Cinelinguini: Netflix’s unabomber: what’s your ‘wudder’?

Language is such a ubiquitous part of human tapestry, it is almost invisible from everyday contemplation.

Unless you are a linguist.

So it makes a nice occasion to see some metalanguage in Netflix’s new documentary/series on the Unabomber. The documentary, stretching over 8 exciting and gripping episodes, recounts the investigation and development of what is now known as forensic linguistics that led to the capture of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, an acronym that stands for Universities and Airline bomber. Operating between 1978 and 1995, Kaczynski mailed or hand-delivered mail containing home-made bombs, targeting key individuals he upheld as responsible for technological development that led to environmental destruction. In his manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future, according to the show (I haven’t read it myself), Kaczynski warns against the increasing dependency on and the slowly eroding freedoms caused by technology.

Last year I read John Olsson’s Wordcrime: Solving Crime Through Forensic Linguistics in which Olsson shares his life’s journey (my favourite part, actually) into becoming one of the UK’s leading forensic linguists. He gives examples from real cases he worked on, collecting evidence, pinpointing authorship on suicide notes, death row statements and murder. The analysis involves a degree of comparative linguistics; comparing an evidence text (text could be any form of language, written or spoken) such as a letter to an original piece written by the individual in question, or a particular idiolect, accent or phonology are compared to the way an individual speaks, bridging on what is now called forensic dialectology.

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From ABC News, 1995: A clip from the Unabomber’s Manifesto

What’s your ‘wudder’?

Linguistic repertoires in the investigation of the Unabomber are seen as identity markers, a refreshing new viewpoint on linguistics and identity.  Kaczynski’s specific phrasing, for example ‘You can’t eat the cake and have it too’, are regarded as his own unique linguistic fingerprints. The lead investigator, James R. Fitzgerald, the acting chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit-1 first made note of this stylistic use of the cake phrase (most people use this variant: ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it, too’) when Kaczynski’s brother, David, contacted the bureau with the suspicion that the Manifesto, published in The Washington Post and in The New York Times, resembled the style in which Ted often presented arguments. This article from the University of Pennsylvania Language Log, adds another interesting medium to the use of this phrase. The author argues that one of the reasons Kaczynski used the phrase in this particular way, and the reason why his brother was in fact able to notice it, is that their mother used it. Another reason is postulated to be mirroring his education at renowned universities (Harvard and Michigan) and using an elitist form of language to reflect this identity.

In the show, Fitzgerald’s Philly accent which he so desperately tries to hide, shines through when his partner mocks his ‘wudder’, the phonetic way in which he pronounces the word ‘water’, with post-vocalic /r/. This leads him to think, as far as Netflix makes out, that it would be possible to tie the bombing notes and the manifesto to the same person.

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Kaczynski’s cabin

The appeal to the protection of the environment from technocratic solutions evoked in the manifesto resonated with many at the time of publication and indeed, with my own grassroots activist and academic activist views, if not to say agendas. When I was young and we took car rides into the mountains, I used to play a game: once out of the city, I would try to pick a spot where I couldn’t see any man-made things, no electric power lines, no street lights, trash – but I often couldn’t find such a spot in the horizon, or even simply by looking down. Humans reached every corner of the Earth. As young as I was, I could feel the reaches of the environmental destruction and anxiety would wash over me.

In his manifesto, Kaczynski discusses his own fear of disconnection with nature. He says when asked about worrying about losing his mind serving his long and isolated sentences:

“No, what worries me is that I might in a sense adapt to this environment and come to be comfortable here and not resent it anymore. And I am afraid that as the years go by that I may forget, I may begin to lose my memories of the mountains and the woods and that’s what really worries me, that I might lose those memories, and lose that sense of contact with wild nature in general”

Looking at the photo of his cabin, I am reminded of Walden, Thoreau’s cabin near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau, although published as far back in 1854, evokes similar concerns that sadly, do not abate even at the doorstep of 2018. In fact, George Monbiot’s article on selective blindness echoes many of the themes raised in Kaczynski’s manifesto. Monbiot interestingly argues that each generation is presented with a de facto status quo of the state of the environment. Each generation does not possess the emotional awareness of the state of fauna and flora that existed during the lifetime of the previous generation. They do not feel the loss, but are raised into a silent world, empty gardens and tasteless water.

