The Cultural Contradictions of Conservatism-Part 1

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Sep 20, 2009 at 11:00


Two extremely interesting articles were published this week that shine a light on current wave of conservative lunacy.  First, at Salon, Alexander Zaitchik has a fascinating article, "Meet the man who changed Glenn Beck's life", with the sub-head, "Cleon Skousen was a right-wing crank whom even conservatives despised. Then Beck discovered him".  The subhead is actually misleading.  It wasn't conservatives who despised Skousen--it was ultra-conservatives like J. Edgar Hoover and the elders of the Mormon Church.  More on Skousen and Beck in Part 2.  But first, I want to ruminate on some new-to-most-of-us information about Ayn Rand, whose books have been selling like hotcakes since Obama came to power.

On Tuesday, author Tim Wise--a leading authority on deconstructing white supremacy and white privilege, from the blatant to the subtle--posted a fascinating diary at DKos, Sociopathy on the Right: Ayn Rand and the Triumph of Conservative Cultism, the most shocking aspect of which was the revelation that an early heroic model for Rand was a notorious sociopathic child-kidnapper and killer, William Edward Hickman.  This is actually not a new revelation.  Wise cites an online essay by Michael Prescott written in 2005, "Romancing the Stone-Cold Killer: Ayn Rand and William Hickman", which goes into considerable detail. (Prescott, btw, is a conservative crime novelist, so there's no way this can be construed as a leftwing attack on Rand. See, for example, his 2005 blog post "Welcome back, CNN", in which he announces his abandonment of Fox, because it's become a tabloid sewer--not because they lie like dogs.)

Among other things, Prescott wrote:

In her journal circa 1928 Rand quoted the statement, "What is good for me is right," a credo attributed to a prominent figure of the day, William Edward Hickman. Her response was enthusiastic. "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard," she exulted. (Quoted in Ryan, citing Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 21-22.)

Ayn Rand, a murder groupie. Who knew?  OTOH, who's surprised, once you stop and think about it?.  But this bizarre revelation--which ought to surprise no one--is only one aspect of the profoundly confused and contradiction-riddled state of the American right today. Wise begins his piece with Rush Limbaugh's rant condemning President Obama for speaking about community service on September 11.  Community service is for losers, Limbaugh insisted:

"Let prisoners do it, let prisoners pick up the trash. Let prisoners mow some highway grass. This -- this community service, folks, it's insidious. It is nothing more than a well-sounding compassionate label. But it means something entirely different. It means turning you into a robot."

Of course, community service was also a key part of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," too.  In fact, it was supposed to be an alternative to "big government." This was the entire original thesis behind Marvin Olasky's coining the term in the first place, before Bush picked it up and ran (for President) with it.

Details, details.  

Wise segues from Limbaugh's attack on service to his discussion of Rand, which is a natural on one level.  But on another, not so much:

Paul Rosenberg :: The Cultural Contradictions of Conservatism-Part 1
It is especially fascinating to see the so-called "average, everyday folks" at the tea party rallies embracing Rand's thinking and literature. After all, Rand's view of the common man and woman--presumably the very Joe Six Packs and Hockey Moms recently enthralled by her--was decidedly grotesque. So, for instance, in her original version of her work,We the Living, Rand had her chief protagonist proclaim: "What are your masses...but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?"

Such contradictions, which cut to the very core of conservative identity politics, turning it into chopped liver, are perhaps even more significant than Rand's 20-something infatuation with a sociopathic child-murderer.  Or perhaps they are intimately related to one another.  More on this below, but first, we need a bit more background on the Rand's sociopathic heartthrob, and her attitude towards him.

Following the quote from Prescott above, he wrote:

At the time [1928], she was planning a novel that was to be titled The Little Street, the projected hero of which was named Danny Renahan. According to Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra, she deliberately modeled Renahan - intended to be her first sketch of her ideal man - after this same William Edward Hickman. Renahan, she enthuses in another journal entry, "is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness -- [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people ... Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should." (Journals, pp. 27, 21-22; emphasis hers.)

What Rand is describing here, someone with "no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people" would later come to describe the essential characteristic of the psychopath or sociopath--the lack, not only of conscience, but of any sort of coherent inner life. This was first intensely studied and reported by Hervey Cleckley, M.D  in The Mask of Sanity, first published in 1941.    Of course, Rand knew nothing of sociopathy itself, and imagined that Hickman's "freedom" from caring about others gave him total freedom to care only about himself.  But that's not at all what Cleckley discovered.  Among the characteristics he observed were:

•  Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
•  Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love
•  General poverty in major affective reactions
•  Specific loss of insight
•  Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
•  Failure to follow any life plan.

