Notre Dame and Crank Politics

20th April 2019

Incommensurable: “ Not able to be judged by the same standards; having no common standard of measurement”.

This is the nature of those comparisons between Grenfell, colonialism, climate change and the destruction of Notre Dame. Incommensurable. It does not mean that they are any less important: but there is no common denominator. It is facile to talk of the horrors that have befallen Syria and Yemen to detract from the burning of one of the oldest, and most famous cathedrals.

But this is exactly what many cranks on the regressive left and alt-right have done. On the one hand, conspiracy theories abound, trying to shoulder the blame onto the other. Cranks on the left have cheered on the fire, which has been regarded as retribution for France’s past colonial transgressions. The attention that the cathedral has been given in comparison to Gaza, for example, is symbolic to them of the base, corrupt and elitist society we live in. It is an unseemly competition in martyrdom ‘twixt left and right. This tendency has now escaped the Twittersphere, and made its way into mainstream discourse.

A contributor to Al Jazeera chided us for our misplaced empathy, instructing us that, instead of feeling sorry for a building that is almost a millennium old, we should take a good, hard, look at ourselves. True to form for the crank left, Israel is invoked as a baseline against which to compare all other evils in the world.  

By contrast, and rather impressively, a presenter on Fox News acted to shut down a conspiracy theorist. A French official, Philippe Karsenty, stated: “the politically correct […] will tell you that it is just an accident”. Presenter Shepard Smith abruptly ended the interview, before stating “the man on the phone with us has absolutely no information of any kind about the origin of this fire, and neither do I”. He added: “conspiracy theories about anything are worthless”.

Others, such as the leader of far-right German party, Alternative für Deutschland, Alice Weidel, alluded to arson by making reference to the increasing number of attacks on churches in France this year.

But there is nothing to gain on either side from the fire at Notre Dame, hence why the cranks have decided to invent theories which fit their narrow worldview. The four main conspiracy theories that have circulated since the outbreak of the fire are a microcosm of the conflicts that abound in our politically polarised era. They are, in summary:

  1. The Western intelligence agencies did it to attract attention to the West
  2. The gilets jaunes set the cathedral on fire
  3. It was a terrorist attack and the government is trying to hide it from us.
  4. The alt-right did it to make it look like a terrorist attack and make Christendom rise up.

Can you guess who has been pushing which of these theories?

These days, the global cult of victimisation colours every event. While the right wing mourns a perceived attack on Christendom, the extreme left have celebrated the burning of a cathedral. Have a read of this wonderful thread out for an example of that that response. Joy at destruction dovetails with the revolutionary worldview of “out with the old, in with the new”. A city must be destroyed, so that a brave new world may arise.

Other comparatively moderate voices merely bemoan the rich for choosing to spend their money on donations to the reconstruction of a cathedral. The benefactors stand accused of elitism and snobbery towards those less fortunate, like starving Africans. They point out the hypocrisy of the attention given to a pile of old bricks when compared to historic monuments lost in the Middle East. Most don’t seem to be aware that there are extensive projects going on across the Middle East to rebuild and protect historical sites from further destruction.

What the Notre Dame episode demonstrates is that cranks are energised more powerfully by the thought of getting revenge and scoring social justice points than by the struggle for equality.

Notre Dame’s foundations were laid in 1160 when Europe was little more than a collection of feudal fiefdoms, fighting each other for plots of land, and dying from a “surfeit of lampreys”. The cathedral is a symbol of the endurance of the city, and of the resilience of humankind. It has watched over us through our best and worst behaviour, as we have killed each other indiscriminately, found God and lost him. And yet the building still stands and we are still here.

Whether we believe them or not, our religious and cultural traditions bend away from the temporal and towards the eternal. Jesus died for our sins, Jews perished at Masada rather than be taken slaves by the Romans, and Hussein and Ali were murdered. But all live on in glory. These themes spill out of religion and shape our popular culture, and colour our films, books, poetry, music, and even fairytales. Notre Dame is a manifestation of our yearning for something that stands outside time.

As with all ancient sites, the cathedral’s resilience to the vicissitudes of time came to represent that. Its partial burning is the immolation of the history of humanity: for all its good and its bad. It is a reminder of our fragility, and throws into doubt our conceptions of what “forever” means.

These sentiments were also invoked during ISIS’ destruction of Palmyra, the looting of the museum in Baghdad, and the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhas in Afghanistan. In the same way, as celebrating the loss of any of these historic treasures is despicable, so it is with Notre Dame. Those who cheer and jeer should recognise that they are celebrating, in effect, the loss of their own empathy, something that seems to be an all too relevant description of our times. They harbour the same intolerance that led extremist groups to desecrate ancient sites. That is the nature of the politics of the fringe. It is happy to throw away anything, no matter its value, to advance its ideology.  

Notre Dame should not be an instrument of division. It should bring us together as we reflect on our collective humanity. We should reject the crank reflex, of trying to out-calamity this tragedy. To pander to it is neither “woke”, nor “lit”, but a denial of our history in the name of building an unobtainable utopia. One only has to open a history book to discover the end of that story.