Notre-Dame de Hypocrisie?

Artwork by Ang Hor Kheng

Since the fire of April 15th, armchair critics all over their living rooms have been doing what they do best—telling other people what they should do with their own money. Few asked why. Why did LVMH and Kering pledge €300 million towards the reconstruction of Notre-Dame? Just what do luxury goods and cathedrals have in common? This, and other interesting topics, will be covered in the second part of the article. But first, let’s answer some really stupid questions.

Since I despise hypotheticals and I couldn’t live with asking a stupid one for the sake of argument, I was grateful for finding this:

“If the ultra-rich can chuck in so many millions of euros for a building, then what stops them ending hunger and poverty?”

Oh, Aditya. Even though I truly am grateful for the assist, I have mixed feelings about it. See, normally I wouldn’t think that such an old, trite, weak argument deserved a response, but I equally recognise that the world will never be rid of stupidity, so it is up to each of us to fight it whenever we can. In that spirit, I shall try to point out why the one above is an asinine question.

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: what stops the rich from ending hunger and poverty?


First of all, the sum of €300 million is a drop in the bucket of global foreign aid (if that’s what we’re talking about), which in 2017 totalled $146.6 billion. That does not mean that it would not have helped: of course it could have. But the world, beyond the retina-display veil of online outrage, is a complex place. Finding the money to give is easy. But the deployment of those funds has to survive a thicket of misappropriation, corruption, administrative costs, bureaucracy and plain old politics.

In his 2012 book Why Nations Fail, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu gives us the sobering example of what happened to donations to Afghanistan after the attack of 2011 (it’s a longish quote, but it’s worth reading):

(…) Afghan people were longing to leave the Taliban behind. The international community thought that all that Afghanistan needed now was a large infusion of foreign aid. Scores of aid workers and their entourages arrived in town with their own private jets, NGOs of all sorts poured in to pursue their own agendas, and high-level talks began between governments and delegations from the international community. Billions of dollars were now coming to Afghanistan. (…) While much of the infrastructure remained in tatters, the first tranche of the money was used to commission an airline to shuttle around UN and other international officials. The next thing they needed were drivers and interpreters. So they hired the few English-speaking bureaucrats and the remaining teachers in Afghan schools to chauffeur and chaperone them around, paying them multiples of current Afghan salaries. As the few skilled bureaucrats were shunted into jobs servicing the foreign aid community, the aid flows, rather than building infrastructure in Afghanistan, started by undermining the Afghan state they were supposed to build upon and strengthen. Villagers in a remote district in the central valley of Afghanistan heard a radio announcement about a new multimillion-dollar program to restore shelter to their area. After a long while, a few wooden beams, carried by the trucking cartel of Ismail Khan, famous former warlord and member of the Afghan government, were delivered. But they were too big to be used for anything in the district, and the villagers put them to the only possible use: firewood. So what had happened to the millions of dollars promised to the villagers? Of the promised money, 20 percent of it was taken as UN head office costs in Geneva. The remainder was subcontracted to an NGO, which took another 20 percent for its own head office costs in Brussels, and so on, for another three layers, with each party taking approximately another 20 percent of what was remaining. The little money that reached Afghanistan was used to buy wood from western Iran, and much of it was paid to Ismail Khan’s trucking cartel to cover the inflated transport prices. It was a bit of a miracle that those oversize wooden beams even arrived in the village.

So what? Does nothing work? Of course not—there’s always something to be done. Some charities are more effective than others, for example.

But the point is, LVMH is not one of them.

What are they going to do, send the cash over to poor countries in monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunks? Or should they downsize operations and sack the the 83,000 staff they employ, 30% of which reside in France? Surely the author of the question above will recognise that this is not the best possible use of their money. Read: their money.

