Thursday, September 3, 2015

The United States of Europe Is Obviously Premature

September 5, 2015
Laina Farhat-Holzman

Europe is a geographic designation: the westernmost peninsula of the Eurasian continental landmass. For the past 7000 years, it has also been the home of a restless mass of human beings, always on the move, settling and moving on, replacing former residents and coming up with one invention after another, the most important of which, from today's discussion, came from ancient Greece: participatory government (Athens); Rome: written and progressively enlarging law; and England: that kings are not all-powerful (Magna Carta); and all of them: the religious, scientific, industrial, and political revolutions.

Restless, creative Europe (and its child, America) have given the world modern civilization: the good things being nation-states governed by their own people under rule of law; majority populations (middle class) wealthy and healthy beyond imagining; cities clean and vibrant with culture and convenience; and citizens living in safety and civility as in no cities before now. Europe's Scientific Revolution did much of this.

Now for the bad things. Europe's restlessness has also given the world endless warfare since the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 4th Century, culminating in two of the most frightening wars, the second of which, World War II, drew in the entire world and a third (the Cold War) almost destroyed the planet. The bad things frightened Europe's elites so much that they determined to do something radical: follow the example of the United States of America and create a United States of Europe, one in which war would be impossible.

The American example is not easy to replicate, however. Even with extraordinary founders, we had a common language and dominant religion, the good luck of geography, endless natural resources, non-threatening neighbors, and time to grow, we still had a horrific civil war over the divisive issue of slavery and still have some political alienation dogging our unity. We are only fully united when at war or during crisis. We still have to remind ourselves that we are one nation.

But Europe was very delusional to imagine that it could be a United States of Europe! There is no common language and nationalism is not dead. Watch World Cup games to see how fast national identity resurges!

Talk to the ordinary Europeans to learn how they detest rules issues from Brussels. Talk to Northern Europeans to learn how they hate the leisure life style in Southern Europe they are taxed for.  These are taxes without representation. Europe really is not one entity---until it is under attack.

And we forget that there are four Europes: Western, Southern, Northern, and Eastern.

But there is nothing like real threats to unite people who are quarreling or have been asleep. The US umbrella let them live the good life for 70 years, but now comes the storm. The Russian wolf is not dead! The New Russia is eating at Eastern Europe and extorting the rest of Europe with threats of cutting off their gas in winter. Russia is prowling the once pacified Scandinavia and even the Swedes are alarmed. They had better be united and revive their defense budgets and industries. NATO is needed and the US will help those who help themselves.

The flood of Muslim refugees, once regarded as cheap labor or welfare fodder are now seen as security threats, militant fifth columns in their midst, creating adolescent jihadis. They are no longer seen as easily assimilated. They are a huge and growing problem. Europe depends more and more on INTERPOL for protection.

The United States of Europe, the EU, was premature in concept. Their really is no single governing body in Brussels is acceptable to all Europeans. However, there is no reason why there should not be many agencies throughout the sovereign European states that can work together. NATO is one of them. The banking organizations established by the Dumbarton Oaks conference at the end of World War II (World Bank, IMF, etc) still work well. The point is that there is a modern Europe and it is is under attack. Their enemies are identifiable and they are our enemies too.

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, by George Friedman, Doubleday, 2015.

Book Review by:
Laina Farhat-Holzman

I read George Friedman's intelligence reports almost every day, and reviewed one of his books: The Next Hundred Years, several years ago. Friedman is chairman and founder of Stratfor (Strategic Forecasts), a leading private intelligence company. I think he, and several of his collages (including Robert D. Kaplan) are the best analysts of international geopolitics. Few other analysts regard geography as a major player in world affairs, an oversight that makes so many get it wrong.

For the past few years, his reports have focused on the world's borderlands, those faultlines where countries or ethnicities meet with latent hostility. His latest book, Flashpoints, explores Europe's past and present (and potential future) with an eye to the borderlands which can become flashpoints for conflict.

The only other scholar mentioning this issue was Samuel P. Huntington, with his much discussed Clash of Civilizations. Huntington noted that ever border shared with Muslim countries is, and has always been bloody. This observation has proven itself many times over in the past decades.

Europe has given much to the world in the past 500 years: the scientific revolution, religious reformations, political liberalism with participatory governance, and nationalism: the creation of nation states ideally governed by their own people in democracy. The modern world with its peaceful civil life, rule of law, and amenities available for all that were once the exclusive luxury of the ruling elites. We are only talking about Western Europe here, along with its British offspring, the United States.

