Paul Ryan has worshipped at the feet of Ayn Rand, at least until recently. He has publicly stated that her books were the most pivotal in shaping his public life. He gave them to interns as gifts, and they were required reading for his staff members. He spoke frequently about how the decline in America looked increasingly like something out of an Ayn Rand novel.
He is not alone among public servants in his admiration for Ayn Rand. Others include Sen. Rand Paul, who is named in her honor, and his father, Rep. Ron Paul. She was also mentioned as being very influential by President Ronald Reagan, Sen. Ron Johnson, Gov. Gary Johnson, Rush Limbaugh, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But maybe the most famous follower of Ayn Rand is former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who in the 1950s was part of her inner circle and a close personal confidant.
Ayn Rand seems to have a special appeal to younger people who are empowered by the idea of their individual greatness waiting to explode, ungoverned by the limitations that the world tries to place on them.
As someone once said: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
Today we live in a country where millions of people object to 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 Social Security or Medicare. It seems as though the U.S. is the only place where right-wing elites can openly share their distaste for the working poor, and we can trace their philosophical justification for this kind of attitude directly to Ayn Rand.
One thing that isn’t always recognized about Rand’s thinking is that she was a textbook sociopath. In her notebooks she heaped praise upon a notorious serial murderer-dismemberer, and used him 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 century, including those named above as Rand acolytes.
The best way to get to the bottom of Ayn Rand’s beliefs, and maybe understand those who are among her devotees, 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 a 12-year-old girl named Marion Parker in 1927 shocked the nation. Rand filled her early notebooks with ardent praise of Hickman. According to biographer Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Market, Rand was so enthralled with Hickman that she modeled her first literary creation, Danny Renahan, the protagonist of her unfinished first novel, The Little Street
, on him.
What Rand admired most about Hickman were 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.”
William Hickman, the “genuinely beautiful soul” and inspiration to Ayn Rand was an under-educated ne’er-do-well, and psychopath whose only claim to public notice was the commission of a brutal and senseless murder.
While disturbing, it’s necessary to read at least the basics of his atrocious crime in order to better understand Rand and what made her tick, because her 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, whether we know it or not.
Rand fell for William Edward Hickman in the late 1920s, as the shocking story of Hickman’s crime started to grip the nation. His crime, trial, case, and eventual execution 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 with whom he grew up thought he was a budding maniac, though the adults gave him good marks for behavior, a typical sign of sociopathic cunning.
After high school he embarked on a brief and increasingly violent crime spree, robbing dozens of gas stations and drug stores. 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.
I remember very well when I was growing up, my father singing a song made popular at the time of the following crime, called “Little Marion Parker.” The horror of it swept the nation, and was only dwarfed by the later abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son a few years later.
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.
The school administrator fetched young Marion Parker, 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. 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.
Hickman and the girl’s father exchanged letters over the next few days as they arranged the terms of the ransom. By the time the last letter was sent by Hickman, he had already murdered and dismembered the girl.
According to a newspaper article from the time, he said, “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.
Marion Parker’s body parts left along the road by William Hickman
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 her head and torso out of a suitcase and propped her up, her torso wrapped tightly, to look like she was alive. When her father arrived, Hickman pointed a sawed-off shotgun at him, showed Marion’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 fled. As he sped away, he threw Marion’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.
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 like 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 Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan, whose personal 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 Vice Presidential candidate 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.” This from the man who could be one heart beat away from the Presidency.
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. 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.
Critics of Ayn Rand 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.