Sunday, February 27, 2011
It’s strewn those blue eyes all over the harbor.
Come, I haven’t had word of you in ages.
You’re constantly terrified,
Like the kittens we drowned when we were little.
Come and we’ll talk over all of the old same things,
The value of being pleasant,
The need to adjust to the doubts,
How to fill the holes we’ve got inside us.
Come, feel the morning reaching your face,
Whenever we’re saddened everything looks dark,
When we’re heartened, again, the world crumbles.
Every one of us keeps forever someone else’s hidden side,
If it’s a secret, if a mistake, if a gesture.
Come and we’ll flay the winners,
Laughing at our self leapt off the bridgeway.
We’ll watch the cranes at work in the port in silence,
The gift for being together in silence being
The principal proof of friendship.
Come with me, I want to change nations,
Change towns. Leave this body aside
And go into a shell with you,
With our smallness, like sea snails.
Come, I’m waiting for you,
We’ll continue the story that ended a year ago,
As if inside the white birches next to the river
Not a single additional ring had grown.
In the summer of 2007, the senior leadership of al-Qaida decided on a major effort in Egypt, Algeria and Libya. Their campaign elsewhere in the Middle East, after an apparently promising start, had not been going very well. Public sentiment in key countries had turned against the extremists the moment bombs started going off locally. Supporting far-off violence was one thing. Blasts in hotels or on the streets of your home town was something different, it seemed. In Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, popular support for the extremists was plummeting.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Cairo suburb-born former medical doctor who leads al-Qaida with Osama bin Laden, tasked Mohammed Hakaima, an Egyptian veteran militant, with creating a regional franchise for the group in his native land. "O heroes, strike … all the Zionist-Crusader targets in the land of Egypt without shedding the blood of Muslims," Hakaima told his countrymen. Few did. Based in Pakistan, all Hakaima could do was to make approaches to potential collaborators online. He was killed in a drone strike in mid 2008. The project for an "al-Qaida in the land of Egypt" died with him.
Hosni Mubarak, even in the death throes of his regime, did not have the temerity to blame al-Qaida for his downfall. Not so Colonel Gaddafi, who says Bin Laden has been duping Libyan youth with drugs to foment violence. Both the accusation of involvement in narcotics and domestic unrest have long pedigrees. Many, including the British government, have claimed that Bin Laden is involved in the heroin trade though no evidence for such a link exists, for example. And dozens of unsavoury and repressive regimes (mainly allies of the west) have invoked the name of the al-Qaida leader to get diplomatic, military, financial or commercial benefits or explain away internal discontent and dissent.
As in Egypt, Islamic militancy in Libya goes back decades, even to colonial days. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were active in the 1990s as, in Egypt, was Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad. Between 2004 and 2006, captured records show Libya provided a disproportionate number of foreign "mujahideen" in Iraq. When "al-Qaida in the Maghreb" was formed in 2006, Zawahiri hoped that fusing existing Algerian and Libyan groups, would gain the al-Qaida hardcore new capabilities and a springboard into Europe. But the merger merely revealed the weakness and parochialism of all involved and has since collapsed.
In recent years, Libyan Islamic extremist activists have split. An old guard, largely from their prison cells inside the country, have rejected violence, publishing a vast collective treatise on why bombs and bullets are not justified means of overthrowing a government, however irreligious or distasteful. A young guard, largely in Pakistan, still spit bile. Many of the latter now hold high rank within the al-Qaida "hardcore". However their seniority is not matched by influence on the ground. The very few active militant networks existing in (mainly eastern and south-western) Libya are independent of the leadership of Bin Laden's group.
The truth is that al-Qaida's senior leadership are physically, culturally and ideologically too distant from current events to play any significant role in them. This is demonstrated by the total failure of either bin Laden or Zawahiri to even issue a timely, pertinent comment on the events. So far all we have had is a dated and long-winded statement by Zawahiri released piecemeal apparently weeks after it was recorded and an online pledge apparently from an unidentified spokesman in the region "to help in any way possible".