Look, I really, really didn’t want to bring the discussion to this place, but to my defence, I’m merely following the argument where it leads. Because there’s a super-simple way to end this whole boring exercise (so we can get to the interesting part below): it’s their money and they they choose how to use it. If you think this argument is superficial, perhaps the counter-argument will give you pause: if they aren’t the ones to choose the best use of their own money, who is? You? Me? The French government? Careful though, that’s a very slippery slope.

Modern capitalism was made possible by the recognition of private property and the rule of law. It was a legal framework which, even though in the beginning benefitted only the landed gentry, laid the foundations of all subsequent social progress: for John Locke “life, liberty and property” were to be discussed in the same breath. The point is that your life, liberty and property are yours—and yours alone.

The alternative is unpleasant.

Before I wade into more controversial territory, let us cover some common ground: nobody needs cathedrals.

If you don’t share such a firm grasp of the obvious, I would point out that the word cathedral

is derived from the French cathédrale, from the Latin cathedra (“seat”), from the Greek καθέδρα (“seat, bench”); it refers to the presence and prominence of the bishop’s or archbishop’s chair or throne, raised above both clergy and laity. The chair, on a raised dais, was the distinctive mark of a teacher or rhetor and thus symbolises the bishop’s role as teacher.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and boldly state that there is nothing to be learned from bishops.

Having removed the intellectual component from the equation, we’re left with ‘an architecturally interesting building with a lot of bling’. There’s quite a few buildings that would fit this description, but only a precious few are able to provoke the undeniable public emotional response that we have witnessed over the last few days. Granted, some of it was a blatant case of bandwagoning from people who needed to demonstrate artistic sensibility, but if you’ve ever seen Notre-Dame you should not have trouble understanding where the feeling of loss is coming from.

Not all appeals to emotion are fallacious. And since the emotional response can’t be denied—nor can the essential futility of the object itself—we’re left to explain the curious case of why the two largest luxury conglomerates in France have rushed to pledge €300 million towards the reconstruction of a building that is not only useless, but one that’s insured and owned by the government. Since the cathedral generates upwards of €100 million a year in tourism revenue, it’s conceivable they were first in line to foot the bill (plus, in theory the Archdiocese of Paris is responsible for its upkeep, and I’m guessing they wouldn’t be too hard pressed to find the cash if needed).

I would not expect critics of capitalism to push their research beyond the minimum effective dose of outrage needed to get a few clicks—but if they had, they might have bumped into a question: why should such amoral individuals part with their all-important cash?

To get a tax break on their donation, of course. Newsflash: they aren’t. But even if they did, why did they choose this particular initiative, and why was it so important to them that they basically got into a bidding war over it?

The answer is that there is an intrinsic connection between luxury and cathedrals—which lies in their functional futility—and luxury exemplars such as LVMH are keenly aware of it. Both were born out of the pursuit of excess.

Christopher Berry, in his book The Idea of Luxury makes two fundamental distinctions. First, luxury is divided in four basic categories; second, luxury can exist for the benefit of the individual or for society at large. The four categories are food, clothing, shelter and leisure. These are universal categories, in the sense that everyone needs these things—and you can’t recognise excess unless you compare it with necessity. A hut made of leaves is shelter; a home with plumbing and heating is comfortable housing; a penthouse overlooking Central Park is luxury housing; a cathedral is the epitome of luxury.

A keen reader might observe that a cathedral is not meant to be lived in, so it doesn’t qualify as shelter. That’s debatable. To reconcile these we have to exhume Veblen and his Theory of the Leisure Class, which at the respectable age of 120 years (it was published in 1899) is a surprisingly good description of our times—the concept of “conspicuous leisure” basically describes Instagram.

Although not in so many words, Veblen describes how the clergy constitutes the servitude of God—the help, basically. In his description of high society, if you had a high social standing you would have a staff large enough to have an internal hierarchy: you wouldn’t sully yourself with dealing with the people who mop your floor(s) and wash your dishes. You would have higher-level staff that deals with those people instead. So, since God enjoys as high a social standing as possible, his staff is quite layered. Just below the ambassadorial post of the Pope, bishops are butlers, ministering to the requirements of God by directing the clergy.

