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The Unabomber never grew up Extremists can't accept life's disappointments

Unabomber suspect: Theodore Kaczynski. Credit: Bob Galbraith/AFP/Getty

Unabomber suspect: Theodore Kaczynski. Credit: Bob Galbraith/AFP/Getty


June 15, 2023   6 mins

The Unabomber and I share several connections. Both of us hold PhDs, are of Eastern European descent, and attempted to escape the dismal modern world by fleeing to remote locations in western Montana — he after leaving academia, me just before entering it. We even indirectly communicated through a mutual friend, about an article on attorney’s fees that I wrote for the Duke Law Review, which he claimed to have found “interesting”. However, our connections stop there.

Unlike Theodore “Ted” Kacyznski, I have no criminal record — the only person in my immediate family who can claim that. Perhaps most important, my flight to Montana was temporary: I returned to the world after coming to my senses, and started a family in Pittsburgh, only 40 minutes north of my small hometown. Kacyznski, at my age, was living in the waterless and electricity-free cabin where he typed out his 35,000-word manifesto while coordinating a 16-year mail bomb campaign that killed three people and injured 23 others. He died last week at 81, having whiled away his final years in a federal penitentiary.

For as long as America has existed, its men have fled for the hills. In Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Henry Thoreau wrote “we need the tonic of wilderness”. Almost 150 years later, his words influenced Christopher McCandless, who died after going into the wild. Regardless of the tragedy and suggested inauthenticity of stories like this, they fascinate the political chattering classes: from Barry Goldwater’s speechwriter, Karl Hess, who relocated to rural West Virginia later in life, to full-time proponents of “agrarianism” and other back to the land” ideologies. These ideologies are diverse in their themes but, in the main, argue for a reconnection with the natural world. Modern life, they say, has severed our intrinsic relationship with the environment. Often gaining prominence at times of social upheaval and discontent — as with hippie communes in the Sixties and today’s homesteaders — they claim that industrial society’s obsession with progress and consumption eclipses essential human experiences and values. Sometimes, they wind up idealising a past that was, in reality, fraught with hardship and inequality.   

Underlying these ideologies is a powerful sense of foreboding. Those who advocate fleeing to the hills would seem to be eagerly awaiting doomsday — be it environmental, racial, class-based, or a horrific combination thereof. On both Left and Right, there’s a bumper crop of texts to excite their imaginations. The apocalypticism manifests in a call to action, to prepare, resist, or attempt to reverse course before it’s too late; it highlights genuine concerns while also making readers partners in an exciting race against destruction.

The inclination to escape is not inherently outrageous. Who hasn’t yearned, in a moment of stress or dissatisfaction, for the simplicity of a life untangled from societal woes? Yet, throughout human history, most of us have either chosen or, more often the case, been compelled to remain near home; escape is a privilege of which only a few can avail themselves. Even those who claim to live without money in remote places often rely on resources inaccessible to many. Moreover, these individuals tend to have the privilege of choice: the option to reject modern conveniences, the opportunity to learn and hone survival skills, the safety net of a family to return to if things go awry. In this sense, dropping out of society — as with those Roman senators who took to their grand countryside villas during the waning days of that empire — is a fantasy of the upper classes.

But beyond issues of class and economics, most of us are held to our communities by invisible, powerful ties. We are entwined in a complex web of relationships, responsibilities, and affections. The young feel the weight of these things less. Back when I was a superficially educated 19-year-old college graduate, Kacyznski’s Industrial Society and Its Future held a preeminent place in my worldview. Kacyznski believed autonomy was impossible in an industrial society. “As long as the system GIVES them their opportunities, it still has them on a leash,” he wrote. Reforming this “Industrial-Technological Society” was impossible; only radical revolutionaries could bring about lasting changes. Karl Marx’s concluding exhortation from “Theses on Feuerbach” says much the same: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Kaczynski’s manifesto and Marx’s calls to action appealed to me, and many other young adults, precisely because they promised a means of breaking free from societal confines.  The young long for autonomy, to seize control in a world that often seems controlled by faceless entities and systems. It took some time for me to realise that Kacyznski, venturing outside his own academic field of mathematics, was in fact summarising fairly well-established critiques of capitalism and Leftism. The Frankfurt School theorists’ critique of the “culture industry” or Herbert Marcuse’s theories of one-dimensional man echo similar sentiments about the dehumanising effects of modern industrial societies. However, what set Kaczynski apart was the way he packaged these criticisms into an eco-fatalist, doomerist narrative with carefully numbered paragraphs.

