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"Tradition?? The only good traditions are food traditions. The rest are repressive."

"There are two ways to think. The first is to trust to your ancestors, your religious leaders, or your charismatic professors. The second is to question, to challenge, to explore history for meanings, and to analyze issues. This latter is called Critical Thinking, and it is this that is the mission of my web site. "

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman  

November 2019

Putin?s Puffy Puppet


The case that our president is under the malign influence of Vladimir Putin is solid. We have seen it demonstrated in public, when he publicly declared that he believed Putin rather than his unanimous Intelligence agencies; in meetings with Putin and phone conversations without note takers or witnesses; and in Presidential mandates that sidestep Congressional oversight. But there is more.

Other Trump actions, even before his election, demonstrated his unhealthy taste for d more...

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The Imagined "Deep State"


Throughout the ages, paranoid people have believed that whoever governs them has many secrets, most aimed at harming the mass of subjects. Demagogues have always been able to plug in on this suspicion of government, and our time is no different.

Although we are a republic electing our presidents for finite terms of office (maximum of eight year), most of our other elected officials (House of Representatives Senators, and state governors) have no term limits, and can be re more...

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Rule of Law Is Not a Given.


What distinguishes liberal democracies from dictatorships and absolute monarchies is "rule of law." Laws, unlike the orders or whims of single absolute powers, involve a system of participatory governance (the people vote), separation of powers (Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary), and an independent press that serves as a check on abuse of power by any of these other institutions.

"Norms," agreed upon behaviors beyond force, are the habitual behavior of most citizens more...

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Disrespect for Truth



We already know that President Trump has no respect for truth. He lies every time he speaks, and what we need is a running banner on the television screen that truth-checks as he speaks.

As annoying as this is, the disrespect for truth has gone beyond this one man. Around the world, particularly in the more traditional (lesser-developed) countries with more than 50 percent illiteracy, there is little acceptance of facts as a source of truth. Dictators and authorita more...

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September 2019

When Foreign Policy Gets It Wrong: Afghanistan



How the United States deals with the rest of the world is determined by our foreign policy. Centuries before we became a country, foreign policy was the business of kings, who had relationships with other kings, and diplomats who were dispatched abroad with the dual purpose of representing their kings and collecting data on the foreign country (spying).

A diplomat representing England?s Queen Elizabeth I, was in France where he witnessed an organized slaughter of F more...

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Disrespect for Truth



We already know that President Trump has no respect for truth. He lies every time he speaks, and what we need is a running banner on the television screen that truth-checks as he speaks.

As annoying as this is, the disrespect for truth has gone beyond this one man. Around the world, particularly in the more traditional (lesser-developed) countries with more than 50 percent illiteracy, there is little acceptance of facts as a source of truth. Dictators and authorita more...

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Men Who Deserve Praise


The "Me-Too" movement has focused our attention on the plight of women, a heritage as old as human culture. But as a woman, I find reasons to praise good American men, most of whom do the right thing but get little recognition for it.

In rereading John F. Kennedy?s Portraits in Courage, written more than a half century ago, we see that even in the worst of times, good men (and women, not in this book) do the right thing despite paying terribly for doing so.

more...

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Sticks and Stones: Words Matter


"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me." This saying was aimed at children, to arm them against verbal bullies. It is also linked to our First Amendment, freedom of speech, even when people to say things that we hate, but protect their right to say them.

Such freedom, however, ends with speech that can endanger life: falsely crying "fire" in a crowded theater, or urging riot in the public square. "Let?s go kill the?.aristocrats" during the Fr more...

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Darwinian View of Women


It has taken thousands of years in which human beings struggled to evolve into the extraordinary beings we are today. Over that time, certain assumptions were widely accepted about the capabilities and values of women, the smaller and physically weaker of the two genders. Women were expected to provide sexual pleasure to men, to bear children and rear them, and to be free domestic and farm labor. Men were able to maintain this system through brute force, and later, religion and law.
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Presidents at War


Michael Beschloss, one of our country?s best presidential historians, labored longer than he expected in writing this large book, Presidents of War. Carefully researched biographies present Presidents with their full human virtues and shortcomings.

Presidents of War was begun 10 years ago, long before our current president, who alarms us with his whim-inspired forays into global events. Beschloss only addresses the dilemma of President Trump in his Epilogue, and gives us t more...

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Rewriting History


History is "our story." It can focus on certain parts while downplaying other parts. So much history in the past was written by and for rulers, who wanted glory and not blame. Today, good history writing covers inherent complexity. I am an avid history reader, particularly today when facts are being challenged by "alternate facts" (lies), and my focus this year has been on American Institutions---those that sustain our democracy.

