Truths and Consequences | Essay | Chicago Reader

Truths and Consequences 

The Unabomber has few explicit fans, but some regard him with a certain respect: at least he knows how to get attention.

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Most of us, at some point, have had the desire to smash a computer. Perhaps our own personal computer, after the umpteenth crash, after we watch hours of work disappear with a single little blip. Maybe someone else's computer--the one at school, storing a grade you'd rather forget; the one at the Department of Motor Vehicles that remembers your tickets so persistently.

Several months ago, as a kind of coda to a short talk on the dangers of technology, writer Kirkpatrick Sale took a sledgehammer to a computer sitting onstage with him. It was an act of extravagant and dramatic violence, a perfect example of the propaganda of the deed. And it made Sale, at least, feel like he had the world under control again. "It was astonishing how good it made me feel," Sale later explained to Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine. "It felt wonderful. The sound it made, the spewing of the undoubtedly poisonous insides into the spotlight, the dust that hung in the air..."

Of course, Sale is not the only--or even the most colorful--of those today taking inspiration from the machine-breaking Luddites of nearly two centuries ago. The most colorful of the current crop of Luddites is the homegrown terrorist and Washington Post contributor known as the Unabomber--another antitechnological activist given (though in a more dramatic manner) to the propaganda of the deed. And that fact raises an interesting question or two about the relation of political rhetoric and real world consequences.

Sale has made clear that he is no fan of the Unabomber's particular method of publicity seeking. No, no. Still, one imagines that he squirmed a little in his seat when he read about the Unabomber's lengthy treatise in the newspaper--the 35,000-word document whose publication this week is the ostensible reason for the bomber's radical tactics. After all, Sale has just published something himself--a book full of fiery rhetoric and intimations (if not actual threats) of violence that argued more or less the same thing as the bomber's text.

In a recent article in the Nation, in fact, Sale applauds the central message of the bomber's long treatise. While politely distancing himself from the bomber's methods--Sale at the moment limits his violence to inanimate objects--he does suggest that the bomber's manifesto, though dully written and not terribly original, contains "a crucial message at the core...for those with fortitude enough to get through it, and unless that message is somehow heeded and acted upon we are truly a doomed society hurtling toward a catastrophic breakdown."

Just as our faces turn a little red when some close relative commits a social faux pas of such magnitude that it passes into legend--when Uncle Joe takes out his false teeth for an impromptu "puppet show" at his daughter's wedding--so do we blanch when someone with whom we share an ideology reveals himself to be something of a kook. Even the most devoted Democrats avert their eyes at the convention delegates wearing giant Styrofoam donkey hats; even the most committed Republican "dittoheads" must sigh with pain when confronted with the sight of a fervid gang of bare-chested frat boys whooping it up at the annual "politically incorrect" picnic, giant Rs and Us and Ss and Hs painted on their not-so-solid flesh with red, white, and blue body paint.

George Orwell, himself a lifelong socialist, complained in a famous 1937 essay that the socialism of his day "appeal[ed] chiefly to unsatisfactory or even inhuman types," among whom he numbered "the foaming denouncers of the bourgeoisie; the more-water-in-your-beer reformers...and all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat." Styles may have changed a little since his day--who doesn't drink fruit juice nowadays?--but I think we all know who he means.

It's easy enough to denounce all these types as simple buffoons. But what of those kooks who are demonstrably not frivolous about what they are doing--those who, in fact, take the ideology we profess much more seriously and literally than we do. While we may speak vaguely of the need for radical action, they take actions more radical than anything we could imagine doing--they put their lives on the line.

The Unabomber has few explicit fans, but some of his cothinkers regard him with a certain respect: at least he knows how to get attention. "When I first saw a couple of phrases in [the Unabomber's] letter, I was amazed," anarchist writer John Zerzan told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Here I've been, laboring in the wilderness and publishing things for years. And then this comes along. It's ironic--the newspapers wouldn't be up talking to me if [the Unabomber] hadn't been blowing people up. I'm just struck that these ideas are getting out."

Sale is a little more coy. His recent Nation cover story, "Reading the Unabomber," is both an attempt to acknowledge those of the Unabomber's ideas that are "sound" and an opportunity for Sale to set himself apart from his more flamboyant antitechnology ally. It is a soberly written article, and Sale makes clear on several occasions that he does not approve of the bombing, which he dismisses as "simple madness"--and unproductive to boot. And while he is dismissive of the bomber's prose--"too slow, too plodding, too repetitive"--he is respectful toward the central ideas of the lengthy treatise: that "industrial-technological" society represses human freedom; that this repression is built into the system; that the increasing pace of repression will breed new generations of "dropouts and resisters" who may ultimately be able to shake industrial society to its core.

