Archive for February 1st, 2010

“Dangerous ideas”: Harrison discusses the Unabomber

Monday, February 1st, 2010
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Robert Harrison with Jean-Marie Apostolidès

“The Entitled Opinions show on the Unabomber with Professor Apostolidès received quite a lot of feedback from listeners, not only because of the provocative content of the program but also because it was the first show to be podcast after a three-month summer hiatus, so listeners were eager to welcome us back.  In general the reactions had two main aspects.  On the one hand, there were plenty of comments about our decision – considered gutsy by many — to do a show about the ideas of a convicted criminal.  On the other, there were comments on the ideas discussed on the show.

The first kind of reaction is best summarized by a remark that one listener sent in by email: ‘Daring show. That will shake the jelly in administrative heads.’  Most of the listeners who communicated their reactions applauded us for our boldness.  A minority expressed consternation and felt that Ted Kaczynski may be a brilliant man but that his criminal actions disqualify his ideas from being taken seriously in a public forum of debate.  Why?  Because he used crime as a tactic to draw attention to his ideas, and that by doing a show on him we were ‘allowing him to get away with murder,’ as it were.  While Kaczynski did not get away with murder, there is something valid in this viewpoint.  Professor Apostolidès and I were aware that we were in some sense rendering Kaczynski’s tactics successful, yet it must also be pointed out that few people would want to proscribe, or condemn an academic discussion of, Mein Kampf, even though it was authored by one of the greatest criminals in history.

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Harrison at KZSU (Photo by L.A. Cicero)

Many listeners felt that the way we discussed Kaczynski’s ideas was refreshingly fearless.  To quote from one communication we received from a professor of philosophy who teaches at Emory: ‘The content is provocative as all hell, if not disturbing, and delivered without compromise. You were seriously discussing dangerous ideas and it was powerful, if not breath taking. And then to hear this heavy French accent talking about Kaczynski (the unabom-bear) as a writer who achieved the dream of every writer — to have his or her words change the world – was magnificent radio. Incredible show!  Singular! Bravo!’  That’s not the last word on it, to be sure, but it’s good enough for now.”

Robert Harrison, “Entitled Opinions”

What do you think?  Robert Harrison invites comments on the KZSU radio interview, or the article and video.  Leave a reply below.

Unabomber’s writings raise uneasy ethical questions

Monday, February 1st, 2010
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Apostolidès’ interview about the Unabomber on “Entitled Opinions” will be rebroadcast at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2, on Stanford’s KZSU 90.1 FM. Robert Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and chair of the Department of French and Italian, will lead a blog discussion on the topic here tomorrow.  (Be patient:  Jean-Marie was late to KZSU; interview starts a few minutes in.)  Stay tuned!

Great crimes don’t end neatly with a trial. Uneasy questions linger: Should we disqualify ideas when they come from a killer’s lips? Is it right to disseminate the killer’s ideas – even while denouncing them – if the criminal killed precisely to give them weight and force?

For French Professor Jean-Marie Apostolidès, briefly a penpal of the notorious Unabomber and a translator of his writings, these very questions are a scholar’s terroir.

He was intrigued by the killer’s anti-technology stance, and says that on that score, Theodore Kaczynski may have been right. “Technology transformed humanity into something different than it was before, into a new creation – flesh and technè,” he said.

“We are mutants now. What will come out of it nobody knows. It’s something unprecedented – and scary,” he said. Science fiction, in many cases, is simply “presenting the fears of the metamorphosis.”

Apostolidès recently published in book form a French translation of the Unabomber’s manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future. He is currently working on a philosophical and psychological study, Of Ink and Blood: The Writings of Theodore Kaczynski. The author of 1999’s L’Affaire Unabomber also has written the recently published The Metamorphoses of Tintin: Or, Tintin for Adults.

French Professor Jean-Marie Apostolidès briefly corresponded with the notorious Unabomber.

For Apostolidès, Kaczynski has been a 15-year interest. For most of us, the Unabomber is frozen in the image that gripped America on April 3, 1996: an unkempt, bearded recluse from the Montana wilderness, a man who by all appearances could have been a backwoods yokel or a hermit-saint, arrested following a 17-year spree of deadly bombings (many targeted at universities) that had earned him the tag “Unabomber.”

Apostolidès, who has a background as a psychologist as well as a playwright and scholar of French classical literature and drama, was not surprised by the profile of the killer – a brilliant, Harvard-educated mathematician who had been a professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

Apostolidès had become intrigued with the Unabomber’s screed, which critiques the pervasive effect of technology on our world and humanity’s increasing dependence on it. He had already translated Kaczynski’s “audacious” manifesto for the Parisian press a few weeks before the killer’s arrest. (Kaczynski said he would halt the killings if his Industrial Society and Its Future was published; the Washington Post and the New York Times obliged in 1995.)

