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.
  • A New Year Starts, an Era Ends

    "So long, old friend."

    Happy New Year! And one reading tip for starting off the year is the latest issue of The Washington Monthly, which is shown at right and has a lot of great stories.

    I could go on about them in detail. For instance, a very good report, from an understandably pseudonymous author, about the "Disneyfication" of Tibet. Another very good report by Tim Murphy, which the cover appropriately bills as "Another Reason to Hate Dan Snyder," on the entirely non-football-related way in which the owner of the Redskins has earned his place as the most widely reviled person in the capital. Other great reports about the medical system, various higher-ed rackets, surprising changes in the West, and so on.

    But I mention the issue principally because of the last paragraph in one of its best-known features, the "Tilting at Windmills" column by my friend and first magazine-world employer, Charles Peters. He talks in the column about his work for Sargent Shriver in the original Peace Corps, before Charlie started the Monthly in 1969. (I began working there three years later.) Then he ends the column this way:

    Until we meet again

    As you gathered from the previous item, I’m an old guy. In fact, I just turned eighty-seven, and there’s not as much gas left in the tank as there used to be, so this is going to have to be my last regular Tilting at Windmills column.

    When I’ve written it, I’ve always felt like I was talking to an old friend who I haven’t seen for a while, and after the column is published, I always think of what I wish I’d said, or had said better, or of a funny story I forgot to mention. And then, as time goes by, I see new things in the news that fire me up, amuse me, and make me want to grab my old friend by the lapels. So you can be sure that if I’m able, I’ll be back here from time to time. But for now, so long, old friend, and thanks.

    I've written about Charlie and his journalistic influence over the years -- most recently here, on the premiere of Norman Kelley's movie about him. For now I'll just say that I hope you read his column and the rest of this issue. If you're thinking of a way to express appreciation for the mark he has made, you could consider subscribing to the magazine he started (The Washington Monthly) and others he has influenced (ahem, this one); or contributing to the foundation he established (Understanding Government). Or writing him care of the Monthly to say thanks. 

    Charlie Peters and his wife Beth, near their house in DC, earlier in their careers. Photo from Norman Kelley's The Charlie Project.

     

  • On the Character of a Community: What Local Narratives Emphasize, and Leave Out

    The role of universities, and our un-loved public efforts.

    Cover image from Faithfully and Liberally Sustained, an entire book, by local historians Larry Burgess
    and Nathan Gonzales, about the philanthropic tradition in a small Southern California town.

    Yesterday I argued that the narrative of turning points -- the big choices that built an individual, a family, a community, a nation -- plays a big part in our sense of future possibilities. If you think that you and your people are better off for the hardships you've seen, you face new hard times one way. If you think you're on the wrong side of a long, Buddenbrooks/Downton Abbey-style slide from past glory, you view them differently.

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    For our latest American Futures town of Redlands, California, a very important part of the local narrative was awareness of the Founding Fathers and Mothers who had set up the small-town counterparts to the National Mall or Central Park. How many small Sunbelt towns have whole histories written about their philanthropic heritage, like the one above? (Which I have with me at home, and will quote from further soon.) Or a promotional documentary like the one Redlands produced for its 125th anniversary last year, which was as earnest as anything from the Frank Capra era in drawing connections between the wisdom of our forebears and real-world choices today? 

    Two reader reactions on the larger implications of this local story. First, from a resident of Claremont, California, which is only half as far from Los Angeles as Redlands is, and is at least twice as well known:

    I think more than just "forefather foresight," generally, must be acknowledged as a reason why Redlands does not resemble most of the south-of-San Gabriel-Mountains sprawl: the presence of the University of Redlands, and the consequent effect on income, education, citizen participation, desire for amenities, willingness to spend public funds on unselfish things like preserve orange groves, or buy up hillsides, or build more high schools, etc.

    The other city in this range that uniquely does not resemble the others is Claremont. I don't think it's coincidental to this uniqueness that the Claremont Colleges are located there.

    Yes, I agree. Claremont is a "university town" in a way few other places in the West can match, because not one but eight colleges and graduate institutes are based within its small borders. These include Pomona (where I almost went to college), Scripps (where my sister did), Harvey Mudd, and on through the list. Redlands has never been university-centric in the way Claremont is, but it has always been university-influenced, by its small, liberal-arts-oriented University of Redlands.  

    Promotional photo from University of Redlands.

    There is no surprise in saying this, but the more we've traveled the more we've been reminded of the economic and cultural throw-weight of local colleges and universities. (As John Tierney has often discussed in this space, for instance about communities in Vermont and Maine.) Their short-run effect, in bringing in students to boost local demand, matters much less than the long-term changes they can work in the character of a community. That is, attracting a different kind of person to live there and change the kind of place it is. 

    That effect is obvious when we're talking about big, famous university centers -- Cambridge, the Bay Area sweep of Berkeley through Palo Alto, Pasadena with Caltech. It has made a crucial difference even in little Redlands. Half a century ago, in the 25,000-population town I remember from school days, Redlands tried to be more than just a sunbelt boom town by bolstering its still-strong orange-growing industry with a mix of higher-end industries and jobs:

    • It had the university, which because it was especially strong in music, drama, speech, and performing arts, bolstered the local cultural community;
    • It was the nicest nearby bedroom community for giant Norton Air Force Base, and many of the colonels' (etc) families who lived for a few years in Redlands had broader international experience;
    • In much the way Sioux Falls is increasingly the retail and medical center for the rest of South Dakota, Redlands, on the edge of the Mojave, was a medical center for vast desert communities. This was what drew my parents to the city when my dad finished his time as a Navy doctor; some of his patients came from 100 miles away.
    • It had a high-tech defense-contractor community, in the form of Grand Central Rocket which later became part Lockheed Propulsion. Thus some of my school teachers had come to the area as Okies during the Dust Bowl and Depression. And some were scientists, or their spouses, who had come from the East Coast or Europe to work at Grand Central.
    The History of Redlands documentary.

    These days Norton is closed and long gone; neighboring Loma Linda has an enormous Veterans' hospital and university medical system to compete with Redlands doctors (though many of those families live in Redlands); Grand Central Rocket is no more, and the Lockheed site has been the subject of a drawn out toxic-waste lawsuit; and the University has faced the challenges of other small non-famous liberal-arts colleges. 

    Now what helps the city retain its character -- and live out what it considers its local narrative -- is the software company Esri, which is our partner in this project. Even 20 years ago, few people would have imagined that a locally owned, privately held, globally dominant software company could bring thousands of engineers and designers from around the world and work in this small city, but that is what has occurred. We asked about the causes and ramifications, and will go into them soon.

    The only indication of multi-thousand-employee tech company, Esri, on the road into town.

    But the look-and-feel implications are already obvious. About a week ago my wife stepped into a Redlands coffee shop that would have fit in perfectly in Brooklyn, Berkeley, or West LA. "Those people over there are from the university," another local shop owner told her, pointing to one group of customers. "And the ones over here are from Esri."


    Now, on the policy implications, from our old friend Mike Lofgren. As a reminder, he is a long time Republican Congressional aide, and author of The Party is Over. He says this about the turning-points narrative:

    On the development, infrastructure, and the process of community growth and decay: It has something to do, as you say, with “stories we tell ourselves,” but I think in a more direct and ideological fashion than that phrase implies.

    It is remarkable that much of our present infrastructure – or perhaps it is better to describe it as the mental image of what we think a city should be – dates back well over a century. Some of it, like streetcars and interurbans, is no longer with us precisely because of business decisions that were partly ideological. But think of all that remains – urban parks like Central Park or Boston Common, the stately campuses of long-established public universities, public buildings like those surrounding the Mall in Washington, the Brooklyn Bridge, the New York subway – all were constructed long ago as collective enterprises that transcended the now-sacrosanct goal of immediate private profit.

    The free-market fundamentalist ideology that has dominated public debate for the last 35 years has attempted to obscure all of this by projecting onto the past a fantasy vision of the United States as a sort of Ayn Rand utopia before it was spoiled (depending on the point the ideologue is making) by the New Deal, the Great Society, or the 2009 Stimulus. Much of this is historical distortion owing to ignorance compounded by partisan bias, but public purpose in development goes all the way back to George Washington and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the National Road.

    We actually fought the battle over the Stimulus before, on a tragic scale: politicians in what eventually became the Confederacy were  opposed to “internal improvements,” because they intuitively understood it would hasten the end of their system of feudal slavery.