It seems fair to say that Rand herself found it difficult to meet normal social expectations, and thus considered them only a burden.  If one could be free of them, she reasoned, one could do anything. No true sociopath would think this way, since they never felt any such burden.  But we can easily understand how those that do experience social relations as a burden could come to idealize and idolize a true sociopath.  Rand has always had her strongest appeal to adolescents--precisely the age of life when struggles to adjust to social expectations are most demanding.  Who wouldn't want an easy way out?

The reality of Hickman was revealingly ordinary for a sociopath.  Although most of them aren't criminal, the aimlessness, carelessness, egocentricity, and lack of judgment are all too commonplace.  Here's Prescott on the crime that made Hickman famous:

In December of 1927, Hickman, nineteen years old, showed up at a Los Angeles public school and managed to get custody of a twelve-year-old girl, Marian (sometimes Marion) Parker. He was able to convince Marian's teacher that the girl's father, a well-known banker, had been seriously injured in a car accident and that the girl had to go to the hospital immediately. The story was a lie. Hickman disappeared with Marian, and over the next few days Mr. and Mrs. Parker received a series of ransom notes. The notes were cruel and taunting and were sometimes signed "Death" or "Fate." The sum of $1,500 was demanded for the child's safe release. (Hickman needed this sum, he later claimed, because he wanted to go to Bible college!) The father raised the payment in gold certificates and delivered it to Hickman. As told by the article "Fate, Death and the Fox" in crimelibrary.com,

"At the rendezvous, Mr. Parker handed over the money to a young man who was waiting for him in a parked car. When Mr. Parker paid the ransom, he could see his daughter, Marion, sitting in the passenger seat next to the suspect. As soon as the money was exchanged, the suspect drove off with the victim still in the car. At the end of the street, Marion's corpse was dumped onto the pavement. She was dead. Her legs had been chopped off and her eyes had been wired open to appear as if she was still alive. Her internal organs had been cut out and pieces of her body were later found strewn all over the Los Angeles area."

Quite a hero, eh? One might question whether Hickman had "a wonderful, free, light consciousness," but surely he did have "no organ for understanding ... the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people."

The mutilations Hickman inflicted on little Marian were worse than reported in the excerpt above. He cut the girl's body in half, and severed her hands (or arms, depending on the source). He drained her torso of blood and stuffed it with bath towels. There were persistent rumors that he molested the girl before killing her, though this claim was officially denied. Overall, the crime is somewhat reminiscent of the 1947 Black Dahlia case, one of the most gruesome homicides in L.A. history.

But Hickman's heroism doesn't end there. He heroically amscrayed to the small town of Echo, Oregon, where he heroically holed up, no doubt believing he had perpetrated the perfect crime. Sadly for him, fingerprints he'd left on one of the ransom notes matched prints on file from his previous conviction for forgery. With his face on Wanted posters everywhere, Hickman was quickly tracked down and arrested. The article continues:

"He was conveyed back to Los Angeles where he promptly confessed to another murder he committed during a drug store hold-up. Eventually, Hickman confessed to a dozen armed robberies. 'This is going to get interesting before it's over,' he told investigators. 'Marion and I were good friends,' he said, 'and we really had a good time when we were together and I really liked her. I'm sorry that she was killed.' Hickman never said why he had killed the girl and cut off her legs."

In short, not only was this a horrific crime, it was neither well-planned nor particularly successful.  Although it was quite sensational--particularly at the time--there was nothing actually remarkable about either Hickman, or the crime, except in the sense of being brutal, incoherent and bizarre.

In the end, Prescott notes:

Real life is not fiction, and Hickman's personal credo, which so impressed Ayn Rand - "what is right for me is good" - does not seem to have worked out very well for him. At first he heroically tried to weasel out of the murder rap by implicating another man, but the intended fall guy turned out to have an airtight alibi (he was in prison at the time). Then he heroically invoked the insanity defense - the first use of this tactic in American history. This effort likewise failed, and in 1928 he was sentenced to death by hanging, to be carried out at San Quentin later that same year.

Hickman reportedly "died yellow" - he was dragged, trembling and fainting, to his execution, his courtroom bravado having given way at last.

In short, the fact that Rand was attracted to--even fascinated with Hickman,and chose to use him as a template for an early hero, tells us much more about Rand than Hickman.

For himself, Prescott says:

It seems to me that Ayn Rand's uncritical admiration of a personality this twisted does not speak particularly well for her ability to judge and evaluate the heroic qualities in people. One might go so far as to say that anyone who sees William Edward Hickman as the epitome of a "real man" has some serious issues to work on, and perhaps should be less concerned with trying to convert the world to her point of view than in trying to repair her own damaged psyche.