That recent events pose a challenge to al-Qaida is clear. Its rhetoric was already tired before the "Arab spring". A sudden interest in climate change last year was a feeble attempt to rejuvenate it. The ageing Zawahiri even took his glasses off in one video. But, clearly, to no avail. The slogans of Cairo or Benghazi are an explicit rejection of al-Qaida's message. They make no references to faith or the "Crusader-Zionist alliance". If Gaddafi and Mubarak are described as traitors, it is the nation – an idea seen by al'Qaeda as an illegitimate Western creation – that they have betrayed, not the ummah, the global community of Muslims.
Though currently banished to the physical and ideological margins of the Islamic world, al-Qaida's influence is still present – if only indirectly. Firsty, the return to nationalism is in part a reaction to the failure of the group's "global jihad", an ideology as disrespectful of local identities and independence as any other. Second, the polarisation resulting from the acts of al-Qaida and the western reaction to them over the last decade has contributed significantly to the broadly conservative social and religious views now held by very many people across the Islamic world. This latter element, controversially labelled "re-Islamisation" by some scholars, is likely to be of critical importance when, after the heady rush of events of recent weeks, the region finally pauses for breath.
Even this new conservatism however is not necessarily good news for al-Qaida. It exists largely outside traditional political activity and is more likely to work to the advantage of such classic political Islamists as the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood than anyone else. Zawahiri for one has previously made little secret of his contempt for the Brotherhood, which he considers hypocritical and compromised. His stance is further evidence of the shift of the "global jihad" to the intellectual and geographic periphery of the Islamic world. There is little consolation anywhere these days for al-Qaida's increasingly irrelevant leaders.
Friday, February 25, 2011
The collapse in Tuesday's earthquake of the bell tower of ChristChurch cathedral is a tragedy both for those killed and for the heart and soul of New Zealand's second city. The tower was the focus point at the heart of this charming, peaceful chip off the old British block. Its loss is symbolic of the tragedy. It should be rebuilt at once.
Cities vary widely in their response to disaster. London reacted to terrorist attack differently from New York. The resignation of the poor of Pakistan, Haiti and Indonesia faced with earthquake and tsunami surprised western observers, as families and villages turned in on themselves and found a comfort and security the state could not supply. It is the same in time of war.
In each case someone comes along shouting for a memorial. They demand some artist's self-regarding creation of modern sculpture, like a Diana fountain. They demand hunks of concrete and steel, cenotaphs and memorial walls, the crude litterings of New York's Ground Zero or London's Hyde Park Corner. It is as if tragedy required atonement in an all too visible and eternal gesture of commemoration.
I am sure there will be talk in New Zealand of how – and if – the tower's stump should be handled. Whenever a prominent building is damaged or destroyed, there are those who see an opportunity to make some personal statement, if not to win a contract. Some will claim that the ChristChurch ruin should be left as a memorial, even an exercise in urban picturesque.
Some may claim the site should be cleared and used for something else. Some may claim there should be a new tower, but in the "modern idiom", which nowadays usually means a spike, a lump of concrete, a rolled-steel joist or a corkscrew.
I believe that the evil of a disaster, whatever its cause, is best conquered by reinstating the good that was before. This was illustrated in the postwar efforts of defeated, ruined European cities to reinstate what bombs and shells had obliterated. No sooner had the guns gone silent than the citizens of Warsaw were seen with wheelbarrows, spades and trowels, carting in materials to rebuild their Old Town square. It was the boldest possible assertion of their cultural identity and continuity. It restored their morale.
In the same spirit, Stalin ordered the restoration of Leningrad's ruined palaces, even though they evoked the age of the tsars and even though those working on them were starving in their hovels. France rebuilt Caen abbey and the centre of Tours. The recent civil war devastated the former Yugoslavia's churches and mosques. It is being redeemed, where possible, by their reconstruction.
Britain, in contrast, boasted its victory in 1945 by redoubling the destruction of the Luftwaffe. Building contractors descended on Bristol, Plymouth, Southampton and Coventry and tore down what had been left of their historic cores. Neighbourhoods that should have been reinstated to reassert respect for the country's values and give back a spirit of history to its cities were turned into banal modernist memorials to bomber and bulldozer alike.
