Taking to the Streets!

Expanding my Sunday-repertoire

Well, it sure was a startling addition to my Sunday repertoire! (1) Last Sunday (2), instead of morosely watching the dreary drizzle outside, I blithely put on my walking boots and joined a demonstration in the streets of Brussels. I guess only a demonstration as unlikely as this one could have lured me into public action (3) .

The march was unlikely because only three weeks earlier a couple of students had launched the initiative on the Internet, foregoing the mobilization power and logistical support of the established interest groups. It was unlikely in its authentic concern for the welfare of all of the people living in this country (not only for those of the own language-group – which alas seems to have become the political norm). And unlikely it was too in its appeal to compromise at the service of the “common good” of the Belgian people (both ‘common good’ and ‘Belgian’ seem to have become compromised concepts, judging by the currently prevailing political discourse).

And this unlikely initiative was a success!
Because some 40.000 people decided to brave the chilly rain and to take to the streets to express their concern.

Because the overwhelming majority of these 40.000 people didn’t brandish any of the usual cliché-slogans: neither stale party-political watchwords nor easy populist anti-political cries.

Because these 40.000 people were so peaceful and tolerant (only 2 or 3 small incidents were noted) (4).

Because these 40.000 people were so diverse : young & old, from different walks of life, coming from Brussels, Flanders, Wallonia or the German speaking East cantons.

Because 40.000 people showed that action could be inspired not only by narrow party-political watchwords, but also by the “mere” concern to end a political stalemate via constructive compromise.
And, finally, this demonstration was a success because of the sheer incredible sight of it: the whole of the Rue de la Loi / Wetstraat (Brussels main thorough fare) filled with people just asking their politicians to be reasonable (5) .
As that man, obviously from far-off Eupen-Malmedy, reported on his mobile to the home front, while standing on a small height to take in the crowd filling the Rue de la Loi: “das lohnt sich! Wahnsinnig, die ganse rue de la loi ist ja voll mit leute”.

But as it goes, leading established politicians were quick to call the demonstration, well-intentioned perhaps, but quite naïve, too fuzzy in its allegiances and objectives and thus ineffective, politically speaking.
For them, apparently, mature and effective politics is about pitching “us” against “them”, about an unwavering conviction of “us” being right and “them” being wrong .
And their self-declared realist non-naïve discourse is one nurtured by short term egoist economic interests , by cowardly inertia and by atavistic tribal reflexes. Their world is one of a zero-sum-game: what “they” gain, “we” lose – thus precluding an “enlarged mentality” that could arrive at a creative solution.

One politician even managed to use the sheer diversity of the demonstrating public as proof for his belief that : 1) this country is too diverse 2) diversity isn’t workable 3) hence, this country must be split in two separate (allegedly) homogenous blocs.
So where I felt at home amongst this reassuringly diverse and friendly crowd, all sharing a common concern and peacefully demonstrating for common sense and compromise, he merely saw potential for strife & discord. (6)

Of course, dear Blog reader, the unfolding events in the Middle East and North-Africa do deserve more of your attention than the looming un- heroic demise of a small country without strategic oil-reserves or Suez-canal.
But still, the Belgian debacle is worth analyzing, if only to serve as a warning against the fatal self-fulfilling prophecy of polarizing populist rhetoric. So, please bear with me for a (not so) brief sketch of the Belgian conundrum.

                    * * * The Belgian Situation Explained in Only 789 Words ! * * *
  (which you are Free to Skip to Proceed directly to the How-to-Go-Tribal-Guide below)
(& please see elsewhere for revolutionary 50-character tweets).

Belgium was created as a nation-state in 1830, assembling a couple of regions in the low countries, with Dutch and French speaking populations (later, as part of a World war-settlement a small German speaking part was added) . Most Dutch-speaking Belgian citizens live in the Northern part of the country (Flanders) and the French-speaking citizens tend to live in the Southern part (Wallonia).
In the heroic 19th Century Wallonia , well-furnished with coal-mines and heavy industries, flourished while Flanders had become a rather poor agricultural region with many indigent Flemish emigrating as guest-workers to the heavy industries in Wallonia (this explains the very Flemish names of many now French-speaking people).