But with an initial model like that, it's hardly surprising that her fictional heroes should have such hatred and disdain for others.  Particukarky given how she rationalized her defense of him.  Prescott, again:

In her notes, Rand complains that poor Hickman has become the target of irrational and ugly mob psychology:

"The first thing that impresses me about the case is the ferocious rage of a whole society against one man. No matter what the man did, there is always something loathsome in the 'virtuous' indignation and mass-hatred of the 'majority.'... It is repulsive to see all these beings with worse sins and crimes in their own lives, virtuously condemning a criminal...

An entire jury with worse sins and crimes than kidnapping and murder of a 12-year old child?

"This is not just the case of a terrible crime. It is not the crime alone that has raised the fury of public hatred. It is the case of a daring challenge to society. It is the fact that a crime has been committed by one man, alone; that this man knew it was against all laws of humanity and intended that way; that he does not want to recognize it as a crime and that he feels superior to all. It is the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul."

This is serious delusion on Rand's part.  There is simply no other word for it.

And yet, this is precisely the rationale at the heart of her most popular fiction. Wise notes:

Rand's disdain for the bulk of humanity was, indeed, so extreme that in the aforemetioned Atlas Shrugged--whose main character and "hero" John Galt has been referenced on numerous tea party signs--she indulges a pseudo-genocidal fantasy, in which virtually everyone except Galt and his few "perfect" producers is vanquished. This happy occurrence results from a "strike of the mind," in which Galt and his superior colleagues of industry withdraw their talents from the nation and hole up in a mountain retreat, rather than submit to things like government regulations.

There are at lest three fundamental contradictions here: First, that the real Hickman, the real person who is totally unconcerned with what others think, was a total failure, while the fictional version (or descendent thereof) is success incarnate--though precisely why this should be--or even how it can be--is in no way clear.  The second contradiction lies with Rand's cult--a cult of individualists?  The third contradiction is that all those fiercely proud "ordinary Americans" eagerly embrace this hero, who would axiomatically despise them, and wish them dead.

Conclusion--For Now

Since the dawn of time, the conservative sense of the ordinary, the commonplace folk and their customs as the good, opposed to the evil other, has always been backed up by the fantasy of the heroic--the culture hero, founder and defender of civilization.  The evil "other" is similarly backed up by the fantasy of the larger-than-life master of evil.  This helps justify why the strong should oppress the weak--why men should dominate women and children, why slaves should never be allowed to forget their place, why servants should have no rights, but only whatever their masters choose to give them.  All these sorts of attitudes, which make very little sense in terms of the actual power relations involved, are justified via the fantasy that all such seemingly powerless individuals are but vessels that the ultimate evil can fill in the twinkling of an eye.

The conservative fantasy is a powerful force, but its greatest power lies in influencing background assumptions without people fully realizing it.  Indeed, the vast majority of conservatives realize, pragmatically, that government is quite necessary.  They aren't about to give up their Medicare, or their local police and fire departments, no matter how "socialist" such institutions may be.

And though it may not seem that way, conservatism is at its weakest when its wildest fantasies no longer swirl in the background, half-noticed, but are instead thrust forward into the center of public discourse, where all their ludicrous contradictions can be seen by one and all.

Of course, if it survives this potentially embarrassing exposure, if it shows its grotesque countenance and glaring contradictions for all to see, and it is not driven out in shame and humiliation, then it may become more powerful than ever before.

Which is why it is so important to confront it forthrightly when it appears as nakedly as it has done this summer.  Which we continue to do in Part 2, with a look at a major source of Beck's "inspiration."


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At the "heart" of every conservative "soul" (4.00 / 5)
is a person who basically has not grown up, either because they didn't want to, or weren't able to--and, really, in their case, it may well be one and the same. Because you can't really want to grow up if you don't know what growing up means, or if you view growing up as the loss of what to you seems like an essential and inviolate prerogative, like being able to do whatever you want to do regardless of its potential consequences and ultimate necessity.

Which is why I've long viewed conservatism, at least in its current, popularly imagined version, as little more than formalized infantilism, i.e. "I want--and am going to get--what I want when I want it, and you can't stop me cuz you ain't the boss of me whaaaaa!". Which, of course, takes on various forms that range from the trivial (e.g. wearing bow ties to demonstrate one's refusal to follow and be bound by the norms of society), to the egregious (e.g. invading countries to prove that we're the biggest and baddest mofo on the global block), to the truly grotesque (e.g. invading said countries w/o regard for the massive loss of life that one surely knew would ensue, not only to the people of said countries but to one's own troops).

