so today i read in the news that the flemish belgians are trying to secede from the country. it makes me sad, because i've had lovely times in both flemish and francophone belgium. on the other hand, i have heard for years, from belgians and dutch people who spend time there that these 2 populations have always hated each other. if the separation occurs, i feel bad mostly for people who haven't hated the country, who have always thought of themselves as 'belgian.' i think of a friend of mine who now lives in nederland. when i first asked where she was from, she said, 'from yugoslavia. there is no yugoslavia, but it's where i come from.' she said it not bitterly but with some sadness. since then, i've read similar comments by writers from the former country.
still, i'm not knowledgeable enough to know whether in the long run---or even short run--the breaking apart of these particular countries (and countries like Czechoslovakia) is good or bad. what i do know is that 'country' is an artificial construct, having less to do with geography or with natural community than it does with whoever was the last group to successfully invade, annex, or enforce its power on a given body of people. history, from the trojan war on, has shown this.
in the US, children are forced each morning to swear their allegiance to 'one country, indivisible...' i understand those who object to God being tossed into this pledge in the 1950s, but the pledge itself is what i find most appalling, though i suppose historically inevitable. actually 'god' is almost gratuitous: the country itself has become god.
i remember as a child being told that the civil war was about freeing the slaves. i liked lincoln for that. then one year i read that though lincoln indeed did oppose slavery, it wasn't why he declared war. he declared war to keep the south from seceding. i liked him less after that--though i think that he was probably, as obama is now, the best we could hope for. he seems an engaging person as well,does lincoln, from the little i've read, and i suppose as heads of state go, he was a 'good man.'
but i've thought a lot over the years about that great god 'country,' and i've read a smattering of history about various countries, and i've lived through some of the best and the worst things done by the country i was born and live in. i want to do a piece here about 'patritoism' and i'll hold off on some of my thoughts about 'country,' and 'my country' and the very limiting conflation with 'my country' and 'my land.' [with apologies to woody guthrie].
but what belgium brings to mind is the idea of secession and its role in US history. if keeping the south from seceding all those years ago is the only way they could have ended slavery, i suppose it was a good thing. if history had turned out differently--if the south had seceded and the northern country had invaded it to free its slave--i think that would have been fine too [as fine as anything involving people killing each other could be].
i've lived all my life in new york and boston. most of my relatives are in cincinnati and i barely knew them growing up. in recent years i've gotten to know them, and am glad; they're very decent, very good people. i've been to cincinnati to visit them several times. i can't say that i 'know' cincinnati, b/c i've never traveled past my relatives' pleasant suburban neighborhood.
at the same time, i've gone to a small village in the netherlands every year for over 20 years, staying 3 months each time. i've traveled around other parts of nederland with dutch friends. i've studied dutch but i'm not good at it, and when i walk around town i don't understand much of what the people around me are saying. in cincinnati, of course, i understand the words perfectly.
but cincinnati to me is a foreign country. holland isn't. my little village is truly my 'second home,' and i miss it when i'm not there, though it's not a sad sort of missing. and it's not that i couldn't come to love cincinnati if i lived there or stayed for months--maybe i could, maybe not. would i object if it was in land known as a foreign country? not at all. it would be inconvenient because i'd have to use my passport, but in europe you get used to that.
how then can i be expected to love or feel loyalty to all the places in the US i've never seen? if events in my life had taken me for long stayes in chicago or philadelphia or for that matter upstate new york, i might love those places. i don't dislike them now. but they are part of "my country" in only a geographical way, and i suppose in a political way, since their politics, like the politics of boston or new york, influence who makes laws for me, who i pay taxes to. but that has nothing to do with love or loyalty. if a block of them seceded, i'd care about the practical consequences, certainly. but i wouldn't feel as if i'd personally lost something by losing a part of 'my country.'i would hope it was a 'velvet revolution,' with no one dying for it. i would mourn for all the victims if people did die, as i mourn each time i hear of people who die in violence anywhere. i don't think being not-a-country is any more worth killing for than being a country is.
it will be interesting to see what happens with belgium, because people there--people, not particularly flemish or francophone people--will be affected: some well, some less well, some,probably, terribly. a few very rich people will profit, as the very rich always do, and that's sad. it will be nice when some of them are so publicly horrible that the rest sacrifice them to the image of decency, like christians to the lions, but it won't matter all that much tothe lives of most ordinary people. flags will change, which will give work to factories that make flags, and that will be good for some workers, for a while. and maybe after a century or two, the flemish and francophiles can grow out of hating each other, since each has its own nice country to itself. or maybe not. like i said, it will be interesting.