A (rationalist) history of Belgium

Today’s featured image: The Royal Palace of Brussels where the royal family conducts their official business and their staffs do whatever royal staffs do. I took this photo back in December of 2016 when I had a layover in Brussels that was just long enough to go wander for a couple hours.


A couple weeks ago, I shared what I had learned about the history of the Netherlands. I left off at a conveniently natural inflexion point at which the Netherlands took on more or less its current boundaries with the loss of its southern provinces in the Belgian revolution. 

Especially for us Americans, this piece of history isn’t peculiar. “Of course, Belgium would have a revolution to throw off the shackles of an oppressive imperial invader! Of course, a unified people would want sovereignty over their land!” we might say.

However, for a foreigner living in Belgium, both of those statements seem ridiculous.

“The Dutch are possibly the most tolerant and pacific people in Europe, and Belgium is probably the least unified country in Western Europe,” I would retort.

I’ve lived here for seven months now, and I still see Flanders and Wallonia (the two main regions of Belgium) as separate countries. They have different cultures, they speak different languages, they have different economic foundations, and public transit between them is noticeably divided.

Even though they’ve had nearly two centuries to sort out their differences, Belgium is only a little closer to a unified country. Belgium is governed by seven governments: one for each of the national languages (Dutch, French and German), one for each of the regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels) and one federal government that is so dysfunctionally divided that it holds the record among “developed” nations for the longest period without a government. The people are fiercely patriotic, but the only thing I see that they actually unite over is football. Flanders and Wallonia even have their own holidays. Golden Spurs Day is celebrated in Flanders to commemorate a Flemish defeat of French invaders, and September 27th in the French-speaking community commemorates their defeat of Dutch invaders.

In this long overdue post, I try to answer the questions (at least to my satisfaction, but probably not yours) of “Why is Belgium still so divided? How did Belgium come to be this way? Why does Belgium even exist?”

There’s actually a surprisingly good place to start: The Eighty Years War.

One of the questions that I never had satisfactorily answered when I was in high school was “If the Nazi’s were supposed to be the Third Reich, what were the first two?” The first part of the answer is the Holy Roman Empire, which having often been maligned as neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, was, in fact, a successful governing body that could fairly be called a “thousand-year Reich”.

For a solid 300 years (1440-1740), the crown was worn by members of the Habsburg family. During this time, the empire picked up the region we might term “The Low Countries” of the Netherlands and Belgium. In 1555, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of the Austrian Habsburgs announced his abdication and his plan for dividing the empire. In a time when the fastest way to bring news overland was by a man on a horse, holding onto huge empires was tricky business, and it seemed more reasonable to give half to his son, Philip II of Spain, and the other half to his brother Ferdinand I.

The part we care about is the part that went to Philip. Technically, the “Spanish Netherlands” was still part of the Holy Roman Empire, but Philip and Spanish royalty were effectively responsible for it. In the style of basically every conflict of the late-middle-ages, what should have been a bit of administrative minutiae turned bloody when religion got involved.

Charles V and his son Philip II were Catholic, just like most rulers in Western Europe for the preceding millennium. Indeed, there wasn’t much controversy here until some short-tempered yet influential German theologian nailed a list of grievances to the Wittenburg castle church door in 1517. Within the next couple of decades, the ability to print “protestant” ideas quickly and distribute them widely spurred a religious reformation in much of Northern Europe. One of the regions where the Protestant tradition started to grow roots was the Habsburg Netherlands.

Partially due to the craziness that happened in Munster in the 1530s (I’ll be telling that story next month), the Netherlands remained mostly Catholic but tolerated the Protestant minority. However, the abdication of Charles V meant that the Protestants were about to gain their best friend and worst enemy.

Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands, but Philip II had no sympathy for the Protestant heretics taking refuge in his territory, so he started to crack down. Ironically, it was the end of Dutch Inquisition that meant greater persecution of non-Catholics in the 1560s. The stereotypically tolerant Dutch pushed back.

One of the most prominent Dutch leaders (and devout Catholic), William of Orange led the resistance.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff that happens during wars, but I feel like histories always get too bogged down in the details. The tactics of killing each other don’t really capture the reasons why the fighting started or how the chips fell when it stopped.