For a long time the Belgian elite was French-speaking , and higher education was for instance not even available in Dutch. This of course created much resentment with the Dutch-speakers and spawned a “Flemish emancipation” movement that battled for equal rights for the Dutch language. It was in this context that some came to see the Belgian state as a Francophile anti-Flemish clique, which contemptuously ignored the rich Flemish cultural heritage (ah, prosperous Bruges & Ghent in the Middle Ages! Oh, the Baroque splendors of Antwerp! ) .
Quite unfortunately, a few key-figures of this Flemish movement became enthralled by German-like nationalism, and even saw the German “brother people” as allies against this Frencophone imperialism, thus tainting the Flemish emancipation movement with unsavory connotations of nationalist extremism and nazi-collaboration. It also contributed to much extra resentment amongst Flemish nationalists due to the after war “repression” of Flemish collaborators.

In the course of the 20th century the discrimination of the Dutch language was gradually abolished while at the same time the economic fortunes of both regions went in reverse. The Walloon heavy industry was all but wiped out, causing high unemployment, while Flanders grew richer, positioning itself in the intermediate goods and services industries.
Wallonia got trapped in a vicious circle of unions fighting losing battles to save globally un-competitive industries, of then trying to compensate private sector job-losses by job-creation in ever swelling local administrations. The ensuing importance of having the right “political” connections created a climate of dependency on favors from local party-officials, bringing fatefully in its wake a host of corruption problems.

Brussels, in the meanwhile, evolved from the opulent financial and governmental centre of Belgium, with a Belgian French speaking elite (who often spurned the allegedly ‘lesser’ Dutch language, though over the years the Dutch language rights got quite well protected for all official dealings) to a cosmopolitan city.
French now is the “lingua franca” in Brussels, but in fact for the majority of Brussels citizens neither Dutch nor French is the mother tongue, since over 50% of the Brussels population is of non-Belgian descent. Not only is Brussels the main entry point for non-European immigrants & asylum-seekers, it is also host to the European officials from the Brussels based European institutions . Furthermore, as Belgium’s economic capital, it attracts each day tens of thousands of commuters from both Flanders and Wallonia, who work in Brussels and use its services ( but pay taxes in their home regions).
Many of the non-European immigrant families in Brussels are still struggling to catch on and, having relatively high fertility rates, this has created a boiling reservoir of under-skilled and unemployed youngsters.
On the other hand, the well-off Brussels citizens (often French speaking bourgeois as well as wealthy Eurocrats) more and more flee from messy Brussels to the quieter & greener Flemish hinterland. This migration creates not only much extra resentment in Flanders (Dutch speakers feel threatened by this afflux of allegedly arrogant non-Dutch speaking people) but also causes a huge financial drain for Brussels.

Politically speaking, the need to ‘protect’ the Dutch language from being crushed by the ‘heavyweight’ French, together with the persistence of a “Flemish emancipation” movement with separatist tendencies (which however has never represented a clear majority amongst Dutch-speaking Belgians!) resulted in a series of institutional reforms for Belgium.
A territorial language principle was established (the only official language in Flanders is Dutch, the only official language in Wallonia is French, and Brussels is officially bilingual).

Also, more and more responsibilities were devolved from the Belgian federal government level to the Dutch and French speaking language communities/regions . This evolution towards greater regional autonomy was accompanied by a system of checks and balances to safeguard the equilibrium between the language groups and regions. Thus there are also “solidarity” mechanisms implying financial transfers from the richer to the poorer communities.

As to Brussels, this complex melting pot is now jointly & messily governed by the Dutch and the French-speaking communities (not always with due consideration to its particular problems and challenges , which are quite beyond the Dutch-French language divide ).

How to drift into splendid tribal isolation

If you would want to create separate tribal identities, do adopt the following fateful features of the Belgian institutional overhaul:
The Belgian political parties and voting districts were neatly split into French speaking and Dutch speaking parties and districts. This means that, now, even for the federal government elections, people living in Flanders can only vote for Flemish parties, and people living in Wallonia can only vote for French speaking parties ( only in Brussels the two language groups may submit voting lists). So, by-and-large, Dutch-speaking politicians are accountable only to the Dutch speaking voters , and the French-speaking politicians are accountable to the French speaking voters only.

And with humans being hardwired to identify with the group they’ve been assigned to (even if it’s based on an arbitrary allocation process (7) ), this institutional insistence on having two language groups insidiously fostered the creation of separate identities within Belgium ( especially on the Flemish side , influenced by its very persistent minority of separatists) .

And obviously, with politicians only accountable to the own language group, the “others” were always the easy scapegoat, and each group, unchecked, could nurture its particular causes of cultural or economic resentment, could pursue, unaccountable to the other group, regional policies in their separate voting districts (which of course only compounded the economic & financial imbalances).

