There’s something deeply unsettling about living in a country where millions of people froth at the mouth at the idea of giving health care to the tens of millions of Americans who don’t have it, or who take pleasure at the thought of privatizing and slashing bedrock social programs like Social Security or Medicare. It might not be so hard to stomach if other Western countries also had a large, vocal chunk of the population that thought like this, but the U.S. is seemingly the only place where right-wing elites can openly share their distaste for the working poor. Where do they find their philosophical justification for this kind of attitude?
It turns out, you can trace much of this thinking back to Ayn Rand, a popular cult-philosopher who exerts a huge influence over much of the right-wing and libertarian crowd, but whose influence is only starting to spread out of the U.S.
One reason most countries don’t find the time to embrace Ayn Rand’s thinking is that she is a textbook sociopath. In her notebooks Ayn Rand worshiped a notorious serial murderer-dismemberer, and used this killer as an early model for the type of “ideal man” she promoted in her more famous books. These ideas were later picked up on and put into play by major right-wing figures of the past half decade, including the key architects of America’s most recent economic catastrophe — former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan and SEC Commissioner Chris Cox — along with other notable right-wing Republicans such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Rush Limbaugh and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.
The loudest of all the Republicans, right-wing attack-dog pundits and the Teabagger mobs fighting to kill health care reform and eviscerate “entitlement programs” increasingly hold up Ayn Rand as their guru. Sales of her books have soared in the past couple of years; one poll ranked Atlas Shrugged as the second most influential book of the 20th century, after the Bible.
The best way to get to the bottom of Ayn Rand’s beliefs is to take a look at how she developed the superhero of her novel, Atlas Shrugged, John Galt. Back in the late 1920s, as Ayn Rand was working out her philosophy, she became enthralled by a real-life American serial killer, William Edward Hickman, whose gruesome, sadistic dismemberment of 12-year-old girl named Marion Parker in 1927 shocked the nation. Rand filled her early notebooks with worshipful praise of Hickman. According to biographer Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Market, Rand was so smitten with Hickman that she modeled her first literary creation — Danny Renahan, the protagonist of her unfinished first novel, The Little Street — on him.
What did Rand admire so much about Hickman? His sociopathic qualities: “Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should,” she wrote, gushing that Hickman had “no regard whatsoever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel ‘other people.'”
This echoes almost word for word Rand’s later description of her character Howard Roark, the hero of her novel The Fountainhead: “He was born without the ability to consider others.” (The Fountainhead is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ favorite book — he even requires his clerks to read it.)
I’ll get to where Rand picked up her silly superman blather later — but first, let’s meet William Hickman, the “genuinely beautiful soul” and inspiration to Ayn Rand. What you will read below — the real story, details included, of what made Hickman a “superman” in Ayn Rand’s eyes — is extremely gory and upsetting, even if you’re well acquainted with true crime stories — so prepare yourself. But it’s necessary to read this to understand Rand, and to repeat this over and over until all of America understands what made her tick, because Rand’s influence over the very people leading the fight to kill social programs, and her ideological influence on so many powerful bankers, regulators and businessmen who brought the financial markets crashing down, means her ideas are affecting all of our lives in the worst way imaginable.
Rand fell for William Edward Hickman in the late 1920s, as the shocking story of Hickman’s crime started to grip the nation. He was the OJ Simpson of his day; his crime, trial and case were nonstop headline grabbers for months.
Hickman, who was only 19 when he was arrested for murder, was the son of a paranoid-schizophrenic mother and grandmother. His schoolmates said that as a kid Hickman liked to strangle cats and snap the necks of chickens for fun — most of the kids thought he was a budding manic, though the adults gave him good marks for behavior, a typical sign of sociopathic cunning. He enrolled in college but quickly dropped out, and turned to violent crime largely driven by the thrill and arrogance typical of sociopaths: in a brief and wild crime spree that grew increasingly violent, Hickman knocked over dozens of gas stations and drug stores across the Midwest and west to California. Along the way it’s believed he strangled a girl in Milwaukee and killed his crime partner’s grandfather in Pasadena, tossing his body over a bridge after taking his money. Hickman’s partner later told police that Hickman told him how much he’d like to kill and dismember a victim someday — and that day did come for Hickman.
One afternoon, Hickman drove up to Mount Vernon Junior High school in Los Angeles, telling administrators he’d come to pick up “the Parker girl” — her father, Perry Parker, was a prominent banker. Hickman didn’t know the girl’s first name, so when he was asked which of the two Parker twins, he answered, “the younger daughter.” Then he corrected himself: “The smaller one.”
No one suspected his motives. The school administrator fetched young Marion, and brought her out to Hickman. Marion obediently followed Hickman to his car as she was told, where he promptly kidnapped her. He wrote a ransom note to Marion’s father, demanding $1,500 for her return, promising the girl would be left unharmed. Marion was terrified into passivity — she even waited in the car for Hickman when he went to mail his letter to her father. Hickman’s extreme narcissism comes through in his ransom letters, as he refers to himself as a “master mind [sic]” and “not a common crook.” Hickman signed his letters “The Fox” because he admired his own cunning: “Fox is my name, very sly you know.” And then he threatened: “Get this straight. Your daughter’s life hangs by a thread.”