James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • Before You Watch the New House of Cards, Do Yourself a Favor and See the Original

    In which I (reluctantly) acknowledge the superiority of the British style of satire.

    Ian Richardson, the one person Kevin Spacey should fear in head-to-head matchups. ( From British Cinema Greats )

    I'll watch anything Kevin Spacey is in, so I'll be among the early downloaders of the second installment of House of Cards, which will be out via Netflix touchingly on Valentine's Day. 

    But now I've done something I should have done earlier, and that will put Spacey-style House of Cards 2, 3, any others in a completely different light. Recently I watched the four-episode original BBC House of Cards series from 1990. It's on Netflix too, and, seriously, if you are interested in either  politics or satire, this is not to be missed.

    June Thomas of Slate, originally a Brit, made this point a year ago, and our own nonpareil Christopher Orr plans to write about it at length some time soon. But let me make the point right now: Kevin Spacey is great, but the late Ian Richardson, as Parliamentary Chief Whip Francis Urquhart, is doing something else altogether. It's like a Judd Apatow movie vs. the bottomless bleakness of Evelyn Waugh (eg A Handful of Dust). Here's how the whole saga of revenge and plotting begins:

    The comparison between the U.S. and U.K. versions of this program shows something about why I feel so profoundly American (rather than British), but also why the Brits excel at just this kind of thing. There are lots of tough breaks in Kevin Spacey's House of Cards, but in the end there is a jauntiness to it. People kill themselves; politicians lie and traduce; no one can be trusted -- and still, somewhere deep it has a kind of American optimism. That's us (and me). USA! USA!

    It's different in the UK version. Richardson's Francis Urquhart reminds us that his is the nation whose imagination produced Iago, and Uriah Heep, and Kingsley Amis's "Lucky Jim" Dixon. This comedy here is truly cruel -- and, one layer down, even bleaker and more squalid than it seems at first. It's like the contrast between Ricky Gervais in the original UK version of The Office and Steve Carell in the knock-off role. Steve Carell is ultimately lovable; Gervais, not. Michael Dobbs, whose novel was the inspiration for both the U.K. and the U.S. House of Cards series, has told the BBC that the U.S. version was "much darker" than the British original. He is wrong -- or cynically sarcastic, like Urquhart himself.

    I could go on, but I will leave that to Chris Orr when he does the full-length version. For now, do yourself a favor and check this out.


    Explanation for the sub-head on this item: I am not a subscriber to the "Oh, the Brits do it all so much more suavely" school. But in this case I tip my hat.

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  • So, Where Do You Live? What Do You Do?

    By Deborah Fallows

    By Deborah Fallows

    When we were in Greenville SC recently, I was surprised to learn that a very common follow-up to the greeting of “How do you do?” or “Nice to meet you,” is the question “Where do you go to church?” I wrote about it here.

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    Lots of you wrote in about this question,  “Where do you go to church?” Some of you considered the question to be intrusive and even offensive. From a reader in Washington DC: "If someone asked me 'Where do you go to church?' I'd be flummoxed at least and offended at worst." Others were not at all flummoxed, and wondered why I would be surprised. And on a web forum at city-data.com discussing just this question, writers from places as distinct as rural Maine and Kentucky said this expression is commonly heard.

    Many more of you reported other queries that you would be likely to say or hear in your own hometowns. So far, I would say that your suggestions fall into 3 different categories: social orientation, work, and neutral territory. (And to be clear here, I’m ruling out pickup lines; that’s another topic. I am referring to general conversation openers that aim for a sweet spot between impersonal and too personal, between vapid and too pungent.)

    Image via this blogspot

    Social orientation:  The two women I met in Greenville SC, interpreted the real meaning of “Where do you go to church?” as something to orient you socially, like “Who are your people?” or “Where do you fit in?” A New Yorker who posted on the city-data forum echoed this and suggested the socially orienting analogy there might be pizza: “It's just like someone asking you what grocery store you go to or what pizzeria (New Yorkers love pizza) you go to,” she wrote.

    Readers far afield have other candidates. One reader from Hawaii writes that among those who grew up on Oahu, the question is: "Where did you go to high school?" Same from a reader from New Orleans. “Where’d you go to school?” he clarified, means high school, not college. (This plucky reader also said a close second is, “Who’s your mama?” but I think he was pulling my leg.)

    In Boston, a reader says “Where do you live?” elicits a single name from the 351 towns around Boston. “If you live in Somerville, you say Somerville; you would never say 'near Cambridge.'” I’m guessing that in Boston, people are fishing for the same kind of information as in my hometown of Washington DC. Sometimes we look for geography, but more often, I think, our mental maps outline the culture and lifestyle of suburbs or neighborhoods.

    Image from here

    Work: “So, what do you do?” wrote another reader from Washington DC. I heartily agree that in Washington DC, this is the default question. Everyone here knows that it is a not-so-veiled way of assessing power and connections, the currency of the town.

    Interestingly, in Burlington VT, people said this same question actually means “What do you do for hobbies?

    A bi-coastal resident writes that in the Bay area as well as Manhattan, the version of the work question is a fill-in-the-blank: "And you’re with… ?"  And lest you misinterpret, she writes, “this refers not to the person who brought you to the gathering, still less to your spouse or companion, but to your work affiliation.”

    Image from here

    Neutral-ground: There is the totally tame: “How ‘bout this weather!” Or the slightly more risky: “How ’bout that game!” A version from the small-town south: “How you getting along?” And from a larger town, where everyone doesn’t know everyone: "So how do you know [the host]?" One big-city reader suggests this question is not so innocent, but can actually be a useful probe: “We're a networking city and even small events are often big.”

    A resident of VT explained a Burlington-specific question, “How did you get here?” This isn’t meant to be prying, she said, it’s rather that so many people have a back story of how they finally landed in Burlington. But it’s also a little tricky, a question you would warm up to, instead of one you ask right off the bat. Interestingly, when we were in Alaska last year, people told us that you never ask that question, since the backstory could be sketchy.

    Finally, one weary-sounding man who has lived all over the south, southwest, and even the east wrote in:  "It never occurred to me … that Hello/How Do You Do might have any formulaic follow-up.  So, to answer the question, in my experience the answer is 'Nothing.'"

    We’d like to hear from you, to help fill in the grid of who says what where. Please email me, with your geographic coordinates, at Debfallows at gmail.

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  • 2 Reasons to Have Watched the Pre-Opening Night Sochi Broadcast

    "For Russians, if our hockey team wins, nothing else will matter. And if they lose, nothing else will matter."

    I never think I'll end up watching these oddball winter events, and yet... The payoff last night:

    1) Jun Miyake. If you watched, you know that American figure skating champion Jeremy Abbott had a rough night. It was the more painful because, when not falling, he is so obviously elegant in carriage and movement. Silver lining of his heartbreak: if you watched, you heard him skate to this music, "Lillies of the Valley," from Jun Miyake, which was new at least to me. The video below is a different kind of elegance, more David Lynch-hypnotic, but the music is the same.

     

    2) Vladimir Pozner! Here is the only thing that's been missing in Reagan-era verisimilitude, from the otherwise delectable FX series The Americans: No cameos of Vladimir Pozner. For those who weren't around in the 1980s, it is difficult to convey how weird it seemed to have this urbane character smoothly laying out official Soviet agitprop on Nightline and other programs -- and sounding as if he'd grown up in New York City, because in fact he had. The picture below is how he looked back in the day. (You can see him, circa 2000, talking with a surprising young-ish and less tedious Rush Limbaugh, here.)

    I tell myself that native-sounding accents shouldn't really matter in our assessment of people; that it's all about the accident of where you happened to be during those crucial phoneme-developing elementary-school years; and that actors, if they're good enough, can pass themselves off as almost native. (Hugh Laurie of House, Dominic West of The Wire, both Brits passing as Americans; Meryl Streep passing as anything.) Still, listening to Pozner during the Cold War was truly strange.

    And now, thanks to the Sochi Olympics, he is back! Apparently in Russia he's never gone away. But last night he was on NBC, in an improbable segment with David Remnick (yes) and Bob Costas, on Russia, sport, resentment, and more. Among other things, Pozner let us know that for the host country, it was all about the national hockey team. "If we win, nothing else [that goes wrong in Sochi] will matter. And if we lose, nothing else will matter." On homophobia: "I would say that 85% of Russians are homophobic, not just in disapproval but to the point of physical violence. This is a very homophobic country."

