Anthony Foxx, the mayor of Charlotte and Obama’s pick for the next Secretary of Transportation, issued two city proclamations yesterday. One of them recognized the National Day of Prayer; the other one declared the day to be a Day of Reason. The second proclamation noted that the country was founded on the principles of reason and that “it is the duty and responsibility of every citizen to promote the development and application of reason.” Even though we have no evidence that Mayor Foxx was taking a passive-aggressive swipe at the folks at Fox News, they decided to take it as an affront anyway, bringing on Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, to worry that once you start using reason, next thing you know, you’re committing a mass genocide and starting a world war: “You know the Age of Enlightenment and Reason gave way to moral relativism. And moral relativism is what led us all the way down the dark path to the Holocaust.”
I don’t remember most of the books I read, but one of the most profoundly affecting experiences in my college career was on the last day of my final Honors seminar class in my junior year. Freshman year was the classical tradition; sophomore year, the Renaissance through the Nineteenth; junior year, the Twentieth Century. Our professor had been in the habit of beginning every class with some piece of music – a movement from a symphony, some old jazz recording, anything that could be defined as a “classic.” Never having been intimately acquainted with classical music, most of it was new to me, but on the final day he played us a tape of the fourth movement from Beethoven’s Ninth – the “Ode to Joy.”
“This,” the professor said after the tape ended, “is considered one of the best performances of Beethoven’s Ninth ever recorded. It was performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, in March 1942. The performance was reprised one month later for Hitler’s birthday.
“One of the great challenges of teaching history and philosophy,” he went on, “has been reconciling the beauty and enlightenment of the tradition of reason with the horrors of the Twentieth Century. How could a culture which produced such works as this also – not sequentially but simultaneously – engage in the extermination of millions? I haven’t found a satisfactory answer, and I don’t expect you to have one yet. But it’s what we’ve been grappling with all semester.”
That’s the first thing that popped in my mind when hearing about what some pundit on Fox News said about the Holocaust. As with most cultural content on the Internet, I heard about it from its sneering detractors first. And let me take nothing away from Marcotte or “Blue Texan” or any of the friends you’ll see linking this on Facebook. Nance’s assertion is uniquely stupid: the Holocaust sprang not from moral relativism but, if anything, a moral absolutism; “moral relativism,” as conservatives typically mean it, is a post-WW2 invention; the very act of forming the logical connections (as shoddy as they are) between cause and effect that Nance engages in is itself evidence of the utility of reason, and so forth.
But there’s an opportunity here to grapple with one of the great mysteries of the Twentieth Century – if the classical Western tradition did not dissuade millions of Germans from going joyfully along as their neighbors were immolated, what the hell good was it? – that’s being swept aside unexamined. It’s ignorant to say that reason caused the Holocaust, but the Age of Enlightenment certainly didn’t stand in its way.