So there, the stage was set … for compromising the very notion of a common Belgian identity and for creating two groups nestling smugly in their own delusions.
Enter the caricatures of “The Flemish” and “The French-speakers”:
“The Flemish” like to see themselves as innately hard working & prudent folks, subsidizing French-speaking lazy-bones and Dutch-spurning snobs , keeping afloat an expensive & useless national Belgian structure ( not to mention that bottomless pit of a spend-thrift, dirty & dangerous capital infested with foreigners). “The Flemish” love to ignore the objective demographic and global economic factors that would explain a big part of each region’s evolution ( by the way, demographic evolutions do point towards slower growth in Flanders in future while Brussels & Wallonia have younger & growing populations… ).

“The Flemish” conveniently forget their own past stints of dependency & poverty and, continuously feeling aggrieved for past insults, they forget the Flemish have been furnishing the prime minister of the Belgian government almost continuously since WWII. They cherish a mythical Flemish identity that ignores the continuous interactions and migrations that have shaped the lowlands since the Romans … (8). And for all their self-declared economic prudence, they lack the foresight to see that more and not less cooperation with Brussels and Wallonia will be needed to take up the challenges of demographic evolutions. That more and not less investments in Brussels are needed, so as not to let go to waste yet another generation of youngsters ...

“The French-speakers ”, by contrast, see themselves as responsible folks with a social culture of caring solidarity (French speaking party 1) and/or with a refined, universal French culture far superior to the crude provincial Flemish one (French speaking party 2 ), in any case forming a French-speaking bulwark to defend the Belgian Nation against Flemish extremist separatist barbarians .
“The French-speakers” thus conveniently omit to question their own regional political governance plagued by inertia and nepotism. For lack of self-criticism “The French-speakers” perpetuate a vicious circle of unemployment, political favors and corruption. And they fail to address a certain stubbornness amongst certain classes in refusing to learn properly the language of the other community of the single Belgian Nation they profess to cherish.

And nowadays journalists and professional politicians alike seem to conspire to turn politics in a petty populist theatre whereby in the media each day each language group is turning more into the caricature the other makes of them .
Take the eloquent and charismatic president of the Flemish leading party – he is fuelled by a single-minded romantic desire for “Flemish independence” ( in fact until recently not shared by a majority of Flemish) . But he so masterly exposes all “the French-speaking “ regions’ weaknesses and failures , he so brilliantly appeals to a “martyred Flemish ‘we ‘ feeling “ that his party went from less than 5% to 30% in 7 years. (9)

But in fact this Flemish separatist strain is itself largely co-responsible for any immobility or lack of self-reflection of the French-speaking parties. Because their criticism of the French speaking parties’ failings is so entwined with this Flemish nationalist agenda, because it is so crude and laden with disrespect, it is completely counter-productive: any self-respecting French-speaking politician cannot but dismiss their criticism as extremist propaganda.
And because of it, at the very first hint of any criticism (however well-founded), these French speaking politicians can promptly evoke the specter of Flemish Separatist Extremism , so as to have the perfect excuse not to critically assess their own ways, let alone to bring about change. By which they confirm, also in the eyes of moderate Flemish people, the caricature of inert, eternally needy dependents , and by which they themselves feed Flemish extremism …

A chorus of un-assigned voices, lost in between Groups

Really, once people start to focus on their being two “Groups” and start behaving like “enemy tribes”, they in fact become the best propagandists for the other side’s most narrow cause.
Indeed, out of a sense of self-defense , each group will stifle its own doubting and critical voices (traitors!) and thus block constructive internal change. Furthermore , each Group will then abjure all empathy for the other side’s viewpoint and they will end up seeing all interactions and negotiations as a zero-sum game, where one side’s gain is the other side’s loss. And such protracted periods of animosity and mutual callousness often of course become a self-fulfilling prophecy: these hostile groups can’t live together anymore...

Ah, these human tribal instincts – quite despairing … And yet, the success of the human species lies not in tribal isolation but in cooperation … in our capacity to arrive at some sort of social contract, based on fairness, in order to find collaborative solutions (and the cooperative total is more than the sum of the parts …) .

But, alas, the leading "Flemish" and "French-speaking" parties are doing their utmost to make a fair solution impossible.
Reading the papers, one is engulfed by petty reciprocal reproaches & by extensive accounts of who- said-what-about-whom behind closed doors , there are scandals about leaked mails and there’s this & there’s that --- - but what is mostly lacking: an in-depth , sober analysis and assessment of alternative solutions.

