The , aka the “Unabomber,” brings an end to his bizarre story that held America in suspense 30 years ago.
But it is not the end of questions about his pathology — nor his ideas, which hold persistent appeal to a certain cast of mind.
and hermetic existence in a tiny shack that doubled as a bomb factory in rural Montana reminds us that the dividing line between brilliance and madness is easily smudged.
By all accounts Kaczynski was one of the most gifted mathematicians of his generation, destined perhaps for greatness if he had not been overcome with murderous fury.
We will never know whether the extreme psychological experiments he underwent as a student at Harvard (sponsored by the CIA), with abusive techniques that today are considered unethical and are prohibited, contributed to his dark turn a few years later.
More relevant is the contents of his famous 35,000-word manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future.”
How many of the radical ideas it contained did he learn at Harvard?
The manifesto is chock-full of nutty but popular leftist beliefs with pedigrees back to anti-technology thinkers like German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
In fact for a time there was a popular parlor game, and several online quizzes, called “Al Gore or Unabomber?”
It was startling how many passages in Kaczynski’s manifesto found close parallels in Gore’s 1992 eco-doom treatise “Earth in the Balance.” Many extracts are completely interchangeable between the two authors.
While Gore is an environmental fanatic who talks in grandiose terms about the need for a “wrenching transformation” of our civilization, he is at heart a conventional politician.
Gore wasn’t a violent extremist, and Kaczynski would never have voted for him, knowing a phony when he saw one.
But the larger point is that Kaczynski’s manifesto has gained followers in the years since its publication, such that it can be said to represent the core of contemporary radical environmental thought and the justification for extreme action.
The New York Times comes close to noting this fact in its obituary for Kaczynski: “His text did not generally find receptive readers outside a tiny fringe of the environmental movement. The term ‘Unabomber’ entered popular discourse as shorthand for the type of brainy misfit who might harbor terrifying impulses. Yet political change and the passage of time caused some to see Mr. Kaczynski in a new light.”
This is an understatement.
There’s a full-blown pro-Kaczynski subculture going, and The New York Review of Books even published a letter from him. (Maybe this is not out of character for a publication that once printed the instructions to make a Molotov cocktail on its cover.)
The extreme climate activists who have , splashing famous artwork and gluing themselves to factory floors should be considered Kaczynski’s disciples.
And his popularity now extends beyond just the environmental fringe.
A philosophy professor of my acquaintance relates overhearing another prof in the field remarking recently at a conference that he “regularly makes trips to Colorado to visit his favorite philosopher of technology, Ted Kaczynski.”
The ubiquity of the manifesto’s sentiment thus makes one wonder whether it is so outlandish to think Kaczynski absorbed some of his ideas at Harvard (Alston Chase makes this case in his book about Kaczynski, “A Mind for Murder”) — and how many more Kaczynski sympathizers universities are creating right now.
Of course, such radical thought is today so mainstream that it can be easily produced by ChatGPT.
Maybe that unhappy thought .
Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.