Unabomber asked the right questions, according to Canadian professor

Since Ted Kaczynski left Berkeley and came to Montana in 1971, he fits the profile of a sixties migrant to Montana that I suggested earlier. The Unabomber, the Economics of Happiness, and the End of the Millennium is an article by Nebosja Kujundzic and Doug Mann at the University of Aberdeen that is clearly sympathetic with Kaczynski’s dark vision of industrial civilization, if not with his violent methods:

The Unabomber’s Manifesto stands out as the most radical version of the Neo-Luddite movement. The latter is driven by a growing concern that modern technology has assumed a life of its own, a life that is not only impossible to control but that threatens to engulf humanity and eventually lead it down the path of certain destruction. Only with this concern in mind can the big philosophical questions, mentioned earlier in this paragraph, be answered. These are, in our mind, the lessons worth learning from the Unabomber’s Manifesto.

The authors seem to be unhappy, and they are drawn toward Kaczynski’s explanation that it’s capitalism and technology that’s to blame:

The Unabomber seems to be suggesting that we return to an unpolished, uncivilized, more self-reliant state in order to inject fresh capital into the economics of human happiness. Political ideologies will not aid us in escaping from the dark wood of error that is the technological-industrial system: the socialist experiments in the former Eastern bloc have proven this quite well. The alienation, the never-ending restlessness, the feeling that we are never “at home” under late capitalist consumer economies, despite the obvious (in an historically comparative sense, at least) affluence all around us, has systemic or structural causes. As the Unabomber says:

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. This has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to guide the technological system. It is the fault of technology, because the system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity. (U119)

There seems to me quite a lot of silliness laced through this article, but it’s a silliness that’s quite common today. Analyzing this piece, as part of a discussion about some sixties ideas and Kaczynski, might be worthwhile. I wonder whether Mozart felt trapped because the technical demands of getting music from tight strings struck by small hammers forced him to modify his behavior to fit the needs of the technology--i.e., he needing to learn to play the piano.

I concede that technology doesn’t guarantee our happiness, but then, I don’t often meet people who think that it does. Neither do I meet many people who would expect our happiness to suddenly increase if we did away with our advanced technology. Though the authors say that to dismiss the unabomber’s writing because of his actions is to commit an ad hominem fallacy, I’m rather of the mind that when a man’s thinking leads him to commit atrocities it’s not unreasonable to suspect his thinking has gone awry.

The interesting question for me isn’t whether or not Kaczynski gets it wrong. Rather, I’m interested in where, exactly, his thinking begins to get him in trouble.

If I used this article with students, I would have them identify the key beliefs and assumptions the authors have, list them on the board, then ask the question, “are these true?” We would then work on defining some of the key terms, such as “technology” and “the system.” We would then identify what seminal thinkers have said about the issues Kaczynski raises.

This preparation would get students to the point where they could frame quite interesting questions to ask of people who migrated to Montana in the sixties because they wanted they felt a longing for the “simpler” life of the country.

The process of forming questions and figuring out how they might be investigated might also model for kids how to use reason and research to avoid getting caught up in rants. This is getting to be a basic survival skill in today’s world.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/28 at 12:16 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project


Montana Dreaming: a play about the Unabomber as a sixites icon

So, here we have a play about the unabomber, with the title Montana Dreaming, of which the author says “Ted Kaczynski embodies the original energy of that era [the Sixties] in many ways—as recent news from Seattle also ought to show. In some instructions for the actors of Montana Dreaming, he described some of the ways the Unabomber may have been influenced by the values of the ‘Sixties’. . .”

He makes it clear that he doesn’t really agree with the Unabomber. Well, on some things.

The playwright seems to have a nostalgic hankering for the good old days when radical politics--along with sex, drugs, and rock and roll--filled his life with meaning. Now he’s moved to say that “the almost certain prospect that our contempt for ecology and the environment, combined with unceasing population growth and never-ending industrial and technological expansion, will sooner or later bring this planet and all its inhabitants to a climax totally outstripping the imagination of mere Armageddons by our most rabid fantasists.”

