Why Belgium?

I don’t know much about Belgium. But it is extraordinary the way so many terror plots have the country at their heart – or at least some passing acquaintance. There’s a list here.

But why? Well Tony Judt wrote this in the NYRB way back in 1999. Plenty of people have been flagging it up on Twitter. Is it relevant? Is it accurate? I have no idea, but it seems worth reading.

Even the transportation system has a curiously decentered, self-deprecating quality. A major junction in the trans-European network, Brussels has three railway stations; but none of them is a terminus—trains to Brussels go to and through all three stations. The “Central Station” is, symptomatically, the least of them—obscure, featureless, and buried underground beneath a heap of concrete. As with its stations, so with the city itself: Brussels has successfully effaced itself. Whatever “there” was once there has been steadily dismantled. The outcome is an unaspiring anonymity, a sort of underachieving cultural incognito of which Sarajevo and Jerusalem can only dream.

But the scandals and their shadow won’t go away, with their dead politicians, dead prosecutors, dead children, escaped criminals, incompetent and corrupt police forces, and a widespread sense of neglect and abandonment. Last summer it seemed to many that the Belgian state could no longer perform its primary mission: the protection of the individual citizen. Swayed by political and economic forces beyond its control, caught between federalist decentralization and uncoordinated, incompetent government agencies without resources or respect, Belgium is the first advanced country truly at the mercy of globalization in all its forms. It is beginning to dawn on more than a few Belgians that in progressively dismantling and disabling the unitary state in order to buy off its internal critics, they may have made a Faustian bargain.

As we enter the twenty-first century, and an uncertain era in which employment, security, and the civic and cultural core of nations will all be exposed to unprecedented and unregulated pressures beyond local control, the advantage will surely lie with countries whose governments can offer some guarantees of protection and a sense of cohesion and common purpose compatible with the preservation of civil and political liberties. So Belgium does matter, and not just to Belgians. Far from being a model, it may be a warning: we all know, at the end of the twentieth century, that you can have too much state. But Belgium may be a useful reminder that you can also have too little.

The G word in Burundi

Using the term genocide is frequently the last resort of agencies that have run out of ideas. It can do more harm than good – as readers of this blog will know only too well. And now it is being deployed in relation to Burundi. Kate Cronin-Furman and MIchael Broache have this useful overview…

Inaccurate understandings of what’s happening on the ground lead to poorly tailored prevention efforts. And the rush to be seen doing something, anything, to prevent genocide will only exacerbate this issue. In fact, we saw this in Rwanda in 1994, when an ill-designed French intervention to establish “safe areas” was welcomed by the international community. It ultimatelyfacilitated the escape of key Hutu extremist members of the government — a longtime French ally — and arguably prolonged the violence.

Obama or Trump?

Two politicians, one in a book and the other a “conversation with”. One is Barack Obama, the other is Donald Trump. Not so very dissimilar in some ways… Just the level of hyperbole…

Our infrastructure is terrible, and it’s only getting worse and more expensive to fix. It’s already costing the American people an estimated $ 200 billion a year in reduced productivity. That number is increasing annually. Instead of being at the office or in the factory getting work done, Americans waste countless hours every day sitting in traffic jams or waiting for stalled trains. We depend on our truckers to deliver the goods we need, and they end up wasting an unbelievable amount of time because our highway system is falling apart.

And this:

Anyway, Donald Trump has been underestimated every step of the way by the political elite and the journalists who sometimes fail to see beyond Washington. For what it’s worth, he is looking more serious by the day.

Here’s my take.

New York City really had it all, oh yeah, oh yeah…

THERE IS A STRONG CURRENT of nostalgia for the late ’70s and early ’80s in New York, even among those who never lived through it — the era when the city was edgy and dangerous, when women carried Mace in their purses, when even men asked the taxi driver to wait until they’d crossed the 15 feet to the front door of their building, when a blackout plunged whole neighborhoods into frantic looting, when subway cars were covered with graffiti, when Balanchine was at the height of his powers and the New York State Theater was New York’s intellectual salon, when John Lennon was murdered by a Salinger-reading born-again, when Philip Roth was already famous, Don DeLillo had yet to become famous, and most literary insiders were betting on Harold Brodkey’s long-awaited novel, which his editor, Gordon Lish, declared would be ‘‘the one necessary American narrative work of this century.’’ (It flopped when it finally came out in 1991 as ‘‘The Runaway Soul.’’)

There’s a new TV show, Vinyl, coming soon and it is a fertile setting for recent novels.

But should we be nostalgic for Gotham of yesteryear, with its shakedowns, mafia and murders?

The Mets and me

Watching Bartolo Colon from the expensive seats (for once)

Watching Bartolo Colon from the expensive seats (for once)

Watching baseball involves an investment of time. Not just the three hours plus of the regular game, but an investment of months or years. It’s just like cricket in that the longer you spend on it the more you will take from it.

Then there is the literature too. Fantastic. The best writing in the newspaper. And have you ever noticed how baseball films are always watchable? Unlike football (soccer) or most other sports…

For at the core of this sport is something basic, primal almost. One man is hurling the ball at another who is battling for his (sporting) life. Its complex rulebook boils down to something very straightforward. And that is the key of its appeal for me.

Here’s what I wrote about my season supporting the New York Mets.

Islamic State in Afghanistan

A lot of guff has been written about the Islamic State in Afghanistan, propelled by local officials keen to keep Western money (and US soldiers) coming and Middle East analysis that fails to take account of South Asian factors. This piece offers a useful corrective, while considering Mullah Mansoor’s status and challenges as head of the Taliban:

While the Islamic State will likely continue to expand in Afghanistan, there may be a ceiling to its growth. One factor is the Taliban’s continued success on the battlefield. Another is that the majority of the population of southern and eastern Afghanistan identify as Deobandi. Extremist-leaning young men in these areas have naturally gravitated toward the Taliban, which claims to be the modern political manifestation of the Deobandi movement. Relatively few Deobandis have joined the Islamic State because of theological differences with the Islamic State’s ultra-hardline Salafi approach and the perception it is a “foreign” construct.

The no name nation

I haven’t seen Beasts of No Nation, so I’ll reserve judgement until I have. But here’s something that will niggle. Why is the setting not named?

Fictional countries are possibly even worse. So that’s a step forward. But here’s the rub… 

What we see is awful, but the vagueness of the setting blunts the film’s political and moral impact. (It’s also strange that the war-ravaged nation remains unnamed. Imagine a fiercely realistic film about genocidal violence in the 1940s set in a place identified only as “Europe.”)