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Saturday, April 20, 2019

Notre Dame–Tragedy And Political Shamelessness

Image result for images notre dame de paris

Notre Dame de Paris is not just a church, nor just a cathedral although it stands as the greatest of all those in France.   It is a religious, national, and cultural icon, a symbol of the power and authority of Christian civilization, a monument to the Catholic Church and, like France itself, representing both secular and religious traditions.  France has always thought of itself as ‘La fille ainée de l’Eglise’ – the eldest daughter of the Church, the savior of Europe from the Saracens, and the religious and cultural center of Europe; and Notre Dame built less than a hundred years after Charlemagne’s famous battle at Roncesvalles, stands as witness.  It was not a church that was burned; it was the history of France, Europe, and Christianity.

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Not surprisingly but shamelessly, the burning of Notre Dame has become a political issue.  Not long after wealthy French businessmen pledged almost $1bn to restore the cathedral, progressives were condemning the gift.  How was it, they said, that these spectacularly wealthy men had kept their wealth quietly secure in Swiss banks, and only thought to spend it for white privilege?  Where was their generosity when poverty, disease, and misfortune afflict the most vulnerable?  For these progressive activists, the response to billionaires Arnault and Pinault, was nothing but an example of white on white – white, privileged, unconscionably wealthy men spending a fortune on the image of European Christian hegemony, a church built on the backs of oppressed feudal peasants, and funded by colonialism and the exploitation of Africa.  The rush to save France’s and Europe’s cultural and artistic heritage for these critics was an example of white Europe’s continued self-centered arrogance.

When Mike Pence, American Vice-President expressed his sorrow at the burning of the cathedral, progressives were quick to flood social media about his hypocrisy, white privilege, and ignorant religious fundamentalism.  Where was his voice when black churches burned?

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For the very reason that Notre Dame holds such a special place in Europe’s religious and cultural history – a history of high civilization, empire, and religious pre-eminence – it is considered by progressives as unworthy and sordid as a Southern plantation.  Millions have suffered under the yoke of French kings and for over a thousand years until the Bourbons got their due at the guillotine, French Christian history was one of oppression and enforced misery.  The Crusades, led by the French were armed assaults against Islam, the first wave of anti-Muslim sentiment which has only increased in the centuries since.

The nature of today’s politics is polemical, distorted, one-sided, and ignorant.  Of course the great civilizations of Europe, Persia, Rome, India, and China were aggressively ambitious empires, socially unequal, quick to war, and self-aggrandizing.  Power, wealth, intelligence, and ruthlessness were the rule.  There was no room for social justice, imperial compassion, or sympathy.  The accumulation of wealth was key to the development of civilization – art, architecture, science, literature, and philosophy were all outgrowths of societies wealthy and secure enough to invest in those enterprises unrelated to survival.  Without the desire, wealth, and vision of kings, queens, and popes, European civilization would never have risen from its tribal origins.

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Why then, despite the irrevocable and absolute value of high civilization, cannot it be given its due?  Why should the inevitable ‘injustices’ of cultural growth override its value if not its majesty? Historical revisionism is bad enough.  Historical amnesia is even worse; but a criticism of history – an ineluctable, predestined cycle of human nature – is ignorance, purely and simply. 

It is all well and good to question the way great wealth is invested; and while some may prefer the investments of Gates and Buffett in public health; or that of George Soros to promote democracy, others are quite happy that the Rockefellers, Fords, Carnegies, and Mellons have given to the arts.  The East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, was made possible by a grant from the Mellon family.  The question is not why these philanthropists chose to give their money the way they did, but to appreciate the investment as such.  The arts, perhaps the most sophisticated expression of man’s intelligence, creativity, inspiration, and insight, deserve support perhaps more than anything else.  While social and political systems come and go, and while wealth and poverty emerge in repetitive cycles, art is permanent, absolute, and ennobling.

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It is only human tragedy which upsets today’s progressives; and especially that tragedy observed through the lens of race-gender-ethnicity.  There can be no tragedy in the loss of a building, regardless of its cultural and religious significance, say progressives; but such a sentiment can only be venal, temporal, and self-serving.

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