    I suspect, however, that some of this false projection is not just ignorance, but rather a mendacious attempt at dominating the present by changing our collective perception of the past, in the manner of Stalin airbrushing Trotsky from photographs.

    A particularly egregious example is Amity Schlaes’ The Forgotten Man, a cherry-picking polemic which “proves” the New Deal was a failure that prolonged the Great Depression. Quite apart from the overriding fact that the United States survived the depression with its institutions intact while many  democracies did not, it is hard to think of America as a better place if it were to lack projects like TVA or the Grand Coulee Dam, not to mention the hundreds of post offices and other public buildings such as the National Gallery, as well as jewels like Shenandoah National Park. 

    To tie this all together -- the WPA, historical architecture, local consciousness, purposeful narratives -- here is a snapshot of a watercolor on our dining-room wall by the Redlands artists Janet Edwards. It shows the WPA-built local post office, now of course up for impending sale

    The inscription inside (where I once worked as a mail sorter and letter carrier) said that the building was dedicated only a few months after FDR took office. Things moved quickly in those days. More on the power of personal, local, and national narrative soon -- in fact, next year. New Year's greetings to all. 

  • But Wait, There's More: Yasukuni, Arlington, Doolittle, and LeMay

    More on "victors' justice" and the standards by which we judge the brutality of war.

    It turns out that there is more to say on the Yasukuni Shrine/ 靖国神社 / history's-burden theme. For background see previous installments onetwo, three, and four.

    Jimmy Doolittle, via Wikipedia.

    "I knew Jimmy Doolittle. Jimmy Doolittle was a friend of mine..." A very large proportion of the reading public wrote in to question or complain about this sentence in a previous reader's message:

    Yasukuni is like Arlington: it honors war dead, and U.S. presidents don’t avoid Arlington visits simply because characters like Jimmy Doolittle, a war criminal if ever there was one, is buried there.

    Here is a sample of the many WTF?? responses I received, this one from a Westerner who has lived and worked in both Japan and China:

    The person who wrote the above [about Doolittle] gained far more space in your column than he deserved. Curtis LeMay yes (by his own admission), Paul Tibbets [pilot of the Enola Gay, which dropped the world's first atomic bomb] maybe . . . but Doolittle?

    I should have flagged this to begin with. This reader is exactly right that the original sentence would have made sense with Curtis LeMay's name, but not so much with Jimmy Doolittle's. 

    Curtis LeMay, also Wikipedia pic.

    Sez who, about Curtis LeMay? Sez LeMay himself, along with Robert McNamara. As McNamara put it to Errol Morris in the wonderful film The Fog of War:

    I don't fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. [This is McNamara speaking, but my emphasis added below.] The U.S.—Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history ? kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to that time ? and today ? has not really grappled with what are, I'll call it, "the rules of war." Was there a rule then that said you shouldn't bomb, shouldn't kill, shouldn't burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night?

    LeMay said, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

    The background here is that McNamara was part of the wartime civilian planning team, and LeMay was the bomber commander, for the horrific Allied fire-bombing campaign against Tokyo and other cities in the final year of the war.  More people are thought to have been burned to death during one of these raids on Tokyo in 1945 than were killed by either of the atomic bombs, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More details here.

    Jimmy Doolittle's famous raid against Tokyo in 1942, for which he won the Medal of Honor, was of strategic and symbolic importance as the first retaliatory strike against the Japanese home islands, just four months after World War II. But it did relatively little collateral (or direct) damage and in no way marked Doolittle for opprobrium. He was an impressive and accomplished figure in many other ways, including as a pioneer in the science, technology, and practice of instrument-guided flight. Sorry not to have caught this earlier. [Update: After his famous 1942 raid on Japan, Doolittle was commander for the much more morally questionable Dresden firebombing in 1945, as here.]


    Let's dig once more into the mail bag. Another reader writes in response to the original passage about Arlington and Doolittle, above:

    First, U.S. Presidents must walk on eggshells around the memory of the Civil War. We all know who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, but Grant’s Tomb is not in Arlington. Sherman is buried in St. Louis. You won't find Forrest, or Longstreet, or Hooker, or McClellan in Arlington. Nor Robert E. Lee, whose home it was, Kit Carson isn’t there, nor his superior James Carleton who ordered the Navajo internment.

    Why Jimmy Doolittle? He is remembered chiefly for his 1942 raid on Tokyo. This was, to be sure, a largely indiscriminate attack on a civilian target. It may have been ineffectual and unfortunate. But if this is a war crime, what of Curtis LeMay, or Arthur Harris, or Capt. Yossarian? (Yossarian comes to reject the war, you may recall, after Snowden spills his guts.)  

    The odd thing is that, for this rhetorical purpose, any arguable US War Crime — preferably WW2 and ideally against Japan — would serve. The assassination of Isoroku Yamamoto  in 1943 seems far more appropriate. This was authorized in a meeting between FDR and Frank Knox, and was recognized at the time as an act whose dubious morality could only be excused as an absolute necessity of war. I am surprised that this decision has not been more widely discussed in recent years, as it is the evident precedent for our current drone policy.

    But the point [this reader] misses, or deliberately ignores, is that postwar Japan is not a nation like any other. It is, or was, raised up as a city on a hill, a nation that was sovereign but that had, now and forever, abjured war.  This may have been imposed by the victors, just as abolition (and, a hundred years later, integration) was imposed upon the South. It was an acceptable solution. Others had been envisioned: a few years earlier, William Halsey has looked across Pearl Harbor and predicted that, by the war’s end, "the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell."

    Another view of Arlington:

    You can see the Japanese perspective that we are being a little selective.

    Arlington holds 482 confederates and has a big monument build by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  Let’s be clear: these people actively engaged in war against the United States, for the cause of slavery.  The number of war criminals at Yasukuni is less than 1/10 the number of Confederates in Arlington, and Yasukuni also holds many millions of regular soldiers, far more than Arlington.  Yet Presidents manage to visit Arlington to honor all the dead of all the wars without it being seen as a justifying slavery and its many horrors.

     If some African Americans made a visit to Arlington about slavery, you could see that some politicians would use visits to Arlington as a way to rile up white support.  Yet we all chose to make Arlington just about war dead.  I think this is good: it allows the fight to be over clearer symbols like the confederate flag and schools named after Klan leaders.   And, over the past few years, I think we have seen some notable successes against Southern revisionism. 

    Now, if we can stop making Yasukuni about war criminals, we can perhaps focus on issues that are much clearer, like the rape of Nanjing, the modern treatment of Koreans in Japan, and the like.

    Similarly:

    I cannot escape the feeling that atrocity is frankly a function of the State. The US and other liberal (in the proper sense, not the colloquial American sense) nations are no different. 

    Natives are still on the reservation. Blacks are still in the ghetto. Millions of families across mid Asia are mourning sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers devoured for the sin of geo proximity to "terror." Et cetera. 

    Finding an accurate analogy to Mr. Abe seems almost pointless. He is a smart, competent leader surrounded by smart, competent advisors and likely knew what China would think of his visit during a time of regional stress.

    And yet the sins of Japan are, tragically, par for the course.

    Finally, from another American living in China:

    I often wonder why comparisons are even needed for events that can be read as offensive, including Prime Minister Abe's visit to Yasukuni.

    Writers should reject the carelessness inherent in "as bad as Hitler in a KKK robe" sentiments. Hiding behind "not quite as bad as" probably rings hollow to some and not quite distancing enough for others.

    Crimes committed during war are horrific -- without comparison. Writers should name these horrors rather than rely on false comparisons that muddy truth.

    Slavery is as bad as the peculiar institution. The Holocaust is as bad as the Shoah.

    My original purpose in introducing these comparisons was simply explanatory. For the majority of Western readers who might never have heard of Yasukuni, analogies were a way to suggest what the visit meant within the Japanese domestic context, and how they might be read in other parts of Asia. For the underlying crimes, tragedies, and destruction, no comparison is possible, or needed -- as this reader says. 

  • A City's Turning Points

    The steps toward success, or failure, and why our understanding of them matters.

    Orange packing-house label from early 20th century, with then-realistic view, via Boston Public Library.

    In this month’s magazine and in some previous posts plus a Marketplace segment with Kai Ryssdal, I’ve emphasized the importance of civic “stories.” These are the shared public understandings, some closer to historical accuracy than others, that convey a community’s sense of what makes it unusual, what successes and struggles have brought it to today, and what options are best for tomorrow.

