Alston Chase

Alston ChaseAlston Chase is a former philosophy professor who has degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Princeton Universities. He served as chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Macalester College in Minnesota, where his disenchantment with the academy led to his early retirement from the professorial life. He is a frequent contributor to national magazines. Some of his books are Playing God in Yellowstone, In a Dark Wood and most recently Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist. He and his wife live in Paradise Valley, Montana.

Theodore Kaczynski, aka The Unabomber, is portrayed in Chase’s book with detail and analysis that are a far remove from the superficial accounts that were published for the moments Kaczynski was news. In this painstakingly researched book, we are shown his family life, his experience at Harvard University, especially as a subject of some controversial research and testing done by Dr. Henry Murray. Alston Chase also offers his thesis that the "culture of despair"—which he argues has been pervasive in American universities since the end of WW II —shaped the thinking and attitudes of Kaczynski and contributed to his alienation and disaffection from mainstream America. Harvard and the Unabomber is both an accessible intellectual history of the Cold War years and a clear portrait of a terrorist who was at large from 1978 to 1995.

Robert Birnbaum: In researching your book, you frequently had to leave your home in Montana. I’m sure that was a burden for you.

Alston Chase: The novelty of traveling has worn off, put it that way. I have been a contributing editor to three travel magazines in the ’80s and early ’90s. And I did a lot of traveling for that, and because I write serious non-fiction books, I have had to do quite a bit of traveling for each of the books I have written—especially this one and the previous one. And I live in such a wonderful part of the world I hate to leave it. I always feel good to go back to it.

RB: I came away from reading your book seeing you as more intellectually inclined than many journalists. Your interest in writing this book was not solely to tell Ted Kaczynski’s story?

AC: No it wasn’t. It was more of a historical interest. Paradoxically, when I left my full time teaching, gave up my tenure at Macalester College in ’75, for the next few years I found that the only writing I could sell was on higher education. So even though I left academia I was writing about it, from ’75 into the early ’80s. And also doing some consulting for foundations and other colleges and universities on curriculum development. So I was immersed in the history of curriculum and at that time I wrote a few articles for the Atlantic Monthly on that subject and then also for academic journals and a book. In the early ’80s, I received a foundation grant to do a three-year study on the decline of general education in which I explored the curriculum in about three-hundred universities from 1945 up into the ’70s.

RB: Did anyone pay attention to what you wrote? Or rather, implement any of your suggestions?

AC: The short answer is no. (both laugh) The academic world did—it was a lifesaver because I was struggling to make ends meet, and I got some positions as a consultant to foundations. But people didn’t read the books. In fact, one book published in 1980 by Atlantic Monthly sold very, very few copies. Then I received a grant project that lasted several years, and I submitted the manuscript to the University of Chicago Press and one of their readers said, "It was smashing from first chapter to last." The other said, "It was on a par with Daniel Bell’s Reforming General Education." Which had won a Pulitzer. Yet the faculty turned it down because it was too critical of academe. The long and short of it was that it fell between the cracks of being a trade book and a university press book. So I did publish a long, long article on it in an academic journal, and I may still publish the book. That had gotten me interested particularly in the ’60s. I was looking for a way to sell a trade book on that subject, and I couldn’t interest a trade book publisher, and I tried different ways of approaching it, but none of them seemed to attract an advance. Meanwhile, before Kaczynski was known, when the [Unabomber] Manifesto came out, I was approached by a former editor friend of mine who was by that time chief story editor for Diane Sawyer on ABC Prime Time. The FBI had just come out with a profile, and the ABC people asked me to give my own analysis. And I came up with a very, very different one. The FBI suggested this person was in his ’40s. I suggested, no, he was older because the Manifesto was right out of Gen Ed of the 1950’s. And they said he was probably an academic, and I said that he was an academe long enough to learn that he hated it. And wrote too well to be an academic. So I gave a different interpretation, and it turned out to be pretty accurate.

RB: What was the FBI response?

AC: Of course they weren’t listening to me. And the problems of the FBI— and I point this out in my book— is that they have all of these psychologists doing psychological profiles but what they needed was forensic academicians.