Rand's infantilism was obvious, deep and profound, however sophisticated a pseudo-intellectual veneer she justified and embellished it with. She basically didn't want to grow up, and dedicated her life to both not doing so, and attempting to explain why it was not just ok, but a virtue--the ultimate virtue, in her view. And it's this spirit and quality of infantilism that permeates and really underlies today's brand of conservatism, which seeks to "conserve" a pre-adult state of being (and a particularly perverse one, as not all children, in fact relatively few children, are quite as selfish and mean-spirited as today's prototypical conservatives are).

Conservatism in itself is a fairly meaningless word, as it can mean almost anything, and thus really needs to be qualified to have contextual and contemporary meaning. And I view today's self-described "conservatives" (the Beck, Limbaugh, Gingrich, Palin sort, of course), as "infantilists" (be they of the more sophisticated Randian sort or populist Limbaughian sort) far more than more traditional sorts of conservatives, such as Burkian political and economic ones, or even Buckleyan social and cultural ones. These are not completely distinct types of conservatism. But at least the latter are, ostensibly at least, about values and ideas that supercede the individual self, and speak to societal concerns, whereas the former are strictly about the self, however coached they are in societal terms.

From Burke to Beck, via Rand. Lovely.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton


History Helps In This (4.00 / 1)
Burke was all about preserving the British ruling class perogatives.  There still was a British ruling class, and thus his political project, although sinister, had a fundamental coherence to it.  His French counterpart, Joseph de Maistre, was already quite unhinged by the simple fact that the French ruling class had been swept away.  And so the craziness crept in at a very early stage.  It went even more crazy in the conspiracist writings that blamed the French Revolution on the no-longer-existent Bavarian Illuminati, and thus the "intellectual" roots of the contemporary conservative movement were laid.

Those roots were, at their core, a belief in the boogey-man.  That's about as deep as they go, though they do get enormously convoluted and complex.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Well (4.00 / 2)
As nutty and moronic as they all too often are, what most of today's conservatives are trying to do is really not that different from what Burke et al were trying to do in their day, namely, protecting and preserving what they view as the correct social, political, cultural, ideological and economic order, against the forces of change (progress, modernity, liberalism, etc.).

Which, of course, also conveniently favor people like them (or so they like to believe)--a self-serving yet rarely acknowledged quality that serves to undermine the credibility of their protestations and efforts, because it reveals their claimed effort to conserve something worth conserving for its own sake to be nothing more than their actual effort to conserve something because it favors them.

Conservatives doth protest too much, in short.

Of course, it's one thing to seek to preserve the power, privilege and prerogative of one's own ruling class, which as heinous as that is does have a certain immoral rationality--and to justify it on the basis that this class, being the best-educated, and experienced at ruling, is best qualified to do so--and to seek to preserve the power, privilege and prerogative of one's own racial and cultural group, which is both immoral and irrational--especially when justified with the nuttiest and most infantile of defenses.

I mean, take one look at these teabaggers, and there goes the "best qualified to dominate" justification. Their rallies are such a sublime exercize in unintentional irony, it's almost performance art. All that's missing is a modern day Duchamp putting a sign next to it and selling it on ebay.

So while conservatives have always been about preserving a way of doing things that favored their own subgroup, at least their conservatism once had a certain rational aspect to it, in motivation and in its attempts at self-justification, these days it's basically about infantile racists who don't want to grow up and join the rest of the developed world in thinking of themselves, and at least trying to behave as, part of a community, as opposed to a collection of atomic individuals, bound together in only the most tenuous of ways.

Conservatism hasn't changed much in its essential raison d'etre, but it sure has gotten stupider and crazier over the years. Which might not finish it off, but it has made it harder to deal with, with its adherents the new barbarians at the gate.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton


[ Parent ]
Conservatism and meritocracy can't co-exist (4.00 / 2)
Conservatism is driven back on meritocratic and Invisible Hand equity arguments by the necessity of surviving in a political framework shaped by a revolutionary impulse that explicitly if incompletely rejected Toryism.

Knowing your place is inherent to conservatism and traditionally that place had only a superficial connection to talent and merit. If your ten times great-grandfather picked the right side during the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 you're in. And unless you screw up and lose the family fortune your children will be in as well. And the poor? Well as the Good Book says "The poor ye shall always have with you", why argue with God?

This conservative mindset survived encounter with the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and then later with the Fourteenth Amendment and then with the Nineteenth Amendment. That blacks and then women had the right to vote didn't mean they would vote, and certainly not in ways that challenged the established order.

