Friday, April 19, 2019

Dumping unkindness

We humans are good at a great many things, including a great many that aren’t objectively “good”. For example, people seem to need to dump on other people about everything from the TV shows they like (or don’t like) to the choices they make in food, politics, and even charity. We’ve seen that in abundance lately in response to the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It hasn’t been our finest moment, even when critics have a point.

To oversimplify the criticism, the Left has been saying that the money pledged to rebuild the cathedral would have been better spent on any of the numerous problems facing the planet, from climate change, to abject poverty, to disease, to species extinction, to, well, anything, really. That view, while sincere, is also hopelessly naïve, both to reality and to what is even possible.

What most Americans apparently don’t know is that Notre Dame is owned by the French state, not the Catholic Church. That matters because the riches of the Catholic Church won’t be, and can’t be expected to be, used to rebuild the cathedral. So, that particular criticism is a non-starter.

The bigger and more relevant point is about French billionaires tripping all over themselves to donate to the rebuild. The suggestion that these billionaires could donate instead to make the world a better place is silly: When has the 1% ever cared about the needs of those at the bottom of society? When have they ever done anything to fix the problems of social and economic inequality? This matters because, sure, they could donate to fix social problems, but the record shows they never will.

That means that the bigger issue is, where they hell were they when they were needed before? “The billionaires’ donations will turn Notre Dame into a monument to hypocrisy”, according to Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian. He points out the numerous failures and self-interest of the richest of the rich, adding: “Keepers of the building had begged for more money, but neither the belt-tightening French government nor the wealthy grumbling about higher taxes gave enough.” And that is, of course, only the beginning of their sins (not generally reported is that French megarich donors can get a 60% rebate on their donations, which means French taxpayers could end up paying most of the “donation”.

So, criticism of French billionaires is fair, absolutely, as are demands that they seek no tax advantages for donating to the rebuild. After all, if they’re serious about the need to rebuild, and about the cultural significance of the cathedral, then donating to make the rebuild happen should be all the benefit they require.

However, much of the social media noise seems to be targeted at small donors—ordinary people—choosing to donate to the rebuild effort. Attacking them is pathetic. If people want to donate to the rebuild, that’s no one’s business but their own: Our opinion doesn’t matter in the least. Sure, I’m not donating to the rebuild, and yes, I don’t think ordinary people should, either, but, if they want to donate, they should go for it: It is their choice.

The thing I keep coming back to is how much the criticism is a failure of imagination, as if everything in life is nothing but a zero-sum game. We can rebuild Notre Dame AND solve the world’s problems. It’s not a lack of money that’s the problem, it’s a lack of imagination, and of resolve.

In my opinion, it’s obvious that the rich should be paying their fair share in taxes (for a change), which is also the only way to get them to spend any money on fixing the world’s problems. Ordinary people, who have far fewer choices about what charity they can spend their money on, should be free to spend their money on what they feel is important without any tut-tutting by those who are oh, so much more moral than the rest if us.

The world’s problems sometimes seem unsolvable. We actually may be able to agree about how many of them are more important than rebuilding Notre Dame, despite its historic and cultural significance to Western civilisation. But that does not mean that rebuilding the cathedral isn’t important, nor does it justify dumping on ordinary people who choose to make that rebuild one of their personal priorities. To each their own!

Instead of always dumping on others and tearing them down, maybe we should instead advocate for what we think is important. If our views and arguments are persuasive, others will agree with us. That’s the way it works in the real world. If we don’t like how others choose to allocate their donations, we need to shut up. We may be right, our criticism may have a good point, but we’ll never convince people of that by being a jerk about it.

We need to relax. Make our case, sure, but let people be. No matter how passionate we may feel, the fate of the world will not hinge on whether everyone else does as we think they should—and, by the may, people may not. Again, the best word is a simple one: Relax.


"Native American activists: The fire at Notre Dame is devastating. So is the destruction of our sacred lands."
"Black churches in Louisiana see $1.3 million surge in donations after fire at Notre Dame Cathedral"Vox
"Grieving for Notre Dame"The Nation

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