“Had we but world enough and time”, we might be able to take the advice of revolutionaries like Kaczynski and Marx to heart. We could possibly devote our lives to relearning the skills necessary for physical labour, striving for a self-sufficient existence, toiling away while the world around us succumbs to apocalyptic decay. However, the reality for most people, as they navigate the complexities of adulthood, is a series of compromises and an acceptance of societal norms, conflicts, and even banalities. We work steady jobs, contribute to society in our own ways, and seek a balance between our ideals and the practical demands of our daily lives. After my time in Montana, I returned to academia, before settling into a career in the private sector and starting a family. My desired ending isn’t in the wilderness, but rather here in the Rust Belt, like most of my predecessors. 

Looking back, I see my Montana sojourn as a phase, an exploration of ultimately unsustainable idealistic philosophies. My life now bears more similarity to those of the well-educated cultural critics who often spout back-to-land ideologies, while paradoxically relying on modern technologies to promote their books and podcasts about self-sufficient living, or offering to let you toil on their land for free, as part of a quasi-cult or glorified multilevel marketing scheme. I get it: when I lived in Montana, I believed I was the last sane person in a soon-to-be-extinguished world. At the same time, I harboured aspirations of writing the next Great American Novel: I wanted to communicate with the world, to share my experiences and ideas, even if those ideas involved little more than getting people to acknowledge my prescience. Even those who flee into the wilderness want to connect — perhaps especially.

Kaczynski was unable or unwilling to reintegrate into society, whereas I became disillusioned with his ideas because they began to seem impractical — interesting, to be sure, yet also surprisingly childish. For all its failings, society offers us human connection, a shared history, and communal resilience in the face of adversity. We endure the disappointments of civilisation because, at its best, it provides us a framework to collaborate, innovate, and work towards something better. Kaczynski, it appears, never had this moment of disillusionment — nothing compelled him to grow up and simply accept “Industrial Society’s” leash.

The end of the world has been eternally predicted. Perhaps it really will extinguish the lot of us, and the collapse and decline that each succeeding generation’s bumper crop of Cassandras predict will come to pass. These theories of moral decline and accompanying societal collapse are evergreen. The terminology and concerns may change — overpopulation, underpopulation, heat death, a new ice age — but the adolescent anxiety remains the same. “Things ain’t like they used to be and they never were,” now at least has some social science research buttressing it. 

My dissertation advisor used to jest about the inherent appeal of the collapse genre. There’s a certain romantic allure to the idea of witnessing and surviving the “world’s last night. This apocalyptic charm — a once-in-a-lifetime chance to die with the world, to be there when the lights go out — invariably attracts those people who struggle to grow up.

Kaczynski was apparently unable to truly grasp the cyclical nature of history — the one field neglected in Industrial Society and Its Future. He was caught in a loop of perceived decay without recognising the possibility for growth and improvement. Alas, we still face a seeming repetition of all the problems outlined in Peter Finch’s endlessly recyclable rant from the 1976 film Network — inflation, the Russians, air that’s unfit to breathe, crime in the streets — yet none of us can know how these things will sort themselves out, only that whatever happens will be unlike anything that came before. History repeats itself — life always ends in death! — but never the same way twice.

As mere mortals born into that history, we must live in the world as it is, not as we imagine or fear it to be. The world may not be getting better, but neither is it necessarily spiralling towards global disaster. And those who attempt to flee, to escape the complexities of society, often find themselves reaching back towards it, be it through writing blogs from the wilderness or through violent acts like Kaczynski’s bombing campaign. As for the rest of us, our life may feel banal, fraught with the usual concerns about our family’s future and the state of the world. Yet it’s also tempered by an acceptance of mortality — perhaps the most powerful counterpoint to the more extreme doom-laden narratives.


Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

The problem with advances in communications tech is that it enables the amplification of Cassandras. As the author indicates (and the use of the ancient symbolic name reinforces), they’ve always been with us.

Each new generation – assigned a letter from the end of the alphabet as if we’re counting down to the end – becomes more bombarded than the previous one with doomladen forecasts; without the experiential werewithal to counter these narratives, many succumb, often the more intelligent ones, i.e. students.

