Weaponizing Bourgeois Squeamishness

This is another entry inspired by the research I am doing for my upcoming book about personal manifestos written by people who have spilled blood.  As I read about these manifestos, I am led down roads that don’t really belong in my book but are deeply interesting and need to be discussed.  I’ve wandered off course analyzing how The Birdman of Alcatraz tried to convince Carl Panzram to commit suicide before he could be executed, and how it is that it is almost impossible to feel sympathy for most of the men in the current incel subculture.

Now I need to share with you how I fell into a way of thinking that elites use to control how people like me (and possibly you) perceive people who may be right, who may be wrong, who may be extremists, but who pose some sort of threat to the established order.

One of the first books I read about Ted Kaczynski, the man who came to be called the Unabomber due to initially sending bombs to universities and airlines, was written by the FBI agents who played a primary role in investigating the Unabomber crimes and eventually arresting him.  UNABOMBER: How the FBI Broke Its Own Rules to Capture the Terrorist Ted Kaczynski by Jim Freeman, Terry D. Turchie, and Donald Max Noel, was an interesting book though it largely confirmed for me, their protestations notwithstanding, that had Ted Kaczynski’s brother not turned him in, they’d very likely still be searching for him today.

The book also triggered my disgust in a way I didn’t expect, and it colored how I looked at Kaczynski until a different way of looking at Ted called into question the validity of the information I was using to make my decisions.

When the FBI arrested Ted Kaczynski, he looked pretty rough.  In all the pictures of him just after his arrest, Kaczynski looks very thin and very dirty, clad in filthy clothes with holes in them, looking as if he had not bathed in months.  Living a sort of hermit’s existence in a shack lacking plumbing and electricity does that, one presumes (though the “Ted was a hermit” narrative is not correct – Ted had contact with a lot of people and had established friendships in the community in which he lived; he was hardly a hermit).  Plenty of people who make their way to Idaho, Wyoming and Montana in order to live in a rural area, off the grid, are not going to have the same attitudes toward personal bathing and what it is that makes a person clean or dirty as someone living in the suburbs with more bathrooms than people living in the house and washing machines and dryers in the garage.

So that wasn’t too upsetting to me. Mountain men do dirty work and bathe less, especially if they live off the grid, though his appearance did not strike a healthy chord with me.  But the way the book described the way Ted lived in his shack in Montana did upset me (shack versus cabin is also an important distinction – those who are disgusted by Ted call it a shack, those who are not call it a cabin, and it interests me how even now I go back and forth between the two). The book descriptions made my skin crawl.

When I quote passages from the book, the “I” in the passages is Jim Freeman speaking.  He goes into great detail describing the squalor of Ted Kaczynski’s shack, but before he does he makes sure we know that he considered Ted “disheveled” when he was arrested, and also attributed a “high-pitched” voice to him. He’s essentially conveying that Ted was gross and sort of feminine, which is a weird combination but oddly effective in the end. His disgust is muted in the beginning:

First to catch my eye was the small, dirty window on the left wall…

Yeah, windows get dirty during the winter when you have to use a stove to heat your living space, but it continues:

A low, wooden cot was along the right side and I could make out a prominent smear of black dirt on the wall apparently caused by Ted’s bare shoulders and hair rubbing against the wall.  It was impossible to get out of my head the picture of Kaczynski’s filthy body covered in black soot from the poorly vented stove.  Just seeing and smelling the carcinogenic ash led me to the conclusion that Kaczynski was a walking case of cancer from second hand smoke if my agents were exposed to him for too long.

Yeah, this is bad.  And of course Freeman was being hyperbolic about the second hand smoke leading to cancer bit, but he wasn’t kidding about how he wanted to convey the terrible squalor he felt Kaczynski lived in, encouraging the reader to consider Ted completely naked, covered in filth, begriming the very walls where he slept.

But it got worse.

Each of us took a final look around the 10 by 12 feet square shaped room, breathed in the stench of human waste – obviously, Ted’s waste – that was buried in a shallow hole carved out in the dirt, beneath the cabin’s thin wooden floor and felt the chill of the Montana mountain air seeping in through the open cabin door.  We couldn’t do anything at that moment to improve our creature comfort.  There was no electricity, plumbing, running water, phone lines, television or coffee pot inside the dirty, smelly cabin.

