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Tue, 29 Dec 2020 10:00
Ted Kaczynski warned that technology was crushing the human spirit—and harming the planet. Since 1995, when his manifesto was published, Kaczynski has gained a large number of followers. John H. Richardson, a journalist and author, corresponded with Kaczynski, and joins Lindsay to discuss the wide-reaching influence of Kaczynski's ideas.
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From Wondery, I'm Lindsay Graham and this is American Scandal. Today we wrap up our series on the Unibomber. Between 1978 and 1995, Ted Kaczynski led a campaign to stop the advance of modern technology. Kaczynski was a former math professor and as an undergrad at Harvard, his life was profoundly changed after he took part in a brutal psychological experiment. Kaczynski was left bitter and bent on getting revenge at scientists and those he believed were advancing technology. So he began mailing and planting bombs across the country. This campaign would kill three people and injure many more. He was known by the FBI as the Unibomber and the man hunt to find him lasted nearly two decades. It would become the longest and most expensive case in FBI history. The publication of Kaczynski's manifesto in 1995 led to a break in the case when Kaczynski's brother David noticed similarities between the manifesto and his brother's letters. Soon agents arrested Kaczynski in his cabin in rural Montana. The Unibomber case was a milestone for the FBI, but Kaczynski also had a large influence across American culture. His manifesto titled Industrial Society and Its Future, featured a scathing critique of science and technology. Kaczynski argued that industrial life was destroying the human spirit and the planet. It was an argument that gained traction with a variety of movements, including radical environmentalists and those who reject civilization. Today I'm speaking with John H. Richardson, a journalist and author who's written about those movements. While working on a story about environmental activists, he also began exchanging letters with Ted Kaczynski himself. We'll talk about Kaczynski, his vision of a perfect world and how his message might still resonate today. That's next. American scandals sponsored by Sachi Art. I'm lucky. 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Gluten free pasta, covered either way, cart it, and finally some vegetarian gluten free olives from my well earned cocktail. When your family shopping list has more footnotes than groceries, the world is your cart. Visit insta cart.com or download the app and get free delivery on your first order. Offer valid for a limited time minimum order $10 delivery subject to availability additional terms apply. John Richardson, welcome to American scandal. Good to be here. Let's start with Kaczynski's manifesto. It's 35,000 words long and in it Kaczynski focuses on two main ideas. I was wondering if you could tell us what they are. Well, basically that technology is uncontrollable because it's too large a system to be controlled by any entity or governing body or anything like that. It's really in control of the world rather than us making the decisions driving things forward, whether we want it to or not, and that it's going to be a disaster for humanity and that it should be stopped. 35,000 words is a long time to spend on just those two or three points. How far into detail did he get? Well, I mean, he talks about organizing and ideas of primitive life and a lot of different aspects of the critique. He talks about how technology and civilization in his opinion causes psychological illnesses and makes people as he calls it, feral. He talks about the difference between left and right and how they fall into the spectrum of his analysis. I mean, he goes into a lot of subjects. The history of anti technology losses into a little bit. He certainly not the first person who's had these ideas. But basically the thing that distinguishes his book is that it's a call for revolution and something to actually be done about it rather than just being a social analysis as other scholars and thinkers have done over the last couple centuries. Well, if we presume that revolution does come, did Kaczynski have any cohesive vision of his utopia? What would it look like to live in the world he wanted to see? He talks about primitive life as a sort of hunter gatherer kind of ideal. But I'm not sure that that's something that he particularly posits as something that would be pleasant. And he doesn't seem all that interested in exactly how anti civilization would be constructed after some kind of collapse. He's really more interested, I think, in the critique of how technology in his opinion both makes us helpless, robs us of agency and is getting larger and larger and more and more destructive. That's the critique he's more interested in, I think, than what life should look like. I find that surprising given that we all know Ted Kaczynski because of his acts of violence in order to enact a revolution. Well, I mean, this is just my opinion, but I think that he reacted to the incursion of roads and housing and cabins and stuff like that into his wilderness in a very emotional and angry way. He says himself his reaction was wanting revenge. Some people say that he came up with the philosophy later to justify his killings. In my opinion, I mean, he obviously had those kinds of anti civilization ideas because he went to live in the woods in the first place. And I think it was a combination of emotional and reaction mixed with a growing political conviction that civilization was the enemy now. If you look at his thoughts about revolution that he's written, this is not consistent with killing people randomly. That's not a tactically effective thing to do. If it's never has been particularly unless you just want to cause chaos. So his acts are not consistent with that more, you know, what you might call if you wanted to mature philosophy, where he does the whole social critique that sort of puts his acts in context, I guess. Well, let's stick with a manifesto. In 1995, it was published in the Washington