The world goes on, just differently in some ways but pretty much the same in most ways. Each new generation thinks that’s about to change.

The pages of Unherd are packed (littered?) with similar articles, about the ways in which theorists and commentators think this is happening. The author of this article seeks to rebalance this constant narrative, and whilst choosing an extreme example (someone who literally bombarded) i think he gets it just about right. The steady drum-beat of doom can he replaced with the complex syncopation of experience.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

There was a complaint in the MSM yesterday that people were watching less news and were ignorant of ‘important’ issues. Perhaps, people have finally tired of the doomsterism of the media

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

That’s great news if true.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

I immediately change the station on the radio when the news comes on. Radio 3 only has news at 8am, 1pm and 5pm. Classic FM has no news after 7pm

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

Me too.
I usually listen to Angel Radio (available in Hampshire or anywhere on digital) – no news, only plays songs released between Jan 1st 1920 and Jan 1st 1970, elderly but knowledgeable DJs, only a few local ads and even the weather reports are in old money (Fahrenheit). Bliss!

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
J Dunne
J Dunne
1 year ago

Same here. TV news in particular is a no-go zone, I’ve completely lost interest in their manipulative hysteria.

It does make me less informed about some of the things that do matter, but that is a worthwhile trade-off.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

Me too.
I usually listen to Angel Radio (available in Hampshire or anywhere on digital) – no news, only plays songs released between Jan 1st 1920 and Jan 1st 1970, elderly but knowledgeable DJs, only a few local ads and even the weather reports are in old money (Fahrenheit). Bliss!

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
J Dunne
J Dunne
1 year ago

Same here. TV news in particular is a no-go zone, I’ve completely lost interest in their manipulative hysteria.

It does make me less informed about some of the things that do matter, but that is a worthwhile trade-off.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

I immediately change the station on the radio when the news comes on. Radio 3 only has news at 8am, 1pm and 5pm. Classic FM has no news after 7pm

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Perhaps it’s because people rightfully don’t trust what they are being told
and there are also those who are just willfully ignorant.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

That’s great news if true.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Perhaps it’s because people rightfully don’t trust what they are being told
and there are also those who are just willfully ignorant.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

You’re old and out of touch. One hopes you’re alive and compos mentis in 2053; perhaps even then you’ll be trying to convince people nothing has really changed.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Ha ha! Although i’ll be in my 90s by then, i fully intend to still be around and as in touch with developments and not just their implications as i’ve been since my teens, but adding to their interpretation for those stuck in thinking ruts – such as anyone who equates age with being in or out of touch.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

You’ve been ploughing a rut so long you’re at the bottom of a canyon. One wonders if the old were ever wise.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

You’ve been ploughing a rut so long you’re at the bottom of a canyon. One wonders if the old were ever wise.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Ha ha! Although i’ll be in my 90s by then, i fully intend to still be around and as in touch with developments and not just their implications as i’ve been since my teens, but adding to their interpretation for those stuck in thinking ruts – such as anyone who equates age with being in or out of touch.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la mĂȘme chose”

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

On one hand, it’s true, nothing much changes within the boundaries of living memory or perhaps even within those of written history. Human nature certainly hasn’t changed much since, for example, the biblical period. In the grand scheme of things, on the other hand, everything changes. Whatever we do or don’t do, Earth will continue to change radically from one geological era to another and eventually, inevitably, end up as a cosmic cinder. But neither point of view, in my opinion, is particularly helpful in connection with the present–that is, the immediate past and the immediate future. Some periods really do require us to make moral choices or even to sacrifice ourselves in order to avoid cataclysmic reversions to, for want of a better word, barbarism.
I mean, what if you were living in the Germany of 1933? Would you dismiss as Cassandras those who warned others about the sinister signs of things to come? Many people did close their eyes, convincing themselves for countless reasons that the Nazis would soon come to their senses–or be forced to do so by pressure from other countries. Life would go on as usual, if not immediately then eventually, despite a few brutal blips. And it did for a few lucky people but at a staggering cost in suffering to millions of very unlucky people–and even to those who were born generations later but live to this day in the deeply cynical world that emerged from the ruins and the death camps.
My point is that history is not homogeneous. Within the admittedly confined context of daily life, at any rate, things can indeed change for either the better or the worse. Isn’t there some way to avoid both complacency and hysteria?

