The Notre Dame fire — like every single significant tragedy — brought out some of the usual bottom-dwelling conspiracy theorists, and it is perfectly fine (good even!) to call them out for their irresponsible speculation. So it wasn’t terribly surprising to see a Washington Post piece this afternoon called “How the far right spread politically convenient lies about the Notre Dame fire.” It’s by Talia Lavin — who resigned from the New Yorker last year after falsely suggesting that a combat-wounded former Marine had an Iron Cross tattoo — and it takes aim at a number of the usual suspects, such as Alex Jones and Katie Hopkins, but then contains this astonishing paragraph:
Many figures on the right took the opportunity to turn Notre Dame into a metonym for Western civilization as a whole, intimating that far more than a cathedral was in peril. Just as the fire hit social media, conspiracy theorist and brain-supplements salesman Mike Cernovich dramatically tweeted that “The West has fallen.” Shortly thereafter, fast-talking far-right pundit Ben Shapiro called Notre Dame a “monument to Western civilization” and “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Given the already-raging rumors about potential Muslim involvement, these tweets evoked the specter of a war between Islam and the West that is already part of numerous far-right narratives; it was also a central thread in the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, the alleged Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter. Richard Spencer, professional racist and coiner of the term “alt-right,” openly advocated for such warfare, stating (and misspelling) his hopes that the fire would “spur the White man into action — to sieze power in his countries, in Europe, in the world,” and declaring such an insurgence a “glorious purpose.” And, as Buzzfeed’s Jane Lytvynenko reported, other, more oblique figures managed to go even further, from provocation in the abstract to more concrete incitement. A parody account masquerading as Fox News fabricated a tweet from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) that said, “They reap what they sow #NotreDame.” (Emphasis added.)
And what were Ben’s tweets? They’re reproduced below. Here’s the first:
Absolutely heartbreaking. A magnificent monument to Western civilization collapsing. https://t.co/UajArjkt2g
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) April 15, 2019
And here’s the second:
It is. And that is why it is a central monument to Western civilization, which was built on the Judeo-Christian heritage. https://t.co/cS9oFzNz1P
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) April 15, 2019
To any sensible reader, Ben is paying tribute to the apparent loss of one of the most magnificent buildings on the face of the earth. He’s lamenting the loss of a house of worship of a faith not his own. He is not casting blame. He is not trafficking in conspiracy theories. Moreover, he’s right — Western civilization is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Moreover, the cathedral itself demonstrates the Jewish roots of Christianity. To take just one example, the west facade featured statues of 28 kings of Judah. For those not steeped in biblical history, Judah was a Jewish kingdom, not a Christian kingdom, and its kings were in the line of David — the earthly ancestors of Jesus Christ. For more about the cathedral’s relation to Judaism, I’d urge you to read The Forward’s excellent piece “What Jews Might Have Lost in the Fire at Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral.”
He’s not only right, he’s gracious. As virtually any person with a passing knowledge of history knows, the history of the Catholic Church in France is stained with anti-Semitism. In this age, when historic grievances often cause people to actually exult in the suffering of old foes, Ben’s tribute to the destruction of a Christian cathedral in a land that did not always welcome Jews (and struggles to keep them safe today) is a welcome example of — dare I say it? — tolerance.
Lavin glories in her status as a troll. But the Washington Post should know better. Instead, it printed an opinion that has no connection to fact, and in doing so they reproduced the gutter reasoning of a low-rent comment board in the pages of one America’s great papers. Its mistake is only magnified by the fact that Lavin connects Ben’s rhetoric to the likes of Richard Spencer and the New Zealand shooter. Does she not know (or care) that Ben happened to be one of the principal targets of the alt-right during the 2016 election? He spoke out against racism and anti-Semitism at great risk to himself and his family.
I’m consistently criticized from the right for too often granting the elite media the benefit of the doubt. I do that because I know many people who work in those spaces, and I know them to be working in good faith in difficult jobs. We all have our faults and failings. But the attack on Ben looks more like malice than reason. There is no excuse for printing such a gross smear.