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: Reader comment

  • Why 'Turd Blossom' Is Metaphor but Not Metonym

    The same is true of "blood-sucking leeches."


    Let's have fun with metonymy! I got into this thicket with an early scene in my new profile of Jerry Brown. Here I was trying to convey the interesting/odd experience of talking with the man:

    "Do you know what 'metonym' means?" [Brown] asked out of the blue one time. Unfortunately, I didn't. (To spare you my embarrassment: it's a name used as a reference for something else, like "K Street" for Washington's lobbying culture, or "Silicon Valley" for the tech industry.) The surprise, coming from a politician, was that he was actually asking for information rather than testing me or pretending he already knew. "Me neither," he said after my admission, "but I know it's very big with the deconstructionists." I did better when he asked whether I knew where the phrase "no country for old men" had come from. Yes! It's the first line of Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium," which became the title of a novel by Cormac McCarthy, which was in turn the basis for a 2007 movie by the Coen brothers. Brown said that he was wondering because he'd just talked with a Washington media grandee* who used the phrase without knowing that it had any history. "Jerry didn't know there was a movie," his wife [Anne Gust Brown] said.
    Now the readers weigh in. First, from Graham Culbertson of the department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC - Chapel Hill. He said he liked the piece, but:
    I thought I'd take a moment to explain metonym a little more, in case you were interested. Your definition is right but might be a little misleading, while your examples are perfect.

    It really only makes sense to talk about metonymy in reference to metaphor. You say a metonym is "a name used as a reference for something else."  That's true, but only part of the story. A metaphor is also a name used as a reference for something else. The difference is that a metonym has a real connection to the thing being referenced, whereas a metaphor has only an imagined connection.

    If I call the lobbying industry "K Street," that's metonym, because K Street has a literal connection to lobbying. But if I call the lobbying industry "the blood-sucking leeches of American democracy," that's metaphor. They are symbolically connected to blood-sucking leeches, but there is no literal connection. A Karl Rove example: Calling Rove "Turd Blossom" is metaphor - he's not actually a flower. Calling him "the Brain" or "Bush's Brain" is metonymy - he is famous for his use of his brain. That last example is the most common type of metonym, synecdoche, when something is referred to by one of its parts. When you say "we need ten head of cattle," or "they need more arms in the bullpen," or "that movie got asses into seats," you are taking a full thing (a cow, a pitcher, an audience member) and using a part of it as its name (head, arm, ass). (Hopefully "ass" is ok to use if you quote this in your blog, as long as no children are forced to read it in-flight).

    Finally, the reason why deconstructionists were obsessed with metonymy is that they were obsessed with how language tried to but failed to capture reality. Metonym, which seems to come closer to capturing the "real" thing that metaphor, was thus particularly interesting.
    Noted! And now, from Dean Rowan of UC Berkeley Law School (Dean is his name, not his title):
    Thumbnail image for Metonym-Release.jpgI suspect mine will not be the only comment you receive about the metonym passage in your Brown profile. There are at least a couple problems with your account.

    First, your definition is essentially correct, yet meaninglessly so. A metonym does indeed involve substitution of one word or phrase for another, but its significance is in how the two terms are related. From OED's entry for "metonymy": " the action of substituting for a word or phrase denoting an object, action, institution, etc., a word or phrase denoting a property or something associated with it; an instance of this" (my emphasis). K Street is a metonym for DC lobbyists, because many of lobbying firms reside there and, consequently, the street is commonly associated with the practice. Similarly, Silicon Valley and the tech industry. Neither of these involves mere substitution of one phrase for another.