The media came into town interviewing everything that moved. And so they interviewed many people who didn’t know him and many people who were in logging and mining and occupations of which he disapproved.

RB: One review took you to task for suggesting that Kaczynski was not mentally ill. I don’t think you come out with an opinion on his sanity.

AC: Thank you for noticing that.

RB: I wondered where would the reviewer got information to make a pronouncement on that issue while you were careful not to …

AC: I just told a story. And in fact, at the end, I didn’t try to conclude exactly why he did what he did. I presented all the factors in his life that influenced him and that probably played a role to varying degrees. But, you cannot rule out free will either. That in the end a person acts as a free agent, I believe. However, I was not convinced by any of the arguments—they were more arguments than data—presented by the defense psychologists that one could easily discount the prosecution for the same reason. When you eliminate that from the equation, one is left with the only objective evidence—the blind scoring on the Thematic Aperception Test that Kaczynski took at Harvard that was scored by an expert on the TAT from Michigan State University, after Kaczynski had plead guilty. That one was pretty conclusive and emphatic in suggesting he is sane. The way I put it is simply that there is no clinical evidence to suggest that he is insane. That doesn’t mean he is not neurotic. My own personal view is that he is very neurotic.

RB: The long list of things that media got wrong about the Unabomber is striking. What’s your take on why they were so far off?

AC: A number of factors. On the one hand it was a cultural factor. The media were all from the big cities and they came to Lincoln, Montana and Kaczynski lived four miles out of Lincoln and they thought it was wilderness. Even though he was in sight of his next door neighbor. And it was by no means a very private place that was part of what kept him in a state of agitation. So that’s part of the problem. Also, reporters always like to make a story and the story at first was, in Time magazine’s phrase "the hermit on the hill"—even though he actually lived in a creek bottom. You have the story of the good brother and bad brother that was part of it and it just dominated much of the coverage early on. And then—and this is a point that Kaczynski made to me as well in our correspondence—the media came into town interviewing everything that moved. And so they interviewed many people who didn’t know him and many people who were in logging and mining and occupations of which he disapproved. So they were not taking these things into account. Then there was, within a year after the arrest, a very effective and concerted campaign by Kaczynski’s family to visit the major media outlets and to make the case that he was insane. They were, understandably, very anxious to help him escape the death penalty. So there was that. And then there was, the only way I can put it was there was the herd instinct.

RB: Pack journalism?

AC: Yes, and I was really struck by this when I decided I wanted to cover the trial and I began months and months ahead of the trial, contacting the clerk of courts office in Sacramento to see if I could have access to the trial. They kept putting me off and suddenly I got a call and they said, "We have turned it over to this press consortium." Which was all the big boys, and I contacted them and they said there was no space left and besides you have to pay five thousand dollars and you have to have insurance…

RB: Is that legal?

AC: I don’t know. That’s good question. Insurance was another $1500, so I had to pay out $6500, and that only got me into the media room but didn’t get me into the trial. They wouldn’t give me a seat. They had three at large seats for other journalists and so at the suggestion of one of the secretaries in the Clerk of Courts office, he said, "You’ll find it very interesting to wait in line with the people who are waiting for the free seats."

RB: Of which there were five?

AC: Something like that. They were there at three in the morning.
The courthouse doors opened at eight. So they were essentially living there and I found these people fascinating. They were the people who really understood the trial and they had read the transcript thoroughly, everyday. They were trial buffs. One was a Ph.D. from a junior college near by. Another was a reporter for the Court Recorder magazine and the others were aging ex-activists. I learned a heck of a lot from them. They proved helpful over the course of my writing the book. But it was like night and day to talk to these people and then go up to the media room where the journalists were with their laptops. First of all, one becomes aware of entering into a little subculture, like a circus. These people may be in Sacramento this week and then they were in LA covering OJ Simpson and then in Oklahoma City. And they all know each other and have become friends, and an awful lot of the stories get written over the coffee machine. And because they are all thrown together and basically strangers in the town, they tend to only talk to each other or talk to each other a lot more than they talk to anybody else. So the result is the stories all come out of the same cookie cutter. That struck me as just—it seemed to confirm one of the things that Kaczynski complained about. That is, that they are part of the system and its reporting of the news tends to encourage this kind of conformity.

