For most everyone else, the massive fundraising response to the fire at Notre Dame was a stirring, patriotic, and charitable reaction to a cultural tragedy. For some, however, it’s an example of everything wrong — ranging from class warfare to ethnic identity and all points in between. The Washington Post mulls over whether French billionaires coming to the rescue of a French national wonder doesn’t amount to “white privilege” and upper-crust snootery:
“Of course, I find it nice, this solidarity,” said Ingrid Levavasseur, a leader of the yellow vest movement that has protested inequality in a series of often violent Saturday demonstrations since mid-November. The stream of donations essentially confirmed the movement’s broader social critique, Levavasseur said.
“If they can give tens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame, then they should stop telling us there is no money to help with the social emergency,” Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union, said on Wednesday.
The cash flow has also furrowed brows abroad, with critics emphasizing that destroyed landmarks in non-Western locales — like the ancient sites destroyed by the Islamic State in Syria — have hardly inspired such a global groundswell.
“In just a few hours today, 650 million euros was donated to rebuild Notre Dame,” South Africa-based journalist Simon Allison tweeted. “In six months, just 15 million euros has been pledged to restore Brazil’s National Museum. I think this is what they call white privilege.”
I think this is what’s called fringe thinking everywhere except in the rarified editorial circles of Western media. Let’s take the latter example first. Brazil’s National Museum was built in 1808 and burned down last year, which is of course a tragic loss for Brazil. Did their National Museum have anywhere near the same cultural and religious impact on the world as Notre Dame? Of course not. Perhaps one can chalk that up to Eurocentrism, but since most of the money that poured in after the Notre Dame fire came from French billionaires, the money was pretty “Eurocentric” too.
Shouldn’t the question about fundraising for Brazil’s National Museum be directed at Brazilians anyway? It’s not as if they don’t have a few multi-billionaires lounging around, too. Two years ago, Forbes listed ten Brazilians worth more than Donald Trump, including Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin ($8 billion) and three Anheuser-Busch/InBev magnates worth over $55 billion combined. In between, Joseph Safra has a net worth over $20 billion. If all that Brazil could manage to raise to restore their National Museum was a little €15 million, that’s not the fault of French billionaires.
Also, the reason that no one’s donating to salvage the Syrian sites is because the nation’s still dealing with a civil war and a brutal dictatorship. Not only is a restoration investment premature, it’s still unsafe. When Syria transitions to a stable liberal democracy, perhaps a comparison could then be made.
As to the class-warfare/envy argument, that’s more of an internal taxation-spending issue. It’s worth noting, at least regarding taxation, that the donations made by French billionaires likely came from their wealth rather than their income. That may not matter to French populists looking to defenestrate private wealth for the general public good, of course, but on that point Notre Dame is instructive. The French state owns Notre Dame, and one reason why the fire was as destructive as it was is because of neglect of the asset by the state (which was a contributing factor in the Brazil National Museum fire too). The Washington Post goes into that at length today, too:
But as crews continue to assess damage, some noted that Notre Dame could have used a major restoration years ago and wondered whether the fire would have been as bad had the edifice been looked at earlier. Others, meanwhile, wondered whether France’s secularism had gotten in the way of the funding necessary for such a restoration effort. …
“The 1905 law does not prevent state authorities or public authorities from maintaining — it’s actually quite the opposite,” Lopinot said. “The 1905 law preserves the principle that those buildings are not private buildings but that they are state-owned buildings. That comes directly from the revolution.”
Or, as Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador the United States, tweeted in response to the notion that the separation of church and state had prevented the latter from funding Notre Dame’s restoration, “The cathedral belongs to the state which is responsible of its maintenance.”
That gets farmed out to cultural associations, but only for short-term maintenance, not the larger-scale, continuing maintenance that 800-year-old churches require. Thanks to the “Laïcité” law and the welfare demands such as those made above, the state hasn’t spent that kind of money or resources on Notre Dame or other cultural assets in a long, long time:
“We know that, the public finance situation being quite challenging, there are a few historical buildings, monuments that probably have not been maintained as they used to be maintained when our public finance was better,” Lopinot said. According to a Ministry of Culture survey from the 1980s, there are about 32,000 churches, 6,000 chapels and 87 cathedrals in France. All those built before 1905 are publicly owned.
“Apart from that, it’s a huge building that requires incredible expertise to maintain because it is so old [and] because the competencies you would need for a person to work on these kinds of buildings are very rare,” Lopinot said.
They’re rare because the state hasn’t created a market for them by investing in their upkeep. They’ll keep being rare unless France’s billionaires continue bailing them out. Perhaps instead of responding in envy, the “yellow vests” and other populists should be grateful to the wealthy in their country for investing in public infrastructure where the state itself has refused to do so.
Notre Dame is worth saving, and that has nothing to do with privilege, white or any flavor. The pushback from the progressives on the very idea has a lot to say about their nihilism, though.
Update: This is certainly good news, regardless of where your privilege lies:
Top French art conservation officials say the works inside Notre Dame suffered no major damage in the fire that devastated the cathedral, and the pieces have been removed from the building for their protection.
Isabelle Palot-Frossat of the center for research at the French Museums said neither fire, nor soot, nor water reached inside the cathedral’s walls. The fierce fire Monday evening was concentrated on the cathedral’s roof and destroyed its famous spire.
Judith Kagan of the French Culture Ministry said that many of the artworks span several meters (yards) across and were being transported to a secure location.
Frank Riester, France’s culture minister, said the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling is still “in an emergency situation.” Officials will have to carefully remove the debris that is weighing it down, cover the ceiling against the elements and dismantle the scaffolding that had topped the cathedral when it caught fire.
Even the beehives survived, the AP reports.