    I'll be watching for him, and will be disappointed if the next season of The Americans doesn't work him in.

    Olympic bonus point #3, following on Pozner's observation: yesterday's Google Doodle. Understated in design but unmistakable in its stand.

    And the logo on the Google Chrome search box:

    Let the games begin.

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  • In Honor of the Olympics, Let's Talk Filibuster

    What's the word I was looking for—the one that starts with "F" and applies when a bill gets 59 votes? Oh, yes, now it comes back to me: "Fail."

    Stop me if you've heard this one before:

    A large majority of the U.S. Senate votes in favor of a measure—in this case, senators representing nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population*. A minority threatens a filibuster to stop it. The majority falls just short of the supermajority needed to get its way. And our leading journalistic institutions tell us that ... the measure "failed."

    Yes, you have heard this before. But for the record, come on New York Times (source of the breaking-news flash above, and the story below, and which did get the word "filibuster" into the end of the second paragraph):

    And come on CNN (which did not manage to include the word filibuster):

    And come on Boston Globe—which in its defense was using the NYT story, though it presumably could write its own headlines:

     

    On the other hand, nicely done, Reuters!

    And welcome Politico!

     

    __

    *Fun fact for the day: By my ballpark count, the 59 senators who voted for the bill represented states with just less than 70 percent of the U.S. population. The 41 who voted no represented just more than 30 percent of the population. With only 70 percent support, no wonder the bill "failed."


    The nightmare of article-writing nears the end of its cycle, at least for this issue. Coming soon, more reports from up-and-coming parts of America, plus what I learned by watching the pre-opening night of the Winter Olympics.

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  • As We Switch From Superbowl to Sochi ...

    When in doubt, try French.

    For several days I am holed up finishing an "American Futures" article for the next issue of the magazine. Later this week, more web dispatches will be coming about The Upstate of South Carolina. In the meantime, don't miss Deb Fallows's two very popular reports about innovative public schools in Greenville: the Elementary School for Engineers, and the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. And, among many other great recent items on our site, Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay on "The Champion Barack Obama" and Derek Thompson's on Philip Seymour Hoffman

    Now two transition notes. First, about over-correction in language. A reader writes:

    I read with great interest your articles on the "Frenchified" pronunciation of Beijing as Beizhing during the 2012 Olympics. A similar phenomenon appears to be affecting announcers talking about Sochi this year. I've heard several referring to "Soshi", the latest being the ATC TV critic Eric Deggans just this evening (just a little after 5pm EST). [JF note: didn't hear it the first time through, but link is here and embedded below. In the intro you hear the host, I believe NPR's Audie Cornish, say Sochi. Then about a minute in we get Soshi.]

    Does the softer fricative just sound more "foreign"? In the case of Sochi, there can be no confusion based on spelling! 

    Here is the NPR player:

    I think there is something to the theory that when in doubt, Americans instinctively class up a foreign word by making it sound "French." I am no expert in the Slavic world, but through the magic of this delightful site I will assert that сочи, the name of the Olympic home city, is pronounced with what sounds to English speakers like more a ch- than a sh- sound. Listen for yourself. It's on the Internet, so it must be true.

    Second, and on an entirely different scale, an update about Robert Gates. Last week, as part of an Iran-sanctions reader, I linked to Mike Lofgren's criticism of Gates's tenure at DOD and his book. A professor at Texas A&M, where Gates was president for four years before he came back to DC to succeed Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, writes in to disagree. This note comes from John Nielsen-Gammon, who is the Regents Professor at A&M and also the Texas State Climatologist; I've quoted his scientific views before. Since he is criticizing Lofgren by name, and Lofgren was directly criticizing Gates, it seem fair to use Nielsen-Gammon's name too (as he agreed). Here goes:

    Been busy and just now saw your reference to Mike Lofgren's piece on Robert Gates.  I followed the link and was reading the piece with a combination of alarm and skepticism, unsure of how much I should take Lofgren's words at face value (having not read Gates' side of it yet), when I came to this paragraph:

    [Lofgren writes:] "In between the two Bush presidencies, Gates became – quelle surprise! – dean of the newly-minted George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Later he was president of that university. This is not the place to exhaustively examine the subject, but Gates's tenure at Texas A&M is another example of the corrosive effect of the revolving door between political operatives in government and the American university system. While these persons' fundraising prowess based on their extensive network of rich contacts as well as their ability to wangle federal education grants may benefit the university in the short run, the intellectually corrupting influence of such operatives, along with the growing dependence of universities on a cadre of politically motivated government elites, poses a long-term threat to the academic independence of higher education. One need only look at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the bleaching tub of the self-perpetuating American political oligarchy, to see the danger."

    [Back to Nielsen-Gammon:]   At last something of which I have personal knowledge, with which I could gauge Lofgren's credibility.  I've been on the faculty of Texas A&M University since before Gates arrived.

    Gates was surely designated the first Dean of the Bush School (no "George") of Government and Public Service because he was both a friend of the George Bush family and a veteran of governmental affairs.  His appointment was met with understandable concern among the faculty there, who saw the political appointment of a man with no higher education experience.  

    However, in his  two years as Dean, he showed himself to be a fine academic administrator and one of the best Deans in the University at working with faculty to further the academic mission of the School.  

    Robert Gates, Aggies, "senior boots." C/o Aggie Insurgency.

    When it was time to hire a new President in 2001, it came down to two men.  The overwhelming preference on campus was for Robert Gates, based on his track record at the Bush School.  However, many on the governor-appointed Board of Regents were in favor of sidestepping the search committee's recommendation in favor of sitting Sen. Phil Gramm, a former economics professor at Texas A&M.  In this instance, Gramm would have represented "the revolving door between political operatives in government and the American university system".  Eventually, in a split vote, Gates was chosen to be President, and the campus breathed a collective sigh of relief that we had avoided having the office of President of the University become politicized.

    As President, Gates inherited a broad but ambitious plan to move the University forward into the top ten of public universities by the year 2020.  He chose to focus on four key objectives, including "elevating the faculty", and was responsible for expanding the size of the faculty by over 400 members at a time when public spending for higher education in Texas was becoming a hard sell in a conservative state.  He oversaw the beginning of construction of the campus's first building dedicated to liberal arts amid outside suspicion of what "liberal arts" stood for.  His continued focus on the quality of the education Texas A&M provides its students and his strength of character to fend off harmful political interference, contribute to him being widely regarded as one of the greatest presidents in the history of Texas A&M University. 

    Offered for the record. Also on the subject of Texans in the news, congratulations to my friend and one-time employer* Rep. Lloyd Doggett. He is a Democrat who was elected from Austin in 1994 (after losing a U.S. Senate race to the same Phil Gramm and being elected to the Texas Supreme Court) and has survived a series of hostile gerrymanders since then. Now he is leading a House effort against the poison-pill Iran sanctions bill. Greg Sargent has the story here. Good for Rep. Doggett and those working with him.


    * Back in the mid-70s, when the 20-something Lloyd Doggett had just won a seat in the Texas State Senate, and my wife had just begun linguistics graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin, I worked as an aide/gofer on Lloyd's legislative staff. I wasn't there long, before joining the then-startup Texas Monthly, but nonetheless I take credit for, or at least pleasure in, his subsequent attainments.

  • Now This Is Team Spirit

    What the Wright Brothers have wrought. 

    I am taking no sides in The Big Game this weekend. I don't care.* 

    But I have to admire the combination of team spirit, precision flight planning, and disregard for practicality shown by the group at Boeing that produced this flight yesterday in solidarity with the Seahawks' "Twelfth Man" concept. Here is the radar record of the flight track, via Flight Aware.

     If you'd like to replicate the route, here are the waypoints, also courtesy of Flight Aware:

    SEA SEA146051 KS06G 4625N 12000W 4625N 11945W 4725N 11945W 4725N 12000W 4743N 12000W 4800N 11945W 4800N 11925W 4625N 11925W 4625N 11910W 4600N 11910W 4600N 11850W 4653N 11850W 4712N 11830W 4712N 11800W 4737N 11800W 4737N 11825W 4725N 11825W 4725N 11850W 4743N 11850W 4800N 11830W 4800N 11753W 4743N 11733W 4707N 11733W 4649N 11753W 4649N 11825W 4625N 11825W 4625N 11800W 4635N 11800W 4635N 11730W 4600N 11730W 4600N 11850W 4600N 11910W KS06G SUMMA SEA 

    It's up to you to find your own 747 to match** what Boeing flew.

