The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Now that the Easter holiday is over, here is our latest issue which was written by Isabella Kwai, an Australian reporter with the bureau. Sign up to get it by email.
Last Tuesday, Australians woke up to a disturbing sight: The Notre-Dame cathedral was burning. Like many others on the way to work, I replayed the footage over and over, watching orange flames racing across the roof, the spire keeling over, the people of Paris standing in the streets in unified horror.
[Here’s a 3-D exploration of how the fire spread so quickly and why it might have been difficult for the firefighters working to put it out.]
For Parisians, losing part of the Notre-Dame cathedral has prompted a soulful reflection on the history of the city and the effect of symbolic landmarks on a nation’s identity.
It seemed like a moment that was keenly felt by many Australians, who have joined the collective mourning through tributes on social media. The former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for the government to create an “Australian fund” to support the restoration of the cathedral.
But for others here, it has also raised a question: Whose losses do we grieve?
Commentators have pointed out a similar situation in Victoria, where campaigners are fighting a proposed highway upgrade that would demolish 800-year-old trees sacred to the Aboriginal Djab Wurrung people. They include one tree that has been used in traditional birthing customs for over 50 generations, according to the Djab Wurrung Embassy website.
“If the land is destroyed so is our dreaming,” text on the website reads. “Our dreaming is our story. It is what connects us to the beginning of time, back to our spirit ancestors, our creators.”
Even “The Betoota Advocate,” a satirical Australian news site, weighed in with a biting headline: “800-Year-Old Sacred Djab Wurrung Trees Not French Enough for Hipsters to Be Upset About.”
The reaction to the Paris fire has sparked a debate about whether “we — citizens of affluent Western countries — experience as much collective grief about cultural tragedies that occur outside the West as we feel about the Notre-Dame fire,” wrote George Morgan, an associate professor at the University of Western Sydney.
Far less attention, he argued, has been focused on disasters like the fire that ravaged the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil, and the damage to the Syrian city of Aleppo, home to a Unesco World Heritage site, and to ancient temples in the Syrian city of Palmyra.
It’s a question even France is confronting, as billionaires pledge millions toward rebuilding the cathedral, while locals ask: What about the needy?
Obviously, grief is not exclusive, and we humans have the capacity to feel sorrow and empathy for many kinds of irretrievable loss. But do we feel that grief equally for all kinds of loss, no matter what culture it originates in?
I’d like to hear how you feel about this. Please share your thoughts with me at email@example.com or in our NYT Australia Facebook discussion group.
Now, on to the biggest stories since our last issue!
Pulitzer Prize Winners
Every year, the newsroom gathers for the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize winners. This year, we’re proud to say that The New York Times won two.
Brent Staples, a member of our editorial board, was honored for his efforts to correct the parts of the national narrative on race that have been sanitized and to remind Americans that the devaluation of black lives that led to slavery still haunts the country. Read a selection of his editorials here.
In the explanatory reporting category, the reporters David Barstow, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner were recognized for an 18-month-long investigation that looked at President Donald Trump’s finances and challenged his assertions that he is a self-made billionaire. They discovered that Mr. Trump had actually inherited much of his wealth from his father and had participated in questionable tax schemes, including outright fraud. Find that story here.
Many other news outlets were honored for reporting on issues from mass shootings to immigration. Here’s a full list of the winners.
• Mistakes? In 3 Months on the Road, I’ve Made a Few: A quarter of the way through a yearlong trip, the 52 Places Traveler reflects on some of the things he’s done wrong — and what he’s learned from them. Yes, we all still wish we had his job.
• One Month, 500,000 Face Scans: How China Is Using A.I. to Profile a Minority: In a major ethical leap for the tech world, Chinese start-ups have built algorithms that the government uses to track members of a largely Muslim minority group.
… And over to you
Quite a few readers had something to say about last week’s newsletter, in which we talked about free speech, preachers and vegan activists. Thank you for writing in — it’s always a pleasure to read your responses. Here’s a selection. If you’d like to contribute this week, you can write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I am a born-again Christian. Have been most of my life. I was horrified by Mr. Blair’s behaviour. It was most un-Christlike. Firstly, Jesus never cornered anyone and ranted at them when they could not get away. This was cowardly, this was lazy and this was disrespectful.
“Secondly, Mr. Blair wasted a good percentage of his ‘three minutes’ talking about himself — how much effort he was making, implying that everyone listening should be impressed and grateful. Mr. Blair was clearly unaware that Australians really, really don’t like people who big-note themselves. He did not do his research. That level of arrogance immediately guaranteed him a hostile audience.
“If I had been in that carriage, I would have apologised to my countrymen for the breathtaking ignorance, laziness and boorishness of my brother in Christ.”
— Chris McGregor
“Australians in general dislike preaching, phone sales or doorknockers or protesters because we were raised in a society that discouraged confrontation. Why does our country dissuade confrontation? Have you met the Indigenous Australians? Me neither, but there’s only 2% of them left, it’s a national shame, we’re only just now getting around to apologizing and teaching / acknowledging their language (more out of long belated respect that they were owed) in rural schools.
“Australia hides a lot of shame, so when someone acts holier than thou, we try to tear them down before they can even be heard – the Australian national mantra is “that may be well and good, but we have our own problems.”
– Jesse Rintoul
“I err toward thinking that public protests that disrupt are usually a small price to pay for the information they provide back. I mean, if 10,000 people can be mobilised by Trades Hall to march and close off city streets that tells me something, right? Likewise, a group of self-styled disenchanted taxi drivers or Vegans wanting to change human behaviour.
“And what happens if we don’t have that information? We’re more stupid, and without the safety valve, arguably we’re more prone to national leadership oscillations in a way that’s really damaging.
“So, no we shouldn’t just leave one another alone. Because whether in cheek-by-jowl metropolises or intimate neighbourhoods or small towns that answer is both absurd and unwanted. If for no other reason than we would learn less about one another – which after all is part of the problem set to begin with.”
– John Carruthers
… And a giveaway for book lovers in Sydney
We’re giving away three double passes to see Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, the author of “Friday Black,” at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on May 5 at 3 p.m. Full details of the event here.
The New York Times profiled Mr. Adjei-Brenyah in 2018, describing “Friday Black” as a “strange, dark and sometimes unnervingly funny debut collection.”
To win, enter via this link with the code “NYTIMES.”