RB: This was even before the notion of ’embedded’ was created.

AC: That’s right.

RB: I know you corresponded with him. Have you met him?

AC: No. I had been corresponding with him for about nine months and he invited me to come down. I wish I had, but it was not a good time for me. So I begged off at that time. Five months later I wrote. I suggested I come and meet with him. He had just given an interview to Paul Dubner for Talk media, which Tina Brown declined to publish. She thought it was too favorable to Kaczynski. So it was published in Time or Newsweek—and at that time Kaczynski had been hoping to get his autobiography published and his would-be publisher had persuaded him to grant this interview, suggesting that it would help sell the book and also assured him that Dubner would be sympathetic. I thought the piece was. But he didn’t think so. He was furious and felt betrayed and he pulled the book from the publisher and he wrote me this very funny letter in which he said he would never trust a mainstream journalist again…He was going to only grant interviews to the most long-haired scruffy earring-wearing radicals. So there was my chance.

RB: Are you a mainstream journalist?

alston chaseAC: I have never thought of myself as one. I thought of myself as more of a gadfly. I wouldn’t think of myself as a mainstream journalist but Kaczynski thought I was.

RB: Well, he’s crazy. (both laugh) Did you coin the phrase ‘culture of despair’?

AC: Yes

RB: Will you say what that is?

AC: There are many factors that go into it. To name a few of the more obvious ones, speaking of the atmosphere on campuses beginning in the late ’40s and early ’50s, carrying forward from that day right up to the present. In the 1950’s it was a strong fear that technology was destroying civilization, was a threat to civilization and by the 1960’s it had evolved into a strong feeling that technology was destroying nature and in that latter guise it is still very much with us. So, by now it’s filtered down into the grade schools. I have for a number of years have given talks to high schools during Earth Day and that sort of thing, and it’s amazing to walk down the hallways of these high schools and see all these despairing posters on the walls about global warming and rain forest depletion and so forth. And I thought about how terrible it is to grow up where you are just being bombarded with it. I grew up during the Second World War and that was bad enough, but in any case for the 1950’s the culture of despair as Kaczynski encountered it and I encountered it—was in part the product of a generation of the professors who were teaching us who had fought in WW II or were adults and witnessed all the terrible, terrible killing and also Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And were very much impressed with the potential threat that technology posed to civilization. Also there was a legitimate and threat and concern that thermonuclear war was imminent. So there was the war threat and the war experience and this filtered into the curriculum, but in addition to this, there was and is a more profound intellectual crisis of western civilization which the professors of the 1950’s were more aware of and talked about more. It’s still here, but people don’t talk about it as much. That has its origins in the rise of modern science in the 16th and 17th century. Prior to that one might say that ethical ideas of western civilization were coherent and of a piece. They were largely Aristotelian mixed with Christianity. The basic idea was the belief that everything in nature plays a role in this larger system and to know a thing was to know what role it played and how it ought to behave. So in the ancient worldview fact and value were very much together to know something was to know how it ought to be. But the modern physics that arose was a discovery that simply by observing the quantifiable aspects of experience and manipulating these quantities with new mathematics one can arrive at generalizations which one could use to make accurate predictions.This was a modern science. It had no need of ethics or God. This was something that the philosophers of this period were immediately aware of and saw as a problem. And it led by the 1700’s to what one former colleague of mine, philosopher Allastair McIntyre referred to as the Enlightenment Enterprise. Which was an attempt by philosophers to try to bring, to glue, ethics and science back together again. This effort failed, and it took 100 years for anyone to notice it was failing, and it wasn’t until the 1950’s that this failure had worked its way into the curriculum of the university. Even though its origins were old, the realization of its implications was relatively new. It’s certainly true that the pessimism that I am talking about, you can find in the writings of thoughtful people in the 1920’s and ’30s.

RB: After the shock of the First World War.

