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Notre Dame: a case study in why charity fails

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.

Realistically speaking, Notre Dame does not need all the money it has been getting. The two entities ultimately responsible for it, the French government and the Catholic Church, have more than enough money to cover reconstruction efforts. In fact, the fire itself was started by construction on the building.

So why is the international effort to raise funds for the church being hailed as such a triumph of humanity? Clearly, there are causes better served by the money.

Pamela Anderson recently made news by saying as much on Twitter after a charity gala she attended chose to donate money that was originally penned for disadvantaged youths to the Notre Dame reconstruction efforts instead. For this tweet, she got a considerable amount of pushback, though little of it seemed to really address the core issue.

It seems that there is a general sense surrounding altruism that “charity” is good simply for the sake of “charity.” One might be keen to argue that it is impossible to really quantify which charitable causes are more or less “worth” it. Who is to say whether saving the whales is more important than treating cancer or whether a poor student’s trip to Yellowstone is more impactful than buying new uniforms for the local marching band? Surely then it is better to support all charitable pursuits rather than condemning some for others.

Yet this ignores a few essential issues with charity overall. To begin with, consciously or not, charities tend to promote more than just the cause they benefit.

In some cases, this may be good. Donating to environmental causes might promote a more sustainable mindset overall or supporting local charities might promote a sense of community. But in other cases, the results are decidedly more mixed.

Many religious charitable organizations have missionary work as a core tenant to their activism. What is branded as “feeding the hungry” becomes “forcing the hungry to convert or starve.” Even in less extreme cases this may be harmful to disadvantaged communities, particularly those in underdeveloped nations. Indeed, the economic power of missionary organizations abroad can and does translate to political power. It is important to remember that colonialism and imperialism has always been branded as “aid.”

Now, going back to Paris, it is important to note how the fire has been spun by nationalists. Many on the right-wing blogosphere have begun conflating Notre Dame with the general idea of “Western Civilization.” Trying to tie the fire to everything from a metaphor for their perceived decline of the West to a supposed part of a “globalist” or Muslim conspiracy to “destroy” the West to a bizarre rallying call, framing the effort to rebuild as the West embracing their supposedly embattled identity.

“The West has fallen,” declares right-wing extremist Mike Cernovich rather succinctly shortly after news of the fire broke.

Stefan Molyneux, a popular white nationalist, tweeted, “Notre Dame is not going to be rebuilt. It’s going to be replaced.” Echoing the rhetoric surrounding the supposed “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory.

Now this is not to say that the majority or even large minority of those who have donated to the Notre Dame reconstruction efforts are playing into any sorts of conspiracy theories or nationalist rhetoric. Rather, these extremists and their narrative are simply unnoticed beneficiaries of the support the church is receiving.

While the nationalists are certainly benefiting from charity here, we must ask if the church is really benefiting the same. This may seem like an absurd question at first, but the answer may become more clear as we look at charity more generally. What is it, actually?

Charity is, essentially, when wealth is used to solve some sort of systemic problem. But that wealth came from the very system that produces the problems it is being used to address. The money used to feed the hungry or save some endangered species, for example, is made from the same systems that pay workers less than a living wage and destroy ecosystems, creating problems much larger than charity can solve.

For Notre Dame, the French government and Catholic church put off essential maintenance for years, in the process saving themselves quite a bit of money. Now that those irresponsible but profitable policies have caught up with them they do not even face a loss. Rather, they have gotten billions in charitable contributions as a reward for their negligence. The church, meanwhile, will never really be the same.

Charity exists within a system that promotes crisis and high visibility over quiet responsibility. Any meaningful steps we take to actually solve systemic problems will have to come with a strong reconsideration of the good that charity actually does, as accepting the “good” of charity means accepting the ills that follow with it.