The Editor’s Desk: The backlash begins

The international outpouring of funds to restore Notre Dame is not applauded by everyone

Well, that didn’t take long, did it?

I’m referring to the swift change in the narrative surrounding the pledges to rebuild and restore Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris following the fire that devastated the 850-year-old building on April 15. Paris firefighters were still working to extinguish the blaze when a prominent French business conglomerate pledged €100 million (Cdn$150 million) towards restoration of the cathedral, an amount that was soon matched and/or surpassed by others. Within a few days more than €1 billion (Cdn$1.5 billion) had been raised.

That’s a good thing, right? It’s an example of people rallying to show support for one of the world’s great treasures, and ensure that the cathedral is here for another 850 years, a bastion of beauty and peace and comfort even for those with no personal religious affiliation. It’s a classic feel-good story, an inspiring tale, a concrete message of faith, hope, and charity (and remember that the King James version of 1 Corinthians 13: 13 tells us that of these three things, the greatest is charity).

Goes to show how wrong you can be. Almost as quickly as support for Notre Dame sprang up, there were people ready, able, and more than willing to pour scorn on it. “It’s a good thing these wealthy people donated money but it does beg the question why they don’t do something to address social problems like poverty and homelessness,” said Bruno Cautrès of Cevipof, the political research centre at the Paris School of International Affairs. “We should first thank them, then hope they ask themselves this question.”

M. Cautrès was remarkably restrained in comparison with many others, but the common message was the same. Why were some of France’s largest and wealthiest businesses — along with countless smaller organizations, not to mention individuals from around the world — falling over themselves to throw money at restoring a bunch of stones (and religious ones at that, some added, in a rabbit hole we won’t venture down), when there are homeless people, and children living in poverty, and fatal diseases in search of a cure?

Many people were (very vocally) of the opinion that buildings should not come before human beings. The money raised to restore Notre Dame would be better off spent helping the homeless and the poverty-stricken, or used to improve education, or fund health care research. Why, came the cri de coeur, did so many seem to value an old building more than they valued their fellow human beings?

I don’t think it’s a question of what one does and does not value. In Canada alone there are more than 85,000 registered charities, so those who want to donate need to make decisions. If a person chooses, for example, to donate to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, but not to the Canadian Cancer Society, does that mean she doesn’t care about those with cancer?

“But at least that money is going to help people!” I hear someone cry, “it’s not going just to restore a building!” Agreed. But people will donate to a cause that touches their heart or their life in some way; they cannot be compelled to donate to a cause that someone else finds more “acceptable”, and there’s a good chance that much of the money being pledged to help Notre Dame would not otherwise have been pledged to go anywhere other than into someone’s bank account.

And the harsh truth is that homelessness, to use one example, is a hugely complex issue with many factors contributing to it, for which there is no easy or simple solution that just needs sufficient funding in order to make things right. Human beings don’t always do complexity very well, so given the choice between donating to alleviate homelessness (where does the money go? who does it help, and in what way? how, if at all, will this “fix” homelessness? how can I see this result?) and donating to help restore Notre Dame — a fairly simple goal which will have a very visible outcome — simplicity often wins the day.

Don’t fault people for that, otherwise we might end up with no one donating to anything for fear of incurring the wrath of others for making the “wrong” choice. Donate what you can, where you can. No one should ask for more.

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