The latest attempt at rewriting history is more...

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Democracy and Sacred Honor


Our founding fathers, particularly James Madison, was aware that a new, participatory republic needed protection against the frailties of human behavior. Madison was aware that power can transform a good man into a tyrant, a phenomenon well known throughout history.

Almost any system of government, monarchy, dictatorship, democracy, can be a good system if the leader is an upright man. But therein is the hitch: most leaders with unconstrained power do not remain good men. more...

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The Element of Trust

One of the most important elements in having participatory democracy, as well as flourishing capitalism, is trust. Trust is so embedded in our lives that we scarcely ever think about it.

We use trust every day. We trust that other drivers are obeying the same laws and rules of the road that we are. Of course, driving requires both trust and caution. Some people do not obey the rules, and we must look out for them, although they are comparatively rare.

When we shop f more...

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Putin?s Game Plan


Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, an enemy with nukes they were ready to use. They held captive a huge empire, part of which was a continuation of their 19th century occupation of the Muslim Silk Road states in Central Asia and across Siberia to the Pacific. The other part was taken at the end of World War II: most of eastern Europe, because their troops had "liberated" them.

In the almost half century of the Cold War, the United States and western Europe were able to more...

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Rogues? Gallery for Impeachment


Retired Admiral William McRaven, a man of sterling character, has been making the rounds of interviews to talk about his book, Sea Stories. He has said that the greatest danger that America faces is not the attacks of Russia or China, but the rhetoric of President Trump. Presidents, he said, will come and go, but our institutions remain, the bulwark of our democracy.

From President Thomas Jefferson until now (except for Nixon), presidents have supported the free press as e more...

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Picking the President?s Team


A most important task of an incoming president is nominating the men and women who will serve as the cabinet. Each nominee, as well as nominees for federal judges and more rarely, Supreme Court, must go through Senate confirmation. For the most part, our norms have been that with only a few exceptions, these nominees secure bipartisan approval.

Each president has his own process for selecting this team. Abraham Lincoln provided a sterling example: he selected his most voc more...

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The Abortion Hypocrisy


No one should force a pregnant woman to have an abortion, a practice in China years ago to address population explosion (the one-child policy). But forcing a pregnant woman to bear an unwanted child is "involuntary servitude." The key concept here is force. If men and women in a modern society are legally equal citizens, how is it that the radical branch of the Republican Party has been relentlessly trying to eliminate the 1973 law that permits women to make decisions about their own bod more...

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The Late, Great Republican Party


If our first president, George Washington, had his way, we would not have had political parties. He disliked "factions," and preferred honorable men having honorable discussions until consensus would result.

This was not to be. From the first, there was such division among the 13 states that the emergence of parties was inevitable. Happily, only two parties arose, sparing us the nightmare of so many other examples in Europe of unstable multiple parties. The two parties wer more...

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The Mueller Report Summaries, Part 1


There has been so much anxious anticipation of what the Mueller Report would tell us?at least anticipation of people who care about rule of law. I suspect the number of people who cared would be about the same as those voters who care about foreign policy: ten percent in peaceful times, and 20 percent in times of danger.

I am one of that caring group, and have been since my childhood during World War II, when my father followed events with pins on a world map in our kitche more...

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Our Security Clearance Gap


We recently learned that President Trump insisted that his son- in-law and daughter, both of them senior advisors in the White House, be given security clearances despite denial by the Intelligence Services. This raised a red flag with Trump?s former chief of Staff and chief White House lawyer, both of whom kept memos of this decision.

Our presidents do have the right to award security clearances to any members of their staffs and cabinet, but this president lied that he i more...

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Kleptocracy Comes to America


There is a built-in desire among human beings for fairness. In antiquity, leaders were judged by their people as "just" or as "tyrants." An interesting insight into this problem appears in the Old Testament, when the Israelites ask their wisest judge to bring them a king who will lead them in their battles. The judge, Samuel, tells them what it will cost:

I paraphrase: A king will recruit your sons to drive his chariots, be his horsemen soldiers, and to run before his ch more...

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The Good and the Bad of Presidential Power


Modern presidents have the power never envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Our founders feared tyranny, leaders who might abuse power. They envisioned instead self-government protected by a division of power, with the most power going to Congress. They limited the power of the House of Representatives, the most democratically elected body, by having a Senate designed to deliberate and put the brakes on impetuosity. Congress itself was to be checked by the courts, particularly the Supreme more...