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    To call these understandings stories, or even myths, doesn’t mean that they are fictitious by either accident or design. Instead it emphasizes the importance of their narrative shape: past, present, future; cause and character leading to effect.

    At every level of human existence — individual, family, community, nation — the idea of causation and sequence matters. Every American knows examples that deal with our national ideals, myth, or American dream. Since Japan has been in the news recently, I'll mention two academic studies of its national self-concept: Carol Gluck’s Japan’s Modern Myths and the similar-sounding but quite different Japan’s Modern Myth by Roy Andrew Miller, both worth reading.

    An important aspect of any such narrative is the turning point. This is the moment of decision when things go right or wrong. To use the Eastport example: the handful of people who have stuck it out there believe that they are in the middle of such a turning point: either they will invent new businesses for the town or they will see it wither away.

    In upcoming items I’ll have more to say about the how and why of turning points for Burlington, Vermont (when battling young mayor Bernie Sanders took charge) and Sioux Falls, South Dakota (when the state decided to turn itself into a financial processing center. And for a 2013 update on some of its financial strategies, see this.) But for now let’s go back to Redlands, California, and the importance of how it understands its past.


    Chapel of the University of Redlands, founded as the
    city was getting started, in 1907.

    Like many other Sunbelt areas, this part of California grew during several nationwide migration surges: the late 1800s, when people came from the East and the Midwest for warmer climates, cheaper land, and better growing conditions (Redlands was incorporated in 1888); the teens and 1920s, when the citrus-growing industry dominated this part of inland Southern California and Redlands was connected to Los Angeles, 70 miles away, by the “Red Car” electric railroad; the Dust Bowl and Depression era; and of course the post-WWII California Dream era, when millions of people (including my parents, from Pennsylvania) came for the fresh start in the sun. 

    Pacific Electric "Red Car" map from the 1920s, pre-freeway. Redlands helpfully noted with blue arrow.

    That’s the common Sunbelt/California story. "In the 1880s cities were growing everywhere around here," Nathan Gonzales, the city's archivist, told us. "The railroads had rate wars, and land was going on the cheap." He said it was a remarkable confluence of technologies that came together to produce this Southern California boom. "Think of what had to happen at the same time: railroads all the way to the west coast, and ice-making equipment to preserve fruit for cross-country shipment, and grading and packing equipment to handle large volumes of fruit."

    The different version understood in Redlands is that it looks, feels, and acts different from a lot of other LA Basin sprawl-suburbs because:

    • It is still physically separate — the last city in the LA/San Bernardino basin before sizable mountains on the east, a usually dry river bed (“the wash”) and more mountains on the north, canyon land on the south, and a not-yet-entirely sprawl-developed buffer to the west. The map above  aerial view below give the main idea. (The red lines are not the actual city limits but for practical purposes are its extent.)
    • It remembers its founders who made long-term investments in the city’s physical and natural heritage. The easiest way to explain this is by analogy with Central Park in New York. If Central Park didn't exist, you couldn't create it now -- and all sane people give thanks to their 19th century New York forebears who had the vision to make it happen. Redlands is by comparison a tiny place, but people there have a similar view of the forebears who created: Prospect Park, a substantial undeveloped area in the middle of a residential zone; or the Redlands Bowl, set up in the 1920s as a free outdoor concert amphitheater for a town that was just getting going; or the Smiley Library, created by twin-brother Quakers from New York, Alfred and Albert Smiley; or the University chapel; or many others other aspects of the city beautiful.
    Free concert at the Redlands Bowl, where all concerts have been free since the 1920s, (and
    where my high school graduation took place), via this site.
    • Its economy was originally based on oranges, and as the groves have given way to development it has responded in two ways: by preserving as many as it can, as a public good, and by pushing the heritage in every other way.
    Downtown murals, with remember-our-history theme.

    I said that this civic story involved turning points, so what were they? In the prevailing public narrative they included both good examples to learn from, and bad ones to be avoided.

    Positive: The foresight of the 19th century founders, who provided the fledgling city with water (in a way I'll describe another day), parks, a library, schools, broad avenues, big trees. Moral: Infrastructure and "civic culture" are part of each generation's duty to uphold.

    Smiley Library, one of the earliest in the West.

     Positive: free public concert and lecture series over the past century, at the university and the Redlands Bowl. Moral: A town needs to be more than shopping malls.

    Positive: "Measure O," the first tax-raising initiative passed in California after Prop 13, in which the city voted an extra levy upon itself to buy and preserve open spaces, including parks, wildland, and -- significantly -- orange groves. It now owns some 16 groves totaling more than 200 acres through the city, including some in the visible center of town. About 2,500 acres of citrus groves remain in production locally.

    City-run orange groves, shown conveniently in orange.

    Moral: Public steps in the public interest.

    Positive: Slower-growth housing initiatives over the past generation, which spared Redlands much of the sub-prime devastation that affected many nearby cities. "We had only about 500 permits per year," the young mayor of Redlands, Pete Aguilar, told us. "That meant that the huge 2003-2008 boom in housing, which led to disasters in so many other places, didn’t happen here. We're not like these other cities that had such a large stock of new housing, which turned into the problem."  Moral: let's take the long view.

    Groves on the east side of town, solar array in the background.

    And there were some negative lessons too, which we'll go into further another time. But in summary:

    Negative: The tragedy of the railroads. A century ago, they connected Southern California; then they gave way to cars. This is a drama on a bigger scale than Redlands alone, but the city is playing its part by investing in a new rail connection to Los Angeles and the rest of the area. Moral: Bring mass transit back.

    SoCal rail plans, from here.

    Negative: The disaster of the mall. A city trying to redevelop its downtown has a huge 70s-brutalist abandoned structure right in the middle of the shopping area. Moral: Don't do this again. (Plus, it's owned by out-of-town interests.)

    Negative: the tragedy of Smiley Heights. The one "public" area of the city that was not preserved was a hillside area once owned by the Smiley brothers and now called Smiley Heights. It looked this way a century ago, and now is covered by McMansions. Moral: You have only one chance to keep scenic areas from being subdivided.

    Negative: the "doughnut hole." This is too complicated to explain but involves the anomalous growth of a huge big-box mall area, which drains money from local merchants but from which the city derives no tax revenue. Moral: You can't be simply "anti-growth" but need to think carefully about phased development. 

    And the overall moral for now: it's a big, complicated country, and the stories we tell ourselves matter more than we think. More to come.

  • Why Yasukuni Matters: The Snarls of Asian History

    The many layers of past, present, and future exposed by one minor-seeming episode.

    Million Vet March this year, via Yahoo.

    I hadn't expected to devote so much space to the ramifications of Shinzo Abe's recent visit to the Yasukuni shrine. For a catchup on previous discussion, see installments one, two, and three. But messages keep pouring in, and before turning back to American Futures and Redlands, Calif. this afternoon, here is one presumably final installment.

    Ambiguous -- like the Confederate flag. From a friend who is a professor of Chinese history:

    In terms of analogies, what’s struck me as the best one to convey the response that visits to the shrine elicits in East Asia isn’t a visit to a site located elsewhere, but rather displays of Confederate flags...

    An effort is made then, by those who use it that way, to assert that it is a complex symbol that can mean many things, including a form of local pride, and that those aspects of it should be separable from slavery and from racism. Yet there is no way for many of us in America to see it as separable from precisely those detestable things.

    From another student of Asian history, "a symbol of the modern Japanese nation-state":

    I don’t think that there is an analogue [to Yasukuni] in the United States, or perhaps even in Europe.

    Yasukuni, beyond enshrining those Japanese who fell during World War II, enshrines all of those who fell in the Emperor’s service. So all of those soldiers who died in the first Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and World War I are there as well.

    Beyond the issue of the war criminals there, the shrine is a symbol of the modern Japanese nation-state. When the large metal, rather than typical wood, torii gate was erected, it was the largest free-standing structure in Tokyo and towered over everything else in the city. It was a profound embodiment of the nation.

    It’s also worth noting that the modern Japanese nation-state largely defined itself in terms of “not China.” The Japanese modernization project was prompted by the desire to avoid being carved up into European cantonments like China. [JF note: Yes, and this was one of the big themes of my book Looking at the Sun.] And quite early the Japanese began playing the imperial game in Korean, Taiwan, and China proper. These led to the above-mentioned conflicts.

    Thus, Yasukuni is inextricably intertwined with Japanese modernity and cannot be separated from the often-brutal colonization efforts abroad. Of course, the scale of Japanese atrocities during World War II, and the war criminals, makes things a bit different, but in a sense, the shrine is a representation of what any modern nation-state does.

