Notre Dame raises question about values

ARE buildings more important than people? Does it depend on which building, and which people? How does that work? Who decides? Obviously, old buildings matter. Old is important. Heritage, history, cultural identity embedded in every stone, every beam. But still. Does anyone else feeling vaguely nauseated at the speed with which billionaires and multinationals have been hurling their millions at Notre Dame?

Does anyone else slightly despair at how the financial elite are falling over themselves, undoubtedly with a view to having their names engraved on future plaques nailed to future walls, as the real world — the natural world — continues to go up in smoke? Can’t the luxury goods billionaires, the fossil fuel billionaires, the tech billionaires, see even the tiniest irony in their stampede to fund the rebuilding of a famous monument when their money is so desperately needed elsewhere? Elsewhere everywhere? All over?

And seriously, can the burning of an old building – even an old building which has housed a mountain of history from Napolean to that fictional hunchback — really be described as a tragedy? The dictionary says a tragedy is an event which involves death or suffering; stone and glass and wood don’t suffer. People suffer, animals suffer. It’s regrettable that stained glass and priceless paintings and an internationally famous bell tower were destroyed, but it’s hardly a tragedy, is it? Unless actual people were burned alongside the building material — which they were not.

If we were being watched by intelligent life from outer space — a big if, I know, but humour me — our response to Notre Dame would signify, very clearly, that people value property more than people. When other buildings burn down — perhaps a cheap tower block full of poor people — the queue of cash-brandishing billionaires is conspicuously absent. When property is threatened by people, we send in the police; when people are threatened by property, we call it housing law.

So inhumane are the conditions created in France for people displaced by war and climate change that the UN has asked the French government to show a bit of fraternite to its homeless migrants, but to no avail. In the shadows of Notre Dame, there have been zero reported sightings of billionaires trying to help those desperate refugees living rough on the streets of Paris. Stained glass makes for better headlines, bigger plaques.

Although Notre Dame is owned by the French state, the cathedral was built to honour an early humanitarian. Jesus would have definitely preferred people to buildings. That we care more about heritage sites than the people who live beneath them, that we allow our self important sense of history to blind us from real world suffering — none of this really fits in with the whole Christian thing, does it?

So billionaires. By all means fling your millions, but fling them somewhere less grandiose. Fling them at the poor, the involuntarily displaced, the suffering. Better still, fling them into tax revenue, where they can be more fairly distributed. People matter more than buildings.

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