. We are still trying each of these or all of them together.
Variations on the Somali theme can be witnessed around the world as we jump from one crisis to the next. We prove to be good tacticians but not strategists, shooters but not aimers, and, above all, loud talkers but poor listeners.
In Syria also we see exemplified our penchant to rely on force, for leaping before we look. From almost the first days that it emerged from under an oppressive French rule (that included artillery barrages on its capital), we have been engaged in subversive actions designed to overthrow its inexperienced leaders and the fragile institutions they represented. Only recently have our actions been documented for us, but, having been affected by them, the Syrians have long known about them. Cumulatively, over more than half a century, our actions have created a record of threats and subversive acts of which we are largely oblivious but which is common knowledge to them. Consequently, it is the rare Syrian of any political or religious persuasion who believes that our aims are benevolent.
Thus, when Syria suffered four years of devastating droughts that created conditions like the American "dust bowl" of the 1930s, and we turned down their request for emergency food aid, many Syrians read into our action a sinister purpose. Our public proclamations substantiated their interpretation. And not only proclamations. We and our allies trained, supplied and financed forces, about which we knew practically nothing, to overthrow their government. And we came within hours of a military strike that would have gotten us into another messy, illegal, ill-conceived and probably unwinnable war. That danger appears to have subsided (temporarily?) but we are still engaged in the actions we began in 1949, trying to overthrow the Syrian state.
Let us be clear: the Syrian state is not an attractive organization. Few states are. All states, even democracies, are to one degree or another coercive. We do not let this bother us when we deal with those states that are important or valuable to us and, truth be told, we apply the criterion of freedom rather loosely to our own actions. America's domestic record in civil rights is hardly unblemished, our dealings with the Native Americans constituted genocide and what we did in the Philippines would today be regarded as a war crime. We have engaged in over 200 military actions against foreigners—an average of one a year since we became a state. But, even if we put legality and morality aside, the fact is that we have never managed to find ways to reform other peoples in the idealized image we have of ourselves. So we keep proclaiming the image while acting as our interests appear to demand.
What are those interests? I think that most Americans would today define them largely if not almost exclusively in terms of security. We don't want to live in fear, and we believe that the danger is foreign. The irony, as one of the authors of our Constitution already put it over 200 years ago, is that our principal danger is ourselves. Of course, he could not have guessed the extent: we murdered almost 200,000 of our fellow citizens in the first decade of this century. (That was with guns and knives; we killed about twice that many in the same period with our most dangerous weapon, the automobile.) The number of Americans killed by foreign terrorists in America was less than 3,000. The odds of an American being killed by a terrorist were said to be about 1:20,000,000. But, the number of Americans killed in foreign wars (not counting Vietnam) is approaching 10,000 and the number with long-term disabilities caused by wounds several times as high as the total of all these figures (including Vietnam).
Logically, we should ask why we are willing to pay all the costs especially since they have not accomplished our aim of becoming more secure. I find three answers: first, some of us make money from our "military-industrial complex;" second, politicians find that they win elections by catering to our fascination with war and the arms industry has cleverly parceled out production so that virtually every congressional district contains one supplier and many workers whose jobs depend on it. More directly, lobbyists rent their services by giving them large scale donations. Thus, they have added "congressional" to Eisenhower's identification of the military-industrial complex. And, third, the lesson our military drew from the Vietnam war was to keep those of us who counted politically, the white, still-relatively prosperous middle class, from getting hurt. A large part of those deployed in harms way today are not "us" but politically and economically marginal members of our society or even foreigners.
Now, as we watch day-by-day in the media, we can see that we are on the brink of a replay of our last failure: Iraq. So, at the risk of exposing myself to the charge that I am an ivory-tower historian, allow me a minute or so of "chatter" on how we got where we are and speculate on what might happen.
First, the sequence: like Syria, Iraq had a relatively short time to develop its governing institutions. When I lived there in 1952, it was "technically" independent but, as everyone knew, the British ruled the country though their proxies. The proxies were allowed to enrich themselves. In return, they raised no problems about the issue that was really important to the British, exporting at minimal cost Iraq's oil. Then, the proxies and the British then made a serious mistake. They allowed increasing numbers of Iraqis to get educated. Worse, those Iraqis began to copy their British and American teachers: they bit into the "apple" of nationalism. Iraq's expulsion from the British-ruled Eden was just a matter of time. And not much of that. When it happened, it was sudden. In 1958, the army made a coup d’état.
Coups d’état are not unusual. We have promoted many and not just in the Middle East but also in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Those that are successful are usually carried out by the single effective organ of weak states, the security forces. They alone are unified, armed and mobile. Those states most susceptible to coups rarely have functioning civil institutions that can balance the military. Iraq had none. So the country fell under the rule of successive dictators.
However we felt in principle about the dictators, in practice we either found them useful or at least did not object to their activities. Iraq was our ally against Iran; so we supplied Saddam with the weapons of war, particularly our satellite intelligence, and even with the stocks to manufacture poison gas. It was only when we thought we no longer needed him and he blundered into Kuwait (and seemed about to invade Saudi Arabia where we had the truly strategic interest of oil) that we decided to get rid of him. That was not a difficult task. Saddam's army was battle worn; its equipment was obsolescent; his treasury was empty; he had many enemies and few friends—even Hafez al-Assad's Syrian regime was on our side.
So the war looked easy. Wars often do to those who want to start them. But as Clausewitz warned, warfare is always unpredictable. Moreover, it changes those who fight: once the "dogs of war" are unleashed, they often turn rabid. They attack the good and the bad, the adults and the children, the people and their organizations. Thus, chaos almost always follows. We see this clearly in Iraq. Saddam was a ruthless dictator who refused to share political power and did some terrible things; however, in some spheres his regime functioned constructively. He used much of the increase of Iraq's income that resulted from the removal of British control of oil to fund economic and social development. Schools, universities, hospitals, factories, theaters and museums proliferated; education became free and nearly universal; the citizens benefited from the one of the best public health systems then in operation; employment became so "full" that a plan was developed to siphon off some of Egypt's vast peasant class to work Iraq's fields. Iraq became a secular state in which women were freer than in most of the world. True, Saddam suppressed the Kurds and the Shiis, but we don't object much to the practice of similar policies against minorities in Asia, Africa and parts of Europe and Latin America.
Saddam's sin was not what he did in Iraq but that he thwarted us on two issues America would not tolerate his interference: oil in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and Israel's relation with the Palestinians and its regional dominance. War could have been avoided by adroit diplomacy but it was avidly embraced in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration and its neoconservative guides. Their policy convinced the Iraqis that nothing they could do would stop it. They were right. We fired the broadside.
In the broadside we destroyed not only Saddam's regime. Inevitably; we killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, our use of depleted uranium artillery shells is believed to have caused a seven-fold rise in cancer among survivors; our bombs, shells and the nearly 1,000 cruise missiles we fired destroyed much of the country's infrastructure and caused millions of people to lose their homes, their jobs and their access to education and public health care. And, most important, in the chaos that followed the invasion, the fragile "social contract" that had linked together the inhabitants was voided. Terror set the rules. Hope disappeared in misery. Whole neighborhoods were emptied as violent and newly empowered armed men "ethnically cleansed" them. Former neighbors became deadly enemies. The government we installed made Saddam's regime appear in contrast as civil libertarian.
A whirlwind, as the Old Testament warns us, is the inevitable reaction to the sowing of the wind of war. That is what we are seeing today in Iraq. Now, it seems, President Obama has decided to try whistling in the wind.
Whistling in the wind is the least dangerous interpretation of Mr. Obama's decision to put 300 "advisors" into Iraq—where have we heard of such a move before! Those of us who are old enough will remember that President Kennedy began in the same way. Arguably he was a bit more realistic, sending initially about six times that many "Special Forces" (then called "Green Berets") initially to Vietnam. Both Kennedy and Obama swore not to send ground troops, but Obama can at least claim credit for being more honest: our "advisors" are to be "combat ready."
So instead of "security," or even an approximation of what that word might mean, and certainly no reasonably clear strategy on how to attain it, we find ourselves in the following disarray:
Starting in the west and moving east: in Libya, having destroyed the Qaddafi regime, we unleashed forces that have virtually torn Libya apart and have spilled over into Central Africa, opening a new area of instability. In Egypt, the "non-coup-coup" of General Sisi has produced no ideas on what to do to help the Egyptian people except to execute large numbers of their religious leaders; he has also made clear his suspicion of and opposition to us. In occupied Palestine, the Israeli state is reducing the population to misery and driving it to rage while, in Washington, its extreme right-wing government is thumbing its nose at its benefactor, America. Our relations have never been worse. In Syria, we are engaged in arming, training and funding essentially the same people whom the new Egyptian regime is about to hang and whom we are considering bombing in Iraq. In Iraq, we are about to become engaged in supporting the regime we installed and which is the close ally of the Syrian and Iranian regimes that we have been trying for years to destroy; yet in Iran, we appear to be on the point of reversing our policy of destroying its government and seeking its help to defeat the insurgents in Iraq. And on and on.
Admittedly, in my day in planning American policy in the Middle East, we never had to find our ways out of such a disarray. My tasks were comparatively easy. So, perhaps, our actions are aspects of a shrewd, nimble and skillful policy that I am simply not clever enough to understand. I certainly hope so.
But, even if they are, what is the "bottom line," as businessmen like to say, in terms of our objective of being "secure?"
Allow me a personal answer. When I first traveled through the deserts, farm lands, villages and cities of Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, unfailingly, I was welcomed, invited into homes, fed and cared for. Today, I would risk being shot into any of the areas most affected by American policy.