    Japanese conduct in the Pacific War was indeed particularly barbaric, but the overall gist of things wasn’t that far different from their earlier imperialism, for which they were often praised by European nations (during the Russo-Japanese War, for instance). And insofar as the Japanese nation-state colonized its neighbors, and thus was antithetical to their existence as independent states, Yasukuni can never be acceptable to them as it is a symbol of their oppression. The war criminals are just an intensifier.

    I think that the modern outcry against Columbus Day in the United States might be approaching a good analogy. For many Native Americans and American Indians, Columbus stands as the progenitor of European colonization; for this reason, any celebration of him would be offensive. There cannot be a “clean” celebration of Columbus.

    On the matter of the Japanese not being repentant enough for their actions during World War II, I think it is worth contextualizing that within US actions. The US desire to see a self-sustaining Japan that could serve as bulwark against Communism led to the US overseeing the completion of the Japanese economic expansion that had been aimed at during World War II by the Japanese, often using the same personnel and experts who had been movers and shakers during the Pacific War.

    As Andrew Gordon has argued in The Modern History of Japan, it makes sense to think of a “transwar” period. The end of World War II, rather than marking a radical divergence, instead marked a continuation, albeit by different means. The retention of personnel, and the Emperor himself, by MacArthur created a sense of continuity. The end goal of the Pacific War (ie, a robust, industrialized Japanese nation-state within a quasi-autarkic economic sphere) had not been wrong, only the means that the Japanese went about achieving it. It is somewhat startling how much US policy documents, such as NSC 48-2, echo the goals of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

    I think there are some parallels with this in Germany, too. But in the German case the Holocaust, card-carrying members of the Nazi Party and the SS in particular could serve as finite and concrete examples of bad acts to be repented. I don’t think the Japanese can separate their atrocities in the same way. 

    As noted above, I agree about the messy legacy of the Occupation years -- messy within Asia, messy between the U.S. and Japan, and messy most of all within Japan itself. In contrast to the situation in Germany, the wartime symbol of the state -- the Emperor -- remained in place; for this and other reasons, the contrast between pre- and post-war regimes was not as clear-cut as in Germany. Because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's dominant imagery of the war emphasized its own status as wartime victim. And much more, about which there is a vast literature led in my view by John Dower's Embracing Defeat

    The point is: as with anything involving race in America, the layers of history, symbolism, emotion, and paradox here go very deep.

    Next, from a Westerner with experience in Asia, an argument that few outsiders really fear militarism from Japan, but they think differently about China:

    A quick note on my background.  I was an exchange student in Japan for a semester in college, spent two years in South Korea in the U.S. military, and have studied both the Japanese and Korean languages, as well as East Asian history and culture.

    My overall take is that this situation is being exacerbated on all sides, in part because it serves the interests of the leadership in each of the respective countries for various reasons.

    China’s leadership, for instance, has been quite active in trying to cultivate anti-Japanese resentment among China’s populace well before any of the present series of confrontations. [JF note: Yes, as I've noted repeatedly in my own reports from China.] Abe has clearly been interested in reversing or at least easing the restrictions imposed by the postwar constitution on Japanese military power, and I suspect that absent the current atmosphere of confrontation, he would have much less of an excuse for this or other steps... 

    One thing that stands out to me in all this, though, is that (at least as far as I’ve been able to tell) only China and South Korea have made any particular response. The lack of response from other countries that Japan conquered and occupied during World War II, who suffered as well from Japanese war crimes, is somewhat telling to me. These are predominantly Southeast Asian countries that border the South China Sea, and are involved in a dispute there with China — Vietnam, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Indonesia. I suspect it may indicate that they are much more concerned about China than they are a potentially re-militarized or active Japan.

    I find myself in much the same situation. My grandfather fought on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, my great-uncle died on Iwo Jima, and my great-grandmother (as an U.S. military nurse) witnessed firsthand the results of the horrific treatment of POWs by the Imperial Japanese military — and yet, the prospect of a rearmed Japan, even one with unrepentant conservatives like Abe in power, does not worry me to the same degree that the actions of China’s leaders, particularly its military leaders, do.

    I find it difficult to believe that modern Japan, and its culture, lend itself easily to open political acceptance of the use of military force to impose its will on other nations as it did during and before World War II.* I do not see significant support for it in the popular culture and attitudes. I cannot say the same for China, at least not with the same degree of certainty. (And in fairness, I’d say the same of the U.S. as I do China — our track record isn’t exactly great even as recently as Iraq.)

    *I was going to say that the U.S. Japan alliance acts as a check here as well, but then I thought better of it — if anything, our track record indicates we would probably press a remilitarized Japan to participate more in future actions such as Iraq or Afghanistan.
     

    Victors' justice. From another reader with a Western name:

    You stress the timing issue with the Yasukuni visit. I’m not sure why you think that now is such a critical time in its relations with China. It’s not like the countries are on the cusp of some sort of reconciliation.

    The Yasukuni visit is something that should happen every year, or rather three times a year, according to Japanese custom, near New Year, in the spring, and around the summer Obon period. Yasukuni is like Arlington: it honors war dead, and U.S. presidents don’t avoid Arlington visits simply because characters like Jimmy Doolittle, a war criminal if ever there was one, is buried there.

    Abe is just asserting Japan’s right to be a normal country, with the chief executive honoring the nation’s war dead, just like any other country. Japan has been infantilized since the end of the war, but those days are over....

    I don’t think it’s clear that forcing generations unborn during the war into guilt trips is effective, however morally necessary one might think it is. Japan has a remarkably non-nationalistic, peaceful population, who on the whole are more puzzled by Chinese and Korean hissy fits than angered by them. Perhaps if China’s geriatric leaders would end the country’s hate-inducing educational curriculum, and let its children grow up in the present day, without wallowing in the past, Chinese might be as mellow as most Japanese are, and everyone would get along.

    Let me also point out a particular bias on your part. The scare quotes and the use of the word “nationalist” here: “the power of the ‘victors’ justice’ concept among some Japanese nationalists.” Do you seriously think that any post-war war crimes trial could result in real justice? And in practice in the U.S. the word “nationalistic” implies hard right-wing, even fascistic politics.

    Any time you feel tempted to use it in reference to Japan, ask yourself, “How does this compare to the U.S? Is ‘uppity’ the word I’m really looking for?” For instance, is changing the Japanese constitution to be more similar to the U.S. constitution nationalistic? For the most part, politics in Japan that are labeled right-wing or nationalistic by U.S. commentators are closer to centrist politics in the U.S. There are no real right-wing political parties represented in the Diet, while there are many Diet members from socialist and communist parties. The entire Gaussian curve of Japanese politics is considerably more left-wing than the U.S.

    I agree that Japanese politics (like those in most democratic countries) are to the left of America's. I disagree that this invalidates terms like "nationalist," as useful distinguishers within the Japanese spectrum.

    What about American war crimes? Another reader:

    The only difference between this and Presidents visiting Arlington or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is that the Japanese not only lost the war, but were occupied and had their leaders tried for war crimes rather than hide behind victory or at least not total defeat.

    You could argue that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and certainly the military command under those Presidents, would likely have faced some sort of war crimes trials had Vietnam invaded and overtaken the US. Frankly, those responsible for the dropping of nuclear weapons on Japanese civilian targets, or drone strikes against civilians in another context, should have been prosecuted as well.

    "Don't give a damn about the outside world." From a foreigner living in Japan:

    One of the main issues I see with it all is that the Japanese do as they wish and don’t give a damn about the outside world and what they think. It seems that slowly they are trying to close their doors on the outside world but yet, want the benefits of trade. Abe is nothing but a sick right wing nut and many foreigners are packing up and going “home” because of his activities and our freedom slowly being threatened. 

    I am a [North American] female married to a Japanese man and we can’t discuss Abe,Yasukuni nor Abe’s government without it turning into an argument. And he’s one of the more open-minded and enlightened, needless to say. The Japanese see themselves as the victim of the Second World War and the rest of the world allows them to get away with it. Every year American politicians attend Nagasaki and Hiroshima memorial ceremonies. The same can’t be the same for the Japanese with regards to places like Nanking, Pearl Harbor and many other places Japan destroyed during the war. They don’t send anyone anywhere to try and atone for their past behaviour. 