AC: Right. So you could if you want to be overly simplistic—you could say that the 19th century was an era of optimism and the 20th century has been an age of pessimism. In the 19th century the glass was half full and in the 20th century it has been half empty. So Ortega y Gassett comes to mind and HG Wells by the end of his life was another and Thorsten Veblen and Spengler and there were a lot of these people who in the 1920’s were suggesting the end of civilization as they knew it, was near. This was their awareness of this intellectual crisis. So that had worked its way thoroughly into the curriculum after WW II. That was what my generation, the Silent Generation was steeped in. That we could expect that civilization that lasted two thousand years was about to go under.

RB: So Ted Kaczynski shows up at Harvard at the age of sixteen to study mathematics. How much Gen Ed did he need to take?

AC: Gen Ed was a requirement for all undergraduates, and what it amounted to was a requirement that every undergraduate by the end of his sophomore year take an essay-writing course. Gen Ed AHF it was called and then take one full year course in a specifically designed Gen Ed course, on in the natural sciences and one in the social sciences and one in the humanities. So the science one might be the history of science. Which is what Kaczynski took and I took. Humanities might be history of Western Literature. They were all history, really. And then in the last two years students were required to take at least one semester course in upper level Gen Ed specifically designed again to meet their requirements for graduation. Even though Kaczynski was a mathematician, he couldn’t avoid being a immersed in this curriculum, and in fact he had always had synoptic interests. In high school he had very, very broad intellectual interests. He continued to in college and throughout his life.

RB: As evidenced by the books in his cabin.

AC: Right.

RB: Then he runs into Dr. Henry Murray at Harvard. I was surprised at the indignation of one reviewer, that you brought to light the personal details of Murray’s life and his sexual habits and other anomalies. I see a spiral from Operation Paper Clip [which brought Nazi scientists to the US] down to Operation Artichoke, which on the face of them are violations of the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg Code.

AC: Right, right.

RB: What is there to defend of this man, Murray?

AC: This is one of these things that is so frustrating as a writer. Even more frustrating than having critics is having people like your book but don’t understand it. We live in such a political age that virtually everybody reads anything nowadays and they cherry pick, either negatively or positively. Pick out what they don’t like and commend the book and so on. I was aware that there would be a lot of conservative commentators who would not like the book because of what it tells about the very seamy aspect of the co-optation of academic research by the Department of Defense during the Cold War.

RB: Except for the specifics in your book the notion of academic collaboration with the CIA and other agencies is not a revelation.

And because they are all thrown together and basically strangers in the town, they tend to only talk to each other or talk to each other a lot more than they talk to anybody else. So the result is the stories all come out of the same cookie cutter.

AC: Right, exactly. What I’ve added is that I was interested particularly in what happened in academe and especially social science research and very little has be written on that and much less on the particular institutions. Simpson’s book on the science of coercion which is a study of communication theory and how that was co-opted by the military and there is Ellen Herman’s excellent book on the romance of the American Psychology which is also about the co-optation of psychology but it’s a broad one. The material was out there so it was not really a surprise and the story of LSD and the experimentation… This fellow was a conservative and just didn’t want to touch this, especially since the implications are that we might be going back to that with the war on terrorism. However there is some other interesting aspect to this. I wrote an article on these Murray experiments in the Atlantic in the June of 2000 issue and in preparing for that I had read the one biography of Murray written by a professor at U of C at Santa Cruz, Forrest Robinson. He states flatly—Murray referred to his experiments as diadic experiments, experiments in the diad—Robinson says by the diad Murray was referring to his nearly forty year love affair with Christiana Morgan. That’s what the diad meant to Murray. I thought, "This can’t be. He’s a scientist. He has to have some scientific definition of the diad." So I was interviewing the various former assistants and colleagues of Murray and asked what is the diads and they said they didn’t know.

RB: (Laughs) They didn’t know?