Get the broadside ready. But in which direction should we point it?
William R. Polk was a Member of the Policy Planning Council, responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia, for 4 years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, He was a member of the three-men Crisis Management Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Later he was Professor of History at the University of Chicago, founding director of the Middle Eastern Studies Center and President of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of some 17 books on world affairs, including The United States and the Arab World; The Elusive Peace, the Middle East in the Twentieth Century; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency and Terrorism; Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs and numerous articles in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, Harpers, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Le Monde Diplomatique. He has lectured at many universities and at the Council on Foreign Relations, Chatham House, Sciences Po, the Soviet Academy of Sciences and has appeared frequently on NPR, the BBC, CBS and other networks. His most recent books, both available on Amazon, are Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change and Blind Man’s Buff, a Novel.
Talk shows aren't bringing on Captain Hazelwood to discuss safe shipping. But they still can't get enough of the Hazelwoods of foreign policy. Also, whether the "New York Times paradox" applies to public radio.
Marilyn Monroe statue in Chinese scrapyard. Explanation below. (Reuters)
A harvest of items worth attention:
1) Media Decline Watch, public radio edition. Anyone who has spent time in Seattle knows the voice and sensibility of Steve Scher. He has been a long-time urbane host and interviewer on the public radio station KUOW. He has made a place in the public awareness similar to that of Michael Krasny on KQED in San Francisco, or Diane Rehm on WAMU in Washington, or Larry Mantle on KPCC in Southern California, or their mainstay counterparts across the country. I was on the show sometimes, and listened to it frequently, in the years we lived in Seattle.
This story by David Brewster, himself a stalwart of Seattle journalism, on the regional news site Crosscut is a sobering account of why Scher decided to take himself out of the radio business. You can read the story yourself, but it helps illustrate public radio's version of what I think of as the modern "New York Times paradox."
The paradox is that digital technology has made the NYT more influential worldwide than it has ever been before, and more than any other single news organization in history. And that same technology has put the Times in terrible economic straits. In the Times's case, I've always assumed that this paradox will be resolved in its favor. It will find a way to convert its global brand into some kind of sustainable business.
The Scher story is a reminder that there may be a comparable "public radio paradox." In influence, public radio in all its incarnations is more important than ever. (The incarnations include the mother-ship NPR, PRI, APM (host of our American Futures-partner Marketplace), the numerous local stations, some state and regional alliances, and others.) And yet NPR layoffs and cutbacks are always in the news, and many other parts of the public radio ecosystem are in financial trouble. This paradox will be harder to resolve than the NYT's, for a variety of reasons: because there are so many players, because there are rivalries among some of them, because they're not run as normal businesses, and because their governing structure is more cumbersome than that of a family business. But it's in everyone's interest that they succeed.
2) A walk on the Aussie side, Baffler edition. On first exposure to Australia, many Americans think, "Hey, it's a nicer version of home." In many (pleasant) visits over the years, I've come to think that—both to its credit and not—Australia is a very deeply different place from the United States. In The Baffler, Sarah Burnside, an Aussie, explains some of the reasons why.
3) Oh calm down, Boomer-finances edition. Scare-mongering is one of our national pastimes, in realms from aviation safety ("My plane almost crashed!") to China's rise or budget deficits. In the American Scholar, my friend Lincoln Caplan debunks a fiscal version of scare-talk: the idea that Boomer-era retirement and medical demands will bankrupt us all. Calm down, he says:
A demographic tool has become an economic one, treating a demographic challenge as both an economic crisis and a basis for pessimism justifying drastic reductions in bedrock government programs, including those supporting children and the poor. Even at state and local levels, the aging boomer demographic is repeatedly blamed for our economic difficulties. That is a lamentable mistake...
The dependency ratio does not justify the solutions that the alarmists propose. Just as important, perhaps, it fails to account for the striking benefits accruing from the dramatic increase in life expectancy in the United States during the 20th century—what the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on an Aging Society called “one of the greatest cultural and scientific advances in our history.”
4) Seriously, why are we still hearing from Cheney, Kristol, et al? After the Exxon Valdez, cable news wasn't bringing us Captain Hazelwood as expert commentator on maritime safety. After the next big air disaster, we're not going have the Malaysian aviation authorities on to offer advice. But when it comes to foreign policy, the analysts who have always been wrong and the officials who put wrong policy into effect keep commanding air time. Today, incredibly, ABC gave Dick Cheney an extended platform on This Week with more deferential questioning than Megyn Kelly had applied on Fox News.
Why? Why? If TV is not serving up Hazelwood or the Malaysian savants, or O.J. on managing a post-sports career, why are they bringing us Kristol and Cheney? In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt offers not excuses but diagnostic-style explanations. You can see them here.
5) Sports news, throwing department. For background on the "Throwing Like a Girl" concept, please see this original article and follow-ups like this and this.
The last of these links takes you to a slo-mo video of the Giants' Tim Lincecum throwing. Tim Heffernan suggests points to an incredible GIF of the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and says we need a new category, "throwing like a machine." I can't embed it, but you can see it here.
6) OK, what about Marilyn Monroe? My friend Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet, says that the standard outside reaction to photos of the statue in a Chinese scrap yard, has been some variation on: Oh, those wacky Chinese! To the contrary, Adam says. He explains why here.
An expert on being wrong shares his thoughts. (Reuters)
A few hours ago I said (sincerely) that a number of prominent officials who had set the stage for today's disaster in Iraq deserved respect for their silence as their successors chose among the least-terrible of available options.
I unwisely included Dick Cheney, former vice president and most ill-tempered figure to hold national office since Richard Nixon, on that list.
If I'd waited a little while, I would have seen a new op-ed by Cheney and his daughter Liz in (where else!) the WSJ denouncing the Obama administration's fecklessness about Iraq and much else. They say, unironically, about the current occupant of the White House:
Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.
You want a specimen of being so wrong about so much at the expense of so many? Consider the thoughts of one Richard B. Cheney, in a major speech to the VFW in August 2002, in the run-up to the war:
Another argument holds that opposing Saddam Hussein would cause even greater troubles in that part of the world, and interfere with the larger war against terror. I believe the opposite is true.
Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace.
As for the reaction of the Arab "street," the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are "sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans." Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of Jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991
"The freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace." Yes, that is exactly how historians will register the lasting effects of the invasion for which Cheney was a major proponent and decision-maker. Along with the rest of his forecasts. What a guy.
The big difference between the pro- and anti-Iraq war camps a dozen years ago was not about the odiousness of Saddam Hussein, nor (with the exception of exaggerated "smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud" scare-talk) an awareness of the damage he could do in his own country or elsewhere.
Instead the difference turned on whether you imagined that an armed invasion, by the world's dominant high-tech military, working mainly on its own (since it had failed to amass UN or broadly allied support), was on balance likely to "solve" the problem, much as the Civil War "solved" the problem of Confederate breakaway and World War II solved the problem of Nazi Germany. Or whether, on the contrary, an American invasion was unlikely to make things better, likely to make them worse, and certain to entangle American lives, fortune, diplomacy, and honor in the resulting unsolved mess for many years to come.
If you believed the former, you could be confidently pro-war. If the latter, the reverse.
Last night I pointed out that many of the people who had cocksurely argued in favor of the war were now resurfacing unchastened to offer "expert" views. Now let's consider views from some people who by contrast have earned a claim on our attention, in particular about Iraq.
1) William Polk, and Chuck Spinney. I've mentioned them before, many times. William Polk—a longtime scholar and diplomat whose first Atlantic article about Iraq was published in 1958—for his views on Syria and Afghanistan and related themes; Chuck Spinney—a longtime and prescient defense analyst whom I first wrote about in National Defense—for his views on strategy in all theaters, from American politics to the Middle East.
Now they are together, with Spinney providing an introduction to a new essay by Polk about America's largest strategic choices. Sample from Spinney:
This week Mr. Obama opened the door to the possibility of bombing ISIS Jihadis in Iraq to support the floundering Shi’ite government we installed. Yet, as Patrick Cockburn of the Independent has reported, the ISIS Jihadis in Syria and Iraq are coalescing into one proto-caliphate in their common Sunni areas. [see map at top of this item].
This raises the real possibility that we could end up arming and bombing the same Jihadis. Such a development would increase the potential of unknowable blowbacks throughout the entire region, especially for the Kurdish ethnic groups in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, as well as the state of Turkey itself.
Sample from Polk, on the American predilection for military "solutions" to international problems:
The rate of success of these [military] aspects of our foreign policy, even in the Nineteenth century, was low. Failure to accomplish the desired or professed outcome is shown by the fact that within a few years of the American intervention, the condition that had led to the intervention recurred.
The rate of failure has dramatically increased in recent years. This is because we are operating in a world that is increasingly politically sensitive. Today even poor, weak, uneducated and corrupt nations become focused by the actions of foreigners. Whereas before, a few members of the native elite made the decisions, today we face “fronts.” parties, tribes and independent opinion leaders. So the “window of opportunity” for foreign intervention, once at least occasionally partly open, is now often shut.
There is no way Washington should attempt to reenter this Iraqi agony again. The U.S. already destroyed the political, economic and social infrastructure of Iraq, turning it into an anarchic free-for-all of every clan for itself.... There is no longer any state to provide protection. And you do not dare turn your security over to an untested, untrusted new state structure for a long, long time....
Iraq, perhaps with help from its two neighbors [Turkey and Iran], must come to terms with its own internal crisis. It can do so; sectarianism as a guiding obsession is not written in stone. Strong sectarian identity currently reflects the insecurities and fears of a complex society in chaos and political and social transition.