Will a series of events that started in 1929 and extended through 1969 shuck conservatism to its core. Being born in the right family did not translate into automatic privilege in the nice easy way it used to. To some degree the college career of G.W. Bush marked the end of an era.

For centuries being the Dim Son did not preclude you from taking your proper place and sharing in the bounty, and even now not much has changed except for the cover story. Today inequity has to be explained away, which as Kovie suggests have led conservatism into more stupid and crazy justifications for something that never had to previously been justified at all.

As Mel Brooks once explained: "It's good to be the king". Yes and good to be the king's man, and to be the man to the king's man, and on down to where it really isn't that good at all. Which is what you deserve for being born to a poor man. Everything was so simple in the good old days where everyone knew his place, particularly those people who weren't wealthy white men.

BTW what is the biggest compliment you can give to a conservative? "He's from Old Money". Which is better than any stupid Rhode's Scholarship, open as they are to white hicks from Arkansas.


[ Parent ]
Suppressing the Mob (4.00 / 5)
I am re-reading E.P. Thompson's 'Making of the English Working Class' and am struck anew at how English society and politics in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century was shaped by fear and hatred of what they called 'The Mob', or what you and I might see as the democratic majority.

American conservatism has a contradiction right at its core. It's political and economic precepts are drawn from a social and intellectual tradition in which 'democracy' was quite literally a dirty word. In the year 1800 the powers that were could not see a distinction between democracy and revolution, between revolution and mob rule, and between mob rule and aristocratic heads literally rolling in the streets. Nor were they particularly wrong in this in that the push for universal suffrage was closely aligned with radical and even revolutionary demands for economic and social transformation.

The Declaration of Independence was a radical repudiation of Burkean Conservatism which in England and America alike was called 'Tory'. People with a little understanding of the American Revolution hear 'Tory' and think 'opponent of the Revolution' or 'Loyalist'. But Toryism went far beyond simple loyalism into an outright rejection of the ideals of the Revolution itself, i.e. equality and democracy.

Which lands American conservatism into a muddled mess. Conservatives fancy themselves as the inheritors of the Founders and as such have to give lip service to the concepts of equality and democracy even as the pursue a political and economic policy that demands willing subservience of the many to the few, i.e. Toryism. If William F. Buckley had been alive in 1776 there is no doubt in my mind that he would align himself with the King and Country side, which by the way included the Established Church. Buckley was the modern embodiment of American High Church Toryism (his High Church not being Episcopalian but Latin Mass Catholic-in this context a distinction without a difference).

Which is why Randist Objectivism and Neo-Classical Economics alike share this internal incoherence. Each makes sense in a Tory world where benefits naturally flow to a self-selected few (aristocracy being iadoptive in addition to its basic inheritance model), but they crumble on encounter with a democratic society founded on utilitarian greatest good principles. Which is why Conservatives will in one breath claim they are 'strict constructionists' and in the next claim that the 'general welfare' seen in the Preamble to the Constitution is just a rhetorical flourish without actual binding force.

Conservatism is anti-Democratic. A notion that not only wouldn't be disputed but would be embraced by an old-style Tory. The world is SUPPOSED to be ruled by a smallish group of wealthy English speaking white men, why you could just ask Pitt the Elder about that. Conservatism is much older than universal suffrage democracy and rides uneasily on top of this new-fangled notion.

The end result is that conservatives have to bend over pretending that they represent the 'Silent Majority' or the 'Moral Majority' or the Founders intent. Because straight out admission that they believe that the world is naturally ruled by the few with the support of the subservient, that is that they are Tories runs, right up on the rock of the proto-Anti-Tory document that is the Declaration of Independence and then the Bill of Rights. They can't quite come to terms with the fact that their side lost the American Revolution and then the struggle for the Constitution.


[ Parent ]
Excellent Comment--One Great Book (4.00 / 3)
I haven't read it in about 20 years.  Past time to read it again.

If you haven't read it, a quick read that goes along with what you've written about conservatism in America is Phil Agre's essay, "What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?"

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
The contradiction is structural, as well as sentimental (4.00 / 1)
You mention the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. You don't mention the rest of the Constitution, and rightly so. As has been pointed out, often with grudging approval -- just read Kovie's denunciations of Jefferson in earlier OpenLeft threads -- Toryism was openly embedded, as a political necessity as well as a just-in-case defensive measure, in the rest of the Constitution.