    Update Here's the plane itself! Thanks to many readers in the Hawks diaspora who pointed me to stories about it (and this company photo).

    Update-update A reader who examined the Flight Aware charts adds this:

    Check the detailed flight data. They flew the 747 at 15,000 ft at 200 kts. In a way, that impresses me even more. Imagine flying your SR-22 at 1,500 ft and 80 kts for six hours straight.

    Yes, for an airliner this is quite low and slow -- comparable to early stages of an arrival/approach as an airliner is getting near an airport. For some other installment, what would be easier and harder about flying this way.


    * I grew up with the LA Rams: no más. My kids grew up with the DC NFL team: at this point, its continued flailing is not even interesting, the 15-year achievement of the league's worst ownership and management. So I decided that henceforth the community-owned Packers would be my team. For them, maybe next year.

    ** You'll probably also need to line up an RNP-style navigation system to plot out and follow this exact track, despite the powerful and variable jetstream winds blowing at those flight altitudes. I described the way some American-designed RNP systems were used for a different national-pride purpose, getting Chinese airliners into remote valley airports in Tibet, in China Airborne.  

  • Dreaming Big in South Carolina: A Public Boarding School for the Arts

    by Deborah Fallows

    Impromptu music practice session in a glassed-in walkway at the Governor's School

    By Deborah Fallows

    “One half dream; one half plan.” That’s how one student described his life at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina.

    Dreaming big at the Governor’s School means Broadway, Hollywood, Carnegie Hall, Pulitzer, Pritzker. Planning big means half of every day in practice, rehearsal, studio, workshop, training, rewrite, instruction, all alongside standard high school academics.

    The 240+ South Carolina students are a natural match with this very specialized residential school. They steep in their identity and passion as young artists. (There are 5 arts tracks: dance, drama, visual arts, music, and creative writing.) “You’re a dancer from the minute you get up in the morning,” is how the dance teacher describes her students. “This is how I think of myself. Dance is the place I go to work through my issues. I am comfortable here,” say the students about themselves. They are so mature and accomplished that it is easy to forget they are teen-agers, until they start talking about prom, or offer their alternate self-description as “quirky”, or mention how they really, really miss the puppy at home.

    The Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities

    The Governor’s School was founded as a summer program in 1980, by musician, teacher, and reputed force of nature Virginia Uldrick. Her vision was to create a non-traditional arts conservatory. The county and city of Greenville won the derby for permanent home for the expanded, school-year campus. They donated more than 8 beautiful acres, the former site of the Furman University men’s campus, which overlook the now bucolic Falls Park and Reedy River. The 27 million dollar campus, which is named for Uldrick, opened in the fall of 1999 to its first class of juniors. You can reach the school by road, or much more fun, by the Swamp Rabbit Trail along the river and leading up to a (locked) gate at the bottom of the campus hill. It’s a five-minute walk to the Peace Arts Center, Spill the Beans (Coffee! Ice cream!), and all the other offerings of Greenville’s revitalized Main Street. The school’s first encore is already underway—a major capital campaign for a new visitors center, which will include a gallery and gardens.

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    The students, juniors and seniors (and sophomores, if they are dancers), are admitted from all around the state, from tiny towns like Little River, population 9000, to larger ones like Greenville and Columbia.  Some arrive with impressive portfolios or experience in the Governor’s School summer programs. Others are “discovered” in the old-fashioned way through the deep digging and travel by admissions outreach. I asked the veteran teachers about changes in the students that they have seen over the course of their own careers. Now, they said, they are finding fewer kids with experience and their own sense that they have artistic talent. This means that recruiters today have to look more for the potential and less for the proven. The reason? Budget cuts, they said, which means less of the arts in schools and less exposure for the kids. Chilling.

    The woodworking shop

    A tour around the school is an experience. There are multiple dance studios, a performance hall, art spaces for silversmithing, ceramics, a brass foundry, studios for drawing, music practice rooms, a computer lab for graphic design, a gorgeous library, ad lib practice areas.  I’m sure I have forgotten others.

    Seeing the spaces in use is another experience. In the stage theater, a student violinist was playing for her peers and a guest artist (one of a guest artist series, who was visiting the campus and was performing himself that evening), who was critiquing her performance. We tiptoed into an art room, where a 70-something male model, clad only in running shorts and with astonishing musculature that you had to wonder how he could be for real, stood statue-still while students drew. We stopped in at a practice session preparing drama students for upcoming auditions in Chicago. One young woman was performing her piece of Desdemona for the drama teacher and fellow students. The teacher was tough on her, describing the changes he was looking for, and instructing her to “try it again” at least 3 times before we slipped out.  She was tough right back, which convinced me that what another student described as the tough love approach of their instructors was true. “They break you down and build you back up,” he said.

    Critique session in drama class

    You have to wonder about the stress level in such an intense living environment for high school kids. Lots of talented or accomplished kids have an awakening when they get to college that they’re no longer top-dog, or “everything and a bag of chips” as a writing teacher here described it. For these kids, the realization comes earlier, and it is accompanied by the rigors of their pre-professional endeavors. I saw and heard a few things about their reactions.

    Original copper work by a student

    Several kids talked about synergy, rather than competition. They described how they’re all driven toward the same goal, and they can feed off that sentiment. ”You feel it in the air,” one described, “to do something great.”

    I can’t pretend to know if this is actually pervasively true, and I would guess that the reality is more complicated. Theirs is a tough competitive environment where comparisons are unavoidable and at least some of the rewards are part of a zero-sum calculation. And the kids are, of course, unique. One says she thrives on stress and does well living on the edge. Another says the stress is intense and she has to find a way to keep her balance.

    Student art work

    I asked about another sign of stress, eating disorders. The topic is out in the open, was the answer, and it has to be in a school with lots of ballerinas and actresses. Addressing this begins preventatively, with teaching awareness of a healthy lifestyle. That is accompanied by a watchful eagle eye, and backed up by a confidential  “honor system” so friends can bring up concerns about friends to the counselors and advisors. “Of course it happens,” the administrators told me, and they need a strong support system around it.

    There are two more interesting data points about the make up of student body and the challenges of the admissions work, which are food for thought.

    From the 2012 annual school report card for the Governor's School for the Arts found here

    First, gender differences: some 63% of the students at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities are girls.  The gender ratio imbalance is most remarkable in dance and least remarkable in drama. The school reports that it seeks to build a balanced class in as many respects as they can, but a reality sets in. “If you need a bassoon player,” one told me, “you hope you find a boy, but it will probably be a girl.”

    By contrast, at the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Math, established in 1988 in Hartsville, South Carolina, the student population is now evenly divided between boys and girls.

    The A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School for Engineering, the public school in inner city Greenville, which I wrote about here, is 57%  boys and 43% girls.

    And second, socioeconomics: about one third of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, an accepted proxy for poverty status. I was told that the school attracts mostly lower and middle class students. The school is a harder sell to kids from wealthier families, they said, who don’t want to give up their rooms, cars, and TVs.

    So where does this all lead? A reminder, the school graduated its first class a dozen years ago. But already, the recognition is flooding in. National Merit finalists, Presidential Scholars in the Arts, 100% acceptance to colleges or professional schools, including RISD, Juilliard, Guthrie, Eastman, Peabody Conservatory, award of all sorts. Interestingly, several students and teachers alike told me that there really is no pressure on the students to make a life in the arts. If you want to be a rocket scientist after all, that is fine. Last year 109 students earned 26.5 million dollars in scholarship offers, which breaks down to an average of a $243,000 offer per student.

    Besides dreams in progress, there are already dreams realized. Patina Miller, a graduate in 2002, won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in  Pippin on Broadway. Danielle Brooks plays Taystee in Orange is the New Black. Liza Bennett is an actress in 12 Years a Slave.

    And other dramatic wins fall within in a less celebrated spotlight. I heard a poignant story of one Govvie, as students are called, a young clarinetist who couldn’t afford his own instrument. When a local patron, fond of the school, heard of the need, he dug from his attic a beautiful clarinet, which he gave to the young man.

    Perhaps the biggest accolade so far is returned to the school: one young woman told me effusively, “I love my school so much. I love the challenges. I feel at home while I’m here.”