But there is another side to Europe: a region of catastrophic conflicts along its many geographic and political flashpoints. The  “Enlightenment” on the 18th century has been much admired by the educated among us because it largely discarded religion as a governing institution, replacing it with “reason.” Friedman explores the underbelly of the Enlightenment, in which some of its prized institutions gave rise to unanticipated and ugly consequences.

Nationalism can be a benign institution when it only means that a country's people love their country and its culture. However, when love of country morphs into hatred of other countries, nationalism becomes an excuse for violence. Europe's two world wars exemplify this.

Reason, replacing religion, can morph into ideologies that demand as much fanaticism as that of the true believers of religion. Furthermore, the decline of religion in Europe has left the young with a nihilism that discards both national identity and cultural identity; it becomes an “anything goes” culture that is ill equipped to defend itself against such fanatical ideologies as neo-Nazism and Militant Islam.

With this book, Friedman provides us with the definitive analysis of today's Europe, exploring Europe's geography, political life, and history. The geography alone dictates regional and country borders. His important contribution is the interaction of geography, history, and politics.

In his preface, he reminds us that
     “Between 1914 and 1945 roughly 100 million Europeans died from political causes: war, genocide, purges, planned starvation, and all the rest. It was particularly striking in Europe, which had, over the course of the previous four hundred years, collectively conquered most of the world   and reshaped the way humanity thought of itself.”

How could this happen in a place that in 1913 represented the highest level of civilization, rich in culture, with a population similarly educated, with rulers related by blood (offspring of Queen Victoria) and institutions such as the military trained with the same standards and values?

Friedman shows that Europe's descent into hell in the 31 years between 1914 and 1945 was not a fluke. It was the natural outcome of the emergence of the negative sides of all the institutions it most valued---and the fact that geography matters.

Europe's unification is based on ideology and optimism, neither of these enough to overcome the geographic, cultural, and behavioral patterns of European history. Friedman explores the issues, and this book makes for fascinating reading.

Laina At the Movies

By Laina Farhat-Holzman
August 2015

Mission Impossible

It is impossible to believe that Tom Cruise is as old as he is yet looks as young  as he does! My goodness, in this action film, he goes through so many narrow scrapes with death, gets beatings from goons who loom over him by at least a foot, barely gets his body turned into road kill in motorcycle chases, and survives a car chase in Morocco (of all places), careening in a car down Kasbah stairs mysteriously empty of goats, chickens, and people (must be siesta time) and even with his car flipping over many times, emerges with hair and teeth intact. Wow.

This has to be the best of the Mission Impossible series, a two-hour-plus romp through Washington, London, Paris, and somewhere in Morocco. His special agency has been dumped by the CIA and is now an outlaw, pursued by both the Cartel (bad guys), the CIA itself, and an ambiguous and beautiful British agent who helps Cruise---and yet appears to be working for the Cartel. What is she up to?

Like all such spy capers, this is a vicarious travel movie filled with dangers and fantasies for audiences that I would hope would not do such things! But what fun.

Man From U.N.C.L.E

How many of you remember the old 1960s  Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV program with Robert Vaughn playing Napoleon Solo and David McCallum (who today plays “Ducky” on NCIS) playing Illya Kuryakin? The two men were secret agents who, even though from opposite sides of the then Cold War, were working together to fight enemies of both under an ambiguous agency called United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (UNCLE). Nice idea, but quite impossible for such paranoid times. But it struck a chord with many who wished there could be such cooperation.

The current movie gives us two new actors playing Solo and Kuryakin: Henry Cavill as Solo and Armie Hammer as Kuryakin. Both are splendid specimens of male muscle and Cavill is as much of an Esquire man as James Bond. Hugh Grant plays a British senior agent who compels the two to work together. One other agent comes their way: Alicia Vikander (she of Ex Machina), Gaby. Is she an enemy or an agent of one other country? She is an Austrian, daughter of a missing (defected) nuclear physicist who may have gone rogue.

The three are pitted against a neo-Nazi group developing Nukes for sale to rogues (the film is set in the 1960s). Those Nazis never give up.

What is interesting about these three agents is that not a single one of them is devoted to his or her own country. Napoleon Solo was a jewel thief so adept in breaking in to any place that the CIA recruited him from prison. It was a deal he was not free to refuse.

Illya Kuryakin, the Russian, was not a happy agent either. His father had been executed for treason and his Soviet bosses held it over him. (I think he ran away with this film! Hunky!)

And Gaby, the Austrian beauty, was as competent as either of the men---sometimes even besting them---but it was difficult to determine whose side she was on. Her loyalties were ambiguous. And, of course, it is always difficult to determine whose side the British were on! Hugh Grant's Waverly is charmingly coldhearted.

