Monthly Archives: August 2021

In Defense of Secularism


My favorite part of 9/11 (pause) was the Muslim terrorists, when they went to Muslim heaven, which we all know isn’t true.  They can’t be in Muslim heaven because they’re in Christian hell.  Unless they go back and forth, which you can do because they’re both pretend.

~Comedian Dana Gould/”Anything Can Be Funny”

As is so often the case, the theme of today’s post was triggered by the convergence of the following unrelated events.

  • An August 26 New York Times report by Emma Goldberg titled, “The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard?  An Atheist.”
  • Reports, upon the departure of last U.S. military from Harmid Kharzi Airport, of Taliban soldiers shooting their weapons in the air, chanting, “Allah Akbar” (“God is most great.”)

The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist. - The New York TimesI became aware of the Harvard University story when a friend and colleague, who also happens to be an ordained minister, emailed it to me and sought my opinion.  My response, as any regular reader of this blog might suspect, “I find this somewhat refreshing.”  A perspective affirmed as I read Greg Epstein’s justification for his appointment to his new post, one in which he is expected “to coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus.”

There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life.

There it was, a focus on universal spirituality rather than membership in any religious movement.  More relevant today than ever.  When the Taliban believe they were commanded by their God to twice rid Afghanistan of foreign invaders.  Or American religious leaders who declare certain candidates for public office are part of God’s plan.  The irony, in this latter instance, being the white evangelical community preferring the least Christian-like option in 2020 over a practicing Catholic who continually draws on his faith.

Please do not take the above as a denunciation of all religion.  If participation in a religious community helps one find the path to spirituality, no argument here.  After all, a religious leader in the Jewish tradition is called “rabbi,” which literally means “teacher.”  But the role of educator and mentor is not reserved for any single denomination.  The same can be true of any priest, pastor, minister or imam.  The question associated with Harvard’s choice of Epstein as chief chaplain is whether he can serve that same function without the trappings of a church, synagogue or mosque.

To answer that question, look at a principle of religious faith which transcends one’s choice of religious affiliation, belief in something greater than oneself.  For many that “something” is belief in a divine presence.  For the atheist or agnostic, that “something” needs to be more tangible.  One’s community.  Human rights.  A mission with an external purpose.  Something other than one’s own well-being or acquiring power.  There is no dearth of available alternatives.

However, as a devout agnostic, my personal spiritual journey must also be one of continuing questioning and discovery.  In that vein, I often find atheists as frustrating as those who are convinced their religious testament–old or new–is the literal word of God.  Especially since so many before them watched (assuming there is an afterlife) their absolute religious tenets become literature (Bulfinch’s Mythology) or their deities displayed as mere works of art relegated to museums.

In Genesis, Abraham is portrayed as the father of monotheism.  As the story goes, he refused to accept the fact an idol, easily destroyed by humans, had divine power.  How is that any different from questioning whether an omnipotent, compassionate God would tolerate genocide, innocent children dying from cancer or a global pandemic?  In 1988, on a flight from Dallas to Honolulu, I sat next to Victor Stenger, a physicist and author of Not By Design: Origins of the Universe.  Stenger, who died in 2014, continued to pursue this theme in later books such as God: The Failed Hypothesis (2007) and God and the Folly of Faith (2012).

Victor Stenger (1935-2014) - Atheism's Arguments Against God? - YouTubeAs Stenger explained to me, the existence of humanity on earth without divine intervention was not only possible, it was mathematically probable considering the infinite number of galaxies, stars and planets.  However, it also explained both the biological and sociological shortcomings of mankind.  The probability of a perfect world with no disease, where everyone gets along with each other, though possible, is exponentially less likely.  As I recall our conversation, I realize why I could never fully embrace his atheist views.  In a universe with so many possibilities, there still remains that slight possibility there is a divine presence that is responsible for creation though not quite the way it is described in the first chapter of the Old Testament.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson admits, “I know HOW the big bang happened.  I just don’t know WHY.”

Maybe this explains Harvard’s counterintuitive choice of Epstein as chief chaplain and why a institution of higher learner is the right place for this “experiment.”  If I were Epstein, I would begin my first conversation with the other religious leaders on campus as follows.