On Wednesday the dean of ChristChurch cathedral said that the loss of his tower was devastating, "but the most important thing at the moment is not the buildings, it's the people". The dead must be found and buried. I would question only the implied demotion of the buildings. Unlike dead people they can live again, and if revived can restore more than brick and stone. They restore morale, civic pride and collective memory.
ChristChurch cathedral tower is the totem of civic continuity. Begun in 1864, it was built apart from the nave to minimise collateral damage should it fall. The same was true of some East Anglican churches, whose flint and mortar construction made them unstable. While not the greatest work of its English architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott, ChristChurch was in the muscular two-tone gothic favoured for his overseas commissions, as in Newfoundland and South Africa. They reminded the early settlers that Northamptonshire was just a hop and a skip away.
Scott's design was vindicated in Tuesday's collapse, when the tower did not fall on the adjacent church. It had already suffered earthquakes in 1888, 1901 and 2010. On the last occasion, its bells eerily started ringing at the height of the quake, released from their locks to swing free, as if given tongue by the subterranean forces of nature.
Reinstating the past induces existential horror in architects and city planners. The rebuilding of Warsaw is still dismissed as "Disneyland nostalgia" by leftwing critics, for whom the hapless citizens should have awaited the arrival of Le Corbusier and his concrete mixer. A similar "truth to history" led the communists to argue that Dresden's Frauenkirche should be left as a heap of rubble and not be rebuilt, as it has been magnificently. Some wanted the World Trade Centre left as a gaping memorial, the same cult of the ruin as led the Picturesque Romantic William Gilpin to demand that a few more corbels be knocked off Tintern Abbey, the better to evoke the cruel transience of history.
There are those who object to English Heritage's admirable reinstatement of Norman Dover Castle as "Disneyfication", and who abuse Moscow for reconstructing its pre-revolutionary churches as "Disneyland" facsimiles, rather than as steel and concrete boxes. This attitude infests Unesco and the council of Europe, to yield such absurdities as the spatchcock Erechtheion pseudo-ruin on the Acropolis in Athens, and the diktat that the Bamiyan Buddhas, blown up by the Taliban, should not be replaced. The giant niches should be left empty and "true", presumably to punish local peasants for allowing the Taliban to take power in the first place. As Nato bombers pulverise their villages, they will doubtless be banned from restoring them too.
The Victorians of Scott's day suffered no such mumbo jumbo to impede them in the greatest ever rescue of ancient civilisation, that of medieval Europe from industrial and political revolution. From Carcassonne to the Tower of London, from Durham cathedral to the west front of Chartres, from thousands of English churches to almost every medieval structure in Europe, the Victorians studied and sought to restore the past for the enjoyment and edification of the present. Had some official fussed over their archaeological "authenticity", all would have disappeared.
For the Victorians a great building was more than the sum of its parts. It was a manifestation of human identity. Western historians may feel that when a building is damaged or destroyed the ruin should be retained as "part of its memory". But who are they to dictate? Why should the gaping scars of other people's tragedies be left unrepaired, so some pundit can exult in "the pleasure of ruins"? A readiness to restore, to make amends, to gather up the nerve-endings of history to help a community resume normal life, these are surely the best future for a devastated past.
Scott's cathedral tower should be reconstructed as a matter of priority. That way Christchurch will recover quickest from its trauma.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Saturday, February 19, 2011
On 1 February, Issan Nadir tipped petrol on his clothes and set fire to himself outside the education ministry in the Moroccan capital of Rabat. It was yet another desperate act of self-immolation in a region where the example set by Muhammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller who sparked a wave of revolution, has been imitated from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia.
The flames were doused before Nadir, a 27-year-old volunteer teacher demanding a paid job, could do as much damage to himself as Bouazizi. Video footage seen by the Guardian shows firefighters frantically putting out flames in front of the ministry.
After a week in Rabat's Ibn Sina hospital, Nadir is recovering in his home town of Safi. "He doesn't want to see anyone," says his friend and fellow protester Hafid Libi."If they don't do anything, there may be more of the same."