This is a bit different from the usual spy thrillers in which at least our side has agents of unquestioned loyalty. But then again, this is a summer spy movie: lots of action, a bit of potential romance (Kuryakin is protective of Gaby), and enough chases and excitement through overseas locales to keep a summer audience happy.

I cannot imagine why the critics carped so much.  I thought the film was fun.

Jimmy's Hall

This Anglo-Irish gem of a movie presents the two side of the Irish soul: the joyful, joking nature of Irish good humor and the terribly destructive side that has plagued Ireland since the 16th century. These otherwise joyous people live in a dark place---a self-destructive culture of civil discord.

Jimmy Gralton (played by Barry Ward), returns to Ireland in 1933, after 10 years of enforced exile. Ireland had just come out of their deadly Civil War, a war of liberation from British control. A new government is in power, and people hope for a return to a peaceful life.

The antagonists in this movie (and in Ireland) were the Catholic Church, one of the more conservative branches of that religion in the Europe of the day, the land owners with their historic power, and the Revolutionary Workers' Group, with which Jimmy had been connected before his exile.

In 1933, any sort of progressive or liberal movement was tainted by the fear of Communism, which was unfortunate but not without cause. Stalin's Soviet Union was actively sowing seeds of revolution and infiltrating movements that might otherwise be relatively benign.

Jimmy's return to his village to help his aging mother farm their land is greeted with a deluge of young people, eager to have him reopen the community center that he ran 10 years before. It was a hall that would house young people dancing, classes during the daytime (literature and handicrafts) and a place for people to just meet and have discussions.

To the local priest and the landowners, this reopening smacked of everything that they feared: discussion groups that could hamper their control (such as the practice of evicting poor tenant farmers). The priest feared the corruption of Irish culture (traditional) with the introduction of the dancing and new music, jazz recordings from New York, representing to the priest the passions of “darkest Africa.”

The movie juxtaposes the joyousness of the center with the anger and fear of the powers that be. Unfortunately, the Communist threat hung over more than just Ireland in that day. This sort of reaction from the establishment was not exclusive to Ireland. We had our own Red Scare during the 1920s.

The dancing in the film is marvelous. All the Irish actors look like real people, real Irish people, not actors. The community center is presented as a breath of fresh air, an innocent place, not the den of iniquity as seen by the landowners and Church.  But once more, Jimmy (a real person, by the way), will face exile. It is very difficult for an American audience to see what sin he committed to become so demonized by the powers that be. But it did happen.

Lovely film! Worth your time to see it.

No Escape

This was, unfortunately, just another Summer movie, although it could have been better. The story follows an American family, husband (Owen Wilson), wife, and two young daughters, arriving in an (unnamed) South Asian country that we learn later borders on Vietnam.  The husband has a new job with a large water treatment company. On the plane, they meet a British man (played by Pierce Brosnan, who seems to know his way around. As they are staying in the same hotel, Brosnan offers them a ride.

On the first night they are there, Wilson goes out to buy a newspaper and finds himself in the midst of what looks like a coup d'etat. The rebel mob is looking for Americans to kill.

A scenario like this is not that far fetched! We are indeed living in dangerous times and running into crazed mobs (or killers with agendas) is not that rare any more. One need only recall Mumbai a couple of years ago and the Arab Spring countries which turned ugly quickly.

So---the rest of the film is about the family trying to escape the slaughter----and the country, and the Brosnan character turning up every so often to lend aid.

Two things in this film particularly annoyed me. The first was trying to make Owen Wilson seem like a competent action figure (he looked rightly frightened through much of the film) and a bit of left-wing nonsense spouted by Brosnan that the writers seemed to think necessary.

In the face of rabble killers slaughtering people, raping, and even resorting to torture (trying to force a little girl to shoot her own father), Brosnan offers an explanation.  These are people who have been exploited by your government and mine, he says, indicating that projects such as the water purification company are just trying to get the host country in debt so that western colonizers can take over.

Talk about ingratitude!  We travel the world with projects to help Third World countries have better lives----and someone thinks this is exploitation? Rotten movie, rotten ideas! Save your money.

After seeing the wretched No Escape, I had hopes of seeing a good art movie: Phoenix, a German film with a promising premise. This film follows a German Jewish woman in 1946, Nellie Lenz, a survivor from a concentration camp. She is recovering from extensive plastic surgery to repair her disfigured face after having survived being shot. Her caregiver is another survivor, Lene, who is intent on convincing Nellie to leave Germany and start a new life in Israel.

Nellie, a former cabaret singer, is focused on finding her German husband, the love of her life, and resuming their life together. Her husband, “Johnny,” was her pianist partner in the cabaret. As she recovers (still with black eyes from the surgery), she haunts Berlin looking for her husband, whom she finds working in a sleazy cabaret in the American sector of the city.