“Montana Dreaming” seems to be a play that holds Montana as some sort of last best place--a refuge from a post-sixties world that did not stop its technological project. Its apocalyptic pessimism tends to justify Kaczynski’s actions, it seems.

Has such a dream brought others here, besides Kaczynski?

I image that if the thesis of this play were brought up for analysis in a typical high school classroom in Montana, the usual positions would be taken quite quickly--with conservative students pointing out the benefits of technology and liberal students championing the care of the environment as a core value. Such a familiar framing of the question would likely lead people to rehearse their familiar positions. It would probably do more harm than good, creating yet another forum for contention without leadig to better ideas. Students easily repeat the opinions of people they admire. They may be vexed when confronted with facts or arguments they can’t really counter, but being vexed doesn’t necessarily lead to better thinking.

It may be more interesting to bring the question down to a local level, and then to list the people most likely to shed light on the question. If the question is, should the people in Lincoln (or Chester, or Libby, or White Sulphur Springs) draw and line and say “no” to further technological and economic development, as some Amish have done, then whose opinions might be most interesting to explore? We might ask, which areas of life make the strongest claim for technological progress? Medicine? Agriculture? Which areas might make the strongest claim for halting the technological project? Conservationists? Some Native Americans?

Once students have created such a list, they can then begin identifying particular people--physicians, farmers experimenting with new cropping techniques, environmental activists, and so on. Then students can interview the various people they’ve identified and report the various points of view, perhaps putting them together in a presentation. The classroom goal would be to accurately represent the various points of view. This would allow students to follow carefully the thinking of the most articulate and well-informed spokespersons in the community, with the charade of classroom “debates”. By approaching the problem as scholars or journalists rather than as activitists or advocates, they would get the space to listen and think.

Debating has always been a rather annoying pedagogical practice, I think, and today’s students who have seen many cable news shows have likely imbibed a toxic notion of debate. Most of these shows parade shameless partisans who incoherently and illogically strive for clever or memorable phrases. Reason and evidence don’t count for much.

We teachers need to slow things down. We need to model thinking. We need to help students ask the basic questions: Who do we need to listen to? What is they are trying to say? What do they offer as evidence? What are the questions we have for them? Do their answers satisfy?

My dream of what Montana could be has everything to do with the sort of life we could make here if we taught our kids to practice such basic habits of intelligence.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/28 at 11:50 AM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project


Restoring the Thomas Francis Meagher Statue

The statue of Thomas Francis Meagher with sword in hand astride a horse that is the signature piece of art on the front lawn of the Montana State Capitol will be restored thanks to the division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians that bear his name.

The Meagher Division raised $9,000 for the restoration of the statue, which will be matched by a like amount from the specific funds dedicated to caring for artwork on the Capitol grounds, which is the responsibility of the Montana Historical Society.

“We are thankful to the Meagher Division for their work in raising these funds,? Society Director Arnold Olsen said. “We work as hard as we can to maximize the funds that are available to us as guardians of the state’s history and heritage, and we work with the private sector whenever we can to help get the job done.?

Pete McHugh of Helena, who was in charge of the fundraising project for the Meagher Division, said its success was a tribute to people who take pride in Montana’s past.

“We got the job done, and the Helena community really stepped forward on it,? McHugh said. “We also got support from places like Anaconda, Butte and White Sulphur Springs, as well as from people outside of Montana who wanted to help out on the project. This is the kind of thing that makes you feel good about being a Montanan.?

Olsen said that preliminary assessment of the statue, cleaning, and application of protective wax coating were done this summer. In the careful inspection, it was discovered that several pieces of the statue were missing or severely damaged and those are being researched and recreated, with completion of the project set for early next summer.

McHugh said one of the reasons the Hibernians stepped forward to take on the project was to get the statue restored for next year’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Meagher statue.

“We are going to have a big celebration with lots of events on July 5th next summer that we think will bring thousands of Montanans and people from Ireland and other places across the world here to honor Meagher and Montana,? McHugh said.

Meagher led a remarkable life as a leader of the Irish insurrection for which he was deported from the country, a general in the American Civil War, as an orator, and as acting Territorial Governor of Montana.


Posted by Marcella Sherfy on 10/27 at 02:40 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project