The Kaczynski Dilemma

May 12, 2009

For some reason that I fail now to recall, I recently went on a pre-9/11 domestic terrorism reading kick on Wikipedia. From Timothy McVeigh to Theodore Kaczynski, Wikipedia is a fascinating read when you’re looking for broad brush-stroke outlines. But the footnotes are where the real nuggets lie.

One footnote, linking to “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber,” is cited in support of this passage:

Students in Murray’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-sponsored study were told they would be debating personal philosophy with a fellow student… Instead, they were subjected to the stress test, which was an extremely stressful and prolonged psychological attack by an anonymous attorney. During the test, students were strapped into a chair and connected to electrodes that monitored their physiological reactions, while facing bright lights and a two-way mirror. This was filmed, and students’ expressions of impotent rage were played back to them several times later in the study. According to Chase, Kaczynski’s records from that period suggest he was emotionally stable when the study began. Kaczynski’s lawyers attributed some of his emotional instability and dislike of mind control to his participation in this study.

Needless to say, I had to read that article. Fortunately, the June 2000 Atlantic article is available online here. Alston Chase summarizes his article as follows:

In the fall of 1958 Theodore Kaczynski, a brilliant but vulnerable boy of sixteen, entered Harvard College. There he encountered a prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair. There, also, he was deceived into subjecting himself to a series of purposely brutalizing psychological experiments — experiments that may have confirmed his still-forming belief in the evil of science. Was the Unabomber born at Harvard? A look inside the files…

Murray’s experiments were horrifically unethical by today’s standards – and sadly lacking in any clear redemptive value – on a level only attained by Stanley Milgram and a few others. But Chase’s discussion of Murray’s psychological experiments interest me less than his focus on the “prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair.” This atmosphere smelled slightly familiar to me, as my undergraduate education was in certain ways post-dated to the 1960’s: many of the philosophies and prevailing cultural norms that my devoutly Christian professors warned us against seem to have faded into history. Of course, many of the central ideas are there, but they have evolved and cross-pollinated to the point where the counter-arguments seem a bit stale.

Here’s a bit more about Kaczynski’s philosophy (which Chase sees as an all-too-natural outgrowth of ideas ascendent at Harvard during Kaczynski’s undergraduate tenure):

Driving these events from first bomb to plea bargain was Kaczynski’s strong desire to have his ideas — as described in the manifesto — taken seriously.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences,” Kaczynski’s manifesto begins, “have been a disaster for the human race.” They have led, it contends, to the growth of a technological system dependent on a social, economic, and political order that suppresses individual freedom and destroys nature. “The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system.”

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.

This perfect storm of philosophy – that science is both all-powerful and soul-crushing – led to a worldview full of despair. “We have no illusions about the feasibility of creating a new, ideal form of society,” Kaczynski wrote. “Our goal is only to destroy the existing form of society.” That brutal, grasping despair – if not Kaczynski’s wanton disregard for human life – once held a huge segment of the educated American public captive in a sad cycle:

From the humanists we learned that science threatens civilization. From the scientists we learned that science cannot be stopped. Taken together, they implied that there was no hope.

At its core, much of this philosophy is still embraced today. We (speaking general of irreligious Western society) venerate nature in ways that were set aside for hundreds of years in the Industrial revolution, if not longer. We stand in collective awe of the power of science to map our DNA and connect us through the Internet, and recoil in horror from its power to split the atom, mass-produce cluster munitions, and engineer biological plagues. And we, whether we like it or not, we cannot roll back the knowledge of nature and reality yield by science.

Kaczynski’s rage was directed at society, and at technology, and thus he targeted individuals closely associated with the scientific-academic-industrial complex. But the Kaczynski dilemma – how to reconcile our love of nature, our belief in the power of science, and the unavoidable conclusion that the greatest damage caused by nature has been a consequence of our science – can be answered in many ways. Kaczynski solved the dilemma through ironic use of simple technology, by sending bombs to targeted individuals to disrupt the flow of society, and, ultimately, to propagate his beliefs.

If the underlying tenets of Kaczynski’s views hold true, why haven’t more people resorted to his methods? Why aren’t his ideas preached far and wide? (Admittedly, a small anarchist core of disciples exists.) I suggest that the underlying despair has been eroded in part by the moden environmental movement in at least two ways.

First, science used to be synonymos with industrialization. Today, industrial production and the pollution it creates is perceived as being decidedly low tech. Science – especially climate science – is about finding smarter solutions to energy and transportation. While “old science” with its domination of nature is vilified, the new science is embraced as the key to our salvation from an earthly hell.

Second, the environmental movement – here less driven by science than by philosophy – has shifted from a massive scale to an individual one. Whether this shift was intentionally driven by leaders in the field is unclear to me, but it has been effective. Consideration of the world system as a whole can lead one to despair, but individual action can provide redemption. Shifting to consuming less or no meat, to burning less fossil fuel, or blindly acquiring more stuff – all these are personal acts lauded (rightly in my view) by the modern environmental movement. And regardless of whether those actions are effective global solutions (again, I think they are a great start) they are indeed an effective salve for the Kaczynski dilemma.


A Colossal Oops

January 13, 2009

(said the Founding Fathers


Yum, Sea Kittens

January 13, 2009

PETA renames fish ‘sea kittens’.


Death by Scientology?