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

true – for some it is the tread lightly strategy – no kids, flexible work and living options and make the most of the naturally occurring positive aspects of our time in this mortal coil….sounds sensible to me !

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

true – for some it is the tread lightly strategy – no kids, flexible work and living options and make the most of the naturally occurring positive aspects of our time in this mortal coil….sounds sensible to me !

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

My comment was repeated, so I deleted it.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul Nathanson
Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

There was a complaint in the MSM yesterday that people were watching less news and were ignorant of ‘important’ issues. Perhaps, people have finally tired of the doomsterism of the media

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

You’re old and out of touch. One hopes you’re alive and compos mentis in 2053; perhaps even then you’ll be trying to convince people nothing has really changed.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la mĂȘme chose”

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

On one hand, it’s true, nothing much changes within the boundaries of living memory or perhaps even within those of written history. Human nature certainly hasn’t changed much since, for example, the biblical period. In the grand scheme of things, on the other hand, everything changes. Whatever we do or don’t do, Earth will continue to change radically from one geological era to another and eventually, inevitably, end up as a cosmic cinder. But neither point of view, in my opinion, is particularly helpful in connection with the present–that is, the immediate past and the immediate future. Some periods really do require us to make moral choices or even to sacrifice ourselves in order to avoid cataclysmic reversions to, for want of a better word, barbarism.
I mean, what if you were living in the Germany of 1933? Would you dismiss as Cassandras those who warned others about the sinister signs of things to come? Many people did close their eyes, convincing themselves for countless reasons that the Nazis would soon come to their senses–or be forced to do so by pressure from other countries. Life would go on as usual, if not immediately then eventually, despite a few brutal blips. And it did for a few lucky people but at a staggering cost in suffering to millions of very unlucky people–and even to those who were born generations later but live to this day in the deeply cynical world that emerged from the ruins and the death camps.
My point is that history is not homogeneous. Within the admittedly confined context of daily life, at any rate, things can indeed change for either the better or the worse. Isn’t there some way to avoid both complacency and hysteria?

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

My comment was repeated, so I deleted it.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul Nathanson
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

The problem with advances in communications tech is that it enables the amplification of Cassandras. As the author indicates (and the use of the ancient symbolic name reinforces), they’ve always been with us.

Each new generation – assigned a letter from the end of the alphabet as if we’re counting down to the end – becomes more bombarded than the previous one with doomladen forecasts; without the experiential werewithal to counter these narratives, many succumb, often the more intelligent ones, i.e. students.

The world goes on, just differently in some ways but pretty much the same in most ways. Each new generation thinks that’s about to change.

The pages of Unherd are packed (littered?) with similar articles, about the ways in which theorists and commentators think this is happening. The author of this article seeks to rebalance this constant narrative, and whilst choosing an extreme example (someone who literally bombarded) i think he gets it just about right. The steady drum-beat of doom can he replaced with the complex syncopation of experience.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
1 year ago

Apparently the author of this dubious piece -unlike Kaczynski- did not get his head f***ed with by the CIA under the MKUltra program.

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
1 year ago

Apparently the author of this dubious piece -unlike Kaczynski- did not get his head f***ed with by the CIA under the MKUltra program.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Yes, we all have to deal with reality as it is, not as we want it to be, and to do otherwise is arguably immature. The key element is that of will and agency. We must choose to accept reality and have the ability to make that choice.
Sadly, the author chose the wrong subject to illustrate his point, imo. By all accounts, Kaczynski suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. His denial of reality demonstrated nothing more than the effect of his profound mental illness.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Yes, we all have to deal with reality as it is, not as we want it to be, and to do otherwise is arguably immature. The key element is that of will and agency. We must choose to accept reality and have the ability to make that choice.
Sadly, the author chose the wrong subject to illustrate his point, imo. By all accounts, Kaczynski suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. His denial of reality demonstrated nothing more than the effect of his profound mental illness.

Fred Oakley
Fred Oakley
1 year ago

Condescending drivel.

