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."
Hickman and the girl's father exchanged letters over the next few days as they arranged the terms of the ransom, while Marion obediently followed her captor's demands. She never tried to escape the hotel where he kept her; Hickman even took her to a movie, and she never screamed for help. She remained quiet and still as told when Hickman tied her to the chair -- he didn't even bother gagging her because there was no need to, right up to the gruesome end.
Hickman's last ransom note to Marion's father is where this story reaches its disturbing end. Hickman fills the letter with hurt anger over her father's suggestion that Hickman might deceive him, and "ask you for your $1500 for a lifeless mass of flesh I am base and low but won't stoop to that depth." What Hickman didn't say was that as he wrote the letter, Marion had already been chopped up into several lifeless masses of flesh. Why taunt the father? Why feign outrage? This sort of bizarre taunting was all part of the serial killer's thrill, maximizing his sadistic pleasure. But this was nothing compared to the thrill Hickman got from murdering the helpless 12-year-old Marion Parker. Here is an old newspaper description of the murder, taken from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on December 27, 1927:
"It was while I was fixing the blindfold that the urge to murder came upon me," he continued, "and I just couldn't help myself. I got a towel and stepped up behind Marion. Then before she could move, I put it around her neck and twisted it tightly. I held on and she made no outcry except to gurgle. I held on for about two minutes, I guess, and then I let go. When I cut loose the fastenings, she fell to the floor. I knew she was dead. Well, after she was dead I carried her body into the bathroom and undressed her, all but the underwear, and cut a hole in her throat with a pocket knife to let the blood out."
Another newspaper account explained what Hickman did next:
Then he took a pocket knife and cut a hole in her throat. Then he cut off each arm to the elbow. Then he cut her legs off at the knees. He put the limbs in a cabinet. He cut up the body in his room at the Bellevue Arms Apartments. Then he removed the clothing and cut the body through at the waist. He put it on a shelf in the dressing room. He placed a towel in the body to drain the blood. He wrapped up the exposed ends of the arms and waist with paper. He combed back her hair, powdered her face and then with a needle fixed her eyelids. He did this because he realized that he would lose the reward if he did not have the body to produce to her father.
Hickman packed her body, limbs and entrails into a car, and drove to the drop-off point to pick up his ransom; along his way he tossed out wrapped-up limbs and innards scattering them around Los Angeles. When he arrived at the meeting point, Hickman pulled Miriam's [sic] head and torso out of a suitcase and propped her up, her torso wrapped tightly, to look like she was alive--he sewed wires into her eyelids to keep them open, so that she'd appear to be awake and alive. When Miriam's father arrived, Hickman pointed a sawed-off shotgun at him, showed Miriam's head with the eyes sewn open (it would have been hard to see for certain that she was dead), and then took the ransom money and sped away. As he sped away, he threw Miriam's head and torso out of the car, and that's when the father ran up and saw his daughter--and screamed.
This is the "amazing picture" Ayn Rand -- guru to the Republican/Tea Party right-wing -- admired when she wrote in her notebook that Hickman represented "the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should."
Other people don't exist for Rand, either. Part of her ideas are nothing more than a ditzy dilettante's bastardized Nietzsche -- but even this was plagiarized from the same pulp newspaper accounts of the time. According to an LA Times article in late December 1927, headlined "Behavioralism Gets The Blame," a pastor and others close to the Hickman case denounced the cheap trendy Nietzschean ideas Hickman and others latched onto as a defense:
"Behavioristic philosophic teachings of eminent philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer have built the foundation for William Edward Hickman's original rebellion against society," the article begins.
The fear that some felt at the time was that these philosophers' dangerous, yet nuanced ideas would fall into the hands of lesser minds, who would bastardize Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and poison the rest of us. This aptly describes Ayn Rand, whose philosophy developed out of her admiration for "Supermen" like Hickman. Rand's philosophy can be summed up by the title of one of her best-known books: The Virtue of Selfishness. She argues that all selfishness is a moral good, and all altruism is a moral evil, even "moral cannibalism," to use her words. To her, those who aren't like-minded sociopaths are "parasites," "lice" and "looters."
But with Rand, there's something more pathological at work. She's out to make the world more sociopath-friendly so that people her hero William Hickman can reach their full potential, not held back by the morality of the "weak," whom Rand despised.
Rand and her followers clearly got off on hating and bashing those they perceived as weak. This is exactly the sort of sadism that Rand's hero, Hickman, would have appreciated.
What's really unsettling is that even former Central Bank chief Alan Greenspan, whose relationship with Rand dated back to the 1950s, did some parasite-bashing of his own. In response to a 1958 New York Times book review slamming Atlas Shrugged, Greenspan, defending his mentor, published a letter to the editor that ends: "Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should. Alan Greenspan."
As much as Ayn Rand detested human "parasites," there is one thing she strongly believed in: creating conditions that increase the productivity of her supermen -- the William Hickmans who rule her idealized America: "If [people] place such things as friendship and family ties above their own productive work, yes, then they are immoral. Friendship, family life and human relationships are not primary in a man's life. A man who places others first, above his own creative work, is an emotional parasite."
Republican faithful like GOP Congressman Paul Ryan read Ayn Rand and declare, with pride, "Rand makes the best case for the morality of democratic capitalism." Indeed. Except that Rand also despised democracy, writing that, "Democracy, in short, is a form of collectivism, which denies individual rights: the majority can do whatever it wants with no restrictions. In principle, the democratic government is all-powerful. Democracy is a totalitarian manifestation; it is not a form of freedom."
"Collectivism" is another one of those Randian epithets popular among her followers. Here is another Republican member of Congress, Michelle Bachman, parroting the Ayn Rand ideological line, to explain her reasoning for wanting to kill social programs:
"As much as the collectivist says to each according to his ability to each according to his need, that's not how mankind is wired. They want to make the best possible deal for themselves."
Whenever you hear politicians or Tea Partiers dividing up the world between "producers" and "collectivism," just know that those ideas and words more likely than not are derived from the deranged mind of a serial-killer groupie. When you hear them saying, "Go John Galt," hide your daughters and tell them not to talk to any strangers -- or Tea Party Republicans. And when you see them taking their razor blades to the last remaining programs protecting the middle class from total abject destitution -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- and bragging about how they are slashing these programs for "moral" reasons, just remember Ayn's morality and who inspired her.
Too many critics of Ayn Rand -- until recently I was one of them -- would rather dismiss her books and ideas as laughable, childish, and hackneyed. But she can't be dismissed because Rand is the name that keeps bubbling up from the Tea Party crowd and the elite conservative circuit in Washington as the Big Inspiration. The only way to protect ourselves from this thinking is the way you protect yourself from serial killers: smoke the Rand followers out, make them answer for following the crazed ideology of a serial-killer-groupie, and run them the hell out of town and out of our hemisphere.