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The City of the Whited Sepulchres
Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium. (Garry Solomon /EyeEm/Getty Images)

The City of the Whited Sepulchres

Walter Russell Mead

The city of the whited sepulchers is what Joseph Conrad called Brussels in his haunting novella, Heart of Darkness. The phrase comes from the New Testament: Jesus said that the hypocritical religious and community leaders of his time were like whited (whitewashed) tombs. The outside was bright and shiny, but the inside was full of rot and decay.

Conrad made that point about Belgium under the evil King Leopold II, who ran a genocidal empire in what is now the Congo. By participating in Leopold’s criminally exploitative and viciously murderous regime, Brussels’ commercial, political, and cultural elites, were the worst kind of hypocrites. But in a different sense, the phrase is equally true of Brussels today: it is a city that holds up a glittering facade of international institutions and high ideas to the outside world, while its insides fester with societal breakdown and with the murderous death cults that exploded into the world’s awareness in Paris last week.

No city is more identified with out postmodern, post-historical ideals of cosmopolitan governance. NATO and the EU are both headquartered in Brussels. From here go the edicts to benighted countries and leaders in Europe and beyond. Here thousands of Eurocrats toil for the post-historical future, here the values and aspirations of the West are expressed in concrete institutions. This is, in many ways, the capital of Europe.

It is also the capital of the post-historical world. Back in 1990, I visited the city and a friend took me to its beautiful Grande Place, the center of governance in the traditional city. On one side he called my attention to a lovely, high-end restaurant. That, he said, was a seedy workingman’s bar in the nineteenth century. It’s where Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx came together to work on the draft of the Communist Manifesto. And on the other side of the square, he pointed to a Godiva chocolate shop. That, he said, was here the SS Charlemagne Brigade recruited ‘Aryan’ Belgians to help Hitler win the war against the Soviet Union.

This was post-history made concrete. No communism, no fascism, only luxury shopping. That is the world much of the West thought it was building; it isn’t the world we are living in now.

The tourist mecca of the Grande Place, the institutions of the EU and NATO: they comprise the slick outside, the impressive exterior of the contemporary city; the inside seethes with hate and fanaticism, made more effective and virulent by chronic failures of governance. The decades-long uneasy standoff between Dutch-speaking Flemings and French speaking Walloons has made Belgium and, especially Brussels, a mess. Each community insists on being governed in its own way and Brussels, historically a French-speaking city in the midst of a Dutch-speaking countryside, has been a particularly thorny issue in Belgian politics. One compromise has been to divide power down to tiny districts and communities; as this NYT piece notes, 19 municipal zones are divided into six police ‘zones’ cover a city of one million people. The result is that many parts of the capital are hardly policed at all. Meanwhile, despite the famously high social aspirations and exalted rhetoric about integration and opportunity that one hears from Europeans lavishly praising their social model, somehow generation after generation of immigrants stagnates in a toxic atmosphere of exclusion, unemployment, and crime.

Brussels’ failures are emblematic of Europe’s failings. The city that hopes to govern a post-national Europe has been made impotent by the petty jealousies and nasty rivalries of two ethnic groups barely large enough to qualify as tribes in much of the world. Brussels is in some ways a satire of the European project: committed to transnational goals, hobbled by unresolved ethnic spats. A city dedicated to universal secular human values is now threatened by fanatical death cults that have grown up in its miserable, insecure slums.

The West as a whole these days is cursed by moral grandiosity and failing performance. Our self-esteem has seldom been more robust, or our performance more pitiable. We busy ourselves with what we think is the last unfinished work of implementing universal egalitarianism, by for example tending to high school students who identify with a gender other than that into which they were born, ensuring that they can use the restrooms toward which their aspirations lead them. We see ourselves as courageous warriors even as the foundations of our world are beginning to crack. We claim that tolerance and diversity are the touchstones of our civilization, and have raised a generation of weaklings who cannot bear to be exposed to unorthodox ideas or to the bustle and collisions that life in a diverse society inevitably brings. To cite another of Jesus’ condemnations of hypocrisy, we ‘tithe mint and dill and cumin, and neglect the weightier matters of the law.’ That is, we busy ourselves obsessively over small bore issues, and ignore the graver challenges that face us on every side.

Brussels this week has been paralyzed by its failures. The metro isn’t running; the city is in a complete security lockdown, including the glittering Grande Place; schools will remain shut tomorrow. Its citizens, cowering at home, uneasily contemplate the enemy within that European policy failure and Belgian paralysis have allowed to grow. Brussels today is the West’s tomorrow; unless we change course we will find ourselves more and more living in a world in which reality mocks our aspirations and the whitewash on our institutions can no longer conceal the rot within.

None of this is to single out the people of Brussels for exceptional censure. All of us should be standing with them in this time of fear; our thoughts and prayers are with the security forces working to keep the citizens safe. We have shared in their errors, and the dangers that threaten them threaten us as well.

As Jesus preached, he came across a place that had the kind of moral grandiosity so prevalent in the Western world today: The flourishing village apparently thought of itself as having some kind of special destiny. Jesus wasn’t impressed: “And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell.” Brussels is getting a little taste of what that feels like this weekend; the rest of us should take heed.

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