Fred Oakley
Fred Oakley
1 year ago

Condescending drivel.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

“..now at least has some social science research buttressing it.”
And the author thinks uncle Ted had some strange beliefs 

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

“..now at least has some social science research buttressing it.”
And the author thinks uncle Ted had some strange beliefs 

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
1 year ago

https://twitter.com/spikedonline/status/1668785364662726657?s=20
Elon Musk says the Unabomber might have been right about the Industrial Revolution. Grow up, Elon – you wouldn’t be where you are today without that glorious upheaval in human history, says Brendan O’Neill

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
1 year ago

https://twitter.com/spikedonline/status/1668785364662726657?s=20
Elon Musk says the Unabomber might have been right about the Industrial Revolution. Grow up, Elon – you wouldn’t be where you are today without that glorious upheaval in human history, says Brendan O’Neill

Hendrik Mentz
Hendrik Mentz
1 year ago

The Unabomber has been proven prescient. ‘As for the rest of us, our life may feel banal’. Speak for yourself, mate.

Hendrik Mentz
Hendrik Mentz
1 year ago

The Unabomber has been proven prescient. ‘As for the rest of us, our life may feel banal’. Speak for yourself, mate.

Cate Terwilliger
Cate Terwilliger
1 year ago

“For all its failings, society offers us human connection, a shared history, and communal resilience in the face of adversity.” That’s not what I feel in modern American society. I feel illusionary (or delusionary), virtually mediated human “connection,” an unshared history in which each self-defined group advances its particular narrative while opposing others, and — post-pandemic, after short-sighted shutdowns that caused immense and enduring collateral damage — dubious resilience. Kaczynski certainly (and obviously) had his failings, and I am certainly not defending committing murder. But I disagree that his perspective was “childish.”

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
1 year ago

I’m curious: has Paul Kingsnorth weighed in on Kacynski’s death yet?

Nathan Ngumi
Nathan Ngumi
1 year ago

Word. Even those fleeing to the hills or heading back to the woods will be overtaken by the pestilence they are escaping from.

Mark Smith
Mark Smith
1 year ago

“Kaczynski was apparently unable to truly grasp the cyclical nature of history — the one field neglected in Industrial Society and Its Future”
I don’t think that cycles of societal decay are relevant to the problems that the Unibomber discussed. Technology almost by definition develops cumulatively, with each new generation building on the previous, leading to greater complexity, power, and influence on society. Most dramatically, several ways to end the species have been invented in the past 100 years. These are world-historical developments that no resurgence of civil and civic norms will address.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

Why was this ‘weirdo’ NOT electrocuted back in 1998 as he so richly deserved?

ps. Alright gassed, shot or even hanged then.
But certainly NOT lethal injection!

Last edited 1 year ago by Charles Stanhope
Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 year ago

As I recall, his family, having recognised his writing style passed on his identity to th authorities on the condition ethat, if it was him, he didn’t face the death penalty.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Thank you.
It reminds rather of William Joyce (aka Lord Haw-Haw) sacrificing himself to save his wife from the noose.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Thank you.
It reminds rather of William Joyce (aka Lord Haw-Haw) sacrificing himself to save his wife from the noose.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 year ago

As I recall, his family, having recognised his writing style passed on his identity to th authorities on the condition ethat, if it was him, he didn’t face the death penalty.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

Why was this ‘weirdo’ NOT electrocuted back in 1998 as he so richly deserved?

ps. Alright gassed, shot or even hanged then.
But certainly NOT lethal injection!

Last edited 1 year ago by Charles Stanhope
Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
1 year ago

Oliver Bateman – write more about working in the realm of experimental medical treatments for the ultra-wealthy. Everything else you write is ‘meh’.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
1 year ago

Oliver Bateman – write more about working in the realm of experimental medical treatments for the ultra-wealthy. Everything else you write is ‘meh’.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

“Extremists can’t accept life’s disappointments”
Sums up Brexiters.
Look at them now, blaming everyone and everything (apart from the mirror)

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I’ll take a foreigner’s exemption on the political part but I love the idea of “blaming the mirror”, instead of what it reflects. Reminds me of the old Tom Waits number: “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)”.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I’ll take a foreigner’s exemption on the political part but I love the idea of “blaming the mirror”, instead of what it reflects. Reminds me of the old Tom Waits number: “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)”.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

“Extremists can’t accept life’s disappointments”
Sums up Brexiters.
Look at them now, blaming everyone and everything (apart from the mirror)