Cathedrals are a luxury and a symbol of aspiration in which we all partake. They have exercised this function for thousands of years, but as ever, the times are changing; as The Economist wrote following the fire, cathedrals are neglected in much of Europe.

Luxury brands, like religions, are building modern cathedrals.

JeanNoël Kapferer

This is the context in which luxury brands step in, building modern cathedrals in the shape of their flagship stores and rushing to save ancient one when necessity arose. Luxury brands sell the same product, often to the same customers—therefore it only makes sense that they donate money to preserve the very symbols of the industry they both represent. A successful writer or publishing house spending their money to save a ruined historical bookshop, for instance, would follow the same rationale. That’s why LVMH is rebuilding Notre-Dame.

One of the first pieces of management advice I remember reading is buried somewhere in The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker. He was talking about time management—but if you consider time as a potential source of value that can be used towards any number of worthy pursuits, it’s very similar to money. He says that:

You should delegate everything that anybody else can do.

Peter Drucker (probably)

The other side of that is that you should do what only you can do. In that sense, LVMH is the best possible donor, and manager, in the upcoming effort to rebuild Notre-Dame. And I guess, by the same token, that telling them how they should have spent their money instead is the best possible use of the intellect and platform of these latter-day critics.

To each his own.

Brain Candy

What we feed our mind is important, but it doesn’t get nearly the same level of attention that we give to the food we consume. It’s time we started calorie-counting what goes in our brain.

If most of what you read (and watch) just goes straight through, leaving you with a faint memory of what it “felt like” but nothing of its actual content, you might be starving your brain on a diet of brain candy.

Having recently started to pay attention to my diet, the first item on my to-do list was calorie counting.

I know there’s a whole tired debate about the effectiveness of calorie-counting, but it does have its merits –if not only because it forced me to write down everything I was putting in body: realising I had Pringles before noon and thrice in a single week gave me pause. Also, doing it properly required me to be precise with quantities, which is where I find out a lot of little snacks add up to hundreds of calories. Put simply, you can see why you shouldn’t eat candy all day: it’s not just because it’s sugary, but mostly because while it does nothing for you in terms of nutrition, it does take up space in your caloric allowance that you should have given to actual food.

But going beyond the calorie, the next most important thing is to read on nutrition to understand the context. That’s were I realised the strong parallel that runs between nutrition and knowledge.

This is not an article about food, but it’s a fundamental comparison, so read on and I will get to the point.

Food is a necessity. We all need to eat, we’ve always needed to, and we’ve always gotten sick if we didn’t eat the right food—hence the quote by Hippocrates,

let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.

Michael Pollan wrote in Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation that it was cooked food that made us human: 

According to the “cooking hypothesis,” the advent of cooked food altered the course of human evolution. By providing our forebears with a more energy-dense and easy-to-digest diet, it allowed our brains to grow bigger (brains being notorious energy guzzlers) and our guts to shrink. It seems that raw food takes much more time and energy to chew and digest, which is why other primates our size carry around substantially larger digestive tracts and spend many more of their waking hours chewing — as much as six hours a day.

As we struggled through history, our attitudes towards food consumption have changed. They have done so qualitatively: Seneca warned his Stoic disciples of the dangers of fresh bread, because stale bread was just as good to to quench hunger. Religion made it a matter of identity: some Hindu cultures are vegetarian, jews and muslims don’t eat pork or shellfish. But the larger, more recent and most impactful trend has been a quantitative one. The best description I’ve found of this is from late historian Anne Hollander, who wrote a beautiful piece about this in the New York Times:

Today, people spend money, time and energy acquiring the skeletal look of galley slaves. Fatness and softness‐status symbols for centuries — have become thoroughly déclassé in two generations. They are now in fact the accepted signs of mental slavery — weakness of will, neurosis or bondage to ethnic traditions that are dependent on starchy foods as a staple of diet. Even worse, fatness suggests unhealthiness and early death — just as hollow cheeks and bony frames used to do.

