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

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.

We Americans Misread Our Enemies

August 15, 2015
Laina Farhat-Holzman

We are the global giant who never seems to realize our own strength. Unlike so many others around the world who love to boast about how powerful they are, we almost never do this. Think about the Nazi goose-stepping marches in the 1930s, huge swastika flags unfurled, announcing to the world their intentions. Think about the annual Soviet May Day parades with marching Red Armies, tanks, displays of missiles, and aircraft in formation overhead.

These were the warlike adversaries that we thought could take over the world and were a real threat to us. The Nazi Thousand-Year Reich, however, became a mountain of rubble by 1945, having made the mistake of taking us (yes, indolent, unmilitary America) on. (Soviet Russia and Britain were no walk in the park either.)

Fascist Japan swallowed up the Asian colonies of Britain, Netherlands, and American Philippines in a flash and began devouring giant China. They woke sleeping America with an attack on Pearl Harbor, nearly destroying our Pacific Fleet, but that awakening was a huge mistake. Four years later, Japan was a smoldering heap.

We went into a great panic when the Soviet Union began to challenge us as the sole superpower. We actually thought they might take over the world.

When Japan became an economic giant, we thought they would soon clean our clock! They would overcome our economy. We thought the same about the Saudis and their enormous oil wealth. Next came the panic about the Chinese Miracle. Add to that the European Union. Talking Heads panicked that both would demolish America and relegate us to second class status.

When the economic panics proved silly, we turned to military ones. Iraq suddenly loomed enormous as a threat to us, a threat so large that we had to go to war! Now, the same Jeremiahs who sold us that war are preaching a war with Iran, for the same reason: that somehow, this third-rate Middle Eastern Islamic Republic will soon be able to send a nuclear bomb with an intercontinental missile that can hit the United States! Wow!

What is the matter with us that we get into such panics all the time? Every one of these predictions has been wrong! The Nazis were a menace and an alliance of the US, Britain, and the Soviet Union properly took them out. It was inevitable that they would fall, and their demise was already in the works internally even before the war began.

The dangerous Soviet Union, armed with nuclear weapons, also fell of its own weight in due time. Our patient policy of containment, proxy wars (some of them unnecessary), and intelligence, ultimately paid off.

Iraq was a mistake. Not taking out a bad dictator, but the long-term American policy of trying to plant democracies where they cannot take root. We are starting to see this; at least President Obama understands the folly of this policy and has resisted the hysteria to engage where panic leads.

Iran, he says, has a nasty government. It is a middling power that only has the ability to create trouble where opportunity permits. It has a young population eager to rejoin the modern world and a middle class ready for commercial opening. The only opposition to the Iran deal in Iran are the hard liners; they have the most to lose---their stranglehold.

The US is not the only country that sometimes does not know its own strength. Israel is another one. While Netanyahu imagines Iran to be ten feet tall, his own Security people see it for what it is: a country with more problems than advantages. For all of Iran's big talk and chest beating in their neighborhood, they have a terrible economy that even the unfreezing of their money will not immediately help. Their petroleum infrastructure needs an infusion of retrofitting right now. The country has a water crisis that dwarfs that of California. And their birthrate is plummeting. And that's just for starts.

Has anyone asked: Why would they lob a missile at us----or at Israel? What would they expect back?

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

Racism Has a Forgotten History.

August 8, 2015
Laina Farhat-Holzman

We Americans in our self-centeredness think we invented racism and slavery, but we did not. We were one of the few societies in the world to outlaw it when it was a major part of our economy. Others were England, which outlawed the slave trade in 1772 and Russia in 1861 in freeing their serfs. France abolished Caribbean slavery in the French Revolution in 1794 and Napoleon shamefully reinstated it in 1802.

Slavery has been a human institution from the beginning of civilization, from the time that one group could compel another to do work that they did not want to do for themselves. Small hunter-gatherer families did not have enough food to support slaves. But once agriculture provided surplus, slavery became feasible. With settled communities, such tasks as irrigation trench digging, mining, and other large projects required labor beyond the voluntary labor of the citizens.

