Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Postcard from NatCon Brussels

Ukraine, God, the Great Reset and other topics from Day One of the National Conservatism event

Good morning from Brussels, where I’m at the second and final day of the National Conservatism Brussels conference. I was struck yesterday by how the Russia-Ukraine war consumed the first sessions here. There was a lot of passion from the stage, especially from Polish speakers. So intense was the discourse that I retired to the bar to get coffee, because frankly it was boring to hear over and over how horrible Russia is, and how terrible this was is. Yes, yes, we all agree — but there seems to be nothing new to be said about it, so many people are re-stating what most people already believe, but with more passion this time. A lot more passion.

In conversations I had over coffee (and later, beer — this is Belgium, after all), I heard complaints from conference attendees that it is almost impossible to dissent from anti-Russian maximalism, even in national conservative circles. In mid-afternoon, NatCon guru Yoram Hazony mentioned in his talk from the stage that it ought to be possible to be both against Russia and against expanding the war. He’s right, and it was encouraging to hear this sentiment voiced. The fact that it seemed a bit risky to say lets you know how fierce the anti-Russian opinion is among this crowd. One person told me over breakfast this morning that she was shocked to hear a Polish friend here yesterday say that it might be worth nuclear war if it meant that Russia could finally be put in its place.

I recommend this account of Day One from Sebastian Milbank, writing for the UK publication The Critic. He writes:

I asked my fellow guests what they made of it — and I encountered a surprising consensus. Though I found some classical liberals milling about, the majority of the people I spoke to saw the Anglo-American speakers as an old guard; what had really drawn many of the younger guests I spoke to was a sense that in Eastern and Central Europe, especially Poland and Hungary, a different, non-liberal, model of modern statehood was taking shape.

Especially in America, a growing section of the populist right see in Europe a form of conservatism they feel has been lost in America, where libertarianism has long dominated Republican politics. Though the Europeans all declared their support for NATO, you could sense the current of pragmatism. These were countries that had emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. Clearly they want to keep American military support in place, but they’re also keenly aware that 70 years ago their national sovereignty was signed away by Britain and America at Yalta and Potsdam. No doubt there were few other options, but one can easily see that they’re hedging their bets and keen to see European-based security frameworks, as well as resisting America’s cultural hegemony.

At one level you could see the realist alliance in play — a European East keeping the Western right sweet and in favour of the military and economic transfers they rely on. But something more idealistic is also clearly at work. A US right is recentring itself as an intellectually and culturally European project, and a European right is drawing on Western thinkers (one thinks of the Scruton Café in Budapest) to reconstruct their nationhood following the trauma of communism and amidst the chaos of global capitalism and liberalism.

Sebastian found the late afternoon panel on culture lively, and also my subsequent address on Christianity, culture, and European life. Writes Sebastian, “Here one felt was what we had actually come to see.”

Father Benedict Kiely, a Catholic priest and founder of Christian anti-persecution charity Nasarean gave probably the most interesting talk, however, posing a question that I have often found myself asking, especially in my previous role covering religious freedom issues for the Tablet. Why does nobody seem to care about persecuted Christians? The answer he suggested was that we had “lost our roots”, that we are part of a “dysfunctional family” that has lost its identity. It was hard to disagree.

Rod Dreher seemed to carry the hopeful heart of the movement, saying: “I owe my Christian faith to Europe.” [Because I first met God in the Chartres cathedral in 1984– RD] However he disagreed with Catholic integralism “it would corrupt the Church itself”, and pointed to Patriarch Kirill as “prostrate before Putin”. Rod focused on questions of faith, and spoke in the style of an American preacher, reflecting his native country’s rhetorical and religious traditions even as he spoke on behalf of Europe.

“Cultural Christianity is not enough…to defend and restore Christian civilisation” — amidst all the calls for the revival of Christian culture and civilisation, this was the most persuasive.

But still, as I reflected on all I had heard, and as heartening it was to hear the sort of call silenced in most modern forums, I could sense something missing. Everyone was furiously willing the end, but who was willing the means?

That’s a great question, and the biggest challenge facing us. It’s hard to know at this point how to go about it. In my talk, I said that we can’t wait for our leaders to take the initiative. Many of them are too weak or compromised to recognize the signs of the times, and/or to act in the face of crisis. But what do we do? This is something I have struggled with for at least five years, since The Benedict Option was published. I am often asked why I haven’t “built a Benedict Option,” or somesuch thing. As if I had to not only make the diagnosis and the prescription, but to do the thing that I’m worst at, which is to create structures and what Sebastian Milbank calls “means”!

We national conservatives — a catchall term that includes people on the Right who believe in the importance of national sovereignty — really do need to develop means of resistance. By “resistance,” I mean not just rejecting what is bad, but affirming what is good, and making those affirmations concrete. These ideas, convictions, and intuitions must be made incarnate somehow — but how? In my talk, I mentioned some good examples: the Tipi Loschi in Italy, and the European Fraternity project led by Imre de Habsbourg-Lorraine. We do need more — much more — and we need it now. 