U.S. intervention, already once disastrous, can only delay the day when Iraqis must deal with each other again. We cannot fix it. Television images of ISIS aside, the problem belongs to the region more than it does to us.
This counsel doesn't easily fit the part of a political speech or a talk-show segment where you are supposed to say, "Well, we have to do something." But it fits the history of the past dozen years, and long before, much better than most "do something" exhortations have, especially when the somethings involve troops, bombs, and drones.
3) Lawrence Wright. You know him as author of The Looming Tower and other articles; I know him as a friend from Texas Monthly and afterwards; we all look to him for insight on the region. His new New Yorker entry is short on to-do items but vividly describes Iraq's current agonies. Sample:
The Islamist storm passing through Iraq right now has been building up since the United States invaded the country in 2003, which unleashed longstanding sectarian rivalries that spilled over into civil war....
At the time of the American invasion, Al Qaeda was essentially defeated, scattered, and discredited all over the Muslim world. Iraq had nothing to do with Al Qaeda then....
Al Qaeda was originally envisioned as a kind of Sunni foreign legion, which would defend Muslim lands from Western occupation. What bin Laden invoked as an inciting incident for his war on the West was the First Iraq War, in 1990, when half a million American and coalition troops were garrisoned in Saudi Arabia in their successful campaign to repel the forces of Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait.
Bin Laden had asked Zarqawi to merge his forces with Al Qaeda, in 2000, but Zarqawi had a different goal in mind. He hoped to provoke an Islamic civil war, and, for his purposes, there was no better venue than the fractured state of Iraq, which sits astride the Sunni-Shiite fault line.
4) Eric Shinseki, again. This is slightly off-topic, but worth mentioning. In 2002, then-General Shinseki was in the news for cautioning that occupying Iraq would be a very hard, prolonged, and troop-intensive process. His then-superior within the Pentagon's civilian chain of command, Paul Wolfowitz, memorably sneered away Shinseki's warnings at a congressional hearing.
Now Shinseki is of course known mainly for his VA travails. This essay in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientistsputs his recent resignation as head of the VA in perspective. Sample:
There is a rich anthropological literature on scapegoats. Scapegoats are people (or sometimes animals) who are held responsible for calamities they did not cause, and are sacrificed.... In the words of the great anthropological philosopher Rene Girard, “The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable.”
Eric Shinseki is a modern American scapegoat.... Like Pentagon generals persuaded by body count numbers inflated by their subordinates that they were winning in Vietnam, Shinseki believed the numbers coming to him from his bureaucracy and thought his agency was improving its care for the veterans in his charge.
When the scandal broke, many in Congress called Shinseki out for weak leadership or criticized a systemic lack of integrity among VA bureaucrats. But VA administrators were just doing what those at the bottom of a bureaucracy always do when confronted with unfair metrics of accountability: Unable to change the system, they fake the numbers.... Just as junior officers inflated body counts in Vietnam so they wouldn’t be punished, so low-level VA officials responded to impossible demands for efficiency with fantasy book-keeping.
If Congress wanted to find the true causes of the scandal, it had only to look in the mirror. Congress put the VA in an impossible situation by not providing the resources the agency needed to handle the massive influx of veterans wounded in the wars Congress had voted to authorize.
To wrap up this look on the bright side, I'll say (seriously) that it is admirable of Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Tommy Franks, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney,* and of course George W. Bush to have stayed off the "here's what to do about Iraq" circuit this past week.
* I should have known that Cheney's self-restraint could not last. He and his daughter share their wisdom in the WSJ. This will be worth a follow-up post.
If you're anything like me, when you hear the words "wise insights about the Iraq war," two names that immediately come to mind are Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby.
Fortunately the Hertog Institute has engaged them both to teach a course, "The War in Iraq: A Study in Decision-Making."
I will confess that when someone told me about this today, I assumed it was an Onion-style joke. As in, "The Work-Family Balance: Getting It Right," co-taught by John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer. But it turns out to be real. Or "real."
In the cause of public knowledge, I am happy to offer royalty-free use of several items for the reading list. Like:
"The Fifty-First State?" from the year before the war. The Wolfowitz-Libby "study in decision-making" might consider why on Earth so many obvious implications of the war were blithely dismissed ahead of time, including by these two men. Or ...
"Blind into Baghdad," about the grotesque combination of arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence that characterized decision-making about the war. Or ...
"Bush's Lost Year," about the sequence of advantages squandered, opportunities missed, and crucial wrong bets made in the months just after the 9/11 attacks. Students might find this one particularly interesting, since it begins with a long interview with their own Professor Wolfowitz. For the Cliff's Notes version, see after the jump.
Somehow I am guessing that the professors might pass up my generous offer. So instead, here's another "at first I thought this was a joke" candidate: a new essay by William Kristol and Frederick Kagan in Kristol's Weekly Standard with advice about Iraq:
I'll give Kristol and the Kagan brothers this: They are consistent, in attitude as well as typography and headline writing and page layout. Here is what Kristol and Robert Kagan were writing 12 years ago, shortly after the 9/11 attacks:
Sample of their level-headed and confirmed-by-history views: "The Iraq threat is enormous. It gets bigger with every day that passes."
Am I sounding a little testy here? You bet. We all make mistakes. But we are talking about people in public life—writers, politicians, academics—who got the biggest strategic call in many decades completely wrong. Wrong as a matter of analysis, wrong as a matter of planning, wrong as a matter of execution, wrong in conceiving American interests in the broadest sense. None of these people did that intentionally, and many of them have honestly reflected and learned. But we now live with (and many, many people have died because of) the consequences of their gross misjudgments a dozen years ago. In the circumstances, they might have the decency to shut the hell up on this particular topic for a while. They helped create the disaster Iraqis and others are now dealing with. They have earned the right not to be listened to.
* * *
Brian Beutler in The New Republic goes into this standing-to-speak issue very clear-headedly. For the record, he takes my side of the argument, sort of. Also, last week in New York magazine Frank Rich talked about the strange non-accountability of the liberal-hawk faction. His colleague Eric Benson interviewed me on that theme. For Kristol as a special case of someone so wrong so often that he's a reliable reverse-predictor guide to reality, see this, which doesn't go into his enthusiasm even now for Sarah Palin.
And if you would like to see something not testy but deservedly bitter, consider what Andrew Bacevich says most recently about unrepentant war mongers.
Update: I hadn't seen until now that Paul "Let's Disband the Iraqi Army, What Could Go Wrong?" Bremer has offered his wisdom about Iraq in the WSJ. Jeesh! Also see this by Steve Benen at the Maddow blog, and this by Katrina Vanden Heuvel in the WaPo.
* * *
My article "Bush's Lost Year" was about the very subject of this class, decision-making in the Iraq war. Here is the way it ended:
To govern is to choose, and the choices made in 2002 were fateful. The United States began that year shocked and wounded, but with tremendous strategic advantages. Its population was more closely united behind its leadership than it had been in fifty years. World opinion was strongly sympathetic. Longtime allies were eager to help; longtime antagonists were silent. The federal budget was nearly in balance, making ambitious projects feasible. The U.S. military was superbly equipped, trained, and prepared. An immediate foe was evident—and vulnerable—in Afghanistan. For the longer-term effort against Islamic extremism the Administration could draw on a mature school of thought from academics, regional specialists, and its own intelligence agencies. All that was required was to think broadly about the threats to the country, and creatively about the responses.
The Bush Administration chose another path. Implicitly at the beginning of 2002, and as a matter of formal policy by the end, it placed all other considerations second to regime change in Iraq. It hampered the campaign in Afghanistan before fighting began and wound it down prematurely, along the way losing the chance to capture Osama bin Laden. It turned a blind eye to misdeeds in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and to WMD threats from North Korea and Iran far more serious than any posed by Saddam Hussein, all in the name of moving toward a showdown with Iraq. It overused and wore out its army in invading Iraq—without committing enough troops for a successful occupation. It saddled the United States with ongoing costs that dwarf its spending for domestic security. And by every available measure it only worsened the risk of future terrorism. In every sense 2002 was a lost year.
That was how it looked to me 10 years ago. And still does.
Richard Rockefeller examining a child in Niger. (Doctors Without Borders)
My wife Deb and I were shocked and heartbroken to learn that our friend Richard Rockefeller had died this morning in an airplane crash. He is in the news because he is a Rockefeller, and because of the tragically dramatic way in which he died. He should be remembered for the kind of person he was and the example he set.
We met Richard decades ago in college, I because I'd learned about his photography via mutual friends on the student paper, Deb because at the same time she and I were getting to know each other Richard was dating (and later married) one of her dorm mates and best friends. Then and now there is no avoiding the pluses and minuses of the name Rockefeller, obviously mostly plus. Richard coped then in a minor way by having his photo credits list his middle name rather than his last name, to avoid possible distraction. In a much deeper and lifelong way he exemplified how we would like to think that people of privilege would use their advantages.
He was personally unassuming, modest, and gracious; professionally accomplished and respected, as a local doctor in Maine and later a health-care strategist and analyst; and intellectually inventive and omni-curious. When we visited him at his house in Maine, he would explain the fisheries and coastal geography and patterns of arrowheads we might find. When he visited us in Washington and elsewhere he would talk increasingly about his work around the world with Doctors Without Borders and at home with victims of PTSD, and the difference that small investments in public health or preventive care could make. I don't know his cousin, longtime West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, as well as I knew Richard. But I will say that Jay Rockefeller's reputation as someone who works steadfastly without claiming the limelight is the better known public-affairs counterpart of the life we saw Richard Rockefeller live.