Nadir is not the only protester to have set fire to himself. Last week 26-year-old Mourad Raho died in Benguerir, 36 miles north of Marrakech. Five similar attempts have been reported in recent weeks.
Popular demonstrations called for this Sunday will be a test of both public upset with the regime led by King Mohammed VI and how far Morocco – which claims to be more liberal than its north African neighbours – is prepared to tolerate protest.
Nadir's fellow protesters were outside the ministry again last week, together with a thousand employed teachers demanding better pay. A fire engine stood by, just in case. Police looked on, but allowed the ritualistic protests by those seeking government jobs – which are a regular part of Rabat life – to continue.
Protests, however, are nothing new. A small but wealthy ruling elite claims the 20 or more legal demonstrations held every day make Morocco immune to the regime-ousting rage of Tunisia or Egypt. Moroccans can let off steam, they argue, so they will not overthrow an executive monarchy that claims religious legitimacy and four centuries of dynastic continuity.
They also claim King Mohammed carried out Morocco's revolution himself by bringing in reforms and greater freedoms when he came to the throne 12 years ago, including improved women's rights and an investigation into repression carried out under his father, Hassan II.
"Our monarchy is one of the oldest in the world and the king is the Commander of the Believers; there is a large consensus around this system, as well as around the personality of the king," says Braham Fassi Fihri, president of Rabat's Amadeus thinktank.
But where some see a Moroccan "exception", others see complacency, arrogance and shrinking freedoms. "You still have safety valves, but the regime is trying to shut them down," says Abubakr Jamai, former editor of the defunct Le Journal newspaper. "Tunisian society was relatively egalitarian. In Morocco the difference in wealth is obscene. You can imagine what would happen if people took to the streets."
A more radical kind of protest fire is burning on Facebook. Three separate groups have sprouted up, calling the country's youth out on to the streets of 20 major cities, including Casablanca, Marrakech, Rabat and Tangier on Sunday to demand constitutional reform and proper democracy.
"We are mostly between 23 and 25 years old," explained Osama el-Khlifi, one of the originators.In his baseball cap and short, straggly beard, the 23-year-old police officer's son explained that the main things that united campaigners were their youth and determination. "We include Islamists, liberals and leftwingers," he said.
"After Tunisia we began to debate on Facebook whether we should follow other peoples and call a youth demonstration," explained Khlifi, an unemployed computer technician from Salé, near Rabat. The group wants the constitution changed so they can have "real government, a real parliament and real justice".Khlifi insists their target is not the untouchable monarch, but the makhzen – the powerful, wealthy, and often hated power structure surrounding him. The demonstrator's manifesto includes a carefully worded demand for the king's role in a future constitution to be of a "natural size".
"The impact of this is huge. People are now debating the monarchy and its powers," said one campaigner who will be marching in Marrakech. But with illiteracy rates at 44%, he fears most Moroccans do not even know what a constitution is. "They want to keep people in ignorance," he said.
Officially, the powers that be are not worried,though they doubled subsidies on basic foodstuffs this week. "Morocco is a country that has engaged, for a long time now, in an irreversible process of democracy and openness on liberties," government spokesman Khalid Naciri told journalists. "It does not bother us that citizens express themselves freely, as long as this happens in full respect of our country's immutable values and supreme and vital interests." Moroccans all know that those "immutable values" are meant to include the monarchy.
Morocco has a parliament, but the king and his councillors maintain vast powers. His wealth, estimated at $2.5bn (£1.5bn), puts him seventh on the Forbes list of richest royals. And some of the freedoms he brought at his accession in 1999 are waning.
"There are no independent newspapers left now," said Ali Anouzla, former editor of al-Jarida al-Oula, who was taken to court for reporting on the king's health before his newspaper closed. Morocco has expelled the Arab-language news channel al-Jazeera.– a vital witness to trouble in Egypt and Tunisia. Civil society is, by the region's standards, active.