To paraphrase Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the beginning of the second Iraq war, “You go to life with the world you have, not the world you might want or wish to have.”  It is why a university has two roles as it trains generation after generation to address the reality of an imperfect society.  We of the spiritual community can help these adults in training find purpose.  The academics train them to be doctors, scientists, politicians, historians and artists, giving them the tools to eliminate, or at a minimum ameliorate, the negative consequences of the imperfect world in which they were born.

In closing you might wonder if Epstein’s appointment is one more example of elite “woke” liberalism of a university president or board of trustees.  It is not.  Epstein, who has served as humanist chaplain at Harvard since 2005, was the unanimous choice of his peers.  It suggests students who are seeking a different form of spirituality are not the only ones having second thoughts about their religious upbringing and training.

For what it’s worth.


De-Worm Turns


Treade a worme on the tayle, and it must turne agayne.

~John Heywood Proverb Collection (1546 AD)

The above quote is the origin of the phrase “the worm turns,” popularized by William Shakespeare.  In Henry VI, Part 3, Lord Clifford justifies the murder of Edmund, Earl of Rutland, stating, “The smallest worm will turn being trodden on.”  A more complete explanation is provided by Grammarist, a website comprised of writers who respond to readers’ queries about the origins, meaning and uses of English idioms.

The worm has turned means that someone who has previously been downtrodden has triumphed, someone who has previously been unlucky has become lucky, or someone who has previously been obedient has spoken up. The idea is that someone’s attitude toward another or his strength of conviction has changed.

FDA ivermectin warning: You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all. Stop it. - Outbreak News TodaySo what was the event or events which triggered today’s post.  Based on the title, you may think it is obvious and not very creative.  It does not take a genius to make the connection between “the worm” and “de-worm” within 24 hours of the FDC tweeting, “You are not a horse.  You are not a cow, Seriously, y’all. Stop it.”  The warning was in response to suggestions on Facebook and by right wing media hosts the drug ivermectin, an ingredient in horse and cow de-worming treatment, was an alternative protection against COVID-19.  [NOTE: Did the FDA really need to use dialect like “y’all” to identify the audience most susceptible to this claim?  Now, had they substituted, “you’se guys,” that would have been surprising.]

However, the FDA directive was the equivalent of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand his wife Sophie.  The royals’ demise was not the sole cause of the subsequent global conflict, only the catalyst which accelerated a chain of events which culminated in World War I.  Likewise, the reference to de-worming started a similar chain of events beginning with research into the metaphorical use of the phrase, “the worm turns.”  Quickly followed by these questions, based on the Grammarist definition.  Who are the worms in this case?  Why did they feel downtrodden or unlucky or obedient?  Have they triumphed or been subject to a change in luck or become newly outspoken?

To start this conversation, one must recognize there are many species of human worms.  Those cultists and sore losers who perpetuate the “big lie” and participated in the January 6th insurrection.  Those who are pro-choice when it comes to a life saving vaccine yet want to deny women the right to control their own bodies.  But the most disgusting and virulent strain might be those who march to the rhythms of chants such as “You will not replace us, “Blood and soil” and “The South will rise again.”  Their reemergence provides the best laboratory for observing the the life cycle of these erect tubular invertebrates.

We begin by asking why they feel downtrodden.  It was not always so. For almost 250 years (1619-1865) two governments (Great Britain and the United States) offered de jure protection of the myth of a superior white race, allowing half the new world to treat transplanted Africans as chattel.  For the next 100 years (1865-1965), former slaves and their decedents in the antebellum South and elsewhere continued to be treated as second-class citizens under Jim Crow laws and both de jure and de facto segregation.  At the same time, they believed the future of Anglo-Saxon, protestant America was threatened by the influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants.

One can argue 1965 was the beginning of what might be called the white nationalists’ “downtrodden era.”  It lasted 50 years during which nine U.S. presidents affirmed there was no place in America for this kind of bigotry and ignorance.  But the worms were never in danger of extinction.  They merely went underground.

The current “revenge era” began in 2015 when candidate Donald Trump launched a presidential campaign under the MAGA banner sending a signal it was okay for bigots to come out of the woodwork.  How lucky to have found such a champion of their cause.  In fact, so lucky that they became cultists willing to following their leader’s every directive.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise many of the conspiracy theories espoused by anti-vaxxers have their origins on neo-Nazi and white supremacist social media that promote fears the vaccines are a form of population control or a for-profit scam perpetrated by Jews.

