James Fallows
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. He, and his wife Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the forthcoming book, Our Towns. More +
  • Only in America

    Jonathan Drake / Reuters

    What does the dissenting mail look like, when I publish an item like this one, arguing that Mitch McConnell illustrates the pious hypocrisy of those who are “deeply saddened” by gun massacres but obstruct efforts to prevent them, or round-ups of reader responses like this?

    Here is a representative sample.

    Draconian controls. I said in my McConnell item that the NRA had successfully equated any proposed control on gun use and ownership with total control. (We recognize that DUI laws and liability-insurance requirements don’t amount to confiscation of your car, but that distinction disappears when we’re talking about guns.) One dissenting note illustrates this outlook:

    Sorry, but I'm guessing you'll favor draconian gun laws no matter what the crime rate or frequecy of mass killings. I also suspect that you'll carry water for the anti-gun Left no matter what, and that you'll keep ginning up facts to supoport that cultural/ideological project.

    I'm sure that you and your fellow East Coast journalist colleagues will cover for Feinstein, Schumer, Pelosi, and company when federal  agents kill some innocent people in the course of enforcing the gun laws you favor the way you did back in the early '90s.  Will you have "blood on your hands" then?

    Frankly, I'm sorry I ever got into the habit of looking at Atlantic Online. I suppose I assumed it was the same publication that Michael Kelley edited years ago. I won't do it again, though.

    Similarly:

    Could you provide an example of where the proposed controls have worked? I believe this is a fair and reasonable question to ask.

    We have background checks last I looked.

    And if you ban a weapon like the demonized AR15...who pays for the rifles as they are turned in? Do you really believe they will all be turned in even if you could get it passed?

    This knee-jerk reaction every time this happens, pretending that gun control is the answer without any evidence is not helpful.

    Would you favor the death penalty for anyone possessing an unlawful firearm?

    Again, I think these are fair questions you left unanswered in your article.

    For an example of where proposed controls have made a difference, I would offer: the entire rest of the world. All developed countries contain mentally ill people. Only in the United States do these people repeatedly engage in large-scale slaughter with guns. Only in the United States do significant numbers of people argue that policies or controls could not possibly make a difference.  

  • 'Show Us the Carnage'

    Reuters

    After a previous horrific massacre via AR-15, the one in Las Vegas last winter in which a single murderer killed or injured more than 900 people, readers wrote about that weapon and its history. For reference, those items were:

    Now we have another massacre; more “thoughts and prayers” and other pious but empty rituals by legislators who will not do a single thing to reduce the chances of the next one; and more reaction from readers.

    Can anything be done, by anyone or any organization, to stop the onslaught of gun violence? Readers suggest three approaches, involving: the media, the responsible gun-owning community, and the political opposition to the NRA.

    Different media coverage. I mentioned yesterday the familiar cycles of news coverage: 24/7 updates, panels, and interviews by cable programs; explanatory pieces by big newspapers; snapshot photos showing victims when they were alive and happy, then respectful portraits of their families wracked by grief. What could be a different approach?

    “Show Us the Carnage.” A reader, writing in after a different massacre, says that coverage is too respectful and tasteful:

    The media needs to show Americans the truth.  Watching tonight's news coverage of the massacre, it was bizarrely possible to think of a mass shooting as a random event like a tornado that causes a community to rally together.  Thoughts and prayers for all.  Yet entirely missing from the coverage was the truth of what had happened.  No pictures of pools of blood.  No video of blown out brains.  No images of dead children in pews.

    Just as the tide of public opinion against the war in Vietnam did not turn until images of the war reached into American living rooms, today's epidemic of mass shootings will not end until Americans see and share in the bloody experience.  Scalia's Heller decision will not join Taney's Dred Scott opinion in the ash heap of history until Americans are moved to action by indelible images from mass shootings of suffering and death.

    So here is a plea to the media. Do not let decency standards shield us from this indecency.  Show us the carnage and do not let Americans look away from what the NRA's lobbying has wrought.

    This reader is right, that photos made a difference in the Vietnam era. The recent Ken Burns / Lynn Novick Vietnam documentary series went into the detailed background of the two photos that ran on the front pages of most newspapers, and that anyone alive in that era can recall. One was of a nine-year-old girl running naked, and in terror, away from a napalm strike. The other was of a South Vietnamese general blowing out the brains (literally) of a North Vietnamese agent / spy. A decade earlier, the photo of the battered body of the lynched Emmett Till also revealed what had happened to him in a way mere words could not have done. And lest we forget: the black-eye photo of one of Rob Porter’s ex-wives,  Colbie Holderness.

