The Flemish media opened the new year with a public debate on national identity through history lessons. This sets the tone for 2024. Attention to history is of course welcome. But for a nationalist framework, the ‘ordinary Flemish man’ will ultimately pay a political price.
You didn’t need to have seen the story of Flanders, it turns out, to know that Tom -interlanguage-Wae’s superficial style is not the best choice for a stimulating popularization of the story. Nor does one need to know the canon to know that a canon (singular) as a method seems reductive and rather tells something about what today’s historians would like to understand as ‘history’, however revealing it may be.
And that a ‘Flemish’ cannon is also a nationalist project for a region that wants to be a nation? There is no doubt about that either, the Flemish Prime Minister constantly says himself. If even our academics, such as literary scholar Kevin Ansillis, talk in interviews about ‘constituent state’ in Flanders, which this region is not, it seems to work. According to the first article of the Belgian constitution, the federal state is composed of communities and regions. There are no federal states in our country.
It is noteworthy: those who criticized were sometimes quickly branded as ‘elitist’. It is a right-wing framework, namely that one belongs to the globalized ‘cultural elite’ who would look down on the ‘ordinary Flemish’. The reverse is usually true. For the sake of the ‘ordinary Flemish’, it is necessary to keep pointing out that Flemish nationalism is essentially a political program that will lead to the dismantling of the social welfare state that has been built up at the federal level. Union and health insurance opposition is also organized at the federal level, as employer organizations know all too well.
Flemish nationalism is therefore a class project, and the ordinary Fleming is ultimately the victim of this. Progressives who warn against this abuse of power are not ‘self-haters’, they are standing up for their beliefs. The identitarian discourse serves to shift the focus from economic power relations to cultural contradictions.
From conflicting class interests to the “clash of civilizations”, so to speak. Nationalist history lessons fit into that context. Likewise, history lessons that take place in a nationalist package and context. The criticism of it is necessary and not elitist, rather its dismissal serves elitist interests, whether consciously or not.
In the book Debatfiches van de Vlaamse elite (2022), various authors explain how right-wing politicians and their opinion-making allies bombard us daily with their ideological language battle. Many nationalist concepts, characterized by an antisocial world view, today govern the social debate as a subtext. Anyone who uses such an ideologically charged discourse inevitably also reproduces the worldview that lies behind it. And thus perpetuates, intentionally or not, the right-wing hegemony. You can read its effect from occasional polls.
What really deserves more attention: if right-wing politicians turn the lion’s flag into a dog whistle for a policy of separation and demolition, then the economic elites will benefit. Both Flemish and Belgian. They play a cynical role: they usually pretend that they themselves have nothing to do with the expressions of the extreme right, but do not oppose it. On the contrary. Regardless of whether Belgium consists of ‘two democracies’ or not, it will be difficult for employers’ associations. If ‘Belgium breaks’ serves their interests, then they will have no problem supporting the parties that push for this. If the reverse were true, the extreme right and the conservative right simply could not command as much attention and support.
Let’s not forget that during the formation of the government in 2019, the Flemish employers’ association addressed the media with the statement that a government with Vlaams Belang should be able to do that. The neoliberal policy of the Flemish economic elite therefore not only results in the growth of the extreme right. A large part of that elite also sees no problem in the fact that an extreme right-wing party can help set the political agenda, provided they will pursue an even more radical neoliberal policy.
Under the guise of nationalist sentiments, the Flemish people are therefore being deceived. Those who react to this do not turn their noses up at Flemish culture or the Flemish people. On the contrary. The lion flag is not so much the problem, but the cargo it covers. It is a story that the academics involved cannot touch enough between the mediated history lessons.
Nationalism? Negative for community building
By participating in this public debate about ‘Flemish’ history, even if it is through criticism, you unfortunately cannot escape the political goal behind it: We are all talking about identity and Flanders, precisely what the extreme right and conservative right are so much about .