The important bits here are how and when the fighting stopped, if only briefly. In the south, French-speaking, Catholic regions of Wallonia entered into the Union of Arras, a defensive agreement aligning themselves with the Spanish against the Protestants of the Republic of the Netherlands. From the Catholic strongholds in the south, the loyalist forces struggled against the Republican forces of the north, until the Peace of Münster in 1646. The Spanish kept what they were able to reclaim (basically from the French border to the strategically important port of Antwerp and down to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg). The Dutch unified into the Seven United Netherlands shortly thereafter and finished out their Golden Age of global exploration, trade and conquest.

Another important factor during the war is the people who weren’t fighting. As with many wars, the causes of the war don’t really concern the people who live in the region where political leaders have decided to send their pawns. The agrarian communities of Flanders were exactly these people. Those who were either Protestant (and at risk of persecution by the Spanish) or who were Catholic but didn’t want to live under the tyranny of the Spanish, fled north to the lands of the Republic.

This left behind people who were either fervent Catholics who supported the “cleansing” of their community or people who didn’t have the means or the will to relocate or fight (primarily the latter). This will be important.

After the Spanish finally gave up trying to reconquer the lands of “over there” in the Netherlands, they had declared bankruptcy twice and were embroiled in all sorts of other shenanigans elsewhere. The South Netherlands were left to their own devices for much of the rest of the seventeenth and basically all of the eighteenth centuries. The agrarian communities returned to their insular lives. In the case of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking populations became isolated between the encroaching French and the border with the Netherlands. To this day, even I can hear the different dialects of the Flemish regions that developed in their relative isolation, and my Dutch is infantile.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the French Revolution deposed the crown, conquered the Netherlands, gave Napoleon a new crown, overextended itself, and then fizzled out when the original crown took power again. These convulsions of libertarian fervour were not bound to France, but the European powers of the time were still afraid of another incarnation of Napoleon or some successor. In hopes of putting a bit of a buffer between them and France, the signatories of the Congress of Vienna gave the Netherlands the perfectly flat region of Flanders that had been (and would continue to be) the battlefield of choice for warring European states.

The reunion wasn’t exactly a popular decision. The South – which had been part of the Catholic Spanish Netherlands, had been partially occupied by France and still mostly French-speaking, and had been much more focused on manufacturing and agriculture than the North – was disadvantaged from the start. The Dutch royalty remained almost exclusively in the North, paying attention only to the issues of the North. The Catholic church was hamstrung, being barred from working with the government. In response, the Catholic clergy encouraged its parishioners to boycott the government, leading to a huge disparity in the elected governing body.

We can’t overlook the economic aspects though. The free-trading Dutch brought their economic reforms southward, and this initially had a positive impact. The Dutch economy continued to grow steadily until the revolution. However, these gains were not shared evenly. The South, which relied on nascent industries and agriculture suffered from cheap goods due to free-trade policies. People are often quite tolerant of their annoying neighbours when they’re all in the same boat financially. Seeing their over-represented, politically favoured neighbours getting rich was a perfect storm of resentment for Trump’s supporters… I mean Brexiteers… I mean Le Pen voters… I mean… umm… what are we talking about again?

Oh yeah. Back to 1830.

Things were precarious in France as well. Wanting to try again, but this time without all the guillotining and complete dissolution of the monarchy, the French people revolted again in what would become known as the July Revolution. This time, they kept the crown, but they wanted the person wearing it to rule with the consent of the people.

The success did not go unnoticed, especially by the French-speaking Brusseloises. Following an exceptionally patriotic opera that was meant to celebrate King William I’s birthday on August 25th, 1830, riots filled the streets of Brussels. They demanded independence. Only a month later, the Belgians formed a provisional government, and they issued a Declaration of Independence on October 4th, 1830.

Over the course of the next year, a constitution had been approved, a monarch chosen and plans proposed by the surrounding powers rejected. Unfortunately for the Belgians, King William I wasn’t satisfied, and he refused to accept the coronation of King Leopold I. After the French joined the fight and retook Antwerp, an armistice was reached in 1832. They remained in a bloodless stalemate until the Dutch formally recognised Belgium in 1839.