Morocco also shares some of the key trends that fanned the flames of revolution in Tunisia and Egypt. They include a young, Facebook-savvy population, free to gather information on the internet and confronted by endemic corruption and what some call hogra, or humiliation by the state.
Questions about Tunisia or Egypt make those who routinely protest in Rabat's streets, including thousands of unemployed graduates, nervous. "This is a social protest, not a political one," insisted graduate Souad, after she and others marched to the outer gates of King Mohammed's palace compound, the mechouar, to demand jobs last week.
Police beat protesters when they got this close to the monarch's seat in January. This time they avoided violence – perhaps wary of provoking scenes that led to revolution elsewhere. But Souad and her friends were still edgy. "Can you prove you are a journalist?" they asked. They were worried they might be talking to a secret police officer.
Osama el-Khlifi is already the subject of a campaign of harassment, with late-night threatening calls to his home. His father has been warned that his son may be arrested and pro-regime media have claimed he is everything from an anarchist to a drunk, gay agent of neighbouring Algeria or an apostate. "I am worried I will be targeted by radical Islamists," he says. Half a dozen campaigners were interrogated by police, and released, on Thursday for handing out flyers in Marrakech, Kenitra and Casablanca.
The protests are meant to be peaceful and Khlifi hopes the government will not react violently. "We are not afraid, we will go out and we will demonstrate," he said.
So will the protests be like those in Egypt or Tunisia?
"My personal view is that Morocco may stand as an exception," says political scientist Mohamed Daadaoui, a Morocco specialist at Oklahoma City University. "That doesn't mean we won't see demonstrations, just that they will be smaller."
With protesters themselves calling for peaceful evolution rather than revolution, the regime is being invited to take the initiative. "The king has to act, or the consequences could be dire," warned one young marcher.
Those campaigning for change save their bile for the makhzen and the elite families from Fes, including that of the prime minister, Abbas El Fassi, whose fingers are in major pies from the government to the big banks.
Corruption is rampant in courts, business and health services, according to Transparency Maroc. But while Mohammed VI proclaims he wants corruption dealt with, WikiLeaks files show cronyism reaches into the heart of his palace. Diplomatic cables feature one former US ambassador to Rabat condemning "the appalling greed of those close to King Mohammed VI".
"Major institutions and processes of the Moroccan state are used by the palace to coerce and solicit bribes in the real estate sector," one senior Moroccan businessman complained to US diplomats, adding that the royal family's own holding company regularly coerced developers. Three people control the major real estate deals in Morocco, he told the Americans. They included the king, his friend Fouad El Himma, who heads the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, and the man in charge of the king's secretariat, Mohamed Mounir al-Majidi.
The impact of Sunday's protest will be measured in turnout and police reaction. Around 20,000 of Morocco's 3 million Facebook users have joined the protest groups– which have names such as Youth For Democracy or Liberty And Democracy Now. A further 250,000 people have viewed a YouTube video backing them. Human rights groups, an Islamist youth group and some trade unions have offered support – as has the king's cousin, the "red prince", Moulay Hicham.
An important boost would be the presence of Justice and Spirituality, the non-violent Islamist social movement that is Morocco's biggest organised group, claiming well over 200,000 well-disciplined members, many of them students or young graduates. The sufi group, potentially the regime's most powerful opponent, has put out a statement which coincides with many of the 20 February aims.
"We are not the instigators of February 20, but we are with the youth," said Nadya Yassine, daughter of the group's founder, in an interview with the Guardian. Yassine likens the style of the movement, which abhors Saudi-style Salafism, to that of the leftwing liberation theology that swept through Catholic Latin America in the 1970s. WikiLeaks documents show that US diplomats who met the group did not see it turning violent.
Yassine holds up the examples of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development party and Europe's Christian Democrats as proof that religion and democracy can mix. Were Morocco to have a genuine democracy, she says, Justice and Spirituality would join the political fray. "We are for multi-partyism and elections," she said.
In fact, those are principles that Justice and Spirituality was preaching long before other Islamist movements in the region decided that democracy was the way forward. It is also the one group in Morocco that has been prepared to raise questions about the king's role, with Yassine herself currently involved in a court case that could see her receive a five-year prison term for breaking that taboo.But will their people protest on Sunday?
