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The Notre Dame restoration and the billionaire blow-back

Video shot by Sophia Foreno of Naperville who is visiting in Paris. She was on the scene shortly after the fire broke out.

It wasn’t just tourists, Catholics or lifelong Parisians who were horrified last week when fire turned the Notre Dame Cathedral into a smoking husk of its former medieval self. To watch the blaze consume the roof and spire of that glorious landmark and symbol of French heritage was to witness eight centuries of cherished history turned to ash in a single day. Small wonder that wealthy benefactors, moved as so many of their countrymen were, sprang into action almost immediately to pledge portions of their fortunes to the rebuilding effort.

But a funny thing happened on the way to $700 million in promises from such noted billionaires as Francois-Henri Pinault and his wife Salma Hayek, the Bettencourt Meyers family which controls L'Oreal and the Pinault family of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent fame. Instead of raining praise on these philanthropists for rallying around a beloved cultural symbol, many in France rained down brickbats. They were livid, outraged that the mega-rich were so quick to repair a building while charitable causes that help ordinary people — including some with life-and-death consequences such as starving children in Yemen — don’t get nearly as much support, at least not on this scale or with the speed witnessed last week.

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It did not help, of course, that matters of social stratification have been at the forefront of French politics. The Mouvement des gilets jaunes, or yellow vest movement, launched mass demonstrations over the past six months, protests aimed squarely at income inequality, rising costs (particularly fuel prices) and a perception that tax reform has burdened the working and middle classes but spared the rich. That the wealthy Notre Dame donors were in line for major tax deductions surely didn’t help matters much. What was really galling was that so many of these families, or at least their representatives, have loudly opposed government spending on social safety net causes.

In other words, the rich oppose tax dollars used to lift people out of poverty, but they can get behind paying to restore a building that would forever bear their legacy. It recalls the days of Andrew Carnegie breaking the steelworkers union in Homestead, Pa., with a lockout strike during which 10 people were killed in 1892 and then a decade later giving his fortune away to a charitable foundation to build local libraries and aid colleges. It is the dichotomy of the industrial age robber barons who ran roughshod over ordinary Americans to amass great wealth while then bestowing it on education, the arts and other causes they judged worthy.

Might Americans similarly turn on next month’s Met Gala in support of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or similar gatherings of the uber-wealthy, as they call ever-greater attention to their philanthropy? Recent reaction to the college admissions scandal demonstrated a healthy appetite for castigating those millionaires, most particularly celebrities who use “side door” means like bribing coaches to get their sons and daughters in preferred schools. You don’t have to be a Marxist, or even a Bernie Sanders fan, to feel the resentment rising among society’s have-nots. The Trump tax cuts didn’t exactly give average Americans a big gift on April 15, but they sure helped the rich. That included clearing a path for big-time giving by raising the gift tax limit from $5.49 million in 2017 to $11.18 million in 2018.

Let’s face it, income inequality is rising at an alarming rate. A half century ago, a CEO might make 20 times average worker pay. Today, it’s a multiple measured in the hundreds. This sense that capitalism isn’t working for the common man has taken hold of the Democratic Party, but it’s also evident in a Republican Party that embraced President Donald Trump and his disdain for conventional politics and insider favoritism. One group hates the Wall Street elite, the other the Washington and Hollywood elite. In either case, it’s all about resenting the well-to-do.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti may have understood this sentiment when he announced a $100,000 charitable donation last week. It wasn’t to rebuild a cathedral. It wasn’t for some status-conferring secular landmark either. It was to help rebuild three historically black churches that burned in Louisiana last month, apparent victims of a 21-year-old arsonist. St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church will never be mistaken for Notre Dame, but their future rebirth would be a blessing that can be appreciated by all.

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