And come out from the woodwork they did.  Trump’s election was falsely interpreted by the likes of the Proud Boys and the Nationalist Social Club that Americans were ready to welcome them back and support their cause.  Conversations which were limited for half a century to secret meetings and the darkest corners of the internet are now taking place at rallies in major cities and on Facebook.

Make no mistake.  As Carol Anne Freeling (portrayed by Heather O’Rourke) proclaimed in the movie Poltergeist, “They’re back!”  And even though a worm, as Heywood suggests, has turned, it is the same worm which always inhabited society, and is sorely in need of de-worming.

For what it’s worth.


You Never Know


When someone mentions the law of unintended consequences, it is almost always in reference to unanticipated, negative outcomes.  However, as a self-proclaimed champion of counter-intuitive thinking, I forever look for a case or cases which suggest the opposite can also be true.  This morning I found it, in Afghanistan of all places.

Until this morning, many foreign affairs specialists identified two paradoxes which were early contributors to the events of the past two weeks.

  1. Nation building should not be an element of U.S. foreign policy or national security.  It did not work in Vietnam.  Iraq.  Libya. Yet, that did not stop one more failed attempt in Afghanistan.
  2. Following 9/11, we were told the war against terrorism would not be a conventional conflict.  It would not involve engagements based on geopolitical boundaries or governments.  Neither would success depend on large, well equipped armed forces.  Instead it would be about intelligence, analysis of the data and precision strikes by special ops and manned or unmapped vehicles delivering guided ordinance.

The initial 9/11 response, ironically, was totally consistent with these assumptions.  Consider the following excerpt titled “The First Salvo/October 7, 2001” from an analysis of the two decades war prepared by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The U.S. military, with British support, begins a bombing campaign against Taliban forces, officially launching Operation Enduring Freedom. Canada, Australia, Germany, and France pledge future support. The wars early phase  mainly involves U.S. air strikes on al-Qaeda and Taliban forces that are assisted by a partnership of about one thousand U.S. special forces, the Northern Alliance, and ethnic Pashtun anti-Taliban forces.

It proved sufficient to result in the total collapse of Taliban forces by December 9, 2001.  The only piece of unfinished business was bringing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to justice, the justification for the introduction of large numbers of ground troops to prosecute the war into the Tora Bora region where bin Laden was believed to be hiding.  As we later learned he had escaped, probably on horseback, to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Interview - David FrumDavid Frum, staff to George W. Bush during this period, shared his perspective that the troop build up and 20 year war could have been avoided in an August 15, 2021 article in The Atlantic titled, “The 1 Thing that Could Have Changed the War in Afghanistan.”

Had the United States caught and killed Osama bin Laden in December 2001, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would have faded away almost immediately afterward. I cannot prove that. It’s only an opinion from my vantage point as one of President George W. Bush’s speechwriters in 2001 and 2002.

If true, one wonders if the major deployment of U.S. ground troops to secure the new constitution, democratic elections and Karzi government was a substitute for failing the prime directive, capturing or killing bin Laden.  Not to mention the second Iraq war which diluted resources which could have been devoted to the hunt for bin Laden.

Which brings us to the present.  And my long standing but unproven theory the real tragedy in Afghanistan was the U.S. effort at nation building only postponed an inevitable civil war in which Afghans would decide the nation’s future direction.  If the American war between the states settled some major issues on which the founding fathers punted, why couldn’t a similar intra-national catharsis serve the same purpose elsewhere around the globe?

Strangely, this may become the unintended consequence of the 20 year U.S. presence in “the graveyard of empires.”  Not to shore up a corrupt government.  Not to train a self-sufficient Afghan security force.  Instead, the lasting legacy may be time for a new generation of Afghans, who were unborn or too young to remember Taliban 1.0 in 2001, to grow up in a more open society.  With access to the outside world.  Where women could fully participate in the community.  Where young girls could go to school and dream of becoming doctors, teachers, etc.  A whole generation who is willing to tell the Taliban, “NO!  We do not accept what you offer.”

The first signal this new generation may become a thorn in side of the Taliban emerged in the last 48 hours as reported by two Washington Post correspondents.

(Afghans) staged protests in Kabul and other cities Thursday, challenging Taliban fighters in scattered demonstrations, including at least one that turned deadly…In the capital, men and women carried the black, red and green flags of the Afghan Republic, chanting “our flag, our identity,” according to videos posted online.