People often speculate about what they would do "if they could do anything." Richard could have done anything, or nothing—such were his resources and options—and what he chose to do was be of service, to his friends and family and community and eventually his country and the world.
A topic I loved discussing with Richard was aviation. He took up flying very young, he advised me when I was first doing my training, and he took Deb and me with him in his plane for a tour of the coast of Maine. He also recommended to me a very valuable book called The Killing Zone, about the highly perilous first 200+ hours of most pilots' flying experience, before a tragic imagination evolves of how many things can go wrong and the consequences of rashness or miscalculation. Richard was highly experienced with airplanes, conscientious about his recurrent training, and cautious in his approach to an activity that he also loved.
What exactly happened this morning, when the weather near the White Plains airport was very bad but evidently not more than Richard thought he could deal with (and likely had before), is for sorting-out later on. For now I offer sincerest sympathies to his family and friends, and hopes that the reputation of Richard G. Rockefeller, MD, lives on not for the advantages he began with but for the use he made of them.
Later this afternoon my wife Deb and I will be talking with, and to, a group of executives and employees of the Cirrus Aircraft company in Duluth, Minnesota. The Cirrus line of small planes—which now includes the original SR-20, the more powerful SR-22, and the still-in-development new jet, test models which we've seen flying around town—are the ones whose development I followed in the late 1990s and described in Free Flight. Cirrus's transition to ownership by CAIGA, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, was also one of the plot lines in China Airborne.
It will be an interesting day to re-visit Cirrus, because of the latest instance of a Cirrus airplane being in the news. When the Cirrus line made its debut some 15 years ago, its most remarked-upon feature was its unprecedented built-in parachute for the entire airplane that came as standard equipment. This was at the insistence of the founders of the company, Alan Klapmeier and his brother Dale. As I describe in Free Flight, Alan had been involved in a mid-air collision when he was a very young pilot and was lucky to survive. He vowed that when (not if) he and his brother started their own airplane company, he would build in "what if?" protection for emergencies like this. For more about why Cirrus and its parachute were so controversial in the aviation world, and yet why it has enjoyed such runaway popularity among purchasers (making Cirrus the best-selling plane in its category worldwide), please see this account after a parachute "save" in Australia last month, and this after a parachute save in Connecticut last year. (For more on Alan Klapmeier's latest aviation-innovation project, a new plane called the Kestrel, watch this site.)
Yesterday there was another dramatic save, near the very busy suburban airport Hanscom Field in the western suburbs of Boston. As you can see in a TV news report here (not embeddable) the plane for some reason had an engine failure; the woman who was serving as flight instructor calmly reported the situation to the tower, directed the plane during its powerless glide away from the very crowded Burlington shopping mall area and toward a marsh, then pulled the parachute handle, and landed safely with the male flight student. The news station video shows flight instructor and passenger both walking out from the plane.
The LiveATC capture of the air traffic control frequency conveys the drama of the event—and also the impressive calm of all involved. These include the flight instructor, starting with her first report that she is unable to make it back to the airport; the controller, who is juggling that plane's needs with the other normal flow of traffic into Hanscom field; and another pilot who is (it appears) from the same flight club and who immediately flies over to check the disabled plane's condition from above.
That LiveATC recording is also not embeddable, but I promise that if you start listening to the clip (again, it's here) you will find it a dramatic mini-saga. The tone in everyone's voices 5 minutes in, when the other pilot sees what has become of the plane, is remarkable, as you will hear.
This is my only moment for the next few hours, so I will stop now and get this posted rather than prowling around for more photos of the episode or follow-up explanations. They can come later, after I've talked with the Cirrus officials. Signing off now, but please check out the news story and the ATC clip.
There are updates from Mississippi and Minnesota in the queue, but for now let me mention the wonderful news that is foremost in our minds. Please welcome Tide Fallows, who made her debut on Sunday morning, June 8, a week or two ahead of schedule, in San Francisco. Here she is not long after her arrival, resting and holding onto her father's hand.
Back on March 15, 1977, Jody Powell, who was then the White House press secretary, began his daily list of announcements with news of the first child born to the Carter Administration's then-young staff. This was Thomas Mackenzie Fallows, our first son, who had arrived very early that morning at George Washington University hospital in D.C.
These years later, Tom's mature finger is the one you see in the picture above, in the grip of his newborn daughter and first child, Tide Mackenzie Fallows. The parents, Tom and Lizzy Bennett Fallows, love and live around the water; as it happens, Tide was born on World Oceans Day.
She is a beautiful baby, and our second grandchild. Her cousin, nearly three-year-old Jack Fallows, lives at the other end of California, in Corona del Mar. Mother, father, and baby daughter in the San Francisco family are all doing very well—as are mother, father, and son in Southern California too. Loving congratulations to the new parents, and a joyous welcome to young miss Tide—who as the first girl in our lineage in a while will have a lot to teach us all.
A mid-inning conference by the visiting Eau Claire Express.
This evening the political news is out of Virginia, and there is upcoming news in this space from Mississippi and from San Francisco, both of them tomorrow.
But for now, this is how things looked this evening at Wade Stadium in Duluth, Minnesota—an atmospheric WPA-era not-quite-minor-league baseball field that is home to the Duluth Huskies of the Northwoods League. This is a league for promising players who are still active on college rosters, and thus not eligible for pro contracts of any sort. They get expenses and—according to the lifelong Duluth families we sat among in the stadium—most of the players, who come from around the country, spend the summer boarding with volunteer host families in town. Some of the players join their Northwoods teams late because they've been busy in the College World Series and other postseason play.
The home-team Huskies looked strong this evening. They were up 6-1 at the end of the 4th, and came back for 9-7 at the end of the 5th. I asked the native-Duluther sitting next to me, a veteran of the mining industry, whether Northwoods games were generally high-scoring like this, Little League style. He said, No: the Huskies usually didn't get so many runs. But then the visiting Eau Claire Express scored a depressing 2 runs in the top of the ninth, and seven in the top of the 11th—and this is how things stand as I write.
This is a placeholder note about America, and also an announcement about an additional theme in our travels-around-America reports. Last month I had the honor of delivering the 14th annual Casey Shearer Memorial Lecture, at Brown University. Casey Shearer was a talented student journalist and writer in the Brown class of 2000 who, tragically and unexpectedly, died of a heart virus while playing basketball with friends just before he was to graduate. Casey Shearer's influential and popular writings in Brown student media were often about sports and their ramifications; the sports-and-society beat is one he presumably would have pursued as a writer. In his honor, his parents (and our friends) Ruth Goldway and Derek Shearer set up a memorial lecture about some aspect of the journalistic world in which he presumably would have worked.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
As part of this year's Shearer Memorial Lecture, I received, with my wife, a modest honorarium of $1500. We said that in gratitude for this award and in respect for the kind of writing that Casey Shearer might have done we would use the money in the months ahead to pay expenses for reports exploring the role sports plays in the cities we are visiting. I am not making any larger point about the role of the Huskies for the moment, but I am saying that we have applied the $9 cost of our Wade Stadium tickets this evening to this account. (This was half price on "Two-fer Tuesday"). The $18 for beers and brats we are happy to cover ourselves.
Update: the Huskies are coming back with 3 so far in the bottom of the 11th, so it is 16-12 as I write. But my hopes are modest. We actually left the stadium, and have been following online, after the Huskies rallied and seemed back in control by the bottom of the 6th. The truth is, we were freezing. (When flying over Lake Superior yesterday, we didn't see any icebergs, but most people have mentioned that they were present as recently as Memorial Day.)
We're not going to be here for Friday night's game, but in case you are, there's a special attraction: a group of local women are going to dig their way around the infield with spoons, in search of a hidden diamond. American sports at its finest.
And it looks as if it tonight's game might end at 16-12. Pitchers' battle! And there is always tomorrow night, when the Huskies take on the Express again.
The Air Force's training base in Columbus has stayed open through waves of base-closing, thanks to the influence of Mississippi politicians.
Nearly a year ago, when my wife Deb and I were kicking off our American Futures project, we said that one of the ambitions was to apply a "normal" reporting lens to parts of the country that don't usually get it.
The range of experience in New York or San Francisco—or in D.C. or Boston or L.A. or Chicago or sometimes Seattle or Miami or a few other places—is a staple part of American news and pop-culture coverage. But when somewhere in South Dakota, or Alabama, or Inland-Empire California, or Kentucky is in the news, it's usually because of:
a disaster, natural or man-made: tornado, shooting, explosion, flood, drought, hate crime, sinkhole;
a sporting event (NASCAR, Little League World Series) occasionally or a political event regularly: any place in Iowa or New Hampshire every four years in primary season, then Ohio and Florida in the general election campaigns;
a "concept" piece—"meth in the heartland," "the new economy of prisons" "climate change hits the farm"—that involves picking out some Middle American location and using it as the narrative setting for your thesis.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
You've seen something like that going on in Mississippi these past few days, with more to come in the two weeks ahead. The Senate primary is the latest front in the struggle for the future of the GOP. Thus we have reports from Tupelo and Hattiesburg, op-ed pieces on the paradox/ hypocrisy of America's most "conservative" states being the ones most reliant on federal subsidies, and so on. And, given Mississippi's past, plus eloquent reminders of the omnipresence of that past from the state's most celebrated writer, there's an all-but-irresistible freak-show undertone to a lot of reports from Mississippi. These Southerners! Can you believe them?