This is a good place to pause.

We started this whole exploration in search of an answer to the question of why Belgium exists at all. It seems to be a product of religious division, political inequity and economic inequality, which is understandable enough. But it still doesn’t quite add up to me.

If cultural differences were such a big part (in the early years, the French-speaking majority turned around the tyranny on their Dutch-speaking countrymen), why is Flanders a part of Belgium? Why didn’t it stay in the Netherlands? Why didn’t it end up being its own entity? Why didn’t France and the Netherlands just divide the region along linguistic boundaries like the French wanted to do?

Honestly, this looks like a way more rational situation than what we have today (assuming that all the lands marked “Prussia” here became Germany):

The rest of this is my opinion based on all the information I gathered to write the above and my experiences with Belgians over the past half-year.

It appears to me that the existence of Belgium is really a consequence of the political posturing of the larger powers of Europe. Flanders has had its share of powerful regional kings and dukes, but none of them had the materiel or will to expand far beyond their townships. By the time of Belgian independence, the region had been battered by centuries of political exploitation, religious wars and the dick-swinging contests of hot-headed generals. Centuries of Spanish occupation left this area isolated from the other Netherlandish cultures to the north and from the French culture to the south. When there was a chance for reunification, paranoid European powers did what they could to keep the French sphere of influence from encroaching any further on Central Europe.

By the time of the Belgian Revolution, the Dutch prefered a unified Netherlands, but the ties weren’t there. The Flemish of the early nineteenth century were the descendants of those who had been left behind in the eighty years war. They were provincially minded, Catholic and unfit or unwilling to fight for some king, regardless of whether he spoke Dutch or French.

Flanders came along in the Belgian Revolution somewhat unwillingly. The Belgians wanted the crucial port of Antwerp, and they didn’t want to be surrounded as they would have been if they gave up Flanders in the west or Limburg in the east.

Certainly, some would have liked simply to rejoin France, but that wasn’t an option. They would need to go it alone, and they would need the resources of Flanders.

It doesn’t seem obvious now that the French-speaking Belgians were the powerful ones. Dutch is now an official language, on equal footing with French, and French is no longer the official international language; it’s English, a language Flemmings speak better than Walloons. Flanders is the economic leader, and Flemmings sometimes joke about the “lazy Walloons” being the reason France won’t take them back. From a modern perspective, it almost seems like Wallonia is the one being dragged along, but that is a development only of the last few decades.

Even though Belgium doesn’t really seem to work as a country, it doesn’t seem like it would work divided either. Neither Flanders nor Wallonia is economically strong enough to stand on its own, and the fighting over Brussels would never end. Wallonia is a liability that would not be annexed by a French government that already has enough problems with declining industrial and agricultural areas of its own. Flemmings like to think they’re more Dutch because of their shared language, but the cultural differences are obvious even to outsiders (and even the language is hardly a tie when Dutch people prefer to speak English in West Flanders because they can’t understand the dialect).

Belgium doesn’t make any sense. Its name comes from Germanic tribes who once lived in this region, the Belgae. They were massacred by Julius Caesar, and it appears that hope of a truly unified Belgium died with them 2,000 years ago.

So, why does Belgium even exist?

Politics.

New Podcasts! Former Congressman Bob Inglis and retired professor John Grant

Some of you only get my updates via the blog, but I’m mostly working on the more conventional feeds of Twitter and Facebook. At least for now.

Just a few updates.

  1. I have some new podcast material up. I spoke with former Congressman Bob Inglis of republicEn.org about small-government approaches to decarbonization. I also spoke with retired professor John Grant about his fears and hopes for the future. Links below.
  2. I have two more guests confirmed, one of whom will be my first climate change skeptic. We’re meeting on Friday and hopefully recording next week. The other is CSU climate scientist, and we’ll meet on Monday to discuss details. Big week ahead
  3. In unrelated news, my Belgian work permit got approved! I leave Colorado November 28th, and I plan to be in Belgium the following week. New adventure on the horizon!

