Understanding the Flemish in Belgium through their forms of telecommunication

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National Identity and the Internet in Flanders:

understanding the Flemish in Belgium through their modern forms of telecommunication


Research Proposal by Zachar Laskewicz


It seems to me that we are now faced with an epistemic shift: our approach to space has changed considerably, from one of balance and security to one of constantly shifting and uncertain virtuality.  We can thank multimedia communication technology, virtual conceptions of space and time, the homogenising face of globalisation  and other bugbears of the post-modern era.  The question now is whether individual cultures will be able to adapt to this massive epistemic shift.  I hope to demonstrate that the Flemish have been adapting well to this change, seeing they have been able to become a part of a number of different real and virtual 'worlds', including the much feared global village, the extended geographical and national sense of Europe, and still retain a strong sense of self.  This will become clear when we look at Flanders on the net.


After ten years of living in Belgium I have gained a unique insight into a wounded people, one which the rest of the world often ignores in its acceptance of 'Belgium' as the status quo.  In actual fact, what many don't realise is that there are a number of different communities in Belgium each of which speak their own language.  One of these languages-Dutch (or Flemish depending on your political motivation)[1]-has struggled hard for its identity.  In this country the whole issue of nationalism becomes a question of a linguistic division competing between the two major languages (French and Dutch).  Although the Flemish have fought long and hard for the right to speak their language, any outwardly tyrannical motivation hides a secret belief that their mother-tongue is inferior.  It just doesn't stand up when compared to the metaphorical might of French which has a whole history of political power behind it and a towering literary tradition.  Despite this feeling of inferiority, there is a strong sense of national identity which unites the Flemish in their rather displaced environment.  I hope to demonstrate that the Flemish are making use of the internet to support their conceptions of a Flemish state and the idiosyncracies of Flemish culture.


Despite all the factors which play against the Flemish, such as a rapidly diminishing landscape and a sense of insecurity about the worth of their own linguistic expression, they have a very strong sense of self.  They are able to retain this identity despite the growing influence of both globalisation and the creation of the European nation.  European nationalism is an important factor in this regard.  Europeans are finding themselves in a new world which is sending strong nationalistic messages; we are Europeans before we are Belgians or Flamings.  This pan-European tendency is receiving expression in general policy and is particularly noticeable in Brussels, the so-called 'capital' of Europe.  Fraser, in his work involved with the growth of new developments in European extreme-right politics, comments on the fact that it is easy to find "people who believed that the old frontiers had gone and nothing any more separated Europeans from each other" (Fraser: 246).  I will demonstrate further on how this sense of national pan-European unity has produced an ugly backlash from the Flemish extreme right. 


Before the internet a sense of nationality was easier to maintain as one had constant multimedial interaction with an environment which supported the complex array of behaviour types and discourses.  Many today, however, fear the globalisation bugbear.  Television, although not interactive in a way comparable to the internet, is a form of 'multimedial' communication which helps combat the general dread of homogenised cultural change.  Internet is playing a similar role in Flanders and furthermore I will point out that there is a growing link in Flemish culture between the internet and television productions.  Multimedial representation is an essential part of culture, and television and internet are becoming more and more a part of the same cultural gesture.


Belgium is a complex whole consisting of a number of different language groups which are still in a state of flux regarding the relative worth of linguistic symbols.  There is Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels (which is bi-lingual) and a very small German speaking community.  There exists in Belgium a number of different parliaments for each of the communities.  On top of that there is a federal government for the whole of the country.  There are basically two types of parliament, local and federal.  The Flemish generally support the Flemish local parliament's goals whereas the federal parliament supports Belgian nationalism.  There is at the moment a lively advertising campaign viewable on French and Flemish television shouting awe-inspiring slogans about Belgian pride (more than a little tongue-in-cheek).  The advertisement is in English and shows a 'foreign'-Belgian (born in California) at various historical sights.  It is interesting to note that at the end of the advertisement the letters '.be' are shown which is followed by the following sentence: "trots zijn dat kan geen kwaad."  This can be translated as 'there's no harm in being proud'.  Belgium has recently become the host governing country for Europe and this advertisement is connected directly to the action of the federal government.  From the internationally intended website clearly designed to inform outsiders and enthuse insiders I have taken the following frame to give you an idea of how the federal government is attempting through the use of online communication to encourage Belgian national feeling.




Welcome to the website of the Belgian Presidency of the European Union.

Bienvenue sur le site de la Présidence belge de l'Union européenne.