AC: Right. I tried my hand interpreting what he meant. My interpretation was since he believed he was working at boundaries between psychology and sociology, that if you think of psychology being the study of one psyche at a time and sociology as many psyches at time, the point at which they might come closest is when you are talking about two psyches interacting. So that is the diad. I explained that interpretation in the Atlantic article and Professor Robinson wrote a critical letter suggesting he couldn’t understand where I had gotten this idea and that in fact the diad was Murray’s love affair. So then I realized that in order to understand the diadic experiments, I had to understand the love affair. Even Murray’s disciples were saying there was no division. So Murray’s private life would become very much relevant to anyone that was going to do a biography of Kaczynski—who had participated in these so-called diadic experiments. What I found that this love affair was characterized by considerable explorations of the libido and in particular Murray regularly practiced sado-masochistic sex and so on. I put no direct comment on that. I just put it out there because I think people ought to know it. Whether Murray’s predilections, whether his sadism as several people commented on, actually had any personal effect on Kaczynski, I don’t know.

RB: The overall impression that one gets of Henry Murray is that he was a cruel man and leaving people abruptly, with no kindness or warning or consolation, not left feeling better for having met him.

AC: That was stated by a number of former assistants. He hurt his colleagues and the graduate students, so one can imagine how he might have hurt some of the undergraduates.

RB: What does the world’s greatest university have to say? Any official statement on Murray’s research or on your book?

AC: Not yet. Harvard’s a big university and they have many people. Some of the best critics of an institution are right in the institution. The Harvard archivists were terrific as opposed to the archivists in the Murray Center.

RB: Apparently Harvard sealed off the Murray Center Archives?

AC: Yeah and what I find least excusable—one can say the Murray Center had a need and an obligation not to divulge material that revealed identities but why it should keep any interested scholar from looking at the material in which identities are protected is mystifying. And I found it really inexcusable that they at least according to Kaczynski and members of the defense team with whom I talked that when the defense team asked for the full K files including the Murray’s and his assistants analysis that they refused.

RB: Why? Any good reason?

AC: It can not to be to protect Kaczynski. So one can only infer that it was to protect the professors. I don’t know the reason. In fairness, I think that the Kaczynski’s defense team did not press very hard for this material because Kaczynski thinks they are afraid of what they might find out. They’d find out that the he was probably sane at this time and that would not support the argument that they were preparing for the court. Without question Kaczynski was vulnerable and more vulnerable than anyone else in that cohort of twenty-two students. I did find Murray’s evaluation of the philosophy essays and he rated Kaczynski’s as the most nihilistic. So that raises another interesting question. It was never clear what the purpose of these studies were. But what some of the graduate assistants were interested in, was in picking students who were alienated and so perhaps—I am just guessing here—perhaps there was a special interest in Kaczynski because he was more alienated. In which case by the time he wrote the philosophy essay, if Murray’s own comments on the philosophy essay are right, it was irresponsible of him to continue to push Kaczynski. I think there was a conflict of interest here. One the one hand they wanted alienated subjects and that led them to pursue experiments with some subjects that good judgment would dictate they should drop out of the program.

RB: You suggest that Kaczynski’s thinking—which you characterize as mediocre—is not particularly original.

AC: The Manifesto is a kind of compendium of cliches.

RB: It does espouse values and does suggest concepts and sentiments that are rife in this country. Why aren’t there more Kaczynski’s. Or there will be more?

alston chase by birnbaumAC: There will be. We come back to the fact that this intellectual crisis that I mention is still with us. And one way it’s manifested itself is in a global culture of despair and anti-modernism. A profound reaction against everything modern, not simply by the Kaczynskis of the world but the bin Ladens, who would like to return the Middle East to some theocratic state at the time of Saladin, but in addition in Europe as in its ban on genetically engineered crops. That’s anti-modernism. Now it’s true that the European Union may be doing this because it’s a convenient way to impose tariffs and be protectionist with out appearing to be protectionist. On the other had the EU couldn’t get away with it if there weren’t just widespread popular support among the people in Europe. The anti-globalization movement and environmentalism in some of its stripes are all examples of this anti-modernism and there are a certain percentage of these people that are willing to commit violent acts in the name of rolling the technology back. As I looked at Kaczynski and his thinking, what I saw was this pattern that seemed strikingly similar of that of terrorists—virtually every form from the KKK to bin Laden. And one has this very historical sense, the sense that they see themselves as players in history. The sense that they are attempting to right wrongs they believed were committed long ago. Bin Laden wants to roll back the Crusades. The KKK would like to fight the Civil War again. So you have these elephantine memories of these imagined injustices. And then anti-modernism and that goes for the right-wing survivalist militia men, the Earth First environmentalists, the anti-globalization people are in to that as are the Islamic fundamentalists. So it’s a really a worldwide movement. And with the increase in communication the divisions that existed in the past between domestic and international terrorism are going to disappear.

