Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Book Review: James and Deborah Fallows' Our Towns (2018)

James Fallows' style is as close to the great James Michener as you can get. Unfortunately, he and his wife seem to have caught the "positivity vibe" at the expense of journalistic integrity. It's not that the couple lie--the Fallows are too sincere, too professional--but their blind spots function as a kind of concealment. 
May 15, 2018 in Palo Alto, CA

For example, Deborah Fallows discusses a Darfur refugee's "apparel" problem: "A big disappointment... was not being allowed to wear her hijab along with her ROTC uniform to school... she would have to choose." Mrs. Fallows then writes, sugary-sweetly, "It was beyond me, from my adult perspective, that this girl's preoccupying problem at sixteen years old was her apparel conflict." [Emphasis mine.] No mention of religious freedom exists anywhere on the page, nor a discussion about why the American government was forcing a Muslim refugee to choose between her religious beliefs and service to her country.

A more serious book would have directed the reader to the fact that military outfits despise exceptions to rules--uniformity is key to controlling actions and ensuring order. Instead, Deb Fallows uses the refugee's story as incontrovertible evidence America is working well. When she discussed the "apparel" issue during a recent interview, her husband, a devoted man whose love renders him incapable of correcting his wife's blind spots, saw the problem and immediately tried to save her by mentioning the local ROTC's request for a rule modification, which was eventually granted. 

Throughout the book, I sensed Mr. Fallows gently trying to mitigate Mrs. Fallows' unbridled optimism in a uniquely WASPy way. Discussing Sioux Falls, South Dakota's current economy, Mr. Fallows describes the city's choice of institutions a long time ago: "Would it prefer to be the home of the state university? Or the state penitentiary? ... the penitentiary offered steadier work for locals, so that is what they took." Readers knowledgable about America's worldwide #1 incarceration rate--a massive, unresolved issue that sheds light on untrammeled police discretion in making arrests--can understand the background in context. My concern is many readers might be unfamiliar with Mr. Fallows' genial, non-confrontational style--he was President Carter's speechwriter, after all--and miss the understated intellectualism behind his words. 
The Fallows are best when they stick to hard facts, such as their time operating a small aircraft; their research into ingenious ideas to melt snow (divert hot water from the cooling system of the local electric plant through plastic pipes under city streets and sidewalks); or historical color ("The Democratic-dominated city council tried to thwart every appointment, proposal, and piece of legislation [Bernie] Sanders put forward [after he won as an independent candidate by 10 votes]"). As it stands, if you read the Fallows' hefty book, just be aware of its selection bias. If you visit a city that knows you're coming and that has actively advertised itself to you, you'll get some version of a sanitized tour. (In one place, as soon as the Fallows land, they are greeted by "Captain Bob Peacock, one of many outsized personalities in the town.") 

For her part, Ms. Fallows says in an interview, "If you want to know what's wrong or what's needed [in a city], ask the librarian." Yet, one imagines visiting any country's libraries would result in optimism, even in North Korea. Perhaps that's the point the Fallows are trying to make: in any country, despite its overall decline, you will find pockets of hope and optimism, and your job is to find those places. 
I'll leave you with one of my favorite sentences, as an American immigrant hoping to live outside the United States one day: "Every city that is trendy or successful in some way attracts people from someplace else," which reveals America's economic engine as based on internal and external immigration. 

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