The story is supposed to be about “identity.” Nellie has a new face. Will anybody recognize her? Will her husband know her?

She tracks him down and he does not know her, despite all sorts of clues. He realizes that this woman sort of resembles his dead wife and he knows that she would be entitled to an inheritance and (we guess) recompense from the German government. He proposes that she stay with him and he will train her to impersonate Nellie; they will then collect the money and split it.

My trouble with this movie was disbelief.  I could not believe that Nellie could be so stupid that despite evidence provided by Lene that Johnny betrayed her to the Gestapo to save his own hide, she could make excuses for this and still love him.

I also could not believe that Johnny could be so obtuse that he did not see that this was his wife! As the movie unfolds, the holes in the story get more difficult to ignore.

What should have been a gratifying revenge story was instead a half-baked exploration of “identity.” I didn't buy any of it.

Are Arabs Losing Interest in the Palestinians?

August 29, 2015
Laina Farhat-Holzman

Amir Taheri, an Iranian journalist whom I once knew as editor of the English language Tehran Journal in 1978 (while the Shah was still there) has lived in exile since the Islamic Revolution and is a hot potato. He often plays loose with facts, writing things that conservatives love to hear, sometimes without substantiation.

His latest column, however, however, makes a certain amount of sense. The Arab world is in such disarray that the Palestinian issue pales in comparison.

It is a fact that most of the foreign press in Israel has moved to Beirut and Istanbul to cover the sectarian wars in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. That's where the action is today.

One Arab columnist, Walid Abimerchid, notes that there is a growing fatigue with the whole Palestinian issue. He says the so-called peace process has run into sand. Even international peace-broker Tony Blair has resigned amid general indifference and French President Francois Hollande has reconsidered restarting an initiative in which no one has interest.

Hamas has split into three factions, and ISIS killers loom over the Sinai Peninsula in neighboring Egypt. Arabs feel safe nowhere today, certainly not in their own countries. But, ironically, Palestinians in the West Bank can feel safe because they know the Israelis will protect them!

Even in Gaza, says Taheri, most people secretly believe that Israel is their ultimate protection against ISIS fighters trying to strike roots in the Sinai.  He certainly has a point.

Think about it:  Look at what happened to Palestinian refugees living in the Yarmouk refuge camp in Syria: they were massacred by both Bashar Assad's troops and ISIS. Note how Christians, Yazidis, and Druze minorities are treated by Islamists in Syria and Iraq and how they are treated in Israel.

Jordan is bracing for an attack by ISIS in Zarqa, a Palestinian-majority city near Syria. This would bring ISIS close to the West Bank and Israel proper, in which case, some Jordanians believe that the Jewish state would stop its spread. They would probably have to do so.

One Lebanese commentator and TV personality, Eyad Abuchaqra, calls dwindling interest in the Palestinians “Palestinitis.” Arabs have much larger problems. Arabs are much more worried about Iran than they are about Israel, and the Palestinian problem that has served as a unifying issue for so long no longer cuts it.

Only the Iranian government is trying desperately to keep it alive. They keep flogging the Israeli and Palestinian issue in an attempt, unconvincingly, to persuade Arabs that they (Iran) are on the side of the Arab world.

The recent Iranian “Jerusalem Day” celebration, a big TV extravaganza in which once more they promised to “liberate Palestine” and wipe Israel off the map, created little interest and a big yawn in the Arab world. It even creates a big yawn in Iran among the majority of people as well, as do many of the state propaganda pieces. All one has to do is see how many American flags appeared on cell phones when the announcement was made that the nuclear deal was reached.

Iranians are so eager to join the world community that it is palpable! They are tired of their revolution; tired of being a pariah state; and certainly have a big case of Palestinitis too. Why should they not?

Iran has very little reason to hate Israel. This is an artificial hatred. They share no borders, had a long history of amity and cooperation, and Jews themselves lived for 2500 years in three Persian Empires. The Islamic Republic of Iran is indeed an enemy of Israel, but it is also not much of a friend of the Iranian people over whom it rules with an unpleasantly iron hand.

One rather shocking bit of news is that there has been an ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Iraq, carried out by Shiite militias since 2003. The number of  Palestinians there has dropped from 25,000 to 6,000 according to researcher Khaled Abu Toameh (August 10, 2015). Not a word from the UN or the Palestinian Authority, both more interested in Israeli “crimes.”

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or    


August 22, 2015
Laina Farhat-Holzman

Tevye, the father living in revolutionary times of rapid change, struggled with what to do about traditions in the much loved musical, Fiddler on the Roof. This Russian-Jewish story, later a Broadway play and then a movie, played to audiences of many other cultures around the world who understood the issues very well. The 20th century was beset with traditions biting the dust. Children were in rebellion everywhere and parents did not know what to do about it.

