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.
"The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government." So says a well-educated young small-town mayor.
Downtown Greer, South Carolina, a rapidly growing small town between Greenville and Spartanburg.
As we've spent time in smaller towns that are undertaking economic or cultural recoveries, my wife Deb and I have repeatedly been struck by a certain migration pattern. This is the presence, and importance, of ambitious people at the beginning of their careers who have chosen to fulfill those ambitions not in Brooklyn or the SF Bay Area or one of the other best-known assumed national talent destinations. Rather they've chosen to live and work in Greenville SC, or Duluth MN, or Burlington VT, or Sioux Falls and Rapid City SD, or Redlands and Winters CA, or Holland MI, or West Point and Columbus MS, or other even less-celebrated places.
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For some people the reasons are family ties to the town. For others, the search for a safer, more pastoral, or more affordable environment in which to raise children. For some, utopian escapism of the type we mainly associate with my Boomer contemporaries of the 1960s and 1970s. But in quite a few places we've heard sentiments like the ones expressed below. Which boil down to, the chance to make a difference, and be part of a success.
This note comes from a young mayor of a smallish Midwest city who is now serving with the U.S. military in a combat zone. We have not yet been to his city, but what he says resembles what we have heard elsewhere:
I'm writing in response to your Atlantic article on small cities ["Why Cities Work Even When Washington Doesn't"], which belatedly reached me here in [Afghanistan] in hard copy in a recent care package. I'm on leave from the city for military duty this year.
As a fairly new small city mayor who is trying to push our city forward with moves like reintroduction of two-way streets downtown and reimagination of public spaces, I predictably loved it. I also wanted to draw your attention to an important, related story.
There has been lots of good buzz and coverage lately about cities and mayors, but a story still waiting to be told is the quality of people coming to work for them. Doubtless there have always been extraordinary people drawn to local government, but something truly unusual is happening, in my view, in the caliber of young professionals drawn to this work now.
The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government. See, for example, the Code for America phenomenon.
In recruiting talented professionals, we have been able to punch above the weight of a small city like ours, drawing people with international careers in architecture, government, consulting, and engineering to work for five-figure salaries in a small Midwestern city willing to try new things.
Is this a side-effect of federal dysfunction, that public-minded young professionals are far less attracted to the Hill as a place to make their mark and now look to the local level instead? Or something to do with the economy? I don't know, but I think there is something to this untold story of the kinds of people newly drawn to local civic work.
I agree, and will have more to say about this soon.
I've been offline for more than a week because of duties 24/7 at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Here is a sample that is now up at the Ideas Festival site, an hour-long discussion two days ago with former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
I say in the set-up for the interview that Geithner's book, Stress Test, is actually very good, considered just as a book. This is a point that Michael Lewis made in his NYTBR treatment of it too. All appropriate credit to Geithner's co-author, Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal.
The next Aspen interview I'll be looking for, when it goes up on their site, is one I conducted an hour later that same day with Amanda Lindhout, on her truly extraordinary memoir A House in the Sky. Stay tuned.
The new issue is out (subscribe!). I've just received my in-print copy, and tonight and tomorrow, en route to Colorado, I look forward to reading the 99% of the issue's contents I had heard about in the office but have not yet seen. Through the eons I've made a point of reading as much of the magazine as possible not in galley proofs nor in intermediate versions but the way civilians would, when it arrives all nicely bound and illustrated. More reaction anon.
The 1% I have seen is my article on that evergreen topic, information overload. The reporting for this one was fun, in that it involved talking with people whose ideas, software, writings, or any combination thereof have guided my thoughts about technology's limits and evolution.
They were: Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and creator of (among other things) the brilliant early program Lotus Agenda; Phil Libin, founder and CEO of Evernote; Esther Dyson, a friend since our teenage years and an authority on all things digital; David Allen, famous for the "Getting Things Done" approach to life and a friend since I met him in Texas ten years ago; and Mark Bernstein, chief scientist of Eastgate Systems and designer of Tinderbox, an elegant and powerful Mac-based system I've used for info-management since making the Mac switch six years ago. (For a decade before that, I relied on—and still love—the Windows program Zoot, by Tom Davis of Zoot Software.) Among other distinctions, Allen and Bernstein are former guest-bloggers here.
You can see their predictions in the article. The point of this post is to mention its existence, and to cover a few update points:
1) I allude in the article to my version of the Holy Grail, "speaker-independent voice recognition." Here's the real-world example: I spent yesterday doing "American Futures" interviews in Winters, California, and this morning doing tech interviews in San Francisco. As a result, I have hours and hours of audio recordings, which eventually I need to sit and transcribe.
Someday, I will be able to feed those recordings into an automatic transcriber, and get nice typed-out versions on the other end. No system now extant comes close to working well enough to handle that challenge. Not Dragon's software, which does fine when you train it to your own voice, not the Google or Apple voice-recognition that can parse limited words and phrases. A timeline with the article says that this might work within 10 years. Many people have written in to say, No, it will happen sooner! I think they're wrong but hope they're right.
2) A version of the Holy Grail is a system that will automatically collect info from business cards and render it into usable, searchable text form. Phil Libin's Evernote has produced a hardware/software combo that is not perfect, but that unlike the voice systems has become just good enough at the task to be worthwhile from my point of view.
You bring cards into the system either by taking smartphone pictures of them, then sending the image to the Evernote cloud for processing; or by scanning them on an expensive-but-excellent desktop scanner that made by Fujitsu and sold with the Evernote brand. The software for recognition in both scenarios is steadily improving. I swallowed very hard, and tried to distract my wife, before shelling out the $400+ for the new Fujitsu-Evernote scanner. But by the time I'd run the zillionth business card through it I thought it was worthwhile. It also handles receipts and any other sort of scan.
3) Mark Bernstein's Eastgate has put out an entirely reworked new release of Tinderbox, known as Tinderbox Six. I paid to be part of the "Backstage Beta" testing and development process for this new release and consider it a big step forward in power and sophistication. More details on what is new at the Eastgate site and this user forum. Also, reviews by Steve Zeoli at Welcome to Sherwood. (Zeoli also mentions another lithe little Mac program I like, FoldingText. As he points out, it recalls memories of the fabulous, lamented DOS program GrandView.)
Tinderbox is expensive, though much less so than the scanner. Even more so than with the scanner, I consider it money well spent. Right now Tinderbox is bundled with several other (also excellent) "artisanal" Mac programs. You can read about them here. The two others from this group that I use every day are DevonThink Pro and the nonpareil writing program Scrivener. Here are the logos of the five programs on sale:
Of course, your money for an Atlantic subscription is also well spent, and it's a bargain!
Because this comes up from time to time, let me say for the record: I always buy and pay normal list price for any software or hardware I like enough to use, including all of them mentioned 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.
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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]
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.
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.
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.