It's no wonder that Sale respects this argument--it is, in essence, the same one he advanced in his book Rebels Against the Future, reprinted in part in another Nation article only a few months ago. In this article, far more flamboyantly radical than the present one, Sale hailed "the technophobes and techno-resisters" who "have dared to speak up, to criticize this face of high technology or that, to organize and march and sue and write and propound, and to challenge the consequences as well as the assumptions of this second Industrial Revolution, just as the Luddites challenged the first." And he did not then, as he does now, shy away from violence: "Some are even using similar strategies of sabotage and violence to make their point," he noted, without explicit disapproval.

Like the Unabomber, Sale has respect for the agenda-setting power of strategic violence. "Some may call [what the Luddites did] foolish resistance...but it was dramatic, forceful, honorable, and authentic enough to have put the Luddites' issues forever on record and made the Luddites' name as indelibly a part of the language as the Puritans'."

This is precisely the same argument that the bomber made in his treatise. "If we had never done anything violent and had submitted the present writings to a publisher," the bomber wrote, "they probably would not have been accepted." He's probably right--though the publishers (like Sale) would more likely have objected to the dryness of his prose than to the "dangerousness" of his ideas. But even if they had been published, the Unabomber went on to suggest, they would have reached a limited audience, and would have been forgotten as quickly as last week's celebrity scandal. "In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression," he writes, "we've had to kill people."

If anything, Sale is more enamored of violence than the bomber himself--at least at the level of philosophical abstraction. While the bomber's argument for his violence is a utilitarian one, pure and simple, Sale's philosophy is based upon an almost Nietzschean irrationalism. In his first Nation article, Sale waxed eloquent about the irrational powers of feelings buried "down deep in the English soul," urging people to take up resistance "because somewhere in the blood, in the place where pain and fear and anger intersect, one is finally moved to refusal and defiance." Only now does he say: hold it--that's not what I meant at all.

Last spring, in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing, commentators waxed indignant about the toxic effects of political rhetoric. And Bill Clinton, artfully neglecting to mention any names, managed to suggest that Rush Limbaugh had been responsible for the whole thing.

"Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh bristled at the suggestion that their rhetoric had something to do with Oklahoma City, and of course it did not in any direct sense," wrote Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, in one of the more measured contributions to the debate. "But what about the climate that their words helped to create?...The drumbeat of right-wing rhetoric in the past few years has been Washington as the inhuman monster. Has that no connection with the rise of groups that claim federal agents are about to descend on them in black helicopters?"

Of course it does. Words are not bombs, and there is no more reason to believe (as some liberals do) that Rush and Newt "caused" Oklahoma than to believe (as some on the right do) that talking about condoms in schools will cause a sudden and catastrophic increase in teen promiscuity. But it is not altogether unreasonable to question the political logic of the apocalyptic rhetoric that fills much of contemporary political discourse. When antiabortion activists describe abortion as "murder" and Planned Parenthood clinics as "factories of death" and the like, it can hardly come as a surprise that some have taken up violence to stop what they see as genocide. One Operation Rescue slogan put the matter bluntly: "If you think abortion is murder, act like it."

And so some have. Whenever a doctor is shot or harassed, whenever a clinic is bombed, the more respectable members of the antiabortion movement come forward to denounce the violence. Given the logic of their rhetoric, their denunciations ring false. Meanwhile others, perhaps more quietly, celebrate the violence. "The question for each of us," one Operation Rescue member commented after the shooting of abortion doctor David Gunn in Florida in 1993, "is, do we really believe our own rhetoric?" The politics may be reprehensible--I certainly think they are--but the question is at least an honest one.

We cannot solve the problem by simply asking everyone to be more polite. There is no evidence that politics is ever appreciably improved by the substitution of evasive euphemisms for honest expressions of opinion. But perhaps we should demand more honesty: aside from absolute pacifists, there are few among us who would not advocate violence in some situations. Virtually all of us support at least some forms of military action; supporters of "law and order" know that cops carry truncheons and guns for a reason. Leftists support revolution in the third world (and possibly at home); right-wingers support counterrevolution.

Those who support violence--that is, nearly all of us--do not need, necessarily, to feel ashamed of it; they should simply spell out why, how much, carried out by whom, and under what circumstances. If you cannot justify it in such cold-blooded terms, at least don't cover it over with vague rhetorical varnish, hiding the reality of blood and death underneath elegant appeals to "democracy" or "freedom" or "emancipation."

The question is indeed: how seriously do you take your own rhetoric? Nothing, absolutely nothing, is worth pursuing "by any means necessary." If the violence you advocate is simply the melodramatic punctuation of this or that bit of apocalyptic nonsense, if you draw back in horror from the consequences of your words--then why do you utter them in the first place?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jim Flynn.

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