    To contact the author, write DebFallows at gmail.com.  Photos by Deborah and James Fallows.

  • Hunger Games? Tommy Atkins? Apocalypse Now? What's the Right Allusion for Today's Warrior Homage?

    "But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot;"

    Wikimedia Commons

    Two nights ago, President Obama ended his State of the Union address with a prolonged tribute to Army Sergeant Cory Remsburg, gravely injured in Afghanistan on his tenth deployment. For three previous items on what is right about this young man, but wrong about the spectacle, see #1, #2, and #3

    In those items, I said that during this part of the speech, I couldn't stop thinking about Ben Fountain's novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, about just such a tribute (at a NFL game). Readers suggest other comparisons.

    1) David McCullough on Harry Truman. From a lawyer in Los Angeles:

    I’m sure there has been plenty of commentary about Cory, and I think that’s a good thing.  About what you said about remembering and moving on … I’m reminded of the story told in David McCullogh’s biography of Harry Truman, when he discusses the famous incident regarding the bad review of Truman’s daughter singing. 

    Truman of course wrote an angry letter to the Post’s music critic, for which Truman was widely lambasted.  Apparently one of the critical letters that arrived at the White House was from a couple whose son lost his legs in the Korean War.  That couple wrote to Truman saying in effect “Gosh, how lucky you are that your biggest problem with your kids is the bad reviews your daughter gets for her singing.  Meanwhile, our son just came back from Korea without his legs and we’ll spend our old age helping him cope”.  They even sent him the son’s purple heart.

    Truman apparently kept that letter (with the purple heart) on his desk for the remainder of his presidency. 

    2) Apocalypse Now. From a reader in New York:

    A common piece of writing advice is 'show, don't tell'. I'm not sure Remsburg would have liked to be used to explicitly illustrate the points you wish were made about our wars, much as I agree with those points.

    That said, I think Remsburg did illustrate those points (wittingly or unwittingly, I don't know which) to all who would be receptive to them, and I'm 3/4 convinced that he was brought there for that very purpose (as well as to honor him). They didn't have to choose someone with 10 deployments or someone so damaged. They could have chosen someone who did something extraordinarily brave and escaped unscathed if they just wanted us to marvel at the bravery of soldiers.

    I agree that the spectacle of oblivious war supporters applauding and completely missing the point is disconcerting. War lovers also applauded at the 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning' part of Apocalypse Now, but that doesn't make the movie a less powerful antiwar statement.

    3) The Memoirs of Robert Gates. From another reader:

    We should be so lucky to count the response to Lone Survivor as the worst cultural offender in the mixing up of doer and deed. My vote for worst purveyor of this attitude is Robert Gates, whose trashing of the President and other cabinet members seems to hinge entirely on their refusal to pretend that Afghanistan and Iraq were great success stories.

    Of course those doomed adventures can't actually be defended on their merits, so instead Gates attacks his colleagues for their failure to keep faith with the troops. Doubting our purpose in Afghanistan is no longer the rational response to what is obviously a quagmire...instead, it's an inexcusable abandonment of the men and women serving there. 

    I found the ovation for Remsburg perverse, for the same reasons you did, and I have no interest in defending congress. But can we really expect the people in that chamber to adopt a different attitude when Secretary Gates is loosed on the public as he has been?

    The critics of Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly those like you who were critical from the beginning, are letting the military fetishists get away with something. Underneath the grotesque "love" of the troops (a love that always seems to involve more of those troops getting blown to bits, oddly enough) is a deep desire to rewrite recent history, and pretend that there was something of value gained in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Gates should have been publicly flayed by the press for defending two wars that we had all agreed--until rather recently--were debacles. Instead, he was met by gossip columnists and a shrug from everyone else. That's one more blow against a future of rational foreign policy.

    4) "Tommy Atkins." This one is almost too obvious. As a reader put it, "I don't want to harp on this either, but this hundred-year-old poem is to the point." I won't quote Rudyard Kipling's entire poem, but the refrain is familiar and apt:

    For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
    But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
    An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
    An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

    5) "Toy Soldiers." Paula Craft, an artist in Bigfork, Montana, writes:

    I want to second your notion that Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is extraordinary war writing.  I was so inspired by it I scratched a planned photography show to mount one called 'Toy Soldiers' the theme of which was our casual use of these soldiers as props.  I've attached a photo [below].

    Between the book and my growing disgust at our University of Montana football games odd worship of wounded soldiers, I can hardly stand to see men singled out as the president did in is SOTU.  I do believe that much the way we feel shame for the treatment some soldiers returning from Vietnam recieved, we will at some later date be shamed by our callous use of these brave, damaged souls to make ourselves feel better about wars we don't feel very good about.

    6) Echoes of Vietnam. A veteran writes:

    The practice of picking people out of the gallery during the SOTU has always struck me as basically a pretty cheap political tactic.  With Remsburg my feelings were much more complicated.  

    That he has been through an enormous ordeal is obvious.  To gaze upon him is uncomfortable as it should be.  As a two tour Vietnam combat vet, it tears me up to see guys like that and see them I do at the Palo Alto VA hospital where I go for some of my healthcare.  I am very aware of the ease with which politicians consign other, usually younger, people to die in their political gambits.

    The other thought I had is that Cory is the tip of the iceberg.  There are thousands of veterans in similar shape with grievous physical and psychological damage resulting from a war that was truly a waste of thousands of lives (American and others) and completely avoidable; totally unnecessary.  When do they get their standing ovation?  

    7) Katniss Everdeen. One last allusion:

    Can there be any doubt about the right comparison? This is our Hunger Games.

  • A Serving Soldier, on Cory Remsburg

    "Why was he deployed 10 times? Who the hell cares! What matters is that he was brave, and he volunteered his service, and his sacrifice was noble." Or so the Congress seemed to be thinking.

    Cory Remsburg, from 9Line.

    I won't drag this out indefinitely. (On the other hand, think about it: You may be saying to yourself, Okay, enough already, let this topic go, it's getting tedious. Meanwhile, Sgt. Remsburg and tens of thousands of other people will wake up every single morning for the rest of their lives and cope with the consequences of our open-ended wars.) Previously here and here.

    But here is another message from a person now in uniform: 

    Thanks for writing about Cory Remsburg. I had no idea that it had happened until I had read your article, so I popped over to YouTube to see what I had missed. I'm an active duty service member who, thankfully, has only had to deploy once (so far), and my reaction to it pretty much mirrors yours and probably most of your readers. I won't go into detail how frustrating it was to watch, but I think it put on display a larger cultural problem.
     
    At some point, during the last 12 years and some change the United States has been doing combat deployments, the people who deploy and the reasons for deploying them have become inseparable. People who deploy are undoubtedly brave (well, usually) and have to do absolutely shitty things to varying degrees, and deserve accolades for that. 

    The reasons behind the deployment are not always so praise-worthy, but to criticize the mission is seen as criticizing the *people*, taking away from what they gave up. I think the best recent example for this is Lone Survivor, where people saw that the movie maybe was critical of Operation Red Wings and lashed out against it, insisting that the *reason* behind the mission didn't matter, what mattered was how brave the SOCOM troops were. To criticize the reason why they were, and why multiple operators lost their lives, is to take away from their sacrifice.
     
    That's what happened when SFC Remsburg was introduced. Why was he deployed ten times? Who the hell cares! What matters is that he was brave, and he volunteered his service, and his sacrifice was noble. To question why he was sent, if it really was necessary for him to get blown up, is to question his sacrifice, which can not be tolerated.
     
    I'm a young guy, and can't really say if there's precedence for this sort of mentality in previous conflicts, but the best I can hope for is that when the conflict is over people will look back on it and say, "Yea, that was kind of screwed up."

    And one more reader note about the same Congress that so earnestly applauded Remsburg:

    The Cory Remsburg story seems like one more instance where we have lost our collective spirit to solve problems and take care of each other. As a previous emailer pointed out—10 tours of duty? It is no wonder these young men and women are returning home with serious problems.  

    I am the parent of 2 children in their 20's that have been spared this horror, and I know it is patently unfair, and in the long term, detrimental to who we are as a country. The recent passage of the Farm Bill which cut food stamps to millions is another example of disregarding our responsibilities to our fellow Americans.  

    To round it out and put it in context, a trenchant article by a Marine Corps adviser in Afghanistan on why our entire effort there is likely to come to nothing. 