And surfing on the websites of the two leading Flemish and French-speaking parties, I alas find much rhetoric and much trifling party-political issues, but again, no sober assessment of the main drivers of Belgium’s cultural and economic evolution, no comprehensive analysis of proposed solutions and their consequences . .. They just sell two extreme positions based on a single group’s vested interests, sure to bring us collective ruin.

Brief critique of Extreme Position 1: a definitive separation of the two language groups-regions (pleaded for in the statutes of the Flemish leading party) would, objectively speaking, have disastrous consequences : far too costly, the un-doubling of legislations would be utterly inefficient in so small an area (& would hamper the much needed mobility of labor and capital), the carving up of Brussels is as impossible as its joint government by two newly created countries would be ruinous ( and during the messy protracted divorce negotiations the financial markets can be counted on to drive up interest rates for years to come).
Also, this declaration of Flemish independence quite disturbingly definitively imposes on all Belgian Dutch-speaking persons an un-asked for Flemish identity, grounded in parochialism and stale resentment (10). Much better to find a cooperative solution at Belgian level and to strengthen mutual exchanges and accountability.

Brief critique of Extreme Position 2: whining about “Flemish nationalism” each time malfunctions of "French-speaking parties'" policies are denounced, is ultimately a self-defeating strategy.
Demanding ongoing solidarity from “the Flemish” (as does the leading French-speaking party) without any reciprocity is simply not workable. Counting for ever on transfers from others to fund higher unemployment benefits for the own group, instead of seriously tackling the root-causes of economic decline and unemployment is bound to create animosity. At the same time demanding special French-language privileges (ie so as not to have to learn Dutch) for French-speakers moving into traditionally Flemish towns, is obviously right down offensive for the other party.
And without a clear commitment to reciprocal fairness and to doing one’s duty in a cooperative scheme, it’ s quite preposterous to feel entitled to ongoing solidarity.

And yet, the Belgian conundrum need not to be insoluble. If only one could try to take a fresh, comprehensive and objective look at the situation and try to find the best arrangements , in fairness to all … It was on a site of 'amateur-politicians' ( probruxsel ) that I found such an attempt at objective analysis and a discourse not aimed at rousing tribal spirits but just trying to find arrangements that are fair to all , arrangements apt at dealing with the daunting challenges.

It is possible …. If only intellectual energy is channeled into constructive and objective analysis (instead of in petty tribal bickering).
And, though being frankly pessimistic about the situation, I do take heart from the fact that in both parts of the country, in both language groups, people now stand up to say “no” to the uncritical, unified discourse of what is supposed to be the own group. To tribal discourse, they say : ” not in my name” – “niet in mijn naam” – “pas en mon nom”. Those critics, those “traitors” of the “own group”, are very welcome voices to defend reasonableness and a modicum of impartial objectivity, both indispensable to arrive at a solution.

So there, hereby I too have added my tiny little voice to this chorus of rather liminal voices, un-assigned to either Group… . (so, just plain Belgian perhaps?)