"If we have the guarantee that the demonstration will be peaceful and that there will be no harm to people or goods then we support Moroccan youth," Yassine said. "I am talking about the demonstrators, not the police. There can be no guarantee with the makhzen."
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Robots could soon have an equivalent of the internet and Wikipedia.
European scientists have embarked on a project to let robots share and store what they discover about the world.
Called RoboEarth it will be a place that robots can upload data to when they master a task, and ask for help in carrying out new ones.
Researchers behind it hope it will allow robots to come into service more quickly, armed with a growing library of knowledge about their human masters.Share plan
The idea behind RoboEarth is to develop methods that help robots encode, exchange and re-use knowledge, said RoboEarth researcher Dr Markus Waibel from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
"Most current robots see the world their own way and there's very little standardisation going on," he said. Most researchers using robots typically develop their own way for that machine to build up a corpus of data about the world.
This, said Dr Waibel, made it very difficult for roboticists to share knowledge or for the field to advance rapidly because everyone started off solving the same problems.
By contrast, RoboEarth hopes to start showing how the information that robots discover about the world can be defined so any other robot can find it and use it.
RoboEarth will be a communication system and a database, he said.
In the database will be maps of places that robots work, descriptions of objects they encounter and instructions for how to complete distinct actions.
The human equivalent would be Wikipedia, said Dr Waibel.
"Wikipedia is something that humans use to share knowledge, that everyone can edit, contribute knowledge to and access," he said. "Something like that does not exist for robots."
It would be great, he said, if a robot could enter a location that it had never visited before, consult RoboEarth to learn about that place and the objects and tasks in it and then quickly get to work.
While other projects are working on standardising the way robots sense the world and encode the information they find, RoboEarth tries to go further.
"The key is allowing robots to share knowledge," said Dr Waibel. "That's really new."
RoboEarth is likely to become a tool for the growing number of service and domestic robots that many expect to become a feature in homes in coming decades.
Dr Waibel said it would be a place that would teach robots about the objects that fill the human world and their relationships to each other.
For instance, he said, RoboEarth could help a robot understand what is meant when it is asked to set the table and what objects are required for that task to be completed.
The EU-funded project has about 35 researchers working on it and hopes to demonstrate how the system might work by the end of its four-year duration.
Early work has resulted in a way to download descriptions of tasks that are then executed by a robot. Improved maps of locations can also be uploaded.A system such as RoboEarth was going to be essential, said Dr Waibel, if robots were going to become truly useful to humans.
Technology correspondent, BBC News
Monday, February 14, 2011
Saturday, February 12, 2011
Friday, February 11, 2011
Thursday, February 10, 2011
ASKED what he specialised in, Daniel Bell replied: “generalisations”. Mr Bell lived a varied life. He grew up in New York City, so poor that he sometimes had to scavenge for food. Yet he ended his days in bourgeois comfort in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He spent 20 years as a journalist, mostly as Fortune’s labour editor, before decamping to academia. His boss, Henry Luce, desperate to keep his star writer, asked him why he was leaving. He gave four reasons: June, July, August and September.
His taste for generalisations grew with the eating. He produced three of the great works of post-war sociology: “The End of Ideology” (1960), “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society” (1973) and “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” (1978). On the Times Literary Supplement’s list of the 100 most influential books since the second world war, two were by Mr Bell.
Many of Mr Bell’s insights remain as relevant today as when he first broached them. For example, the transition from industrial to consumer capitalism, which he chronicled in America decades ago, is now happening in China and India. Even when he was wrong, Mr Bell was wrong in thought-provoking ways. A few hours with his oeuvre is worth more than a week in Davos (and is less likely to cause skiing injuries).
“The End of Ideology” described the political landscape of the post-cold-war world 30 years before the cold war ended. Mr Bell argued that the great ideological struggles that had defined the first half of the 20th century were exhausted. The new politics, he said, would be about boring administration, not the clash of ideals. His timing could hardly have been worse: the 1960s was one of the most ideologically charged decades in American history. Nonetheless, Mr Bell was right that the ideology of communism was doomed. In China it has given way to market Leninism. In Russia it has been replaced by kleptocracy.
