Religious cathedral / Kris Schulze / Pexels.com
The days following the Notre Dame cathedral fire were fraught with grief and shock as the world watched an 850-year-old structure burn.
Those who were positioned to help, did. Generously.
Nearly a billion euros were donated in as little as three days, mostly from French billionaires like Francois-Henri Pinault (head of Gucci and Saint Laurent), Bernard Arnault (head of LVMH) and the Bettencourt-Mayer family (largest shareholder of L’Oreal).
These huge gestures from select individuals were so heartfelt, so impactful, so rapid in the face of the tragedy that struck France. Yet I was left wondering where such gestures were when the obituary for the Great Barrier Reef was published, when the Horn of Africa faced the worst drought and famine in 70 years in 2017, or when Syria entered its eighth year of civil war in 2019.
Why is it that a French church receives more donations than hungry mouths or bleeding children?
In short, eurocentrism.
One cannot deny the influence Europe has had on world history. The period of modern colonialism during which Portugal, Spain, the Dutch Republic, England and France “discovered” and colonised different parts of the world has shaped architecture, language and culture globally.
From the default ‘nude’ (read: pale) colour of bandages, to beauty standards, to many languages (Mandarin Chinese and Te Reo Māori among them) adopting the Latin alphabet as an alternate scribing system, the world we live in has been largely built around European lifestyles.
Consequently, the white perspective has become over-represented in the world’s entertainment companies, media outlets, governments and industries. Discussions around representation in Hollywood, in technology and in government have made great strides but the fact remains: we are still biased towards the totems of Western civilisation.
French president Emmanuel Macron explained it best. “[It’s] the epicenter of our lives. It’s the many books, the paintings, those that belong to all French men and French women, even those who’ve never come,” he said of the Notre Dame.
Not only does the church embody French history, but through eurocentrism, much of world history. The outpouring of support has been so immense because of the Notre Dame’s value to a Western-dominated world.
If we compare the donations for the reconstruction of the Notre Dame cathedral to the National Museum of Brazil, which lost 90% of its priceless artifacts in the September 2018 fire — including a Pompeian fresco that survived the eruption of Vesuvius — it’s heartbreaking.
In less than a week, €900 million (NZ$1.5 billion) was raised for Notre Dame. That’s more money than needed to cover the estimated €600 million (NZ$1 billion) reconstruction costs.
Eight months after the fire, donations for the National Museum of Brazil sit at about R$1.2 million (NZ$460,000.) The estimated reconstruction costs are R$100 million (NZ$38 million). Not to mention that the original cause of the fire – faulty air conditioning after severe funding cuts – allowed the museum to fall into disrepair in the first place.
Alongside eurocentrism, classism has also been widely discussed after Macron announced new reforms to end the five-month Yellow Vest protests. The Yellow Vest movement began in response to rising fuel prices, but soon encompassed tax rates, pension and economic inequality in France.
In Paris specifically, costs of living are high. This has lead to approximately 150,000 people living on the streets of the capital.
“When I hear people giving two-hundred million euros for that, and they can’t even give ten thousand for homeless people, I say that’s awful,” Eric, homeless in Paris for eight years, commented.
I am not condemning those who value relics of European history or were saddened by the fire. Considering the societal structures of New Zealand and the wider Western world, it is an understandable reaction. But we need to shift our eurocentric view of the world to a more holistic view.
There needs to be more coverage of crises from all over the world, (e.g. Gaza, Yemen, Syria) because they sure aren’t getting enough of it now. History classes need to teach students about other civilisations. The horrors of colonialism must not be masked with lies like Native Americans giving their land willingly to the settlers, or Māori ceding sovereignty to the British Crown.
But above all, we must remember that human lives matter more than buildings.
Would the donations for a cathedral of the Catholic Church (a wealthy institution that is exempt from paying taxes) be better spent elsewhere? Here I turn to the Māori whakataukī (proverb): He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.
What is the most important thing in the world?
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.Support Villainesse