    The public, and government, is very well aware of how visits to Yasukuni upsets China and Korea but they don’t care. They bleat on about Japanese victims but fail to understand that THEY caused the deaths of millions in Japan and abroad. They go on and on about how Japanese has apologized but fail to understand that apologies (and money) mean nothing if the current government makes inflammatory statements about the war, ‘comfort women’ and try to white wash history but changing their textbooks.

    I am a university professor here; my current students do not have a clue what Japan did during the war. They think they were solely the victims of the Americans and have no idea why China and Korea hate them. They do not understand why Yasukuni is an issue. They do however, know that China and Korea get upset but they don’t care. My students, at a very well known university, openly bash Chinese, Koreans and anyone who dares voice an opinion about how Japan was an aggressor. They simply do not know their history. It isn’t covered on entrance tests to high schools and universities here. 

    Actually, people in Japan are grappling with their history. From another Westerner:

    Your depiction of Japan’s attempt to grapple with its past elides a great deal of necessary detail. In defending the US and UK from charges that they have also attempted to whitewash their own histories, one of your readers seemed to imply that controversies like the one surrounding the statue of Arthur Harris don’t exist in Japan. 

    In fact, nothing is farther from the truth. Japan is deeply divided over the issue of apologies and reparations for misdeeds during the Second World War. Several well known Japanese historians, including Hirofumi Hayashi, have spent their lives exhaustively documenting Japanese atrocities during the war and many Japanese politicians, such as Yohei Kono, have lobbied for greater public demonstrations of contrition and regret.

    While I agree with many commentators that Japan has not done enough to come to terms with the crimes it committed, it also seems clear to me that Japan is being held to a double standard. After all, Japan’s failure to adequately apologize for its aggressive colonial past is hardly unique. The British have certainly never delivered an adequate apology to their former subjects in the Middle East or India. In fact, in Britain, the old British Empire still evokes a great deal of pride. The French, Dutch, Spanish, and Belgians are just as guilty of colonial abuses and have failed just as badly to come to terms with them. 

    As an American, I have first hand knowledge of the fact that the United States has never quite reconciled its “Manifest Destiny” with the near genocide of the continent’s Native American inhabitants. My middle school and high school history books very effectively championed the American “frontier spirit” while largely ignoring the impact our westward march had on the native peoples already living on the so called “frontier”.

    Despite this, none of these controversies have resulted in the type of geopoltical problems like those between Japan and China. I can’t help but conclude that the current diplomatic problems have less to do with a lack of Japanese contrition and more to do with nationalist manipulation. Japan is a convenient target of Chinese hatred for a regime in need of one.

    As an illustration of the kind of within-Japan debate this reader is referring to, consider this editorial, "Abe's Yasukuni Visit Isolates Japan," by the well-known diplomat and scholar Kazuhiko Togo, whose grandfather was the wartime foreign minister. It begins:

    To those who are general supporters of Abe’s economic, political and foreign policy initiatives, including myself, his visit to Yasukuni on 26 December was a bombshell of disappointment and helplessness.

    On the other hand, from a reader in Japan:

    You, Mr. Fallows, have made a lot of enemies here.

    OK. Thanks to all for views and for reminders of the complexities of this important topic, and that is enough for now. Next up, more on the pluses and minuses of our own country. 

  • Next in our Special Series: Gas-Price Rise Means Drivers Pay More

    Good thing we have experts to explain these things to us!

    Front page headline in the WSJ today.

    Headlines are harder to write than you would think, especially for a one-column story like this. And the article itself is very interesting, so no offense to anyone at the WSJ. But I did find this delightful. 

  • Crowdsourcing the Yasukuni Question: From Tokyo to Philadelphia

    One American president, two possible analogies.

    Ronald Reagan kicks off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Photo found here.

    For those joining us late: two days ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a well-publicized visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Yasukuni is where more than two million of Japan's war dead, including a number of "Class A War Criminals" from World War II, are honored. To many people in China and South Korea, Yasukuni is a symbol of Imperial Japan's aggression and of pacifist post-war Japan's relative lack of interest its wartime record. ("Relative," compared with post-war Germany.) To some right-wing and nationalist groups within Japan, it is a symbol of national dignity and strength.

    The Yasukuni story is surprisingly tangled. For more on why Hirohito -- the wartime and post-war leader known in Japan as the Showa Emperor -- initially paid visits but stopped after war criminals were added to the list of enshrinees in 1978, you can start here or here. For the power of the "victors' justice" concept among some Japanese nationalists -- the argument that the main mistake Imperial Japan made was to lose the war -- see books like this and this, or academic articles like this and this or this. It is a deep and controversial theme.

    P.M. Shinzo Abe (center, in tailcoat) at Yasukuni this week, via CNN.

    But for practical purposes, the point right now is that visits to Yasukuni always fray tempers between Japan and (especially) China, and relations between Japan and China are already as dangerously frayed as they have been in decades.

    What's the right non-Asian analogy for the impact of such a visit at such a time? I offered a quick, flawed suggestion; readers pointed out why it was wrong. Herewith one final installment.

     Reagan in Mississippi. A reader writes in with the same suggestion that the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates came up with at just the same time:

    Wouldn't Ronald Reagan opening his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been slain sixteen years earlier, be a closer analogy?

    Yes, it would be. That's the moment shown above.

    Reagan in Germany. Many readers also wrote in with another Reagan suggestion:

    An American president at a Germany military cemetery, 1985.

    I am not sure why you are struggling so much for an analogy.  It seems that Bitburg (where Reagan had a shameful moment) is the best analogy – a cemetery which includes World War II war criminals visited controversially by heads of state.

    Another reader offered a refinement on Bitburg:

    Not so much Reagan visiting it, but any German chancellor visiting it, and honoring the Nazi dead. No?

    Reagan’s visiting it was insensitive enough, but a different kind of insensitive.

    What about Gitmo? We get more into thought-experiment territory here. But an expat living and working in Japan writes:

    How about this: an American president visiting Gitmo on 9/11 anniversary (maybe with special section still active ... in perpetuity)... 

    To give a slightly more nuanced response to the problem of Japan and its responsibility / lack of acknowledgement for the barbaric acts committed by the imperial army, I see Yasukuni as a symptom to a very messy cultural conundrum ... to be honest, let`s get some of the other, easier problems of the world taken care of first: such as the middle east and gun control in the US.

    Luckily, no sacred cows there. 

    I guess I should not revert to sarcasm but I really do not see any way to solve this problem that reoccurs like clockwork. The above started out as a sincere attempt to further the discussion in a positive manner but I have been down this road countless times ... our voices [those of outsiders] do not count. 

    That reader went on to say that he agreed with someone I had quoted previously, who argued "Perhaps if we joined the Japanese in peacefully honoring their war dead, and just make Yasukuni just about a tragic loss, we can all move on."

    Another reader writes to disagree specifically with the idea of "moving on" and offers a less sympathetic view:

    I'd like to provide a little push-back to your last quoted emailer:
    "Over time, however, I have grown to think that the rest of the world also needs to ask hard questions about itself, to give the Japanese the space to “move on.” ... 

    This sounds suspiciously to me like false equivalence. 

    Japan has had 70 years to "ask hard questions".  The result is that, almost 70 years after the end of World War II, Yasukuni has enshrined Class A, B, and C War Criminals (those guilty of starting the war, as well as those who committed atrocities), and members of the Japanese government regularly visit the shrine.

    Shinzo Abe, the current PM, rather than "asking hard questions" and "moving on" has actually *backtracked* by renouncing claims that Japan had done anything wrong to "comfort women," saying that Japan's Class A war criminals weren't really criminals, and questioning just how aggressive Japan's role in World War II was. Many ministers in his cabinet are just as bad, or worse. This is actively making things worse, not moving on.

    Yes, other nations have honor countrymen who are guilty of crimes. But in the case of the US and UK, two of the countries your emailer refers to (the People's Republic of China and Mao is a whole different ballgame), there are many public efforts to discuss and analyze the crimes of such people. The Arthur Harris Memorial *is* controversial [see this], for example, and has had to be under guard for periods of time. Let me know when Nathan Bedford Forrest is re-buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and when US presidents routinely visit his grave.

    The problem that your emailer fails to see is that Japan is quite happy to remember Japanese victims of World War II, but actively denies the existence of victims of Japanese forces in that war (and waffles over the role that Japanese authorities played in causing that war in the first place).