RB: I don’t want to argue against the existence of a culture of despair; I want to suggest that these days people are not conscious of what they think. Or rather they are capable of holding onto contradictory thoughts and values.

AC: Yeah, there is an excellent little book, When Dreams and Heroes Die, by Arthur Levine, who was at that time President of the Carnegie Foundation back in 1979 and I quote it in my book. He speaks about the pessimism of the college students of the ’70s. He said a typical response of students on their outlooks on life was, "The world is going to pot and the rain forest is being depleted and global warming etc, etc." and then when asked if they are pessimistic, "Oh no I’ve got a good job offer and I am getting married next week and I just bought a new car." This gulf between the public and the private,Tom Wolfe wrote about a professor listing all sorts of problems and depressing things happening in the world and the collapse of civilization was imminent and a student raised his hand and asked the professor, "If that’s true, how come the biggest problem on campus is finding a parking spot?" So the divide between one’s private life and beliefs about the future for the planet. Levine calls it "the feeling of going first class on the Titanic."

RB: Yeah. What’s next for you?

AC: I have always wanted to write a book, a memoir and this might be like a sequel. My own flight from academe and moving out to a really remote spot unlike Kaczynski.

RB: What county are you in Montana?

AC: Now in Paradise County, which is the county that borders Yellowstone Park. When we first moved out to Montana, we were in Maher County, which is bigger than Rhode Island and it has a population smaller than this building. Very, very small population.

RB: I’ve talked to Tom McGuane, who is in Sweet Grass County. And Jim Harrison has just moved out that way.

AC: On the west fork of the Boulder river. Yeah, I know them both. Neighbors more or less. If I were to hike right up, which I do, sometimes in the summer over the Divide of the mountains behind my house and come down onto the West Boulder it’s right near McGuane’s place. So we run into each other now and then. Where we lived up on the Smith River was 55 miles from the nearest town and 10 miles from the nearest neighbor and ten miles of unmaintained road and often in the winter it was twenty five miles over a mountain pass to get to a plowed road. And it was absolutely the most beautiful spot on earth. But very isolated, I get choked up thinking about it. We gave it up in 1981 partly for financial reasons—we’d bought a bigger place than we could afford, but it was a difficult place to earn a living even if I was writing novels. But by this time it would be a difficult place for someone my age. It was very tough physically. You scratch a rancher in Montana and you’ll find he has a bad back and goes to a chiropractor because he rides snow mobiles in the winter.

As I looked at Kaczynski and his thinking, what I saw was this pattern that seemed strikingly similar of that of terrorists—virtually every form from the KKK to bin Laden. And one has this very historical sense, the sense that they see themselves as players in history.

RB: Have you started your memoir?

AC: Yeah I’ve outlined it and thought of a title, but I haven’t really started writing.

RB: I find it interesting that the Unabomber has pretty much disappeared from public awareness and discourse.

AC: Yeah, that was really due to the nature if the media coverage in which he was dismissed as insane and that makes him sound very uninteresting. Whatever he is sane or not he is a very complex and interesting character. This is the difficulty I was aware of that I addressed in my book. The average person would think, "I already know the K story." He has not dropped from sight in the eyes of the green anarchist anti-globalization people. They still look up to him as a prisoner of war as they call him. He is an indefatigable correspondent. He is a kind of a philosopher of the movement playing the role that Marx played during Communist revolutions of France in 1848.

RB: Well, thank you very much.

AC: Thank you.

© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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