January 6, 2009

Anon For Great Justice writes “What Scientology will probably do about the tragic death of Jett Travolta“:

We have as yet no firm information on Jett’s medical condition. John Travolta and Kelly Preston have only publicly spoken of their son’s having had Kawasaki Syndrome, an unlikely source of seizures, for which they treated him with Scientology’s vitamin, sauna, and running therapy known as the Purification Rundown. There has also been considerable speculation on whether Jett was autistic or had Asperberger’s Syndrome. While a confirmed diagnosis has not been made public, reports of Jett’s behavior make such a diagnosis more likely than not. At the very least, he suffered some sort of neurological impairment that contributed to his fatal seizure.

The death of a child, for whatever reason, is a pain that for most families lasts a life time. No other human loss is as devastating. What makes this loss even more tragic is that it may well have been preventable. His death is inextricably embedded in the beliefs, practices, and even more, importantly, the organizational practices of the Church of Scientology and it’s use of “deployable celebrity agents” as sociologist Roy Wallis calls them.

So, we don’t have enough information to really know what happened with Jett Travolta yet. But, it’s fair to say that the inanity of Scientology has claimed at least a few other lives. From Andrew Sullivan:

We rightly understand sexual abuse to be horrifying and a legitimate reason to intervene. But withholding vital medication from a child out of religious or ideological reasons strikes me as no less abuse. I’m reminded of this acutely by the case of Christine Maggiore, a woman I met and interacted with as another person with HIV. Christine adamantly denied that HIV was related to AIDS and refused anti-HIV medication on those grounds. She died last week. Of AIDS. That was her choice, it seems to me, however tragic it is.

What was also her choice, however, was to refuse anti-HIV meds when pregnant and then to refuse HIV meds for her daughter when she was born. Eliza Jane lived three years before succumbing to HIV-related pneumonia.


Go Ahead, Make Another Baby

May 26, 2008

China exempts earthquake victim families from its one child policy so they can have another child/ heir: Story

Other groups qualified for exemptions?
-certain ethnic groups
-rural families in some cases
-families where both parents are only children

And oh yeah, the Chinese government will no longer be fining parents for their children killed in the quake:

Chinese couples who have more than one child are commonly punished by fines. The announcement says that if a child born illegally was killed in the quake, the parents will no longer have to pay fines for that child — but the previously paid fines won’t be refunded.

Does this mean that parents whose children die or are killed in another way normally have to continue paying fines? Interesting…


Iraq, Women, Democracy, and Liberty

April 8, 2008

(You can have any three of the nouns in the title, but only three, sorry.)

Over at Political Cartel, Karie has written about Iraqi Women’s Rights Falling By the Wayside. She has some astute observations about the paradox of majoritarianism and liberty for women:

Mature, responsible, hardworking women are told to wear headscarves, occasionally not allowed to drive their own cars, and given a 5 p.m. curfew. Their antagonists? Young, uneducated Iraqi men with weapons and no sense of decency. If an Iraqi man kills his wife or daughter because of suspected sexual promiscuity, he can be imprisoned for no more than three years. If a woman kills an adulterous man, she is tried for murder.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the worst part of it is that conditions for women have actually worsened under the surge. Under Saddam Hussein in the early 90s, “enforced secularism” was the law of the land, and women were largely free to go to college and marry who they liked. But now, under the surge, the US is letting things like gender issues slide for stability’s sake. . . It’s incredibly ironic that an American surge in the name of democracy should actually worsen democratic conditions.

The take-home point here is that majority rule and individual liberty are not necessarily compatible. Here’s what I said in the comments section:

This may have an interesting parallel to Turkish society, where secularism (and women’s rights) must be enforced by a somewhat autocratic state (or at least a democracy with a strongly-involved military). Like Iraq and some other areas of the world, it’s arguable that more democracy will lead to less rights for women. Which really sucks.

It also poses an interesting hypothetical–which do we value more: Democracy, or liberty? In some places they seem to go together and even compliment each other, whereas in others they can conflict.

And David Manes followed up:

Liberty is an end in and of itself; democracy is just a means to achieving other ends. If democracy isn’t taking a society to better places (tolerance, prosperity, human rights, etc.) then it is useless. There is nothing magical about simple majoritarianism if it becomes oppressive.

And (master of hegemonic discourse) Steve Denney:

I think Americans, especially, see [liberty and democracy] as commensurate, which is a false perception. Americans think that Democracy will bring about liberty — a non sequitor, because democracy can bring about the proscription of certain liberties, regardless of the ramifications or the consequences.

When we talk about democracy, I think we’re usually referring to “liberal democracies” like the US, Canada, much of Western Europe, etc. Iran is also a democracy, but it’s a theocratic one. It’s quite arguable that the majority really is getting its way in Iran (to the detriment of those who disagree). Turkey is a democracy of sorts as well, but with a sort of military-enforced secularism that likely goes against the mainstream of public opinion and helps to shape public opinion too. Iran is probably closer to democracy, but I’d take living in Turkey any day, because it is a lot closer to liberty. Of course, it’d be great if we could have both.


Deep Existential Torment is Sexy

April 7, 2008

torment existential

More and more philosophy majors these days. This article proposes that, somewhat paradoxically, tougher economic times are pushing people to ever more general (and arguably less marketable) college majors. The first paragraph made me laugh, as they describe the oh-so-unexpected shift of a pre-med freshwoman to a pre-law senior. Must’ve been Organic Chem.

The money quote is at the end though:

Jenna Schaal-O’Connor, a 20-year-old sophomore who is majoring in cognitive science and linguistics, said philosophy had other perks. She said she found many male philosophy majors interesting and sensitive.

“That whole deep existential torment,” she said. “It’s good for getting girlfriends.”