Notre Dame and the Lost ‘Means of Culture’

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Farrell_06-2019

The fire that gutted Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris during Holy Week was no doubt caused by nothing more banal than negligent builders doing restoration work on the roof. Nevertheless it compelled all of us to search for a deeper explanation.

A Gothic masterpiece begun in 1163, Notre Dame has become an icon of European civilization. Cock-a-hoop Islamists saw its devastation as a bold and brilliant strike by Allah against the crusaders. Devoted Christians felt that the fire was the work of the devil, yet drew solace from the fact that the huge golden cross behind the main altar miraculously remained unscathed—despite the piles of debris that had cascaded down from the collapsed roof all around it.

For many others, it was neither an act of Allah nor of God, nor even of the devil, but a symbol of the failure by the liberal-left French president, Emmanuel Macron, to reverse the reality that France is a failing country in a failing continent—and that he has no valid answer to the populists hammering ever more loudly at the doors of power.

La France s’ennuie,” France is bored, French MP Alphonse de Lamartine said in 1839. It’s a famous phrase that’s been resurrected whenever the French take to the streets to cause mayhem—as they so often do.Well, France is well and truly ennuied right now.

I sympathize with this urge to see the Notre Dame fire as symbolic of the dismal state of France. However, I see the apocalyptical fire as a symbol of the death, not of the Macron presidency, but of the Christian values which enabled France and Europe to be such a mighty economic and cultural force on the world stage.

The fire reminded me instantly of the great conservative English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton who was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1968. A student revolt that year did not quite overthrow the government of General Charles de Gaulle, but did overthrow those Christian values which are the foundation stones of European culture—a culture exquisitely personified in Notre Dame.

The events of 1968 in France signalled the start of the liberal-left’s long march through the institutions of the West, to achieve what the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci called cultural hegemony. Rather than taking over the means of production, as Marx had preached, their aim was to take over the means of culture. Gramsci’s way was a subtler but no less deadly method to replace capitalism and democracy with communism and totalitarianism. The idea was to control the way people think, because if you can do that, you control everything else. So, instead of class war we’ve got identity war.

It was during that spring of 1968 in Paris that the young Scruton saw the educated children of privilege destroying property, often belonging to their social-class inferiors, on the streets of the French capital. They did it in the name of revolution. Whatever it was that they were for, Scruton decided, he was against. He was, and remains, a rebel against rebellion. Decades later, Scruton wrote in How To Be A Conservative (2014), “May 1968 led me to understand what I value in the customs, institutions and culture of Europe.” 

Perhaps ironically, one week before the Notre Dame fire Scruton himself became the latest victim of the new class war. Having been appointed to the unpaid role as a scholar of aesthetics by Theresa May’s Tory government in November 2018, he had fallen foul of those who now control the culture, regardless of which government is in power. The British government fired him as chairman of its Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which is tasked with promoting high-quality designs for homes and neighborhoods, not because his aesthetic views about bricks and mortar were deemed ugly, but because his views about human beings were deemed “unacceptable.”

Even the Tory Party itself is chockablock with these cultural commissars, which shows how far inside the institutions they have marched. It explains why May’s Tory government has failed to get Britain out of the EU on behalf of the majority who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, and why it has sacked Scruton. Scruton had to go because what he said in an interview with the New Statesman, a left-wing version of The Spectator, was deemed to be racist about the Chinese, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic.

Of course, he is none of those things, nor was what he said in the interview. But all it took was a social media storm after publication of the article for the government—a Tory government of all things—to succumb to the mob and sack him that very same day. What happened to Scruton is identical to what has happened to so many people in public life in Europe and America who refuse to kowtow to the dominant liberal-left agenda.

The details of his particular case are crucial if we are to appreciate the absurdity of the accusations against him, and the danger not just to freedom of speech but also to democracy itself.

According to the New Statesman journalist’s tweet after the interview, Scruton said, “Each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.”

 But what Scruton actually said was, “They’re creating robots out of their own people . . . each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.” In other words, he was criticising the Chinese Communist Party—not the Chinese.

