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In The Atlantic

For twenty years at least, James Fallows's writing has been the best thing about The Atlantic (except, perhaps, during his year or so as editor of US News and World Report). An affable but rigorous humanist, the former Crimson editor, Nader's Raider, and speechwriter for Jimmy Carter unfailingly makes whatever happens to interest him at the moment a matter of genuine general interest. (The Wikipedia entry devoted to him recalls, as I'm sure everyone who read it does, his praise of Lotus's Agenda  in 1992.) When I tuned in, in the mid-Eighties, Mr Fallows was in Japan. Now he and his wife - this time without their now-grown sons - live in Shanghai. I expect Mr Fallows's dispatches from China to be among the most important sources of news and reflection on Zhongguo for as long as he produces them.

The first in the series, "Postcards from Tomorrow Square," appears in the current issue of The Atlantic. You might say that there are six postcards in all: four "cautions" and two "mysteries." The cautions are directed to the Japanese, loathed more than ever by young Chinese, and apparently incapable of adjusting official behavior in a more positive manner (ie by refusing to visit the Yasukuni Shrine); to Olympic athletes (the air pollution in Beijing, even after projected cleanups, may be lethal to more than a few strenuous exercisers); to Americans, who ought to be doing more to take advantage of what Mr Fallows finds to be a natural inclination among the Chinese in our favor, or at least in favor of the way we do things; and finally, to "Everyone." This last boils down to a suggestion that China's boom may be doomed by a combination of endemic corruption and a general failure to trust strangers. The mysteries are "How Skilled Is the Leadership?" and "What Is the Chinese Dream?" These are matters about which Mr Fallows intends to learn a lot more, and we are all going to be the better for his investigations.

In the same issue, a list of "The 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time." The more I read of Rex Douthat's accompanying essay, in which he discusses methodology and the names that didn't make the cut, the more preposterous the entire undertaking seemed. Any list that identifies Bill Gates as influential, even in fifty-fourth place, is deeply suspect; Mr Gates may have benefited from gross miscalculation on the part of IBM, when it entered into its DOS contract with Microsoft, but it would be hard to say in what way Mr Gates has been personally "influential." He's just a good businessman (and not really a great one). To avoid such missteps, I would restrict the competition to Americans who have been dead for at least fifty years. Panelist Walter McDougall's assertion that "By definition, it would seem [that] the ultimate measure of influence is simply what sells" is gross beyond belief: consider the influence of Mabel Mercer upon Frank Sinatra and his entire generation of singers. (Neither makes the list.) In the end though, it's a start, this list. Interestingly, each of the ten panelists was allowed to work with his or her own idea of the meaning of "influence."


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