Last night over beer, I heard from a Catholic who works in the European Parliament that the things going on now — proposed legislation, bills that are actually moving through the legislative process — beggar belief. He was talking about restrictions on free speech (via “hate speech” legislation), and the digitalization of European life, giving more control over individuals to the bureaucracy. At one point I stopped my interlocutor and asked him if this was some dystopian fantasy, or if this was really happening. He and two others at the table leapt to say that no, this is really happening right now, and indeed is accelerating.

The things going on now sound like something out of science fiction, or one of the Evangelical Left Behind novels. How are we going to resist this? We Americans have no real idea about this stuff; it just doesn’t get reported in our media. I’m realizing now that we had better start paying more attention, and making contacts with European conservatives who are fighting this stuff. My Belgian interlocutor last night said that Americans were protected in two fundamental ways that Europeans are not: “You have the First and Second Amendments,” he said, referring to constitutional guarantees of free speech and the right to bear arms.

Added a Dutch woman at the table, “You Americans understand that the state is not necessarily your friend. We Europeans have no way to stand against the state when it threatens us.”

True enough, but with the law schools having become so woke (see Aaron Sibarium’s shock report), there is real doubt as to how long we can maintain those protections. After all, the Constitution only says what the courts say that it says. We Americans need to know what’s happening in Europe with the digitization of daily life and the rollback of fundamental rights and liberties for the cause of “safety,” “antiracism,” and so forth.

At breakfast this morning, I heard a woman who lives in Brussels and who works at the European Parliament talk about how bad crime is here. She herself was a victim recently. It is almost entirely crime committed by Arab migrants, she said. Another woman who until recently lived in Stockholm added that outside the center city, in areas dominated by migrant populations, you can’t really go, because the crime is so bad.

“Wait, the media tell us that ‘no-go zones’ is a right-wing fiction?” I said, with slight sarcasm.

All the Europeans at the table rolled their eyes. The ex-Swede said, “Stockholm has been lost to Europe. It’s gone.”

The Europeans then began talking about how all this can be reversed. None are hopeful. Their view is that at the national and transnational level, European leaders — the Hungarians and the Poles excepted (and they are hated for this within official EU circles) — have no will to face the challenges and roll back the migration and related crime wave. Later, when we were talking about the upcoming election in Hungary, everyone said they expect that if Viktor Orban’s party wins, the media and the NGO class will claim somehow that the election was sabotaged, and that the result was illegitimate.

Just now, at a coffee break between conference sessions, I spoke to a couple of Catholic conservatives living here in Belgium. They were talking about how difficult it is to be faithfully Christian in this country. One of the men, a Flemish, said that he has given The Benedict Option out many times. Listening to these men talk about their everyday lives as believers living in a militantly post-Christian society and culture helped me to understand why The Benedict Option, though it sold well in the US, has really impacted the conversation in European Christian circles. The book speaks directly to the reality they are living right now. It will take another generation, maybe two, for the same reality to hit America. US Christians really don’t understand what is happening to us. The Europeans do.

After that, I talked to an African professor standing by a doorway drinking coffee. He told me that he liked my speech the day before, but that he didn’t see a lot of hope in Europe, or even in the US. “You are dying,” he said, referring to the declining populations. He said that the only way we could pull out of the demographic death spiral is by recovering our religion.

This is not something most Westerners want, at least not at this point. Later, thinking about the African’s claim, I recalled Father Ben Kiely’s remarks about the puzzling fact that Westerners simply don’t want to hear stories about the vicious persecution of Christians in other countries (e.g. Nigeria, where Muslim militants are literally slaughtering Christians). Father Ben thinks the core of the problem is that we have forgotten our roots. He believes that Western publics shove these suffering Christians out of mind because we don’t want to be reminded that we too were once Christians. The suffering and martyred Christians of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia lean on our bad collective conscience — therefore, we ignore them.

Well, guess what: we are going to join their ranks soon. Last night at dinner, I met Päivi Räsänen, the heroic Finnish MP who just endured a trial over so-called “hate speech” back home. Her crimes? Tweeting a Bible verse critical of homosexuality, making comments critical of LGBT Pride marches in a radio debate, and nearly twenty years ago, writing a pamphlet defending traditional marriage against arguments for same-sex marriage. What an honor it was to meet a true contemporary hero of the faith. She told me that the verdict is expected next week. If a Christian can be convicted in a European court for criminal speech simply for stating belief in the Bible’s teachings, Europe will have entered into a dark era. The fact that she was even brought to trial is terrible enough.

Someone said to me yesterday that the most important things that get said at conferences like this are in the lobbies between sessions, as people get to know each other and exchange e-mail addresses. I think that must be true. From my experiences at each of the last three NatCon conferences, I’ve observed, and participated in, the building of networks of resistance. That sounds a bit sinister, maybe, or at least melodramatic, but I assure you it isn’t — not after talking to people involved in the work of the European Union bureaucracies, and hearing their warnings about the things coming down the pike at us.