Un-assigned Notes
(1) Regular readers of these fragments know my usual Sunday- repertoire spans Hegel-reading, Bach cantata-concerts, much wondering & pondering, frivolous blogging as well as museum visits, all-weather walks and bicycle-rides. (Attentive readers may also have caught discreet hints at strictly private Sunday-occupations involving a loved one).
(2) Ooppps : started writing this thing weeks ago…. Oh well, you know: life’s pressing demands, a bloggers’ block, a computer virus, AND the far more momentous happenings elsewhere in the world – reasons always abound for nor pursuing one’s own middling blogging activities …
(3) Don’t get me wrong, I am far from a-political. But my political awareness is a largely contemplative and analytical one. Though keeping myself daily posted about current affairs and feeling at times passionately concerned about the ways of the world, I hardly ever publicly discuss or act upon my opinions. In principle though, I greatly respect democratic politics as the process by which groups of people can arrive at decisions to organize their interactions and communities, without having to resort to violence. Politics as a necessary counterpart of the “human condition of plurality” , to speak in Arendtian terms .
But in practice, ah in practice the political terrain is occupied by the usual suspects , ie a limited number of a parties who furnish an all-in , one-stop solution to political shoppers : their single ideological party-answer to the whole gamut of social, economical, ethical, cultural and ecological issues. (I for one never managed to find a single party to match all of my viewpoints) . Also, political practice all too often appears in the media as futile bickering amongst parties and political egos rather than as an authentic well-informed debate to arrive at the “best-possible” decision . Why can’t there for instance be more media attention for non-partisan, nuanced study of each issue – as objectively as possible analyzing possible consequences of alternative decisions on the interests of different groups and individuals (I really should read more about Social Choice Theory ) . And then you could have a public debate to explain different viewpoints and proposals and put them into perspective. Now wouldn’t that be a nice basis for citizens to engage and to choose amongst solutions. Hardly workable, I suppose, this studious and referendum style of direct democracy, where each citizen appraises each issue: as “objective”, or at least serene, comparison and assessment possible ? Modern citizens hardly have time enough on their hands to master the knowledge required to come to a well-informed, enlightened decision… And why would individual citizens be better at also taking a long term perspective and the “common good” beyond their narrow immediate self-interest? Food for thought …
(4) One “French-speaking” woman saw fit to advertize her narrow-minded arrogance by brandishing a slogan meant to demean “The Flemish”: “un peu de modestie lorsqu’on parle une langue aussi locale”. And a very small group of “Flemish” “storm-troopers” saw fit to advertize their narrow-minded aggressive nationalism, by provocatively tearing up the demonstration’s manifesto and brandishing separatist slogans.
(5) As it happens, the demonstrators’ motivations were duly analyzed by alert academics distributing questionnaires on the ground – so we now know that, sample-wise, 65% of the demonstrators were French-speaking and 35% were Dutch-speaking. We also know that the French-speaking demonstrators wanted to denounce the ‘immobility’ of the leading French-speaking politicians, and that the Dutch-speaking ones wanted to make clear they opposed the separatist-nationalist strains of the Dutch-speaking politicians. Oh yes, my kind of self-critical crowd…
(6) It’s easy to understand why I really felt at ease amongst that friendly, motley bunch. Since I will never belong to a large, homogeneous, “winning” group, my own best chances for survival lie in a diverse population of minorities & immigrants where difference may be more easily tolerated than in uniform groups. But it is also my contemplative and doubting nature that makes me shun groups & religions that demand of their members undoubting loyalty and an unwavering conviction of their being right and the others being wrong .
(7) Experiments with non-suspecting subjects showed that if they were arbitrarily assigned to respectively a “blue” group and a “red” group, it didn’t take long before they really identified as respectively “reds” and “blues” and found reasons to better like the own group than the other.
(8) Art historians for instance know that “The Flemish Primitives” cover painters from Wallonia, Brussels, Flanders, Holland, Northern France etc . The archetypical Flemish Primitive, Rogier Van Der Weyden, is in fact Rogier de la Pasture from Tournai (Wallonia)
(9) This has really spooked me : the meteoric rise of a political party (from 5 to 30% in 7 years!!!) driven by the sheer popularity of a charismatic & eloquent leader (always ready with a quip or a Latin proverb, undisputed star of Flanders’ most popular TV-quiz) … and how this charismatic politician managed to hijack the political agenda by his Flemish-nationalist discourse and to completely compromise the very notion of a common Belgian identity. And how he managed to posit the whole political process as only a battle between “the Flemish” and “the French-speakers” …. (and thus more fundamental and pressing challenges go unattended now, be they economic, financial, demographic , cultural, …. ) .
(10) I for one, confess not to have a “Flemish Identity”. My mother tongue is Dutch, I have lived for 23 years in Flanders, I have lived for 22 years in Brussels, I like to go to Antwerp , Ghent, Ostend (Flanders) and I like to wander about in Liège, Tournai, Verviers, Spa (Wallonia) and yes, Charleroi... I really have a thing going for Charleroi, of all places... , ( “from the relics of old mines, Derives his algebraic signs, For all in man that mourns and seeks,For all of his renounced techniques,Their tramways overgrown with grass,For lost belief, for all Alas.") (Auden).
Professionally speaking I like the continuous interaction with both Dutch and French speaking colleagues. Culturally speaking I suppose I feel rather European: favorite writers & artists are definitely not contained to a single national culture . But I do have loads of affection for the “Belgian Identity” (ah, the Belgian Coast..., oh, the Belgian Ardennes ...! Ah, our Belgian cycling heroes... ) , precisely because it is such a mixed-up notion, precisely because it so lacks the bloated pomp and arrogance of other nationalities.

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