Public Reaction to the Notre-Dame Fire

A Lesson in Collective Memory and Western Economic Bias

On April 15, the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem were on fire at the same time. The mosque endured less damage but considering that it was established in 705 CE (almost two thousand years older than the 850-year-old cathedral), concerns grew that its delicate structure would be compromised. While the world grieved for the great cultural loss of the cathedral’s iconic Gothic spire, some were outraged by the economic and Eurocentric bias that came into play.

Since November, French yellow vest protestors have been marching on a weekly basis in order to elicit attention from French President Emmanuel Macron. Outrage grew as Macron cancelled his address to propose solutions for the crisis the night of the cathedral’s fire. While the cancellation was expected by many, the urgency of the cathedral fire was prioritized over the 13-year struggle for tax redistribution.

What’s more, Macron stated that he plans on rebuilding aspects of the cathedral within five years — a political decision that has garnered mixed responses considering that the increasingly unpopular president is up for reelection in 2022 and the 2024 Olympics will be hosted in Paris. The international fundraising campaign to rebuild the cathedral has turned into a celebration of French bourgeois sensibilities, calling on renowned architects to compete to rebuild the Notre-Dame spire with funding from the country’s wealthy elite.

The irony here is that the cathedral was not properly maintained by France’s government in the first place. In 2017, a New York Times article highlighted the deterioration of the cathedral, noting the French government’s laissez-faire attitude in its renovation. Yes, the government was paying millions for the basic maintenance but failed to fund a complete renovation given the country’s strict secular laws and a hefty $114 million price tag matched with the looming unease of economic inequality. Indeed, France has a serious poverty problem; a 2017 report by the French charity the Secours Catholique revealed that 8.8 million people live below the poverty line, a reality that holds up in stark opposition to the families who are funding the Notre-Dame renovation, with tax breaks and all.

The Arnauds and Pinaults, two of France’s wealthiest families, have decided to raise money to rebuild the cathedral. This comes at a time when France isn’t particularly fond of those who can afford to pay the country’s staggeringly high tax rates, summoned by a man who is called the “President for the rich,” especially after he cut the country’s wealth tax last year and started raising taxes on lower classes.

The head figure of one of those families, Francois-Henri Pinault, pledged nearly $112 million for the cause. Pinault is the Chairman of Kering, a major luxury group that owns the likes of Gucci, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, and Bottega Veneta. Before Kering, he owned CFAO, a French distribution conglomerate that is known for operating throughout France’s former African colonies. In the 19th century, CFAO depleted these sub-Saharan countries of their natural resources; in the 20th century, CFAO sold Western-made goods in the same region.

The overwhelming media and public reaction to the Notre Dame fire not only reinforce Eurocentrism, but it also reinforces the collective veneration of Western civilization — a civilization which, many fear, is in slow decline. To watch an ancient Western landmark burn is to mark another notch on the decline of such a civilization. And since the fear of one thing often finds its insidious counterpart in another, here we find that the horror of this decline is matched with the violence against other civilizations.

These are the same people who feverishly peruse The Economist for articles about India and China becoming global superpowers, perpetuating angst of the West’s fate as a subordinate political player. These are the same people who synonymize bigotry for “economic anxiety”; these are the same people who turn a blind eye to plenty of the world’s injustices while mourning others. These are the same people who called the Notre-dame fire a “loss of collective memory,” but collective memory for whom?

The Pacific Standard, for example, listed the Venice Opera House and Windsor castle fires in the 1990s; Time published a list of four other historic buildings that had to be rebuilt, a heavily European list, with the exception of Brazil’s National Museum of Rio de Janeiro, which burned down in September 2018. The tragedy of the article lies in the ghost of what it omits: the multitude of sites worldwide that will never be rebuilt — a historical irresponsibility on the part of the reporters, billionaires and politicians who wish to only celebrate European grandeur.

C’est une Flèche, ou est-ce un Minaret?

In his response to the rebuilding of the cathedral, Domus's Tom Wilkinson wrote, “…what about the approximately 100 Algerians who were killed by the French police while protesting the Algerian War in 1961, many of them thrown into the Seine at the foot of Notre-Dame? These victims of the state could be memorialised by replacing [architect] Viollet-le-Duc’s flèche with — why not? — a graceful minaret.” As is often the question of post-imperialist design and criticism, the article weighed the importance of truth to beauty and what becomes of the former when it is compromised by the latter. However, European nationalist bloggers twisted his statement into a hardline suggestion, rather than an objective analysis of Eurocentric design (which, alone should stand as proof for why these questions must be asked).

The cathedral’s ties to colonial history are not enough to deter the alt-right’s opportunistic grip of the Notre-Dame news. Neoliberalism tells us to weep for Paris while dismissing economic and ethnic inequality, but the far-right tells us to weep for Judeo-Christian values of, preposterously, the Middle Ages. Author Jenny Tan outlined the contrast between post-colonial critics and white supremacists alike: “Amidst the ‘culture wars’ being waged over the cathedral’s burning and reconstruction, what the alt-right reads in these words is perhaps exactly what many non-mourners see in the symbolism of Notre Dame itself: a teleological justification of Christian European hegemony and violence.” In this case, Eurocentrism isn’t just calling for the conservation of this hegemony, but a full-blown cultural crusade.