  • Leah Mills / Reuters

    The Empty Rituals of an American Massacre

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed his “deep sadness,” but continues to block gun-control proposals that enjoy the support of most Americans.

  • Pale’ocracy and Other Names for This Era

    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    Following this article, and this reader-response note, more responses on the most accurate way to name the political challenge of these times.

    Pale’ocracy. A reader recommends this term, “because of its varied and versatile potential definitions:”

    --First, the Greek word pale’ is defined as “to wrestle,” broadened to mean “to struggle, fight, conflict, contest.” That’s deep Trumpism, especially because of his participation in, admiration for and understanding of professional wrestling. (It is one of the few things he really does understand.)

    --Second, broadening the prefix to paleo, you get something old or ancient, and in modern contexts, referring to cavemen. I do not have to flesh this out.

    --Third, pale (with no accent mark) is an accurate representation of Trump’s favored skin tone (besides orange, of course), favored peoples, and favored nations.

    * * *

    Trumpistan:

    I've been using another term to describe this time: Trumpistan.  There is something of the Central Asian despot to Trump: corrupt and megalomaniacal like Saparmurat Niyazov building a statue of himself that rotates with the sun.  

    * * *

  • On the Proper Name for the Trump Era: ‘Democracide’, ‘Ochlocracy’, or Something Else

    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    Yesterday I posted an item about the challenge of calling the Trump era by its proper name—and explaining why the Dutch writer Rob Riemen, in his new book To Fight Against This Age, argues that it’s destructive and misleading not to use the plain term “fascism.”

    Readers have written to endorse (or oppose) the wisdom of using the “fascist” label, and to suggest other terms. Despite the Atlantic’s new policy of featuring most reader-interaction in a new online Letters section, which will identify reader-writers by their real names, for now I’ll quote some of the incoming traffic the way I have in the past, without using people’s names. Here we go:

    Kleptofascism. From a reader on the East Coast:

    I propose “Kleptofascism.” This is very much a kleptocracy that demonstrates fascist tendencies. I even suspect they would relax some degree of their authoritarianism if it meant they could steal more from the land and the people, up to a point, after which the authoritarian tendencies they so obviously revel in would kick back in. In the end, they are trying to strike an unholy balance between the two destructive tendencies, and I am lost as to which is more destructive, in the long term.

    Perhaps I should add that authoritarianism can be (theoretically) a net positive, given the right dictator, but there is no idealized mathematical model in which kleptocracy can, by definition. Not that this distinction matters to this country in this day. But it’s an inherent tension that may be worth exploring for weaknesses. Maybe that way liberty lies.

    * * *

  • Yuri Gripas / Reuters

    Calling the Trump Era by Its Proper Name

    Four terms that may capture the moment, each implying a different danger

  • A Note on ‘Notes’

    Letters for the March of Dimes arrive at the White House in 1938 Library of Congress

    This past week The Atlantic announced a sensible new policy for engaging readers in our ongoing conversations. The news is explained here, and it amounts to a shift away from an open Comments section, and to a managed online Letters section.

    To me this is welcome news, in that it finally brings my own personal practices into compliance with Official Magazine Policy. Over the decades of online writing for the magazine—yes, decades, since the debut of what was called Atlantic Unbound back during Bill Clinton’s first term—I’ve quoted reader mail as often and amply as I could manage, but never had open comments on my own articles or posts. (Every couple of years I explained the rationale, for instance here and here.)

    I’ve greatly enjoyed, and continually learned from, the flow of mail from readers around the country and the world. When I went on a several-month book leave for a previous book, back in 2011, some of the writers who graciously appeared as guest bloggers in this space were ones I’d first gotten to know via reader mail.

    The main challenge of moderating this kind of conversation has simply been volume. Since I do this strictly on my own, if I’m the middle of something else—like writing another book, or even writing a long article, or some organizational project that is a diversion from online life for a long period—the mail piles up and I don’t parse through it or share excerpts here. This has been true in spades over the past year, when for writing, organizational, and other reasons I’ve been away from online life for weeks at a time.

