Notre Dame and “Whataboutism”

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In the aftermath of the devastating fire that kept millions around the world glued to their screens as we watched an icon of Western civilization burn, I was disappointed to see the plethora of “whataboutisms” in relation to the money being donated for the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral.

I realize that Western civilization is not in the good graces of many in the rest of the world, and often rightfully so. There are good reasons to feel resentful about hundreds of millions of euros being spent toward something they feel might be better spent elsewhere. One doesn’t have to look far to see the great need there is globally, not only in third-world countries, which have been suffering for millennia, but even in industrialized nations in which people think nothing of spending five dollars for a cup of coffee. People are suffering everywhere in conditions of poverty and need.

But a few billionaires spending a minor fraction of their wealth on restoring a historic and cultural treasure so that people of all social and economic levels can once more be inspired by its beauty should not be criticized. It’s not as though the money donated would solve the problem of hunger and want in the world. We can’t just throw money at serious political corruption and cultural medievalism and expect the problems will go away.

Notre Dame de Paris is not just a church, it is quite literally the heart of France, located at point zero, from which all distances in France are measured. It has stood on that spot for over 800 years; a spot that has been a place of worship from even before the Romans. And despite the fact that I am an atheist, I have nevertheless been struck with a sense of awe when I stood in the center of the Cathedral. The ability to experience such sublime beauty is all too rare these days. And this is an experience available to everyone, not just the wealthy. Although the church is grateful for donations, there is no entrance fee. It is open every day, and you can go to just wander around and take photos or sit for as long as you like in quiet contemplation.

This incredible monument, which has stood for hundreds of years, through world wars and revolutions, was built when people still believed the earth was flat. The sense of history there is palpable, and the art treasures it housed can never be replaced. We can no longer produce stained glass windows to the quality of the rose windows gracing the cathedral. The techniques have unfortunately been lost.

I have no doubt that Notre Dame, like a phoenix, will rise from the ashes, with the help of both billionaires and ordinary people doing what they can, and by calling in artisans from all over the world to help in its recovery.

But if we really want to help those who are still suffering in the world, we need to be more proactive in electing people to our governments who care about the suffering of their citizens. We need to hold them to account and remove anyone in a position of power who does not feel that the least of us is as good as the most privileged. And we need to stop the rampant xenophobia that blinds people to the fact that we are all fragile human beings who want the same essential things, sharing the same planet. The solutions to end suffering in the world go further than money. It requires a population that is committed to change, which is not easy, given most people who have the bare minimum of food, shelter and entertainment are not likely to risk losing what little they have.

There is more than enough money in the world to preserve our historic monuments, combat climate change, ensure everyone is well fed, housed, educated, and their health care needs met. But major changes in wealth distribution are needed. That will only happen when the majority of every country’s citizens insist upon it.

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