Monday, December 18, 2006

Fun With Flems And Walloons

For a non-Belgian who loves political humor, this story was wonderful indeed.

To sum it up, a report was broadcast over Belgium's French-language radio and television stations (RTBF) last Tuesday that stated that the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium had voted to separate from the rest of the country. Television viewers were greeted with scenes of angry crowds in Antwerp, cars and busses being stopped at the Wallonia (French-speaking)/Flanders (Flemish-speaking) border, politicians discussing the developments and the royal family fleeing the country in a military airplane.

"Whoa," you are saying, "I don't read the news much, but I figure that I would have heard about a European country splitting in half!"

This report, however, was not all that it claimed to be. It was, well, made up. Completely.

This elaborate prank, apparently in the pipeline for two years, was a bit of fun that apparently several Belgian government officials signed on to do and that was engineered to make a point and get a rise out of average Belgians.

Did it work? According to the poll taken, and circumstantial evidence taken by RTBF, 89% of viewers seemed to believe it almost all of the way through the program. That is a lot of people, even for Belgium.

There were the requisite red-faced, indignant responses by other governmental officials and Belgian "talking heads," but it seems that the people, once they realized that it was a joke, laughed and carried on with their business.

Well, what is the bigger lesson to be learned here? In a sense, it is no more than the old admonition to not believe everything you hear. We are so completely dependent on the media, and in most cases far too unquestioning toward what it tells us, that this sort of thing seems plausible.

Add to this the things that people have seen develop live on T.V. (like 9/11), and anything seems possible. Perhaps this was a little shot by some people who work the controls of the media machine to remind people that even they, the masters of media, cannot always be taken at face value. People should know better, but often act as if they don't.

Does this, alternately, say anything about Belgium in particular? In one sense, no, just that Belgians are as dependent and trusting of media in all its forms as people elsewhere. In a less important sense, it is true that there is an active (and vociferous) Flemish separatist movement in Belgium and the relations between the two halves of the country have not always been without problems.

There might have been, therefore, some reason for people to believe that the two halves of the country had decided to separate. Some small reason, for there are considerable roadblocks to such a thing happening.

Just think about it for a moment. Belgium is a constitutional monarchy with some devolved federalism to the two provinces of Flanders and Wallonia. Within the last five years, there have been even more autonomous powers devolved to the linguistic-ethnic groups, powers agreed to by the national assembly and voted upon. For more about the Belgian government (which I know you are dying to read), look here.

What this says is that it would take more than a minority separatist party in the government to effect a constitutional change of this magnitude. Will Belgium ever split into two separate countries? I highly doubt it. It would not be in the best interest of either side to have to establish the infrastructure and international presence to replace that of Belgium.

Historically, Belgium as we know it is really not that old. It was made independent of the Netherlands in 1830, gained a colonial empire through the bloody hands of King Leopold II, was occupied by Germany in both world wars, became a member of NATO and the EU, and has been giving more power to the provinces since the 1970's. For more about recent Belgian history (which you are more excited about than the government), look here.

If the two halves of the country were to split, the major issue would be, as in many breakups, who gets what stuff. In this case, the big question would be "who gets Brussels?" Apart from being the capital of the country, Brussels is the political seat of NATO, the European Commission and the Council of Europe. It would, therefore, come down to what language EU commissioners and bureaucrats would not bother to learn: French or Flemish.

To sum up, it was a funny joke, no-one was hurt (that I know of) and things in Belgium can get back to normal. While there are people who don't want to be Belgian anymore, more still want to keep it all together. A split is not in anyone's interest and is not likely.

The Belgians need to calm down, drink a bunch of the great beer that they brew, and realize that most things on T.V. are just silly and that everyone in Europe is happy to keep balkanization in the Balkans.

Just ask the Serbs.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

More Claret, Your Grace?

No one really seems to care if celebrities of the entertainment type get drunk and do assinine things in public. It is, in many ways, part of the monkey dance that we expect of them; they are, after all, entertainers. We find drunks doing idiotic things in unlikely places in various states of injury or undress amusing, comical, entertainment gold.

What if, however, that the famous drunk acting stupidly in public is a celebrity of the religious type?

That is just what happened to Dr. Tom Butler, the Bishop of Southwark in England. Read the version of the story in the Times here. For a more tabloidy take on it, read the account in The Evening Standard here.

For those who don't want to read it (and just because it is so terribly amusing to recount), here's what happened. The bishop was at a Christmas party at (and all of the British news sources took great pains to emphasize this) the Irish Embassy in Belgravia in London. There, he was, ahem, filled with the spirit of Christmas.

Afterward, he left the party and was found inside the back seat of a car parked outside a pub near London Bridge Station. The owners of the car, noticing the intruder, came outside to find the bish throwing their child's stuffed animals around in the back seat. When the car owner opened the door, the bishop tumbled out of the car, already with a large injury on his forehead. He refused an ambulance and then wandered off into the night, eventually making it back to his home in Tooting Bec.

The next morning, at services, he claimed that he was mugged and his briefcase (later recovered among the stuffed animals) and cell phone (not yet recovered) were missing. He also claims to not remember the head wound, the car near London Bridge Station or how he got home. This story does not jazz, however, with witnesses that saw him before he left the embassy, when he was throwing plush toys around or when he staggered off into the night.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

On a personal level, I would be tempted to say "well, the guy drank too much, blacked out, acted like an idiot and now he must deal with the consequences." I also must point out that, to us in the drinking community, on a personal level, we can all relate.

On the other hand, Dr. Tom Butler is a public figure, a religious leader and apparently (according to the Times story) has a history of being tough on priests in his diocese who drink too much. If you are keeping score, the bish stands accused of lying, breaking an entering (the car), public drunkenness and hypocrisy.