    * * *

    So the new reader-mail era begins today, with these two practical implications:

    1. Please feel free to send mail directly to me, through any of the links this site has always made available. But by default I’ll ship most or all of it on to our skillful Letters editors, who can handle it more consistently than I’ve been able to. I may still do opportunistic Reader Mail items as circumstances dictate.
    2. Please note a change in real-name policy. My practice has been to assume that any incoming mail is eligible for quotation, unless stated otherwise—but that I would never use the sender’s real name, unless the sender specifically requests that I do. Our new letters policy emphasizes real-name use. You can see the details in the announcement and in this sample of what we’ve already published.

    As a sayonara offering, and as a sample of the valuable mail that has piled up in the past month when I haven’t been able to quote it, after the jump you’ll see a letter from someone who has thought seriously about different sorts of “talent” and “genius,” and takes issue with my item last month, “How Actual Smart People Talk About Themselves.”

  • Will McNamee / Getty / Zak Bickel / ...

    The (Annotated) State of the Union

    A former White House speechwriter poses the key questions about the speech, and annotates its text.

  • Carlos Barria / Reuters

    Have They No Sense of Decency?

    In the “shithole era,” the Republican U.S. senators who object to the president’s vulgarity have a choice to make.

  • More on Trump, Knowledge, and Self-Knowledge (Starring Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams)

    Jim Bourg / Reuters

    After this piece, on the “open secret” about Donald Trump (and the Congressional Republicans) that Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury revealed; and then this one, on the way people whom the world views as “like, very smart” tend to describe themselves; and then this one, on whether Trump’s history-agnostic “shake things up!” approach might bring rewards, I’ve received scores of interesting messages. For extraneous deadline and editing reasons, I’m not likely to be able to do anything with them until the end of next week, around January 20.

    This is a placeholder note of thanks until then, and an announcement of an intention to choose at that point from them a sampling of ones whose insights have survived the news cycle.

    And for the moment, two brief samples of material that has arrived.

    First a “party girls” hypothesis on why Trump might be going out of his way to say “I’m actually smart”:

    I agree with you in general that geniuses, or people who are skilled in some way, or even people who have certain personality traits, never really need to go around saying they are XYZ.

    However, I do think there might be an exception for when outsiders or "enemies," or what have you, challenge those traits.

    For example, there's a girl who I often tease as a "party girl" even though she insists she doesn't party a lot or isn't wild like some of her friends think she is. She constantly tells me that she is well-behaved and that she is good, when I tease her. My response is always that "good girls or well-behaved girls don't need to tell people that they are well-behaved. People just know." Of course, I am joking with her about being a party girl, but I can see why if someone has an inaccurate perception of you, you might strongly protest.

    So, I suppose if someone is constantly ragging on your intelligence or your curiosity, you might protest. Or challenge people to an IQ showdown. I personally think that's childish, but then again, I don't have people challenging my intelligence left and right. (This is not me saying that I am a genius, just that nobody calls me the opposite.)

    So yea, I guess my bottom line is that if someone is challenged on character trait XYZ, then maybe that someone might feel compelled to defend themselves constantly.

  • 'Let's Roll the Dice. What Could Go Wrong?'

    Mark Makela / Reuters

    It’s less than a week since Michael Wolff said in Fire and Fury that all—“100 percent”—of those who worked with Donald Trump thought  him unfit for duties of the office. Then Trump himself replied, via Twitter, that he was “like, very smart” and “a stable genius.” I reported that actual very smart people I’d interviewed didn’t talk that way. And then (the last part of the set-up) a reader argued that Trump’s lack of interest in facts, experts, precedent, details was itself a form of genius, in that shaking things up might lead to more positive results.

    As for this last claim, a whole lot of people disagree. A sampling:

    Shaking things up brought us Iraq. A reader offered a comparison that many others also stressed:

    Reminds me of the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. Engaged in arguments with friends and colleagues, there were dozens of arguments about how Bush was lying and various alternatives. But  several colleagues said, roughly “the middle east is so fucked up; Bush’s war will shake things up; in the end things will be much better; they can’t be worse.”

    The “shake things up” strategy has big risks.

  • A Defense of Trump as Possessing a Certain Kind of Genius

    Yuri Gripas / Reuters

    Yesterday I noted one unusual aspect of Donald Trump’s  tweeted claims that he was “like, really smart” and a “genius.” Namely, that people whom the world recognizes as being in those categories typically don’t make the claim themselves. You can read the case here.