  • Why the Cory Remsburg Tribute Will Be Seen as a Sign of Our Times, and a Bad One, Many Years From Now

    Taking The Long View of events one day in the past

    Barack Obama has always been said to take The Long View. It's a point he made several times in last night's speech, most explicitly here:

    Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.

    If you saw the speech, you should read
    this book. 

    That's the answer the president "wants" to give his grandchildren; it's not the answer I "expect" any of us to be able to give. But at least he raised the question and expressed a hope.

    There was another moment in the speech that I think will look worse in the long view. It was the emotionally charged ending, the tribute to the obviously courageous and grievously wounded Sergeant Cory Remsburg.

    The moment was powerful human and political drama; it reflected deserved credit and gratitude on Remsburg and his family; and as I wrote earlier today, I think it was entirely sincere on the president's part, as a similar tribute would have been from his predecessor George W. Bush. With the significant difference that Bush initiated the wars these men and women have fought in, and Obama has been winding them down. And so the most favorable reading of the moment, as John Cassidy has argued, is that the president was trying to dramatize to the rest of the government the human cost of the open-ended wars many of them have egged on.

    But I don't think that's how it came across to most of the Congress, or was processed by the commentariat. This was not presented as a "never again" moment; it was a "this is America's finest!" moment—which Cory Remsburg himself, and with his family, certainly is. (Also see Peter Beinart on this point.) For America as a whole, the episode did not show us at our finest. In the earlier item, I tried to explain why these few minutes will reflect badly on us and our times when our children's children view them years from now. Since the explanation was buried at the end of a long post, I repeat it at the end of this one.

    Here is a reader note that makes the point more directly. A soldier in an earlier war writes:

    When I was a draftee in the Army (1967-69) it was unusual to meet a soldier who'd served two tours in Vietnam and almost unheard of to meet one who'd served three tours. That's why I consider it almost unimaginable cruelty the sacrifices our politicians have forced on our troops in the past 12 years.  

    Ten tours! Good Lord, how much is a soldier—and his or her family—supposed to take in order to save a chickenhawk politician the odious task of voting for a draft to supply enough manpower for all the wars he wants others to fight? 

    A Congress that by default is pressuring the country toward war, most recently with Iran, and that would not dream of enacting either a special tax or any kind of enforced or shared service to sustain these wars, gives a prolonged, deserved ovation for a person who has dedicated his all to the country. Tears well up in many eyes; the cheering persists; the admiration for this young man is profound. Then everyone moves right on.

    Years from now, people can play this clip and see something about the culture of our times. It's a moment of which only the Remsburg family will be proud. 

    Update: Another note that just came in:

    I read about the reference to Cory Remsburg and pulled up the SOTU video to see what I had missed. Watching Mr. Remsburg wave his poorly functioning right hand with the help of his father, tears began to slowly well up.

    But as the applause continued and the camera panned over the collection of privileged white men, I started to feel angry and frustrated. It was difficult to hear the President speak about sacrifice while knowing that few of the clapping members of Congress will put any of their children in similar harm’s way.

    It was difficult to hear the President speak about Cory Remsburg as a case of an American fighting and pushing through adversity and life’s hard knocks, as if he was an entrepreneur who opened a business, went bankrupt, and is now working hard to rebuild a new business and provide for his family. This is a man who took 10 deployments overseas for reasons that members of Congress would struggle to explain in lucid and clear terms. I found it tasteless because it seemed that the President, as head of state and Chief in Command, wasn’t acknowledging his role in the adversity that Cory Remsburg and his family deal with every day.

    I don’t mean to blame the President directly, but I would like the plight of people like Cory Remsburg publicly framed as a time of reflection and accountability for members of both the legislative and the executive rather than an opening for a 90 second clapping routine.


    From earlier today, after seven other items about the speech.

    8) Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. About the service and sacrifice of this brave man and other men and women like him, we cannot say enough. As Obama emphasized, Sgt. Remsburg's grave injury came on his tenth deployment. I do not doubt that Obama, like his wartime predecessors, is genuinely seized by both anguish and admiration about the people he has sent into harm's way. Even when, and perhaps more so when, like Obama he has been trying to withdraw those troops.

    And no one can doubt the drama and power of the speech's closing minutes.

    But while that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg, his family, and others similarly situated; and while I believe it was genuinely respectful on the president's part, I don't think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014. It was a good and honorable moment for him and his family. But I think the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.

    The vast majority of us play no part whatsoever in these prolonged overseas campaigns; people like Sgt. Remsburg go out on 10 deployments; we rousingly cheer their courage and will; and then we move on. Last month I mentioned that the most memorable book I read in 2013 was Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. It's about a group of U.S. soldiers who barely survive a terrible encounter in Iraq, and then are paraded around in a halftime tribute at a big Dallas Cowboys game. The crowd at Cowboys Stadium cheers in very much the way the Capitol audience did last night—then they get back to watching the game.

  • SOTU in 8 Thought Drops

    The first seven are in different ways encouraging; number eight, less so.

    Ronald Reagan, back in the days of yore. Read on to discover why I am using this photo. (Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library)

    Not doing an annotated version this year, for mainly technical reasons. Thus this bullet-point version. (Plus, discussed the speech this morning on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, and last night right after the event on Charlie Rose.)

    1) Theme: it had one. The curse/burden of writing State of the Union messages, and the challenge in listening to them, is that their entire point is to be encyclopedic. It's the president's main shot at listing all the things he's hoping to do. Thus their standard "Turning now to foreign affairs ... " creaky-transition structure, and thus the difficulty of discerning any main theme.

    But this one had a theme, and a narrative-argumentative structure. That theme was: things are getting better -- and so, my colleagues in government, let's stop screwing them up. The positive part of the theme allowed Obama to make his version of a morning-in-America presentation: manufacturing up, energy imports and carbon emissions down, health coverage expanding. It also allowed him to make the must-do-more part: inequality and uneven opportunity are the main challenges to doing better. So let's deal with them.

    2) Bearing: Obama's mattered. The news of the past few months has all been of a diminished, aloof, estranged, premature-lame-duck Obama. If the man we'd seen last night had resembled the beaten-seeming Obama of the first 2012 Romney-Obama debate, the out-of-it verdict would have solidified. That wouldn't have moved him into permanent figurehead status, because "expert" judgments about politicians are notoriously fickle. (Bill Clinton is now viewed on all sides as a kind of sun king of political dexterity. After the defeat of his medical-care bill, a crushed-seeming President Clinton had to mewl at a press conference that he was "still relevant.") But it would have made things that much harder.

    So, all judgments are fluid. But—as he has time and again with "big" speeches—Obama improved his standing by seeming sunny, confident, relaxed, and engaged.

    You could say, "Reaganesque," by which I mean: seeming sunnily confident himself, seeming similarly confident about the country, and seeming (most of the time) amused and unflustered by the realities of political division, rather than embittered or scolding about them. 

    3) American Futures—the speech. It was considerate of the president to begin with a litany of local manufacturing start-ups and community public-private development efforts very much like the ones we've been chronicling in recent months. If he ever tires of Air Force One, there is a seat for him in our Cirrus.

    4) Inequality—the shrewd way he positioned it. The news before the speech was that Obama was going to dwell on the worst economic reality of the times, in the United States and virtually all other countries: things are getting better overall, but not for all or even most people. And his opponents were gearing up for a "we are shocked, just shocked by this descent into 'class war' " lament. 

    So when he talked about strictly economic issues, Obama kept carefully to a "growing pie" tone. It's great that rich people have done so well. Let's help everyone prosper. And when he worked the class-war beat, it was on a front where the Republicans dared not (sanely) oppose him: arguing that today's economy is unfair to women. I.e., to most Americans.

    5) Nicest deviation from prepared text—the missing "er." The official text of the speech had this passage about symbols of American opportunity:

    Here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.  That’s what drew our forebears here.  It’s how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America’s largest automaker; how the son of a barkeeper is Speaker of the House; how the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth. 

    What Obama actually said about John Boehner was, "the son of a barkeep." A tiny difference that was ineffably charming. Boehner himself was manifestly charmed. And the sequence of examples here—first female head of General Motors (which, nudge-nudge, the government helped rescue); the son of a barkeep sitting here behind me; and only then the son of a single mother standing at the podium—put Obama's own story, which is (of course) tremendously important but which (of course) we all already know, in a broader "all in this together" frame.  

    Son of a barkeep acknowledges son of a single mother. Son of a used-car salesman applauds. Via Washington Post.