Before proceeding to what I think should happen to this pickled prelate, I must return to the fact that the British press made such a deal about it having started with a party at the Irish Embassy. This is typical, British stereotyping of the Irish proclivity toward drunkenness. I would say "shame on them," but they don't care. It is part of their nature (see, I can use stereotypes too).

Things do not look good for Dr. Tom the Times points out, Lambeth Palace will most likely get involved. Archbishop of Canterbury (and Butler's boss) Rowan Williams. There will be inquiries and, seeing that Butler is sixty-six and intended to retire at seventy, he will most likely be leaned on to retire early. The only thing that can save him is other witnesses coming forth to clear him, evidence that he really was mugged or a Christmas miracle (hey, he is a man of the cloth after all).

What does this say about the Church of England? Not much more than it says about any organization who has members that make bad personal choices, really. Just because a board member is a drunk or beats his wife or anything else does not necessarily mean that the company is a sick organization. Unless there was a massive cover-up, or there was a pattern of such occurrences, or because of the former, we do not know about the latter, the C of E will continue on as it a somewhat irrelevant, poorly attended yet entrenched part of the British system and psyche.

More interesting, at least to me, is the reaction of the general public. How to gauge this? First, read the hilarious (and ultimately sympathetic) editorial by Brian O'Hagan in the Telegraph. Then, look at the reader responses below. They are a fascinating window on, well, the opinions on this matter by readers of the Telegraph. What they show are people who, in general, accept that the bish is human, made a mistake and seem willing to forgive. It does not seem to matter to them very much that this happened and they are willing to forgive Butler or to laugh him off.

This could mean one of two things. It could mean that the British are more generous with people like Butler when they make a mistake (which is what they consider it), and as long as he admits to it and apologizes for the attempts at deception, so what if the old fella had a few too many?

On the other hand, it could show just how irrelevant the C of E is to British society in general. It could show that people don't care because, well, the Church does not matter to them and who cares if some old guy in a cassock gets drunk, hurts himself and generally acts like a fool? In a country where only one in fifteen residents attend the C of E weekly and religious belief is in a tailspin, could one come to any other conclusion than that of public apathy mixed with mild amusement about a drunk bishop?

These questions will be (somewhat) answered if Lambeth Palace decides to investigate, but the larger questions about the C of E and British society linger on (as they have for years now).

Also interesting to consider is if this same incident happened in, say, Ireland to a Catholic bishop? Maybe if it happened in the United States to any religiously prominent person? What then? I suspect, at least in the American case, there would be much, MUCH more righteous indignation, howls about the horrors of alcoholism, accusations of clergy pedophilia and other such paroxysms typical of our increasingly therapy-based society.

All I can say for sure is this: this Christmas, if you see a commotion in the back seat of your car and a flume of stuff (possibly even stuffed animals) burbling up from the back seat, don't panic.

It's probably just a drunk Anglican bishop looking for his dignity.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Never Trust The Government With Your Kids

My dear friend, Lost A Sock, wrote a great piece on an absolutely preposterous (and typical) educational initative proposed by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.

Read her piece here. For my comments, well, read under "Comments" below the post.

For the original article from the Northwest Indiana Times, read here.

Government really needs to get out of the education business. Now.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Immediacy: Not Really Possible (For Now, At Least)

I realize that I have not posted in some time. It is crackerjack time in the semester and things are indeed (as ever) coming down to the wire.

I have the following to contend with:
  • 10-15 pages on Bertrand Russell, his meeting with Lenin in 1919 and his ultimate rejection of communism and why the hell this matters anyway.
  • 15-20 pages on the New Model Army and radicalism in the English Civil War and who did what when, why and why the hell this matters anyway.
  • Four pages of diplomatic documents to translate from French to English (and flawlessly, I might add).

How far am I on any of this you ask? I know a little about the first thing, a little more about the second thing and, as for thing number three, well, I know enough to know enough, let's say (an interestingly constructed sentence, I realize).

Plus, as if my bad academia habit was not enough, I am vaguely aware that there is some sort of Christian (or Jewish, perhaps...Hindu?) holiday approaching that I get the sneaking suspicion that I need to give somewhat of a shit about...

Pile on top of that developments in the world as we know it including but not limited to: resignations, civil wars, international Cold War-style intrigue and the Badgers in the Capital One Bowl on the first (screw Arkansas, by the way) followed by a family birthday on the second and doubtless TA training in that week as well leaves me with, oh, about thirty seconds in the next month and a half to think about anything other than school and this aformentioned mystery holiday (is it the commemoration of a forgotten war?...the War of Jenkins Ear, perhaps?)

Come to it, I really have precious little to do for the holiday season. I am only on the hook for five gifts (that I can remember, anyway), and three of these are to my immediate family. Apart from this, I have to send cards to people out of town, go and consume an entire shrimp ring and half-cooler of luke warm Miller Lite at the History Department Holiday reception, and make it onto a bus in two weeks. Not that bad, I know...if you don't count the intervening hours of intellectual horror as I argue, recant, rewrite, question my worth and ultimately "give up" in the process of writing (my version of giving up is like other people finishing, but with a lot more lamenting and gnashing of teeth).

I ask you, what would you rather have? Holiday madness or academic madness? Isn't it all just being fucking insane in the end? Does it matter how you got there? Will you even know it when you arrive?

No need to will only speed the aformentioned process of insanifying ( word).

Check back soon...there will be something here (Fates willing...)

Oh, and a Happy War of Jenkins Ear Day to you and yours (that's it, isn't it?)