Post and reached an international audience. Do you have an idea of what the public reaction was to his ideas? Well, at the time, I mean, there was the popular reaction, which was weird, hermit killer. And there was a more sort of a counter culture of head for president campaign. Then there was a sort of a some serious academic critiques looking at it by people in places like the New York Times by important physicists and technologists and have been all ever since. So I think all of those are sort of completely different Ted Kaczynski's. Could we characterize those that took the manifesto seriously as a sort of following? Well, I think there's definitely been people who have been seeing him as a inspiring figure or sympathetic or of the similar mind. So definitely, I mean, in foreign policy magazine a couple of years ago, they argued that there were a couple thousand committed ready for revolution, antisive people in the US. I have no idea whether that's right. And there, you know, there have been consistently groups overseas making the same claims, some who explicitly are Kaczynski inspired. But I wouldn't overstate it. I don't think there's any kind of revolutionary army out there waiting to make an attack. And most people who are antisive these days are aware of Kaczynski, but are not necessarily directly, you know, acolytes of him. I mean, few people would admit to that. Well, you have an interesting relationship with Kaczynski yourself. And in 2016, you wrote to him. He was still in a supermax prison in Colorado serving concurrent life sentences. Where he remains. Yes, where he remains. Why did you reach out to him? I'd been covering climate change stories for a mega square magazine for a few years. And during the course of that, I became aware of people who had sort of given up hope that there would ever be any effective global action against it. And when you start to look at those people, you end up stumbling across the Kaczynskiites because it's sort of like we told you so. So I became, I started looking at that and it reminded me of somebody I met a decade before who had expoused those ideas. And so that intrigued me. I guess the connection with the person actual person I knew and liked. So I just started interviewing people as a reporter does thinking maybe there was a story there and eventually by end of operating town. Lots of people don't know it, but autumn is an ideal time to plant. shorter days and cooler nights create ideal conditions for the plants to get established. 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We'll talk with drivers teams and everything in between and dissect what happened on the track and often download the amp app and follow it presents F one or ask Alexa to play F one on amp. For most people who perhaps are not reporters it's not a natural course of things to reach out to a mass murderer. How did how did that feel? Well, I've done you know, I've done killers and gang stories before I was a crime reporter for a while. It's not that far out of what I would normally do. I just story where I spent a week with a hitman from the sinlo a cartel. I mean, that's what you do. Well, in this instance, what did you talk about? Where where did the conversation go? She has been a long time since the beginning. I mean, first I was just saying I was interested in doing a story about him and his followers and his ideas and all that and he was dismissive and a bit contemptuous of my magazine. But he was pretty funny about it. He quoted Paul Goodman. He said, I understand that S.Guerr is a magazine that goes around and around and ends up coming up with no real point in its articles. So we batted that one around for a couple letters and basically tried to I tried to get him to continue writing and respond and play it out. And he's like I said dismissive he's very sort of a luth in a lot of ways certainly at first and then I just kept trying. Well, I can imagine anyone in Kaczynski's place and certainly of his temperament being a luth and dismissive of the press. But like you said, you kept at it. Did you gain any notion of Kaczynski as a person as the perhaps the relationship warmed. Well, I mean, he definitely has a sense of humor. He's funny and in a Serbic kind of English prep school way. He's very scholarly. I mean, his letters have footnotes and citations and page references to my letters or to whoever he's writing to. He tends to be cool, cool temperament. If you've read his book, you know, he is a mathematician. He tends to be sort of hyper rational. It's kind of like being with a guy in college who's really smart and you're batting things around and he's sort of snotty and superior and makes you work for your end of the conversation. Did you get any feeling that he enjoyed writing you? There were times when he said things that were not just in the course of response or all of that. I mean, we talked about music and boats. Things that were off topic sort of about revolution and technology, although it always sort of crept in there. And when sometimes you could get quite antique and sort of like boyishly wanting to have fun with it. Language like playing with language playing with fanciful concepts about adventure. I mean, I don't know. It was just it was kind of unexpected. You never know what a person is really like and people can create personas and letters. But he seemed to me, you know, not really much different than anyone else that you would be corresponding with, except for the notoriety of his case and the peculiarity of his intellect. I suppose it was inevitable that the two of you spent sometimes discussing politics and the idea of political revolution. Certainly 2020 has been a year fraught with charge politics. Did Kaczynski have anything to say about the current moment? Well, he's not a big admirer of Trump and sort of spoke of his administration as a grifter thieves. Those are not his exact words. He wants said that if he had been able to vote in 2016, he would have voted for Hillary, which I thought was kind of funny. I think that although he devotes a lot of time to hating liberals that are leftist rather in his manifesto, his sympathies