    Admittedly, this seems to be a very human trait (it's reminiscent of the Turkish government's prickliness over talk about the Armenian genocide), but just because other peoples and countries are guilty of this and have their own obstacles to overcome in facing their history does not mean that Japan is doing exceptionally poorly at the task. And the fact that Japanese inability to deal with its own recent history is aggravating tensions between it, South Korea and China (these three countries being some of the world's biggest economies and militaries) makes it worrisome for everyone.

    For the record, I also got several messages from people in Canada, Europe, and Japan saying it was pretty insensitive / offensive for any American, like me, to complain about militarism from any other source, given the modern U.S.'s record for sending troops everywhere and thinking about the consequences later. American hyper-militarism and related security-state mentality is indeed a problem, but it's a different one from what we're discussing here.  

  • Why Yasukuni Is Different From Auschwitz

    In symbolism, it's worse.

    Prison photos of Nobusuke Kishi, one-time
    Japanese prime minister and grandfather
    of current prime minister Abe, via Wikipedia.

    Last night I was so amazed/regusted by news that Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, had visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo that I batted out a quick item that used the wrong analogy. In the item I said:

    For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it's close.

    As many people have written in to report, Auschwitz and Buchenwald aren't the right comparisons. Those and other former Nazi concentration camps have become memorials to the suffering and sacrifice of their victims and, as anyone familiar with Germany knows, symbols of the country's introspection through 60+ postwar years. For some other time, more on the difference between Germany's (comparatively) unflinching awareness of the history of the 1930s and 1940s, and Japan's averted gaze from that era. For now, a sample message from a reader with a Chinese name:

    The "but it's close" implies that the Yasukuni visit is not as inflammatory as a Auschwitz or Buchenwald visit by a German chancellor.

    Arguably, it is more so. Auschwitz and Buchenwald are widely understood
    to be sites dedicated to the victims of Nazi Germany; when German chancellors visit Nazi concentration camps, as they often have, they are sending a message of contrition. Yasukuni, on the other hand, is dedicated to the memory of those who fought for Imperial Japan, and a visits by Japanese politicians send the opposite message....

    The rest of your blog post is, alas, all too accurate.

    And from a reader with a non-Asian name:

    I suspect many readers are writing to protest your attempt to create an analogy to Abe's visit to the shrine of war criminals.

    A German chancellor visiting Auschwitz is not glorifying Nazi atrocities, but more likely acknowledging the historical reality in the face of increasing denial.

    Likewise, an American politician visiting a lynching site (though this has room for more ambiguity, depending on the politics of the individual and other factors).

    But this rather than just bitch about this, it raises a more interesting question as to what a really good analogy would be. There are no doubt plenty of places in the American south that are unambiguously tied to Confederate  and Jim Crow history, making a visit there a clear statement about the Civil War  or civil rights. Maybe Jefferson Davis' tomb? Perhaps in Germany a visit to someplace significant in the life of Adolph Hitler?

    The difficulty of finding a good analogy points out the relative uniqueness of the Japan enshrining an event or people that is offensive to so much of the rest of the world.

    Similarly:

    I would take issue with your comparison to "a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald" in any context. The central difference is that Auschwitz and Buchenwald are recognition of the wrongs committed by German troops, not a recognition of imagined heroism. It's difficult to imagine any German political figure visiting those places with an intention of honoring the perpetrators, which is what Mr. Abe seems to have done at Yasukuni. 

    It's difficult to construct a plausible analogy in Western Europe. Perhaps a French president visiting Napoleon's tomb before visiting Russia, but even that lacks the historic immediacy of Yasukuni. Perhaps if the Stalin museum were in Russia, rather than Georgia, there could be a comparison with Putin visiting there before going to Ukraine. 

    And, for a little twist: 

    Both of my grandparents fought against the Japanese during WWII and many of my mother’s relatives were imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese.  I used to agree that Japanese leaders should not visit Yasukuni.  

    Over time, however, I have grown to think that the rest of the world also needs to ask hard questions about itself, to give the Japanese the space to “move on.”  

    First, while Yasukuni holds war criminals alongside many regular service men and women, it is not some outlier.  Many war memorials not only include the names and graves that others regard as war criminals, but directly honor these figures.   The UK has a memorial to the man who ordered the fire-bombing of Dresden.  The Chinese still have a cult around Mao, who oversaw terrible slaughters.  In the USA, we still have high schools and monuments to Confederate generals 150 years later.  Entire cities and states are named after slave owners, more so than the early abolitionists.  (How many Washingtons and Jeffersons vs Adams and Hamiltons?)  

    Second, while the Japanese acted barbarously in the 1930s to 1945, they were also terrible victims at the end of the war, and they have been the model of peaceful world citizens for the past 70 years, even in the face of serious provocations, including from those who criticize Japan now.

    Finally, the East Asians of all people should be most sensitive to the issue of “face.”  The main East Asian nations still gripe loudly about each other’s sins and defects, but reserve special criticism about the Imperial Army.   The louder the Chinese and everyone else shout about the sins of the Imperial Army, the more that a Japanese leader has to do something to save face.  A visit to Yasukuni is less belligerent than many alternatives, like lobbing missiles or sinking boats.

    All in all we, the rest of the world, are the ones making a visit to Yasukuni about war crimes.   Perhaps if we joined the Japanese in peacefully honoring their war dead, and just make Yasukuni just about a tragic loss, we can all move on.  Better yet, we take the issue away from the neofascists and warmongers on all sides, just as East Asia heats up.

    Heating up indeed. I'm watching CCTV [China Central TV] right now, which is wall to wall about Yasukuni -- and P.M. Abe's comment that he is "sorry" he didn't make the visit earlier. Thanks to readers for the corrections. [Update: Please see additional item, with comparisons to similar gestures in U.S. history, here.] 

  • A School With a Sense of Place

    By Deborah Fallows.

    By Deborah Fallows.

    We arrived at The Grove School in Redlands, California, just before their winter break, at about noon and right in time for lunch.

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    The Grove School is a public charter school with about 200 students in grades 7 through 12. It follows the Montessori system, and it adjoins a private Montessori elementary school. The complex has citrus groves on one side and pastures, livestock enclosures, farm buildings, and vegetable gardens on the other. The effect is of a rural-area school that happens to be on the edge   of a city.

    The middle school on the campus is called The Farm, and students there grow some of the produce for the school lunches, including the one we ate. High schoolers do rotations in the kitchen in preparing, cooking, and cleaning up the meal.  On the day we visited the menu was called “Hawaiian,” and included chicken, rice, pasta (with some carrots, maybe from the farm) and a chunk of pineapple.  It was much better than the school lunches I remember.

    Grove is a fairly new school in Redlands, graduating its first class in 2002. When my husband, Jim, grew up in the town, every student from every corner of the town went to its one high school, Redlands High. As the area grew, the RHS enrollment became unmanageably large. When Jim graduated in the late 1960s, he had 800+ classmates; a generation later, the town’s population had doubled, from around 35,000 to nearly 70,000, and the school was swollen too. Now two more 4-year public high schools have opened: Redlands East Valley in 1997, with an enrollment of about 2300 in grades 9 – 12, and Citrus Valley High School, which graduated its first class in 2012. Redlands High itself now has about 2300 students in grades 9 – 12.

    Farmland to be planted at the Grove School; historic structures being refurbished in the rear.

    Grove was founded in 1999 by a small number of teachers and parents who were interested in continuing the Montessori experience where their kids had thrived in lower grades. And in the spirit of generosity and participation that Redlanders consider a hallmark of the town, lots of people have pitched in to build or remodel the buildings and grounds of the school, which sits in the newly-designated Heritage Park historical district in Redlands

    After lunch, Gena Engelfried, the head of the school, turned us over to a few groups of students, to tour us around and tell us about their school.

    Principal Gena Engelfried, with an in-process outdoor
    cooking site. 

    The high schoolers were excited to talk to us about what they call Praxis, a project they do every trimester, which centers on a philosophical question, the integration of that question into each of their academic classes, and a final paper and group project.  They just finished up “How do machines influence society?” and the next trimester’s question “How are belief systems formed?” had just been announced that morning.

    Several of the students described their final projects, which included a welding piece, drama productions, and a magazine, among others.  My favorite was a video showing how machines helped society recover from a disaster. “What was the disaster?” we asked. The answer, which reminded us that we were indeed among high schoolers: zombie apocalypse.  All three of our guides said the Praxis was a lot to handle, especially the first year. “It was scary,” they said, but by the end of the experience, they had a great sense of accomplishment.  When graduates returned home from college to visit, they reported on how well praxis had prepared them for the kind of academic work they were expected to do in college.