As a consequence, what the American experiment has never satisfactorily explained is how one might integrate the vigor and fecundity of democratic processes with the need for stability and predictability in any society in which one can reasonably hope to pursue happiness -- i.e. make a living, raise children, and and at the end, having done one's best, look forward to dying peacefully in bed.

Jacobins have never promised us a rose garden, to be sure, but in the end, they're as obligated to provide what the preamble to the Constitution promises as any Burkean would be.

Just sayin'....


[ Parent ]
Coincidence? (4.00 / 2)
I don't know why, but this triggered a memory of how odd I felt when I first read L'Etranger. The modern distemper affects different people in different ways, but common to all of our recorded reactions seems to be -- to me, anyway -- a profound lack of trust that the communities we're supposedly embedded in are responsive to our real needs. This anomie isn't just characteristic of adolescents. Although it upsets their applecarts more visibly than it does those of the adults they eventually grow up to be, it's a notable characteristic of all Americans who arrived at adulthood between 1880 and 1980. In fact, it was once thought, particularly by Europeans who were on the whole much more sensible than Ayn Rand, to be the very essence of modernism in general, and of Americanism in particular.

From the immigrant Jake in Hester Street, who can't wait to abandon the funny clothes and awkward foods of his ancestors to become a real American, to Jay Gatsby or James Baldwin or Richard Rodriguez, to the splendid image and tattered reality of libertarian narcissism, to the fabricated noble lineage of soi-disant aristocrats like William Buckley, or William Bennett, we Americans seem to own this narrative. That is, we did own it, until identity politics arrived to turn an earlier reality into a latter-day art form in a time of stress and confusion (h/t Foucault.)

Where the sociopaths which were the apparent genesis of this diary fit into the narrative is hard to say, but there's no mistaking their essential American character. (If you liked Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road, you'll love Charlie Starkweather, his even more daring younger brother.)

Poor Ayn Rand. Being pre-occupied with her own escape from a claustrophobic inheritance, she could never see what Camus saw, which was that modernity arrived long before our species was prepared to cope with it, and that alienation always precedes acts of violence, just as it precedes what passes for acts of redemption once you agree to step beyond the limits of precedent.


Good Points, But... (4.00 / 1)
sociopaths seem to have been with us forever.  IMHO, modernism merely creates a condition of social flux that communities cannot adapt to fast enough relative to individual sensibilities.

It is within this context, IMHO, that the sociopath starts to appeal to some--as typified by Rand--who are not sociopaths, but who wished they were.

At one point in time--before their ideas had been so totally discredited by being tried and found wanting--conservatives responded to sociopaths by blaming them on modernity and liberalism. All crime was sociopathic according to this narrative, and no reabilitation was possible.  Liberals were all dangerous fools because they did not understand the true nature of sociopathy, and the fact that there was no cure for it.

Now, OTOH, conservatives have taken the position that sociopathy is the solution.

That's quite a leap.  But it was there all along, since Rand had a firm foothold in the American right for decades before Reagan came to power.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
A good synopsis, maestro.... (4.00 / 4)
Fools on the right -- especially the educated ones -- have always confused the symptom and the cause.

Hey, you pompous schmuck, I always wanted to say to Buckley, liberalism was the first coherent response to the perils of modernism, not its evil twin. Once regicide put an end to all your earlier pretensions, jackass, everyone from Locke to Sartre has been trying to save your bacon. Never mind trying to resurrect the Church, or the landed gentry. Do yourself a favor, and consider what we're implying, in the shadow of those dark, satanic mills, when we say that we're all in this together.


[ Parent ]
Precisely! (4.00 / 3)
Conservatives are like sick people afraid of doctors and hospitals.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
As the right spends millions of dollars putting this book into the hands (4.00 / 4)
of every college and university student in the country, perhaps compendiums of exposures such as this could also be repetitiously distributed on campuses, perhaps left groups could be encouraged to expose the dastardly pathology inducers every fall. Every single student. Its is the rights Gideon Bible.

"It's September and its time to parade the psychopaths again!"

--

The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky


Wow, wow, wow.... (4.00 / 5)
this really sends me back to my earliest understanding of how and when I became who I am....and am still becoming.

  My sister gave me Atlas Shrugged to read when I was maybe 17 or so.  She was becoming an Ayn Rand devotee.  I hero worshipped my sister somewhat, despite the fact that early on we were so different.  And still, being the younger, I wanted to have her approval or something.  I remember reading the book, enjoying it as a good read, and yet it felt wrong.  Or I felt "out of step" with what my sister and her friends felt.   She was in nursing school at Bryn Mawr.   Now while we came from a poor, ethnic, working class family, many of the people with whom my sister was studying/working, seeing as patients were from the extremely upscale Main Line of Philadelphia.