    6) Back to vintage-2008 Obama. On the substance, sentences I was very glad to hear: 

    So, even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks—through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners—America must move off a permanent war footing .... And with the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay—because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by  

    7) Laying down the law, in the right way—about Iran. Also very glad to hear these lines:

    Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.  For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed...  If Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.

    And:

    If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

    Exactly. For later discussion, the way effective (finding bin Laden) and excessive (drone/surveillance) aspects of Obama's records should insulate him from the need to "prove" his toughness.

    8) Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. About the service and sacrifice of this brave man and other men and women like him, we cannot say enough. As Obama emphasized, Sgt. Remsburg's grave injury came on his tenth deployment. I do not doubt that Obama, like his wartime predecessors, is genuinely seized by both anguish and admiration about the people he has sent into harm's way. Even when, and perhaps more so when, like Obama he has been trying to withdraw those troops.

    And no one can doubt the drama and power of the speech's closing minutes.

    But while that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg, his family, and others similarly situated; and while I believe it was genuinely respectful on the president's part, I don't think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014. It was a good and honorable moment for him and his family. But I think the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.

    The vast majority of us play no part whatsoever in these prolonged overseas campaigns; people like Sgt. Remsburg go out on 10 deployments; we rousingly cheer their courage and will; and then we move on. Last month I mentioned that the most memorable book I read in 2013 was Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. It's about a group of U.S. soldiers who barely survive a terrible encounter in Iraq, and then are paraded around in a halftime tribute at a big Dallas Cowboys game. The crowd at Cowboys Stadium cheers in very much the way the Capitol audience did last night—then they get back to watching the game.

  • It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year! SOTU Edition

    What a year-six State of the Union address sounds like

    Harry Truman's State of the Union, 63 years ago. Truman gave the first televised SOTU, in 1947, and the longest one ever, at around 25,000 words, in 1951. (Byron Rollins/Associated Press)

    Since the dawn of time, or at least through the past few presidencies, after each State of the Union address I have hammered out an annotated version of the speech. Generally these have reflected the wizened "OK, here is the trick of how he saws the lady in half" view of someone who has been involved in producing some of these performance and has seen all too many of them.

    For instance, here is a sample from a SOTU early in George W. Bush's term, with his 2003 speech. Comments in italics:

    Jobs are created when the economy grows; the economy grows when Americans have more money to spend and invest; and the best, fairest way to make sure Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place. [Good politicians define problems in ways that make their preferred solutions seem the only logical choices. No one of any party could disagree with the first two parts of this sentence. With the third, the President moves toward the solution he has in mind.] 

    Although, as I noted at the time, that same speech was clearly laying the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq that began five weeks later, I didn't realize in real time the significance of this 16-word passage late in the speech:

    The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. 

    Those 16 words became the heart of the "doctored intelligence" complaint about the oversold case for war in Iraq.

    And here is the latest one, from a year ago, when Barack Obama made his first big appearance since his easy reelection but was girding (as he is now) for showdowns with the Congress:

    Let's set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future.  And let's do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors.  The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.  [One of the clearest partisan-divide moments. Biden and all the Democrats shoot out of their chairs and cheer. Boehner  sits expressionless and does not clap.]

    Let's agree, right here, right now, to keep the people's government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. [Now this is remarkable. One of the tricks of SOTU drafting is to construct sentences that force the other side to join in the applause, because you've ended the sentence on some "U-S-A! U-S-A!" type of line. Which is what Obama has done here: Who can possibly be against upholding the full faith and credit of the United States? The remarkable part is that the congressional GOP has decided it is not going to applaude this line. So we have the odd spectacle of Democrats, led by Biden, up and cheering for America paying its bills -- while the speaker of the House and other members of his party remain seated and un-applauding.]

    Through the past few years we've done the annotations with fancy popups, as you will see with that 2013 speech and its recent predecessors.

    For technical reasons involving our new blogging platform, and also on the "enough is enough" principle, I won't be doing an annotated SOTU this year. Instead I'll refer you, for amusement and reference, to three previous "year-six" SOTUs that came at comparable points in previous administrations. They are:

    Challenger, 28 years ago today.

    Ronald Reagan, 1986, which was delayed a week because of the space shuttle Challenger disaster on the day originally scheduled for the speech. The full text is here, and it begins with tributes to the Challenger astronauts and also—those were the days!—to Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, who was in his final term of service. About 3,500 words long.

    Bill Clinton 1998, which occurred just as the first Monica Lewinsky reports were circulating. Clinton's topics were variants of this "Bridge to the 21st Century" themes. To read it is to take an amazing trip back to the politics of those times. E.g.:

    We have moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the enemy and those who say government is the answer. My fellow Americans, we have found a third way. We have the smallest Government in 35 years, but a more progressive one. We have a smaller Government, but a stronger Nation. We are moving steadily toward an even stronger America in the 21st century: an economy that offers opportunity, a society rooted in responsibility, and a nation that lives as a community.

    This speech is more than twice as long as Reagan's, nearly 7,500 words. The losses Clinton noted at the start were two congressmen from California, Walter Capps and Sonny Bono.

    George Bush 2006, Bush also began by noting a loss: the death of Coretta Scott King. Then his speech moved onto the same boundless-expansionist territory as his second inaugural address one year earlier. E.g.:

    Abroad, our Nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal: We seek the end of tyranny in our world. 

    Bush was between the other two-term presidents in length, with a speech of about 5,400 words. Here is my annotated version of that one. 

    Please study, compare, contrast—and understand the precedents through which Obama's speech should be assessed. If this makes you so interested that you want to read through the whole SOTU archives, a great place to find them is in the archives of the American Presidency Project of UC Santa Barbara.

  • Dadgum! Katy, Bar the Door! Speaking Your Mind in South Carolina

    by Deborah Fallows

    South Carolina. Image via SCPRT

     

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    Greenville is located in the heart of The Upcountry of South Carolina. Colloquially, most people now seem to call this The Upstate. It's not simply geographically upstate, as in "upstate New York," but a moniker with strong cultural and historical references. The Upcountry or Upstate was the heartland of South Carolina's now-diminished textile industry, and by their own description, the people are scrappy and hard-working. Besides referring to The Upstate, people in Greenville generally divided the rest of South Carolina into the Midlands, which includes Columbia, the capital; the Pee Dee, in the northeast and named for the native American Pee Dee tribe, and the Low Country, home of plantations and historic Charleston. It's a smaller state, #40 of the 50 by size, but with a lot of internal variation. 

    I went to Greenville listening for what kind of southernisms I might hear. I wasn't disappointed:  the accent is alive and well, classic words and phrases abound, and best of all, the conversations are comfortably padded with folksy, southern expressions. You won't regret watching the video below.

    Regionalisms: A look at my favorite Harvard dialect study confirmed that I could count on the obvious: South Carolina is “y’all” country. Some 72% of South Carolinians say that, compared with 14% in the US overall.  Even the strong national pull of “you guys”, which my husband Jim, a Californian, swears originated in California and moved out from there, can’t take over from y’all in the South. Only 13% of South Carolinians use “you guys”, so far at least. In one modern moment, when I was talking with a Greenville native, she said y’all to me. Then, her regional linguistic self-awareness kicked in and she hesitated, tracked back, and offered up a clarifying “you”.

    Harvard Dialect Survey, overall nationwide responses.

    And here is something really bizarre. Again from the dialect study is question #80: “What do you call it when rain falls when the sun is shining?” Well, over half the people in the country don’t even have an expression for this. But in South Carolina, over 43% of people say  “ the devil is beating his wife”. 

    HDS, nationwide responses.

    One question the survey didn’t ask, but I wish it had, is about greetings and introductions. In my own personally-conducted linguistic survey in Greenville (read: I asked around), several residents reported that the follow-up you’re likely to hear after “Hello” or “How do you do?”  is “Where do you go to church?” I suspect this isn’t confined to the South.  When I asked about the intention of this phrase in Greenville, two women I met went back and forth about its real meaning. They settled on some version of “Who are your people?” or “Where do you fit in?” That makes sense to me. If you have your own nomination for this after-you-say “How do you do?” question, send it along to me (contact details below) with your location, and we’ll make our own nationwide map.

