nationalism in the civilised present

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The gathering was splendid.

The U.S. Ambassador's Residence in Brussels is large, impressive, and immaculately tended. We arrived a few minutes early but were immediately ushered in to mingle in the hallways and anterooms, sipping wine, juice or water and munching delicious appetizers from trays replenished regularly by the constantly circulating staff. Conversation with the delightful company was light and entertaining; it was me being there that edged on the surreal. :-)

I did not get to shake hands with Ambassador Fox, although we had a prolonged moment of eye contact just as he was being summoned to introduce a short film on Belgian-U.S. relations. An Invisible Bridge is a well-crafted summary of a unique international relationship between two peoples - or, rather between the idea of two nationalities with a special bond. Susceptible as I am to musically-produced emotional tweakery, I teared up at the presentation of NATO's heroic mission "to secure the future of Europe", noticing that a Belgian acquaintance next to me was also surreptitiously wiping tears away. When I asked her, post-film, she confessed. Her emotion stemmed from grief at unity lost - the togetherness of a single nation being ripped at its seams along a language divide.

Ambassador Fox is quite proud of the film and the interest it has generated across Belgium. I understand why: the ethos of the film appeals to a human need to belong, to know one is connected with others, a part of something larger than ourselves. The desire for a group identification is, at core, tribal; its modern form is the nation.

I am not advocating an end to the nation (not necessarily, for sure not yet). We need better institutional structures and mechanisms for balancing out economic disparities, and the state is still the best tool for experimenting with various possibilities. My problem with the film is along the lines articulated by a friend who rejected its glorification of war. For me, I can't say that I saw "glorification" per se. War is a tragedy, and its effects are still viscerally and personally real for many people in Europe: both those who lived through WWII (while so many died) and the children of people who lived/died during or because of the war. The tragedy of war is also etched in the beings of the millions of immigrants to Europe from regions of the world still swamped under the reign of violence.

What I witnessed in the film was an acknowledgment of war's horrors, and gratitude to those who made attempts to alleviate suffering. The problematic implication for me was the implicit assumption that war is a human inevitability. The film makes no statement about ending war; indeed, by shoring up the borders of nationality the film cultivates the exclusive attitude of distinction that makes war possible.

Still, I appreciate what I learned:

  • Peter Minuit "bought Manhattan from the Indians" circa 1626. (The history obliterated by the neutral statement of fact nonetheless remains.)

  • Father Pierre-Jean De Smet helped negotiate "peace" (my quotation marks) with Sitting Bull

  • the Red Star Line carried millions of Eastern Europeans to the U.S. at the end of the 19th century

  • the WWI Belgian Relief program organized by President Herbert Hoover, Ernest Solvay, and other prominent Belgians.

  • rebuilding of the Library at the University of Leuven after its destruction during WWI

  • the organized escape routes, known as the Comet Line, created during WWII for Allied soldiers

  • the Battle of the Bulge occurred here, in the Ardennes mountain range

Here's a testimonial of a US veteran of the Bulge returning in 1994:

The most memorable part of our tour to Belgium was the warmth and gratitude expressed to us by the people of Houffalize and Bastogne. As Ken Aran expressed it, "our localized reception was more like a family. It was an experience I shall always cherish." One of many examples of Belgian warmth for us veterans was the parade at Bastogne in which the not-so-young veterans marched the length of Bastogne's main street to the McAuliffe Square. As we march along down the Rue Savlon, many school children hurried out to grasp a veteran's hand and marched along before approving and politely applauding crowds that lined the sidewalks. There were not always enough veterans' hands to go around, but some children then clasped hands with kids who were already joined with veterans.

There is a huge emphasis on the sentiment of Belgians' appreciation for the US military's role in freeing Belgium from the occupation of the Nazi's. Obviously this is a triumph and a matter of pride for soldiers and civilians who fought and won that war. There is no doubt that the gratitude of the persons and families affected is genuine; nor is there doubt that that war had to be fought. Because humanity (as a sociobiological species) is still riding a plateau of violence (war is collective, cooperative behavior), no doubt there will continue to be some wars that remain necessary. But not as many as we have, and certainly not the wars predicated on a competitive economic fight over the planet's resources.

We can do better than that. So I am disappointed on an ideological level with An Invisible Bridge. The economic ties between Belgium and the US are substantive: 900 US companies in Belgium, 500 Belgian companies in the US.

Let not the ties between the peoples of these nations be based on pillars of war or greed, and neither motivated by fear.

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