These trends were certainly not motivated by scientific thought, which is why they endured for hundred of years before changing course. Modern nutrition science, on the other hand, proceeds at breakneck speed, and every study appears to be contradicting the previous one:

Don’t eat those eggs!

But that’s how science works. “History of modern nutrition science — implications for current research, dietary guidelines, and food policy” was published less than a year ago. The paper’s authors track the evolution of nutrition science from 1926 (when the first vitamin was isolated) to the creation of government policy based on those findings: recommended daily allowances (RDIs), fortified foods, fat VS sugar, calories VS protein, eggs VS no eggs — all the way to our current decade and future prospects.

There’s a kind of Socratic justice in the fact that we just realised we knew nothing about something we’ve been doing forever, but — again — that’s how science works.

In the last 20 years, the evolution of food in our society seems to have come full circle: chefs are celebrities now, food is 3D printed, meat is being grown in labs, agriculture is moving away from the fields and food is one of the hottest trends in startups and investment.

So it may have taken a bit longer than it should have — not least because we had to detect and debunk the distortions caused by food industry lobbyists — but if one takes the tme to review the available science and separate wheat from chaff, the question of what should go in our stomach is not as mystical as it used be. Michael Pollan said it best: eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

So much about our stomach. What about our brain?

It’s fair to say that we know a lot less about the brain than we do about our stomach. But as 21st-century philosopher Casey Neistat said, the brain is what matters — the body is just there to keep it running. 

The reason for the lag is that self-awareness does not comes naturally.

19th century sociologist Georg Simmel explains that ‘mental life begins with an undifferentiated state in which the Ego and its objects are not yet distinguished. It is as a result of a second-stage awareness that a subject in particular conditions comes to be distinguished from the content of his consciousness in those conditions’. Short version: we use our minds to think, so thinking about our mind is not something that comes naturally. This is known as “meta-cognition”.

We are a predominantly visual species, and while we can see ourselves getting fatter on Instagram, we can’t see ourselves getting dumber. And we are getting dumber. 

The election of Donald Trump, the flat-earth movement, vaccine hesitancy and all comparable abominations are all consequences of the stultification of society. Sure, these events also had concrete reasons that can be found in sociology and economics, but the second-order cause (meta-cause?) is people’s lack of ability to understand these reasons — lack of metacognition.

And the reason for this is the flattening, by means of decentralisation, of knowledge.

Flattening implies that there once was a three-dimensional structure that has since reduced to a two-dimensional one— or at least, made shallower. When poet T. S. Eliot askedWhere is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?‘, he was unwittingly referring to the concept known as the DIKW pyramid:

That is the structure that is being flattened.

When I was researching this article, I found a number of books that, on the surface, discussed this same topic. But in fact they didn’t, and with most of them the proof was in the title. “The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption” by Clay Johnson is a case in point: all these books talk about information, not knowledge. Clay may be on the right path (he even had my same idea of using food and diet as a guiding metaphor), but he sells himself short by limiting the scope of his investigation by only focusing on information.

By this point you should have asked yourself the million-dollar question:

What is knowledge?

You may be relieved to know that you’re not alone. Plato, Kant, Nietzsche and a few others have asked the same question (I, on the other hand, have literally just now realised what I got myself into).

See, the purpose of this article was to act as an introduction of sorts to my future articles. I enjoy writing and I’ve tried to start a blog for years now, but “writing about stuff” didn’t seem like a good enough goal. I have still struggle to understand what I wanted to write about, but I recently realised that I knew what I didn’t want to write about: I didn’t want to write about “brain candy”. 

Brain Candy is information that looks like knowledge and feels like knowledge — but isn’t. 