~Erin Cunningham & Rachel Pannet/August 19, 2021

The numbers are not in the Taliban’s favor.  The United Nations Population Fund in Afghanistan (UNPFA) reports 63.7 of the 37.3 million residents are 25 years of age or younger.  Compare that to the estimated 200,000 members of the Taliban.  Yes, there will likely be a continuing humanitarian crisis, bloodshed and days on which the cause may seem hopeless.  Nor will it resemble the American Civil War.  The optics are likely to be more akin to “Les Misérables” than “Gone with the Wind.”

But if this new generation of Afghans become the force for change and modernity in this ancient land, this unintended consequence means the expenditure of U.S. talent and treasure, along with that of our allies, will not have been in vain.

For what it’s worth.


What Afghanistan Is NOT


The situation in Afghanistan is a humanitarian tragedy.  One hopes the Biden administration can minimize the suffering by keeping the Kabul airport open and fast tracking emergency visas for those who may be targeted for assisting American operations for the past 20 years.

As was the case on September 11, America once again fell victim to another failure of imagination.  Yes, it was reasonable to expect U.S. trained and equipped security forces to hold back the Taliban to allow for an orderly evacuation.  But, where was the 10th man, a staple of Israeli decision making?  This process was created following the surprise attack on Yom Kippur, 1973 and can be described as follows (Source: Reddit/Historians).

The Tenth Man strategy says that if nine people agree on a particular course of action, the tenth person must, in the context of the strategy, take a contrary approach so that all alternatives can be considered.

At every meeting of Israel’s national security cabinet there is a designated 10th man (or woman).  That individual’s responsibility is to ask, “What if all of us are wrong?  What will we do if every assumption we are making is incorrect?  What if the opposite was true?”

Furthermore, the current crisis is one more example how two things can be true at the same time.  Yesterday, President Biden made a strong and compelling case for the total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.  He was right there would never be a good time to do so.  And another 20 years would not change the inevitable outcome.  And he was correct the original mission was not about nation building.  History taught Biden too many nations had tried and failed to achieve the goal of a stable, centralized government in a country based on regional, tribal loyalties.

However, the exit surely could have been better planned and executed.  All that was needed was one person to ask, “What if every assumption we have made is wrong?  What if the Afghan security forces refuse to fight and lay down their arms without firing a shot?”  Not a farfetched possibility.  After all, U.S. troops had witnessed similar behavior by members of the Iraqi regular army and Sadam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard in 2003.  If that lesson had been heeded, the current chaos might have been avoided.

Notwithstanding the above facts, the media has been quick to make other comparisons which defy logic.  Above all are suggestions a small U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan is nothing compared to the numbers of American stationed at several overseas bases since the end of World War II.  This morning Joe Scarborough put up the following data related to the number of U.S. forces deployed around the world.

South Korea/28,500

Afghanistan is NOT Japan, Germany, South Korea or Italy.  To suggest any such similarity is foolish.  NONE of the four nations are currently engaged in a civil war.  The U.S. mission does NOT involve preventing an insurgency.  The U.S. presence is part of a global, geopolitical strategy of MUTUAL cooperation.  Our troops have the support of stable democracies.  Their troops participate in joint exercises with U.S. personnel.  And all have demonstrated they are willing to come to our aid when we were attacked.

Kurdish YPG Fighters | Warrior woman, Female fighter, Military womenNor, as Scarborough also suggested, is the Afghan situation analogous to the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Syria in November 2019.  If only the Afghan security forces had made a fraction of the effort of the Kurds (pictured) and Syrian resistance forces who were backed up by U.S. special operations forces and air cover in Northern Syria.  They were not just partners, but took the lead when it came to retaking much of the ISIS held territory.  Americans, returning home following deployments to the region, often talked about the commitment and heroism of the Kurds.  Afghan security forces do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.

Let me close with a “10th man” observation which many may find unpopular or even distasteful.  That is what a 10th man is supposed to do.  As I watched thousands of Afghans at Hamid Karzai International Airport desperately trying to board planes, risking and in some cases losing their lives to get out of the country, I wondered how different the situation might be today if those same men and women had been equally committed to holding off the Taliban.  In which case, I might feel differently about Biden’s decision.

For what it’s worth.


