Putting the Sass into Disaster

I’ve written about the Notre Dame fire. It is a disaster that affected me deeply through my own personal connection. Countless millions around the globe, not to mention Parisians and French folk also saw the fire as a tragedy.

I put this down to visibility and personal interest. The parvis before the cathedral is always thronged. There are Metro and RER stations nearby, the island represents a major crossing point from one side of the Seine to the other, and every tourist in Paris comes here; something which hasn’t changed for centuries.

Everybody makes a photo. In fact, if you are alone and you want a shot of yourself before the great cathedral, some kind soul will come and help you out. Some of them will politely request a Euro, some of them will run off with your camera, but most are okay.

The cathedral administration is well aware of the tourist trade, and tours of all natures are available. Concerts are often held in the church – I attended one myself, some years back, and I would gladly attend another, just because of the setting and the extraordinary acoustics – and visitors are always shuffling along the aisles, making more photos, lighting candles, or simply sitting in silence.

Nobody died when the cathedral caught fire, and it now seems that despite the appearance of the building being completely consumed by flame, it was only the roof and spire destroyed, and the debris was largely contained by the vaulted stone ceiling, exactly as designed 850 years ago.

I have seen two criticisms of the global response to the disaster. The first questions the visibility. Why, they ask, are our television screens, our news bulletins, our newspaper front pages so consumed by this one disaster when other, more significant losses, are but passing mentions?

A fair question, but the answer of course is that media outlets are generally interested in serving their audiences and nowadays they dip into the feed of news stories and audio-visual material rather than send their own journalists and camera crews. A story of wide interest to their market where spectacular visuals are plentiful, hell the thing writes itself.

Viewers are tracked, the numbers are crunched, the eyeballs counted, the advertising shovelled out, the revenue collected.

Is this as big a story in China, in the Middle East? Probably not. The Tehran Times lists two stories on the fire – one of them the Iranian foreign minister expressing regret over the disaster – but coverage of the flooding in Iran is extensive. There have been dozens of deaths, thousands displaced, but who in the Western world knows about this?

If the New Abbasi Mosque were destroyed, would half the world take note? I would. I’ve been in that remarkable building, sat under the dome in meditation, explored the nearby civic structures. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been a centre of pilgrimage and tourism for centuries, and one of the glories of the world. But few in the West have ever heard of it, let alone taken a photograph of themselves in front of its grand entrance.

If this sublime building were destroyed, I’d mourn, and so would Iran and much of the Islamic world. In Melbourne, in Paris, in Washington DC, not so much.

Perhaps a more pertinent criticism is that hundreds of millions of Euro have been pledged to rebuild Notre Dame, but does the same sort of money emerge for natural disasters that have far greater human costs than the scorching of a church belonging to an already wealthy institution?

Look at the devastation in Puerto Rico. Thousands of deaths, a quarter of a million refugees, a massive disaster on a scale far greater than a fire in a church, but again, who cares? The nation’s own head of state saw it as a photo-opportunity, but nothing to lose sleep over.

Now, I recently called for the Notre Dame rebuilding fund to be doubled, an act of immense value to the effort to the tune of 750 000 000 Euro. Perhaps a few noticed that I would not be funding this initiative myself, or even contributing, but still, it was a noble gesture, I thought.

I should have put more effort into PR, because fame and fortune failed to arrive on my doorstep, the world’s media took little – well, none at all – notice of my call, and my Legion of Honour medal is still awaiting advancement to the planning stages.

It is a tragedy.

The real tragedy is that we as a species, are apparently little concerned with events that bring death and horrific disruption to millions. Earthquakes can kill tens of thousands in a day but are quickly forgotten. But give us an incident with great visuals in a major Western tourist centre, and you may hold the front page for a week.


life, philosophy , ,

1 comment

  1. I believe one reason the burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral has taken on the attention that it has, as opposed to other disasters and tragedies in which there might be greater devastation or even loss of life is that the structure is a symbol of western civilization. The fire is seen by some as an attack upon, and by others, the demise of, that great European legacy.


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