Since the anti-Islamization demonstration on 9-11 in Brussels, ProFlandria has been an invaluable contributor to Gates of Vienna. He was born and raised in Flanders, but is now an American citizen, and has an excellent understanding of both cultures.
I have been relying on him for translations from the Dutch, information on the cultural background of Flanders, and help with understanding the Flemish political situation.
In my post about Belgium on Thursday, ProFlandria left a comment that is worth reproducing here in its entirety. He was responding to another commenter, eatyourbeans:
“An outsider or a fanatic might assume that the people who fly the ‘stars and bars’ want to bring back slavery and leave the Union. But nothing of the kind. The flag means, at least to those who display it, the willingness to defend one’s home, one’s kith and kin, one’s native region and its manners and customs against meddlesome outsiders.”
That’s as good a comparison as I’ve seen. I have tried not to wade too deeply into this discussion because I’m still coming to terms with my own experiences in that regard. But let me throw caution to the wind…
As a teenager I joined the Sea Cadets in my hometown, Oostende. We started up our chapter with one officer and four pimply friends, if memory serves. One of my friends invited his girlfriend’s brother to join, and he brought his friends. We soon realized that at a stroke, half of our chapter were “those” people — like the ones we saw on TV (late 70’s — early 80’s) roaming the streets of Flemish “border” municipalities to prevent their Walloon counterparts from taking over.
My “new” friends were fond of crewcuts, boots, and all things military. I learned to like crewcuts too, but my friends also had an open admiration for German martial prowess which bordered on the infuriating. Considering my family history, that didn’t sit so well. They were also members of organizations which espoused (mix and match to taste): idolizing WW1 Flemish veterans (great), memorializing “martyrs” to the cause of Flemish equality (uh…), supporting amnesty for Flemish WW2 SS veterans (hmmm…), and musing over the glories of Germanic/Nordic history and myth (cool, but what’s with all the runes?).
My initial reaction was one of caution — the guys seemed okay, but are they serious!? Inevitably we would have our discussions, and over time my friends’ stance on many things softened, or disappeared — I think the Wehrmacht idolatry was the first to dim (they did swap it for a healthy appreciation of Israeli military prowess).
On the other hand, I also learned. At age twelve I knew superficially about the unequal treatment we had received as a people, but I wasn’t worried about it. Later it dawned on me that Walloons were not only contemptuous of my “uncultured” language for its own sake, but because it was mine. They would come to my hometown on vacation (it’s a beach), rent an apartment from my grandparents, and be quite affable. But every now and then the mask would slip.
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The most memorable occasion was when a little boy ran up to me on the sidewalk when I was about fourteen and yelled: “Sale Boche!” [dirty Kraut]. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but when the red left my eyes I saw myself backing the boy’s dad up to a wall and hitting him over and over. I quickly walked away and left him stunned, and I have tried to rationalize that event ever since — “I must have realized the boy was too little to know what he was saying, I wouldn’t have hit the mother anyway, so that just left the other parent who had taught the kid to say that…”
No matter. It definitely wasn’t my finest hour because I don’t actually remember thinking any of that when it happened. The whole thing could easily have gone very, very wrong. So I decided to learn all I could about my “environment” — not from my friends’ propaganda leaflets, but from the library. Most sources I found would airily admit that there might have been problems in the past, but that was mostly over.
I joined the Navy at 18. It was pretty much inevitable: my dad and uncle were both Navy men, and during WW2 their dad had crewed on a fishing boat out of Swansea (Wales) doing his part for the war effort. By that time I was an ardent royalist, I kid you not. Two reasons: the near-mythological stature of King Albert who defied the Kaiser’s Army in the Big One, and a book on Leopold III’s Shakespearean tribulations during WW2. For anyone familiar with the pomp and pageantry of military ritual, once you add that in the mix you actually get guys who tear up when they’re in a parade (mea culpa…).
Slowly, however, my symbols started to tarnish. For one, the obvious over-representation of Walloons among officers was impossible to ignore. I found out that Albert’s treatment of his mostly Flemish enlisted personnel was less than edifying. I think the last straw was finding out about the Royal House’s decidedly “swastikarian” tendencies — especially with respect to Jews. I forget the name of the book, but I remember the shock at having one of my icons, whose latest scion was now my Commander-In-Chief, brought so low. As an object lesson in the danger of symbol worship, this one can count. Basically, if you want to find real-life Nazis in Belgium go to the Palace at Laeken.
By that time, however, I was stationed in the US on “temporary assignment” — for seven years. Things happen, you marry, you build a house… then they send a replacement. And a funny thing happened: I didn’t want to return home. Lots of practical reasons, but they were excuses — I could feel a different resistance, as well.
I didn’t realize until several years later that my country could no longer stand a comparison to the one I now lived in. True, we had all the artifacts of civilizational greatness — but this country had the practice of it. Imperfectly, to be sure, but also passionately. Discovering how this new country came to be was a revelation. Things I had known to be true suddenly proved flawed, or false. And without consciously looking, I had found my new symbols. If you’ve recited the pledge, you know what they are.
The last time I looked, my old friends are still culturally Flemish, but also Belgian soldiers. I haven’t spoken with any of them in over fourteen years, so I don’t know how they feel about current developments. It’s too risky to ask — the (Walloon Socialist) Minister of Defense deputized selected personnel to “evaluate” the troops’ possibly subversive sentiments.
My point, if I can even find it in all these ramblings, is this: as you said, symbols mean different things to different people. Changing your allegiance to them after having their validity challenged is a very long, and sometimes painful process. It is the kind of growth that leaves scars, but good ones. If certain people in Vlaams Belang are traveling this road — and I’m reasonably confident they are — they have my respect, and I’ll say no more about it.