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With 600 million euro now raised to fix the Notre Dame, it’s clear that we’ve illuminated a serious flaw in our thinking, and in our collective empathy.
This morning with the embers of the Notre Dame extinguished and the memes now rolling in, we’re met with rampant examples of generosity, whether it be from Salma Hayek’s billionaire bae, or the largest company in the Republic of California, Apple, pledging to help rebuild the spire through the application of hard currency. At the time of writing, 600 million Euro is on the way to help rebuild a building that didn’t fall down and was actually in fairly decent nick afterwards.
We are heartbroken for the French people and those around the world for whom Notre Dame is a symbol of hope. Relieved that everyone is safe. Apple will be donating to the rebuilding efforts to help restore Notre Dame’s precious heritage for future generations.🇫🇷
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) April 16, 2019
Officially, the line was empathetic hang wringing combined with a balled fist of resolve. President Emmanuel Macron declared that France was overwhelmed with “emotion”, while Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo could not find “strong enough words to express the pain”. Elsewhere, Justin Trudeau and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan spoke for many, tweeting that the incident was “heartbreaking”. US President Donald Trump called it “horrible”. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker bewailed the “sad spectacle” and “the horror” of the fire at Notre Dame, a building that belonged to “the whole of humanity”.
Not that I’m entirely blind to see why people care so. It was a beautiful building in Paris, the city of great beauty. We knew it from our youth, and/or libraries. It’s famous, and famous buildings burning down to the chorus of nervous covers of Ave Maria spluttered through between Gauloises is an easy tableau to understand.
But, on the other side of that coin (or the piles of it), is that feeling something for an institution that has/will victimise many, the Catholic Church, as well as it being beyond rich (as one local investigation discovered that the church was worth $30 billion within the borders of this country), is a bit of an ask, especially once you get over the shock of seeing something familiar burn. Not too long ago, we wanted to burn that religion to the ground over George Pell, now we’re sharing anecdotes about that time we walked past the cathedral and how pretty it was. I get it, the building was the victim, but what about the actual vitcims? The church aside, you could probably throw the hideousness of the French colonial Empire in for good measure. Yet, much cash and much woe is on its way to the addled streets of Paris. C’est miracle.
If you are one of those who equally shed virtual tears for the harm that befalls a globally notable piece of building as well as the very real crimes happening to very real, (albeit less notable) people of the world, you are excused from the next sentence. I do take umbrage with our reaction to the fire, primarily because all the other tragedies of the modern experience solely breathe in the editorial footnotes, the rolling ticker of early afternoon news, or feature in the hideous videos that that Facebook’s censor doesn’t allow us to see. None of those issues are elevated to the same status that the flames on the Notre Dame climbed to. They’re just the distant victims of wars we’re not involved in by people we don’t particularly care about.
The Yemen, Syria, et cetera. Yes, those people. The problems we can turn away from. The problems are either too large, too foreign or too distant for us to process. These issues, I feel, are deposited in either the ‘too hard’ or the ‘don’t care’ basket. While it is easy to attribute this apathy to racism (another good example is that we all Je Suis’d Paris in 2015, but less of us propped up Beirut), it’s best that we reexamine our reaction to these events to expose our nonsense duality. I’m oft-reminded of that famous Stalin quote, in that one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic, but that was uttered by a man who authored the death of millions through paranoia, racism, et cetera. L’ironie.
Back to 2019, and the angel of our better presidency, Barack Obama, somberly pontificated on Twitter regarding Notre Dame, in that “it’s in our nature to mourn when we see history lost”. Ok, but this is the same country that dropped 26,171 bombs on the world under his watch…in 2016 alone. If we’re talking about an erasure of history, wiping the cradle of our civilisation off the map, Mesopotamia, is certainly that. Hillary Clinton chimed in a similar tone, stating that “…my heart goes out to Paris. Notre Dame is a symbol of our ability as human beings to unite for a higher purpose.” This is the same person who once boasted about her desire to “totally obliterate” Iran.
They’re moping about a building that was somewhat destroyed, with no victims, in a country that can afford to fix it, owned by an institution that can easily afford to rebuild the Notre Dame millions of times over. I get it, you can’t replace history, but you can easily create it. So, let’s talk about something that will soon become exactly that.
The ugliness of Yemen is something that is shaping tomorrow. Despite being under unreported continuous assault by a Saudi-led coalition, we do tend to ocassionally notice the conflict that spilled over from that other awful proxy war that destroyed its neighbour. Yes, it was a US-supplied bomb slaughtered 40 Yemeni children on a school bus, but beyond the fist-shaking of Michael Moore on Twitter, the collective angst on behalf of the people of Yemen has been fleeting. Francois Henri-Pinault (worth $30bn) hasn’t turned up with a guilded suitcase replete a moping chorus of the well-meaning at Sana’a International Airport, to compensate the 85,000 children dead from starvation with a giant novelty cheque.
That wouldn’t happen. It would be tacky, but so is a gaudy showing of wealth in the wrong areas, as it has clearly exposed what, and who, we truly value.