Mr Bell spent the next decade and a bit working on a huge book, “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society”, a term he coined and which caught on. Many of the book’s insights—about the shift from manufacturing to services, the rise of knowledge workers and the waning of the class struggle—have now become so familiar that it is easy to forget how fresh they were in 1973. However, Mr Bell failed to spot one of the revolutions that was whirling around him: the transition from the managerial capitalism that he witnessed at Fortune to a much more freewheeling entrepreneurial capitalism. Perhaps this was the price he paid for spurning Luce and moving to academia.
Many of his other insights still bite. He argued that the old-fashioned class struggle was being replaced by other, equally vexatious conflicts: for example, between the principles of equality and meritocracy in higher education. He also anticipated the current debate about happiness by pointing out that material progress cannot eliminate the frustrations inherent in the zero-sum competition for power, prestige and the attention of the sexiest person in the room. The more people are free to rise on their own merits, the more they will race on the treadmill for status.
Mr Bell’s best book was “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism”. In it he raised the possibility that the material abundance that capitalism produces might destroy the very virtues that had made capitalism possible in the first place. Capitalism, as Max Weber said, depends on the Puritan virtues of hard work, thrift and deferred gratification. But modern consumerism was stimulating the appetite for instant gratification and irrational self-expression, Mr Bell worried. The Protestant ethic was being destroyed by the shopping mall and the counter-culture.
This argument is not watertight. Despite Mr Bell’s cultural contradictions and Karl Marx’s economic contradictions, capitalism is still going strong. In “Bobos in Paradise” David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, argued that a cocktail of bourgeois virtues and bohemian values can prove economically invigorating. Some of the most successful companies in recent years have been founded by such un-Puritanical figures as Sir Richard Branson (Virgin), Steve Jobs (Apple) and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (Ben & Jerry’s). High-tech companies such as Google have no difficulty in combining the profit motive with the ethos of a campus. But in one area Mr Bell was prescient: he worried that consumerism was encouraging people to borrow more money than they could reasonably hope to repay.
He was even more prescient about what might be called “the cultural contradictions of the welfare state”. This was the subject of passionate debate in the pages of the Public Interest, a journal he co-founded in 1965 with another poor-boy-made-good, Irving Kristol. The welfare state cannot last unless someone creates the wealth to pay for it. But interest groups demand ever more from the state, and politicians jostle to promise more goodies. As the welfare state expands, it can eventually undermine people’s willingness to take risks or look after themselves.
One of Mr Bell’s most provocative insights ran throughout his work. This was the idea that, contrary to what economic determinists such as Marx said, different “realms” of society could operate according to different principles. (Always wary of the neoconservative label that Kristol embraced with such enthusiasm, Mr Bell described himself as a “socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture”.) Capitalism might co-exist just as happily with Chinese authoritarianism as with American democracy, he reckoned. In this, one hopes that the great polymath was wrong.
Monday, February 07, 2011
Sunday, February 06, 2011
Wednesday, February 02, 2011
Tuesday, February 01, 2011
PITY the books of Leuven, a seat of learning since 1425. The Dutch humanist Erasmus taught at the university; Mercator, the Flemish cartographer who projected the globe, learnt maths there. But besides intellectual ferment, Leuven has known much cultural vandalism. Some manuscripts were carted to Paris when French revolutionaries closed the university. The library was set ablaze by the Germans in the first world war. It was rebuilt with international (mainly American) help, and burnt again in the second world war.
In 1968, though, it was the Belgians themselves who cleft the book collection during their language wars. To Flemish students’ cries of Walen Buiten (“Walloons Out”), the French-speaking bit of the university was ejected. The library’s 1.6m books were divided, often by the crude expedient of keeping odd-numbered tomes in Leuven and sending even-numbered ones to the new campus of Louvain-la-Neuve, in French-speaking Wallonia.
