The Unabomber is Relevant Again
How do you know the ’90s nostalgia is in full swing? An O.J. Simpson TV series was followed by an Unabomber TV series.
The final episode of Discovery Channel’s Manhunt: Unabomber aired recently. It’s nostalgic for me. I was an undergrad at Berkeley when the Unabomber Manifesto was published, so the subject matter brings the sweet memories of the industrial carpeting of the Unit II second floor lounge and the zigzags of the earthquake reinforcement bars on the building across. That was before somebody got the bright idea to paint midcentury structures in cheerful colors, so our highrise dorms were drab inside and out. Still, those were my college years and they remain special to me.
The Manifesto was read on and off campus, discussed, and, to a large extent, admired, and the admirers included conservative-leaning students who were very much into Kaczynski’s ripping on the leftists. It later turned out that Ted Kaczynski was an assistant professor of mathematics at Berkeley from 1967 to 1969, so he was a bit of a homeboy.
It wasn’t in Berkeley but at Harvard, though, where the Unabomber was made. Writing for The Atlantic, Alston Chase made a compelling case that Kaczynski was likely radicalized at that Ivy League school during his undergraduate years in the early ‘60s. He absorbed both the anti-technology teachings of the core Harvard classes and the “value-free” message of positivist philosophy that was in vogue at the time. Harry A. Murray’s unethical psychological experiments in which the underage Kaczynski participated did a number in his psyche.
Two decades later, students across the country found the Unabomber very familiar, but, at the same time, strangely refreshing. He was echoing the concerns of our professors, but with unexpected twists.
Kaczynski’s ideas and actions
An anarchist in the vein of the late ‘60s campus radicals, Kaczynski sent pipe bombs to universities, airlines (hence the UNiversity and Airline BOMBER abbreviation), a timber lobbyist, an advertising executive in North Caldwell, New Jersey and, of course, computer stores. The domestic terrorism campaign orchestrated by the errant mathematician caused multiple injuries and three fatalities. The three who lost their lives were Hugh Scrutton, Thomas J. Mosser, and Gilbert Brent Murray.
Kaczynski demanded the publication of his Unabomber Manifesto (that was a popularly assigned name; he titled it Industrial Society And Its Future) in a national newspaper, and he got it. The ideas were not unique, but thanks to Kaczynski’s willingness to murder to get his word out there, he commanded attention.
There were hints of Freud’s Civilization And Its Discontents echoed in the tension between individual and civilized society. The tension, in Kaczynski’s opinion, amplified by technology that’s supposed to set us free but does the opposite. “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” the Unabomber infamously proclaimed. My professors explored similar ideas from multiple angles under the guise of responses to the Enlightenment.
If the TV series, structured around the search for the Unabomber, attempted to look at ideology at all, it was this hostility to technology. It was a major theme of his life, to be sure, but it hardly explains Kaczynski. The fact that Kaczynski is a radical critiquing the genteel mainstream liberalism of the ‘90s is completely lost. Yet that’s what he is, and to the extent that he appealed to the right-of-center students, it was because he willingly challenged political correctness.
Kazcynski’s writing was psychological; he insisted that the tendency to interpret in negative light practically any language describing minority groups stems from a deepseated feeling of inferiority. It’s actually the activists who imagine negative connotations of formerly neutral expressions like “chick” or “negro”, he asserted.
He could have been alt-right today, and, as a matter of fact, it’s a shame that in the age of Donald Trump this kind of sentiment gets one immediately labeled a neo-Nazi. It used to be well within the mainstream, albeit not on college campuses.
Kaczynski further argued that the late twentieth century leftists attack truth and reason arose out of the same feeling of inferiority that lead to language censorship. When leftists misapply theory of knowledge to obliterate the ideas of truth and reality, they do so largely in an effort to avoid classifying ideas as “successful, superior” on one hand and “failed, inferior” on the other. The same drive underlines their attitudes to IQ testing which they consider racist and unfair. In their opinion, Kaczynski believes, an individual’s failure is always society’s fault.