American Taliban


The Sunday talk shows were abuzz with stories about the speed at which the Taliban erased 20 years of nation building in Afghanistan.  Many prognosticators had envisioned an ISIS-like reemergence to fill the avoid following an American and allied withdrawal.  But the scope and pace of the demise of the Afghan government challenges the imagination and explains why a country often referred to as “the graveyard of empires” earns its name again and again.  The list seems endless.  Persians.  Greeks. Arabs. Mongols. Sikhs. British. Soviets.  And finally the U.S. and NATO.  To paraphrase an Italian proverb, “Fool me eight times, WTF!”

What I do not understand is why anyone would be surprised by how rapidly the Taliban took advantage of the situation.  Have we not seen this movie before.  Where and when, you ask?  America!  2021!

For 233 years, the United States existed as a democracy in which the peaceful transition of power took place on each and every one of 45 occasions.  The losers conceded and the winners took office.  Violence played no part.  Until January 6, 2021.  However, if you think I am comparing the insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol to Sunday’s occupation of the presidential office in Kabul, you are mistaken.

The better analogy is the ongoing effort to change the method by which our leaders are chosen.  And the elected and appointed GOP officials who have promoted and enabled the change.  The “big lie” was an opportunity for the American Taliban to go on the offensive just as the withdrawal of allied troops from Afghanistan opened the door for the Afghan Taliban to return to power.

It is difficult to tell who stole the battle plan from whom.  Just like their middle eastern counterparts, the American Taliban started its assault at the provincial (i.e. state) level.  One by one Republican governors and legislatures passed new laws to address non-existent voter fraud.  According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “Between January 1 and May 14, 2021, at least 14 states enacted 22 new laws that restrict access to the vote.”  Dozens more are already in progress or waiting in the wings.

However, many analysts have warned this is not about voter suppression.  If nothing else, we learned in 2020 those most affected by state and local voting laws and governors’ executive orders, making it harder to vote, showed they were willing to walk through fire to be heard.  When the GOP realized voter suppression tactics had the opposite effect, they moved in a new and more sinister direction.  Create methods by which Republican dominated legislatures could nullify the vote count.  In other words, if you disagree with the electoral outcome, ignore it.

In many of those states, despite persistent warnings, nominal opposition fell by the wayside as quickly as Afghan security forces, leaving a clear path for insurgents to achieve their goal of changing the rules by which elections are conducted.  Questions have been raised why Democratic leaders in these jurisdictions did not follow the example of Texas legislators who have used every tactic at their disposal to hold off this assault on democracy. Sadly, the national Democratic leadership has ignored the calls for help. A la Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, congressional Democrats fled the nation’s capital following the failure of a closure vote on the voting rights bill.  The next question is whether Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer will join the ranks of Ghani and Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf (aka Baghdad Bob), claiming “all is well” right up to the moment democracy is overrun.

H.L. Mencken, the 'Sage of Baltimore' - Baltimore SunBut the future of democracy ultimately resides with “we, the people.”  As H. L. Mencken wrote, “People deserve the government they get, and they deserve to get it good and hard.”  With the exception of a few activists in each state, where is the uproar from the general populace?  Again, a situation analogous to current events in Afghanistan.  This week, we learned first hand the Ghani government had neither the respect nor loyalty of the 300,000 U.S. trained and equipped security forces or the millions of citizens we always assumed would stand up to the Taliban.  Likewise, it is one thing to declare a belief in democracy.  It is quite another to stand up for it.

While the battle, as was the case in Afghanistan, started at the subnational level, make no mistake.  If the GOP takes control of Congress in 2022, like Kabul, Washington will be the final domino to fall.  Certifying the electoral college vote will become more than a pro forma exercise, setting the stage for the ultimate assault on democracy in 2024.

If you thought the electoral college was counter to the principle of one-person, one vote best articulated by the Supreme Court in 1962 in the case of Baker v. Carr, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Just wait until a contested election is decided under the following provisions of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution.

…the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote.

Liz Cheney - WikipediaYou read that correctly.  If the GOP had succeeded in their effort not to count the state-certified electors from three jurisdictions in 2020, sole Wyoming representative Liz Cheney’s vote would have had the same weight as the 52 member congressional delegation from California.  And the 27 states with GOP-dominated House delegations could have thrown the election to Donald Trump despite the 7.5 million margin in the popular vote and 74 vote margin in the electoral college.

Not unlike Sunday morning, when Afghans woke up to the realization insurgents were at the gates of the city, Americans may have a similar experience days or weeks after November 5, 2024.  Only then will they understand it does not matter how they voted.  That is what happens when ballots are subject to what can only be described as a “Tally Ban.”

For what it’s worth.