Tagged: Pop Culture

Love of Disease

Chuck Klosterman, who writes the Ethicist column for the New York Times, ends his 2009 book Eating the Dinosaur with an essay about Ted Kaczynski — more commonly known as the Unabomber.

In discussing Kaczynski’s essay “Industrial Society and Its Future” — also called the “Unabomber Manifesto” — Klosterman observes that the document is “not nearly as insane as it should be, at least relative to how we view its author.”  This is an unusually perceptive observation.  Klosterman’s basic thesis is that the Unabomber “was a bad person, but sometimes he was right.”

From this starting point, Klosterman proceeds with what appears to be a clear and rational discussion of the Unabomber’s writing.  Klosterman grants that the  Unabomber was largely correct insofar as “the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”  Klosterman adds to this the sympathetic observation that:

“We are living in a manner that is unnatural.  We are latently enslaved by our own ingenuity, and we have unknowingly constructed a simulated world.  The benefits of technology are easy to point out… but they do not compensate for the overall loss of humanity that is its inevitable consequence.  As a species, we have never been less human than we are right now.”

And from these premises, Klosterman nevertheless concludes that, for his own love of technology, he gives up “nothing that’s particularly important to me.”  Klosterman’s conclusion is profoundly nihilistic: in essence, the Unabomber was right to say we are living in a disaster, but who cares?

Klosterman even understands the implications of his nihilistic conclusion:

“I could change… But I choose the opposite.  Instead of confronting reality and embracing the Experience of Being Alive, I will sit here and read about Animal Collective over the Internet… not because the content is important or amusing or well written, but because the content exists.”

So the New York Times ethicist is a nihilist.  In this he is hardly unique, though a more profound attitudinal problem derives from some of his unexamined biases.  He remarks repeatedly that the Unabomber was a “bad man.”  In a sense, Klosterman has no choice but to say so.  Yet one could just as plausibly suggest that the Unabomber was acting out of the deepest human sympathies.  His goal was not sadistic, to revel in making others suffer; he was not indifferent to the suffering of others.  Rather, Kaczynski’s goal was to prevent future generations from suffering the indignities of the industrial system — on which point Klosterman largely agrees with Kaczynski.

The most Klosterman can honestly say on this point is that the Unabomber was misguided, and chose bad tactics.  Kaczynski’s fault wasn’t sociopathy, as Klosterman claims — those people we reward with high office (evolutionary psychologist Linda Mealey has a lot to say about sociopathy as an adaptation to competitive society in her 1997 essay, “The Sociobiology of Sociopathy: An Integrated Evolutionary Model”).  Klosterman calls the Unabomber a sociopath, but that word has a specific meaning.  By misusing that word, Klosterman overclouds the already-probelmatic discourse surrounding violence in our culture.

Similarly, Klosterman misapplies the term “fascist” to the Unabomber.  Fascism is state-centric authoritarianism — but the Unabomber is opposed to the state.  He is a self-described anarchist, and his beliefs and lifestyle choices place him square within an anarcho-primitivist milieu.  In his Manifesto, the Unabomber complains:

“Modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence. This is not accidental or a result of the arbitrariness of arrogant bureaucrats. It is necessary and inevitable in any technologically advanced society. The system HAS TO regulate human behavior closely in order to function. At work, people have to do what they are told to do, otherwise production would be thrown into chaos.  Bureaucracies HAVE TO be run according to rigid rules. To allow any substantial personal discretion to lower-level bureaucrats would disrupt the system and lead to charges of unfairness due to differences in the way individual bureaucrats exercised their discretion.”

The Unabomber is upset about authoritarianism — and, specifically, the authoritarian measures that states maintain for the benefit of industry.  Like libertarian guru Friedrich Hayek, the Unabomber is opposed to coercion, whether it comes from a state or a commercial interest.

Perhaps Klosterman thinks the Unabomber is a fascist because he rails against leftism — but leftism is not the opposite of fascism.  The left wing and the right wing are both state-centric positions.  The Unabomber viewed the state and industry as intertwined, and therefore both in need of being abolished.