Nevertheless, it is necessary to keep pointing out that nationalism in general, regardless of the Flemish context, actually mainly opposes the formation of a solidary community. Of course, the sense of community that comes from proximity or familiarity with the life and people of a particular region is valuable. It used to be the church that wanted to occupy this ‘we’ ideologically. Since the 19th century, nationalism has assumed the role of an ersatz religion. It wants to appropriate that sense of community for political abuse. It also poisons that sense of community with an us-against-them logic, so that inclusion thrives on exclusion.
For example, someone with whom you share much psychologically or interest on an individual level, but who has a different family background, will remain a ‘stranger’ according to the logic of the ‘national community’. Whereas someone you never knew but lived in the same region would be ‘one of us’. In terms of identity, you have to superficially reflect yourself in people with the same local characteristics, but with whom you often have nothing personal or character to do. This is what makes the constructed unity of nationalist events so empty and unreal.
According to anthropologist Benedict Anderson, nations are imagined communities of people who feel connected in a socio-cultural unity. The ‘nation’, derived from the Latin ‘tribe’, presupposes the creation of an identity within certain spatial boundaries. But who is the ‘Flemish people’ whose sovereignty, at least according to the credo
of Flemish nationalism, can only be protected within one’s own Flemish state? It is clear that, according to nationalist politicians, certainly not all people who live in a particular area have certain basic rights (the Jacobean meaning of ‘people’).
Nor is it about the socio-economic class of all the people who have to work to live (the Marxist sense). No, ‘Being Flemish’ turns out to be about sharing a cultural identity, where more and more socio-economic behavior patterns such as savings, hard work and entrepreneurship, in addition to the common language, play an inclusive role. Anyone who does not meet these conditions (such as ‘the inactive’, dixit Bart De Wever) simply does not belong to the political community of the ‘Flemish’. Even if you have lived in Ghent, Ostend or Antwerp for many years.
History, a battlefield
Nationalism also has a negative effect on the acquisition of knowledge about history. After all, why should I identify with cathedrals, say Van Eyck or Rubens? As a person, I have no merit in that. There is only a certain ‘closeness’ and therefore a cultural affinity.
However, preserving cathedrals as heritage is different from wanting to revive the worldview for which they were originally built. To be sure, identification with the past can serve to elevate you as an individual, so that out of an arbitrary nationalistic feeling you become mainly aware of the greatness of ‘our’ past. Something you can be proud of – even under social pressure you should be.
In this way, you can compensate for any personal insecurities, which means you want to minimize the dark sides of ‘our’ past, possibly under the guise of standing up for ‘us’. Because those scandals then reflect negatively on us. This emotional approach to history, many historians warn, leads to a lack of neutrality and prevents a true examination of the past. And then we are soon entangled in a romance that opens the door to political abuse, possibly under the guise of only wanting to spread ‘our culture’.
According to the historians involved, the mediated history lessons that the Flemish media have in store for us this year will also reveal how a struggle has always been waged in this region from below, against those in power. And of course it is valuable. They also promise a scientific correction of the quicksand of fables, parables and alternative facts into which the Flemish identity cathedral under construction threatens to sink, at least if Flemish nationalists are given free rein. Also welcome.
Nevertheless, it must be expected that nationalists will not see this historic struggle from below as a social struggle against the interests of VOKA, KBC and the cottages in this region. On the contrary. That commitment from below will probably turn into a culture battle against the ‘profiteers’ that PS wants to retain, and the Greens’ ‘climate terror’ and so on. The progressives would oppress us, as the French-speaking bourgeoisie used to do, although the Flemish wealthy also fell under it.
Understandably, some historians see these mediated history classes as an opportunity to bring attention to their field. Fortunately, most of them realize that these stories are not separate or can be seen independently of the cultural struggle that dominates current Flemish politics. Those who think so take desire as the father of thought.
Because of the format of these history lessons and the related media debate, the history of science is inevitably involved in the ongoing culture battle, whether historians like it or not. It is therefore also an opportunity for them to remind us of the historical lessons about the dangers of nationalism and to talk about the class project that Flemish nationalism is basically. Or to point out once again that it is apparently also a historical constant that those in power are so eager to incorporate history as an altar boy.