    The principal described that Grove followed a “place based approach to learning.” As I interpreted that, it means that the curriculum and activities of the school integrate with the town and its natural environment.  I’ve been going to Redlands myself since the late 1960s, and I would describe place based for Redlands to include oranges, farming, mountains, canyons, and a distinct feeling of being in The West.  After visiting Grove, I would say that the school indeed honors those elements of place, while operating in an academic environment that is, after all, preparing its students for college.

    As a very small school that can’t naturally support the many traditional sports teams and productions that big high schools can, the Grove community does a lot of creative improvising. They do have a handful of sports teams, including coed soccer, girls volleyball and basketball, boys basketball, and archery, of which Redlands has a long tradition. To a student, each one recited a long list of nonacademic activities, from familiar ones like ballet, photography, choir, and piano to others like blacksmithing, forging, and (reminding us Redlands is really part of the West) bullwhip.

    In the metal shop.

    Students are highly encouraged to do 30 hours of service and 40 hours of internship each year. Those activities the kids described ranged from coaching kids’ soccer, to volunteering at the Redlands Community Hospital, the animal clinic, the Cold Weather Shelter, and working at a dry cleaners,  steaming clothes and handling the register.

    Lunch time, under the orange trees.

    Last year, every graduate went on to higher education, mostly to colleges in the California systems or other schools on the west coast. Besides heading for college, a few other students head in less traditional directions, to culinary school or acting school. The student profile of Grove is very different from that of the public schools. Grove attracts students who, for a large variety of reasons, are seeking a non-traditional school. It is, remember, a public school, and places are awarded by lottery, although preference is given to children of its founders, siblings of those enrolled, and those who have previously been in the Montessori system, numbering about 25%. There is a waiting list.

    During our afternoon, I was taken with two things in particular about the students we met. First, to a person, each was very poised and well-spoken, not in a smarmy Eddie Haskell kind of way, but in a genuine interesting-likable-kid kind of way.

    Two of our student guides.

     I don’t think the kids were singled out to guide us around; they seemed to be plucked as random students who were free at the time we appeared.  And second, these kids loved their school, and even those whom I would easily describe as cool and edgy – and I mean really cool and really edgy—were comfortable talking freely about how much they loved their school.

    Two of the boys were describing in detail the traditional graduation exercises from middle to high school, which Grove calls the Bridge Ceremony, where the whole school participates in the symbolic crossing of the footbridge between the middle and high school campuses.  One boy described how he nearly broke down with emotion when he, as an 8th grader, was charged to describe “his” 9th grader graduating to the high school, who had been a real friend and model for him. When we asked another boy to reflect on his years at Grove, he said, “I would recommend it to myself 1000 times over”.

    The Bridge students cross when going from middle to high school.

    We also toured the Farm, with several middle schoolers. They showed us their working farm, where they spent much of their time tending all aspects of the animals and crops. The kids decide what animals they want to raise for the year, with the explicit directive that the animals are not pets, but are farm animals, which will be sold off at the end of the year to help support the Farm. They have had rabbits, goats, pigs, sheep, and chickens. This year’s turkeys were gone by Thanksgiving. They once had alpacas, which proved to be far too much work for the return of their wool. With middle schoolers’ jittery humor, they broke in on each others’ descriptions of one boy who particularly loved the alpaca; they nicknamed him the “alpaca whisperer” and told how he once missed class because he fell asleep among the alpaca.

    On that warm winter afternoon, the Farm’s middle schoolers were harvesting 120 heads of lettuce, red leaf, green leaf, and romaine, which they had contracted to sell to a locally beloved family-owned grocery store called Gerrard's.

    Afternoon harvest time.

    The road to the Grove’s success has come with some controversy. This fall, the school filed for the fourth renewal of its charter, which expires next summer. A complicated and somewhat fraught back-and-forth has ensued among the school, San Bernardino County, and the Redlands Unified School District, which holds the charter and is responsible for its finances and student achievement.  As of December, no conclusion was reached, and another hearing on new school documents that would speak to a new set of requirements that came into being during the ongoing negotiations is scheduled for February.


    Photos by James Fallows. To contact the author: DebFallows at gmail.com .

  • Our New Champion in Self-Defeating Soft Power: Japan

    Only one step could have made conditions worse among Japan, China, and South Korea, with spillover effects on America. That is the step Japan's prime minister has just taken.

    Main hall of Yasukuni Shrine, via Wikipedia.                 

    At first I didn't believe the news this evening that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. I didn't believe it, because such a move would be guaranteed to make a delicate situation in East Asia far, far worse. So Abe wouldn't actually do it, right? 

    It turns out that he has. For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it's close.

    Prime Minister Abe going to the shrine today,
    via Reuters and BBC.

    Yasukuni -- which simply as a structure is quite beautiful and reverence-evoking -- is the honored resting place of Japan's large number of fallen soldiers. Unfortunately these include a number of those officially classified as war criminals from WW II. Government leaders and members of the general public in China, and to an only slightly lesser degree South Korea, view Yasukuni as a symbol of Imperial Japan's aggressive cruelty. As a bonus, Americans who visit the "historical" museum at the shrine (as I have done) will note its portrayal of Japan being "forced" into World War II by U.S. economic and military encirclement.

    In short, there is almost nothing a Japanese prime minister could have done that would have inflamed tempers more along the Japan-China-South Korea-U.S. axis than to make this visit. And yet he went ahead. Last month, I said that China had taken a kind of anti-soft-power prize by needlessly creating its "ADIZ" and alarming many of its neighbors. It seems that I was wrong. The prize returns to Japan.

  • Thinking About Iran in 2013, by Thinking About China in 1971

    No historical match-up is neat or perfect, but this one is usefully close.

    Nixon in Beijing, 1972, via Wikipedia

    What follows has no seasonal relevance, unless you consider this the time of Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men. For your background processing during family gatherings and holiday observances, you could try this concept:

    When considering the next steps with Iran, we should think less about Nazi Germany (the frequent P.M. Netanyahu parallel) or North Korea (a parallel often made by opponents of a deal), and more about the China of Chairman Mao. 

    Other people have made this point, but let me lay out the train of reasoning:

    • What happened in 1979. For nearly 35 years, Iran has been at odds with most of the developed world, and China has been interacting with the world. Within the space of a few months in the surprisingly fateful year of 1979, Iranian extremists under the Ayatollah Khomeini took over their country in rebellion against the Shah, his U.S. sponsors, and the West — and Chinese pragmatists under Deng Xiaoping began the series of modernizations whose effects we know so well. These followed the opening of Chinese-U.S. relations that Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong began in the early 1970s.
       
    • The damage of isolation. Iran’s estrangement from the rest of the world has been bad principally for its own people. But it has also been bad for the United States, for world stability in general, and for Israel. Arguably the only beneficiaries, apart from Iran’s governing group, have been Iran’s regional and religious rivals, starting with the Iraq of Saddam Hussein and the current Saudi Arabia.
       
    • The benefits of integration. The world is far better off because of China’s integration rather than exclusion, notwithstanding all the serious frictions that remain. Strictly for reasons of scale, Iran’s re-integration would not be as world-changing as China’s has been. But it would be very important — much more, say, than Burma’s recent switch, or Cuba's eventual one — and on balance would have a positive overall effect on the world: economically, strategically, culturally, and in other ways.

      Because there is no evidence that Iran’s population has been brainwashed into extremism through its outsider era — much less so than with China’s, where the Cultural Revolution had barely wound down when the U.S. re-established relations — Iran’s re-integration with the world would likely be faster and easier than China’s. 
       
    • Regional winners and losers. Although America’s rapprochement with China was clearly beneficial overall, it wasn’t good, or seen as good, for all parties. Even apart from its intended cornering effect on the Soviet Union, it was surprising and threatening to America’s main ally in the region, Japan. (The Nixon-to-China move was one of several “Nixon shocks” that gravely alarmed Japanese leaders.) It was also surprising in South Korea, where U.S. troops were (and are) still stationed along the frontier with China’s main client state, North Korea. And it was seen as nothing less than a life-and-death threat by the Republic of China in Taiwan, since establishing relations with the government in Beijing necessarily meant breaking them with the one in Taipei.
       
    •  “Nixon goes to China.” Because the U.S.-China deal overturned everything that America’s long-dominant, Taiwan-favoring “China Lobby” had stood for, making the deal required sophistication in both domestic and international politics. The cliche about Nixon going to China underscores the importance of Nixon’s anti-Communist reputation. But before the deal he tried to soften up the China Lobby as much as possible — and then he and his successors, Presidents Ford and Carter, overcame it when necessary, especially using business allies to argue that what had been good for the old China Lobby was not necessarily the best course for the United States. 