So Freeman wants us to understand that not only did Ted essentially sleep atop his own filth, his own shit, but the cabin was utterly devoid of anything that could offer human comfort.

Ted’s perp walk was another chance for Freeman to drive home how gross he felt Kaczynski was.

America wasn’t ready for what it saw.  Kaczynski had a wild-eyed look that seemed more an embellished Hollywood creation of a mad man than reality.  His thick dark hair and beard, showing the last few days of dirt he had picked up both inside his cabin and outside in the harsh weather, his wrapped face concealing everything but his hollow, expression-less eyes.

His dark-colored, hand-me-down clothes were ragged from wear.  He had every appearance of a homeless man in the middle of a big city that had been brought in from the cold.

It was the next bit that just absolutely made no bones that Ted was disgusting, too filthy to be wholly human. Bear in mind Donald Max Noel was one of the agents who initially grabbed Ted during the arrest.

Ted’s emaciated frame at the time of his arrest will be long remembered, and not the least by Max [Noel] who emerged from the brief struggle with grimy, soot stained hands.

When I came upon the scene, Max was trying to wipe his hands clean by rubbing them in the snow and pulling pine boughs across his palms.  It helped a little, but the stench remained oppressive for hours.  In witnessing the place and the condition of its lone occupant, it was a wonder to me that anyone had survived the repetitive rigors of winter and the pervasive threat of illness or disease.

Imagine being plagued with stench for hours just because you briefly wrapped your arms around someone.  I can’t source it so I cannot ask the reader to put much faith in it, but I recall also reading that Ted left an odor in the cars used to transport him from the arrest scene, an odor that permeated the seat coverings and could not be flushed out with open windows.

But after discussing the stench and filth, Freeman further emphasizes the absolute bestiality of Ted’s existence.  Ted used his own excrement as fertilizer, which is not particularly savory to consider, but not that unheard of.  Gross to those of us who engage in more modern approaches to fertilizing vegetable gardens but most of agriculture and animal husbandry are sort of gross.  No, what startled and upset me was the description of the game Ted consumed.

At one point, [Ted’s] diary described a particularly satisfying concoction of coyote stew and root vegetables.

It may be a part of modern squeamishness that we frown on eating carnivorous animals.  There are a lot of biological reasons for it that may or may not be valid, like the bio-accumulation of toxins that happens when you eat a carnivore that has spent its life eating herbivores and other carnivores when desperate.  There’s also the belief that meat from dedicated carnivores tastes bad, but surely it can taste no worse than squirrel or possum.  But mostly we don’t eat predatory, dedicated carnivores because they are harder to catch and are rarer than rabbits, squirrel and deer.

You only eat coyotes willingly when you’ve over-hunted an area to the point that you have no choice.  Ted was an accomplished small game hunter and understood how to grow vegetables but the implications of him using his own shit for fertilizer implies he’d leeched the soil of nutrients and eating a coyote implies he over-hunted his plot of land to the point that he had little choice but to kill and eat a coyote (which also calls into question the validity of the message in Ted’s manifesto, but more on that in my book).  Both acts speak of a desperation that modern Americans do not encounter that often, and the implications of both actions convey sickness.  I know how to cook cow and chicken, but have zero idea about what sort of parasites coyotes have in their flesh or if cooking can rid the meat of them. You shit where you plant, you will be at a massive risk for e.coli, which can make you sick at best, kill you at worst.

Make no mistake, these FBI agents are labeling Ted for us, making sure we understand what he is.  The concept of Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider” comes up often when considering the words and lives of those who write personal manifestos, but this was beyond outsiderness.  This was making Ted into The Other.  Ted was beyond human understanding with his filthiness, his willingness to wallow in his own filth, his obliviousness to basic hygiene so profound that his dirty body and hair left marks on the wall near his bed. He looked like a madman and lived like an animal, worse than an animal because few animals will sleep near their own waste.  He was forced to scavenge food that has been rejected for various reasons throughout mankind’s history and he used his own shit in growing food.  Ted was The Other and wholly unlike us.  The picture painted is clear.

