09 April 2007

Europe's Laughingstock

I started today with my usual morning routine: a cup of coffee and a look at the headlines. And there, on the front of the New York Times, was a picture of a woman dressed in medieval clothing sitting at a spinning wheel. The article's headline: "Belgians Hail the Middle Ages (Well, Not the Plague Part)."

This already didn't look good. Hurray for Belgium for making the front page about something other than Justine Henin's latest tennis match. But what's up with the title? I quickly read through the article. Sure enough, the author--I will call him Mr. B in case you decide not to read it yourself--was highlighting Flemish men and women who spend part of their lives living in the middle ages. They go about their daily lives and then retire to towers and tents on the weekends, "roughing it" medieval style.

Mr. B determined that part of its fascination with the past was because Belgium suffers from a lack of contemporary national identity. According to a Belgian psychologist, "little Belgium is fed up with being Europe's laughingstock." There is a quick word about the extreme right Vlaams Belang, another tidbit about young people's interest in studying medieval history. The rest of the article focuses on the general "quaintness" of people wanting to stomp around in wooden shoes and drink spiced wine.

If Belgium is trying to shed its label as "Europe's laughingstock," then, well, this article certainly doesn't help. The title itself is "silly and quaint." There are real issues here: extreme nationalism, prejudice again Muslim immigrants, and the general apathy among young people to do anything about them. Belgium's problems may mean little to others, but certainly its people would rather the world talk about them instead of about this.


My morning coffee must be stronger than usual.

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