Mining (when metallurgy was invented) was particularly terrible and required forced labor. Seafaring soon required forced labor as well, which slavery, usually punishment, met the need. Roman galleys were infamous for this use, as well as using slaves for their favorite entertainment, the lethal Roman gladiatorial games.

Warfare from the ancient world until quite recently provided a steady stream of  slave labor. Female slave labor was provided largely in marriage and in warfare as well. This was the way of the world and nobody thought it could be otherwise.

Africa and skin color entered the story early. The Egyptians plundered the Sudan (their near South) for black-skinned slaves who provided them with slaves of both genders. With the advent of Islam, the Arabs sweept  North Africa and Islam forged some rules. Islam was supposed to be color-blind  but in reality, it was not. Because it was forbidden to castrate a fellow Muslim, one could castrate captive Black slaves before converting them to Islam, and so they did.

Africa was rife with slavery. Tribes enslaved other slaves and sold them readily to Arabs, and later to the Portuguese. The idea that Africans were just exploited by the west is nonsense. There was more than enough greed to go around. We just need to observe the utter evil of the civil wars in the Congo and elsewhere to see how little leaders care for their own people, especially their women and children.

The slave trade in Africa was endemic well before anybody in Europe ever thought of it. Islam's role in slavery has been overlooked for too long. When the ancient world, particularly Rome, which had been built on a slave culture, had already given up that institution under the urging of Christianity by the fourth century, Islam in the 7th century brought it back.

Islam had an endless endless appetite for slaves, needed for domestic labor, marble and salt mining, and most of all, harems. The Muslim slave markets were an enormous business, fed by by Arab piracy in the Mediterranean, depopulating much of southern Europe during the Dark and Middle Ages.  Sicilian nobility when short of money sold their own peasants. Vikings, before the first Crusade, partnered with Muslims to kidnap women from Ireland to Russia for Arab harems. Arab coins are still being found in Viking graves in Scandinavia.

The Bubonic Plague put an end to the White slave sources but reopened African slavery. Africa was the only place not hit by the Black Death. Black slavery moved from the declining Muslim world to the New World with its need for plantation labor and Western Slavery was born.

It is little recognized that Brazilian slavery dwarfed in numbers, and probably in cruelty, North American slavery, and did not come to an end until 1888.

Too many new Black converts to Islam do not realize Islam's bad history with slavery, ongoing today! Sudan persecutes not only non-Muslim Blacks, but even Black Muslims. Whole families in Chad have been kept in slavery not knowing that it is illegal. In Saudi Arabia, slavery was officially abolished in 1962. But what is the status of their women? And ISIS is back in the Muslim slave business, complete with slave markets.

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

Book Review: Erik Larson, In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, Crown Publishers, 2011

By Laina Farhat-Holzman

Erik Larson has the remarkable ability to write solid history as though it were fiction. He selects issues so significant that they are page-turners, but there is nothing in his books that cannot be substantiated by the letters, memories, or other documents of the participants of the events at the time.

For example, his Dead Wake, the account of the sinking of the Lusitania, reads like a thriller: a German submarine hunting a British ocean liner with a number of important American passengers on board in the tense time during World War 1. It is very enlightening to see the increasing ruthlessness of the Germans in that war in which they violated every former rule of civility; we also see the ruthlessness of Winston Churchill who will sacrifice America civilians to bring America into the war. We watch an American President, Woodrow Wilson, whose judgment is clouded by bereavement, then love, then a stroke. Leaders are human beings. And finally, we see the hubris of the day's modern scientists and engineers, who considered the Lusitania (like the Titanic), unsinkable. Larson accomplishes all this with one book.

The Garden of Beasts may be even more important for our understanding of one of the most important mysteries of the 20th century. How could a country as cultured, educated, and sophisticated as Germany permit itself to be taken over by a group of thugs with scarcely a murmur?

It did not happen with scarcely a murmur. The takeover was far more complex than that, and this book provides us with an inside view of a seminal year, 1933-34, in which this takeover could have gone either way. The main inside view is that of a particularly able observer: William E. Dodd, Chairman of the History Department of the University of Chicago, appointed by President Roosevelt as Ambassador to Germany after Roosevelt was turned down by several other more likely (wealthy) candidates.

