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This month McSweeney's publishes my essay "Passion Pieces". The essay is partly memoir and partly a reflection on recent history in Poland, and it appears in a symposium edited and curated by Rachel Cohen in tribute to the wonderful work of Lawrence Weschler, author of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, and Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing That One Sees. The symposium is called "You have to see this", and the magazine describes it as: "an all-hands-on-deck appraisal of one of the most keen-eyed cultural commentators of our time. With contributions from Errol Morris, William Finnegan, Lauren Redniss, Bill McKibben, Ben Katchor, Wendy Lesser, Geoff Dyer, Bill Morrison, Riva Lehrer, David Hockney, Jonathan Lethem, Peter Vermeersch, Andrei Codrescu, Baynard Woods, Ricky Jay, and Walter Murch."
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The commentary below first appeared on the blog of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium
(2 November 2011).
For more than 500 days Belgium has been without a government. Responding to this political crisis, an independent group of Belgian citizens - from various walks of life and different parts of the country, none of them politicians, but all passionate defenders of democracy – launched the idea of organizing a large citizens’ summit called G1000. It will be the largest exercise in deliberative democracy in Belgium so far.
On 11 November 2011, the G1000 will bring together a random sample of 1000 Belgian citizens to discuss the future of Belgium. This will be done by inviting 100 tables of 10 people to talk about a number of topics that have been identified as major concerns (the identification of topics has happened through an extensive survey). The discussions will be facilitated by moderators and translators. In a later phase, 32 randomly chosen citizens will meet at regular occasions to develop the initial decisions into concrete policy proposals.
Belgium has no clear tradition of deliberative democracy yet. The past half-century, Belgian elected politicians have been so preoccupied with state reform that they seem to have forgotten all about the reform of democracy. The organizers of the G1000, however, believe that deliberative democracy offers useful methods to overcome some of the limits of representative democracy in Belgium. The G1000 doesn’t ignore the work of parliaments and parties; it rather seeks to complement it. Just as in a system of direct democracy, it aims at the large involvement of ordinary citizens, but through its careful sampling of diverse groups it also respects the spirit of representative democracy.
The organizers believe that the G1000 can show to ordinary Belgian citizens that there are still possibilities, even if the current democratic system in Belgium is in crisis. Citizens’ participation is key. Citizens’ engagement may increase public trust and, in turn, reduce the electoral stress that might lead to more political deadlocks. Deliberative democracy will not make the traditional institutions of representative democracy redundant, nor is it likely to resolve all the problems in a democratic system, but it may clearly demonstrate that, now perhaps more than ever, politicians and leaders of contemporary democracies like Belgium should be brave enough to reach out to the views and expertise of ordinary citizens.
For more information: http://www.g1000.org/en/
The commentary below first appeared in European Voice (2 September 2010).
The new politique sécuritaire introduced by the French government, which is essentially a crackdown on unemployed or non-legally employed Roma immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania, has been sharply criticised because of its dubious legal and moral grounds. The forced, or semi-forced, collective expulsion of EU citizens on the basis of their ethnic identification clearly contravenes EU laws and may even be a form of ethnic discrimination.
France's response has been defensive. President Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to reason his way out of the legal and moral accusations by moving the debate to what he sees as the policy's positive outcomes. The purpose of the campaign, so he claims, is to increase security by reducing crime rates, to discourage illegal migration and, even, to push countries such as Romania and Bulgaria to step up their efforts to integrate their own Roma populations. But on all these points his policy completely misses the mark.
Consider crime. Selecting the Roma for a highly publicised expulsion campaign is not a particularly effective way of preventing crime. Rather, it criminalises them: they are collectively being held responsible for one-off events not related to their collective position as immigrants. Sarkozy's policy plans were sparked, back in July, by riots that followed a shooting by police of a member of a family of French Travellers. But there is no link between the situation of these gens du voyage, who maintain an itinerant lifestyle, and the (non-itinerant) eastern European Roma, who are fleeing poverty at home and seeking opportunities abroad. The policy has constructed links between disparate groups and events, making every Roma and every Traveller now guilty by association. That does not increase feelings of security; it increases insecurity.
Does the campaign, then, perhaps discourage illegal immigration? Again no. The eastern European Roma will come back to France to seek jobs – just as other citizens from the new member states have travelled back and forth across the EU for the same reason. This is what the EU is all about: offering its citizens possibilities for socio-economic mobility beyond the borders of the nation-state. And Roma need exactly that: more opportunities for socio-economic mobility. There is no mystery as to what would stop illegal Roma migration: growing access to the labour market. Expulsion has the opposite effect. Some of the Roma expelled from France had modestly begun integrating into the labour market, albeit in irregular and temporary positions. The current policy does not provide incentives for those Roma to try to turn their irregular work into stable and official businesses. Previous mass expulsions of Roma (sadly, this has a long tradition) have shown that such policies only encourage Roma to revert to a trusted method: survival on the margins. And for the gens du voyage, the expulsion campaign does not, and cannot, have any effect. As citizens of France they cannot be sent away. The only way in which the French government can diminish the number of illicit encampments is to increase the number of authorised sites.