 

On Meaning and God

On my way back from Oslo, I listened to this debate between Dr Jordan B. Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and Dr Susan Blackmore, who is currently a visiting professor at the University if Plymouth. They discussed the role of God in giving meaning to life, and they did a much better job of diving into the subjects than I did, so check out their whole 45-ish-minute discussion here.

 

Critical Appearance

The wide black disc flashed with a white rectangle as the shutter released, and the characteristic snap left a satisfying feeling of capturing the moment. T’ew shifted slightly on one knee, the lens of his camera balancing on the edge of my shadow. Behind him, the red and gold leaves of this Korean autumn shone with the growing light of the rising sun peaking over the buildings at my back. I stared unblinkingly into the depths of the lens as it snapped open and closed again. He lowered the camera from his face and inspected the picture.  As he stood and joined me on the bench, he sifted through the series of portraits he had just taken.

“How did they come out?” I asked.

“Here. Take a look,” he said as he passed the camera to me.

Flipping through the dozen or so photos of my face lit with a surreal glow of the background sun, I couldn’t help but think about how uncomfortable it is to be on this side of the camera. Frozen in that instant of an awkward half smile, my likeness was open to utter scrutiny. My broken protruding nose, the red dots of pervasive acne, my matted and unkempt hair all captured in the finest detail. I scrolled across the others quickly, and handed the camera back.

“Nice,” I said. “That shallow depth of field really highlights your subject.”

Your subject. I didn’t even want to admit that I had just been scrutinizing my own face. Though I know I am imperfect, I still find it uncomfortable to look at my faults. They are the first things I see when I look at myself, whether in the mirror or a photograph. Of course, I can do nothing (short of drastic surgery) to change them, but in each picture or frame of film, they stare back at me as a constant reminder of my unsatisfactory state of being.

I stoically obliged T’ew’s requests for me to play the model as he tested his new lens during our early morning walk. We started early – just after 6 am – to capture what is known as “magic hour,” that hour around sunrise or sunset when the lighting is just right for capturing some fantastic images. From my apartment, we ambled east toward Tancheon, a river that flows from southern reaches of Seoul into the Han river in the heart of the sprawling metropolis. After walking a kilometer or so south along the river, we took a detour west along a tributary. The sky glowed pink and blue behind us as we walked and chatted about ethics, philosophy, and science. On the far edge of a very Western-style neighborhood of upperclass homes, we reached a dead end at the edge of an impassable mountain forest. It proved to be a great spot to snap a few pictures before continuing our circuitous journey back to Yatap.

Over the course of several kilometers, we had over an hour to fill the time with conversation between stopping for random photo opportunities. After a discussion about the potential for the indefinite extension of human life, I posed the question Why do people reject the things that science tells us? We both agreed that those who refuse to accept the findings that the scientific communities have made are simply too uncomfortable with the idea that their previously held beliefs were in fact wrong.

That of course begs the question What’s so wrong with being wrong?

We all know the feeling of being wrong. It feels exactly the same as being right. We are ignorant of our ignorance, and we are able to live our lives without a second thought. That is, of course, until we find out that we are wrong. At that moment, we begin to feel anxious and afraid. Something is out of place. The pieces of the puzzle that our mind had put together suddenly no longer fit, and it’s not entirely clear how they must now be relaid. The bigger our misconception, the more uncomfortable the feeling. Particularly when science challenges religious dogma, this feeling can be overwhelming. When the entire fabric of the world, the genesis and conclusion of everything we know, become imperiled, the reaction is to fight back and return things to the way they were. What evolutionary advantage this feeling may have had, I will not speculate, but it is certainly innate within almost all of us. For some, it is so strong that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they will stand by their convictions, assured that the rest of the world is mistaken.

