The embers at Notre Dame weren’t yet cold before the hot takes started rolling in on Twitter. It’s a predictable cycle by now: There’s some disaster, either natural or man-made, and before the smoke has cleared, the citizens of the internet start weighing in as though our opinions actually matter. But how best to mark an occasion like the burning of Notre Dame? A profile photo of yourself in front of the building is always a nice touch, as there’s never a better time to remind everyone that you studied abroad in Paris then right after disaster has struck.
Or you could always dash off advice that no one actually needs or wants. Donald Trump is the master at this particular Twitter response. “So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris,” he tweeted. “Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!” You think?
Trump, as always, sounded a bit like an old man waking up from a dementia nap and a bit like my 6-year-old nephew after too much juice, but his backseat tweeting wasn’t even the most egregiously obtuse response to the fire. That award is reserved for right wing nut Faith Goldy, who took to Twitter to immediately cast suspicion on Muslims for a fire that was sparked by construction.
And then, on the opposite edge of the culture wars, there are the social media justice warriors who used the burning of Notre Dame to remind the world of their own wokeness and virtue. Dan Arel, a writer and activist who tends to call Jewish people he doesn't like "Nazis," pointed out that the destruction of a nearly 900-year-old architectural icon was, at the moment it was on fire, getting more attention than the racist burning of three black churches in Louisiana. While this is objectively true, it might have something to do with the fact that Notre Dame is, well, Notre Dame. But there’s never a bad time to remind the world that racism exists, I guess. Unlike some of the historical revisionists on Twitter, at least Arel didn't erroneously claim that Notre Dame was built using slave labor, but he did tweet that "it’s a fucking building" and "Liberals need to chill." Arel's take wasn't so different from our own Charles Mudede's. Charles also doesn't think Notre Dame is worth crying over, but unlike Arel, Charles knows the difference between a fucking building and an architectural wonder. The Northgate Mall is a fucking building. Notre Dame is a work of art.
Or perhaps the baddest of bad takes were from people like me, those of us who used the occasion to point out other people’s bad takes instead of doing the sensible thing: Throwing our phones in the ocean. But whoever really tips the scales from bad to worse, the burning of Notre Dame immediately became another battle in the ongoing culture wars, left versus right versus center. Buildings burn, civilizations fall, but using tragic events to score political points is forever.
The most unexpected response I witnessed to this fire didn't appear online but at home. My girlfriend, after a long shift at the hospital where she works, walked into the door on Monday night and immediately launched into a tirade about a coworker who had been watching Notre Dame burn on the news. This coworker, my girlfriend said, stopped weeping at CNN just long enough to post photos from her last trip to Paris on Facebook. “Why are people freaking out about this?” my girlfriend asked me. “There are way better cathedrals in Paris.”
I’ve never been to Paris nor any cathedrals of note, so I’ll have to take her word on that, but I was surprised she was being so callous about the burning of this ancient building. Usually I'm the one insisting there's no such thing as "too soon." Besides, she loves old shit. She’d rather live in a crumbling pile of rocks than a newly constructed, earthquake-safe condo, and her main hobby is complaining about how the quality of everyday goods has declined. How could she not care about Notre Dame catching on fire?
I suspect our different reactions to this event—I think it’s tragic; she doesn’t give a fuck—may have something to do with our different relationships to religion. She was raised in the church, forced to attend services once on Wednesdays and twice on Sundays until she was out of her parents’ house. The closest I’ve been to church is keeping very still when Mormon missionaries knock. To her, and to people all over the world, Notre Dame is symbolic of their own tortured relationships with religion and all the sins committed by the Catholic Church, from the Inquisition to colonization to the pedo priest cover-up. But despite the sins of the Church, Notre Dame is also a marvel of medieval technology. It's a symbol of mankind and the artistry and craft that we, alone among animals, have the capacity to create. Human hands built that thing. God was just the excuse.
Still, my girlfriend could not be convinced to care about this particular disaster. Over dinner, she pointed out all the other human tragedies that have failed to capture the global attention in the past month, including the thousand people in Mozambique who died in a cyclone last month. And she’s right. It’s a shame that these stories aren’t given more attention, just like it’s a shame Donald Trump’s bowel movements get more press than the local school board race. But you don't have to choose one thing to care about or the other. Both the burning of Notre Dame and of three black churches in Louisiana can be tragic.
As I watched Notre Dame burn yesterday, I was reminded of the fire at the National Museum of Brazil last year and the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001. You didn’t have to be a Brazilian or a Buddhist to care about those losses, and you don’t have to be a Catholic or a Parisian to care about Notre Dame now. Of course, while most of the cathedral survived—and it seems no expense will be spared in rebuilding the parts that did not—something else, someday, will take Notre Dame out. Maybe it will be a spark from gas line, maybe it will just be plain old time, but everything falls in the end, from the greatest structures made by man to tallest mountains made by Earth. Collapse is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth mourning for just a moment when we see it.