I mention this as set-up to the very interesting note below, from a lawyer in the Jackson, Mississippi, area. [See update below for his identity.] Here's a policy exception I'm making for this note: When quoting reader mail, I always cut out any specifically complimentary part. If someone says, "Great article, but I wonder about your point that ..." I will quote it as beginning, "I wonder about your point that ..." No doubt it's the WASP in me, but I figure that quoting compliments can't come across well. I'm leaving in the complimentary parts of the note that follows, both because they're integral to the reader's point and because, frankly, it's so heartening for my wife Deb and me to hear that what we've been trying to do has come across in the way we intended, at least in this case.
Now, to our reader in Mississippi:
Yesterday, a stray tweet from a friend announced you had been doing some writing about my home state so I hurried over to check things out. I haven’t had time to read everything, but I want to thank you and your lovely “research assistant” for engaging with some of what is good in our state.
You may be aware the chef Anthony Bourdain, of whom I’m a fan, recorded an episode of his CNN show on the “Mississippi Delta” with stops in Jackson and Oxford too. I was appalled by it.
He was escorted around by the food writer John T. Edge (a Georgia native) and spent an inordinate amount of time in Oxford (where I was previously a resident for eleven years) with the expat writer community and fellow chef John Currence (a New Orleanian).
The most unbearable moment came when Geno Lee, the proprietor of the Big Apple Inn, a historic black-owned business in Jackson famous for their pig-ear sandwiches, announced to the camera, “I didn’t know I had such a cool place until he (John T. Edge) told me so.”
I cringed at the N.Y. Times-published taste maker “blessing” the heretofore clueless owner of a historic business. Edge spoke for Lee, the writers spoke for Oxford, Chef Currence spoke for himself and any truth about Mississippi was lost in the process. What was absent from Bourdain’s show, and what is not absent from your series of dispatches, are the voices of Mississippians speaking for themselves.
I find a lot of reporting, storytelling, and documenting of the South in general and Mississippi in particular to be diagnostic and mostly hostile or contemptuous. (There’s no victim complex here, I assure you, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who give you a more honest accounting of our historical cultural and political depravity which has given way to the current cultural and political malaise and decay.) The hostility is born of our state’s vicious history and pretty understandable; however, I think the tendency to diagnose comes from a certain impenetrability of our society or culture.
There is a complexity of feeling and attitude that history has imprinted on most Mississippians through the generations. This is a place that the American dream went and continues to go unlived by most, not only because of our racial history, but because of isolation, poverty and backwardness that transcends any questions of black and white and effect huge numbers of endemically poor of both races. The collective emotional damage of that history remains unresolved just as the social and economic damage does in way that is more pronounced than Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, or South Carolina.
What I appreciate about your series is that, and maybe you are simply performing that now rare function called journalism, in the face of that impenetrability you broadcast the voices of Mississippians working on the ground in hopes of turning the tide of history in their communities or for themselves. You may find this odd, but Higgins’s quote [in this post] about Eurocopter “changing the psyche” nearly brought me to tears. Despite the small upward or downward spikes in wealth and affluence for the small elite and middle classes (of which I am, thankfully, one), it is that image of sharecropper, white or black, Higgins invokes about which we all shudder. The shame of poverty, lack of education, civic and political failure is shame for those who experience it directly as well as the elites who have allowed it to persist uninterrupted since Reconstruction.
You hear the echoes of Higgins’ “barefoot and pregnant … snuff in their lip” in Kimberly Sanford’s essay when she describes her sister, mother and mother’s third husband—the miscarriage, the dirty table, the work boots and worn jeans. [For about Ms. Sanford, see below.] For Kimberly, it appears the discovery of feminist criticism is changing her psyche in a way similar to that in which Eurocopter helped Higgins dream big for the GT.
These stories of discovery are the ones that get lost among the usual yarns told to tourists in Mississippi whether it be the terror of the Civil Rights Movement, the fantasy of Antebellum culture and the old Lost Cause, the friendly debauchery of the Delta planters or the very real charms for Oxford. But like everywhere else, it’s self-discovery and self-actualization that are in short supply, not images of cotton, bluesmen, bourbon, much less hooded klansman and hoop skirts.
I hope comparing your work to Bourdain’s doesn’t offend you. I only do so because both are recent depictions of life here, even if yours is journalism and his is entertainment.
I love my home state as much as an American can love the political subdivision in which he was born and raised. I do not, however, think Mississippi is a “great place.” It is not. In the present day it is a strange, tribalistic, confused and impoverished. However, I do believe Mississippi has great potential to be a better place. Thank you for sharing with your readers what many of us believe are the green shoots of some kind of economic transformation here. But more so, thank you for letting Joe Max Higgins and Kimberly Sanford speak about discovering ways forward from this dark, green, lonely place.
Sincere thanks back to the reader for this powerful and thoughtful note. Deb and I do feel as if over the past year we have learned as much about the variety of our country as we learned about China in any of our years of traveling and living there.
Update: At his request, I'll identify the author of this message. His name is Zachary Bonner, of Ridgeland, Mississippi. He says that he would be happy to hear from like-minded people in the region or beyond. You will easily find his contact info online.
Before I send you to the rest of the reader's thoughts, let me mention Deb's latest report from Mississippi, which is about some of the science projects developed by students at MSMS, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, in Columbus. Again its point is to let students and teachers there describe in their own words—literally, in short videos—what they are trying to do. And if you read the powerful collection of MSMS student essays that Deb previously presented here, you might be interested in this update on what is becoming of the five students she mentioned, starting with one the lawyer-reader mentioned:
• Kimberly Sanford, "As I grasp the battered storm door of my unleveled mobile home ..." is going to Harvard.
• Rachel Jones, "The wind of my parents’ perennial unemployment has blown away my umbrella ..." is going to Vassar.
• Brendan Ryan, "my favorite things about living at a residential high school four hours from my hometown is the car rides home ..." is going to Wenzao Ursuline University in Taiwan.
• Sabrina Moore, "MSMS is often referred to as the most diverse square mile in the state of Mississippi ..." is going to Mississippi State.
• Joseph Messer, "I think that home is also wherever I make it ..." is going to Deep Springs College in California.
More from Zachary Bonner the lawyer in greater Jackson:
I feel compelled to add—I have nothing against Bourdain, in fact whether it was naiveté or hubris, but I give his team credit for even trying a show here. But, the Oxford thing is so tired when there are so many corners of the state that have never known anything but hurt.
It’s a cool town for sure. I had all my discoveries on Ole Miss’ campus, got both my degrees there, got married a block off the square and continued to live there while my wife finished her degree. We’re both children of privilege though and Oxford is a place of privilege, although the University finally began changing that as far as the classroom goes about fifteen years ago. Oxford is a like a college town theme park, it’s make believe.
My first job out of law school was in [eastern Mississippi] and I drove and hour back and forth everyday partly on Highway 78 right past the Blue Springs complex, home of Toyota. We had several cases in the Delta during my time at that firm and I can’t tell you the salve watching that plant and its satellite buildings being constructed was after driving though all the empty towns to the west.
But, then, I would go home to this outlier of a place [Oxford] and all that time on the road, it gives you time to think. And then you meet people working cases, witnesses, clients, people who are neither but you have to talk to find the witnesses and clients. You know these people live in a different world than the one I live in (which is probably pretty close to yours) and not just in the existential sense. And at the same time you feel, this person and I, we are neighbors. We have kinship in some way. You are poor and uneducated and a bit afraid that the lawyer has knocked on your door, but you are my brother somehow. But we aren’t really brothers because there are things out of our control that are between and impossible to decipher and correct.
The history and all it means and carries is between us—and it doesn’t matter if the man is black or white in that sense. It applies either way. But we all want the jobs because the jobs take away the shame and the less shame, the more kinship. That’s not really a story for a one-hour TV show hosted by a chef.
Two weeks ago I mentioned five good books that all happened to be by people I knew and that I thought very much deserved attention. As a reminder, three were about China: Louisa Lim's The People's Republic of Amnesia, about the organized forced-forgetting of the Tiananmen Square repression 25 years ago this week; Evan Osnos's Age of Ambition, about the very human (and often humorous) face of China's simultaneous opening-up and closing-down, its idealism and its crassness; and Howard French's China's Second Continent, about the extension of the Chinese model and Chinese vision into Africa. Plus Ken Adelman's Reagan at Reykjavik, which is a vivid backstage view of the meeting that in many ways was the beginning of the end of the Cold War; and Ralph Nader's Unstoppable, on which I am about to say more.
Now, three more good books—actually, two new mentions, plus an augmented description of the Nader book from the earlier list. As was the case previously, these are all by people I know but are books I'd recommend anyway. As a bonus in today's installment, I'm including recent reviews or article that highlight some of these books' strengths.
The Director, by David Ignatius. Newspaper readers know David Ignatius for his columns and reporting from around the world. Book readers know him for a series of elegant spy novels over the past two decades, starting with the wonderful Agents of Innocence and continuing now with The Director. I've known David through both kinds of readings, and as a good friend since our teenage years.
David Ignatius's novels have always been a clef in the best sense: closely connected to, and very revealing and insightful about, the trends and tensions in the news. His previous Bloodmoney, for instance, remains one of the best guides to the moral complexities of drone-era warfare and the future problems America is now thoughtlessly creating for itself. Before that, The Incrementwas about Iran's nuclear ambitions, as seen on the Iranian side as well as in the U.S. His latest book, The Director, is not explicitly about Edward Snowden or the NSA, but it is all about the technological, commercial, governmental, and journalistic world in which that news is unfolding. As well as being the usual page-turning read. On NPR Alan Cheuse had his very positive review here. (Cheuse also covers a spy book based in modern China, Adam Brookes's The Night Heron, which I've bought but not yet read.)