Despite some sympathy for Kaczynski’s views on industrial society, Apostolidès embraces technology – “because I think there is no other way. It brings positive and negative things. They cannot be separated.

“Our global history as animals is to go beyond our animality in order to create something we don’t know. It has been the case since the caveman,” he said.

“There is a great leap leading God knows where,” he said.

Inevitably, technology’s takeover has its casualties. Kaczynski created them, and became one of them – a former professor now an inmate of a maximum-security prison. Kaczynski was haunted by the notion of the noble savage, a myth that has echoed through Western thought from Rousseau to today’s blockbuster Avatar. The Unabomber, said Apostolidès, is a direct heir of the anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

However, the way back to the wilderness is a fantasy: “There’s no way we can return. No way to go back to the frontier man. Ted Kaczynski is a hundred years too late,” he said.

A secret that has expired

The translation of Kaczynski’s 1995 manifesto, which Apostolidès began the day after he read it in the Washington Post, was the first step in a longer journey. The next began with a secret.

“In the past, I was in a certain way tied to a secret that I think has no more value,” he explained. Shortly after the arrest, Apostolidès was approached by Kaczynski’s team of lawyers, who said they were concerned for the prisoner’s sanity and well-being in prison.

“They thought I would be a perfect penpal,” he said. Apostolidès was told to keep the correspondence secret even from his family. Thus began a brief, lopsided correspondence screened by Kaczynski’s lawyers and the FBI.

The brief correspondence did not go smoothly: “He did not want to talk to me; he wanted to preach. I detest that,” he said. “On one side he was scolding me, on the other side complimenting me.”

In retrospect, Apostolidès thinks the lawyers wanted him to help certify Kaczynski was insane. Yet, he said, “I’m convinced he has neurotic problems – but no more than anyone else. He has to be judged on his ideas and his deeds.” Our insistence on his insanity may be a way to avoid grappling with that, he said.

In an interview, Apostolidès leaned forward across the desk in his campus office and his voice dropped: “This will shock you. He’s a very nice guy, sweet, open-minded. And I know he has blood on his hands. You cannot be all bad – even if you kill, even Hitler.”

We would like our villains to be 100 percent evil, psychotic Snidely Whiplashes counting money in the backroom. (Look at the outcry at the portrayal of Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall.) We are uncomfortable when they look even a little bit like us, but such ambiguity is the stuff of life, said Apostolidès.

The most obvious ambiguity may be centered within Apostolidès himself. He admits he has a longstanding interest in avant-garde ideas – but he writes about radical thoughts from the safe perch of a university professorship and his comfortable home on the Stanford campus. In short, as a part of the petite bourgeoisie Kaczynski despises.

Kaczynski’s manifesto argues that the leftist liberals who present themselves as rebels are, in fact, obedient servants of the dominant society – a symptom of “oversocialization.” He singles out “university intellectuals” as prime examples.

Apostolidès, who says he wouldn’t kill a fly, finds the criticism “absolutely appropriate.”

‘Our words have no power’

“It’s the problem of scholars, even artists: Our words have no power. We think we are changing the world – particularly on the left,” he said, and paused. “You accept your symbolic castration – that your writing will take time to have a modest influence on your contemporaries.” In other words, he accepts the compromises necessary to live a normal life, with an income, collegial support, home and family.

Yet Kaczynski’s writings and life have intrigued Apostolidès by emphasizing “the relationship between writing and killing, ink and blood.”

“From a cynical perspective, I write books without killing anyone – my writing will have no impact. The only way I can be listened to is to associate my writing to something.” That is, “either your own blood or someone else’s.”

For instance, he cited Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, whose meticulously planned seppuku in 1970 triggered an avalanche of interest in his works.

Kaczynski is following in these footsteps, rejecting the petit bourgeois alternative that Apostolidès has knowingly embraced and instead “linking blood and ink.”

If Apostolidès’ contention seems eggheaded, consider a Jan. 8 New York Times article on the Jordanian doctor who killed nine people, including himself and seven CIA officers, in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan: “My words will die if I do not save them with my blood,” he posted pseudonymously on a blog before his death.

“My articles will be against me if I don’t prove to them that I am not a hypocrite,” the posting read. “One has to die to make the other live. I wish I could be the one to die.”

That said, aren’t there moral reservations in advancing Kaczynski’s writings? After all, he killed to get an audience.

“I do not agree with his ideas, let alone his means to spread them,” Apostolidès said. Nevertheless, “The role of a scholar is to go beyond my own emotions and analyze everything.

“It does not mean we are unaware of the ethical dimension. But we have to go beyond. It is a necessity.”

Apostolidès’ interview about the Unabomber on “Entitled Opinions” will be rebroadcast at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2, on Stanford’s KZSU 90.1 FM. Robert Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and chair of the Department of French and Italian, will lead a blog discussion on the topic at “The Book Haven” at http://bookhaven.stanford.edu.