Let us not forget that for some, structures like the Notre-Dame also evoke a sense of historical violence. After the success of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, public interest in the Gothic cathedral triggered its eventual renovation in 1831. In 1830, France invaded and colonized Algeria. To dismiss this crucial component of French colonial history is a dismissal of a greater human story, as the rest of the world knows it.

In recent memory, it has become more and more difficult to keep track of the artefacts lost at the hands of Western-fueled wars and “Islamist” terrorists alike. In 2001, the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan; In Iraq, the destruction of the renowned Hadba Minaret Mosul, Great Nuri Mosque, and, of course, Mosul in the 2017 battle. The war led to major looting of Baghdad’s National Museum, with early reports stating that 170,000 artefacts were stolen.

By the end of the four-year siege of the Ancient City of Aleppo, Syria in 2016, the 30,000 buildings were damaged. Aleppo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and while many sites are scattered throughout non-Western countries, UNESCO’s interactive map shows a cluster of sites in Western Europe, with significantly fewer sites throughout the African and Asian continents. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the 54 UNESCO sites that the World Heritage Committee includes on the ‘World Heritage in danger’ list are located in Africa and the Middle East.

The bias doesn’t end there. A 2017 article from Haaretz titled “53 Mosques and Churches Vandalized in Israel Since 2009, but Only 9 Indictments Filed” shows a small portion of prioritized news stories. The increasingly toxic ebb and flow of Western media outlets’ subject matter is a major factor in how the world views tragedy. Yes, different cultures grieve in different ways, but contemporary media coverage and a world obsessed with globalization presuppose the notion of collective mourning. How can one properly mourn what is disproportionate? We begin to value and devalue, to moralize and demoralize, cultural preservation. Who is allowed to keep remnants of their cultural history, with the space to mourn and to rebuild — on a global scale — while others must forfeit theirs as a casualty?

To mainstream Western media, the MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa) region hinges on multiple intercultural and cross-cultural contradictions. As far as popular Western attitudes go, the region exists in two universes: it is marked as a land frozen in time, yet it has been successfully destabilized, aided by the destruction of ancient ruins and landmarks. Liminality, in this case, is not only frustrating but dangerous. The erasure of certain narratives and the reinforcement of others is common imperialist practice; the material becomes intangible, lost among the myriad news coverage and political discourse of that very region.

Lost Voices of Pre-Colombian History

On Twitter, Journalist Simon Allison noted the disparity in responses between the Notre-Dame fire and the fire that completely destroyed another historical landmark — this time, neither in the Middle East or in Europe: Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum (Museu Nacional) in Brazil. Allison wrote, “In just a few hours today, 650 million euros was donated to rebuild Notre Dame. 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.” Celebrating its 200th year in 2018, the National Museum of Brazil lost more than 90% of its collection, including 20 million indigenous artifacts and recordings of extinct native languages and some of the oldest skeletons found in the Americas.

The Brazilian museum was a palace and residence for both the Portuguese Royal Family and later to the Brazilian Imperial Family until the late Nineteenth Century, but the building stood for more than a monument to imperialism; in fact, its iteration as a public museum is a dedication to pre-Columbian indigenous work. That contrast is essential in understanding the global and national efforts to rebuild it. Government officials have been negligent in addressing the museum’s grievances since 2014. Lately, Brazil’s far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, has vowed to begin constructing new rail lines and roads through the Amazon in hopes of “integrating” the country’s indigenous populations. Like the Notre-Dame, the museum’s fire was due to years of budget cutbacks, corruption, and underfunding, causing it to run with a lack of safety precautions.

The same government spent billions in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics. Half of the stadiums constructed for the World Cup eventually faced investigations for fraud, bribery, and inconsistent financial records. Countless reports of mass corruption and environmental destruction were lost among the hype and allure of sports stadiums funded with taxpayer money. Meanwhile, maintenance for institutions like the Museu Nacional was cut and the lives of Brazil’s most vulnerable population were compromised. Like France, cultural preservation was sacrificed for global appeal.

Within two days of the Notre-Dame’s fire, over $900,000 was pledged for its restoration, while $280,000 was raised for the Brazilian museum eight months after the majority of its collection was destroyed; Google Trends revealed that the Brazilian anthropological museum received less than 5 per cent of the coverage the Notre-Dame fire received. Alexander Kellner, a curator at the Brazil National Museum, has publicly stated the underwhelming support in donations to restore the space. While the country’s education ministry contributed $2.5 million for emergency works, the museum will still need over $25 million more to complete its renovation. Brazilian billionaires did not rush to make substantial donations and wax poetic about the space’s necessity in Latin American history. It is not a coincidence that the museum’s geological and paleontological collection is not as marketable or as glossy as a Parisian cityscape.

Culture and Commercialism

This isn’t a lesson simply in Eurocentrism and economic inequality, but also an exercise in marketability, in how tourism now shapes the collective narrative of mankind. It is fair to compare public reactions to tragedies simply for the fact that it reveals how we define and endorse the concept of heritage. The paradox of globalism is vexing because it necessitates cross-cultural veneration while favouring universal corporate expansion. It’s one of the reasons why we find difficulty in assessing the worth of destroyed ruins in the Middle East or a Brazilian museum brimming with archaeological wonders: without the lens of tourism and globalization, how would we view cultural heritage?

If we continue to commodify some cultural sites while neglecting others, then we’ll never stop wondering what we really lost in the fire.