February 8, 2009

Ted Kaczynski, We Hardly Knew Ye


While putting together the syllabus for this course I’m supposed to start teaching this fall, one of the readings I settled on immediately was “Industrial Society and Its Future,” more commonly known as “The Unabomber Manifesto.” I hadn’t read it since it first appeared almost fifteen years ago—and back then, admittedly, I only skimmed it. Sadly, I only skimmed it back then as a result of the things I’d been told.

            I still knew I wanted to use it. It made too much sense, given the nature of the course. I had no illusions that the students would have the slightest clue who Ted Kaczynski was or what he did (it was more than two years ago, after all—how could they possibly be expected to know that?), but dammit, they should know, and I was going to tell them.

            It was quite a story at the time—the literary clues hidden in the mail bombs, the wild speculations as to his identity, the wacky letter the FBI sent out to every university in the country warning professors to avoid packages that had wires sticking out of them or were leaking an odd-smelling liquid.

            It was a captivating story to begin with, but only got better as time went on, and the media turned the Unabomber (as he’d been dubbed due to his tendency to target universities and airlines) into a Super Villain. First there was the widely-circulated police sketch that looked suspiciously like G. G. Allin. Then in 1995 the Unabomber sent his 35,000-word manifesto to the New York Times, saying he’d stop blowing people up if they ran it.

            Well, they didn’t. So he changed his approach and sent them another letter, this time saying he’d blow up LAX if they didn’t run it. Unedited. In its entirety.

            Not only the New York Times, but the Washington Post and a few other major papers, after consulting with the FBI, did exactly what they were told. (Which makes me wonder why more people haven’t gone on bombing sprees in order to get that coveted New York Times byline.)

            Then Kaczynski was arrested after his rat of a brother dropped a dime on him. After that, the story stopped being funny and became typically disgusting and disheartening as I watched the media spread the usual lies, smearing Kaczynski (once he was safely in custody, of course) in absolutely absurd ways. My favorite of the lot was the FBI’s list of all the things found in Kaczynki’s “eight-by-ten foot cabin” in the Montana woods.

            There were several industrial sized spools of copper wire, it was reported, and dozens of jars of chemicals, and tools and lengths of pipe and bombs and half-finished bombs and The Anarchist Cookbook and copies of the manifesto. Everything a mad bomber worth his salt would need. The only thing missing was a snapshot of Kaczynski posing with a bomb as he dropped it off at his local post office. The list went on and on until it became obvious to anyone who thought about it that there was no way in hell all those things could fit inside an eight-by-ten foot cabin, unless of course the cabin was forty feet tall. And even if they could fit, there would be no room left for Kaczynski to stand, let alone sleep.

            Fortunately for the powers that be, no one thought about that and it was simply accepted like everything else.

            Then there was the way the media insured that, even though they’d knuckled under and published the manifesto, no one would read it.

            It was “rambling,” they said. An “incoherent rant about the environment.” Who in their right mind would want to read such a thing?

            Well, if I intended to force the manifesto on my future students, I obviously needed to read it thoroughly (I’m old-fashioned that way). So I tracked down a copy. Almost immediately, I knew I was reading an astonishing bit of work that bore no relationship to the crazy rant described in the news. Either the journalists in question never read it themselves or—as noted above—simply wanted to make sure no one else did. If they had read it, I have to believe they would’ve seen the bit in the opening paragraphs where Kaczynski states quite clearly that he’s not writing about the environment.

            Why wouldn’t they want people to read it? Well, it’s a logical, devastating critique of the society we’ve created, and my guess is there was a fear there that if people actually read it, they might start, you know, thinking.

            (It was also much better-written than most news stories you run into these days.)

            Maybe it’s the Luddite in me, but “Industrial Civilization and Its Future” was lucid, clearly reasoned, and rational. A point-by-point argument that technology, by its very nature, fucks up human psychology and limits freedom in a very fundamental way.

            He employs a lot of Freud, a little Nietzsche, some bits and pieces of other thinkers, but at its heart the argument—though very basic in nature—is his own.

            Amazing thing is, when he wrote this fifteen years ago, he couldn’t have foreseen how much the world would come to bear him out. He wrote this before iPods and iPhones, Google, MySpace and Blackberries all became leading American addictions. It’s almost like the culture was determined to prove him right.

            I was more convinced than ever after reading it that it was something I was most definitely going to foist upon the younger generation in any way I could. Bombs and all aside, the man has a point to make.

            Yet for all the things he discusses—from the nature of liberalism to genetic engineering and the origins of society—one paragraph stuck with me. It’s both sad and funny to read it now, given how the manifesto got published, and what was said about it afterward:


As for our constitutional rights, consider for example that of freedom of the press. We certainly don’t mean to knock that right: it is a very important tool for limiting concentration of political power and for keeping those who do have political power in line by publicly exposing any misbehavior on their part. But freedom of the press is of very little use to the average citizen as an individual. The mass media are mostly under the control of large organizations that are integrated into the system. Anyone who has a little money can have something printed, or can distribute it on the Internet or in some such way, but what he has to say will be swamped by the vast volume of material put out by the media, hence it will have no practical effect.

      To make an impression on society with words is therefore almost impossible for most individuals and small groups. Take us (FC) for example. If we had never done anything violent and had submitted the present writings to a publisher, they probably would not have been accepted. If they had been accepted and published, they probably would not have attracted many readers, because it’s more fun to watch the entertainment put out by the media than to read a sober essay. Even if these writings had had many readers, most of these readers would soon have forgotten what they had read as their minds were flooded by the mass of material to which the media expose them. In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people.


He’s right, you realize. But that opens up a whole different can of worms. It’s just too bad that when I open that can, the students will probably just stare at me like oxen.


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