Like candy, it looks like food and feels like food, but it’s not food: it’s candy. That’s why there’s a separate word for it. The word “candy” itself comes from Sanskrit खण्ड (khaṇḍa): it means piece, fragment, scrap, morsel. 

Candy won’t kill you — but if you eat only candy, you will get fat, ugly, sick and die. 

The next part of the article talks about what Brain Candy is and how to recognise it. But I feel like the article would be incomplete if I didn’t try a definition of knowledge.

Knowledge is qualified and contextualised information. 

Information can be true or false, right or wrong, complete or incomplete. As you can see, knowledge requires someone to evaluate information and qualify it as knowledge. That’s because nothing is inherently true or false: “true” and “false” are concepts that only exist in our mind.

When I said that decentralisation causes a flattening of knowledge, I was talking about Google, basically. You may believe that you don’t need to read² or learn stuff because information, when necessary, is available online. But knowledge can’t be summoned or downloaded. Only information can. 

To qualify information as true or false, right or wrong, complete or incomplete (and then determine, for example, to believe it or not) you need to perform a critical exercise that cannot happen if you treat “information” as an end upon itself. Information is the means by which we obtain knowledge. The medium is our brain.

The pyramid metaphor is particularly apt because it shows something else that’s equally important: there’s a lot of data to go around, less information, even less knowledge and still lesser wisdom. Not all information is knowledge and not all knowledge is wisdom.

Someone has to make the distinction — and it better be you³.

Here’s a few examples of information that looks like knowledge and feels like knowledge — but isn’t:

  • Anything you were not looking for. Most categories below fall under this macro-category. You might have read that, if you get distracted while you were doing something, it takes almost half an hour to get back to your previous state of concentration. From this point of view, it doesn’t matter how interesting or curious or amusing something is — if you were not looking for it, it’s brain candy, and like any snack it will disrupt your intellectual digestion. I believe life should be lived deliberately and you shouldn’t allow yourself to be derailed by whatever gets thrown on your lap. This doesn’t rule out serendipity — but as Seneca said, ‘luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity’: it seems to me that you can’t use an opportunity that you were not preparing for. Despise the lottery.
  • Anything on social media. The obvious corollary is social media. It doesn’t matter if the content was shared by someone (or some company/magazine) you know, you respect or you trust: you shouldn’t be reading that. It’s like walking in on someone without knocking and learning about something that was supposed to be private: you shouldn’t have gone in, but at the same time, once you know it, you can’t forget about it. Just don’t go there unless you’re actively looking for diversion.
  • News. If it’s not relevant to your daily life, it’s not news. And if it doesn’t cause you to do anything different than you would have otherwise, it’s not relevant. Neil Postman described it better than I possibly could: the news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination.
  • Quotes. This is not necessarily a distraction, but they proliferate on social media so they’re worth mentioning. Quotes (inspirational or not) often sit on the top of the DIKW pyramid: they’re distilled wisdom. But as the saying goes, you can’t fill a cup that’s already full. Wisdom that you don’t practice, or for which you have no philosophical or empirical experience, is a dressed-up turd.
  • Instant messaging. If the entire relationship with the person you’re chatting with is made of brain-candy (again, information that you have no context for or actually care about), is the relationship really valuable to you? And if it is, are you enriching each other or just robbing each other of time and attention that could be used purposefully

Disclaimer: this is what brain candy is to me. I give importance to deliberation (knowing what I was looking for) and purpose (knowing why I was looking for it); everything else is noise. Maybe you’ll definite it differently.

I’m not saying that you should never eat candy; everybody does (and they should), hopefully as a part of a more balanced diet. But everybody knows candy when they see it.

That’s not the case for knowledge.

The point of this article is that, at the very least, you should be able to recognise brain candy when you see it. I hope that this article helped you learn the difference.

Want to read more like this?
Leave me your e-mail and I’ll send them to you.

Success! You're on the list.