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In Postliberal Brussels, A Mayor Sends Police To Shut Down NatCon

NatCon
Image CreditADF International

This is what the postliberal, post-Christian era looks like: police in riot gear, cracking down on a peaceful assembly.

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If you want to know what postliberalism and the end of democratic self-government look like, a mayor in Brussels just gave us a glimpse.

On Tuesday, Belgian police surrounded and temporarily shut down the National Conservatism Conference on an order issued by Emir Kir, the mayor of the district where the conference was being held. The order, said the mayor, was “to guarantee public safety.”

Mayor Kir has a capacious view of public safety. His shutdown order declared that NatCon’s “vision is not only ethically conservative (e.g. hostility to the legalisation of abortion, same-sex unions, etc.) but also focused on the defense of ‘national sovereignty’, which implies, amongst other things, a ‘Eurosceptic’ attitude.” Some of the speakers, the order went on, “are reputed to be traditionalists,” and the conference must be banned “to avoid foreseeable attacks on public order and peace.”

But of course, the invocation of “public safety” was a fig leaf to cover the mayor’s naked authoritarianism in a country where freedom of speech and assembly is supposed to be enshrined in the 1830 Belgian constitution, as the country’s prime minister noted on X after the incident.

There was, of course, no disturbance and no threat to public safety. The conferencegoers’ real crime was questioning the ruling postliberal regime in Europe and daring to espouse conservative or traditionalist ideas that the globalist left wants to stamp out. 

The event, which was supposed to be a two-day affair featuring leading European conservatives such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, former British politician Nigel Farage, German Cardinal Ludwig Müller, and French writer and politician Éric Zemmour, was proceeding smoothly (and peacefully) when police in riot gear arrived and blockaded the entrance of the building, barring anyone from entering. It wasn’t until much later in the day, according to a report in The Washington Post, that about 40 protesters showed up and chanted slogans 300 feet from the conference venue. In other words, nothing happened.

(The Post, for its part, disingenuously framed the incident as “giving Europe’s hard-right elites a further opportunity to rail against cancel culture and Brussels overreach.” As if they were at fault for objecting to the mayor and police trying to shut down their conference!)

In the end, a Belgian court struck down the mayor’s order in a late-night legal challenge, allowing the conference to continue the next day. The court’s decision noted, “it does not seem possible to infer from the contested decision that a peace-disrupting effect is attributed to the congress itself,” and that “the threat to public order seems to be derived purely from the reactions that its organization might provoke among opponents.”

So the little tyrant mayor was thwarted in the end, but only by the swift action of one of Belgium’s highest courts. Before his order was struck down, though, the mayor offered a window into the emerging postliberal Europe: It’s the kind of place where the police show up to peaceful conferences about conservatism, where things like free speech and freedom of assembly count for nothing, and where deviating from the left’s political orthodoxy marks you as a threat to public safety.

How could this happen, one might ask, in a country where human rights are supposedly sacrosanct? The answer is straightforward but unpleasant. Europe might have been the cradle of Western civilization, but today it’s postliberal and indeed post-Christian, which means the basis for things like free speech and freedom of assembly is gone. That the NatCon conference was allowed to go forward is a result of vestigial liberalism, the last dregs of Christian civilization being drained from public life in Europe. No one should presume there’s much left in the cup at this point.

Why is that? Because once you reject normative claims about the human person that give these ideas coherence, they eventually go away. Having rejected the Christian teaching of imago Dei, on what basis are the political leaders of Brussels going to affirm that every person has the right to speak freely? Human rights such as freedom of speech are only self-evidently true if one accepts certain underlying claims about God and man. And I assure you Mayor Kir doesn’t accept those ideas. He thinks they’re dangerous.

The prime minister of Belgium might still invoke the country’s old 19th-century constitution, but the public official who sends in the police to break up a quiet meeting of conservatives and traditionalists is more true to the spirit of the age. You might say the future belongs to him.

How well does the mainstream American right understand the dynamic here? Not well enough. An open statement organized by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University was circulated Tuesday condemning the attempted shutdown of the NatCon conference and expressing support for the organizers’ right to hold a peaceful assembly. The signatories stated that while they support NatCon’s right to gather, they “believe that national conservatism as a political and ideological movement is profoundly mistaken, both empirically and normatively, on most fronts. We also believe that our profound and deep differences should be the subject of public contestation and debate, not silencing and cancellation.”

That’s all well and good, but this way of thinking belongs to a world that’s disappearing. Public contestation and debate about deep differences — as well as tolerance, freedom, pluralism, and all the other hallmarks of liberal societies — are luxuries that only Christian societies can afford. We flatter ourselves to say that only liberal societies can afford them because, of course, liberalism depends for its sustenance on the Christian faith, alive and active among the people. Cut off from its source of vitality, liberalism withers and dies, as it is now doing in both Europe and America.

Do the signatories realize that? I’m not sure. The last line of their open letter declares: “We are critical of national conservatism as an ideology because of its incompatibility with the principles of a society of free people. But we are opposed much more deeply to the illiberalism on display in Brussels today.”

Opposing blatant illiberalism is necessary and good, but one must go further and ask how it became ascendant. Perhaps secular liberalism is playing a role in its own demise. To preserve free societies, perhaps we’re going to have to question whether liberalism can really be secular, whether the public square can really be neutral, and much else besides. National conservatism might have something to say about all that, and also about how to restore liberalism’s vitality. Those are going to be hard conversations for those on the secular, mainstream right, who, like Richard Dawkins, think you can have the culture without the cult. You can’t, and we should all know that by now.

The irony, of course, is that national conservatism as a political and ideological movement might just represent the last, best hope for the preservation of free speech in Europe. But if men like Mayor Kir keep at it and have their way, then we’d better batten down the hatches. There are rough seas ahead.


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