    A reader in the business world writes in to disagree. It’s an interesting argument—and I’ll explain at the end why I think he’s right in many aspects even as he overlooks a crucial one. Here’s the reader, who after various flattering-to-me intros says:

    I do view you as being overly negative towards Trump because you do miss the following beneficial aspect of him. Try not to immediately recoil from this email as you read it or think of how to rebut each point because taking it in....

    While I agree with you Trump isn't thoughtful and he is clearly volitile/ chaotic (he is also old and likely suffering some decline), he has potential benefits, high-risk benefits.

    I am making an analogy with:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stochastic_optimization#Randomized_search_methods

    Trump is blunt and unpredictable but at least in foreign policy he generally is good at identifying long-standing chronic issues where everyone is stuck in a sub-optimal status quo.  All of the usually rational thoughtful actors can not get out of these chronic issues because there are foreseeable consequences to making changes or at least foreseeable risks.

  • Vassar College Special Collections

    How Actual Smart People Talk About Themselves

    Hint: not by discussing IQ

  • On the 'Open Secret'

    President Trump with a black background
    Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

    Yesterday I argued that Michael Wolff’s revelations about Donald Trump, in his new book Fire and Fury, constituted an “open secret,” in the sense that term had been used after the revelations of sexual aggression by Harvey Weinstein and others.

    That is: an unusually thorough work of investigative reporting, as in the NYT’s Weinstein coverage, or an unusually vivid set of anecdotes and quotes, as with Wolff, managed to focus attention on patterns that “everyone” already knew about, in some general sense, but that no one had bothered to correct.

    Readers write in to respond. First, from a recent veteran of our long wars, who is worried about how a democratic system will cope with the unusual challenge that Trump presents:

    I am a freedom-loving veteran who believes in America and our global leadership and institutions, I'm also a liberal, and I think Donald Trump is a threat to freedom around the world and at home. He endangers our republic and even before this book had proven himself incapable of leading us and needed to be removed from office.

    My defense of Republicans is that the how matters—the ends don't justify the means, because the means will set precedents that are our future norms.

    Trump was elected in accordance with the system laid out in our Constitution—the laws and norms of our republic gave him the presidency. Removing him is a major act. Yes, a plurality voted for his opponent and a majority voted against him. But overturning the effects of an election—and let's not kid ourselves, that is bluntly what impeachment is—will set a new precedent. [JF note: I’ll let the reader continue, but for the record let’s remember the recent history of impeachments. Less than 20 years ago, a Republican-controlled House of Representatives went through this exercise with a Democratic president who had been re-elected with 379 Electoral College votes, versus 304 for Donald Trump. More on the comparison, and the implications, after the reader’s note.]

  • Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

    It's Been an Open Secret All Along

    The scandal of Michael Wolff’s new book isn’t its salacious details—it’s that everyone in Washington has known its key themes, and refused to act.

  • Innovations in Conservation, From the East Coast to the West and in Between

    The Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, in fall
    The Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, in fall Mladen Antonov / AFP / Getty

    This continues our weeklong series on steps that individuals—both the hugely wealthy and those of ordinary means—and communities of any size in every part of the world, can take to protect the environment, at a time when national policy in the United States is headed the other way. The series began with news of a $165 million gift for preservation of coastal land in California, and followed with stories of efforts in Europe, then in several coastal American states; and then in Nebraska.

    Today, we’ll hear accounts from readers on the Pacific Coast, the Eastern Seaboard, in New Mexico, points in Canada, and a range of other locales.

    California. A reader writes:

    We have an excellent land trust based just to the north of us in Trinidad, California, which is a little over 300 miles north of San Francisco. They have saved and are saving some spectacular “oceanfront property” for the benefit of us all.

    It’s called Trinidad Coastal Land Trust.

    Here is the map:

    Trinidad Coastal Land Trust

    * * *

    Virginia:

    I’m writing from Virginia to offer another partnership model to your series on land conservation in the United States.

  • Conservation in Nebraska: 'Our Hope Is For People to Think of This as Not Just Flyover Country'

    Sunset on Watson's Ranch, a few miles north of Scottsbluff, NE Ed Bailey / AP

    In announcing a $165 million gift for preservation of coastal land in California, the tech-industry Dangermond family said that they were trying to set an example for other rich people like themselves. But they also suggested that non-billionaires, through much smaller scale community and neighborhood efforts could cumulatively make a large environmental and livability difference.

