When the main spire of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris crumbled, consumed by fire, the world lost one of its most iconic buildings: a towering monument to human endeavour and ingenuity, to our singular ability as a species to transform wood and bricks and glass into an edifice of timeless beauty, loaded with cultural, religious, architectural, artistic and historical significance.
Its loss provoked an outpouring of grief, sympathy and support. World leaders rushed to express their condolences; newspapers on every continent ran with the story on their front page; and donations poured in to a restoration fund, to the tune of €650-million in just a few hours on Tuesday.
It was an extraordinary, unprecedented expression of solidarity to a disaster in which no one died and no one was injured. But as the anguished response to the disaster got louder, and as the restoration fund kept on growing, so too did a sense of unease.
The scale of the response to Notre Dame dwarfed the global response to other tragedies, implying, somehow, that there is something more intrinsically valuable about this French church than, say, the even older temples destroyed by the earthquake in Kathmandu or the millennia of irreplaceable of history contained within the walls of Brazil’s National Museum, which last year was itself the victim of a fire. So far, the museum’s restoration fund has been able to attract only €15-million.
It is also true that the funds raised in response to this cultural disaster dwarf those available to respond to human disasters. Cyclone Idai tore through Southern Africa last month, killing more than 1 000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Mozambique was hit especially hard. But so far, only 23% of Mozambique’s $337-million humanitarian response plan has been funded.
Some might argue that Mozambique, Brazil and Nepal are far away, they are not France’s problem. And the money raised for Notre Dame’s reconstruction came from private citizens. These are both valid points, but mask the structural inequalities of a global financial system tilted in favour of the West, the colonial legacy on which the wealth of modern France is built, and a cultural hegemony that places Western values, culture and institutions on a pedestal.
This means that France and its citizens can afford to bounce back from catastrophe and that the rest of the world will experience a French tragedy as its own. This is white privilege at work, on an international scale.
Not that this should change how any of us respond to the fire at the Notre Dame. But it should change how we respond to the next fire at the next museum in a place that is not as wealthy or as glamorous as Paris. It should change how we respond to the natural disasters, which are likely to increase in frequency and intensity as climate change worsens — with the developing world likely to be hardest hit. It should change how we respond right now to the cyclone in Southern Africa, the drought in East Africa and the floods in South Asia. This would be an achievement grand enough to make up for the cathedral’s spire that was lost to the flames.