Hill-Weld: Surviving Symbols

Notre-Dame is not the only cultural icon worth saving.

by Teddy Hill-Weld | 4/25/19 2:00am

On Monday, April 15, people around the world watched as emergency responders struggled to halt the flames tearing apart the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The Notre-Dame fire was likely caused by accident. However, in the same month that the cathedral burned, cultural and religious institutions around the world experienced very deliberate attacks. Consider church burnings in Louisiana or the recent terrorist attack in Sri Lanka. The damage to Notre Dame is no doubt a tragedy. But the present destruction of spaces of communal worship reflects a larger and far more concerning pattern throughout history regarding the circumstances that enable some sites to survive and not others. 

This pattern has occurred all throughout history, in a world where those responsible for the most widespread destruction of cultural sites were able to write their role as explorers, liberators and developers of civilization. When Spanish conquistadors, for example, built churches on top of Incan spiritual sites, there was no one around to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild their temples. America repeated the same story in 2016. The construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline pointed to continued disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples in the United States, as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe saw their access to clean water threatened by environmentally-irresponsible infrastructure projects. As the Trump administration opened formerly protected lands to leasing for oil extraction and other private interests, the march of economic progress continued to destroy the spiritual sites of indigenous peoples. 

In the Middle East, ISIS forces have destroyed countless mosques and ancient buildings. In 2017, they destroyed the 842-year-old al-Nuri mosque in Mosul as Iraqi forces closed in on the city. Their campaign has demonstrated the symbolic power of this kind of destruction in real time, and it will take countless years to repair the damage caused by the group. This kind of deliberate destruction follows the exact same model as the violence that came before it in New Spain and the United States. Those monuments that did not survive were not eliminated by some natural process but rather out of the power to enact violence. Evidently, there is power in the ability to destroy others’ monuments and in the ability to preserve your own. 

On March 26, April 2 and April 4, an arsonist destroyed three predominantly black churches in St. Landry Parish, LA. These places of worship brought together communities for something greater than themselves, much like Notre-Dame. But the over $2.1 million raised by a crowdfunding campaign for the black churches pales in comparison to the over $1 billion already pledged to repair the cathedral. The fundraising differential is due to more than just the value of the buildings themselves. It is a reflection of France’s entire history of the nation’s development — including colonization — for as long as the cathedral has been around.

So yes, it is tragic that damage has befallen a site that has survived as long as Notre-Dame. But it’s not as if those other sites are no longer around simply because they weren’t as important. Notre-Dame does have tremendous historic value by sheer virtue of its longevity, but we cannot let its survival alone legitimize the history it represents. Succumbing to triumphalism in our evaluation of the damages erases the fact that much of this history is marred by extreme violence and imperialism.

Many in France identify with the cathedral as a symbol of their resoluteness in the face of threats, but we should take care to think of those who did not survive the threats to their ways of living. Simply because the victims of imperialism were unable to resist the forces that tore their families and tribes apart does not mean that their loss is any less significant. It is precisely this form of normalized, institutionalized violence that threatens humanity the most. We must save more than just the Notre-Dame: We must save our lost sympathy for the oppressed.