are probably more in that direction than with conservatives. At least today's version is very interested in developments in technology and stuff like that. That's one of the ways that I got his interest, I guess, as I would write to him about developments in data mining and surveillance technology and things like that. Not certainly since he was arrested quite a few things on the technological horizon have changed. Social media appeared and advanced artificial intelligence. Did this just confirm his suspicions? No, yeah. Actually, if you look at the manifesto again, there's a surprising amount of stuff that is really does seem prophetic. He talks about those kinds of technological surveillance, military robot type developments, genetic engineering. It was a big concern for him, the idea of designer babies and just a general, you know, more and more departure from the natural world. I had done some pieces on computer algorithms and robots and so I think that he's interested in that stuff and that was we were able to talk about it. One thing that's probably not changed much in his time in prison is his actual accommodations. He's used to small cramped quarters, but how has he found prison? You know, he's not the kind of person who complains about physical discomfort or anything like that. He actually I tried to sympathize with him once because I had read an article about conditions there and it said that it was terribly cruel. Because it was designed so that prisoners could never see the sun and maximum security. And so I said, I read that. That's terrible. What a horrible situation, especially for you. And he wrote back and he said, you're a journalist and you believe everything you read, what an idiot. I can see the sky. And then he talked, gave me a little lecture on the different cell blocks and and what the rules were all of that. So he's not looking for sympathy. He's sort of an honest broker in that regard. He mostly seems very frustrated about time, research materials, ability to correspond as much as he would like and stuff like that. Often when I write to him, he says he has very little time to respond or he's working hard to get something done. He's writing another book or something like that. In all these years, did you get any feeling that his time in incarceration has changed his views about his manifesto, his mission or his crimes? I mean, he's not the kind of person who would reveal that necessarily. If he has any remorse about his killings, I don't think he would say so because it would be like an unseemly reach or sympathy or something like that. Yeah, I don't think he would want to play that card. The best weddings are always filled with unforgettable moments and personal thoughtful touches like my friend Cecilie's wedding where the groom tossed the bouquet. For any kind of wedding you want, there's one place to start. Zola has everything you need all in one place. They've thought of everything. Zola has you covered with venues, photographers, florists and more to make your wedding happen. 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Again, as I said, there's a lot of people who are very Kaczynski ash, who deny or disavow or just won't talk about Kaczynski in the sense that there's that sort of potent valence around him that suggests to me that he's on people's minds if they keep saying he's not on their minds. But there's also like explicitly there's you know terrorist group in Latin America and there's groups who are more active in the US who who aren't committing violence, but who might be in favor of it who are, you know, using his name or referencing him because it's so explosive. You know, practically quote him in their own works. I think there are people who are trying to live off grid, which is sort of overlap with preppers. There's people who are sort of doing legal thinking. There's people who are fighting pipelines and sympathetic but have more immediate environmental concerns. It's a big spectrum. But it's irrelevant in a way to say are they Kaczynski inspired? Because in a way that's just saying are these people associated with this person with this troublesome reputation. But the overlap of ideas, the critique of technology, the desire for revolution, things that he put together in one explicit very forceful package for the first time I think have been are being mirrored by contemporary thinkers. Sure, I think that's a fair point that that a confluence of ideas, a similarity of ideas does not indicate an endorsement of Kaczynski. But you know, in 2018 you wrote an article in New York magazine about a generation of people who have been influenced by Kaczynski and you you coined a term Kaczynski moments. What do you mean by that? Well, I was thinking of a couple of things. One was a young man I met who told me about reading the manifesto for the first time and it was the cover had been torn off. He didn't know what it was. He just started reading it as an innocent person who was interested in anarchist ideas and all that he was sympathetic to the general concept. And he got a little while ways in and he thought this is like brilliant, it's genius. And he got a little farther in and he figured out, oh my God, this must be Ted Kaczynski and it was a shock. And I think that that's really why I wrote the story because I saw that shock replicated another people there's a famous essay by Bill Joy, the founder of Sun Microsystems, I think. And he knew a person who had been wounded by one of Kaczynski's bombs and we'll but ended up somehow having that same experience where somebody handed him some Kaczynski writings from the manifesto and he said, wow, this is completely right and then turn the page and saw Kaczynski's name and felt this shock like how could I agree with this killer. And that's sort of just really caught my imagination and I think it's I guess because it stands for this sort of shock that comes when you realize how climate change is seems uncontrollable by the systems designed by man. I think I'd be captivated to in these Kaczynski moments, these times in which people find themselves horrified to agree with the thoughts of a murderer. So