Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kaczynski Read The Great Books!: Further Ruminations on Intellectuals and Danger

"We all indeed have our dark sides. One evening, that great horned toad of an awkward intellectual, Karl Marx, came home from fulminating at the British Museum. 'At any rate,' he wrote to Engels that night, 'I hope the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles all the rest of their lives.' And well they did. Few of us can ever hope for that level of retributive pissiness. We merely fantasize about returning someday to our childhood neighborhoods, encountering the ex-bullies or the catty girls who were the in-group when we were not, and beating them into contused, bloodied contrition with our thick stack of diplomas."
-Robert Sapolsky, from a brilliant essay on the mixed feelings he and his colleagues had when they found out who The Unabomber was. "Beelzebub's SAT Scores" is collected in Sapolsky's book The Trouble With Testosterone.
A few years ago my brother - a theologian and very non-Marxist-Left-ish progressive Christian, and yes they do exist - asked me if I had heard of an intellectual named Jacques Ellul. I said I had: his work on the problems of technology and the fate of humans and the planet was widely known in my circles (not Christian, not very much concerned with theology either), and Ellul had written a very impressive text that I had bought but not yet read (how many of those we have!) called Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. I knew McLuhan had been influenced by Ellul. But Ellul's Technological Society was the big splash. 

My brother asked, have you read his book Anarchy and Christianity? No, I'd never heard of it. A radical theologian friend of his had recommended it. The title alone was enough to get me to read it. And it was fascinating. A short book, and Ellul says early on that, hey you anarchists: you may not believe me, but we have a lot in common. Ellul had been, I thought, a sort of Left-ish catholic. He had fought against the Nazis in the French Resistance underground during WWII. He was definitely a Christian. But he thought of himself as a "Christian Anarchist."And his interpretation of the New Testament made more sense to me than just about anything I'd ever read about it. But I digress...
The kind of hazing that Sapolsky alluded to above? The group cruelty visited upon the kid who is a "nerd" and too smart, "weird," etc?: perhaps some of you remember this all-too-vividly. I got a lot of it when I was a kid. I fantasized about retribution. But I never did anything. (And don't plan to, Mr or Ms. National Security Agency-agent.) Kaczynski, of course, did do something. And he had read the Great Books. He had also written a brilliant doctoral dissertation on "boundary functions" in mathematics, a paper that math professor Peter Duren said was "an extraordinary dissertation, a spectacular paper," that provided the solution to a fundamental math problem that had eluded the best minds for years.
Anyway, sometime during the Renaissance science really got going. Aristotle had written almost 2000 years before then that everything had a teleology, a proper end, a true course and function. And because knowledge was potentially dangerous - see Prometheus and Pandora - there were other countervailing aspects in the human character that were needed. See this theme of dangerous knowledge coupled with a fateful arrogance in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides: hubris, or overweening pride in knowledge which fed on itself, and led to madness and all sorts of unsane situations. Moderation, virtue, restraint, were necessary. Because stuff can get out of hand if you're really smart and...unbalanced.
This idea of restraint in science had, by 1920, evaporated. And we went from, say 1775, when James Watt made a good go of his steam engine, to Internet, satellite technology, exploration of the moon and other planets, the depths of the oceans, quarks, how DNA-RNA works, the scanning electron microscope, etc, etc, etc....in a measly 225 years.

But: now we also have gulags, carpet bombing, concentration camps, cluster bombs, nuclear and biological weapons, "collateral damage" and let's not forget genocides too. All administered by well-educated people. Just as it's well-known that some Nazis committed atrocities by day and went home and hugged their children and wept over a Beethoven sonata at night, today men just outside of Las Vegas drive to work, conduct drone attacks on people on the other side of the globe, then after the workday rush off to see their daughter's ballet recital. Such wonders of technology!

Such a Faustian bargain we're all ensconced in?
Theodore Kaczynski, AKA The Unabomber, was caught finally in 1996, 18 years after he started his...spree. One of the books in Ted's cabin library was Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd, a book that has meant a lot to me too. Here's a quote:

"The accumulation of the missed and compromised revolutions of modern times, with their consequent ambiguities and social imbalances, has fallen, and must fall, most heavily on the young, making it hard to grow up."
Oh, there was another interesting book Ted had. His brother David later said it had been Ted's "Bible."

In 1999 an interview with Ted had appeared in a small radical magazine, Green Anarchist in which Ted said that in 1971 or 1972, he had "encountered Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society for the first time, and its message that society served technology, not vice-versa. Individuals, Ellul argued, were valued only insofar as they served this end. All social activities, but especially mathematics, education, and psychology, were shaped by and devoted solely to technological progress. Yet, as Kaczynski would explain later, these ideas did not surprise him. He had already encountered very similar ones at Harvard.

"'I had already developed at least 50 percent of the ideas of that book on my own,' he recalled in 1998. 'And...when I read the book for the first time, I was delighted, because I thought, 'Here is someone who is saying what I have already been thinking.'" - from Alston Chase's terrific book, Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist
There is a line in Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus!Trilogy: "Convictions cause convicts." It seems Ted thought he had the Archimedean POV on social reality. Now he is a convict. What is the way out of this?, I ask rhetorically...
"Civilization develops in man nothing but an added capacity to receive impressions - that is all. And the growth of that capacity increases his tendency to seek pleasure in spilling blood. You may have noticed that the most enthusiastic blood-letters have always been the most civilized of men."
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground, taught in the General Education syllabus that Kaczynski read at Harvard.
Henry Kissinger: ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia, won the Nobel Peace Prize, "statesman."
Kissinger has written numerous books on foreign policy, and he has been active in other capacities as well.


Rev. TaiPing Monkey said...

"a very impressive text that I had bought but not yet read (how many of those we have!)"

So glad to know I am not alone, Michael. Plus you have all those tempting bookshops on Telegraph!

Rev. TaiPing Monkey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
michael said...

Dear Right Goodlie Rev. Tai-Ping Monkey:

Not only are we not alone, but there is some anecdotal data that you reminded me about this.

Telegraph: Cody's closed about three years ago. Moe's - bless them! - is still going strong. That's my favorite bookstore in Berkeley. Comic book/Graphic novel stores are doing well here. Pegasus still rawks. Black Oak Books closed...

And as you know, outside Berkeley, B&N has been floundering and Borders is near-kaput.

Even Berkeleyans buy their books online. I don't know how they get "best-read" when so many of us are buying books and NOT reading them, but Berkeley is supposedly the third best-read city in the US:

Eric Wagner said...

I love the movie "Conspiracy" about the Wannsee Conference. It shows Nazis planning the Holocaust and then discussing Schubert.

The Dostoevsky quote makes me think of Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac.

How many cities read books these days?