Welkom op de site van het Belgische Voorzitterschap van de Europese Unie.

Willkommen auf der Website des Belgischen Vorsitzes der Europäischen Union.







Belgian nationalism, as you can see above, does exist (even if that may be to a small extent).   It is easier to find people who are Belgians part of the time when that seems appropriate, for example when they are on holidays and have intercultural encounters with foreigners.  It is not difficult for many Belgian people to feel both Belgian and Flemish (or Wallonian), as these are in any case rather vague ideas created by a complex interweaving of cultural discourses.  The Belgian government, as they are demonstrating through their current advertisement campaigns and marketing strategies, are attempting to make people feel more Belgian more of the time.  At the moment the situation is so volatile it is difficult to say which way it will go. 


Fighting for the right to be educated in their mother language was perhaps the most difficult of all battles fought by the Flemish.  It still remains a highly problematic point in this culture.  Although the Flemish quickly defend their language if questioned, their defence often hides an insecurity about the language's actual worth, i.e. through social inculcation they have been brought up to experience their linguistic behaviour as somehow of a lesser value.  On Flemish television there is always an uncomfortable atmosphere when a Flemish person makes a confession about this hidden secret: we speak an ugly or unpleasant language and/or French is far more attractive to hear and speak.  The Flemish community is trying to reverse this trend over the internet.  Below you will find a description of Flemish Dutch taken from the central website of the Flemish community.  You will notice that they refer to it as Europe's 'sixth' language: here they are referring to the fact that they are still fighting for the language to be accepted within the European union which still only officially recognises English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.





E u r o p e ' s   s i x t h   l a n g u a g e

The official language of Flanders is Dutch, although the region is rich in Flemish dialects. Over 20 million people in Europe speak Dutch as their native tongue, making it the sixth language of the EU countries.

To define what it is to be Flemish is not an easy question, as with any other culture.  A national identity on its own is at best an ideal, and each Fleming has his or her own world view and interpretation of that ideal.  Although it is dangerous to over-generalise, it is true that the ideal receives expression at least to a small degree in each individual to the extent that an overall image of national folk can be found, and it is upon this generalisation that a national image is formed.  It is impossible for me to adequately describe using only words a complex multimedial given which involves the whole way a folk acts and thinks.  There are, however, means which the Flemish can use to express this image or at least to participate in some way with their culture.  Television, itself an important form of mass-communication, is a particularly significant medium in this regard.  There are many television shows which represent the quirky and very individual Flemish episteme.  One of the most important is Man Bijt Hond.  This programme is involved with the idiosyncracies of the Flemish culture, showing daily before the news on one of the national channels a range of highly individual but at the same time recognisable fragments of life mostly in Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium.  As an outsider I found it hard to relate to this programme, and it is only now after many years of getting used to the Flemish culture that I realise how important programmes like this actually are to the formation of a sense of common being.  The emblem below has been taken from the 'Man Bijt Hond' website.  The image of the dog is included in the titles of the programme.  'Man Bijt Hond' actually means man bites dog, and is referring to the programmes elusive and sometimes nonsensical content which all the same represents the Flemish as they really are.  Although the programme itself is not interactive, the internet plays an important role in forming the content of the show.  Flemish visitors to the site are able to participate actively by reacting to requests.  When I last visited the site the organisers of the programme were planning to do a segment of the show on poetry, and so the site encouraged its visitors to provide them with material.  The Flemish, then, are able to actively interact and contribute to a show which plays an important role in creating a sense of Flemish identity.



'Man Bijt Hond' emblem

Man Bijt Hond

elke weekdag na Het 7 uur Journaal

[Man Bites Dog]

[every weeday after the 7:00 PM news]

Waarom hebben taxichauffeurs de grootste hersenen? Kan het Vlaamse literaire kruim de grondwet spannender maken? Waarom is de fluit van een scheidsrechter zo scherp? Dat zijn dingen die Man bijt hond interesseren.

[Why do taxi drivers have bigger brains?  Can the top Flemish literary figures make the [Flemish] constitution more exciting?  Why is a referee's whistle so sharp?  Those are things which interest Man Bijt Hond.[2]]


The text above demonstrates the idiosyncratic nature of this programme, and how it's appearance on the web can help to assist the general feeling of Flemish identity.  It is interesting to note that this programme is also played weekly on Dutch television.  They watch it, however, with subtitles, which is as far as I am concerned more symbolic of cultural distances than real ones; the speakers on the show are perfectly comprehensible to the Dutch without subtitles. 


