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.
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:
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 , 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.
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."