    Second, Gov. Brown's reference to "deconstructionists" is misleading. Indeed, some scholars associated, for better or worse, with deconstruction as an approach to literary theory did enjoy parsing tropes in texts, and metonymy is a widely deployed trope. Paul de Man was perhaps the most famous example of such a scholar. But having more than a passing interest in rhetorical analysis does not make one a "deconstructionist," and, conversely, many "deconstructionists" don't especially care about it at all.
    I wrote back saying thanks for the clarification -- and offering a clarification in my own defense. I hadn't said that metonym was a "substitute" for a real name. Rather, I'd said it was a "reference." In reply Rowan writes:
    Well, yes, "reference" affords a degree of wiggle room. But my point is that "metonymy" specifies a particular referential relationship of association or adjacency not precisely indicated by other tropes, such as synecdoche, which specifies part-for-whole or vice-versa. We refer to judges as "the bench" (an adjacent object) and sometimes to the President as "the White House" (also related by adjacency), but (because I'm at a loss just now for an example, I choose one from Wikipedia) a "wood" as a particular golf club (referring by synecdoche to the wooden part of the club). Each is indeed a reference, but if you're going to ask, "What is a 'metonym'?," you're not looking merely for the aspect of reference. You want to know how that reference is effected. (A shoelace is a thing, but being told as much doesn't really help one define the object. Similarly, metonymy involves reference, but being told as much doesn't tell one how metonymy refers.) 

    This is longstanding technical jargon, not by any means exclusively deployed by those literary theory folks from the '60s through the '80s or '90s who went a little nuts pitting metonymy against metaphor against synecdoche, and so on. (Don't even get me started on chiasmus.) Systematic rhetorical analysis harkens back at least to medieval thinkers,who were determined to classify these modes of reference, and far more ambitiously than "deconstructionists."
    At least I know about chiasmus! I've even written about it right here.

    * I am feeling particularly big-spirited in not naming the "Washington media grandee" in the No Country episode, whose identity I learned in off-the-record circumstances. Or maybe I am just feeling canny. (Top picture from here; other one from here.)
  • "Stupidest policy ever" contest update

    Thanks to all for many good entries in the search for the stupidest moment of bi-partisan policy in the last 50 years. The search was of course inspired by this moment's stupidest idea, the John McCain/Hillary Clinton support for a temporary gasoline tax "holiday" during the summer driving season.

    Update points:

    - Remember, the 50-year cutoff excludes some otherwise deserving suggestions, like Prohibition, or slavery.

    - Most popular nominee so far is the mandate for Ethanol use plugged into last year's energy bill, just before the Iowa caucus. But also remember that, as with the Electoral College and the Democratic primary process, mere popularity does not ensure victory.

    - Results tomorrow; still time to vote.

    - And while I'm at it, what happened to the usually-skillful Don Gonyea of NPR, in his treatment of this question just now on All Things Considered??? He took the traditional "one side claims, the other side responds" approach -- as if there were any identifiable economist or energy expert, from any political camp, who thought that the "tax holiday" proposal made sense. Maybe he missed the previous night's All Things Considered broadcast, which contained a very good segment about the pointlessness of the plan? And he presented the whole issue as a matter of campaign tactics: the Hillary Clinton campaign had been hitting Obama hard with a crisp attack ad about his refusal to give American motorists "the help they need," while Obama had come back only with a woolier, more "complicated" reply about why the plan was mad. Yes, this episode shows us something about the two campaigns, but it's not mainly about their relative skill in attacking each other.

  • Reader updates on three points

    After the jump, updates from readers on three points: the etymology of "Suntime" wine and the Uighur Autonomous Region in general; a critique of my wife's feather-light Sherpa haul from the U.S.; and, about that battered ThinkPad T60 keyboard.

    Procedural note: I appreciate hearing from readers via the "email" button to the right. I will try to be less slothful about posting interesting responses and elaborations. Toward that end, I announce this policy: Unless a writer says otherwise, I will assume that I am free to quote the comments and attribute them to the writer by name. If you say "Please don't quote" or "Don't use my name," no problem! But to avoid having to email each person for permission, I'll assume from now on that a comment is on the record unless otherwise stated.