On George Soros, the Jewish billionaire financier, Scruton did not utter a single anti-Semitic word. He merely stated that Soros is a left-wing billionaire philanthropist who funds progressive think tanks and institutions that in Scruton’s view are detrimental to conservative values. Does that make him an anti-Semite? If so, it means you cannot criticize anyone with whom you have a political disagreement if they happen to be Jewish—ever.

On the term “Islamophobia,” all he said in the interview was that the word was “invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue.” This is the truth.

In a Spectator piece entitled, “An Apology for Thinking,” Scruton defends himself, dwelling in particular on the Islamophobia accusation, writing: 

I deplore the current use of this word, since it implies that there is some peculiar and irrational state of mind from which all objections to Islam proceed. I myself distinguish Islam, as a faith and a way of life, from the radicals who commit crimes in its name. I have a respect and tenderness towards the first of those, and a hatred of the second. But it is increasingly difficult, with the current abuse of language, to make this point, or to encourage Muslims to make it too.

In a bizarre irony, what Scruton believes in defending is identical to what George Orwell, the revolutionary socialist and author of the distopian novel 1984, spent his life defending, namely “country, culture and way of life.”

Orwell was left-wing, but also deeply patriotic. He did not buy into the communist global revolution and hated the communist left because he regarded them as fascist nationalists. Without doubt, he would be on Scruton’s side, and would regard today’s bien pensant liberal-left as the heirs to the Soviet-obsessed intellectual classes of his day. He would, in other words, see the liberal-left that wants to shut down debate, no-platform opponents, and sack dissenters as the true fascists.

It is quite beyond me how the liberal-left still manage to revere Orwell while they seek to destroy Scruton.

Notre Dame today is more a tourist attraction than a place of worship. It’s a relic from a bygone age, like the skeleton of some gigantic dinosaur in a natural history museum. Most of the 13 million people who visit it each year—30,000 each day roughly—do not go there to worship God. That is the last thing on their minds.

While they are there, one supposes they may wonder about the energy that inspired and drove all those who nearly one thousand years ago designed and built such magnificance. The same could be said not just of all Europe’s great cathedrals, but of all its great works of art as well. What would today’s tourists conclude?

Johann Sebastian Bach, who died in 1750, before the Enlightenment really began to kick in, summed up the sources of the energy behind the great cathedrals of Europe when he said that what inspired him to create music was the greater glory of God.

Sadly, this is a virtually meaningless concept in the current age. Why would anyone do anything for the greater glory of God when what inspires them is the greater glory of themselves?

In The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) Victor Hugo could not have been more vivid and passionate in his descriptions of the flying buttresses, towering spires, and high-arching interiors of the cathedral. Those who had built it, he felt, had liberated man’s spirit, and it was to him the greatest expression of human endeavour and faith in God.

Whenever anyone tries to reintroduce the traditional way of doing things to some area of our lives, the liberal-left invariably calls it “medieval.” The idea that abortion is murder, for example, gets that label. Yet people flock in the millions to see medieval places like Notre Dame. This must mean that however meaningless religious faith is to them in this largely post-Christian age, they still regard such buildings as important. The liberal-left itself is full of praise for the beauty of such medieval places even though none would have been built if the medieval values the liberal-left detests had not existed. Those values were based on a key element: belief in the existence of God.

Like “populist,” the word “medieval” has become a term of abuse. When someone tells you something is “positively medieval,” they mean barbaric and uncivilized. Yet those uncivilized medieval barbarians were able to construct the breath-taking beauty of Notre Dame.

Why is it that nothing we modern civilized people have constructed has ever been anywhere near as beautiful? In centuries to come, who could possibly regard our modern skyscrapers, multi-story carparks and shopping malls as tourist destinations?

The great cathedrals were built primarily as places of worship, but also as statements of the importance of beauty and the mystery of life. Why they were able to do this many centuries ago—and we are not—surely must be because they believed in God. They believed that what they were constructing and creating was, in the words of Bach, for His greater glory.

Yet those liberal-left long-marchers who drew up the founding document of the EU—the 2007 Lisbon Treaty—felt it their solemn duty to omit mention that Europe was founded on common Christian roots.

For those in charge of the EU, Notre Dame is just a tourist destination. One fine day, it will be rebuilt—but the EU is doomed.

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