Dodd was certainly not one of the usual old boys' club appointees. He was, however, a distinguished historian, had gone to the university in Germany and was fluent in German, had fond memories of the country, and promised to be eyes and ears for the president of the weird events of the new Nazi regime roiling Germany. He also promised to live on his salary, unheard of in diplomatic circles where diplomats brought their own money.

He set out for Berlin with his family, including another important eye-witness, his grown daughter, Martha, a well-educated and sexually-liberated airhead who “fell in love” with a succession of beaux including the newly appointed head of the Gestapo, the French Ambassador, and a Russian who turned out to be the head of the NKVD. Although her romantic judgment was poor, her diary entries and those of her lovers are extremely interesting!

The title of the book is also significant. The Garden of Beasts is a translation of Tiergarten, the main park in Berlin, around which most of the embassies were located and where Ambassador Dodd walked each day. It was one place where people could walk and talk without being overheard.  It was also a place where someone observed: Germans love animals! Their dogs and horses are so loved, fed, talked to! Much better than they treat their children and each other.

The Dodds arrived in Germany with mixed views of the Nazi government. Dodd was skeptical from the start, quite certain that this was a temporary anomaly. However, Martha was, as were many Americans of her class at the time (such as Charles Lindberg), an enthusiast. She loved what she considered the vitality of the “new Germany.” The blond, healthy, young Germans striding around; the cleanliness; the seeming return to work from the desperation of the prior depression; all this seemed good to her.

And like her class of Americans, she was theoretically anti-Semitic. She didn't hate Jews; just thought that “they had too much power” in the United States. But this dislike didn't stop the Dodds from renting an amazing mansion in the Tiergarten region for next to nothing! Lovely mansions were available in that neighborhood that belonged to Jews suddenly deciding to leave Germany. How fortunate.

Dodd left his post in 1937,  just before “Kristalnacht,” in which Germany's intentions for the Jews left no doubt. In this book, the Dodds, particularly Ambassador Dodd, goes through a transformation from mildly anti-Semitic to a Paul Revere, by the end of  his tour of duty in 1937, warning that the Nazis were going to take on all of Europe and planned to murder all the Jews. He was greeted with disbelief by the American isolationists---only to be proven right by 1941.

The most surprising revelations in the book are those about the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, which was the night in which Hitler supposedly acted with speed to wipe out the particularly thuggish Brownshirts, the Storm Troopers, who were supposedly plotting against him. Reading the diaries and memories, this is not what happened at all. This was one of those moments in which events could have gone in either direction. There had been rumors all Summer that the Army was going to get rid of Hitler. Democratic forces in the country were protesting the seizure of power by both Hitler and the Storm Troopers. It was starting to seem that Germany might be coming to its senses. But then events changed.

The Brownshirt “plot” was not so. Hitler fabricated it to seize an opportunity to grab total control over Germany. He not only got rid of his armed enemies, he got rid of all his democratic enemies as well, (including one unfortunate music critic, whose name was mistaken for somebody else). This purge set up such a regime of fear that until 1945, nobody ever got out from under.

How thugs can take over a regime is also contemplated by Martha's lover, Diels, the first head of the Gestapo---a man by far not the worst of those to come later. Diels commented later that his organization seemed to draw in every psychopath in Germany, something that was frightening even to him.

One description stays with me: that of frogs in a pot of warm water. They do not realize that the water is coming to a boil until it is too late.  This was Germany during that fateful year.

One last thought about a civilized country going bad: I have a hard time reconciling Germany's actions in both World War I and II in being the first to break the rules of civilized behavior. Germany was the first to use poison gas. They were the first to use submarines to attack civilian ocean liners. The first to use dirigibles to drop bombs on cities. All this in World War I. In World War II---the first to bomb urban targets and, of course, genocide (Turkey did it first, but they were not European).

Larson is a master writer. This is an important book.

Laina At the Movies

By Laina Farhat-Holzman
July 2015

A Little Chaos

If there was ever a monarch who detested chaos, it was King Louis XIV! He controlled everything, fearing anarchy so much that even nature had to be under his control. Louis, ruled France with an iron hand between 1638 and 1715.