there is this difference, this divide between Kaczynski, the murdering hermit and Kaczynski, the thinker. But Kaczynski wanted a revolution and still revolution to our pretty rare things, even though radical thought has brought them about in the US and France, Russia, China. Kaczynski is not a Jefferson or Robespierre, a Lenin or a Mao. So how influential in his thinking was Kaczynski really? Well, I mean, I'm not he it's clearly, you know, the overwhelming majority of humanity has zero interest in his thoughts. My sense has always been that when there are subterranean things happening in the culture that haven't really been out in the clear yet, it's sort of stewing away in people's minds in in coate and not very well worked out ways. And I think it tends to be people who aren't like super well attached to normal life, conventional life, who tend to sort of receive what is happening in the culture, these unsaid things. I think that it goes throughout history of people who are sort of profits and visionaries are not necessarily the normal guy who shows up to the office at 8 a.m. So I'm interested in phenomenon of different thinking, you know, canaries in the cold mind kind of thing. And so looking at what is undeniably a huge growth and sort of all sorts of varieties of not anti but a civilizational things like these primitive life gatherings that have really gone from a few in the 80s to hundreds now. The whole proper movement, all the various forms of simplicity and wellness and back to the land and living light on the earth and all of that, there's there's a lot of that kind of thinking growing and some of it is more radical than others in other countries where they have more radical more live radical traditions. There is violence and bombings and murders with a strong anti civ message and sometimes a explicitly kazinskyish message. Also, I mean, the idea that there's a couple thousand of them in the States, you know, as a point, Dr. kazinsky makes often is that the Russian revolution was accomplished by 6000 Bolsheviks. What kazinsky's practical advice has come down to is wait for the right moment and hit a critical point in the infrastructure or the system and you might be able to create a chain effect that brings down the system. So we return, I guess, to this tension that Ted kazinsky, the thinker might have had something that we should pay attention to, but Ted kazinsky, the activist, the revolutionary is someone we should rightfully revile. No, I wouldn't go that far. I think the feelings you may have about the judgments we may have and I may have about his behavior or kind of irrelevant to what the disturbance that he felt, which is being felt, I think, by many more people as climate change and ocean acidification and species, extinctions accelerate. So he was an extraordinarily rational man who was like so rational that he went over the edge and said he looked at what was happening in the history of technology and how it had grown in efforts to control it and scientific ethics and what they've done over the years. And he said this is just going to get worse until it all falls apart. And he wrote that in the 90s as people, other people were warning as far back as a century. But when you see that he was so disturbed at that time and you see that a lot of the things that he's predicted are coming true and that other people are being disturbed by them, the question isn't whether how we feel about Ted Kaczynski. The question is what are we going to do about the Ted Kaczynski's that are going to come because his reaction is not like one of a kind. I've always felt that when things start getting bad and people connect the wildfires and the flooding and everything else, there's going to be a lot of people who become unhinged and a lot of them are going to become unhinged in that way because that model exists. And whether it has his name attached to it or not, he's more like a case study in a way than to talk about right and wrong or anything else. John Richardson, thank you for speaking with me today. But thanks for having me. That was my conversation with John H. Richardson, a journalist and author of the book My Father This By. Next on American Scandal, we bring you an encore presentation of our series on the Iran Contra Fair. In the 1980s, Washington, D.C. was hit with a sensational scandal. Stories began to emerge about illegal weapon sales abroad, an attempted international coup. And as the scandal unfolded, it would threaten the presidency of Ronald Reagan and lead to a high stake showdown with a special prosecutor. From Wondry, this is episode 5 of 5 of the Unibomber from American Scandal. In our next series, in the 1980s, Washington, D.C. was hit with a sensational scandal. Stories emerged about illegal weapon sales abroad, an attempted international coup. It would come to be known as the Iran Contra Fair, but as the scandal unfolded, fingers pointed to the very top, reaching into the over office of the White House. This episode contains reenactments and dramatized details. In while in most cases, we can't know exactly what was said. All our dramatizations are based on historical research. American Scandal has hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham for Airship, audio editing by Molly Bach. This episode was produced by Susan Valet. Our senior producer is Gabe Ribbon. Executive producers are Stephanie Jenns, Jenny Lauer Beckman, and her nonlopes for Wondry. What if your family was the victim of a home invasion, or you woke up in the morgue, or you were seriously injured miles from help? What would you do? This is actually happening, asks our listeners this very question, while we bring you captivating real life stories of trauma and perseverance. This is actually happening, brings listeners extraordinary true stories from the people who lived them. You'll hear stories about conflict, turmoil, or threats that dramatically alter the course of someone's life. Each episode is an exploration of the human spirit, and how survivors manage to overcome hardship and move on with their lives, even thriving afterward. 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