Wrong, Rights, and Screams in the Night
What we can't not know, revisited
Two men on horseback, father and son, ride along an embankment between two vast fields of bulrushes. The sun beats down. The horses’ flanks are steaming. In the distance, male voices yell indistinctly, barking out single-word orders in German, Polish, or a bit of both. The father pauses and cocks his head.
“You hear that?”
They listen together. Under the shouting comes the low, hollow sound of a marsh bird.
“It’s a bittern. A heron. Eurasian heron.”
They listen quietly for another moment. The father imitates the sound: “Woo…woo…” Then they ride on.
This scene comes from Best Picture nominee Zone of Interest, a German film very loosely based on Martin Amis’s Holocaust novel of the same name. It tells the story of Auschwitz not through Jewish eyes, but through Nazi eyes—specifically, the eyes of commandant Rudolf Höss and his family. They wander through an Edenic garden paradise, built so close to the camp next door that they can hear the sounds, smell the smells, watch the smoke rising.
There’s no violence on screen, but through sound, music, and other filmic techniques, writer-director Jonathan Glazer creates one of the most disturbing cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. I watched it late at night last weekend on Holocaust Remembrance Day, in a nearly empty theater. I left to go catch it after spending the evening with friends, who lightly said “Enjoy the movie!” as I walked out. Of course, I didn’t enjoy it at all. But that was the point.
The question looming over the whole thing is How? How could not just a few madmen but a whole community of outwardly ordinary people build a life literally next door to a holocaust? The women are implicated too. Rudolf’s wife is no idiot. She idly tries on a fur coat, tries on lipstick, knowing perfectly well where they’ve come from. In bed, she makes sleepy requests for what she’d like “Rudi” to bring back next, in between flirting and dreaming about the family’s next holiday in France.
Another night finds the little boys in their bunk beds, staying up with flashlights the way little boys do. One of them is fiddling with something. On closer inspection, we see a flash of gold. Teeth. Gold teeth.
However, there is one small point of light. We don’t sense it as a point of light immediately because it’s shot confusingly, in photo-negative night vision. It’s a recurring vision of a young local girl outside the garden, among the dirt and the ditches of the camp. She carries an armload of apples, which she seems to be diligently secreting, as many as she can. She’s pedaled out to this devastation by bike, which one night we watch her pedal back home. Inside, nightmare vision switches off, and blessed normal color floods in.
This girl seems like a figment of the imagination, but she was in fact a real person, as real as Rudolf Höss. She was one of many courageous young people who worked for the Polish resistance. One night, she brought home a precious artifact: sheet music of a song composed by the prisoner Joseph Wulf. At one point in the film, she sits at a piano and picks out the tune, called “Sunbeam.” Subtitles display the lyrics in time: “We who are imprisoned here, are wakeful as the stars at night. Souls afire, like the blazing sun, tearing, breaking through their pain, for soon we’ll see that waving flag, the flag of freedom yet to come.”
As we watch, we consider what it is about this ordinary girl—and other boys and girls like her—that drove them to choose good while so many other ordinary men and women chose evil. Intuitively, we believe they were responding to a self-evident truth. But as Yuval Noah Harari wants to remind everyone in a recent viral TED talk, it’s not the sort of truth you can touch, a truth you can poke and peer at and run through lab tests. Cut a human being open, and you’ll find a lot of blood and guts, but you won’t find his human rights, now will you? Likewise, the idea of a “nation” is “just a story.” A “very nice story,” no doubt, but not “real,” the way something like a mountain is real, because a mountain is something you can point at and say, “Hey look, there’s a mountain!” Really makes you think, eh?
Alright, it didn’t really make me think, but it certainly made a lot of people talk on social media. Jordan Peterson smacked it down, with his usual tact, as “one of the most ill-informed set of propositions and pseudo-observations I have ever heard.” Meanwhile, someone had also tagged popular historian Tom Holland for a comment. If you follow my work much, then you know both Holland and Peterson have regularly come up in recent conversations around the replacement of New Atheist thinkers with figures who are much friendlier to Christianity. Holland has been the toast of many a Christian discussion forum ever since the release of his best-selling Dominion, subtitled “How Christianity Remade the World.” However, it was observed that if you read Holland closely, he really sounds like a Christian-friendly, sunny-side-up version of Harari. After all, his book Dominion describes human rights as a Christian “doctrine” that was “repackaged” for non-Christian audiences, its origins among “canon lawyers of medieval Europe” cleverly concealed.
“Yes!” Holland replied cheerfully, accepting the comparison. “Human rights have no more objective reality than, say, the Trinity. Both derive from the workings of Christian theology; and both, if they are to be believed in, require people to make a leap of faith.”
Now, you can imagine that I might object to this, and you would be right. Indeed, I already objected to it right here on this Stack about three years ago when Holland tweeted something similar, that time prompted not by Harari but by Richard Dawkins on disability abortion. (Really, any old atheist blowhard will do to kickstart this sort of thing.) I called my essay “What We Can’t Not Know,” taking a leaf from Catholic natural law philosopher J. Budziszewski. Tom and I then went on to have a protracted debate about ethics and morality, which was very entertaining (I mean, I had fun at least, especially when he accused me of “arrant sophistry”) but left us at a philosophical impasse. All to say, when I saw his tweet, I wasn’t sure I had anything to say, because I’d sort of already said it.
That’s when Peterson decided to quote-tweet him. And here, things really got fun.