      In the end, 35 years ago this month, Warren Christopher, as the Carter Administration’s deputy secretary of state, was sent to Taipei. There he was mobbed by enormous angry throngs as he prepared to deliver in person the news that the United States was taking a step that the Taiwan government considered betrayal and that its China Lobby allies in the U.S. had bitterly opposed.
       
    • Bringing this back to Iran. Thus the obvious parallels. With a potential re-engagement with Iran, the United States has a chance to correct a distortion that, if not as harmful as the one with China, has gone on longer. (The U.S. and Mao’s China had been at odds for just over 20 years when Nixon took office, vs. the impending 35th anniversary of the revolution in Iran.) But while an end to the U.S.-Iranian cold war would clearly be beneficial for both those countries and the world at large, it does not immediately help everyone.
       
      A rise in Iranian influence could objectively be threatening to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, as Saudi representatives have not been shy in pointing out. And the current government of Israel has — utterly wrongly in my view, but they’re not asking  — declared the prospect of a deal to be a huge “historic mistake.” Benjamin Netanyahu has every right to see things that way, but the United States has every right to disagree with him and move ahead.
       
    • The next steps: the varying interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. Of course it’s possible that negotiations with Iran will break down. It was never certain that the U.S. and China would be able to paper over their economic, political, and strategic differences well enough to re-establish relations. But it is overwhelmingly in American interests that negotiations succeed rather than fail — and, as Robert Hunter argued in a piece I’ve cited several times, the very fact of the negotiations represents an important step.

      Because American interests lie with the continuation rather than interuption and failure of the negotiations, the poison-pill legislation now being introduced in the Senate should be considered reckless. It is comparable to lumbering the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations with a number of negotiating guidelines known to be unacceptable to the government in Beijing -- which did not occur. And its military provision is quite strikingly different from the guarantee made to Taiwan. Different how?
       
    • The crucial difference in military commitments. A main ongoing source of rancor between the U.S. and China is the Taiwan Relations Act. It is the principal law governing America’s shift from recognizing Taiwan to recognizing mainland China — and, significantly, it was not enacted while the early negotiations were underway. 

      The TRA guarantees that the U.S. will resist any military takeover of Taiwan (obviously by China), and toward that end promises that the U.S. will continue to provide arms to the government in Taipei. Each time this happens, the government in Beijing complains bitterly. But here is the crucial part of that law:
    It is the policy of the United States …
    (4) to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;
    (5) to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and
    (6) to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.

    (5) if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence;

    • To spell it out, the Taiwan act promised arms of "a defensive character" to protect the island, and said that the United States would resist any resort to force. The Nuclear-Weapon Free Iran act says that if Israel is the first to use force, it will bring the United States along with it. I know of no precedent in U.S. foreign policy for our delegating a war-or-peace choice to some other government. Our NATO and other mutual-defense pacts, and the treaty with Japan, commit the U.S. to defend a country under active attack. This is something different.
       
    • The use and misuse of history. Any historical analogy is imperfect. Usually people cite "lessons" of history to reinforce what they already believe. But because discussions of Iran, Israel, and the nuclear question so often lead to analogies and lessons from Neville Chamberlain and Nazi Germany, it is worth considering this more recent and much better-matched factual case.

      Modern Iran will resemble Nazi-era Germany when it is invading its neighbors one after another, which it has not done; when it is developing the most fearsome attack-oriented military in the world, which it does not possess; and when it has set up a horrific system of internal mass extermination, which it is not doing. The one point of resemblance -- an important one, but one that should not paralyze further reasoning -- is the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric coming from some Iranian leaders, as it had come from the Nazis. That is one similarity; the differences -- in capability, world situation, regional balance of power, and possibility for negotiation -- are more striking and profound.

      And  Hassan Rouhani's Iran will resemble Mao's China in ... well, in the ways mentioned above. The situations are different, but the opportunities and stakes are closer to those Richard Nixon considered in the early 1970s than to those Chamberlain misread in the 1930s. 

    So over the holiday season, reflect on the opportunities and dangers of this moment -- and also the historic mistake that Congressional or other efforts to block the deal might entail. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas to those celebrating tomorrow, and upcoming Happy New Year all around.

  • Our New Issue Is Out

    For your seasonal reading enjoyment.

    Through the bounty of Fox TV, a statue on the waterfront of Eastport, Maine. Details below.

    The next issue of the magazine is out just now. It's best read and enjoyed in print (the perfect gift!), but you can also get the idea online. Through the years I've made a point of not seeing what's in the magazine, apart from articles I'm directly involved in, until the whole thing arrives in the mail. A few highlights from this one:

    • Scott Stossel's cover-story account of his lifelong adventures in "Surviving Anxiety" is worth the year's subscription on its own. 
    • Christopher Orr answers a question many fans of Elmore Leonard may have had, of why novels that seemed so cinematic on the page had such trouble making the transition to the big screen.
    • Liza Mundy on the virtues of paternity leave and "The Daddy Track."
    • The redoubtable E. Fuller Torrey with a "very short book excerpt" about a phenomenon I have also noticed while traveling around the country.
    • And lots more including poetry, dark secrets of the Internet, extreme-craft beer, ways to fix televised sports, raciness in the air, and other compelling topics.

    The two parts of the issue I had seen before publication time were my Q & A with the also redoubtable Eric S. Lander, on how and "When Will Genomics Cure Cancer?" and related big-picture questions. And the first print-magazine installment from our "American Futures" series (with the Marketplace radio program and the Esri mapping firm). This one is about Eastport, Maine, "The Little Town That Might." Previously you heard about Eastport online (eg here and here) and in this Marketplace report.  Our new article, among other things, gives the backstory on the tasteful super-life-sized statue shown at top.

    Read, enjoy, give gift subscriptions, and have a Merry Christmas season.

  • When Will Genomics Cure Cancer?

    When Will Genomics Cure Cancer?

    A conversation with the biogeneticist Eric S. Lander about how genetic advances are transforming medical treatment

  • Eastport, Maine: The Little Town That Might

    Eastport, Maine: The Little Town That Might

    A fishing community on the country's easternmost edge is an exemplar of American reinvention.

  • From the Tree to the Table: The Journey of a Brave Little Orange

    The surprising complexity behind even the simplest-seeming aspects of modern life.

    Packing house workers, Redlands, 1950s. From Nathan Gonzales of A.K. Smiley Public Library, via Marketplace.
    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    Here's a link to Marketplace's report from Redlands, California, which ran on Friday and featured the past-and-future role of citrus in the town's culture and concept of its possibilities. Through this coming week we'll have reports in this space about the new bases of this region's economy, about the improbable emergence of a local high-tech industry, about the importance of "turning point" narratives in cities' sense of themselves, about the new trends in transportation in car-centric California, and other themes.

    The Marketplace report also includes a local-knowledge quiz, which fortunately I aced, and a very nice video report on how an orange makes its journey from the field to the shipping carton and thence to wherever you might enjoy it. Most of the cartons you'll see in this report are labelled in both Japanese and Chinese and are bound for customers throughout Asia.

    American Futures: The journey of an orange from Marketplace on Vimeo.

    One other theme in this report is Kai Ryssdal's skepticism about Orange Wheat beer, the flagship brand and volume leader for the very-fast-expanding Hangar 24 craft brewery of Redlands. Orange wheat beer is locally significant, since the brewery very deliberately buys from the same local, often-struggling, old-growth citrus groves you heard about here. And according to Ben Cook, the young founder and owner of Hangar 24, it accounts for nearly two-thirds of the brewery's entire sales.

    For whatever that means: here I note that the four best-selling brands across our country are Bud Light, Bud, Coors Light, and Miller Lite, of which to me only Bud qualifies as "beer." (When I asked one of my Redlands friends about the Hangar 24 lineup, he said, "Well, I'm not really a beer drinker, but I do like that Orange Wheat.") But as fruit-flavored brews go, Hangar 24's Orange Wheat is pretty good, and by any standards its Columbus IPA, Amarillo Pale Ale, and many others are excellent. (Label images from this very interesting printing-related site.)

    Label images from Prints on Wood.

    And if you're in the vicinity, Hangar 24 is offering free cab rides home from now through New Year's Day, so drink up. More "serious" matters soon.

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