With the country’s seeming unwillingness to tackle its own fundamental failings – from rampant corruption to colonial amnesia – head on, its ability to hold a moral compass up to its international partners stands diminished.
I recently had lunch with the owner of a gallery in Brussels. He’s American, from Ohio, and I’d say he’s staunchly political. The conversation, as it sadly tends to nowadays, quickly turned to Trump, and more specifically his shockingly flimsy rebuke of white supremacists’ actions in Charlottesville. In a somewhat more nuanced way, he described how what pissed him off even more than American neo-Nazis were the Belgians, most of them friends of his, getting all revved up about controversial historical artifacts, police brutality, institutionalised racism and deep-rooted political corruption happening across the Atlantic. “As if Belgians are in any position to finger point,” he said. Gosh did he have a point.
Most of the people around me barely know about the Publifin scandal, and if they do they sure as hell hide their indignation. They’ve probably vaguely heard about Yvan Mayeur because of his unavoidable association to Brussels’ much-maligned pedestrian zone, but that’s about it. Of course they know he’s also turned out to be “on the take” as they say, but they’re not that surprised after all. As an official in the Brussels Region recently told me, and mind you this is someone loosely-affiliated to the party that has most closely been linked to the rampant graft that continues to infect our political class, “In France people would be in the streets about this and governments would fall. Not in Belgium.” Nope, not in Belgium.
The contradictions in this country are shocking. And so is its focus.
Truth is, only in Belgium can we point fingers at Americans who dare defend century-old statues paying tribute to morally-questionable Confederate generals whilst unremorsefully walking past statues of Leopold II’s on their way to work everyday. Only in Belgium can we look down on American school textbooks’ ideologically-skewed tendencies whilst sending our children to a system that makes only the most measured mention of its country’s genocidal colonial rule in Congo. Only in Belgium can we lament the American tokenism of a Malcom X Boulevard in Harlem whilst not allowing for a square in the heart of Brussels’ African quarters to be named after Congolese freedom fighter (and the country’s first independent prime minister), Patrice Lumumba. The contradictions in this country are shocking. And so is its focus. People – and I firmly include myself in this category – should concern themselves less with what’s happening in other countries and worry more about how their vote and taxes are being spent. Or about what is being taught in the country’s history classes. Or about the 35-year-old Haitian father of three getting racially and physically abused by police.
This stuff happens closer to home than we seem willing to acknowledge, and it’s about time we confronted these issues head on. Now for some that might mean chaining themselves together. For others that might mean writing an article, starting a community association or curating an exhibition. For others still, it might simply mean a better selection of sources of references and a commitment to remaining informed.
The point being that whatever our weapon of choice, the key is to ensure we aim them in the right direction.