My own view of “tradition” is sourly expressed in my web site: “Tradition? The only good traditions are food traditions. The rest are repressive.” Indeed, history will bear me out. Most traditions around the world have to do with what woman may not do---or what must be done to them to keep them “under control.”

In an attempt to be unbiased, 20th century anthropologists have reversed what seemed to be cultural jingoism of their predecessors in criticizing the practices of the world's non-western societies. Western explorers and colonial conquerors were horrified by some of the practices they found: bound feet in China, the harems in the Muslim world, widows compelled to sacrifice themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres in India, forced child marriages everywhere, and widespread child slavery.

Fashions in scholarship change. By mid-20th century, Anthropology had swung the other way and tried to find reasons for native practices rather than judging them through our own biases. Political fashions entered too, and the new fog of political correctness blew in with Edward Said, who managed to bully a generation of Islamic scholars into fear of saying anything negative about Muslim culture.

The world has recently had an opportunity to see what kind of “traditions” the culture of Islam has resurrected from the past. Even Edward Said, were he still alive, could not paint them in rosy colors. Islamists resolutely target women, who, to avoid beating or worse, must be invisible, covered from head to toe in black, and hidden from the public arena. When monsters such as ISIS take territory, they resurrect such “traditions” as female slave markets, religiously-sanctified rape of girls as young as nine (citing the “tradition” of the Hadith), and decapitation by the sword and amputation of limbs for theft. Tradition!

And then there is African tradition. One infamous Africa scholar claimed that democracy should not be their model. The “great chief” model was a fine “tradition” that had always worked in Africa. How well it worked has been seen in a parade of villainous, thieving, dictatorships-for-life. Another scholar I heard at a conference lamented the demise of traditional village languages and scorned the popularity of English and French as languages of the colonialists. I asked him how tradition languages would allow people to talk to each other?  He had no answer.

President Obama took on the “tradition” issue in his July visit to Kenya and Ethiopia, which set everybody back on their heels! He bluntly told his hosts (I am paraphrasing) that just because certain practices have been done for centuries does not make them right! It is not right, he said, to abuse half your population just because they are female. It is not right to marry off underage girls, to deprive them of education and afflict them with genital mutilation.  This does nothing but keep your country from its full potential. It is not right to persecute people because of whom they love. (This is a very hot-button issue in Africa. Homosexuality can bring death sentences in many places, and at a minimum, is illegal everywhere. It was very bold of President Obama to even mention it in public.)

He went on to discuss another most pervasive issue. “Corruption is an old tradition, but it does not have to be permanent. I come from Chicago, which also had a tradition of corruption. It can be challenged and changed. You can change it too.” He also discussed democratic elections, and the reluctance of some leaders to step down from power. Presidents for life, he noted, are not compatible with democracy.”

Bravo, Mr. President!

Tradition?  Bah, humbug!

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or

Monday, August 17, 2015

Let's Take a Long View of the Iran Deal.

July 25, 2015
Laina Farhat-Holzman

The exhausted negotiators had been at it for 20 months, the last many hours of which were nearly non-stop, with the possibility that this important deal might collapse. The United States, Iran, five members of the UN Security Council, and the EU had labored over this negotiation to convince Iran that it was in its best interest to reduce its nuclear program's potential of developing nuclear weapons. Iran had long (and unconvincingly) claimed its nuclear interests were peaceful only, but the world knew otherwise.

What made this deal ultimately possible was a confluence of factors:

     o     Extraordinary diplomatic skills of US Ambassador John Kerry and Iran's tightrope-walking Mohammad Zarif, both under great pressure from their respective homelands.

     o     The carrot and stick of smothering sanctions in Iran that, despite their denials, compelled them to the negotiating table. They were hurting badly.

     o     The usual spoilers on the negotiating team, Russia and China, really did not want a nuclear Iran on their borders either, and China wants good relations with the US.

     o     China and the Europeans would all like Iran to stop being a pariah state and reenter the world business community where they belong. This deal would begin this process.

     o     President Obama's longstanding political philosophy stated when he took office is that you talk to your enemies! Negotiating can open doors inconceivable when you were shunning them. His policies have since opened Burma (Myanmar) with growing improvement, Cuba (about time!), and Iran---which, I believe, will have the same results that opening China had. The Revolutionary Guard in Iran are already afraid of that.

