“Dangerous ideas”: Harrison discusses the Unabomber


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.


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.

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3 Responses to ““Dangerous ideas”: Harrison discusses the Unabomber”

  1. Ken Latta Says:

    At some point we feel someone is so terrible that “normal people” shouldn’t not interact with them. And while we dismiss the pen pals who propose to murders on death row, to some extent any humanity extended to the extreme individuals is suspect or even outright rejected.

    But if no-one interacts with them, we can never understand them. And any nuance that develops in viewpoint also becomes suspect. Seeing rationality in the nominally insane causes dissonance. But the category is elusive. What passes for sanity on a daily basis is frequently overrated.
    We try to find the balance in causality between the self and the environment. Yet the critiques of the self tend to be considered defects or weaknesses. Can a brilliant mind be too sensitive to live in a harsh modern world. Can a poetic spirit breakdown and kill her husband and children?
    … See More
    There are difficult to answer questions: Are you involved with a psychopath? What is the interaction between emotion and the brain? Do criminal psychopaths actually enjoy our pain (and if so does that mean they have no empathy or a twisted kind of empathy)? (These are all research topics and books).

    I’m not sure our ethics can truly inform the choices of interacting with such people. Like Kaczynski it’s complicated.

  2. Marnie Heyn Says:

    This would be why my favorite Freud is “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.”

  3. Rush Rehm Says:

    I think Jean-Marie’s perspective on the role of the scholar is correct, and disturbing. Humanists in particular have defined themselves “out of” the mainstream, but then comfort themselves by assuming that that their work (the more arcane the better) participates in some wider project. This may involve a notion of progress, clarification, correction, redefinition, reclamation, and the like, but the fact remains that it more often distances itself further and further from the world outside of the academy. Jean-Marie’s translation of the Unabomber’s Manifesto is an exception.

    Even more damaging in my view is the way intellectuals serve power, providing intellectual “cover” for appalling acts of violence and domination. This extends obviously to both our major political parties, from the Harvard mafia of the Kennedy Administration (who encouraged and justified the expansion of the disastrous wars in IndoChina) to the monstrosities of the Bush Administration at home (cf. the current economic crisis and its effects on the working class) and abroad (especially the Middle East, but far and wide).

    Apostolides raises other questions that require deeper reflection: the nature of evil and how we don’t wish to understand it, the justifications for violent acts in political contexts, our rabid faith in “technology” (as if things that manipulate the world inherently lead us to a better place). But the role of the intellectual seems simpler to me, and asks those of us in the academy to look more closely into the mirror, and then back at the world wherein our privilege lies.