Lately, it’s been a rough go for the manifesto.
This past weekend, a manifesto called The Inconvenient Truth outlined author Patrick Crusius’s white-separatist ideology and foretold a militant action to support this world view. It was posted on the 8chan Reddit channel minutes before the El Paso Walmart massacre, for which Crusius is implicated.
The first sentence of Crusius’s manifesto reads, “I support the Christchurch shooter [who killed 51 in March 2019] and his manifesto.” A similarly minded manifesto was published in April in alignment with a deadly synagogue attack in Poway, Calif.
Strictly defined, a manifesto is a public declaration of policy and aims. The word has been in the English vocabulary for 400 years, and the concept of a manifesto dates back a millennium to the Manifesto of Baghdad (1011).
Countless examples exist of manifestos that did not set the table for mass murder, from the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto (1994), to the Behavioralist Manifesto (Watson, 1913), to the Surrealist Manifesto (Breton, 1924), to the Romantic Manifesto (Rand, 1969). The Declaration of Independence (Various, 1776)is generally considered a manifesto, though the subsequent American Revolution was hardly peaceful.
You probably first learned of manifestos because of one of two documents.
The Communist Manifesto(Marx/Engels, 1848) outlined a novel political philosophy. Its legacy is complicated, its impact has been pervasive, and it’s the most well-known book that we all call a manifesto.
The term resurged in the 1990s in a document called Industrial Society and Its Future(Kaczynski, 1995). Its 35,000-plus words do not include the word manifesto. Yet it has become our era’s most recognized example of one. Its author, the Unabomber, conducted mail-bomb attacks over 17 years guided by the perspective he outlined therein.
The Unabomber’s writings set the stage for the manifesto to be construed as a fanatic’s justification, through intellectual means, of his hatred and evil intent.
Three manifestos so far this year, coinciding with three massacres, reinforce this association. A common thread of these manifestos is that they are hard to find online, because media outlets increasingly suppress links to hateful perspectives, lest the publicity inspire copycats. (We’ll see how long this link to the El Paso Massacre Suspect Manifesto remains live.)
The manifesto’s centuries-old association with serious political and intellectual propositions give the term a noble imprimatur, though some seek to downgrade language describing Crucius’s manifesto, with substitute terms like “diatribe,” “missive,” and “screed.”
A well-meaning deep thinker may today pause at using the term to express a strong, grounded sentiment. But we need to reclaim the idea and ideal of the manifesto, and celebrate the boldness of big ideas that spur positive change.
To be sure, we come across manifestos daily. Perhaps not so much The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (Smiley/West, 2012), which suggests viable ways to eradicate American poverty but is, well, a book, so less likely to pop up on our social media feeds. More likely something like the Holstee Manifesto, a poster of lifestyle aphorisms mish-mashed together through variegated typography.
Our Facebook feed teems with meme-able manifestos like Holstee’s. Companies such as Lululemon have adopted the manifesto to suggest they have a higher purpose than profits. To the extent that a meme or a corporate philosophy can suggest the common good, all the better, but I hope we also aim higher.
Our highest public and political discourse is oriented toward the mockery of big ideas and proposals. Green New Deals are met with a thousand correctives. Obamacare is threatened with death by a thousand cuts. Political candidates who seek to glide above the pundits’ quicksand tug-of-war are marginalized.
Marianne Williamson is right, it so happens. We need a manifesto-like passion and purpose to drive our greatest leaders and thinkers, if we’re going to survive this era’s physical and psychic traumas.
The manifesto may be having a rough week, as news media parse Patrick Crucius’s blueprint of hate. But if we fight manifestos with manifestos — the ones that heal and propel us forward — we’ll rediscover the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that drove our Founding Fathers to write their way free.
More work by Jeremy Simon can be found at scrabblecat.com
Five manifestos worth checking out today:
Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789): A foundational statement that underpinned the French Revolution
The Mozilla Manifesto (2008): Reflecting goals for a healthy Internet, from the creators of the Firefox browser
The Crazy Ones (1997): The opening salvo of Apple Computer’s Think Different campaign; perfect for the TL;DR set
An Inconvenient Truth (2006): To squeeze value from El Paso massacre suspect Patrick Crucius’s Inconvenient Truth manifesto, reconnect with its namesake inspiration: Al Gore’s outline of the global warming crisis (adopted from his earlier Earth in the Balance), and the need for immediate response to this existential threat
Manifestos: A Manifesto (Hanna, 2014): A series of 10 tenets published in The Atlantic that make a good manifesto, with links to object examples