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The Function of Impeachments


One of our country?s most distinguished magazines, The Atlantic Monthly, founded in 1857, was non-partisan, dedicated to impartial liberty, and to wage war against despotism in every form. They so rarely weighed in on presidents that they counted only three times: Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, and Hillary Clinton.

Their endorsement of Clinton was not support of her as much as it was alarm over Donald Trump, whom they saw as "spectacularly unfit for office." "His affect more...

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Our Most Corrupt President


Last week, we explored the meaning and history of political corruption in our country. I emphasize "our country," because if I were doing a global tally of political corruption, it would take a sizable book.

Our founding fathers were trying to create a new sort of government, and they were very aware of how corruption corrodes a society. Far from being na?ve about a brave new world, they created a government with checks and balances against abuse of power. Our system is no more...

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What is Political Corruption?


As George Marshall said in his toast to President Harry Truman, 'The full stature of this man will only be proven by history, but I want to say here and now that there has never been a decision made under this man's administration, affecting policies beyond our shores, that has not been in the best interest of this country. It is not the courage of these decisions that will live, but the integrity of the man."

Truman was one of the few recent presidents to leave the White more...

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December 2018

Scuttling All the US Government Departments


The US government is a very big bureaucracy, which to some critics is a bad thing. Howeve, each department under the Administration has been established by Congress to provide essential services. They all do the work that keeps us the most productive, enviable country in the world.

When a new president comes into office, he goes through the transition process, learning what each government agency or department does, its budget, and over all, how government works.
more...

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The Final Gift of President Bush

We have all become so numbed by the constant flood of nastiness in our current politics that President George Herbert Walker Bush, our 41st president, even in dying, has given the country his final gift. His graceful death at 94 has been accompanied by memorials to his life of service and his astonishing competence as a one-term president. His passing even shamed President Trump to do what he rarely does: praise the life of this remarkable man, whom he trashed throughout his run for the 2016 pre more...

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When Should "Norms" Become Law?


We are hearing much about "norms" today, an issue we usually do not have to think about because these are automatically practiced values. But we currently have a president who has blithely violated almost all the norms of behavior or practice of all of his predecessors.

Some presidential norms are just a matter of courtesy: speaking politely in public, debating policies in political election campaigns rather than insulting the opponent; regarding the opponent as a colleag more...

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The History of the US Justice System


One of the key benefits of a representative governing system is that it provides justice---fairness, something that autocracies do not provide. Populist systems do not provide justice either; they offer the passions of the mob. The American system (derived in part from the British system, part of Anglo-Saxon law that mandates a jury of one?s peers in a criminal case) has always been an evolving institution. We have evolved from exclusively White Male juries to those today that permit wom more...

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The History of the American Presidency


The brand new United State of America in 1779 invented the first presidency in the world. Even during the Revolution against Britain, the founding fathers had not yet decided what to call their first leader, nor did they spell out his duties or his limits. We owe the system we have to George Washington, whose knowledge of ancient Rome?s republic shaped this new leadership role.

Washington selected "Mr. President" as his title, a modesty never seen in the world before. Th more...

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September 2018

The Me Too Movement in Perspective

As our political world is once more roiled by allegations of abuse of women, this time a woman who has come forth (obviously reluctantly) with an account of an attempted rape by a drunk schoolboy when the two of them were teens. She was 15 and he 17, but that boy is now a man, a judge, President Trump?s nominee for the Supreme Court.

If this were the only question about this nominee, Brett Kavanaugh?s behavior, it could well be dismissed as an example of "boys will be boys," and t more...

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Indonesia?s Endangered Democracy.


At the end of the 20th century, it appeared that Democracy was on a roll. The UN published the list of once authoritarian countries joining the roster of participatory governments. It appeared that the US had not only defeated the Communists in the Cold War, but had won the war for hearts and minds. Everyone wanted to be a modern democracy.

An analysis by the US Government-funded Freedom House (a think tank) showed that there was not a single liberal democracy with univers more...

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Too Much Democracy?


Populism around the world is in the process of destroying liberal democracy, replacing it with dictatorships. This is a shock to those of us who believed that the American style of democracy was both wanted and on a roll after the collapse of the USSR. Populism (power to the people) is a revolt against government, the often unwieldy process of participatory governance. That Democracy does not instantly solve all problems has become apparent, and many are looking for a strongman to addre more...

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The "Deep State" Conspiracy


A popular notion among conspiracy lovers is that there is a secret government that really runs our country. They currently call it the Deep State, but it has been known in the past by comparable concepts, such as the Jewish Conspiracy (a worldwide money cult that runs everything). One idiot on the Washington, DC city council actually believes that weather is secretly controlled by the Rothschild family (another Jewish conspiracy.) This family, he believes, can create storms and bad weath more...