In that argument Kaczynski echoed Herrnstein and Murray, the duo behind the much-vilified the 1994 explosive bestseller The Bell Curve. If the ideas described in the paragraph above appear to be aligned with an ivory tower libertarian economist, the following passage below echoes 60's entertainment:
Notice the masochistic tendency of leftist tactics. Leftists protest by lying down in front of vehicles, they intentionally provoke police or racists to abuse them, etc. These tactics may often be effective, but many leftists use them not as a means to an end but because they PREFER masochistic tactics. Self-hatred is a leftist trait.
Compare to The Rolling Stones’ seminal You Can’t Alway Get What You Want: “We went down to the demonstration — To get your fair share of abuse — Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration — If we don’t we’re gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse.” The Stones presumably borrowed these ideas from someone else, but whatever the origin, it’s very satisfying to hear or read them expressed.
Those of us who, like me, took our liberal arts classes seriously ended each semester with a layer of despair shrouded over our little craniums. We were continuously told that the modern man is alienated from nature, the lament repeated by the Unabomber, but also that reason is faulty and everything is relevant, the idea that the terrorist rejected. There were less depressive philosophers, John Stuart Mill, for one, but they weren’t given top billing.
Junior college Western history classes left me filled with awe: each period had its district flavor, each was interesting. At Cal, each era was a letdown.
The anti-technology idea today
I’m deeply skeptical of new technology. I’m not the type to line up at the Apple Store on the eve of the new iPhone release. I got my first cell phone in 2002, and it was a very basic, inexpensive cell. I might be a late adopter, but I’m not a Luddite. I never cared much about nature or alienation from it; I never believed that industrial society is evil and something needed to be done about it, pronto.
That said, some aspects of our life with technology creep me out. For example, why are we are so willing to abandon our privacy online? Young people today do not appear to know how to date without apps, and the apps don’t get them very far either. I wouldn’t call it alienation as much as poor socialization.
Kaczynski railed against something else though, something he called oversocialization. In his opinion our society is so moralistic that individuals feel obliged to always behave in accordance with a moral code, which is impossible. “In order to avoid feelings of guilt” the Unabomber believes, some of the highly socialized individuals “continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin.” That’s oversocialization.
The idea behind sending shrapnel-filled bombs to office assistants was, as we will see later, to show the leftists how to live an authentic life.
The late 20th century leftists are upper middle class types are so oversocialized, they are unable to rebel against the industrial society. To the contrary, Kaczynski lamented, they seek to draft more people into it, insisting that everyone should be like them; they want to see black people as business executives, women in corporate workforce. A leftist’s attempts at multiculturalism are superficial, limited to food, dress and the like but otherwise assume total assimilation into modern industrial society.
Even if they rebel against the industrial society, liberals do so within the society’s framework. Even when they engage in the most transgressive behavior, namely physical violence, the oversocialized leftists justify it as “liberation”:
In other words, by committing violence they break through the psychological restraints that have been trained into them. Because they are oversocialized these restraints have been more confining for them than for others; hence their need to break free of them. But they usually justify their rebellion in terms of mainstream values. If they engage in violence they claim to be fighting against racism or the like.
We’ve seen a lot of that lately. I have a feeling that Kaczynski has nothing but disdain for the snowflakes populating college campuses and the faux radicals of Antifa. Sure, Antifa can break a few windows and shut down a few conservative speakers on college campuses, thereby angering some of the more traditional bourgeois types, but they do it because they are scandalized by wrong opinions. Are they really ready for revolution? Will they murder? As the recent Ben Shapiro speech in Berkeley demonstrated, when faced with a moderately menacing police force, Antifa dissipates. They riot only when given a “space to destroy.”
In the TV series
So, to go back to the TV series, Manhunt: Unabomber gave us a serviceable agent Fitzgerald, based on a real life character, an FBI profiler who zeroed in on the Unabomber. Ted Kaczynski was played well: now he looks like a madman, now he looks like a college professor. (I didn’t appreciate the dancing in the forest in the rain cheesiness, though.)
