659 - Liège, Belgium's 'Vanishing Twin'

Belgium and its provinces have had roughly the same shape since independence in 1830. It's taken those 184 years to make a shocking discovery: hidden inside Belgium is another Belgium. For the borders of the province of Liège are an eerie copy of the entire country's international borders. And what's really weird: such liminal echoing is not without precedent.

As in a number of other European countries, yesterday was election day in Belgium. Which is a high holiday for any map fan: the media churns out a steady diet of electoral cartography, in a wide range of colour schemes, showing historical results, exit polls, predictions and comparisons. Delicious!

Roel Damiaans, journalist for Belgian daily Het Belang van Limburg, certainly saw his share of maps, and then some. Perhaps with the lucidity that comes from (map) fatigue, he then he noticed what he thought was an error in the paper: the logo said Liège, but the map seemed to show Belgium. Misprints happen, especially in the hurly-burly of an election issue, but this was no error. Nor was Damiaans entirely wrong: observed from a distance, or sufficiently small in size, a map of the province of Liège does look strangely similar to one of Belgium. 

Belgium has a peculiar, animate shape: its coastal area the west-facing head of a hunch-backed body that has its rump firmly directed towards Germany in the east, with knees and hands placed on either side of that French pene-enclave at Chooz, the ensemble suggesting a curious fellow leaning over a fence to spy what's going on next door.

A senseless, grotesque familiarity: the kingdom of Belgium (top) and the province of Liège (bottom).

Liège repeats almost all of those distinguishing features, and a few others. The Dutch exclave of Zeelandic Flanders, stuck on the east bank of the Scheldt River, is mimicked by Voeren/Fourons, the Flemish exclave wedged in between Liège and the Dutch border. 

The abrupt southward bend of the Belgian-Dutch border (allowing for the Dutch protrusion towards Liège), followed by an equally abrupt eastward bend and then the gradual slope southwards of the border is copied on provincial level in the southern part of the Liège's border with Germany.

Belgium's southern extremity is its province of Luxembourg (eponymous with the Grand Duchy to the east). Liège's southern extremity resembles this southward lurch – towards Luxembourg, coincidentally.

France's X-rated penetration of Belgium is glossed over by a similar but more family-friendly interaction of the borders of Liège and Luxembourg provinces. The rest of the border is a bit more difficult to match, but with some effort, you can catch a glimpse of the lion cub's face (northern Hainaut province) near the Liège-Luxembourg-Namur tripoint. The straightness of the coastal strip, finally is echoed by Liège's relatively smooth northwestern border, which coincides with Belgium's language border.

The position of Liège in Belgium.

Why was this similarity discovered only now? Two possible reasons.

Firstly, because there is no sense in the similarity, beyond its obvious existence. There is no valid geopolitical reason, no plausible geographic explanation for the similarity. And yet there it is. But what is it doing there? Ehrm, nothing.

Secondly, because the resemblance is not merely familiar, it is also grotesque. Countries have a completely random, yet very familiar cartographic persona. This is less the case for lower-level administrative units. Confronting two similar images from either category will immediately, instinctively lead us to conclude that the less familiar one is a horribly disfigured version of the first one.

Or perhaps, as the phenomenon is known to science, a vanishing twin, partially reabsorbed by the surviving sibling. 

Curiously, this case is not unique. Some time ago, this blog reported on the discovery of a Nebraska-shaped field in Nebraska (see #426). Do you know of any other examples of liminal echoing? Drop us a line at strangemaps@gmail.com.


Many thanks to Mr. Damiaans for signaling the eerie similarity.

Blank map of Liege by Shadowxfox (Own work); blank map of Belgium and of Liege in Belgium both by NordNordWest. All maps via Wikimedia Commons.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.