Free Speech Fiasco

NatCon’s Shutdown

It’s not every day that European police suspend a law-abiding conference for political reasons.

Human rights advocate Nigel Farage.

It’s bad enough this has ever happened, particularly in this day and age.

The cops weren’t messing around either. They stormed the building in riot gear just as the conference began while other officers cut off the power.

Suddenly, the main room was plunged into darkness.

Everyone was ordered to leave immediately, but the police dragged some people out, and several attendees were arrested in the process.

The organisers told the audience to cooperate and not give the cops a reason to use violence.

These scenes were reminiscent of the darkest times in Europe’s history when freedom of assembly was curtailed and free speech was stamped out.

You might have heard about the National Conservatism Brussels conference last week.

The Police Fédérale, acting on orders from the mayor of the Saint-Josse-ten-Noode district, briefly closed it down on spurious grounds.

But this wasn’t the cops shutting down NatCon. This was the closure of Palästina-Kongress in Berlin just a few days prior.

It was a three-day conference co-organised by Germany’s most prominent progressive Jewish organisation, Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost (Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East).

Speakers included Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis and Dr. Ghassan Abu Sitta, who has been in Gaza helping provide medical care during the Sukkot war.

Both men have now been banned from entering Germany.

Many of the attendees were Jewish leftists and found themselves being accosted by German police.

The irony that this crackdown was about security and combating Antisemitism is mainly lost in Germany.

The assault on freedom of assembly and freedom of speech made global headlines. Jews being cancelled by Germans is a bad look, whatever the given reason.

Sadly, the National Conservatism conference got similar billing, albeit on a smaller scale.

UK tabloids bent over backwards with persecuted-in-Europe stories featuring a triumphant Nigel Farage, basking in the limelight.

Brussels did the former MEP an enormous favour, exemplifying the EU in all its totalitarian, Brexit-justifying glory.

NatCon Spin

Unlike in Berlin, the Brussels police cordoned off the NatCon conference and ordered the organisers to wind up the event.

There were no police actions to drive people out of the building, arrests, or power cuts.

This was persecution lite for the ‘pinstripe Nazis’, as the German press call Farage’s friends in Alternative für Deutschland.

NatCon decided to call the lawyers and find a new venue.

The conference was soon up and running again, with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo condemning the attempt to close it down.

We were soon treated to the spectacle of former Home Secretary Suella Braverman decrying this attack on free speech.

Nigel Farage went further and condemned it as “a new form of communism”.

Orbán-hugging American expat Rod Dreher went so far as to call it a “classic case of Islamo-gauchisme”.

Nothing better echoes the Antisemitic fantasies of Judeo-Bolshevism than an imaginary Islamist-leftist conspiracy equivalent.

But that’s what Hungary gives illiberals license to do.

Dreher’s closing address to the conference, accusing the EU of building a secular dictatorship, says it all.

Recovering British liberal Matt Goodwin kept up the Brussels bashing, claiming that the EU influenced the conference’s closing, blaming “woke ideology”.

Saint-Josse Mayor Emir Kir ordered the police to shut down the conference on spurious grounds of “public safety,” opening the door to conspiracy-mongering.

Belgian Premier Alexander De Croo soon condemned Kir’s decision as unconstitutional and allowed the conference to proceed.

The mayor is a curious figure in Belgian politics. A former Socialist politician, Kir was expelled from the party for fraternising with Turkish neo-fascists.

In 2020, he hosted two members of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), infamous for its paramilitary wing, the Grey Wolves. But it gets worse.

Emir Kir has questioned the Armenian genocide in interviews, in which an estimated 1.5 million were killed.

He doesn’t deny that massacres of Armenians took place during World War I (1915-1917), but Kir has rejected the claim that those killings constituted genocide.

It’s worth noting that Saint Josse’s mayor ultimately voted with the rest of the Socialist Party to recognise the Armenian genocide in 2015.

However, he was later reportedly absent from Parliament during a minute’s silence held in remembrance of the genocide that year.

This is hardly the profile of a woke king, let alone a leftist.

And yet, we’re supposed to believe Goodwin that this is precisely why NatCon was threatened with closure.

Free Speech Warriors

Free speech has become a rallying cry for right-wingers who want to challenge the liberal establishment, especially on questions of race, gender and sexuality.

But everyone is in favour of free speech for views they like.

This is why no one at NatCon has spoken out against the closure of Palästina-Kongress in Berlin. The same is probably true, and vice versa.

There is too much hypocrisy about free speech on the right and insufficient scepticism of state power on the left.

The difficulty is where the red line, if any, should be drawn.

Most people would draw the line at incitement to violence, and many others would draw a thicker line to include Holocaust denial and hate speech.

All limits will be contested, but it’s clear NatCon did not meet any reasonable standard for being shut down.

The same is true of Palästina-Kongress. This parallel should be a lesson to all who favour political limits on free speech and protest.

Yet many of the NatCon speakers have called for pro-Palestine demonstrations to be banned.

Goodwin has been calling for the ban on Palestinian solidarity protests since October, while Farage backed calls for a ban on Armistice Day.

Worst of all, Braverman incited a far-right mob to swarm the Cenotaph on Armistice Day in response to pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

The UK’s former home secretary backed claims that the March for Palestine was going to target the Cenotaph when the planned demonstration was nowhere near it.

Braverman wanted the police to crush anti-war protests in London.

Since the protests were lawful, the London Met could do nothing unless the government changed the law.

So, she decided to tap into fears about the threat to the Cenotaph.

The result was Armistice Day was disrupted by drunken thugs clashing with the cops, while the March for Palestine went ahead with its plans miles away.

The hypocrisy doesn’t stop there. Speakers at the conference included Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

His nationalist government has crushed almost all free and independent media in Hungary.

The Hungarian state now controls around 80% of the country’s press.

All the while, the Orbán government continues to spout Antisemitic statements about the power of George Soros over Hungary.

NatCon is partly the result of Viktor Orbán’s agenda to influence the world beyond Hungary’s borders. The Danube Institute is one of its major sponsors.

The conference is a forum between the mainstream and far right.

It’s a safe space for mainstream Tories like Miriam Cates to engage the same audience as far-right French politician Éric Zemmour.

NatCon is an attempt to fuse the American alt-right and religious right with European nationalisms.

The Brussels police disrupted this safe space, but the left should look at this and consider what happened in Berlin.

Shutting down NatCon would not solve the political problem it represents.

Sadly, crackdowns may be a part of the new normal, but the real victims will be genuine dissidents with no media clout.

We won’t hear Nigel Farage standing up for them.

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Photograph courtesy of Gage Skidmore. Published under a Creative Commons license.