Mad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel, by Stephen Budiansky. Budiansky, a friend from our time working together at US News, is the closest thing modern nonfiction writing has to a genuine polymath. He was originally trained in chemistry and applied mathematics. His early journalistic work was about science-and-technology policy and national defense. At practically a book-per-year rate over the past 15 years he has produced a series of erudite and entertaining works on topics that range from the psychology of horses (and dogs, and cats), to the science and history of code breaking, to the history and sociology of post-Civil War terrorism in the South, to the evolution of civilian and military air power. He does all this from a small, working farm in Virginia—where, for the record, he and his family were for a while custodians of our late beloved Mike the Cat and his littermate WhiteCap.
Budiansky is also an accomplished musician. His latest book Mad Music, on the eccentric composer Charles Ives, is as effortlessly informed and enlightening as his other works. Here I refer you to two recent positive reviews, one by Jeremy Denk in the NYRB and one by Sudip Bose in the WaPo.
Unstoppable, by Ralph Nader. In my earlier item I mentioned that Nader's latest book was informal, jokey, and positive-spirited in a way that might come as a surprise for many readers. Timothy Noah's recent enthusiastic-but-realistic review in the WaPo is an occasion for stressing one further point about Nader's case.
Since his famous and consequential run for president in 2000 (which, for the record, I opposed), Nader has obviously been identified with an attempt to move beyond our two established parties. Usually we think of a beyond-party movement in a wholly negative sense: These established groups are both so corrupt, there's not a dime's worth of difference between them, and so on. That tone was obviously a notable part of Nader's early runs.
But as Noah's review indicates, the whole premise of Unstoppable is Nader's emphasis on the positive similarities between the parties, and the associated "conservative" and "progressive" sensibilities. He says that there is a lot to like about the small-c conservative nature of American neighborhood life. And there is a lot (he says) that those conservatives should ally with in the "everyone deserves a fair shake" impulse of many "liberal" policies. It's an approach with obvious appeal but with surprisingly few other advocates on the national scene right now. It's worth reading the book if only to see the way he applies this "convergence" sensibility to a range of economic and social issues.
C.S.A. monument, West Point, Mississippi, May 2014.
None of us planned it this way, but my wife Deb and I happened to be reporting from Mississippi at just the time when when Ta-Nehisi Coates's "Case for Reparations" article, which starts with scenes from Mississippi, was coming to such deserved attention.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
What Deb and I have been discussing is loosely parallel to, rather than directly engaged with, the issues of legally enforced racial injustice that are central to Ta-Nehisi's story and its follow-ups. We have been looking at the ways a part of the country with this heritage—on average quite poor, historically under-industrialized, with about three times as great an African-American population share as the country as a whole (about 38 percent in Mississippi, vs. about 13 percent for the United States) and with a history of racially based mistreatment of its black population—moves ahead now, as every part of the country aspires to do. We've had Ta-Nehisi's articles in mind as we've been writing, and I think the accounts of Mississippi then and Mississippi now can usefully be read together.
As a reminder, here's a "swipe map" by John Tierney, matching proportions of black population across the country with median household income. (Click "Hide Intro" to see more of the map. You can zoom in and out and pan to different parts of the country. Also you can follow a link to a more fully featured, but non-embeddable, version of the map.)
For background, reports mainly from Deb on extraordinary efforts in innovative Mississippi schools are here: one, two, three, and four. And mine on the surge of heavy industry in the "Golden Triangle" of east-central Mississippi are here: one, two, three, four, and five.
In the latest installment, I quoted a reader from the North arguing that on balance it would have been better for America if Mississippi stayed poor. The reasoning was that industries coming into lower-wage, emphatically non-labor-union Southern states were part of a "race to the bottom" that has immiserated the middle- and working-class everywhere. That reader and others faulted me for not laying out my own views on the race-to-the-bottom question as regards Mississippi, whether or not I'd done so in previous books or in reports from China (which is of course as the center of "race to the bottom" patterns worldwide).
I'll do that, but as part three of today's three-part plan. Part 1 is factual clarification from Joe Max Higgins of Columbus, Mississippi, who has been at the center of some recent reports. Part 2 is a selection of messages from readers on the "race to the bottom" / "let those Southerners stay poor" theme. And part 3, after the jump, is my summary view.
Part 1: Joe Max Higgins and the new industrial wage. Earlier I mentioned that Joe Max Higgins, of the business-promoting "Golden Triangle LINK" organization in Columbus, Mississippi, had one big guideline for the industries he hoped to attract. Namely, that they pay a lot more than people in the area already earned.
As a benchmark: the median household income in the United States is just over $50,000 per year. In many parts of Mississippi, it's barely half as much. Then when the enormous, high-tech Severstal steel mill opened up outside Columbus, employing hundreds of people at an average pay (before benefits) of $80,000, Higgins said that he regarded this as a huge win for his area. A reminder of what it's like inside the mill, from a company video that exactly resembles what I saw:
Many people wrote back to say: Eighty thousand dollars, on average? No way. You've been conned! So I went back to Higgins. He showed me evidence of a formal agreement between the mill and the State of Mississippi that the average pre-benefit pay must be at least $70,000. And at the latest audit, it was just under $80,000.
I'm not getting into the possible differences between median and average earnings there, or what the workers give up or gain by being in a non-union plant. I'm saying that there's a reason the mill had so many thousands of applicants when it opened up, which is that its jobs are such a step up for local workers. (And, before you ask, there is still an installment coming on how local people are being trained for these jobs.)
Part 2: Let's hear from the readers. There has been a very large volume of mail, from which I am trying to take representative samples. Here goes.
• Think of the TVA as reparations. A previous reader objected to the TVA even trying to speed development in Mississippi: "To be honest my chief reaction was to wish that TVA funding was quickly and permanently yanked. I do not support federal funds in order to develop this political cesspool into an influential center of the American economy." Another reader, originally from Wisconsin, responds:
I moved to the mid South about 12 years ago, and very few days go by when I don't find it alienating still. However, your piece on the Black Belt in Mississippi caught me up.
To reference TNC's recent Atlantic article, a TVA designation of "Megasite" plus Federal/State/Local tax incentives could be argued as the sort of economic policies that target the development of poor communities, and if focused on areas historically affected by racist intent/policies (e.g., chattel slavery in the Black Belt of the South followed by sharecropping, lynching, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, etc., etc., etc.), a sort of reparation. (Did that sentence contain enough hedges?!)
Although I too decry the political shift I feel in the nation as a whole which I think is in large part driven by the weird Republican values emanating from the South, I believe policies of infrastructural development such as the TVA "Megasite" are essential for moving forward. My electricity comes from TVA and in general I do not herald their track record (e.g., Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman TN). However, I was heartened to read about the "Megasite" policy. TVA is not perfect but as a hybrid Federal/State/Private entity, maybe it can be steered toward more progressive ends (could not for the life of me find a better word than progressive there...)
An aside: a pox on those in my home state [Wisconsin] who have lost the true "conservative" Republican values of my father's family who fought for the Union.
• Also about the TVA. A reader, who discloses that his firm does business with the TVA, adds this note:
A minor nitpick with your reader who dislikes the TVA megasites due to it being federal funds helping a region of the country she dislikes politically.
The TVA does not receive federal funding, it is a self funded agency, funded through ratepayers and bonds.
• "They may be charming, but their policies are killing us." In support of the original "let Mississippi stay poor" message:
Add me in as another regular reader who has a hard time much caring about economic gains in white Mississippi. [JF note: the regions I've been writing about have been majority black, and the factory work forces are integrated.]
As a young person, I was too much of a snob to work at learning this history of my own country -- much snazzier to concentrate on Europe and Africa -- so I'm doing some catching up as a semi-retired adult. One of the insights I've gotten through working my way through the Oxford History of the United States is that the shape of modern US society was set by the absence of representatives of the Confederate States from Congress in 1860-65. I don't just mean emancipation, though that's the root. I mean the Homestead Act, the Land-Grant colleges, "internal improvements", a modern-ish federal government and direct taxation system. With the Southern obstructionists around, we could not have had any of that.
And the southern states, insofar as they are controlled by whites (almost entirely) don't seem to have changed much: they exist to impede all forms of necessary national public policy: access to health care for all, education, reasonable gun control, etc. In this era, climate crisis is the moral equivalent of the emancipation struggle and these states, along with some western types who imagine themselves solitary cowboys, would rather all our descendants suffer than sacrifice their phony extractive culture.
The only reason I can imagine attending to the economic struggles of the South is that the majority of this country's Black citizens live there. It would be an additional white crime to abandon them to the unhindered depredations of their white neighbors.
What to do I don't know, but you lose me when you are celebrating industrial development using non-union labor that props up a state whose representatives throw themselves against everything that makes this country and the world work. I'm sure they are charming, but their politics are killing us.
• "Do these people think we can't read?" A note on anti-Southern attitudes:
These comments show explicitly an attitude that has been pretty common from the beginning of the civil rights era- hatred and contempt by progressives for those they consider not sufficiently with the program, most obviously southerners but also non-elite, non-progressives whites outside of the south.
Do these people think we can't read? Or are too stupid to understand what their real feelings, intents and motivations are?
• "The real question is, what's the worst we will put up with?" Mike Levsen, the mayor of Aberdeen, South Dakota (whose city we have coincidentally planned to visit), writes:
We will always try to steal other cities’ assets when the opportunity is offered (and have done it); it is expected of us as city officials. So, I don’t question the Mississippi people, even if it correspondingly causes distress elsewhere. Interestingly, nobody ever suggests we are destroying the work ethic of those companies by giving financial help, the way it is assumed by many that social welfare breeds laziness.
To me, a more essential question demanding answer is “What will we put up with”, not where.