    1) From a reader who does not want to be named, this amplification about my oft-praised, occasionally-lamented, Xinjiang Suntime wine:

    Re suntime wine--maybe you said this and I missed it; but do you suppose the
    name "Suntime" has anything to do with the practice, common in far west
    China, of using their own "local" clock time, in defiance of Beijing's
    insistence that all china share a single time zone? I've been in a hotel in
    Khashgar where you have to make it clear that you really want to be waked at
    eight BEIJING TIME to go for your plane-- ie 5 local time. Or you might
    find yourself staying an extra day.

    BTW did Milward expand on the proposition that this whole "Uighur" stuff is
    an invented nationalism, and even more recent than most others. ["Millward" reference is to this post.] As I
    understand it, a fair number of these non-Han westerners got together in the
    20s and decided that they'd better have a common identity or the press would
    never figure out who they were--so they dipped into history and came up with
    the Uighur brand.

    I don't blame em at all. It us no more heavy handed than the
    Transylvanians claiming Rome (as in Romania) or the Magyars laing claim to
    Atilla the Hun. And they certainly are beat up o n by the Han. But the
    Uighur identity will not, I think, withstand close scrutiny.

    I believe this to be true, but caution I am no expert, unlike Milward whose
    work I much admire.

    Response to all of the above: interesting questions, but I don't know the answers.

    2) From Edward Seibert, who has just returned to the U.S. from China, a critique of our Sherpa list:

    Books - of course. I had 300$ worth of Amazon shipped over when i moved here, still working through them.

    sandwich bags - there's one i didn't predict before i came, but anything "locking" doesn't seem to be available here, i'm frustrated with my non-locking sort, but since i brought in bulk...

    thick socks - i don't get why the Chinese don't sell thick socks. it's cold enough, you'd think it would be a no brainer. My theory is that they can go for more days without cleaning the thin ones (and with these tiny washer drier combos, if that, it's something to think about)


    Barbecue sauce - none of this Kraft crap, it's got to be KC masterpiece.
    a decent alarm clock - trips to Auchen, Carrefour, and Metro yielded a single pseudo alarm clock. the snooze bar lasts for ten minutes (as opposed to the standard nine) and it also turns the light off or on (annoying as i hit the bar then try to check the time) my alarm clock from the states didn't like the 220v. oops.
    Frozen foods - i finally found chicken nuggets, but it's either that or dumplings.

    The true mystery item here is indeed the socks. The fluffy, thick ones ubiquitous in the US are all made in China. But I still have never seen them sold here.

    3) From another reader from whom I haven't heard about using his real name:

    Regarding your note about your keyboard wearing out, I was a bit puzzled, because this is something that I’ve experience for years, but never considered an issue. I’ve had keyboards with many/most letters completely worn off, but I honestly never really noticed when typing, and was really surprised that it would motivate you to replace your keyboard.

    But then a possibility dawned on me—does this mean that you do not ‘touch type’? Having taken typing classes in high school, I now take for granted that I never have to look at keys on the keyboard, but your note reminded me of the many people I know that don’t touch type and can tap out characters at a decent pace with just a few fingers.

    With the ubiquity of computers today and programs like One Laptop Per Child gaining momentum, I guess it makes me wonder whether typing is a skill that should be (more?) formally encouraged or mandatory in our educational system, and also whether other countries are encouraging it, or making it mandatory. Which brings up countries like China (and many others), where the QWERTY keyboard and the software-based IMEs seem like an impediment for countries that use different character sets. Or countries or cultures where learning to type English on a QWERTY keyboard might be seen as a suppression of a native language and corresponding culture.

    About the general sociology of keyboards: interesting. About me as a hunt-and-peck typist: not hardly! I believe the records show that I am the fastest touch-typist in the world. Unfortunately not the most accurate, as recipients of my correspondence know. Still it becomes subtly annoying when most of the keys you are hitting are blank. I didn't order this new keyboard. More on its origin and fate later on.

    More »


The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe


A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion



From This Author