Now, let us look at negotiation-making. It is like sausage making. It must be done behind closed doors until it is done. It was disgusting to see, on the day that the negotiation signing was announced, that all sorts of political figures who had not seen the document at all were asked by the press to weigh in with their uninformed opinions! Their opinions are political, not technical, nor informed. This is bad journalism and totally ignores the historic long view. What are their various objections and their alternatives?

     o     Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu considers the deal a disaster. He also considered the interim deal a disaster, yet it was not. His preferred deal would be no nuclear program in Iran at all, which the Iranians would never accept. The alternative would be open warfare with Iran, which the world will not accept.

     o     The Republican candidates for President (and leading Republicans) all condemned the deal before reading it. Reading it might be nice. The issue appears to be that President Obama would get credit for a peace initiative they did not want him to have. Their alternative would be to make war on Iran, something the American public most certainly does not want. A unilateral sanctions system would be terrible.

     o     The Iranian public is jubilant about this agreement. They are heartbreakingly eager to rejoin the world community. The Islamic hardliners are gnashing their teeth, fearing this very thing. There will be trouble over this.

     o     President Obama has made the point that by taking the nuclear issue off the table, we can really focus on Iran's current bad behavior in a range of other areas: the Americans they are holding in their prisons, their support for terrorists, their support for Assad in Syria, and more. But there are also areas in which we can have common interests: ISIS is one of them, as Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan.

     The agreement stretches over a decade and longer. As a historian, I find it very difficult to imagine Iran still being an Islamic Republic then. This is 2500-year-old Persia we are talking about! Islam is an unnatural fit for them, and the aging Ayatollahs and the Iraian youth loathe the Republican Guard.

When we look at the Middle East in a decade or more in the future, it is going to be a very different place than it is today. In my next column, I want to look at Turkey, the Arab world, and the re-emergence of modern Persian Iran.

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a writer, Historian, and Lecturer. She is author of
God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or
Civilization As Seen By Dr. Perumpanani
Benjamin L. Landis

In the Spring 2013 issue of the Comparative Civilizations Review Dr. Abbey Perumpanani proposed a definition of the term and concept of civilization “…as an inclusive scientific definition that can bring about a convergence in the widely differing historical views on civilization”.  He proposed the following definition:  “A civilization is a dynamical system that supports endogenous cultural development through economic activity aggregated across elements of its data.”

Dr. Perumpanani’s definition contains, unfortunately, four fatal flaws.

The first to consider is his use of the term “dynamical”.  It is apparent that he uses this term to differentiate civilizations from pre-civilizations.  How does Dr. Perumpanani define “dynamic”? He does not give us his definition.  The truth is that pre-civilized societies were often dynamic.  We need only consider the evolution of the human species.  It exudes dynamism.  The domestication of cattle, goats, pigs, and sheep about 10,000-13,000 B.C.  The creation and development of agriculture as the way of life for the majority of humankind about 11,000-9,000 B.C.  These acts of human ingenuity enabled humankind to continue to progress.  The horse was domesticated around 4,000 B.C.  The spear was invented.  As well as the bow and arrow.  The plow.  The hoe.  Crop irrigation.  The development of new societal organizations as a result of the sedentary life imposed by agriculture.  The development of new structures for living space, for storage space, for controlling and guarding livestock.  The wheel was invented about 6500-4500 B.C. and the wheeled vehicle about 4500-3300 B.C.

Dynamism may be in the eye of the beholder.  It is difficult to measure with regard to human activity, although it is relatively simple to quantify and measure in the physical sciences.  Dr. Perumpanani cannot reasonably use it to separate pre-civilization humankind from civilization humankind unless he can devise means to define, categorize, and measure levels of human dynamism.

Dr. Perumpanani’s use of the term “dynamical” to describe an essential element of civilization fails another test also.  As demonstrated by Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, civilizations have a life-cycle from genesis through growth or development to disintegration and termination.  When a civilization ceases to develop, it passes into a static condition.  In other words, its dynamism descends to zero.  The most striking example of this phenomenon is the history of Egyptian Civilization.  It ceased growing at about the end of the Old Kingdom circa 2300 B.C., but continued as a living fossil until it was conquered by Islamic armies representing the Syriac Civilization in 642 A.D.  For almost 3,000 years the Egyptian Civilization was dynamically nil, preserving and repeating what its creators had developed up until about 2300 B.C.  Unless one considers war, territorial conquest, and social rift as a sign of dynamism.  If not, what does one call a non-dynamic civilization? Per Dr. Perumpanani, without dynamism it can no longer be called a civilization.  He needs to clarify this issue, if he expects his definition to be taken seriously.  The Egyptian Civilization is only the most striking example.  The same phenomenon occurred in all extinct civilizations, with the exceptions of the Andean (Inca) Civilization and the Mexic (Aztec) Civilization which were prematurely ended by Spanish conquistadores.  (It is regrettable that Dr. Perumpanani apparently has not read the work of Dr. Arnold J. Toynbee, which he describes as having a “somewhat indecent corpulence.”  Just because Toynbee’s “A Study of History” takes up eleven volumes (plus a gazetteer and glossary) does not mean that it is indecently overweight. A gigantic subject, i.e., human history, cannot be adequately portrayed, studied, and analyzed in a couple of volumes.  I feel that Dr. Perumpanani was simply not up to the task of reading “A Study Of History”.  If he had, he certainly would have a far greater understanding of the phenomenon of civilization than what he may have gleaned from his mathematics and medical texts.)

