By Bethany Dawson
On the 15th of April 2019, the Parisian skyline was transformed by a fire in the Notre Dame Cathedral. The announcement of the blaze was followed instantly with outcries of love, pain, and reminders of your friend’s trip to Paris. Permeating these outcries was a desire to help rebuild the iconic feature of French history and thus, an influx of donations followed, with billionaires such as Bernard Arnault donating €200 million, and major corporations like L’Oreal following suit with a donation matching that of Mr Arnault. At the point of writing, a awe-striking $1 billion has been raised dedicated to the rebuilding of Notre Dame and there is no doubt that that amount will continue to grow.
This influx of support is a representation of the power of human good and is proof that when people are motivated by a cause that truly plucks at their heartstrings, change can be made. This empathy was reflected by Bernard Arnault, who – on the note of his generous donation – said that it was done to show “show solidarity at this time of national tragedy”. It must be said that, to me, the concept of solidarity does not necessarily bring forth thoughts of damaged buildings run by overtly wealthy theistic institutions, but rather is linked to the miners’ strikes or to standing with communities affected by some of the world’s recent terror attacks. It must be asked, why hasn’t this surge of support – especially financial support – been seen before, in times where mass groups are left stranded between a rock and a hard place when difficulties befall them?
When the Grenfell Tower burned due to ineffective safety measures on government-owned housing, where was the money for affected families? Where was the money for enhanced protection for people praying at Mosques or Synagogues after a spike in hate crimes to these groups? This money has not gone into funding organizations such as planned parenthood, or been used to offset the high cost of Higher Education. In essence, this money has gone to the rebuilding of a historical, religious, monument: something of high aesthetic, sentimental, and religious value – not something that will change the lives of underprivileged groups who are in need of support. Support, that could be provided by some of the world’s wealthiest people.
This statement shouldn’t be seen to be a complaint against the donations to the Notre Dame but should be seen as an assessment of the priorities of the wealthy. It’s clear that these priorities are not to redistribute their wealth, ensuring that the most in-need can have the money they need to survive, but to ensure the continued representation of affluent interests.
It’s not only the mass donations to rebuilding Notre Dame that can teach us a lesson, but the attention the media paid to the fire which also poses as interesting. At the same time as the devastation of Notre Dame, Islam’s third holiest mosque – the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem – also caught ablaze. Whilst the fire to the Mosque was not as structurally damaging as the fire to the Notre Dame, there was not so much as a mention of it within the mainstream news. This might be because the fire was not as large, or it may be because the city of Jerusalem just does not seem to be a feature of concern within eurocentric Western media. Whatever the reason, the fact that the burning of Notre Dame struck headlines for days after the flames were extinguished, whilst a fire to an equally important building is ignored, is a sure comment on the focus of the current state of Western media.
For Parisian people, especially people of Catholic faith, it is important that we do offer our support and condolences to them in this time of understandable grief. To ignore heartache over the fire is to ignore the significance of the Notre Dame. However, in parallel, to ignore the meanings behind the donations – and the potential those donations have to solve so many of our world’s problems – would be equally as detrimental. As such, let us celebrate the kindness of these donations, and hold dear the fact that the wealthy do recognise their ability to make a change, whilst acknowledging that this privilege could fuel change to help the most in-need communities.
Bethany Dawson is a second year Politics and Sociology student at the University of Surrey.