    Pride and Surprise: We had many conversations with residents of Greenville about the story of the town center’s revitalization as an exciting, attractive, busy place. All sorts of people talked with us: city officials, developers, educators, artists, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, journalists, students, parents of students, and wage earners. Two sentiments about the town prevailed: pride and a sense of surprise.

    The first we almost expected. Of the more than half dozen towns where we have spent time over the last several months, I would say they all share the trait of having intense pride for investing in, among other things, the revitalizing of the downtown space. This was true in Sioux Falls, Holland MI, Burlington VT, Rapid City, Eastport ME, and Redlands CA. This same sense of pride came through clearly in the thousand or so responses we received in the “nominate your town” request to suggest places we could visit. (Here was the original nominating page, still open for new suggestions.) People love their hometowns and what they are building there.

    Downtown Greenville. Photo via MASC

    The second was unique, so far, to Greenville – the surprise from residents at how quickly and broadly their town has improved.  Greenville reports on itself that it had a long way to go. The vision of  Mayor Max Heller in the 1970s to rebuild the town after the collapse of the textile industry to one of culture, recreation, and commerce was beginning to see some results after a long decade. But even into the 1990s, people recounted to us, there were not many reasons to go to Main St., and there were a lot of reasons not to. There were few restaurants and lots of empty storefronts.  The now elegantly-restored Westin Poinsett Hotel was “the tallest crackhouse in town” hitting its nadir after its demise from a grande-dame hotel to a retirement home to abandonment.  The general warning from residents to each other was about the derelict nature of the southern edge of downtown, including the traffic bridge that crossed the Reedy River above its natural falls. “Don’t go near the bridge,” people today said that people used to say. Now, people generally marvel at the changes over the last 15 years.

    Folksy language: You know you’re somewhere when people say, “Katy, bar the door!” in the middle of a conversation.  And you know it’s a place where people don’t cautiously spoon out their language, wary of soundbites.  Here is an example:

    One piece of the plan for rebuilding Greenville included demolishing the traffic bridge over the Reedy River, a bridge that hid the view of the falls beneath it, and for prettying up the space around the falls with a park complex. Fifteen years of controversy roiled over an idea that was embraced by some and met with strong resistance by others. “Why take down a perfectly good bridge?” asked a group of people who were happy to let things be, and who didn’t see river revitalization as an attractive proposition. “The River, Yuck!” as it was “all kudzu and poison ivy.” By today’s retelling, these folks were all about “Katy, bar the door!”

    Greenville falls. Photos via MASC

    Well, the bridge did get demolished, the new Falls Park area with the elegant pedestrian Liberty Bridge was dedicated in 2004. And so much more was developed or restored:  the Swamp Rabbit Trail along an old rail bed for runners, walkers and bikers, the Peace Center for the arts, old textile mills, the restaurants and brew pubs, specialty shops selling everything from Jerky to ice cream, the ice rink, the Fluor Field, the in-town baseball stadium which is now a bookend to the west-end (which is actually to the south) development. “It used to be a mile’s a ways out,” but now walking that distance to the field suggests that expansion is going to continue a ways beyond that.

    As for the fruit of the huge redevelopment effort, “Dadgum if we didn’t do it!”  summed up a revered town elder.

    Newcomers and young returnees to Greenville vouch for its current coolness. One 20-something entrepreneur, Eric Dodds, whom Jim wrote about in a post on the start-up culture of Greenville,  who had grown up in the town, left in a hurry for college, returned home on a visit and uttered a “Holy cow!” upon seeing the change. He has moved back.

    Many people told us the stories of recruiting outsiders to Greenville for jobs in education, tech, and business of all sorts. The typical outsiders’ reaction, residents reported in a way that you know precedes a punch line, was always “Greenville, South Carolina? Are you kidding?” The finale was always something like: “Well, within a week, they had called a realtor and bought a house.”

    The earthy language of Greenville has given me heart that American English has not become homogenized, and that regionalisms are alive and well.


    To contact the author, including with more suggestions about American regional English, write DebFallows at gmail.com.

  • Smaller-Town Startups: 'Stopping the Brain Drain' in South Carolina

    'People say, this is my ticket Out.' Then, they want to stay.

    "Code academy" room for The Iron Yard, inside the Next tech-accelerator building Greenville SC.

    Yesterday PCH International -- the company from Shenzhen, in southern China, that is run by my friend Liam Casey and whose exploits the Atlantic has chronicled from 2007 to 2012 -- announced yet another acquisition. It's of the e-commerce site ShopLocket, and the logic of the deal was an extension of what I've heard from Casey all along. The main function of his company (and others) has been to shorten the distance -- in time, money, effort -- between the idea for a new product, and the reality of that product in a customer's hands.

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    You can read all about it in the announcement, but here's the connection to our American Futures journey. ShopLocket is a service for the "maker revolution" -- the small startups, all around the U.S. and elsewhere, that are producing new things, and that are using the advantages of today's distributed commerce to help small, new companies do what only big companies could do before. That is, they can more quickly and easily: get startup capital; refine prototypes for their products; find suppliers and subcontractors; line up distributors and test markets; respond to shifts in demand; and all the rest. This is what Liam Casey was describing to me a little over a year ago, and it's what you can read about on the ShopLocket site here.

    Which brings us back to the Greenville-Greer-Spartanburg area of "upstate" South Carolina. A big question we have been asking is why high-value companies end up where they do, and how and where new companies get their start. In Burlington, Vermont, this involved asking what Dealer.com was doing there. In Redlands, California, why the big geographic-software company Esri (our partner in the project) had started and --  more interesting -- stayed in a place far from existing software centers.

    In Greenville, we spent a very interesting afternoon at the locally well-known firm The Iron Yard, which was housed in a new tech-incubator building that said "NEXT" out front.

    Next Innovation Center at night, photo by Brad Feld.

    As my wife mentioned before, and as we're sure to mention many times again, just about everything in the Greenville area reflects the fruits of the "public-private partnerships" that have rebuilt the downtown, attracted international manufacturing firms, created surprising new schools, and in other ways tried to reposition the town as a modern technology/culture/good-life center.

    [Before you ask, I've received a lot of mail about Greenville's troubled past in race relations and other barometers of inclusiveness. Greenville County, for instance, was the very last one in South Carolina to observe Martin Luther King's birthday as a holiday.  We talked the past, present, and future of the area's "openness" with lots of people there and will say more about it in upcoming dispatches.]

    The Next project is run by the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, with "public-private" guidance from local officials, businesses, developers, and so on. But it is located separately from the main Chamber of Commerce building and is designed to look and feel like a Boston/SF/Shenzhen-style startup center rather than some normal civic building. When we visited there last week, John Moore, a Chamber executive who runs the Next project, told us that it tried to run lean startup-style too. "We had the advantage of starting with a blank sheet of paper," he said.

    The Iron Yard, discussed below, part of the Next complex.

    "Because there were no existing entities to protect their turf, we were able to leapfrog," Moore said -- much as some developing countries jump entirely past the wired-telephone stage to create nationwide wireless networks. "We went from the idea for the center, to finishing the building and opening it, to having it full, all within three years. If we'd had to start with a university or an existing city facility and tried to change its model, it would have been a lot harder and slower." 

    The purpose of Next is to make it easier for new companies to start in the Greenville area. Moore pointed out that this "upstate" region of South Carolina had become famously effective in recruiting big, established firms to set up operations there: GE, BMW, Michelin, and on down a long list. "We've been so good an attracting other companies that we may not have done enough to develop our own," he said. Thus Next and related enterprises -- which connect startups with angel investors, provide physical space to get started, offer advice from mentors and startup veterans, and generally supply the sort of surrounding entrepreneurial information and advantage that can come automatically from being in startup centers from Boston to SF. 

    Some of the startups with offices in Greenville's Next building.

    Has it made any difference? Can it make any difference, I asked Moore, given the scale and distance handicaps of a smallish place like Greenville?

    "If you'd asked me five years ago, during the toughest times economically, I would have said, I hope so," Moore told us. "We had eight software companies in our program in 2006. They hadn't known each other. Now we have 134 companies, all new, in all kinds of industries, from manufacturing to genomics to game software." He said that he expected 200 local startups to be involved with Next soon. The main building has space only for 20 to 24; the rest are part of a network for advice, financing, and other services. Moore said the companies Next is looking for are ones "that can compete on a global scale but are based here."

    "They're now coming without recruiting. It's become a kind of flywheel. The momentum, the acceleration -- it all shows the potential. But of course I'm from the Chamber of Commerce, so you'd expect me to say that!"