Finally, will the expulsion policy impel eastern European countries to take the plight of their Roma populations more seriously? French officials have now met their Romanian and Bulgarian counterparts, but this late move seems nothing more than a weak response to growing international indignation.
Why this policy, then? Is Sarkozy trying to shore up his support on the right at a critical time for his presidency? And are the Roma just convenient, low-cost victims? As a political tactic, the policy might not be that successful either: it has not so much bolstered his approval ratings as created controversy and prompted adversaries such as the former prime minister Dominique de Villepin to claim that there is now a stain on the proud flag of republican France.
At the end of the day, this policy seems mostly inspired by Marx. I mean Groucho Marx. He once said: politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.
The commentary below first appeared in Nationalities Blog (16 June 2010) and was reblogged by TransConflict (21 June 2010).
The latest parliamentary elections in Belgium, held last Sunday, dramatically changed the country’s political landscape. In the French-speaking southern part (Wallonia) the Socialist Party (PS) stormed to victory. In the Dutch-speaking north (Flanders) the right-wing nationalists of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) attracted almost one third of the votes, a stunning result that even surprised some of the party’s own candidates and made the N-VA the largest political force in the entire country. The new support comes in large part from people who in earlier elections voted for traditional mainstream parties. But also former supporters of the far right apparently jumped ship in favor of the N-VA.
There are many things remarkable about these latest elections. One is the fact that the N-VA, a party that believes the end of federal Belgium is near (and argues that this is a good thing), is now going to have to take the lead in constructing a government coalition that will govern, well, federal Belgium. And it will presumably have to do so in cooperation with the PS, which finds itself at the other end of the spectrum, not only with regard to language policy but also in ideological terms.
Another is the fact that the NV-A in this election mobilized around issues that seem either technical or of little concern to the people who live in the heartland of Flanders (such as the division of an electoral district or the protection of the Dutch linguistic dominance in a number of small communes on Flemish territory just outside the (bilingual) Brussels Capital Region). Yet the heartland massively voted for the N-VA. Why?
There are many reasons, but one that might interest the readers of this blog is the N-VA’s clever reframing of the meaning of nationalism. The N-VA has managed to make people forget the old, vague, romantic and not particularly mobilizing notion of full Flemish independence and reframe its nationalism as a moderate political demand for autonomy. The party employed a number of metaphors to communicate this message. “We don’t want a revolution, just evolution”, said N-VA leader Bart De Wever repeatedly. We do not want to split Belgium, we will just let it “evaporate”, was another slogan. This discourse was also meant to eclipse the dark sides of the Flemish movement’s heritage, in particular its association with collaboration during the Second World War.
According to its defenders, the new Flemish nationalism is not driven by emotion but by calculation and economic rationality. Of course, in reality it should perhaps be called economic wishful thinking: dividing the country, even if only gradually, would probably be a complicated, messy and costly affair; and, because of the position of Brussels, it wouldn’t necessarily be a particularly rational way of dealing with the governance problems that Belgium has. But the idea that more nationalism is needed, and not less, to unblock the political debates between language groups at the federal level has worked extremely well as an electoral slogan. During the campaign the N-VA forced other parties onto the defensive as they were increasingly compelled, but rarely managed, to tell a more nuanced and realistic story about the need for compromise. “Rational” Flemish nationalism was thus presented as an antidote for the confusion of Belgian “politics as usual” and as a discourse of clean efficiency, not one of exclusion or lack of solidarity across language groups.
Should observers of nationalist politics in Central and Eastern Europe be interested in these latest political developments in Belgium, which is after all only a small country in the West of Europe? I can think of two reasons why they should.
The first is: Belgium has often served, even if only implicitly, as a model for other divided societies, not in the least in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It has been used to show how linguistic tensions (and therefore also ethnic or national ones) can be kept in check by a carefully crafted constitutional setup that makes room for compromise, autonomy, and power-sharing mechanisms. But if it turns out that the Belgian constitutional setup has only unleashed more nationalism and more competition between linguistically defined political groups it might lose its role as an institutional model. Moreover, the success of the Flemish nationalists might give politicians in the East a reason to engage further in nationalism. Especially in its softer version it seems a rewarding strategy.
Observers of Eastern European politics may also find another aspect worth considering. The N-VA has been remarkably pro-EU. At the party’s victory announcement suspiciously few Flemish flags were waved. Instead the backdrop was a huge blue EU flag with one of the golden stars replaced by a Flemish lion. From De Wever’s point of view this isn’t difficult to explain: for him more EU means less Belgium. Moreover, by supporting the EU the N-VA can signal its allegiance to democratic values and thus distance itself symbolically from the far right. But from the standpoint of the EU this must seem rather odd. The EU has always sought to eradicate divisive nationalism, not support it. It has done so by offering an alternative post-national ‘European’ identification. And it has promoted such an agenda especially in the context of the enlargement process to Central and Eastern Europe. But now it turns out that even in the old member states there are politicians who creatively engage and adapt the EU’s discourse not to abandon their nationalist agendas but to make them stronger and fashion them in ways that make them appear “European”. This is the postmodern Europeanized nationalism of the N-VA. And such Europeanized forms of nationalism might also appear in Central and Eastern Europe.