Georgi Boorman has a discussion of our obsession with the antiheroes with an eye on TV entertainment. She is right about the unhealthiness of our villain obsession, but the Unabomber has the potential to be different from the rest of the silver screen evildoers. He is the character who gives the us an opportunity to talk intelligently about our obsession with the dark side.
I can’t help thinking that Ted has a higher IQ than anyone involved in the production of Manhunt. Which is not to say that they were stupid, of course, but that a flick about a sociopathic genius cries out for a more interesting treatment than the one offered by Discovery Channel. We don’t need to read Kant aloud, but the midcentury campus intellectual life has to get a node. It was obscured completely.
I felt unimpressed by the general atmosphere of film. Most of the events take place in the ‘90s Bay Area, yet there is not much of the ‘90s Bay Area in it. If the Unabomber kept bringing attention to San Francisco because he mailed his bombs from here, if the City has a half a century long history of leftism, if the FBI investigation was headquartered here, perhaps the City should play a bigger part in the production.
I would like to see a film about the Unabomber with a soundtrack of Leonard Cohen, as a nod to the ‘60s radicalism (both Cohen and Kaczynski are very much the men of the ‘60s), and a touch of industrial, which was popular in the Bay Area at the time and because of the, well, name of the genre. Maybe Einsturzende Neubauten, a German Industrial band whose name translates as Collapsing New Buildings. And The Rolling Stones for a good measure.
Here is First We Take Manhattan, a cryptic Leonard Cohen song which only makes sense if it’s about a domestic terrorist.
When asked about the song, Cohen commented:
“I think it means exactly what it says. It is a terrorist song. I think it’s a response to terrorism. There’s something about terrorism that I’ve always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. I don’t like it when it’s manifested on the physical plane — I don’t really enjoy the terrorist activities — but Psychic Terrorism. I remember there was a great poem by Irving Layton that I once read, I’ll give you a paraphrase of it. It was ‘well, you guys blow up an occasional airline and kill a few children here and there’, he says. ‘But our terrorists, Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein. The whole world is still quaking.’”
Convictions to kill and die for
There’s been a good deal of Kaczynski/Rodion Raskolnikov comparisons. Both are very literal shrapnel in a bomb/axe through the scull murderers, nothing “psychic” about it. In the age of relativism, to see a man willing to kill and die for something is awesome.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is one idea I can kill and die for. The well-being of my family is something worth the ultimate sacrifice. But should I murder my neighbors for using laptops? I don’t think so.
Kaczynski is evil, but he’s not evil because he kills. He’s evil because his ends are silly. Although the industrial/post-industrial society comes with a hefty neurotic baggage, said baggage is not the cause of universal suffering, it’s a byproduct of our success. Achievements of our civilization are worth defending . . . in my opinion. Unfortunately, in the opinion of many of my countrymen, especially the college educated types, nothing is worth defending.
There is much of self-doubt going around, and Kaczynski is both manifestation and a critic of it. He railed against the mainstream liberalism but modernity remained his main target. What made him special, what put him beyond your average herd of college professors, was his bombing campaign. He, in his own words, rebelled against the most deeply held values of our society; he dared to take the lives of others.
Maybe we are obsessed with villains because we are attracted to iconoclasts but are not allowed to hold any ideas so dear to our hearts that we’d take up arms for them?
The rather heavy-handed message of Manhunt, however, was that even though we might like the ideas of Ted Kaczynski, what separates us from him is that we have compassion. Sure. Yet the protagonist of the TV series (SPOILER) apparently fails to consummate his relationship with the woman of his dreams. Perhaps because compassion alone (the lesson he learned from his journey to catch the Unabomber), while it distinguishes him from the terrorist, is not sufficient to make him a hero. We like empathy, but empathy in combination with the anti-industrial rhetoric is not a coherent and attractive ideology, not something that the creators of this TV series can imagine sustaining the next generation.
I’m sure Kaczynski is enjoying his solitary confinement. He is reading books and corresponding with the people for whom he is a hero. And, true, he can’t enjoy the beauty of nature, but, on the other hand, he’s not bothered by neighbors and coworkers either. And if he’s celibate… well, what does that tell us?