The picture is an effective one.  After reading that book I spoke to Chip Smith at Nine Banded Books about how repulsive and absolutely ineffectual I found Ted and his message.  Of course there may be something to the notion that it’s a bad idea to literally crap where you eat (I have no knowledge of how Ted may have processed his waste for fertilizer so maybe there’s some way to do it that isn’t utterly gross to a suburbanite who can barely keep an herb garden blooming). But I admit my opinions about Ted changed when I read how dirty and filthy his life was. And of course, one has to have pretty hidebound attitudes about people who murder for social or revolutionary reasons to overlook the fact that Ted killed people but there are those of us who can be sanguine with such murder (which I am from time to time – a reasonable point of view for a woman living in a country and state forged from brutal revolution).  But if you want to utterly demonize Kaczynski, painting him as bestial in habits and hygiene can seal the deal for those who may be undecided.

It’s all the more remarkable that I developed that reaction after Freeman’s descriptions of Ted’s life as a “hermit.”  I’ve known in a very shallow way that dissidents, terrorists and revolutionaries are subject to all kinds of accusations that will spur on bourgeois distaste for them.  But here we are.  Lucky for me, I followed up the FBI’s look at Ted with a book called A Mind for Murder: The Education of the Unabomber and the Origins of Modern Terrorism by Alston Chase. Chase, an environmentalist, anti-technology advocate and Harvard graduate, has a very different perspective on Kaczynski, one bolstered by his own experiences migrating to rural Montana, living off the grid in a manner not dissimilar to Kaczynski.  He shows how people who live a lifestyle similar to mine – showering at least daily, running a dishwasher and washing machine, with central heat and air, likely have no idea what really living off the grid in a place that gets very cold in the winter is like.

Chase discusses Candace DeLong, who was active in the arrest, and her reaction to Ted’s appearance.

Kaczynski’s clothes, DeLong recalls, were “rotting off his body . . . . He smelled like warm dirt and was so filthy even his long eyelashes were caked with soot – above the bluest eyes I have ever seen.  He was missing a front tooth.”

Interesting.  His clothes were ragged but even DeLong, who evidently was unhappy about being in cold, rural Montana to the point that she complained openly about it, mentions nothing about a stench.  Only that he smelled of warm dirt.  Warm dirt isn’t really an odor that should cause a law enforcement professional to wash his hands in snow and scrape them with pine branches to get rid of the stink caused from casual contact with Ted.

But it’s hard to get around rotting clothes and a filthy body. Chase goes on to explain that perhaps deliberate propaganda played a role in Freeman’s depictions of Ted’s appearance, one picked up and repeated by the media.

This was the face that, within a week, would grace the cover of virtually every national magazine, cementing for all time the public’s impression of Kaczynski as a tattered hermit who never bathed.  DeLong did not know at the time that… the searchers were simultaneously finding Kaczynski had perfectly presentable clothes, and even suits and ties, but that, like so many mountain men, while doing dirty jobs in winter he let dress and bathing slide.

And at the time of his arrest, Kaczynski was reportedly doing a dirty job.  According to an FBI source, he was rasping aluminum blocks to make more aluminum powder for bombs.  The dust was all over him.

I wonder if that aluminum dust was the filth DeLong recounted coating his eyelashes.  Seems likely.

Chase also counters the filthy shack narrative.

Inside the tiny dwelling, searchers encountered one surprise after another. Although crammed with Kaczynski’s possessions – and in contrast to his appearance – the cabin was pin-neat.  Everything had its place. A gun rack holding a deer rifle and a .22-caliber “plinker” stood above the bed that also served as a couch.  Snowshoes and animal hides hung on the inside of the door.  A homemade chair sat in front of the woodstove.  In one corner below a window stood the washbasin; in another, cross-country skis leaned against the wall; and in a third, Kaczynski’s dress clothes hung on hooks.  On one wall, floor-to-ceiling shelving held foodstuffs and books.  Another row of shelves, containing more books, ran along the top of the other three walls.