Where the Unabomber’s complaints about “regulation” might sound like the modern American right wing, there is one important difference: modern libertarians want to abolish regulation while preserving both the industrial system and the concentration of wealth it creates.  The modern right wing wants to institute an aristocracy of wealth where a hereditary aristocracy has been abolished.  The Unabomber sees through this contradiction, and wants to do away with both the state and industry.

These observations about the Unabomber’s attitude towards the state and industry bring up another important error in Klosterman’s essay: it is not at all the case that the Unabomber doesn’t explain what a “rational” society should look like.  In railing against technological society, he advocates for a society without industrial technology.  We know very well what that type of society looks like: its how humans have lived for most of human history.

Klosterman’s essay also contains important omissions.  Yes, the Unabomber was the victim of an unwitting stress test, but Klosterman apparently doesn’t find it worth mentioning that the stress test was administered under the CIA mind control program MKULTRA.  And Klosterman doesn’t think it is worth mentioning anything about how the Unabomber chose his targets — specifically, people he perceived as promoting or intensifying the advance of industrial civilization.

And of those three people the Unabomber killed — far fewer in number than our celebrated mass murders in high office whom we reward generously with paid speaking engagements  — we find equal selectivity on the part of our supposed madman.  One prominent victim was Thomas J. Mosser, an upper-level executive at the Burson-Marstellar PR firm.  This PR firm — among other notable clients — represented the Argentine dictatorship, Blackwater after some of their mercenaries murdered several Iraqi civilians in cold blood, Union Carbide after the Bhopal chemical disaster poisoned thousands of innocent people, Exxon after the Valdez oil spill, the company that manufactured the Three Mile Island nuclear plant… bad man!

In his eminently reasonable — if not glib — tone, Klosterman engages in a bit of self-rationalization for his attention-seeking experiment in generating controversy:

“The fact that a document’s creator is an ego-centric murderer does not preclude the work from being worthwhile (Phil Spector shot a woman in the face, but that doesn’t make the harmonies on ‘Be My Baby’ any less beautiful).  The fact that Kaczynski has a deeply damaged psyche doesn’t mitigate its value at all…”

The notion that — like Phil Spector — the Unabomber was a bad man with brilliant ideas is almost as dangerous as endorsing his tactics.  Consider this analogous argument: sure the Nazi’s conducted medical experiments on living Jews, but their scientific innovations were brilliant, and need to be appreciated. Perhaps Klosterman knows a thing or two about the history of our ballistic missile program

The stakes are also higher than Klosterman lead his readers to believe: he ignores the environmental degradation industrialization has brought with it.  Industrialization also makes us work harder than we ever have before: the typical hunter-gatherer works a 15 hour week for a life expectancy on par with Renaissance Europe, and the typical European Medieval peasant worked only 1/3 of the year.  Today we work less than the 60 or 80 hour weeks common during the 19th Century, but that’s really not saying much.

Unemployment due to the increased use of automation — which we call increases in productivity — could just as easily shorten the workweek, or increase worker pay, or ensure that the many humans who today live on planet Earth without the benefits of industry might enjoy something closer to our standard of living.  Instead, the trend we see is this: adjusted for inflation, median wages have increased 4% since 1965.  During this same time, worker productivity has doubled, reducing the number of manufacturing jobs to pre-World War II levels while still increasing the value of the output.

Advanced technology really only benefits a very few humans, though plenty of people are addicted to it all the same.  Klosterman’s sloppy intellectualism and cavalier use of loaded terminology is dangerous: it perverts the language which we need in order to address serious social problems.  Incidentally, the perversion of language is a central characteristic of fascist regimes.  And Klosterman’s glib, superficial style elides nicely with his penchant for lying to interviewers, which he brags about in the first essay of his book.  He wrote: “I feel no compulsion to do right by the people who interview me.  In fact, I sometimes want to do wrong, even if the only person who suffers is myself.”

Klosterman seems to find immense ego-gratification from the attention of the many people eager to read his each and every word, who will shape their attitudes in response to his influence.  His glib, superficial, manipulative, egocentric personality traits make him closer to a true sociopath than the Unabomber.  And what makes Klosterman dangerous like the Unabomber is his perpetuation and normalization of these socially destructive character traits wrought by industrial ideology.