THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 21, 2007
You can read in today's New York Times that the little country of Belgium -- which first took its place in my imagination when my high school history teacher called it, thanks to the numerous times other countries' armies stampeded through it, the "screen door of Europe" -- may soon be no more.
I lived in Belgium in 2003, and a Flanders-Wallonia split was also supposed to be right around the corner then, as apparently it has been for decades. I have a suspicion it's never actually happened both because it's politically difficult but also because, more than Belgians want a real breakup, they psychologically relish the idea of being a little region of anarchy in an increasingly boring and stable Europe, a colonially oppressed hot zone boiling with tribal strife as emotional as in West Africa and consumed in a struggle over the capital as bitter as in Baghdad.
The curious joy Belgians find in the prospect of political meltdown comes through in the Times story, with its photo of Flemish leaders in fine suits eating a cake to celebrate "100 Days of Belgian Chaos" (just how chaotic is this chaos? "[T]rains run on time, mail is delivered, garbage is collected, the police keep order," the Times wryly notes) and a champagne-sipping schoolteacher who offers the priceless quote, "Everyone puffs himself up in this banana republic. You have to remember that this is Magritte country, the country of surrealism."
I guess I didn't sufficiently internalize the Magritte mindset. But I never really understood why Belgium needs to break up at all. I do not mean to make light of the troubles between Wallonians and Flemings: The former group firmly believes the latter is coarse and the latter believes the former is stupid. But a lot of countries have dueling ethnic groups that fashion their identities out of viciously ridiculing each other. And over 180 years of existing as a nation, Belgium has developed a real spirit of its own, albeit one sometimes defined by the resentful, puff-chested pride of the runty little brother perpetually tormented by his more powerful siblings. Arguing for a breakup, the somewhat nutty leader of the country's Flemish nationalist party, Filip Dewinter, says:
We are two different nations, an artificial state created as a buffer between big powers, and we have nothing in common except a king, chocolate and beer.
What's to sneer at here? In my experience, the last two elements in particular -- plus frites, sincere hospitality, and a trademark dry, rueful wit dished up by the country's plentiful cartoonists and chansonniers like Jacques Brel -- made for a pretty damned merry national culture.