The 1968 partition divided the Catholic church (both universities are Catholic) and brought down the government. Belgium’s conservative Catholic party split into Francophone and Flemish halves, followed by the liberals and the socialists. Belgian politics became tribal, with each party championing its own linguistic agenda. Over the years these rows have turned Belgium into a near-ungovernable federation, with powers devolved downwards. The Belgian state has become a hollowed-out shell, with a little-loved flag and a forlorn sovereign, Albert II, who could yet end up as the last king of the Belgians—indeed, the last Belgian.
Chronic bickering since the election in June 2010 has left a caretaker government in office for 230 days and counting, a European record. Belgium is on course to beat Iraq’s 289 days without a government. Yet the country has so many layers of administration that daily life goes on. Belgian ministers made a decent fist of their country’s six-month rotating presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2010. Eurocrats in Brussels are only faintly aware of living in a paralysed country. And, despite a few recent wobbles, the bond markets seem largely unconcerned about Belgium’s giant public debt of close to 100% of GDP. It was only on January 23rd that Belgian students organised protest rallies to urge their country’s politicians to get a move on.
The world gives little thought to Belgium. Yet it may soon have to pay more attention. As the crisis drags on, a break-up of Belgium looks less unthinkable than it was. The effects would be felt far beyond the fantasy world of Tintin and Magritte’s bowler-hatted men falling from the sky.
Paradoxically the slow dissolution of Belgium, the most pro-European of countries, goes hand in hand with the (uneven) deeper integration of the EU. Belgium is facing its worst troubles just as the EU confronts the gravest challenge to the euro. One way of looking at Belgium’s divide is as a counterpart to the EU’s split between a Germanic, frugal north and a subsidy-dependent Latin south. Financial markets stand ready to dump Belgian bonds at any hint of formal partition, because of uncertainty over who would repay the country’s debts. But, for the moment, the euro gives all parties the luxury of intransigence. Without it, the stalemate might have triggered a run on the Belgian franc.
Today’s blockage is unlike previous ones in that an avowedly separatist party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), has for the first time become dominant in Flanders. Led by Bart de Wever, a charismatic bruiser, the N-VA’s appeal stems precisely from popular exasperation with the messy, unsatisfying compromises of the older political groups. It wants a decisive shift of powers to Flanders, and makes little secret of its wish to see Belgium “evaporate” within the EU. Danny Pieters, the N-VA president of the Belgian Senate, says he sees no need for a Flemish army: one day Belgian forces will be part of a European one. For the N-VA, Europe is the acid that will help to dissolve Belgium.
Strangely, perhaps, this same erosion of sovereignty is seen as an antidote to violent nationalism. European integration overcame the historic enmity between France and Germany. Ireland’s entry into the EU helped to end the worst of Northern Ireland’s sectarian war. In the Balkans, the EU offers the balm of membership to heal the trauma of the Yugoslav wars. But is this not all romantic nonsense when Belgium, a founder of the EU as well as the host to its capital, struggles to hold together? No, says Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank. By “taking the gun out of politics”, the EU has contradictory effects. It makes it easier to draw violent groups into politics; but it also allows peaceful nationalists to act up, and voters to support them, because there is no danger of bloodshed.
This does not mean that Belgium can dissect itself without anybody worrying. Spain and Italy would not be the only places to fret about the precedent of rich regions pulling away from poorer ones. Scottish nationalists speak of independence within Europe. Many ex-communist countries have big national minorities: think of Hungarians in Slovakia. Redraw Belgium and break the mystique of European tolerance—and one creates doubts across much of the EU’s eastern swathe.
Changing national borders only rarely resolves nationalist and ethnic disputes. Where communities overlap, tolerance, minority rights, autonomy and cross-border co-operation are better democratic tools. Take Brussels. If Flanders breaks away from Belgium, could Brussels, officially bilingual but overwhelmingly Francophone, leave Flanders? Indeed, this conundrum offers the best hope that, in the end, Flemings and Walloons will live together somehow. Splitting a city is harder than breaking up a university—luckily for Belgium, and perhaps for Europe.