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Putin?s Game


History reflects trends and broad sweeps, but also the mark of powerful individuals. The US during the 1930s was divided among the very rich and the jobless or struggling poor; immigrant families trying to become American and demagogues who trashed them; Whites of all levels and Blacks who suffered wherever they were, particularly in the South where lynching was shamefully frequent; and Globalists and America-Firsters. Without the New Deal and the particular president we had then (Roosev more...

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Michael V Hayden: The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies

Penguin Press, NY 2018., Random House, 2018.

Reviewer: Laina Farhat-Holzman

The unexpected election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 has spurred a library of new books explaining to the public how America?s most important institutions work and why we have them. This particular president has little patience for institutions that may constrain his authority, which differs from the norms followed by most of our former presidents, regardless of political part more...

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Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels,

Random House, 2018.
Reviewer: Laina Farhat-Holzman

Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize winning presidential biographer, had already written books about George Herbert Walker Bush, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and books about the Founding Fathers, the relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill, and the Civil Rights movement. The election of a most unusual president, Donald J. Trump, in 2016, spurred him to give us a perspective on the American presidencies, the best and more...

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Michael McFaul: From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin?s Russia.


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
Reviewer: Laina Farhat-Holzman

For those of you who keep up with TV news, Michael McFaul is the go-to person for insight into Russia. He served as American Ambassador from 2008-2010 during the Obama presidency, a somewhat rare appointment of an academic expert rather than political appointee. But he was not new to the White House, having been an advisor to George Bush?s administration before being tapped by Obama.

It more...

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The American Presidency in History

A packed auditorium listened to the April 30 presentation of the Leon Panetta Lecture Series: "The American Presidency and the American Dream --- The Role of Leadership." The Panettas invited two heroes of the press: Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, whose stellar work brought down the corrupt Nixon presidency. The third guest was Reince Priebus, the longest-serving chair of the Republican Party and briefly President Trump?s White House Chief of Staff.

Leon Panetta is a great exam more...

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Doing the Right Thing has Costs!


John F. Kennedy?s Profiles in Courage provided us with the biographies of men who defied political currents and made decisions that were right, but cost them dearly. One of the most dangerous political acts was Abraham Lincoln?s push for the abolition of Black slavery. He paid with his life.

Today, all sorts of norms of decency are being violated, from the presidency down. Officials lie, casually violate their own professed beliefs, and fight off any press attempts to get more...

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Thirteen Russians Indicted for Election Meddling



For several years now, we have heard about Information Warfare, a new way of fighting enemy countries. This method is as much of an "equalizer" as was the invention of firearms in the late middle age, which gave even a weak man lethality equivalent to a talented swordsman. Keen observers have always warned us that great new inventions can have terrible consequences. Although it is wonderful to have information so available to everyone, regardless of power and wealth, it is not wo more...

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In a Democracy, Character Matters.


This column is not just launching an attack on President Trump, although his character does matter. Rather, it explores the overall issue of good character and the role it plays in the survival of a democracy. Since John F. Kennedy's influential book Profiles in Courage, there has been little attention to what good character is and how essential it is in keeping us a good country.

Good character could be defined as behavior that promotes "doing the right thing," even when more...

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Our Better Angels



Abraham Lincoln in his first Inaugural Address, on Monday, March 4, 1861, delivered a speech as he was sworn in to office. His election created a huge crisis in which the Southern States created a Confederacy, a rival nation, and declared war. The issue was supposedly "States' Rights," but the rights that the Confederacy demanded were the rights of White people to enslave Black people.

From its beginnings, the United States wrestled with this issue. How could we be more...

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July 2017

Constitutional Crises In Our History


Looking through American history since George Washington was elected as our first president in 1789, it appears that every couple of generations (about 40 years) we face some sort of constitutional crisis. That we have survived these crises is a tribute to the strength of our political system.

For our first 40 years, our presidents were all members of the original aristocrats, founding fathers and Virginia landowners for the most part), with two New Englanders (John Adams more...

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February 2016

How Our Presidents Promote Tolerance

The United States was founded just as the European Enlightenment swept through. The Enlightenment occurred after two centuries of religious wars had exhausted not only Europe?s population, but also its intellectuals. Ordinary people were not theologians; they simply retreated to the various sects accepted by their families or rulers. Southern Europeans remained Catholic, while the more economically progressive north (England, Scotland, Scandinavia, and northern Germany) and their rulers favored more...

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