Apologies to the Ad Council and the United Negro College Fund for my deforming their long running "A Mind Is a Terrible Thing To Waste" ad campaign. But the sentiment fits my message.
Further mea culpas to nationalists in both the United States and Belgium for what I'm about to do. But I care deeply about both countries, being a citizen of the former and a resident of the latter. Both have the potential to be greater than their current national selves, and both are suffering from an institutional malaise that causes the national machinery to break down - literally, in the tragic case of the train accident this week outside Brussels.
Just keep the trains from hitting each other
How so, you may ask? As soon as news of a head on collision between two commuter trains hit the press, questions started to be raised: was this another example of linguistic confusion between traffic controllers? Was this a "black day for Flanders," the scene of the accident, as the head of the Dutch-speaking region said? No, not just Flanders, for there were probably as many or more Francophone wallons on the trains, part of the massive daily national exchange of populations across the "linguistic frontier." But everything in Belgium is eventually linked to the thorny linguistic community question.
If anything, the breakup of the national train service into several entities, with crucial responsibility for infrastructure and security spun off to a company that holds no responsibility for making the trains run on time, is probably at the root of the problem. But the political finagling underlying the breakup of something that had been a coherent whole is apparent: the newspaper photo captions identifying the supposedly technocratic bosses of the several entities that comprise the Belgian train system carried the political affiliations of each. They are party creatures, carefully selected to reflect the correct ideological and linguistic balance. But can they run trains?
Across the pond, meanwhile, political science dictionary writers are going to have to come up with a new term that goes beyond gridlock. Terminal hold? Rigor senatis? Fili-busted? Republicans appear to only know how to say no, and Democrats appear unable to understand that more than fifty percent of anything is a majority.
Blame games are for losers, and as Democrats and Republicans trade charges over their collective inability and/or unwillingness to get a move on, the Chinese, who have neither Republicans or Democrats but just Commie-capitalists, get to play Monopoly by themselves. Monopoly over much of the world's industrial production and creditor to their biggest customer for cheap goods, the United States.
This, and the long term standing of the world's oldest democracy is what our elected officials should be dealing with.
With Belgium's regional and linguistic tensions always present in debate on the future of the country, the threat of division is never far away. The "Belgian compromise" is legendary in Europe, where at the 11th hour a Belgian middle way is found to save the EU deliberations on sometimes obscure issues. But domestically, this compromise has tended to compromise chances for good governance. Cutting the train system into parts, insisting on a four-lane highway because the other region has one, proliferating parliaments to create jobs for politicians - you can compromise your way into a dysfunctional state. Remember, Solomon only threatened to cut the baby in half.
In the US, at least no one other than a few fringe Republicans is calling for the breakup of the union. Nostalgic for "American empire?" We need to be taken down a peg or two if we think we can continue indefinitely in our unsustainably wasteful, greedy, consumerist ways. But American democracy is quite another thing. If today's politicians so disgust the citizenry that voters leave the business of elections and elective office to the crazy fringe, then the world will have lost very much indeed.
A country is a terrible thing to waste.