Rather strangely, among my jumble of Twitter feeds, up popped a reference to Alston Chase’s book about Ted Kaczinski, the Unabomber, and the forces that led him to his life as a killer hermit. It’s of interest to me because when I was circuit-riding with a base in Helena, I once stepped around a man I’m certain was Kaczynski in the Helena library which he was known to use. But also because I think the same forces crippled and twisted other men. I haven’t read the book but did download the Atlantic version of the idea.
Among the long shadows cast after WWII and the Cold War was a kind of philosophy that Alston Chase blames for Ted Kaczinski’s mistaken approach to changing the world. I hear the echoes of it even among nice female liberals who listen to NPR, maybe too much. it shows up on Aeon and Edge. The idea is that since the brain works in a way sort of comparable to a computer (it can play chess and even seduce lonely young men) humans can eventually be replaced by borgs. Or at least robots. Chase doesn’t suggest anyplace to go after this sort of bleak “Blade Runner”, “Matrix”, way to go which came out of the machinery of industrial war and the existential despair when over-burdened institutions simply collapsed, including churches and families.
Two other major forces have been the incredible dimensions of death from the atomic bombs and the mind-destroying combination of brain-washing, torture, and thought-disordering drugs. Chase feels that the hubris of high prestige universities and the aspirations of families craving status gave a kind of permission to load young men with impossible expectations. Some were never able to progress past the college sophomore’s defensive cynicism based on grandiose assumptions of how things work, and the misguided thought that any human understood or controlled the world. If they did, would we be struggling with global climate change due to the relentless production of harmful chemicals?
Both Kaczinski and Chase, who had similar histories including Harvard, left academia in the 1970’s and fled to rural Montana where Kaczinski whittled his pipe bombs and Chase began to write environmental books. Two brainy men who didn’t fit into the world as they thought it was. Both arrogant, one labeled crazy. Chase is trying to explain Kaczinski and in the process explaining a certain kind of old white man who is dying out but not fast enough. Not that they’re always male — Ayn Rand is among them.
“By forcing people to conform to machines rather than vice versa, the manifesto states, technology creates a sick society hostile to human potential. Because technology demands constant change, it destroys local, human-scale communities. Because it requires a high degree of social and economic organization, it encourages the growth of crowded and unlivable cities and of mega-states indifferent to the needs of citizens. [my emphasis]
“This evolution toward a civilization increasingly dominated by technology and the power structure serving technology, the manifesto argues, cannot be reversed on its own, because “technology is a more powerful social force than the aspiration for freedom,” and because “while technological progress as a whole continually narrows our sphere of freedom, each new technical advance considered by itself appears to be desirable.” Hence science and technology constitute “a mass power movement, and many scientists gratify their need for power through identification with this mass movement.”
As Chase points out, this has become a cliché, a social assumption. He goes on:
“Because human beings must conform to the machine, our society tends to regard as a “sickness” any mode of thought or behavior that is inconvenient for the system, and this is plausible because when an individual doesn’t fit into the system it causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system. Thus the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to the system is seen as a “cure” for a “sickness” and therefore as good.” [my emphasis]
The recent step in this philosophy has been the idea that the brain is a machine with a body for an appendage and that a brain can merge with a computer — machine to machine — so as to control the world. This has turned out to be an idea that appeals to Russia. Chase quotes Cynthia Ozick’s description of Kaczynski as “America’s “own Raskolnikov—the appealing, appalling, and disturbingly visionary murderer of ‘Crime and Punishment,’ Dostoyevsky’s masterwork of 1866.” Ozick called the Unabomber a “philosophical criminal of exceptional intelligence and humanitarian purpose, who is driven to commit murder out of an uncompromising idealism.”
In the US, I would propose, we’ve been “saved” by hippies, feminists, gays and artists, who discovered that computers=internet which is a way to create “nations” without location, without boundaries, with room for multiplicity for all those aware enough to use it. Also, the computer, through video, can be a force for witness, a source of dream images, a language that is pre-verbal. It’s not all math — it merely uses math and technology to reveal the granularity of dancing existence in quarks and charms as well as the ever-morphing cells cooperating to create a person with an identity..
Advertisements and jokes have given us all the idea that a brain can be free-standing and thinking, all by itself. It canNOT. A brain is a dashboard for a zillion loops of BODILY FUNCTION. The BODY is our interface with the actual world around us: the sensory world, the world of natural law, the world that all we creatures function in, some of “us” with no brain at all because of not having even a backbone. Literally, not symbolically.
The brain is in service to the body. A brain creates a map of all the stuff the senses bring to us and that is FAR more than five or six senses. Specialized cells are guessed to bring in as many as 200 different kinds of sense data. Only a few are conscious. The rest chatter away with the brain without us knowing it at all.
Technology and incredible instruments give us access to data about forces we never imagined were constituting and penetrating what we know. But we’re still using Cold War attitudes to think about traveling to other planets and then controlling them, which will necessitate — according to movie-makers — a lot of those seductive explosions we love to photograph, even the toxic ones in Houston.
It appears that Kaczynski’s life is back in public consciousness because he is appealing his case. Much emphasis was put on stuffing him into diagnostic boxes in order to save his life on grounds of insanity. Now he says he wants to prove he is sane and willing to die. He did it on purpose and he does not repent. The trouble with incarceration is that it does not offer many opportunities to move on.
Chase says: “The manifesto is the work of neither a genius nor a maniac. Except for its call to violence, the ideas it expresses are perfectly ordinary and unoriginal, shared by many Americans. Its pessimism over the direction of civilization and its rejection of the modern world are shared especially with the country’s most highly educated. The manifesto is, in other words, an academic—and popular—cliché. And if concepts that many of us unreflectively accept can lead a person to commit serial murder, what does that say about us?”
He seems to be taking comfort from the Eugene-based “green terrorists” and anarchists, the new menagerie of protestors. Chase ends his essay with pessimism that I recognize but do not share. His “hallucination” is not like mine.
“The real story of Ted Kaczynski is one of the nature of modern evil—evil that results from the corrosive powers of intellect itself, and its arrogant tendency to put ideas above common humanity. It stems from our capacity to conceive theories or philosophies that promote violence or murder in order to avert supposed injustices or catastrophes, to acquiesce in historical necessity, or to find the final solution to the world’s problems—and by this process of abstraction to dehumanize our enemies. We become like Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, who declares, “I did not kill a human being, but a principle!”
“Guided by theories, philosophies, and ideologies, the worst mass killers of modern history transformed their victims into depersonalized abstractions, making them easier to kill. Much the way Stalin, citing Communist dogma, ordered the murder of millions of peasants toward “the elimination of the Kulaks as a class,” so Kaczynski rationalized his murders as necessary to solve ‘the technology problem.’
I do agree with this paragraph. “The conditions that produce violence continue to flourish. Despite their historically unprecedented affluence, many middle-class Americans, particularly the educated elite, are still gripped by despair. The education system continues to promote bleak visions of the future. Meanwhile, alienating ideologies, offering the false promise of quick solutions through violence, proliferate.”
Underneath the storm named Harvey, rioting in Charlottesville, and the shenanigans of the Trump gang -- but largely undetected -- is the subversive philosophical loop doubling back to pleasure, laughter, and the impossibility of humans even controlling themselves in this world of illusion. An equivalent of the Cajun Navy, small and independent entities determined to help others, lives on among humans everywhere. Not brains but hearts that thrill with life.