The Fulbright Commission celebrated sixty years in Belgium and Luxembourg with a prestigious academic panel at the Palais de Academie in Bruxelles. I got to tag along with the more recent Schumann-Fulbright program that sponsors study of European Union institutions.
Professor Francis Balace complemented the education I gleaned a few days earlier at the Atomium’s fiftieth anniversary exhibition by describing the dearth of practical knowledge about the U.S. that most Belgians had until after the second world war when, he repeated several times, Belgium was “a good pupil” by negotiating specific policies regarding education in order to be included in the Marshall Plan. Two comments in particular caught my attention, both in the nature of an aside: one regarding the linguistic divide and another about war graves.
In the heat of WWII, and on the basis of prior history, no Belgians expected to be rescued by Americans; it was an article of faith that the British would prevail against the Nazis on Belgian soil. For whatever military and political reasons, part of Belgium was eventually freed by the U.S. and the line distinguishing those parts rescued by Britain and those by the U.S. “corresponds exactly,” Professor Balace emphasized., “with the Belgian linguistic division” of today. This is a matter of curiosity to me, as are the reasons why the Flemish Deaf Community dispensed with an umbrella label for all regional varieties of sign languages in Belgium that were once recognized as distinct from Dutch Sign Language, now describing a (supposedly) distinct Flemish Sign Language. Are the language politics of signed language communities being dictated by the language conflicts of spoken language communities? I do not know enough except to express sadness if this is the case. (See the last two paragraphs of this brief history by an external, non-deaf researcher.)
Someone in the audience felt it necessary, during the question-and-answer session, to expound upon Belgian reverence at U.S. military cemeteries – a theme that has been repeated at every official event I’ve attended since arriving here last month. The discussion that followed introduced some nuances, such as differences in memory and sentiment according to generation. The historical tidbit Professor Balace contributed was the fact of the United States government’s purchase (near the close of WWII) of “an extra five hundred graves in preparation for the next war.” This confirms the critique I offered of the U.S. Embassy film, An Invisible Bridge, of an underlying attitude of nationalistic preparation for institutional violence that might also be fed by the pomp of standing for both country’s national anthems. I did stand, of course, but uneasily. Such ceremonial prelude for an academic session felt awkward. (I find it similarly so at U.S. domestic sporting events.)
Professor Luc Reychler‘s topic echoed Minister of State Herman de Croo‘s introductory veneration of “fundamental connections” generated by the vision of J. William Fulbright, whose scholarships have enabled academics to reach high levels of influence in diverse communities across the globe. Professor Reychler described the network of 600,000 Fulbright scholars as an international brain trust, whose collective wisdom is needed to extract us from “the media crisis,” which, among other faults, promotes a counterproductive division between politicians and academics. The basis of Professor Reychler’s presentation concerning the present was a critique of the “unadaptive responses” of the U.S. government to a series of shocks since 2000. (9/11, evidence of our rich lifestyles adversely affecting the rest of the world, and the “inconvenient truth” of climate change – no doubt he used that phrase deliberately.) He summarized the cumulative effect as a “negative synergy” but sought to counter the inevitable gloominess of current global dynamics as “an unprecedented challenge” which can be successfully engaged.
Professor Reychler’s basic prescription includes a number of specific initiatives aimed collectively at improving relations and collaboration between academics and politicians. The usual dichotomy cannot be allowed to persist, regardless of whatever seeds of truth there may be in politician’s accusation that academics lack practical experience and academics tendency to cloister in the realms of teaching and research. (Just for the record, I’m adding a bit of emphasis to this critique of the academy, probably because I am operating right at that wall Professor Reychler described as the “talk about” transdisciplinary research and the effort to achieve it.)
Specifically, Professor Reychler described the 85:1 ratio of investment in military research versus peace-oriented research. Eighty-five to one! “Peace building,” he explained, “requires a combination of multiple, coordinated initiatives.” Not unincidentally, Professor Reychler noted declines in academic freedom, a trend that is apparently not even being tracked. (Although it is certainly a topic of conversation in my graduate program and others, where graduate students are coached to adapt our actual interests to the narrow parameters established by funders in their attempt to guarantee that research results generate profitability and/or contribute adequately to their own predetermined purposes.)
The final panelist, Professor Alison Woodward, spoke with an eye toward the future, describing the juxtaposition of migration with our so-historically-recent ability to maintain intimate connections with family and friends in geographically distant places. Drawing upon work in the sociology of intimacy, Professor Woodward noted how emotions are entering the realm of political discourse: even in the formal academic setting of this talk (attended by U.S. Ambassador Sam Fox) “love” had already been mentioned. This “rediscovery of the personal” is interwoven and interactive with the new age of migration that is in radical contrast with migrations of the past in which intimate ties were necessarily cut.
Others are also showing ways in which communication networks challenge international politics, matters of citizenship, and “the larger political economy of design,” simply put by Saskia Sassen as “the work of making“. Professor Woodward argues,
“it reaches down to the level of bonds“
– among families in particular, and (I would add) between friends. What so many feel as a threat of interdependency need not be perceived as an ill, rather, the increasing ability to keep bonds and forge bridges (the two types of interpersonal networks that compose society, as defined by Robert Putnam) bodes well for international relations.
The first question of the open Q-and-A session concerned the problem of dragging publics into policies before they understand them. The speaker was critical of European organization, describing it (presumedly the EU) as “weak and disorganized,” with “the European population 20-30 years behind events,” a condition which forces progress to be made “ad hoc without popular support.” I would characterize the phenomenon of knowledge lag as, at least partially, an element of the media crisis that Professor Reychler named. I am not a technological utopianist (however much I tend to come across as one), and there are problems with blaming social ills on the media, however the rituals we engage concerning what is produced, seen, heard, and distributed – whether as entertainment, advertising, infotainment, documentary, or incisive fact-based and contextualized journalism – are problematic. Surely we can do better than we are.