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


Seven Reasons Barack Obama Is Not a Christian

January 10, 2009

That’s right, it’s all a diabolical plot.

Reason #1: Obama Believes There Are Many Paths to Heaven
Reason #2: Obama Denies the Authority of the Bible
Reason #3: Obama Supports Homosexuality (rather hilariously, the still shot excerpted from the video on this page, directly under this Reason, is a picture of Obama with his arm around Rev. Jeremiah Wright)
Reason #4: Obama Supports Abortion
Reason #5: Obama Affirms Muslim Prayer
Reason #6: Obama is Associated with Black Liberation Theology
Reason #7: Obama Has No Bona Fide Christian Testimony

Tolerance of other religions, skepticism about the Bible, outrage at injustice, support for equal rights and individual rights… good grief, Obama sounds like a Christian Humanist or something.

h/t Hemant


The Chinese Media on Tibet

April 14, 2008

Heresy Corner has an excellent little article contrasting the official Chinese media’s account of the Olympic torch relay with the photos that have been dominating Western media. An excerpt:

The Notting Hill Gate in west London greeted the Beijing Olympic torch on Sunday morning with a mini carnival reminiscent of the annual carnival that draws over one million revelers.

People with families and toddlers turned out in the hundreds braving wintry snow to line the streets in Notting Hill Gate and celebrate the Olympic torch.

And a picture:
london olympics protest

Of course, the Chinese media description of the relay locations is actually largely accurate, in the sense that in many locations people turned out to cheer on the flame, including many Chinese who live abroad. So here Heresy Corner has used (though arguably to a much less serious extent) the same tactic as the official Chinese media by showing only photos that match with the story he’s trying to share (ridiculing the Chinese media). The criticism of the Chinese media is legit, but it’s also an interesting observation on how the way the dominant media sources portray an event has a huge impact; Western news coverage that concentrates on the protests is not reflective of everyone’s opinion. But violence is good news for media.

I’m torn on the whole idea of protesting. I think it’s justified, yes, but my pragmatic streak makes me question its effectiveness in getting the Chinese to change their ways. Are we just furthering existing divisions and turning the Chinese youth against America? That’s basically the argument made by Matthew Forney in this op-ed:

Educated young people are usually the best positioned in society to bridge cultures, so it’s important to examine the thinking of those in China. The most striking thing is that, almost without exception, they feel rightfully proud of their country’s accomplishments in the three decades since economic reforms began. And their pride and patriotism often find expression in an unquestioning support of their government, especially regarding Tibet.

As for political repression, few young Chinese experience it. Most are too young to remember the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 and probably nobody has told them stories. China doesn’t feel like a police state, and the people young Chinese read about who do suffer injustices tend to be poor — those who lost homes to government-linked property developers without fair compensation or whose crops failed when state-supported factories polluted their fields. . .

Barring major changes in China’s education system or economy, Westerners are not going to find allies among the vast majority of Chinese on key issues like Tibet, Darfur and the environment for some time. If the debate over Tibet turns this summer’s contests in Beijing into the Human Rights Games, as seems inevitable, Western ticket-holders expecting to find Chinese angry at their government will instead find Chinese angry at them.


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.


A Straight-Shooting Questionnaire

March 27, 2008

This questionnaire is for “self-avowed heterosexuals” only.

1. What do you think caused your heterosexuality?
I’m pretty sure I was born this way, but how would I know?

2. When and how did you first decide you were a heterosexual?
Well, I guess I’ve just always been attracted to girls.

3. Is it possible your heterosexuality is just a phase you may grow out of?

Possible, but how can you ever know at the time? I’m just living my experience as I know it now.

4. Could it be that your heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?
Quite likely. Look at where I go to school!

5. If you’ve never slept with a person of the same sex, how can you be sure you wouldn’t prefer that?

Um.. body hair?

6. To whom have you disclosed your heterosexual tendencies? How did they react?
My friends and parents know, and they’re mostly understanding.

7. Why do heterosexuals feel compelled to seduce others into their lifestyle?

Why don’t you stop beating your wife?

8. Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality? Can’t you just be what you are and keep it quiet?

I was thinking of starting an annual parade actually.

9. Would you want your children to be heterosexual, knowing the problems they’d face?

Probably not. The dilemmas of rejection from the gay community and ethical questions concerning having children are just too great a burden to bear.

10. A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual men. Do you consider it safe to expose children to heterosexual male teachers, pediatricians, priests, or scoutmasters?
Probably not. We really shouldn’t let children be around men at all given these stats. That’s why I advocate schools, hospitals, churches, and scout troops with all female leaders.

11. With all the societal support for marriage, the divorce rate is spiraling. Why are there so few stable relationships among heterosexuals?
It’s hard being an oppressed majority.

12. Why do heterosexuals place so much emphasis on sex?
Because we can make babies. Deal with it.

13. Considering the menace of overpopulation, how could the human race survive if everyone were heterosexual?
Birth control?

14. Could you trust a heterosexual therapist to be objective? Don’t you fear s/he might be inclined to influence you in the direction of her/his own leanings?
I just don’t trust therapists in general.

15. Heterosexuals are notorious for assigning themselves and one another rigid, stereotyped sex roles. Why must you cling to such unhealthy role-playing?
Patriarchy.

16. With the sexually segregated living conditions of military life, isn’t heterosexuality incompatible with military service?
Probably so. I prefer the Sacred Band model.

17. How can you enjoy an emotionally fulfilling experience with a person of the other sex when there are such vast differences between you? How can a man know what pleases a woman sexually or vice-versa?
It’s probably not possible. We’re all doomed to live lives of disconnected, ambivalent oblivion.

18. Shouldn’t you ask your far-out straight cohorts, like skinheads and born-agains, to keep quiet? Wouldn’t that improve your image?

I ask them all the time, but I can’t control how they live their lives. If they want to get married to just one woman, and try and raise children who are only straight, who am I to stop them?

19. Why are heterosexuals so promiscuous?
See #12.

And then there are some more…

h/t Ian.


The Future of America

March 23, 2008

Is Multiracial. Americans, at least in the particular subculture I grew up in, though I suspect it’s a wider phenomenon than just in small conservative Southern towns, have rather simplistic, binary conceptions of race. That’s going to change, and Obama is, win or lose, a catalyst for that change.

“Mixed Messenger”:

I sometimes wonder what will happen in another 50 years. Will my grandchildren “feel” Jewish? Japanese? Latino? African-American? Will they be pluralists? “Pass” as Anglo? Refuse categorization? Will Hapa Nation eventually make tracking “race” impossible? Will it unite us? Or will it, as some suggest, further segregate African-Americans from everyone else? The answer to all these questions may be yes. Regardless, watching Senator Obama campaigning with his black wife, his Indonesian-Caucasian half-sister, his Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law and all of their multiculti kids, it seems clear that the binary, black-and-white — not to mention black-or-white — days are already behind us.

And a random note:

And don’t get my [Asian] husband started on why Tiger Woods — whose mother is three-quarters Asian and whose father was one-quarter Chinese and half African-American — is rarely hailed as the first Asian-American golf superstar.