“the fragile, groping thread of communication”

Foundation and Empire
Isaac Asimov
p. 76, 2004 Bantam Edition
originally published: 1952

Any language used to describe the situation is tricky; ignorance is helpful. (No one expects an American to know anything substantive: “How do you know?!” one man asked, amazed I even had a clue.)
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I first learned about the Belgian language crisis from Jeff. Hints had been percolating but I had not followed up: this is not what I’m here to study. Nonetheless, the conjunction is amazing. One could write off the coincidence with a cynical attitude, but that’s not my style (how unzeitful, eh?!) Seriously, I am here to study the use of simultaneous interpretation as a democratic means of multicultural governance (to what extent does interpretation guarantee participation and voice?) at the EU’s seat – the European Parliament – which just happens to be (largely) based in a country (Belgium) engaging in linguistic conflict.
Getting my French lessons underway (back so long ago in August, ahem), Jeff dug up a news article about the address given by Belgium’s King to all citizens on the recent national holiday. The article summarized the crisis (a year without a national government while the northern Flemish speakers of Dutch withheld agreement with the southern Walloonian speakers of French) as a matter of entrenched politicians playing nationalistic sentiment against the majority public will. A few days later, as I was on the phone with someone from the Belgian Consulate in the U.S. concerning my passport, she expressed horror that the foolish King had addressed the country only in French! Jeff, and others who I have spoken with since, were skeptical that the King would neglect speaking also in Flemish (a regional variation of Dutch). Maggie confirmed that the King is well beloved (even though it seems we ascertained that the King’s power is more symbolic than literal).
Bill had pieced together a similar account: that economics is driving the current impulse for separation. A gentlemen who helped me board the Antwerp Express from the Brussels airport (who was surprised I knew enough to even ask about the situation) explained that separation is inevitable, because “the Nouth is tired of paying for the Sorth.” Dorothee said as much, without the economic angle. She’s from France, and her take is that the Flemish are “most powerful” in the debate so far, at least as represented by French news (television and papers). She was unclear if French Belgians actually would want to join France if the Flemish north succeeds in breaking away, although France certainly wants to gain the territory!
Meanwhile, José says the political battle is “ridiculous!” And others have also said the greatest schism is between the Flemish politicians fighting for separation and the broad Flemish majority who perceive no practical issue and would prefer to put governmental energy to other projects, rather than “[trying to] convince us that we are enemies.”
Maggie’s overview was particularly helpful, as she provided a longer-term economic history. Here is her summary:

Until the 1950s, all the economic wealth was in Wallonia, in coal and steel; the Flemish were poor then. When coal and steel dried up, Flanders took off.

Although Flanders is the name that seems inevitable if the Dutch-speaking north secedes, the actual historical lines shifted so much that there may be room for quibbling. Antwerp was (according to one source) originally part of Brabante, not Flanders. (You see the political landmines?! One’s choice of vocabulary assumes or projects an alignment – whether one wishes so or not!)
A fascinating language-based phenomena that Maggie shared led her also to make a prediction that in the future (“ten years”) the wealth will re-shift back to the Walloon region:

In the 1980s, all Dutch-speaking college graduates were trilingual (Dutch, French, and English). [During the same period], French-speaking college graduates only knew French and some English. Now [two decades later], French speakers are required to take two years of Dutch in college and English too.

Maggie thinks the status quo will reign until then. The gentleman I spoke with on the bus, however, was convinced separation will occur because “people feel it in their pockets.” This linkage of money with language seems rife (first of all) with capitalistic entrepreneurialism, which radically privileges the short-term. (Can there be a capitalism that truly engages the long-term? Or is this when socialism comes into play?) Secondarily, the linkage of language with nationality is reminiscent of Benedict Anderson’s argument concerning the appropriation of language for nationalism (see last paragraph). An idealistic American might wish that Europe – let alone one of its pinnacles! – would be beyond such politics, but good old-fashioned rhetoric may be as effective here as we have witnessed it to be in the U.S.
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The statue series is by Erica Chaffart; I stumbled upon it today walking through Antwerp’s Botanical Garden.

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