Ted had hundreds (yes, hundreds) of books in his tiny cabin.  If Ted was so filthy that he left greasy, soot-covered marks on the walls, one presumes his books would be covered in the same soot and filth that settled on Kaczynski in the cabin.  If one has hundreds of books in a 10 x 12 foot room, alongside foodstuffs and bomb-making supplies, it’s impossible to see how such a firetrap did not burn to the ground years earlier.  One spark from the stove on a greasy, dust-covered book and it would have been all over.  Maybe Freeman approached the cabin from the perspective of a hyper-clean suburban housewife (hi, that would be me), or maybe he exaggerated.  At the very least, we have a different perspective coming from Chase.

More to the point, Chase discusses how Ted Kaczynski was in no way a hermit, and that women made up most of the people he considered friends.

And quite a few townsfolk liked Kaczynski.  One was Teresa Garland, manager of Garland’s Store.  An attractive woman of about forty, she was one of the rare natives in town.  Kaczynski, she told me, had once had a crush on her sister, Becky, president of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited.

And Becky liked Ted enough to enter into a sort of pen-pal relationship with him.  But there’s more.

He felt at ease with Irene Preston…  An elderly lady, Preston […] and her friend Kenneth Lee had a place just up the road from Kaczynski.  They all became good friends.  Kaczynski would invite them into his cabin, sharing his homemade beef jerky.  Sometimes they played pinochle together.

Preston moved away when Lee died, but Kaczynski would bike to her new digs, bringing turnips.

The town library staff, too, adored Kaczynski.  According to Sherri Wood, an ebullient, middle-aged individual, and her assistant, Mary Spurlin, Kaczynski is a “lovely man.” […]

Kaczynski came to the library about once a month, Wood said, where they’d have long talks about books.

Women as a whole, almost stereotypically, are more focused on personal and household hygiene than men.  But librarians talked to him for hours about books and never once mentioned he smelled bad.  He invited people into the shack that Freeman described as filthy with the smell of Kaczynski’s defecation permeating the very walls, and they ate food he prepared there and stayed to play card games. Not really what would happen with a man so disgusting he was personally filthy, living in filth.  More from Chase:

Richard Perez-Pena wrote in the New York Times on April 4, 1996, that Lincoln “has many seasonal residents and has attracted people as removed from the mainstream as back-to-the-land hippies and right-wing militas,” so that “Kaczynski’s reserve, self-sufficiency, long hair and beard drew little notice.”

[…]

But while a few reporters… sought to put Kaczynski’s Lincoln lifestyle into perspective, most did not bother.  Coming from big cities, they didn’t notice Kaczynski’s cabin wasn’t wilderness.

Chase sums it up:

While Kaczynski may have been quiet, shy, sometimes unkempt and socially awkward, he wasn’t the filthy hermit he was made out to be.

Within the oeuvre of those who went into rural America to live on their own terms, Ted was hardly filthy, dirty or smelly.  He fit right in.  It’s only to people like me, who buy cleaning supplies in bulk at CostCo who saw Ted as The Other and the media helped us form this knee-jerk reaction. (In my defense, to a certain extent, I can be forgiven – I sit on the contamination OCD spectrum and though it is largely muted now with medication and a very controlled environment, my puritanical need for cleanliness often rises up at unexpected times.)

And it’s a subtle and remarkably effective way of demonizing.  Say you’re a largely middle of the road person who at times believes that government technological intrusion in your life is excessive and that the center cannot hold regarding population growth and global sustainability.  Say at times you think that maybe the only way things change is via violent, direct action.  Maybe the Unabomber’s message resonated with you.  But then you are told he’s filthy, missing teeth, hair matted, clothes rotting off him, living in filth in a way that not even animals can tolerate, starving so badly he must eat coyotes.  Would the revulsion such a description provokes be enough to make you distance yourself from the madman willing to live that way?  Propagandists bank on it.

I knew, on some level, that revolutionaries are often demeaned as filthy so that the bourgeoisie reject them.  The CIA did their level best to portray Che Guevara, revolutionary and murderer both, as filthy and willfully so. The man who captured Che remarked at how much he pitied Che because he was so dirty and thin, as if one expects a leader of guerilla action, living rough, to be well-fed and freshly bathed.  The post-execution pictures of Che don’t even make him look that dirty but my memory is of a filthy, grime-marked body with matted hair. Revisiting the pictures shows me how hard it is to tell bruises from dirt, blood stains from grime, or how much of that dirt was smeared on him as his body was transported from one place to the next. Those married to the Guevara as a filthy degenerate narrative speak of how disgusting it was that when Che’s men would bathe in streams or small lakes, he would sit on the banks and smoke, never deigning to wash himself.  That’s true.  He didn’t bathe as much as those around him.  But one fact is left out – Che Guevara had severe asthma.  Cold, especially cold water, could trigger an asthma attack.  He showered when he had access to hot water.  Otherwise he could trigger an asthma attack there was no assurance he could recover from.

