Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Death Watch: Belgium

I was shocked and bothered when I saw that last week British magazine The Economist called on Belgium to "call it a day," and pull its own plug as a nation state. As someone who gets annoyed when foreign publications offer too much critical commentary on the internal affairs of the United States, I could relate to the outrage the country of 10 million must have felt after such an existential assault by such a respected, but foreign, magazine.

I think my favorite thing about Belgium is how, on the extraordinarily rare occasion the proper adjective to describe a person from Belgium was required (A Belgium or Belgiumesse doesn't roll off the tongue), I would quickly offer up the term as "Flemish" and sound cultured.

Apparently I was only about 58 percent as cultured as I thought because Belgium also has Walloons -- who are neither Flemish nor from the planet Tatooine. Rather they are French speakers who inhibit the south.

Ever since Belgium went to a federalist system in 1993, Wallonia has enjoyed a fairly high level of autonomy. Which seemed to suit everyone, as the Flanders and the Walloon have almost nothing in common culturally or linguistically.

Now it's been three months since the last general election, but disagreements between the two groups have prevented a new national government from forming, and there seems to be a growing consensus that this is for the best.

If Belgium were to leave this world, it will be remembered for its chocolates, its beer and its controversial businessman/king Leopold II, who once told imperial Europe, aging and going soft, that it's still OK to completely brutalize your colonial subjects.

Belgium will be best remembered here in the United States by the bump on the forehead of Jean-Claude Van Damme, the diminutive action hero and "mussels from Brussels" whose incessant kicking made improbable box office noise in 1990 and 1991.

As for the Economist's intrusion into Belgium's affairs. . . well it turns out England was pretty instrumental in creating Belgium in 1831, so to really stretch and rearrange that famous Pottery Barn analogy, it might actually be the responsibility of the English to tell Belgium it's time to swallow the old cyanide pill.

I guess it will be sad to see Belgium go, but, you know, not too sad. It's just Belgium.

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