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.

James Fallows: Philippines

  • The Heartbreak of History, Philippine Dept.

    Time passes but too little changes in the Philippines.

    Twenty-three years ago, shortly after Corazon Aquino had replaced Ferdinand Marcos as president of the Philippines, I traveled through the country and wrote an Atlantic article called "A Damaged Culture." Mrs. Aquino was then still in the late stages of being perceived as a world hero. Her husband, Benigno, had become the martyred symbol of the anti-Marcos resistance after he was murdered by government goons as he got off a plane on his return to Manila. (His body on the tarmac, below.) Mrs. Aquino was the living symbol of the "EDSA revolution" of 1986, which with relatively little violence* had succeeded in driving Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos from power and appearing to open a new age of reform and promise for a long-suffering people. After the revolution, Mrs. Aquino had addressed a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress and been chosen Time magazine's Woman of the Year.



    But what I saw and heard in the country suggested that much less had changed than reformers and friends of the Philippines would have liked to think. For instance, as I wrote back then:
    In a sociological sense the elevation of Corazon Aquino through the EDSA revolution should probably be seen not as a revolution but as the restoration of the old order. Marcos's rise represented the triumph of the nouveau riche. He was, of course, an Ilocano, from the tough, frugal Ilocos region, in the northwest corner of Luzon. Many of those whom he enriched were also outsiders to the old-money, old-family elite that had long dominated the country's politics. These elite groups, often referred to in shorthand as Makati (the name of the wealthy district and business center of Manila), regarded Marcos the way high-toned Americans regarded Richard Nixon: clever and ambitious, but so uncouth. 
    Corazon Aquino's family, the Cojuangcos, is part of this landowning elite... Since the Spanish days land has been concentrated in a few giant haciendas, including the 17,000-acre Hacienda Luisita of the Cojuangco family, and no government has done much to change the pattern. "You could argue that real land reform would lead to more productivity, but it's an entirely hypothetical argument,' an Australian economist told me. "This government simply is not going to cause a revolution in the social structure.' Just before the new Congress convened, as her near-dictatorial powers were about to elapse, Aquino signed a generalized land-reform-should-happen decree. Most observers took this as an indication that land reform would not happen, since the decree left all the decisions about the when, where, and how of land reform to the landowner-heavy Congress.
    It is very hard not to think of this history when reading today's NYT story, by Norimitsu Onishi**, about the latest front-runner for the presidency -- the Aquinos' son -- and the ongoing importance of the family plantations.

    As the NYT says:

    The land problem has drawn fresh attention since Mrs. Aquino's son, Benigno Aquino III,declared his candidacy for the May 10 presidential election, running on his mother's legacy of "people power." Though Mrs. Aquino made land reform a top priority, she allowed landowning families to eviscerate her distribution program. Critics say there is no greater example of the failure of land reform than her own family's estate. 

    For the past five years, the family has been fighting in the Supreme Court a government directive to distribute the 10,000-acre Hacienda Luisita -- the second-biggest family-owned piece of land in the Philippines, about 80 miles north of Manila -- to 10,000 farmers.... Criticized for his family's position, Mr. Aquino, 50, the front-runner in the presidential election, announced recently that the family would transfer the land to the farmers after ensuring that debts were paid off....

    But Mr. Aquino's cousin, Fernando Cojuangco, the chief operating officer of the holding company that owns the plantation, said that the extended Cojuangco family, owners of this plantation since 1958, had no intention of giving up the land or the sugar business.
    "No, we're not going to," Mr. Cojuangco, 47, said in an interview here. "I think it would be irresponsible because I feel that continuing what we have here is the way to go. Sugar farming has to be; it's the kind of business that has to be done plantation-style."
    There are more desperate and brutally-run countries than the Philippines, but I don't know of any whose self-limiting cycle of politics is sadder. 
    For some previous installments on this subject, see here and here. More when our "categories" function in our web site is restored and I can link to others in the Philippine category.

    * The violence was minimal in part because, after decades of propping up Marcos, the U.S. government threw its weight against him and in favor of the reformers. Among the officials who played a crucial role in this policy was the young Paul Wolfowitz, as described here. His success there no doubt played a part in his thinking a similar quick transformation would be possible in Iraq. 

    ** General policy on talking about newspaper stories: When there's something nice to say, be sure to include the reporter's name! When it's a complaint about the latest screw-up by the WaPo or whomever, I avoid the name unless that person's tendencies are central to the critique. Reporters have enough problems... 

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  • "A lot has changed. Nothing has gotten better."

    A Filipino-American friend, who works for an American high-tech firm and is now based in China, writes about the reaction to Corazon Aquino's death inside the Philippines. So much about this note brings up the powerful and opposing feelings that I have had on every experience in the country: admiration for the heart and passion of so many individual Filipinos, and pretty much outright despair at the predicament in which they all seem trapped.

    I'm in Cebu, visiting my mom and dad for the weekend. I was here the morning Corazon Aquino passed away. The outpouring of emotion and respect across the country has been tremendous. Coverage has been literally nonstop on [the main news channel] ANC (they're actually showing a live shot now of her body being prepped for transfer from La Salle Greenhills after the public viewing) and they've been replaying and reliving memories of her rise to power and the EDSA revolution....

    I was just a little kid in 1986 (I was 10), and for me, it is a very powerful reminder of how passionate the Filipino people can be and how this became such an iconic moment of democracy for the rest of the world.