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Even this image of nature is man-made. It is empty when it should be teaming with life: birds, insects, squirrels, deer, hedgehogs and many others once have inhabited our common world

Going back to the the series itself, it raises a few questions for me: is it only with the passing of time, i.e., perspective that allows humans to re-view a convicted murderer as an individual? In other words, is the distance created by the passing of time change compassion? Another thing that struck me in relation to compassion is what seems as an excessively harsh sentence in the form of solitary confinement (to be served in 8 consecutive life sentences), especially considering his diagnosed schizophrenia, according to several publications. Netflix’s documentary suggests that Kaczynski was offered a deal in which he would plead guilty and receive life imprisonment without the chance for parole, and avoid the death penalty. Could it be that Kaczynski’s unfortunate involvement as an MKUltra guinea pig (at the age of 16-17!) was at the root of the prosecution’s deal? Surely a trial would bring to light the experiments Kaczynski was subjected to.

A few final words. I thought about whether to write about this new biopic from Netflix, as this entails giving yet another platform to someone who murdered three people and injured 23.  It also means that since I’ll be focusing on linguistics as used in the FBI investigation that led to his capture, it may on some level devalue the suffering caused by the Unabomber’s actions. Please be assured it is not my intention.

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6 thoughts on “Cinelinguini: Netflix’s unabomber: what’s your ‘wudder’?

  1. Great post! I just signed up for a free trial of Netflix and now I have something to add to my list!
    (I don’t quite get the fanaticism over Stranger Things and am just as ambivalent about #2 as I was about the first series.) I’m coming across an amazing number of references to Walden lately, so now that’s on my reading list 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome to the Netflix community! Beware – it’s a place that can suck you in worse than any drug! I loved the first ST but the second just fell into the sequel cliche category. I also like Wormwood (about Frank Olson) and the less serious The Punisher (don’t laugh!). Walden is unbelievable to be written so early.. I consider him to be the 1850’s Orwell. Did I tell you I met Orwell’s son? !!! Also, I would recommend reading at some point the wonderful Fruitlands by Richard Francis, on the Alcott family (Little Women).

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  2. Haha – I’m no stranger to Netflix: I join, and then after a while can’t find anything I want to watch and then quit. I switch to watching things like 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown on YouTube. And then repeat the cycle. I’m looking forward to more Black Mirror in a few days (have you watched it?) – it’s dark but very thought provoking. Thanks for the other recommendations – I’ll populate my Netflix and library queues with them 🙂
    You didn’t tell me about Orwell Jr.! Do tell!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Never heard of the cats thing! *running to Youtube frantically typing* I tried Black Mirror but didn’t really connect. The world is truly divided betwwen BM lovers and non-lovers. It’s like brussel sprouts I think. Ok, I’ll try it again. I agree, there’s lots of rubbish on Netflix but I feel that they try very hard to make quality content, and they do, like with the Unabomber. Meeting Orwell’s son was amazing. I didn’t plan for it, really. I went to a Grayson Perry talk (which was excellent!) and they announced he was in the audience!! So after the talk I went up and had the amazing opportunity to talk to him!

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      1. Shocked that you haven’t heard of 8 out of 10 Cats does Countdown! I think you’ll love Jon Richardson & Co. Some episodes of BM are a bit off-putting – try Be Right Back (Season 2) or Nosedive (Season 3). How is your PhD going so far?

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      2. Oh no!!! I thought 8 out of 10 cats is about cats!!! it’s not!!! It’s an eyesore of middle aged white RP-speakers!! Already on BM season 2. It’s very dark… isn’t it? The PhD is good so far, thanks. I get to meet really interesting academics like Prem Sikka – have you heard of him? He gave a talk in one of our research groups about academia and activism which obviously resonated with me. How’s life post-PhD?

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