There will always be people occupying the bottom one-fifth or one-tenth.
We spend much time discussing who, what, where, why…but I don’t care about those questions.
Whether by race, geography, legacy, age, or any other demographic indicator.
Whether or not they are responsible for their own situation or undeserving in any way.
Whether they are able to exit from that status or not
They are among us.
Those exiting will be replaced by others who will be a part of our life, our country, our future, and occupy that bottom cohort.
The question is, what is the worst state of life for that bottom rung that we will put up with. How bad does the housing, nutrition, healthcare, educational opportunities, family services, environmental protection legal system access, and all the other things that are degraded by a lack of money have to be before we say it can’t continue. …what’s the worst the rest of the country will put up with...
It’s not important where they are, what’s necessary to acknowledge is that they exist in that situation, and everyone else is also the worse for it.
• "Strategically brilliant but morally bankrupt." From a reader in a big East Coast city:
As a Citizen of this great country, someone who has more than a passing acquaintance with American history in regard to industrialization and things north/south and also someone who builds all over the United States and Canada, I continue to wish that we could somehow meet in the middle on the work issue, because there truly are two legitimate sides to this story.
The actions of various Southern state governments and their business partners actions have been strategically brilliant but morally bankrupt. To wit, South Carolina. They receive $1.92 in Federal funding for every dollar paid, gleefully using the differential as a subsidy for their low wages, low property taxes and poor services, all while issuing a steady stream of anti-Federal, pro-State rhetoric.
States like South Carolina are all about the business owner and only about the worker in the most basic sense that they see them as units of production, nothing more. From a development perspective the best monetary example of how South Carolina would act if they were allowed is by building the Burj Khalifa, which cost $1.5B for 5M sf, or $300 psf.
On the other side, we have the legacy airline and automobile manufacturing unions, who have continued to make their own collective beds through continuing to demand luxurious pensions, European-style working hours, confiscatory base wage, overtime and double time rules, and refusal to modernize their approach towards work and a continued erosion of quality of work that used to separate them from non-union workers. The best development example of how this still works in the US is the Freedom Tower, which cost $3.8B for 3.8M sf, or $1,000 psf, or 3.3 times the cost of the Burj Khalifa.
I’m equally frustrated with both sides. People in work for Boeing in South Carolina need to make more. People who work for Boeing in Washington need to make less. Benefits need to generally equalize on both side.
• And what if Lincoln had lived? To wind up this part for now:
As a native of the upper south (Kentucky) and a student of history generally, I consider myself “southern” in a general kind of way. I have two graduate level degrees, and am currently living in the Mid-West. My speech, however, is peppered with the southern and country idioms, and while in informal company, I am still apt to drop the g’s of words ending in “-ing.”
My political beliefs are left and Democratic, despite the conservative nature of the Kentucky Democratic Party: I can point to real things in my family’s more humble beginnings that are the products of the hard work of my forebears, certainly, but which were made available TO my forebears during hard times by Democratic administrations. THAT is the Democratic Party in which I believe and for which I still vote unflinchingly...
Your post yesterday regarding the affirmative answer given by an urban resident of a Rust Belt city to your hypothetical question, “Should Mississippi remain poor?” prompted a reaction in me, as I’m sure it did (and will) with many others, perhaps none more so than residents of Mississippi. My own reaction, however, is more of an “Amen!” of sorts rather than a typical “circle the wagons” response from a fellow southerner.
I have taken enough history courses to know understand how the anti-union and union-busting policies of the South in general have led to a “national race to the bottom” as your correspondent pointed out, with Northern industries decamping to states where unionization is at best discouraged, but where the State actively pursues policies favorable to “business growth” – low taxes, right-to-work laws, lax environmental regulations, and so on. The move of the textile industries from New England to the lowlands of the Carolinas and Georgia after the Civil War is just such an example.
I am also aware that as much as the South has been guilty of economic depredations against its Northern kin, it has also been a victim. After the Civil War, the untapped natural resources of the South were snapped up at bargain prices by Northern interests, whether it be West Virginia’s and Kentucky’s coal, Georgia’s timber, Alabama’s iron, etc. These new industries were, of course, abetted by the aforementioned state policies that gave them, more or less, a free hand to do as they pleased, whether to the resources they controlled and processed, the workers they employed, or the land they despoiled.
As an American citizen (not one of Kentucky or ‘the South’ alone) with progressive political beliefs, I can understand your correspondent’s dark suggestion that perhaps, yes, Mississippi should be left poor. If increasing economic clout means “the Mississippi model” works, and therefore, her policies should be emulated elsewhere, then I might tend to agree with her. I’ve watched President Obama try to solve some of the nation’s toughest problems with both hands tied around his back by an intransigent opposition that has sometimes appeared willing to destroy the nation in its zeal to “save it” from Obama’s policies. Examples of this, and other, clearly race-based policies, such as those that have rolled back voting protections in the South, etc., have just left me disgusted.
I don’t know how you feel about “alternate history,” but I’ll go one better than the Rust Belt correspondent. I very often wonder how different (and presumably BETTER) the nation as a whole would have been had Lincoln lived, and, instead of his passive “prodigal son” reconciliation with the South, he had been inflamed with a real sense of remaking (with a "Radical" Republican Congress) the South for all times:
- the entire political and military leadership of each seceding state being seized and forcibly removed, either to the North or West, or otherwise given the opportunity to be banished abroad, but removed from the South at the least;
- the political and economic vacuum in the South filled with the growing ranks of the Northern urban poor and immigrants from abroad;
- massive agricultural and land reform;
- investments in infrastructure projects and education; and
- perhaps even a redrawing of jurisdictional boundaries, such as redrawing state boundaries, creating new states with new names, etc....
Such a thing as this “remaking of the South” is unimaginable in American society or history, and thankfully (for the South, perhaps, at least) we had a man with Lincoln’s temperament instead of, say, Stalin’s at that time and in that office. From the nation’s fraught history with race, and with that region’s desire to seemingly stymie nearly every effort to advance public policy that brings light to the darkness and knowledge to the unlearned, it would seem, sometimes, to be a price worth paying.
After the jump, just a little more.
Part 3. "This I believe." After this build-up, I find to my chagrin and horror that the summary I wrote a couple of days ago, of my views on "race to the bottom" and so on, just seems to be lost. With the auto-back-ups, the on-the-fly-notetakers, the cloud sync, and so on, this doesn't happen often. But ...
So here is a bullet-point summary of arguments I've made mainly in books More Like Us, Looking at the Sun, Breaking the News, Postcards from Tomorrow Square, and China Airborne, and a number of Atlantic (and New York Review of Books and Industry Standard articles) since the 1980s.
• I view economic success as a matter of adjusting to an endless series of changes—technological, environmental, cultural, business-competitive, geostrategic, you name it—as quickly and smoothly as possible. The changes will never stop. Individuals, companies, regions, and countries do relatively better or worse depending on the ease and speed with which they adapt.
• Beyond their skill in adjusting, individuals, companies, regions, and countries can sometimes bend the direction of change in their favor, to increase their absolute and relative success. Regions or countries can often do this by investing in infrastructure, research and development, and education.
• Through the past two centuries the United States has overall fared very well thanks in part to success in both these areas. Its culture, laws, policies, geographic openness, and ideas about itself have generally encouraged adaptability. And its policies have bent change in its favor—through expansion of mass education and a research established, through public investment in leading technologies, through remaining attractive as a site for immigration, et cetera. All this is on top of the incredible natural advantages the U.S. enjoys because of scale, resources, distance from enemies, etc.
• The successful American bargain has depended on relative mobility, openness, and egalitarianism, with the obvious enormous exception of slavery and its aftermath, and many other lesser barriers. As legal changes make America even more equal and mobile, it should become more successful in the basic job of adaptation. As economic and other shifts make it more unequal and class-bound, it becomes less itself, and less successful. (This is the whole point of More Like Us.)
To put this in recent historical terms, from the 1930s through the 1970s, most national and regional policies in the U.S. increased its adaptive mobility. Infrastructure building, the expansion of elementary and higher education, social insurance programs, public investment in high tech. From the 1980s through now, the net effect has often been the reverse.
• Trade policy can also be an important part of the mix. The U.S. had an infant-industry protective approach through most of its 19th century rise. A generation ago, it needed to rebuff Japan's mercantilist policies, and it largely did. (Eg through Sematech.) These days it has major rule-of-law, cyber-theft, and intellectual property disputes with China.
• Consistent with all these points, no economic advantage is or can be permanent. Every factory will always be under challenge from someone who can do things faster, better, or cheaper. Every market leader of the moment is subject to "disruptors." (Anyone in journalism knows about this first-hand, after the past decade of top-to-bottom disruption in our business.) The only available "stability" is economic life is therefore that of the bicycle, or the airplane: institutions stay upright only by continuing to move fast enough ahead.
• In this process there are such things as "tragedy of the commons," and "race to the bottom." Tragedy of the commons is the linked disasters of the worldwide environment, from the depletion of the oceans to the failure to deal with climate issues.
"Race to the bottom" is competition of a particular type. It's not the shift of industries to ever-lower-cost sites: Old England to New England, New England to the South, the South to Mexico, Mexico to coastal China, coastal China to inland China, all of China to Vietnam, Vietnam to Bangladesh—and now back in many cases. That is the nature of centuries of world capitalism, and from a worldwide perspective it's been an important agent of equality. "Race to the bottom" is a self-defeating, self-enhancing cycle of competition that ultimately leaves everyone worse off: ever-laxer environmental standards, in the most obvious case. China is realizing, very late, that it has suffered through race-to-the-bottom environmental standards, overwhelmingly by its own rather than foreign firms.