    Indeed, but then he put it in more tangible terms, gesturing to an office across the hall: "A few years ago, people like Eric Dodds would never have stayed here."


    The Iron Yard's Eric Dodds, via Global Accelerator Networks.

    Eric Dodds, whom we met at the Next building, is a co-founder and the chief marketing officer of The Iron Yard, a multi-purpose software startup based in Greenville and with operations in Spartanburg, nearby Asheville, NC, and other southeastern locations. You can read more about its operations here.

    Dodds grew up in Greenville, and always dreamed of getting away. "Boulder, Portland -- that's where My People would be." Then, after going to Clemson and working for national branding companies, he came back and noticed that the place where he started out had changed. The Iron Yard's co-founder and CEO, Peter Barth, grew up in Florida and had worked in New York and the Midwest and was planning to work in Charlotte. He stopped for lunch in Greenville, walked through its famously renovated downtown, and decided this is where he wanted to stay.

    The Iron Yard's CEO, via Vimeo.

    Some other time I'll go into The Iron Yard's whole business model, which is a combination of "code academy," business incubators, kids' classes, and other features. The code academy charges $10,000 for a three-month session, and offers a full refund if graduates can't get an appropriate job. "We can guarantee an entry-level job, but entry level in this field might be $65,000 or $75,000," Barth told us. So far they have not had to give any refunds. (More here and here.)

    The point for today is an effect we heard about time and again. This was a change in this area's ability to attract and retain people like Barth or Dodds -- whom you might normally expect to find in Boulder, Portland, Boston, and who might have expected to find themselves there.

    "Greenville is great once you get here, but it can be hard to get people to come and take a look," Peter Barth said.  Eric Dodds added, "It's been really interesting rubbing shoulders with people in our classes who say: 'I’ve gotten here, I’m going into your program, and this is my ticket Out.' Then after a while they say, 'I’ve seen this culture, I think I’m going to stay around here.' It’s been very interesting in stopping the brain drain."

    More on this theme, the dispersion of opportunity, in coming installments. And before this coming week's State of the Union address, a reminder that the resilient capacity of America is more evident and encouraging city-by-city than it seems in national discussions.

    As a closing bonus, in case you were wondering what the Blue Ridge Parkway looks like from above during the Polar Vortex era, here is your answer.

     

  • Friday Mid-Day Reader: Iran, Etc.

    The substance and the politics of several ensnarled issues.

    Following last night's China roundup, another batch of news items before we get back to Greenville, South Carolina:

    1) The Iran deal: substance. As a reminder, the interim U.S.-U.K.-French-German-Russian-Chinese deal with Iran holds no guarantees. But if it should succeed in re-integrating Iran as a "normal" country, the benefits to the world in general and the U.S. in particular would be enormous, similar in concept (though not in scale) to the benefits of re-integrating China a generation ago. Thus it is worth giving the negotiations every chance to succeed—and resisting the cynical congressional effort to guarantee failure by adding impossible poison-pill conditions.

    In the upcoming issue of The New York Review of Books, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former National Security Council staffer on proliferation issues, underscores the importance of the deal and the danger of the congressional effort. Her essay, headline shown above, begins:

    In recent weeks, Iran and the United States, for the first time, have broken through more than a decade of impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. Significant differences remain, but at long last, both governments appear ready to work their way toward a resolution. Yet the US Congress, acting reflexively against Iran, and under intense pressure from Israel, seems ready to shatter the agreement with a bill that takes no account of Iranian political developments, misunderstands proliferation realities, and ignores the dire national security consequences for the United States.

    She goes on to make the case on all counts. As does Steven Walt, in Foreign Policy, with a catalogue of the sweeping benefits for the United States if relations with Iran should improve. And Fred Kaplan in Slate.

    Why is Congress threatening to make a deal impossible, before one can be struck? The only real opposition comes from some hardliners inside Iran, who have no U.S. constituency; plus the current governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel, who have an easier time getting the attention of U.S. legislators. Mathews says:

    Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the agreement with a barrage of criticism. Even before it was completed he called it a “Christmas present” for Iran; later, “a historic mistake.” His too attentive audience on Capitol Hill followed suit. Many of the criticisms suggest that the critics haven’t appreciated the terms of the agreement. Senator Charles Schumer dismissed it as “disproportionate.” The observation is correct, but upside down, for Iran gave far more than it got.

    2) The Iran deal: politics. The poison-pill legislation is officially known as S. 1881, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 (full text here), and informally as the Kirk-Menendez bill, after Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Most Republicans say they're for it; the Obama administration is (obviously) dead-set against it. The only discernible reason why some Democrats are lining up with the GOP is AIPAC's strong push for the bill. 

    A report this week by Ron Kampeas in JTA is worth reading closely on the political dynamics. For instance:

    AIPAC has been stymied by a critical core of Senate Democrats who have sided with the Obama administration in the fight. While AIPAC’s bid to build a veto-busting majority has reached 59 — eight short of the needed 67 — it has stalled there in part because Democrats have more or less stopped signing on....

    AIPAC, however, says its bid to pass sanctions is on track.

    “Our top priority is stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and consequently we are very engaged in building support for the Menendez-Kirk bill which now has the bi-partisan co-sponsorship of 59 senators,” AIPAC’s spokesman, Marshall Wittman, wrote in an email to JTA. “This measure would provide our negotiators with critical leverage in their efforts to achieve a peaceful end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

    Kampeas has an update on the substance and politics here. And John Hudson, in Foreign Policy, describes the pressure AIPAC is putting on Debbie Wasserman Schultz, longtime representative from Florida and national chair of the Democratic National Committee, to switch away from her announced support for the administration's approach. And Mathews's article says:

    The bill’s most egregious language explains why so many senators leapt onto this bandwagon: it has become a vehicle for expressing unquestioning support for Israel, rather than a deadly serious national security decision for the United States.... Senators report that AIPAC’s advocacy of the bill has been intensive, even by its usual standard.

    In two previous big showdowns with the administration—over Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense, and over military intervention in Syria—AIPAC de-escalated and said it hadn't really been looking for a fight, once it became clear things weren't going its way.* As the Iran-sanctions issue gets more attention, my bet is that something similar will happen. For good reason, there is zero American-public appetite for a showdown with Iran. Since the interim deal was announced, polls have shown support for giving the talks the best possible chance. E.g.:

    As the talks go on and everyone except the Saudis, the Netanyahu administration, and AIPAC extol their possibilities, it will be harder for leading Democrats to explain why it makes sense to defy their party's president, secretaries of state and defense, and congressional leadership, plus most of the rest of the world, on this issue. (Also see Greg Sargent in the WaPo, and another from Kampeas.)

    [* The Syria situation was of course muddled. Initially AIPAC and the administration were both pro-intervention. After Obama's surprise decision to seek Congressional authorization, AIPAC pushed hard for a pro-intervention vote.] 

    3) Gates and Afghanistan: substance. It's worth reading this analysis, by Gareth Porter, of Obama's first-term approval of a "surge" in Afghanistan. Robert Gates's book appeared to put Obama's approach in a bad light. Porter makes the contrary case:

    The Gates account omits two crucial historical facts necessary to understanding the issue. The first is that Obama agreed to the escalation only under strong pressure from his top national security officials and with very explicit reservations. The second is that Gen. David Petraeus reneged on his previous commitment to support Obama’s 2009 decision that troop withdrawal would begin by mid-2011.

    Further details in his essay.

    4) Gates and Afghanistan: politics.  Mike Lofgren, author of The Party Is Over and veteran of Republican-side congressional politics, has an unromantic assessment of Gates's career and judgment. E.g., what Lofgren saw as a Senate staffer, when Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld at DOD:

    Because the Senate Armed Services Committee was overjoyed at seeing the last of Rumsfeld, they asked Gates no awkward questions, either about current strategy or about past events in which Gates had either inside knowledge or active participation – the "tilt to Iraq" which strengthened Saddam Hussein and helped lead inexorably to the first Gulf war and then the invasion of Iraq; or the arming of the Afghan mujaheddin, which helped lay the groundwork both for 9/11 and the Afghan quagmire that bedevils us yet.

    No, at the time of the hearing, I got the sense that the Armed Services Committee members would have liked to carry him in triumph in a sedan chair to the floor of the Senate for confirmation, simply because he was not Rumsfeld.

    That is all. 

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