Sticks and stones/ May break my bones,/ But names will never hurt me.
--19th century English nursery rhyme
October 3rd marks a famous event in the Dutch War of Independence, the end of the Seige of Leiden. (This is also known as the--gasp!--Eighty Years’ War, which makes me grateful we live in an era of shorter, if no less bloody, conflicts.) The citizens of Leiden had starved for a year under the onslaught of the Spanish. They were finally liberated by a ragtag band of Dutch rebels known as the Water-geuzen (“Sea Beggars”), a disparaging nickname applied to them by agents of the Spanish king. The Dutch confederates reappropriated the slur proudly, announcing they’d gladly become beggars in the cause of their nation’s freedom. It is this act of Geuzennaam (Reappropriation), the making of an insult into an honored title, that we examine as a virtue today.
For those whose grasp of European history is as spotty as mine, the short version: In the 16th century, the nigh-omnipotent Spanish Empire had control of much of Europe and the New World, including the Netherlands. The Inquisition held sway, and Spain’s king, Phillip II, had it in for the Protestants living in Dutch provinces. The Dutch nobles resented Spain’s domination of their up-to-then disunited counties and came together under William of Orange, a prince who’d been raised both Catholic and Lutheran and believed in religious freedom. Hundreds of nobles marched to the palace of Margaret, half-sister of King Phillip, to air their grievances, only to be dismissed by one of Margaret’s counselors, who said, to boot, “Why should we be afraid of this bunch of beggars (gueux)?”
The rebels embraced the insult, and the term “Geuzen” (Beggars) became their party’s title. They took the symbols of beggarhood, the wallet and the bowl, as their emblems (worn proudly as medals such as the one shown above). For their motto they took the sarcastic sentiment “Loyal to King Phillip, to the point of poverty”--hinting that their fidelity had reached its limit with the loss of their prosperity and religious freedom.
Seven years later, in 1573, the Dutch town of Leiden came under seige by Phillip’s brutal general, the Duke of Alva. The detailed story makes for a harrowing tale. After a year as hostages, the Leideners had to break the dykes and flood their own city in order to let William of Orange and the Watergeuzen sail to the rescue. During the last month, with no food, the people faced constant temptation to surrender to the Spanish. To shore up his citizen’s crumbling resolve, the mayor offered to let them eat his own arm. (As dramatic gestures go, you gotta hand it to him. Get it? Hand it to him? Okay, sorry, too much caffeine this morning...)
As to the virtue of Geuzennaam: Most of us are probably familiar with modern examples, such as the taking back of the word queer by homosexuals, the word Witch by Reclaiming activists, the word redneck by blue collar Southerners, or the “n word” by African-American rappers (still so volatile it’s not easy to print it!) The artist Kara Walker has attempted Geuzennaam on the word “Negress.” Older examples include the term Yankee for an American (taken from the mocking song “Yankee Doodle,” sung by British troops to make fun of American rebels), or the terms Whigs and Tories for the British political parties.
I previously touched on the Confucian virtue of Zhèngmíng (the Rectification of Names) in our essay on the Kwaanza virtue Kujichagulia (Self-Determination). Geuzennaam is a very specific form of these virtues--manifest not by changing the name applied to us by others, but rather by embracing it while changing its meaning. This is an uber-cool form of magical lingo-judo, turning the attacker’s power against itself. Geuzennaam transcends intended humiliation with Truth. Root virtues of Geuzennaam include Wisdom, Integrity, Humility, and Humor.
We don’t even have to belong to a marginalized group to engage in Geuzennaam. Consider the Meredith Brooks song “Bitch”, in which the singer embraces the term as a title of power. Or how Kirstie Alley titled the sitcom based on her life Fat Actress. Another example comes from the film Fried Green Tomatoes, when Buddy Jr., a boy who survives a train accident but loses his leg, is lovingly christened “Stump” by his Aunt Idgie, who insists Buddy apply the name to himself with pride before kids start to tease him with it as a slur.
Back to the Eighty Years’ War: The beggarly-but-heroic Watergeuzen saved Leiden. To this day, the citizens of Leiden commemorate the taking back of their city from the Spanish with Leidens Ontzet, a raucous street party of all-night dancing and revelry. And to this day, the Dutch use the term Geuzennaam for people taking back a slur and turning it into a badge of pride. So today, celebrate the beauty of transcending disgrace with Truth and Love. Meditate on a time when someone hurled a slur at you, and how much it hurt. Think about how we, like the Sea-Beggars, can Reappropriate the labels applied to us by others. We can use magical lingo-judo to convert humiliation into Humor and Humility.
May we see the gates of Geuzennaam, and perhaps make a home there.