   Over the years I became more and more of a leftist, my sister became more and more of a libertarian laced republican.  Our parents had basically been apolitical, but the rest of our family was split.  Over the years, my sister and I found we could not talk either religion or politics.  
Interestingly enough, as we aged, as her children reached adulthood and moved on, I felt my sister was changing...was less married to her earlier views.  She had always wanted this life of living in a beautiful home, mingling with the right people, etc etc.  I loathed the notion of the phony elitists.   But we were sisters. Her husband tho' was not from a "high class" family.  He was from an ethnic working class family like ours.  But he was, or at least I thought he was, the typical hunter, gun rights advocate with a learned reaction to minorities.  It bugged me.   My sister too had some biases and used words I did not accept and told her so.  She either changed or was careful not to say these offensive things about others in front of me.

   Near the end of her life, I was sensing a real change in her but I wasn't sure why it was happening  or if it was real.  I always wanted to bring up the whole Ayn Rand thing but the truth is that our mother died early and my sister, my only sibling, was my anchor.    But in my mind, she was truly letting go of her early attitudes.  Sadly she died suddenly in 2005 and we never got in the discussions.  And much to my surprise as I spend more time with my b-i-l whom I have know since we were young, I realize he was much more liberal than my sister.   It shocked me.  He voted for Obama.  He hate W, and his somewhat crude biases, tho' still there occasionally have tempered.    

  Of their kids, one seems to have had embraced the Ayn Rand libertarian elitist attitude. Luckily he married a brilliant young woman, who leans left, who has been moving him much more to the left.  The other two seemed quite centrist to me since their adulthood yet both seem to be moving left.

  This diary really interested me because since this latest conservative astroturf burst, the whole Ayn Rand thing has been on my mind.  I learned some things here I did not know but the information has certainly explained my very early feelings of discomfort upon reading Atlas Shrugged.  I have always wondered how these things develop.  Two sisters, raised in a stable home, coming out with such a different view of our world.  Are some things just inborn....a greater capacity for empathy or a lack of it?  
Ignorance clearly plays a part with many who embrace both the evangelical Christianity and Ayn Rand at the same time now.  But I wonder about the ability to empathize. Is that a trait because of being nurtured or in spite of it not? How can one be both a Christian and an Ayn Rand fan?  While I am neither, I was raised Catholic and very into it in the sixtes when nuns and priests led anti war rallies, anti poverty rallies.  Now, I am basically agnostic but I certainly have read in depth the teachings of Christ.  No way would that historical figure be an Ayn Rand devotee.

  Again thanks for yet another chance to explore some things, perhaps get some insight.  Food for thought on a personal as as well as a political level for me.


Thank You For Sharing This (4.00 / 2)
It always fascinates me to hear how different ideas have entered and affected people's lives.  People are not empty vessels, waiting to be filled, though sometimes they are so desperate they appear to be.  But mostly it's a process that involves all sorts of surprises or subtleties that neither the authors nor the authors' critics could imagine.

As for why people turn out differently, I subscribe to it being a combination of nature, nurture and accident.  Who your best friend was when you were five can change your life forever--even if you don't recall what it was that changed.  Even if you didn't notice it at the time.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Interestingly I am at a time and place (4.00 / 3)
in life where I want to re-examine for myself and for my sister's children, who their parents were, their grandparents, one whom they never know, so that they and their children have something to guide them, not in their choices but in their understanding.

It is amazing to me how much the knowledge of people I have never met, people like yourself, can help me in this process.  I look forward always to your diaries for both personal and political reasons.  As an educator, albeit retired, I am a life long learner, and in that pursuit the blogs and the bloggers have been a wonderful resource.


[ Parent ]
convincing the serfs they are lords (4.00 / 1)
My mother made an observant point when we were passing through Las Vegas once that the hotel rooms there are designed to make you feel rich so that you'll be inclined to gamble more (and this was at the Frontier!) I am reminded of that comment every time I see blue collar conservatives virulently advocating policies that work directly against their best interests.  Because conservatives (in the traditional sense of maintaining the status quo hierarchy) will necessarily (and by definition) always be fighting a losing battle in a democracy they need to find ways to make the majority support the needs of the elites. As the traditional method, religion, is losing ground they've been forced to find a new one. Instead of convincing the masses that it is their duty to serve the elite, they are now convincing the masses that they ARE the elite. What better for furthering your interests than convincing everyone else that its their interests as well? How else do you get people making $40k to fight against tax raises (that would directly benefit them) on those making $250k?