The second fatal flaw is the use of the adjective “endogenous” to qualify “cultural development” in his definition.  “Endogenous” means “proceeding from within; derived internally”.  This is an inaccurate description of the cultural development of civilizations.  Except probably, but not definitively, for the primary civilizations, i.e., those deriving directly from primitive societies (Egyptiac, Andean, Mayan, Sumeric, Indus Culture, Minoan, Shang Culture) (I use A.J. Toynbee’s terminology), all subsequent civilizations developed culturally with imports from preceding civilizations, from primitive societies, or from contemporaneous civilizations.  As an example, let us look at our Western Civilization.  Our culture is primarily derived from Greek, Roman, and Christian inputs.  Our culture was not created in a vacuum.  It was not created in isolation.  To state that our culture was endogenously developed is so inaccurate as to border on a falsehood.  Once again, it demonstrates Dr. Perumpanani’s deep misunderstanding of the phenomenon of civilization.
Another striking and contemporary example of the porosity of civilizational cultural development is what is occurring in the world today and since about the end of the Second World War.  Our Western Civilization is westernizing the other still living civilizations (Russian Orthodox, Islamic, Hindu, Far Eastern).  They are slowly adopting, more or less willingly, the features of our civilization: Democracy, Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, our Music, our Literature, our Sports, etc.  Eventually, but not in this century, as Dr. Targowski predicts, the world will be westernized, but at the same time, aspects of these other civilizations will seep into Western culture. Since the first civilizations there has not been endogenous cultural development in any civilization.
The third fatal flaw in Dr. Perumpanani’s definition occurs by correlating cultural development with economic activity, i.e., …”cultural development through economic activity…”  History has demonstrated that there is not a necessary correlation between “economic activity” and “cultural development”.  One striking example is the Seventeenth Century.  Economic activity was generally at a lower level than in the preceding century, yet scientific, educational, and artistic development flourished.  For example, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Milton, Monteverdi, van Dyck, Racine, Corneille, Stradivarius all lived and worked in the Seventeenth Century.  And they represent a very small sample of the intellectual ferment that characterized this economically disastrous century.  I encourage Dr. Perumpanani to read Geoffrey Parker’s “Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century”.  It’s only one volume, but lengthy. I also cite the Hellenic Civilization (Again I use Toynbee’s terminology.) during the early years of Rome’s mastery of the Mediterranean world when economic activity flourished, but cultural development was virtually nil, the Romans merely repeating what the Greeks had achieved. It is up to Dr. Perumpanani to substantiate his claim that cultural development and economic activity are correlated.
The fourth fatal flaw in his definition is the phrase “…cultural development through economic activity aggregated across elements of its data.”  As a previous commentator, Wallace Gray wrote in the Fall 2013 issue of Comparative Civilizations Review “…If he’ll try to explain to me in non-mathematical language what he means by the phrase… ‘economic activity aggregated across elements of its data.’ ” I do not know whether Dr. Perumpanani has responded to Mr. Wallace’s request.  But I go one step farther than Mr. Wallace and ask, “What data?”  Dr. Perumpanani’s entire definition, his entire concept of linking mathematics and history, is inevitably based on the data selected to determine whether a culture is a civilization or not.  Even more, his data must also be capable of determining at what point a civilization is in its life cycle: genesis, growth, culmination, stagnation, decline, and death.  Yet he gives us no hint as to, not only what the data should be, but also how many elements of data are needed.