In this story, Sabine, a talented landscape designer wins a competition to help design and build a water-garden ballroom at Versailles, under the guidance of the royal court's famous garden master, Le Notre. What makes this a most unusual project is that Sabine is a woman in business for herself, has no noble lineage (making it difficult in a most caste-conscious court), and that she is an advocate of nature, not artifice, both personally and professionally. She is most assuredly a wildflower in a garden of orchids.

Those unfamiliar with history might think that no ladies at that time ever supported themselves, but there are a few examples in addition to this famous landscape designer. One in particular is the Comtesse Marie de La Fayette, author of La Princesse de Cleves, France's first historical novel and one of the earliest novelists in literature in the 17th century, Louie's time.  She was widowed and made her living with her writing. (The earliest novel in the world is Japanese, The Tale of Genji, also written by a court lady, Mirasaki Shikibu, in the 11th century.)

Alan Rickman wonderfully directs this film and plays most sympathetically King Louis XIV, much more sympathetically than that monster deserves. I never expected to feel sorry for a king who bankrupted his country and made the peasantry starve. But in a scene where the king goes into the countryside, takes off his wig, and pretends to be the proprietor of a garden shop where Sabine (played by Kate Winslet) engages him in a conversation about flowers, is so enchanting that I even liked him.

Sabine's tentative love affair with Le Notre (Mathhias Schoenaerts), the prickly master gardener married to a treacherous court beauty, unfolds with the grace of a rose opening.

One of the most touching scenes takes place as Sabine is summoned to a court function and she waits with all the court ladies, painted dolls, who grill her curiously. They know she is a widow and ask if she has children. She pales (obviously has a painful secret). Each pours out her own losses (smallpox, husbands lost to war, stillborns, the usual horrors of life of the times). Rank is no protection. This is sisterhood and I was moved.

The end of the movie is the absolute delight to wait for. No chaos there. Absolute artistic order. A great delight indeed, an elegant royal ball taking place in a garden.

Testament of Youth

This British period piece is one more revisiting of World War One, the start of which was in 1914, exactly 101 years ago. The war broke out in August at the end of a summer of such incredible beauty and tranquility, everyone on holiday, nobody even contemplating that the world was about to erupt into an unimaginable nightmare of death and destruction.

That was the surface of Europe in 1914. Under that serene surface, however, what exploded was not unimaginable. But for the underpinnings of World War I, this is not the movie to see. You would need to know that despite the fact that every major (and minor) monarchy in Europe was related by blood and marriage to their common grandmother, Queen Victoria of Great Britain; that all of these countries shared a common European culture, values, and diplomatic rules; that all of their military forces shared common technologies and laws of war; that they would were already engaged in an arms war that would explode into a war that, before it was over, would sweep away almost all restraints. A quarter of a century later, that “almost” would be removed and no restraints would be left.

But this movie does not deal with that. It only deals with a handful of idealistic young aristocrats who go from innocence to the horror of warfare, one of them a young woman played by Alicia Vikander (she of the memorable face in Ex Machina), here playing a proto-feminist who first violates the rules to go to all-male Oxford and then serves as a nurse in the front lines of the horrible trench warfare of the war in France. She, playing the real life Vera Brittain, survives the war to become a naïve pacifist, believing that this is the only way to bring world peace.  Indeed, she had not yet met the Nazis.

This was a fine movie, but its two hours felt like four hours to me.


Like the film American Sniper, this movie will be loved by most Americans and scorned by the snooty critics. Not edgy enough for them, no doubt. I loved it! I thought it was everything that a movie should be: fit for a family, exciting, with a purpose, with values that one could admire, and with the best dog actor since Lassie! How different from the usual summer fare with its explosions, car chases, and hyper-sexuality.

Max was a military dog brought from Afghanistan whose Marine trainer/handler died in an IUD explosion. Inconsolable and devastated, the dog could not be retrained, but the Marines discovered that the dog would accept (reluctantly) the teen-aged brother of the dead Marine. The family adopted the dog and turned his training over to the boy. Josh Wiggins plays the teen-ager and I look forward to seeing much more of him.