Fortunately for the elites marketing and credit card agencies have been working on this project for years. Everyone needs to be convinced that they are wealthy enough to afford the latest gadgets and a new car every two years. Not only are the masses convinced that they have money, but that they earned it entirely on their merit (people will spend more if they feel they deserve it) and that they are likely to keep earning more and more for the rest of their lives. They'll pay off that debt eventually. Ironically this effort may have been aided by the endless encouragement of children brought about by the hippy movement (there's a book called The Yes Generation that's been on my "to read" list for quite a while now). Despite what my first grade teacher told me I've come to terms with the fact that I'm never going to be the president (or a rock star or a professional athlete), but on to some extent I believe many people (probably myself included) think that they are destined for and deserving of bigger and better and that those undefined lazy masses are just trying to mooch off of their talent.

By allowing, and encouraging, the masses to engage in some self-delusion the actual elite are ensuring that their interests will be served well into the future. So the dilemma, I suppose, is how to tell people nicely that they are not, and are not statistically likely ever to be, wealthy?


Wasn't until the 4th or 5th time I read Atlas Shrugged (0.00 / 0)
that I realized that Ellsworth Toohey is an alternative code hero. That John Galt is a false prophet was pretty much clear from the outset.


"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


4th or 5th Time??? (0.00 / 0)
Can I get you something?  A cup of tea?  A shot of morhine?

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
It continues to be a trove of information (0.00 / 0)
When's the last time you read it?


"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
Information? (0.00 / 0)
Never read it.

There's enough insanity out there in the world. I don't have to go looking for more.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
It has, in part, informed this diary and discussion (0.00 / 0)
I find it to be a relatively complete rendition of the objectivist perspective that still informs major segments of the right wing, even today. Most conservatives in todays world speak in code and indirectly. Rand did not have such constraints, thus her books are more directly enlightening of that mind set. I disagree that it is "insane". Which is not to dismiss the rest of your critiques.



"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
I Didn't Mean To Say It Was Insane (0.00 / 0)
in the way that a sociopath is. The sociopath is incapable of sanity.

Rand is not a sociopath.  She merely worships sociopathy.  There's a difference.  And, in fact, a very crucial one.

However, this worship very clearly is delusional, since sociopaths aren't capable of functioning the way that Rand's heroes do.

Of course, there are megalomaniacs, malignant narcissists, and all other manner of dysfunctional personalities who very well can amass great wealth, power and influence--though, of course it always helps to be born into the upper classes to get away with all this.  And that's what makes Rand's narratives at least superficially believable to many, I'm sure.

But I'm not so sure that any great insight necessarily comes from reading Rand's fiction.  I was raised on the good stuff--the classics of English lit.  And when I wanted a break from that, there was always science fiction.  Pretentious in its own way at times, but with much more to redeem it than Rand ever imagined.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
To each their own (0.00 / 0)
We all came to this place by different routes.

The point isn't which books one reads, or who has graded them as "the good stuff", or otherwise. Its what one makes of it all.


"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
Agreed (0.00 / 0)
There are countless paths.

It's just that one that includes multiple readings of Atlas Shrugged instinctively arouses in me auditory hallucinations of a thousand fingernails all scraping across the chalkboards of Valhalla simultaneously.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
That which does not kill us (0.00 / 0)
makes us stronger.

Reading Atlas Shrugged the first time was a real formative moment in my life, actually. I've pretty much always been a geeky sort that was targeted in the public high school for violent shake-down, especially in the johns. One of the hall monitors/door guards was a customer of mine on my newspaper delivery route. I used to give her free papers so that she'd let me out (and in) while I used to rest room at the gas station down the street. Anyway, I finally worked a deal where I helped the bathroom thugs cheat on biology and math tests in exchange for peeing rights. Right as I was initiating that deal, my English teacher slipped me a copy of Atlas Shrugged. The concept and description of "parasites" feeding on the intelligence of the "non-moocher" and the usefulness of knowledge in controlling situations in those pages really resonated at that time.

With each reading, I can see how successful (in my own mind) I have been at inverting the narrative to meet my own less than Randian perspective. One day, after I retire, I may get around to writing the analysis of the story placing her "villan" (Ellsworth Toohey) as the protagonist. First, though I think will be a Jungian study of the genetic code. "The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Biochemistry." or "Biochemical Studies". Both take-offs on titles of Jung's own lectures and/or monographs: The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairy Tales and Alchemical Studies.


"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
wow, thanks a lot for that Paul (0.00 / 0)
that was one of your finest

and as you say, conservatism's fantasies must be thrust forward into the center of public discourse


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