Though we feel incredibly uncomfortable in these moments, that in itself does not morally incriminate the state of being wrong. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Recognizing the fallacy in our assumptions and our beliefs is the grandest opportunity of all to take part in a process that defines and separates, improves and empowers our species: learning. When our ancestors began to plan, think ahead, and think abstractly, it began to separate itself from the rest of the animal kingdom. The development of a new type of cognitive function opened the door for innovation, engineering, and most importantly, education. No longer were the advances of our species limited to their creator, they could be passed laterally to all of their peers. Over our long history, we have reached a point at which we need not solve the vast majority of our problems on our own. Our understanding of concepts and ideas can come from our contemporaries and our predecessors. This process is not without mistakes. Untruth can be passed just as easily as truth, and discerning the difference is often difficult. However, we are a species that is constantly evolving and improving. The evolution of our knowledge now far outpaces the evolution of our genes. This means that we can grow and develop ourselves at a rate no species has ever been able to. To waste this ability is a tragedy.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn.”

When we returned to my apartment after watching the new film Martian, T’ew started to press me on my growing conviction against eating meat. I am still internally debating the ethical issue of consuming the flesh of another animal, but the environmental argument for a plant-based diet is obvious and defensible. Pound for pound, raising livestock produces vastly more greenhouse gas than growing crops for human consumption. For me to lobby for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and insist that others take steps to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint while supporting an industry that produces nearly 20% of the global greenhouse gases that are raising the average surface temperature of our planet would be the epitome of hypocrisy.

T’ew challenged nearly every one of my assumptions and beliefs about this new way of living, even stating the futility and insignificance of my actions. He made me defend my position with arguments I had not considered, describe perspectives I had not seen, and evaluate premises I had taken for granted. To hear him challenging my view of the world was uncomfortable. It raised my heart rate and put me on edge. The challenge was, however, gladly welcomed. It is through this process of critical examination that I can discern if what I believe is an untruth either developed erroneously or accepted irrationally. He exposed gaps in my knowledge and faulty assumptions I hold about the world. Imagine if I continued through life without this experience. How would I continue to justify my deprivation of bacon, hamburger, and sushi? How long would my conviction of these principles hold? How soon would I relapse into hypocrisy? How easily might I abandon my new life goals altogether?

In taking the most basic of our beliefs and pulling them apart, we can examine them in fine detail to scrutinize their every fault. However, unlike the blemishes that become painfully obvious in the high definition image of my face, we can quickly correct our misunderstandings. In doing so we may grow and advance ourselves and our species. In overcoming the fear and discomfort that comes with realizing our ignorance, we become stronger and more capable of facing the challenges that this world continues to present us.

I want to be proven wrong. I want to figure out that I had things mixed up. I want to know that my image of the world was false because I want to learn.

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Question the Mystery

Through the broken clouds of the mid-evening sky, rays from a hidden sun fan out like venetian blinds shuttering a glimpse of the glory of Heaven above a watery horizon. Soaring gently over the high tide lapping at the sandy shoreline, a lone gull pulls its way upwind in search of necessity or perhaps desire. Across the shallow water stands a chain of forested islands, silhouetted against the perpetual gray haze of the western Korean coastline. Beyond, only imagination can tell us what lie in the space past the edge of the Earth.

Actually, I know what lie beyond: China. Just a few hundred kilometers over this sea sits the Middle Kingdom, a few hundred more lie Indochina and the Indian Ocean, then Antarctica, the Atlantic, North America, the Bering Strait, and finally Korea. It’s a simple exercise of tracing a line on a globe. This procedure, however, is far less wondrous or inspiring than the mystery of the unknown.

Looking out over this beach, I am trying to catch a brief respite from the camp I have agreed to attend. The campsite belongs to the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) church, an organization of which I am an employee. I hold no ill will against the church or my school. In fact, the school has an exceptional reputation for treating its employees well, and my observation confirms the testimony. That said, I have yet to find a comfortable way to operate within a religious community. In addition to the stress of teaching several hours a day, the discomfort of standing silently with eyes lifted through a group prayer or listening distantly to worship songs constantly adds to the pressures of my life.

When I agreed to participate in the camp, I thought it would be a quiet escape to nature. Little did I know, the beach on which we would be camping shared the space with a large dormitory and chapel at which a hundred young campers and families are participating in a church seminar. In no way are they rude or particularly inconsiderate, but after hoping for silence, I find the excited shouts of children or the gay chatting of a group of new friends less joyous. Lost opportunities for silent solitude have ruined my hope for much needed stress relief.