The film is about the recovery of this remarkable dog, the healing of the devastated family, and the mystery of what really happened in the death of the Marine when one of his buddies turns up is the rest of the film. It involves a coming of age story for an adolescent who might otherwise have gone bad; the healing of a dog who might otherwise have had to be destroyed; the uncovering of some bad guys; and most exciting of all, a dog actor who deserves an Oscar! I don't know how they can train a dog to do what Max could do!  My goodness!

Lovely movie!


Ant-Man sounded like the typical Summer movie, but seeing the previews triggered my interest. Being a lover of Gulliver's Travels, I liked the idea of a science fiction treatment of a superhero whose powers might lie in being miniaturized to the size of an ant-aided by an ant army.

In this story, in 1989, a scientist, Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas), has invented a technology that can shrink a human being to the size of an ant. He considers this technology very dangerous and refuses to release it. He then resigns from his own company after discovering that his protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is trying to replicate the technology, which he will use for evil military purposes.

Science used for good or evil is not the only issue in this movie. People also have families. Pym has a grown daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) from whom he has been estranged, who is still in the company and is a partner of the evil Darren Cross.

Enter the movie's hero, newly released from prison, a thief, expert at house breaking, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who is desperate to go straight and find work so that he can pay child support for his own little daughter Cassie. In America, ex-convicts are punished for having been convicts; he cannot find a job. His old friends convince him to go back to his expertise and break into the house of a millionaire who is on vacation, the house of Hank Pym!

Now we learn of two magic garments---the very stuff of old fairy tales! While getting into the safe of Pym's house, Lang finds what looks like a motorcycle uniform. He puts it on, presses a button on the left----and with a whoosh---shrinks to the size of an ant.

The next few minutes are as good as anything in Gulliver's travels.

Darren Cross has invented another magical suit: this one a Yellowjacket (wasp).

This is enough for you to know. The rest of the movie is an absolute hoot, and is well worth the fun you will have watching it play out. It is clever, it has excellent human elements, and for those who like action, there is plenty here. It is not a trashy summer movie at all. It is really fun.

Mr. Holmes

When it seems nobody could imagine another take on the Sherlock Holmes stories, someone has! The newest film, Mr. Holmes, envisions Sherlock Holmes as a 93-year-old retired Holmes living in the countryside with his housekeeper, her young son, his bees, and his fading memories. This should be depressing stuff---but it most certainly is not.

Holmes is played by the remarkable Ian McKellen, who manages to create a fascinating man who even at 93 can think rings around most of us! Holmes has just returned from a difficult trip to Japan where he is confronted by a purported Japanese admirer who is, instead, a client with a grievance: a man whose father disappeared years ago in London leaving behind a note in a book Sherlock Holmes book. Holmes cannot remember this case.

Also haunting the detective is another case involving a beautiful woman who thirty years before Holmes followed, suspecting she was about to murder her husband. This case too has fallen into a black hole in his memory.

Holmes is cared for by Mrs. Munro, played by Laura Linnney, an unhappy widow, and her young son, Roger, played by Milo Parker, who becomes an impromptu apprentice to Holmes. He learns beekeeping---and prods the old man into solving the two mysteries haunting him.

This is a rich, wonderful film; Sherlock has plenty of life left in him even at 93!

(For the readers among you, I would recommend even another take on Sherlock Holmes: Laurie King's books in which Holmes has a young wife.  Start with The  Beekeeper's Apprentice. These would make wonderful movies.)

Paper Towns

Teen movies not just for adolescent audiences give grownups a chance to relive our own early years. This movie certainly does that, and unlike many that I have seen recently, this one does not alienate an adult audience with foul language, overt sexuality, or drugs. The teens are just nice kids at the end of their senior year, living in a pleasant community, all planning to go to college. Not much drama here. Except for an unexpected adventure that a most reliable youngster undertakes, along with his most danger-averse friends----in pursuit of a romantic runaway who has fled town, leaving a trail of clues.