But all of this raises an interesting question for me – why do we need revolutionaries, men and women who do things rank and file would never do, to have our own standards of cleanliness?  Why does our measure of men get derailed so easily.  Entire books are dedicated to why disgust and revulsion are so hard to shake, why bug larvae, body odor, blood and poop can drive us to decisions faster than human misery and injustice, but short version is that such revulsion is hardwired into our brains and reactions for a number of evolutionary reasons.  When we can’t manipulate people via demonizing ideas, it’s not uncommon for media, primary weapon of most propagandists, to invoke the disgusting.

It happened very recently with Julian Assange.  The media has had a heyday trying to shape public perception of Assange.  Some people in the USA really hate him because they feel Wikileaks is directly responsible for costing Hillary Clinton the 2016 election, delivering the Trump administration. Assange’s role in enforcing governmental and political accountability is seen as espionage, so it seems odd that one would need revulsion to seal the deal.  Lots of attention has been paid to Assange’s veganism, attempts were made to portray him as a rapist, yet when he was arrested, lots of people in the USA and the West worried his arrest would signal the death of freedom of speech and presaged far worse lockdowns on citizen speech and expression.

Cue the photos of Assange looking a bit greasy with a long unkempt beard.  Follow it with accusations he smeared poop all over the walls during the seven years he sheltered at the Ecuadorian embassy in London and surely people will recoil from him in disgust.  Almost makes the reports that he refused to flush the toilet or wash dishes seem like charming quirks. Of course it’s interesting to ponder why a man dependent upon the goodwill of those at the embassy would smear his crap on the walls, and the only conclusions one can reach is that he either has a sexual fascination with his waste or he’s just so degenerate that it is something he does as a matter of course.

There are many reasons to dislike Ted Kaczysnki, Che Guevara and Julian Assange.  No one needs apologize if they are ardent defenders of technological surveillance, despise the Communist party, or despise Assange’s vilification of Clinton via Wikileaks.  But if you find yourself on the fence, weighing the pros and cons of what these three men, or any other dissident, revolutionary or terrorist has done, and suddenly the news describes them as dirty, unwashed fecalpheliacs, consider whether or not such claims have little basis in reality and may, in fact, be a jaded attempt to force a specific narrative designed to invoke your innate disgust.

2 thoughts on “Weaponizing Bourgeois Squeamishness

  1. It’s been years since I read it, but Chuck Klosterman in Eating the Dinosaur has a typically Klostermanesque essay comparing Kurt Cobain and David Koresh (he also has an interesting essay on Kaczynski’s manifesto in that book), and embedded in that piece is the idea that the Branch Davidians were essentially murdered by the ATF and FBI, and as a society we shrugged it off because they were crazy cultists.

    We don’t ask a lot of questions about suspicious deaths when the victims are weirdos who violated cultural norms. Once they were tagged as a “cult,” people were ready to believe without question anything law enforcement accused them of. Looked at from an alternative perspective, it could be said that the government decided to get rid of the Branch Davidians, harassed and pushed them to the point of violence, then used that violence as the excuse to destroy the cultists. And a huge part of why no one except conspiracy theorists questions the official story is that they were portrayed by the government and media as dangerous weirdos, using terminology like “cult” and “compound” to demonize the Branch Davidians and underscore their otherness.

  2. Also, as sort of a flip side to Kaczynski – in reading articles about Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest, I’ve been noticing how bizarrely admiring the coverage is. The articles never fail to describe him as a “financial whiz” and go off on tangents about his fabulous wealth and wonderful accomplishments. Our culture worships wealth so ardently that the media can’t resist depicting a depraved pedophile in glowing terms if he’s a billionaire.

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