• There are also such things as unfair competition, abusive concentrations of power, preying on the weak, and all the other reasons that from Adam Smith to Teddy Roosevelt onward, real capitalists have embraced regulation.
• To concentrate on the business rise of the American South, I disagree in two ways with those who see Mississippi's industrial rise as reflecting America's "race to the bottom" economic decay. (Even apart from the fact that people in Mississippi are, how do I put this, Americans too.) First, there is little to no evidence that Nissan, Toyota, Severstal, PACCAR, Airbus-Eurocopter, Yokohama Tire, or other big recent entrants are there because they have been given the OK to be extra dirty and pollute. They haven't.
Second, their presence in Mississippi or Alabama is not the reason for industrial hard times in what we now call the American rust-belt. Elaborating that point is the stuff of many books. For now I'll leave it with this: wages in Mississippi are lower than those in either Japan and Germany, and Japanese and German firms are opening factories there. But that isn't making them "race to the bottom." They are not hollowing themselves out. If that is happening elsewhere in the U.S., it is not Mississippi's fault.
• Obviously Germany encourages labor unions, and the American South does not. I think the German bargain is wiser; I think the decline of American labor is both symptom and cause of the pressure on middle-class America in all ways. But as one of the great books on the topic, Tom Geoghegan's Which Side Are You On?, points out, this is a long, complex process tied to every other shift in our politics since the 1960s. Germany also is big on apprenticeships and "career technical education." As we've reported from South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, these programs are very big features of the industrial expansion here.
I realize that in a 10,000 word (or whatever) post I can't say "In short..." But in short, by my lights the big American problem is the constellation of forces that make us less mobile, less egalitarian, less adaptable, less fair. And in that perspective, the spread of industry and opportunity to an area that has sorely lacked them is progress for America, not the reverse.
Sharecroppers in Georgia, just before World War II. Are their grandchildren better off, because industries have arrived? Hint: my answer is Yes. (
Farm Security Administration, 1941 )
Over the past few weeks, my wife Deb and I have been reporting on Mississippi's efforts to move itself up from the bottom in rankings of educational achievement, and similarly to move itself up from being overall the poorest state in the nation.
Question for the day, from readers: whether any success it achieves will necessarily come at the expense of other places, especially in the North. Of course movement in rankings is by definition zero-sum. The real question is whether greater prosperity for Mississippi has to mean less somewhere else.
For background, here are some installments about the Mississippi educational efforts: one, two, three, and four. (No matter what region you're from, be sure to read at least the first couple of essays by students in that final, fourth item.) And these on industrialization: one, two, three, and four.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
Now, a note representative of several I've received. It concerns how to think or talk about economic activities in the non-union, low-wage, politically conservative, ever-shadowed-by-racial-injustice (cf. Ta-Nehisi Coates) areas of the Deep South. Here goes, quoted in full for context:
I have an odd relationship with your blog. I read it avidly and yet I find myself alienated. You prick my despair about the country, in fact. In your most recent entry in the 'Lo and Behold, Industry in Mississippi' series, you asked for feedback and so here is a little exploration of my vexed relation to your work and perspectives.
First off, I'm a native of a Rust Belt city and much of my family originally migrated here from the South. In fact they were slaveowners who left the South to industrialize the North - and they were very successful at it, probably even a factor in the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War.
But I grew up in a different time - the time of decline of industry. I grew up with the decades of desolation and loss. I understand the impact of abandonment, wholesale and profound, that has infected the Rust Belt in the post war era. I know the economic decline of Rust Belt cities to be deeply imprinted with American racism as well as the relentless and devastatingly effective rightwing campaign against unionization. The deindustrialization of the North cannot be separated from the success of Southern style politics and ideologies over the last 40 years. The American people have suffered serious economic harm as a result.
So forgive me if Joe Max Higgins does not seem charming. To be honest my chief reaction to reading this piece was to wish that TVA funding was quickly and permanently yanked. I do not support federal funds in order to develop this political cesspool into an influential center of the American economy. I think the South should be quarantined, politically and economically. They suck on the federal tit whilst fanning resentment of the poor, among many (many!) other political sins. (The best thing about the Dixiecrats is that there were less effective nationally when stranded within the Democratic Party than they are today, when they control Republican ideology and the Supreme Court. )
I wasn't satisfied by your reply to this comment [from another reader, a man in New York]:
"The theme that I find missing in your series is any recognition that the Southern states have been in a continuing economic war with the Northern manufacturing base for at least since the Civil Rights Act. Undermining and destroying unions has been a signature part of that strategy and it has been very successful. The great cities of the North have been hollowed out just as they were beginning to provide a haven for lower class families, not to mention the overall starvation of the middle class."
You didn't address the above point. The South has had a baleful influence. Perhaps what is in process is the lasting destruction of American broad based prosperity, thanks in no small part to rise of Southern political values. There are no signs of a turnaround for most in this economy - it is only getting worse. Yet continuing on this path would be tragic. It would fundamentally undermine the whole American experiment. I would like your series a lot more if you addressed this.
I keep telling myself I won't do this any more, but I wrote right back to the woman who sent the message:
I have a reaction of "And therefore, what....?" to your views.
Suppose one, like me, is in favor of unions, is in favor of more progressive taxation and a fairer economy, is against what many Southern politicians now stand for, has written endlessly about the "new nullification" menace, and so on. Should I say: "Well, I hope these people in Mississippi stay poor?"
I'd be interested to know what, specifically, you'd like to do to, or with, Mississippi—or St Marys, Georgia, or Greenville, SC—as the action part of your view.
To which she replied:
As to your question - should the people in Mississippi stay poor? I would suggest taking a serious look at the answer 'yes'. If industrial jobs in Mississippi are in fact a part of a national race to the bottom and if that race is destructive to the larger good then the race itself should be stopped. And one consequence of that could be a slow down in the industrializing of Mississippi.
I don't enjoy making careless arguments and there are a number of 'ifs' in the above paragraph. The point is that there is a larger picture. What conventions, regulations, and laws enable corporations to make states compete against each other for their investment? Some of that should simply be outlawed. Some of that sort of thing is actually disallowed under trade pacts - why should it be allowed for states?
It's taken decades to build an economy of downward mobility. Financial deregulation, corporate trade deals, and union busting has required not only policies but ideology and economic theory. It has been a bipartisan effort and academics and the media have contributed. Virtually all of the conventional thinking in my view is tainted by this history. But the issues we are discussing impact the real economy of jobs and wages. We must not avoid painful disputes even though bringing up these difficult issues is a downer in the context of a feel good story of a poor corner of the country doing better.
If you've gotten this far, I hope you'll indulge a further word about the ongoing juggling act for a writer like me. Over the past three-plus decades, in at least four of my books and at least a dozen long Atlantic articles, I've tried my best to apply reporting, reading, thinking, and observation to questions of exactly this sort. The movements of industries among nations; the movements from region to region within a nation; the forces that make whole economies seem to progress or stagnate; the forces that are uniquely necessary if America is to seem "fair"; the burdens of history, race, public policy, and private institutions in shaping American mobility, and so on.
I know that I've written all this stuff. Most readers, probably including this one, don't. But if I say, "go read 'How the World Works' or More Like Us or 'How America Can Rise Again,'" I sound insufferable. And if I don't, I'm left with people who "are not satisfied" because I haven't dealt with a topic at a time when they happened to be noticing or in a post they're seeing on its own. As the world's problems go, it's small. But it is one I have to think about it.
Enough about me! Let's turn now to a reader in Florida. He writes:
I agree with you —I wouldn't lead every Mississippi piece I wrote with a racial disclaimer either. After all, TNC's writing has focused as much on Chicago as Mississippi—which makes sense because parts of Chicago are historically, literally Mississippi north.
That said, two things about two of these posts really struck me and both relate to the historical relationship of Missisippi and Chicago. Key quote from your post:
"Part of the 'Northern narrative' on what we're doing here is that we're just buying industries," [Joe Max Higgins] told me.
In 1914, with the onset of World War I, European immigration halted overnight. By 1915, booming, shorthanded northern industry was "buying" southern black farm labor and creating the Great Migration—and changing America, north and south, forever.
Southern government and industry (mostly agriculture) fought with every legal and extra legal tool it had to halt the migration. "The southern narrative was you will cripple our society by stealing our niggers." It was routine for southern local governments to ban labor recruiting; to ban migration itself through brutally enforced vagrancy laws. My hometown in Florida passed an ordinance in 1916 requiring a $1,000 license for any recruiter seeking black labor. Not getting the license was a crime.
You ask, don't people know these things?
No, they don't. They know about water fountains and epithets. They know nothing about the migration that made both redlining and the successful civil right movement possible by breaking up the status quo.
In my opinion, WWI and the Great Migration are the two most important forces of 20th century. One caused the other. They are, I think, without question the most important racial forces of the 20th century. And we as a country know nothing about them. We know so little about them that an economic developer in Mississippi doesn't see the exquisite historical irony in the South "buying" the industry that the north used to buy its labor and grow the industrial power of the US.
This is plenty to chew on for now. I was tempted to add a "This I Believe!" summary of my economic views, but I am going to save that for tomorrow. I have actually written it already, so I will actually post it after I let it cool.
I will though close with one transition point, tied to the first reader's note. I respect her clarity in following her logic to its conclusion. Still, I completely disagree that the rest of the country might have stayed richer and fairer if our poorest state stayed dirt poor. While I'm at it: I also don't think America would be richer, fairer, or happier if China were still dirt poor. That's a topic-sentence assertion for now. Supporting sentences soon.