This drama is based on a popular young adult novel in which Quentin “Q” Jacobsen ( Nat Wolff) who knows exactly what he wants to do with his life (medical school, oncology practice, wife, children), has long been enchanted by a young neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), who seems to be guided by magical spirits into great and fearless adventures.  At 13, they are kindred spirits, but later, they drift apart. However, just before graduation, she lures him again late one night to accompany her on one last caper of revenge against all who betrayed her: cheating boyfriend, best friend, another young man. The revenge is mischievous, not lethal. They end the evening at the town's tallest building, where Margo surveys the view, pronouncing the town a “paper town,” and her view of “Q's” future rather shabby.

The next day, she disappears and Quentin, stewing over her disappearance, manages to disrupt his two best friends' and their girlfriends' senior prom plans to accompany him on a road trip to find Margo, whom “Q” is sure is his true love.

The road trip is wonderful, and these youngsters are terrific and endearing children. Margo, however, is something else. Is her “magic” really just negativism? Is there no “there” there? Perhaps Q needs to know this if he is to grow up.

What if the 30-Year Religious Wars Prediction Is Wrong?

August 1, 2015
Laina Farhat-Holzman

Yemen, once a backwater that nobody much cared about, is now a failed state that has inflamed an entire region. The Saudis, who have spent obscene fortunes on defense toys that they have never used are now tentatively using them and are rallying other Sunni Arabs to join them. For all their decades of bluster about Israel, they were never this serious before. This time, they are really frightened and their fear is directed at a rag-tag terrorist group that has taken over the government of Yemen. This group is Shiite, and supposedly backed by Iran. So, in effect, this is a proxy war between Sunni and Shiites, something that seems to be sweeping the Middle East. But is it really?

The wise “talking heads” are predicting a 30-year religious war between the Shiites and Sunnis, a prediction that seems to mirror the Protestant-Catholic 30-year wars, a 17th century struggle between Catholic and Protestant powers that killed of maybe 20 percent of Germany's total population and 50 percent along its main trade corridor (more deaths than the Bubonic Plague), ultimately discrediting religion as a cohesive political principle, replacing it with nationalism.

The trouble with this prediction is that these are different times, different religions, and very different players, and events are moving with much more speed. How can anybody make thirty-year predictions with a straight face today?

I, for one, cannot imagine that Iran, today the chief champion of the Shiite sect, will still be a revolutionary Shiite state in thirty years! Iran is timelessly Persian, its history and its geography much more intrinsically at home with its place and nature in the uplands as the crossroads between Asia and Europe. It has had more in common with being at the western end of the Persian-Chinese Silk Road than with Islam, which it tried to tame and make imperial during Islam's Golden Age. The taming did not last long enough. Its young people today chafe at their elderly clerics, longing to join the modern youth culture, which eventually they will.

So who will the Shiites, fueling the 30-years Shiite-Sunni war, be? They are not, even today, Persian-speaking Shiites. They are Yemeni, Iraqi, Hamas, and Alawite, and do not even share a common language (or values) with their Iranian brethren. How long can that relationship last?

As for the Sunnis, who will lead them? The Saudis are walking a tightrope, and tightropes are not very secure when leadership is in their 80s. What is going to happen to a country with money but no work ethic, too many princes, and no vision of a future? The only thing one can say about Sunnis is that they easily fall out, fracture, retreat to clan, and have little inclination to maintain national identity.

I really do not see the same fervent religious passion that fueled the Catholic-Protestant wars of the 17th century.  I do not see the intellectual theology. I do not see the industriousness of the population. I see none of this fueling a genuine religious war.  What I do see is the reemergence of Persian identity shedding its Islamic straitjacket.  I see the same thing eventually happening to the Turks, who also have a real identity and temperament (and a geographic reality) underneath a thin stratum of an unsuitable Islamic veneer.

I see the Arab world, however, fragmenting into the two geographies and histories from which they come: the urban traders (Lebanese, Syrian, Alexandrian, perhaps Baghdad and Cairo) and the desert Bedouin. They are not alike.

We are inclined to call all people who speak Arabic “Arabs.” This is not so. There are whole swaths of people in North Africa who had other languages, other much older cultures, who may well revert to their origins as the Arab world melts in the next half century. Egypt, for one, is much, much older than its Muslim history. We may be in for some surprises there. It is hard to tell.

But for certain, we need to rethink the glib 30-year Sunni-Shiite war.

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