The camp, though, has not been a waste. I have been able to share some great conversation with my coworkers, encounter some beautiful views, and restart my photographic habits. I will share some of my pictures at the end, but I would like to share my reflections of one discussion that shed a bit more light on the reasons behind my discomfort in the religious community.

In the packed wet sand of the exposed shoreline, my gregarious colleague had dug a pit and started a fire around which the two dozen or so campers gathered last night. In proud introduction of the great American pastime of making s’mores, my American colleagues and I taught our students and coworkers how to properly roast a marshmallow and sandwich it between cookies that served as graham crackers with a slab of melting milk chocolate. Glad I had not lost the touch of preparing a perfectly golden-brown, crispy yet gooey marshmallow, I enjoyed more sugar than I needed as we chatted.

I wonder how many thousands of generations did just this; sitting around a fire, roasting food, sharing the stories of their lives, and discussing the most distant ideas their brains could fathom. I imagine those conversations were not much different from those we had here on the beach.

A memorable conversation began when I asked a devout colleague why the SDA church observes the sabbath on Saturday while most other Christian denominations observe it on Sunday. With a bit more prodding, I was able to elicit the story of how the early church under Roman rule changed the day to Sunday to appeal to the pagan masses whose celebratory day to worship the Sun was (of course) Sunday. They mentioned a few other ideas from the old pagan religions that Christianity adopted during this time to make it more appealing to the masses, but I didn’t dig into it. I simply enjoyed the historical recitation of how this apparently minor change would have future ramifications that ranged from the immense as in the case of armies that would not fight on the sabbath to the inane like the lack of bus service on Sunday in my hometown.

The conversation continued to wander, sometimes departing from my attention when it changed to Korean, but I would end the night with a very deep discussion about life, love, and geopolitics with a new acquaintance from another school. Though it was entertaining, I left the conversation with a sense of dissatisfaction. I decided to follow up today. I asked the original devout fellow teacher why it matters what day we call the sabbath. She and a couple of our colleagues tried to explain the biblical roots of the Saturday sabbath; its practice among the original “chosen people,” the Jews; and the SDA church’s commitment to adhering to scripture. These are all interesting tidbits, but none of them answered the question Why does God care what day we keep holy? Maybe the question is exceptionally basic, but I thought that should make it all the easier to answer. Despite this, I continued asking the same questions in as many different ways as I could contrive because the responses continually dodged them. After going in circles from tradition to scripture to tradition to scripture, I finally asked what answer satisfies them when they ask these questions. The discussion ended with the explanation that the important part was the relationship to God and that we could talk with God on any day of the week. But the sabbath should still be Saturday.

Herein lies another reason why religion will never satisfy my wonder. Mystery is beautiful, and the unknown commands incredible feelings of wonder, fear, and hope. For me, though, that unknown is not the end; it is the beginning. It is the beginning of discovery. The wonder is for the incredible things that are waiting to be known, the fear is for the feeling that I might never find them, and the hope is that I will.

I will not try to make a value judgment of this trait, but my colleagues do not share the same thirst for further answers. Because it has always been done this way or Because someone important said so is sufficient. For me, it is not. Though some aspects of The Bible have escaped my criticism, the lack of logical explanation in its immense collection of writings fails to satisfy my needs.

When the words of The Bible were written down, there were no globes detailing the continents and expansive oceans (at least in that part of the world). What lie over the horizon was indeed a mystery. However, we have come a long way in the ensuing millennia. A product of centuries of years of exploration, the modern globe is a testament to those who did not accept the answers given by wisemen and prophets. These explorers saw mystery and wanted answers. When asked the tough questions, they did not dodge and rationalize; they cast off in search of answers. They did not take for granted the knowledge that we had gained, but knew that humanity’s continued advance depended upon the steady expansion of the collective body of knowledge on which we draw when we invent new technology or solve new problems. I will not accept the regurgitated answers of antiquity or authority. I want to know the true nature of this world, and that involves continuing to ask the tough questions and find their answers. To stop questioning is to stop learning, and to stop learning is to stop living.

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