National Mythologies

When I grew up, as a young Flemish boy, I was told over and over again about the battle of the golden spurs, in 1302 near Kortrijk – more precisely on July 11th, the day which is now the national day in Flanders -, where the courageous Flemish people defeated the army of the mighty King of France. I was also made to read Hendrik Conscience’s immortal novel about the Lion of Flanders, the Count of Flanders who defeated the French King. Later, as a Jesuit novice, I stayed in France for some time and, of course, I asked about this great battle (with a hidden desire to have the French admit their humiliating defeat). To my great surprise and dismay, my French co-novices knew nothing about this battle – they knew about another battle, some years after 1302 (I choose to forget the precise date here, as well as the place) where the King of France defeated the Flemish cities, affirming his rightful authority over Flanders and its Count.

I became aware that I had been taught history with a bias. Of course, precisely this bias has given me a sense of self-worth and tradition … but it is a bias and I have learned to be critical of it, especially when politicians and political parties want to use this historical bias to further their own interests and power games. I began to see that well chosen stories about our history could become a weapon against others, turning them into the victims that in our stories we imagine ourselves to have been or still to be. So, I always feel ambivalent when celebrating July 11th: proud and confident on the one side, suspicious and critical on the other side.

To be honest, I think we all have that kind of experiences. We need stories of the past that provide us with narratives to develop our self-respect and our self-confidence … but, these stories can also be used to separate us from those who are not the heroes of our stories and identities, to exclude and even to victimize them. I am interested in this narrative phenomenon that empowers us and sometimes also over-powers us, by allowing us to exclude others so as to construct our identities at the expense of our “enemies”.

I felt confimed in my feelings by Shlomo Sand‘s article Deconstruction d’une histoire mythique: Comment fut inventé le peuple juif, in the August 2008 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique (p. 3) [English version of the article can be found here]. Sand is a professor of history at the University of Tel-Aviv and he critically looks at the biblical narratives and the history of the diaspora, opening up questions concerning their use with regard to the national identity of Israël. I am most certainly not enough of a scholar of Jewish and Hebrew history to gauge with any authority the work of Shlomo Sand – and, undoubtedly, his ideas give rise to controversies and passionate discussions -, but I appreciate his courage and willingness to address national narratives and myths, and to uncover their importance and possible ambiguities, precisely by eliciting – as a scientist – discussions and controversies. Of course, now also his ideas will lead their own life and be vulnerable to ideological abuse.

All of us have our myths (the word does not carry for me an immediate negative connotation, on the contrary) that help us to discover, acquire and develop the identity we need to build up self-respect and strength – this is crucial. Unfortunately, often these myths also have a violent potential, often they are open to political and public abuse. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial to investigate their truth content as well as their possible one-sidedness. I need the myth of July 11th, 1302, to become the Flemish person I am and to gain self-confidence … it refers to a real historical fact (embellished somewhat in the literature), but it also highlights one single and small historical fact, lifting it out of its larger historical, political, economic, social, etc. context … historical criticism doesn’t come cheap here, as it is a story that provides a people with a sense of security and strength, but it is all the more necessary if this people wants to avoid self-constructed and violent isolation or an unreal sense of superiority.

What I feel, when writing these lines, is the need for a sense of identity, and at the same time how vulnerable this need is and how defensive I can become when I feel threatened. All of us probably need to accept that our identities are vulnerable, so that adult and open relationships become possible.

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