The flaws I have described above render Dr. Perumpanani’s definition totally useless, stillborn.  There are many errors of knowledge and judgment in his exposition attempting to clarify and explain his definition, but since the definition itself is fatally flawed, there is no need to treat in detail the eleven pages of exposition that follow the proclamation of the definition..        
I do not agree with him when he writes that there is an “absence of a…consensus definition of the term civilization.”  If one were to ask a high school student for a definition of the term, what would that student do?  He or she would go to a dictionary.  Every dictionary contains a definition of “civilization”.  “A condition of human society marked by an advanced stage of development in the arts and sciences and by corresponding social, political, and cultural complexity”.  “An advanced state of human society in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached”  “État de développement politique, social, économique atteint par certaines sociétés et considéré comme une idéale à atteindre”.  [State of political, social, economic development attained by certain societies and considered an ideal to be reached] (Translation by the author)  Finally, I cite the definition found in The Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles: “2. The action or process of being civilized 3. (More usually) Civilized condition or state”.  I further cite this dictionary’s definition of the verb “civilize”: “To make CIVIL; to bring out of a state of barbarism; to instruct in the arts of life; to enlighten and refine”.  I find the Oxford Universal Dictionary’s definition to be quite inadequate and reeking of the Eighteenth Century.

The other definitions cited demonstrate that there exist quite usable definitions of the term “civilization” and that there is a striking similarity among them.  In my mind, I tend to condense them into the following succinct definition: The most advanced and most complex social, political, economic,  cultural, and military environment thus far achieved by humankind.
So, with a plethora of quite valid definitions of the term, why do academics and other scholars chase their tails to come up with another?  I believe that the answer resides in these persons attempting confusedly to mix a definition with the characteristics of “civilization”.  A definition categorizes.  Describing the characteristics or features of some object or concept is an entirely different exercise.  For example: in the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language cited earlier, the definition of bronze is “any of various alloys consisting essentially of copper and tin, the tin content not exceeding eleven percent”.  The definition does not address the characteristics of bronze, copper, or tin or of their various combinations.  Doing so would be beyond the scope of definition, i.e., categorizing, and would probably require a whole page of text, if not more.

I have reread the thirty-one so-called definitions of civilization on the home page of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC).  Not a single one can be legitimately called a definition.  They are ruminations on the characteristics of civilizations.  The Society would be well advised to change the heading of these ruminations to something like “Thoughts on the Characteristics of Civilizations”.  I was also very much surprised to note that none of these academics and scholars made any reference to the archaeologist, anthropologist, and pre-historian V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957).  He is considered by some to have been the pre-eminent pre-historian and archaeologist of the Twentieth Century.  Childe proposed ten criteria to distinguish civilized cultures from pre-civilized cultures.  They are: (1) Large and thickly populated settlements (2) A variety of specialized occupations (3) The ability to produce and store food and other surplus goods (4) Large public buildings (5) A variety and ranking of social positions (6) Writing and a system of notation (7) The development of science (8) The development of a style of art (9) Trade over long distances (10) Social control based on a central government rather than kinship.

Childe’s criteria are far more reasonable, pertinent, and coherent than the ramblings of the persons cited by the ISCSC.  What can we say about them?  Are these criteria essential to distinguish a civilized culture from a pre-civilized culture?  Are there certain criteria named that are not essential?  Are there criteria that need to be added?  I believe that these questions would be a fruitful discussion on the ISCSC blog, far more relevant to the purpose of the Society than “Laina at the Movies”.  And could also lead to articles in the Comparative Civilizations Review (CCR) as well as in the newsletter.

Two points I wish to make before ending this “somewhat indecently lengthy” comment.  Civilizations do not spring fully grown and armed as did Minerva from the head of Jupiter.  The transition from the highest level of primitive culture to the state of a civilization takes place over an extended period of time, even centuries (Our own Western Civilization is an example.) and the various criteria cited by Childe do not develop at the same time, nor at the same rhythm.  In my opinion one of the last, if not the last, of the criteria to develop is that of writing.  The Andean (Inca) Civilization is an example.  When it was destroyed by Spanish conquistadores its written language was embryonic, knotted ropes which have been thought to be mnemonic.  However, recent studies are interpreting these knotted cords as an embryonic written language.  So, the Andean Civilization was still evolving when its life was prematurely terminated.

Now, my final comment.  I believe that it behooves the ISCSC to give up trying to create a definition of civilization that combines what is normally considered to be a definition and the fundamental characteristics of the concept of civilization.  It cannot be done successfully.  The Society needs to develop a consensus of those elements of a civilization that are essential to distinguishing it from the highest level of primitive culture.  The Society needs to encourage a more precise use of the term “civilization.”  At present, as well as in the past, academics and scholars in different disciplines have felt free to label almost any social group as a civilization.  This is an insult to the efforts and achievements that humankind has made since the first real civilizations.

I also believe that the Society should develop a consensus list of all past and present civilizations, such as Dr. Toynbee did for his monumental “A Study of History”.  As well as a list of those cultures that can logically be considered to be arrested and abortive civilizations (Again I use Toynbee’s terminology.)  Doing these will not only further the study and understanding of civilizations, which is the purpose of the Society, but will also (One can hope) take the Society out of going to the movies with Laina.