    A few things struck me as quite interesting about "Tita Cory's" passing:...I thought Hu Jintao's statement of condolences was also gracious and obligatory, but colored by the idea that People Power didn't go so well in Tiananmen Square in 1989. (Media here is even citing people in Beijing shouting "Cory! Cory!" during the TS protests, but I've never heard that before).

    The fact that she will not receive a state burial befitting a former president is also fascinating. The idea that, even in death, she and her family opted to continue her life as a private citizen is a strong statement for leaders everywhere. As her family has stated (starting with Ninoy), public service is just that: Service. "After that, you're done. You're nothing," said Ninoy. [Ninoy = her assassinated husband, senator Benigno Aquino.]

    And finally, after taking my father to an afternoon of sabong (cockfighting) here in Mandaue City, we talked about the state of the country in his eyes since EDSA. He came to the U.S. in May of 1972, just four months before Marcos' declared martial law. He is a former priest who was in seminary since the age of 15 and witnessed the US routing of Japan from Sorsogon as a small boy at the end of WWII. Now he and my mother are back to live the rest of their lives in their home country. What's changed?

    "A lot has changed. Nothing has gotten better." And he's right.
    While the financial and metro centers have burst with commerce and flash, there's still such an incredible disparity here between the rich and poor, moreso than I've seen in China, or any other place I've been, for sure. The government is still dealing in graft and corruption (something my father is actually working against here, via the Catholic diocese) on GMA's watch. There are still scores of young girls prostituting themselves. And there is still violence in Mindinao and elsewhere stemming from New People's Army factions and Muslim extremists.

    What's really changed?

    "Here is a land in which few are spectacularly rich, while the masses remain abjectly poor..." It's 2009! [The quote is from Ninoy Aquino about the Philippines under Marcos.]

    The cockfighting is still the same. There are still "villages" with high walls and razor wire. But now there are SuperMalls settled in next to tin-and-cardboard squats and internet cafes littering even the most destitute parts of town, with some barrios even siphoning power from the local mainlines.

    From my perspective (and my father's) Filipinos are very much about symbolism, less about concreteness. There's this idea, as you mention in your Cory Aquino article, that while a regime change in 1986 may have been a monumental symbol for the country, it has still struggled to make concrete, fundamental cultural changes for the overwhelming better ever since. As you mention, it might be a nationalized codependency issue. My father thinks it's actually a mix of that cultural "neutering" and an overdependence on the Catholic faith to carry people through. The churches are standing-room only, yet there is still a sense of self-protection and insularity that seems to dam the notion of brotherly love and supporting one another, at least in my observation. People will still cheat the meter, officials still take bribes and see prostitutes, and people feel like that's just the way it's done. My dad thinks he even got scammed at the cockpits yesterday.

    However, the pomp and circumstance of this weekend's coverage has been inspiring to me, personally. I'd like to see how it might affect my outlook or my art. I do admire Ninoy and Corazon Aquino for their integrity and heroics to promote what was right about democracy. I'd like to see how their legacy of determined nationalism affects the Filipino people from here on out. Or is this just another symbol to savor, but then move on with life?

    As I write this, thousands of people are gathered on Ayala Ave. now, the sky filled with a blizzard of yellow confetti as Tita Cory's body arrives in Makati. "They say that People Power is dead," said a correspondent. "But haven't seen anything like this since 1986."

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  • Frankie Jose / "Damaged Culture" link update

    In an item yesterday about the distinguished Filipino novelist F. Sionil "Frankie" Jose, I mentioned that I'd taken a road trip with him to the northern reaches of Luzon and written about it in the Atlantic in 1991. Thanks to our web team, especially Cotton Codinha, that article is now online, here.

    I hadn't looked at the article in a very long time and was disconcerted to find that the comparison I used yesterday to describe Jose's gusto was the very same one that came to mind 18 years ago. I hope that this unintended self-plagiarism says as much about the rightness of the comparison as it does about the limits of my imagination. It comes at the end of this part of the original article:

    José is a short, plump, nearly bald man of sixty-six, who would not look out of place wearing the baggy shorts and basketball-style undershirt of the typical Chinese shopkeeper in Southeast Asia. When I see him, I am reminded of a little boy--in the way he carries his body, in his quick and unconcealed switches from desolation to glee. On our five-day trip last summer, when he was driving me and a young Soviet academic to see the sights of his youth, we passed a railroad siding where the teenage José had been held by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. "I was so scared," he said, his face clouding like a ten-year-old's. "I was so little and skinny then--ho ho ho!" he roared, slapping his round belly. We stopped every few miles so that José could see whether the cane-sugar sweets, or the little roasted birds, or the other regional delicacies were as tasty as he recalled. When he was not planning the next meal, he sat watching women with a blissful look. "Ah, I tell you, Jim, the eye never dulls!" he said in a restaurant after four stunning young women walked by our table "Only the flesh becomes weak--ho ho ho!"

    Eventually I asked him how his wife, Tessie, whom he married forty-two years ago, after both had been students at the University of Santo Tomas, in Manila, feels about the adoring descriptions of young women that fill his work. "She knows I am devoted to her," he said, serious for a moment. "And she forgives me my pecadeeeeyos!" A rich roar of laughter. This, I thought, is what it must have been like to be on the road with Rabelais.

    Because Frankie Jose has been so centrally involved in debates about the effects of Philippine culture on the country's political and economic destiny, for the record I include a link to my 1987 article "A Damaged Culture," which also cites Jose's works. This article generated a lot of heat, and some support, in the Philippines. From what I can tell similar debates still rage.


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