On the other side of the coin we have the extreme right Flemish party: the Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block).  Its members are infamous for their unfortunate abuse of history to support racist policies.  For example, one of their main obsessions is with the Nazi-collaboration.  Frasers notes that they believe "Hitler couldn't be wholly bad - because he had espoused, briefly, the matter of Flemish language right" and that "it had been wrong to persecute the Flemish Nazis, because they were only expressing the submerged national sensibility which was theirs by right" (Fraser 256). They cater also to a Flemish desire to maintain its fragile sense of national identity (but for all the wrong reasons).


It is clear that Belgium nationalism is in direct conflict with the basic principles of the Vlaams Blok, demonstrating the extreme right alignment of local as opposed to national politics.  The precise year in which the Vlaams Blok became a separate party was in 1978.  The founder, Karel Dillen, couldn't accept that the Volksunie-the other major nationalistic party in Belgium-agreed to form a government as part of a Belgian state as opposed to an independent Flanders.  His party was not happy with the fact that the Flemish movement had become distanced from the Flemish-nationalistic collaboration with Nazi-Germany which was still considered within these circles almost a heroic myth (Bouveroux: 237).  The Vlaams Blok didn't show signs of success, however, until 1987 when it started more actively to use as propaganda anti-foreigner policies attracting a whole range of disillusioned and without identity Flemish people who were alienated from traditional politics.  In addition to their anti-migration policies, however, other goals of this party include keeping women in the home, outlawing unions, outlawing abortions and other perturbing possibilities.  This is quite a frightening concept considering that in the last election 33% of the populace in the region of Antwerp voted for this party. 



On a Vlaams Blok website set up and maintained by a youth group within the party, the 'safety' aspect played an important role.  Using the latest flash-based animation technology the interaction with the site involves moving skulls with warnings about illegal drugs entering the country thanks to the dreaded Arab, Turk or Moroccan 'visitors'.  The sites have chat rooms where one can ask questions and get involved in debates over Vlaams Blok policy.  It seemed to me more like a chance to indoctrinate very right-wing ideas.  Below you will find the 'debate' section of the central homesite which turned out really to be a chance for the major politicians to express their radical political views.  The translation of the debate topic is the 'vulgar safe sex campaign'.


·  Debat

·  Debat > Reactie

Op regelmatige basis vindt u hier een stelling waarover u met anderen in debat kan treden.

Klik op de stelling om de volledige stelling te lezen en eventueel te reageren.

Zeg wat u denkt!





Laatste reactie op 


Vulgaire 'Veilig vrijen'-campagne


Filip Dewinter

16/6/2001 23:02:47






Belgium is obviously a highly complex given.  I hope I have been able to demonstrate the contrasting ways Belgium, Flanders and the extreme-right are functioning to maintain certain contrasting levels of national feeling.  On the one hand we have European nationalism and Belgium which the federal government encourages, and on the other Flemish nationalism which is problematic at best because as soon as you begin feeling nationalistic towards Flemish culture you risk being named a fascist.  Feelings are still running very high about this topic and the Flemish are still being forced to make important decisions about their future and the future of their country.  Despite all the negative things which are going on here, I would like to note the fact that it is a fascinating place to place to live and develop. 







Bouveroux, J., "Nationalisme in Vlaanderen vandaag", in: Nationalisme in België.


Deprez, K. & Vos, L. (eds.) (2000), Nationalisme in België: identiteiten in beweging 1780-2000, Houtekiet, Antwerpen.


Gerard, E., "De christelijke arbeiders-beweging als massabasis van de Vlaamse Beweging", in: Nationalisme in België.


Gevers, L., "De Katholieke Kerk en de Vlaamse Beweging", in: Nationalisme in België.


Gijsels, H. (1992), Het Vlaams Blok, Uitgeverij Kritak, Leuven.


McLuhan, M. & Powers, B. R. (1989), The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century, Oxford University Press.


Mitra, A., (1997), "Virtual commonality: Looking for India on the Internet", ch. 3 in Virutal Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety, ed. S. G. Jones, Sage, London, pp. 55-97.


Search, P. (1993), "The rhythm and structure of multicultural communication", Media Information Australia, no. 69, August, pp. 62-59.


Steen, I. "Van Nederlandse naar Vlaamse cultuur", in: Nationalisme in België.

[1] The reasoning behind this political motivation will be elucidated further on.

[2] All translations are by Zachar Laskewicz.





© May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)*
Send mail to zachar@nachtschimmen.eu with questions or comments about this website.

September 27 2013.



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