    The previous two installments in this conservation series gave illustrations of local, statewide, and regional efforts: first in Europe, and then in several coastal American states: Hawaii, Oregon, and Maine.

    Now a report from Nebraska, on a major prairie-conservation effort underway there. This comes from William Whitney, executive director of the Prairie Plains Resource Institute in Aurora:

    With much interest I read your recent piece in The Atlantic online about the Dangermond Preserve, the follow-up email from Europe, along with your interest in finding more examples of community based conservation work from across the country. I am founder and director of a land trust called Prairie Plains Resource Institute in Aurora, NE.

    From Prairie Plains Resource Institute

    As an isolated independent nonprofit in a town of 4,500 people we have somehow succeeded where simply surviving is difficult enough—since 1980—in community based grassland preservation, ecological restoration and education.

    Prairie Plains Resource Institute owns eight gorgeous prairie natural areas in Nebraska; acquiring two of these properties included significant participation from local communities. For example, our most recent preserve, the 650-acre Sherman Ranch along the Platte River, was purchased with substantial financial support from our under-300 membership; also including major support from six local foundations (unusual for this type of project in a rural agricultural area); from Nebraska Environmental Trust; and a large national conservation organization, Ducks Unlimited.

  • Private-Public Partnership for Conservation: Examples From Oregon, Hawaii, and Maine

    Farm animals graze in the sunrise
    Robert F. Bukaty / AP Crystal Springs Farm in Brunswick, Maine

    Yesterday I mentioned a land-conservation scheme in Europe that a Swiss farmer was helping publicize. This followed news of a major donation of coastal land in California to The Nature Conservancy, for permanent preservation.

    Jack Dangermond, who with his wife, Laura, has donated $165 million to make the California purchase possible, said that he wanted to set an example of increased public-private partnership for conservation at all levels, from the grand donation to the small-scale civic project. Here’s a brief report from Oregon about an effort already underway:

    I live at a place called Kailash Ecovillage in Portland, Oregon. We are an all-rental co-housing community in the middle of the city and we have about an acre of farming here. You can read about us at http://www.kailashecovillage.org.

    And a report from Hawaii:

    Great private/public partnerships in preservation taking place all over. Here is an example from the County of Hawai‘i:

    County of Hawai‘i

    Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission (PONC)

    This Commission develops two prioritized lists of lands for potential acquisition funding from the Public Access, Open Space, and Natural Resources Preservation Fund. It ranks potential county acquisitions and possible partnerships with the State or nonprofit organizations.

    PONC Fund (aka Open Space or 2 percent Fund) 2 percent of Hawai‘i County real property tax revenues collected annually; fund to be used for acquiring lands or property entitlements in the County of Hawai‘i for the following purposes:

    • Public outdoor recreation and education, including access to beaches and mountains.
    • Preservation of historic or culturally important land areas and sites. Protection of natural resources, including buffer zones;
    • Preservation of forests, beaches, coastal areas, natural beauty and agricultural lands; and
    • Protection of watershed lands to preserve water quality and water supply.
  • Can Non-Billionaires Make a Difference in Conservation? An Example From Europe

    From a video about community-supported agriculture in Germany. Thomas Rippel, on YouTube

    Late last week, I mentioned a historically large conservation gift, worth $165 million and coming from one of America’s successful tech-industry families, that will preserve more than 24,000 acres of historically significant, aesthetically beautiful, and ecologically important coastland around Point Conception, California.

    Part of the idea behind this gift, from Jack and Laura Dangermond of the Esri corporation in Redlands, California, was to set an example. The example was aimed both at other rich people like themselves, to encourage them to devote more of philanthropy to natural conservation, and at non-rich people, to encourage smaller-scale efforts at the neighborhood level. As I said near the end of that piece:

    Will individuals and families make the connection between this large act of philanthropy and the smaller-scale opportunities immediately around them? It’s a lot to expect.

    Thomas Rippel, an Atlantic reader who is an organic farmer in Switzerland, wrote in to say that his colleagues had already begun applying a version of this approach. His report:

    I write to you in light of your last article. I have recently started working for a cooperative (Kulturland Genossenschaft—German-language site here) that purchases agricultural land in order to permanently secure it for organic cultivation, leasing it out for a very low fee to, of course, organic, but beyond that socially engaged farms.

  • The Nature Conservancy

    A Historic Gift of Pristine Land to Inspire Tech's Elite

    A new preserve in California will save 24,000 acres of land from development.