In Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel and current movie, Atlas Shrugged, the ideological template for those wishing to usher in a new Gilded Age run by billionaire plutocrats like the Koch Brothers, Atlas is meant to symbolize the Titans of industry who hold up the world by their individual, heroic efforts. The rest of us are mere leeches sucking the mighty Titans’ blood dry with taxes to construct an elaborate welfare state where lazy souls and Welfare Queens live in idle carefree comfort. Should the PTB decide that enough is enough, however– if Atlas should shrug– then the world will come tumbling down.
Take that, socialist biatches.
Before exploring Rand’s influence on today’s Libertarians, Teabaggers, and establishment Rethugs like Paul Ryan and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, it would behoove us to review some of the initial criticisms of her book. In Ayn Rand’s first television interview, conducted in 1959 by 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace, Wallace asks:
Q. . . . Other reviews have said that, “You scorn churches, and the concept of God.” Are these accurate criticisms?
A. . . . I’m challenging the moral code of altruism. The precept that man’s moral duty is to live for others. That man must sacrifice himself to others. Which is the present day morality . . .
Q. . . . You say that you do not like the altruism by which we live. You like a certain kind of Ayn Randist selfishness.
A. I will say that, “I don’t like” is to weak a word. I consider it evil. And self-sacrifice is the precept that man needs to serve others, in order to justify his existence. That his moral duty is to serve others. That is what most people believe today.
Q. . . . We’re taught to feel concern for our fellow man. To feel responsible for his welfare. To feel that we are as religious people might put it, children under God, and responsible one for the other. Now why do you rebel?… What’s wrong with loving your fellow man? Christ, every important moral leader in man’s history has taught us that we should love one another. Why then is this kind of love, in your mind, immoral?
A. It is immoral if it is a love placed above oneself. It is more than immoral, it’s impossible . . .
So much for Christ’s proclamation that “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.” And “He who would be greatest among you let him be server of all.”
For further contrasts between the teachings of Christ and those of Rand and Christ, see Friday’s post by Isaiah J. Poole titled: Atlas Shrugged. Jesus Didn’t, in which he underscores the inherent tension between the GOPers two largest voting constituencies— fundamentalist Christians, and Randian Teabaggers who are, at their core, anti-Christian:
Rand is very clear: walking in the path of Christ and walking in the path of “Atlas Shrugged” hero John Galt will take you to two very different places. Which ought to give pause to political leaders who claim to embrace the values of Christ but adopt the politics of Rand.
Rand is certainly entitled to her atheistic beliefs and to reject the teachings of religious teachers throughout the ages. But I have to wonder what her Objectivist, rational mind would make of findings by today’s evolutionary psychologists of reciprocal altruism:
“. . . behaviour whereby an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time.”
Behavior that geometrically improves the survival of a larger group as it cascades through its socially networked system. Additionally, Matt Osborne over at Crooks and Liars informs us that:
. . . [S]tudies have found that charitable giving is more closely related to class, with have-nots giving at a higher rate than have-mores. Man being a social animal, it seems that we tend to share more in common when we all have less — a survival trait of our species that Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism rejects.
Q. How does your philosophy translate itself into the world of politics? Now one of the principle achievements of this country in the past 20 years, particularly I think, most people agree, is the gradual growth of social and protective legislation, based on the principle that we are our brothers keepers. How do you feel about the political trends of the United States?
A. The way everybody feels except more consciously. I feel that it is terrible, that you see destruction all around you, and that you are moving toward disaster, until, and unless, all those welfare state conceptions have been reversed and rejected. It is precisely these trends which are bringing the world to disaster, because we are now moving towards complete collectivism or socialism. A system under which everybody is enslaved to everybody, and we are moving that way only because of our altruist morality.
Can’t you just smell the arrogance? Rand feels what everybody else feels, except more consciously. She considers the ability to expand one’s individual identity to include the whole a bug, not a feature.
Moving on. In a 1961 review of Atlas Shrugged by Gore Vidal published in Esquire Magazine, Gore cuts to the core of her moral philosophy and anticipates the Teabaggers’ fascination for her:
This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest . . . to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak . . . . She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts . . . .
[Rand] has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ….I doubt if even the most anti-Christian free-thinker would want to deny the ethical value of Christ in the Gospels … For to justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil . . . .
[S]ince we must live together, dependent upon one another for many things and services, altruism is necessary to survival. To get people to do needed things is the perennial hard task of government, not to mention of religion and philosophy . . . We often fail. That predatory demon “I” is difficult to contain but until now we have all agreed that to help others is a right action . . . .
Both Marx and Christ agree that in this life a right action is consideration for the welfare of others….Miss Rand now tells us that what we have thought was right is really wrong. The lesson should have read: One for one and none for all.
Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous…as we enter a curious new phase in our society.
Curious, and I would add, dangerous. Lest there be any doubt, Rand also authored an essay titled: The Virtue of Selfishness: A Concept of New Egoism (1964), where she expounds on the illusionary benefits of a Me versus a We society.
Though Rand’s fictional characters are written as ethical, standup individuals, a closer examination shows an extreme individualism that is in fact, pathological. Fast forward to the present and Mark Ames article at Think Progress where he describes her as:
. . . 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 former South Carolina Governor, 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 . . .
I’ll spare you the details. Trust me, it couldn’t be more gruesome and sick. Ames continues:
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.” 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 [like] her hero William Hickman can reach their full potential, [and are] not held back by the morality of the “weak,” whom Rand despised . . .”
Sure, Rand in her journals rationalizes her admiration of Hickman by disavowing his actions— it’s his character she admires, not the particular pathological consequences derived therefrom.
” ‘[My hero is] very far from him, of course. The outside of Hickman, but not the inside. Much deeper and much more. A Hickman with a purpose. And without the degeneracy. It is more exact to say that the model is not Hickman, but what Hickman suggested to me.’ “
That’s like saying: Forget the degenerate actions of Peter Pederast. It’s his deep love of children that should inspire us all.
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.”
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.
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Five years before Ames’ piece appeared in Think Progress, best selling author Michael Prescot wrote a more penetrating critique, sans the political connection to today’s GOP. He also concludes she was a sociopath, and identifies another fundamental character trait that finds expression in today’s Teabaggers that Ames missed— the notion of victimhood.
As I mentioned in my previous post, there is a term for a person who has “no organ” by which to understand other human beings — a person who “can never realize and feel ‘other people.'” That word is sociopath. I mean this quite literally and not as a rhetorical flourish. A sociopath, by definition, is someone who lacks empathy and cannot conceive of other people as fully real. It is precisely because the sociopath objectifies and depersonalizes other human beings that he is able to inflict pain and death without remorse. It is also fair to say of any sociopath that he “wanted to command and smash away things and people he didn’t approve of.” How this relates to having “a beautiful soul” is unclear to me — and I earnestly hope it will continue to be. 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.” 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.”
Talk about sympathy for the devil. Identifying with a free-thinking murderous sociopath is one thing. Identifying with him as a victim of society’s “ferocious rage” and “ ‘virtuous’ indignation” takes the idea of victimhood to a whole other level in the Bizzaro Universe. You’ll notice that today’s Teabaggers never miss an opportunity to cast themselves as victims— victims of imaginary “government takeovers” in everything from healthcare, to having their guns taken away, to the imposition of Sharia law.
It’s taken half a century for Rand’s brand of self-centered, fuck-you individualism to become mainstreamed into our political discourse. What’s different now politically is that her latter day disciples can, thanks to trillions of dollars of largely GOP accumulated debt, hide its essential character by declaring: We can’t afford NOT to be selfish assholes.
Rand laid out the basic battle cry of today’s Teabagging Rethugs when she proclaimed:
“Extremist beyond all extreme is what we need!”
That seems to suit the current GOP just fine.
Ancient myths are a dog’s breakfast of diverse origins and purposes. Some arise from purely local phenomenon, primitive attempts to explain natural phenomena like lighting, shooting stars, and scary dreams; some are created by the Powers That Be to further their own beliefs and agendas; others contain actual accounts of super-mortal who once occupied the earth and enjoyed regular communication with their heavenly counterparts.
Many of these myths speak of wars and rebellion between various groups of gods. In one prominent Greek myth, Atlas gathered some of his fellow Titans and waged war against an older generation of gods, the Olympians led by Zeus. Atlas failed, and for his punishment:
Zeus condemned Atlas to stand at the western edge of Gaia (the Earth) and hold up Uranus (the Sky) on his shoulders, to prevent the two from resuming their primordial embrace.
Later versions changed the meaning of the myth, perhaps inadvertently, when it substituted the earth for the sky, the heavens also being represented in classical art as a celestial sphere. What was previously meant to symbolize the alienation of the earthly from the heavenly became something else altogether.
The Atlas legend finds resonance in The Urantia Book‘s account of “the war in heaven,” or what it calls The Lucifer Rebellion (For instance, the alienation symbolized by Atlas’ punishment was in fact a system wide communications quarantine that prevented the earthly worlds from communicating with their heavenly counterparts. See also here.)
This was not a physical war but a philosophical one, pitting unrestrained self-determinism, a kind of cosmic Randian Libertariansim, against the established universe government where social obligations take precedence— “the greatest good to the greatest number of all men and for the greatest length of time.”
Free will, while absolute concerning an individual’s choice of eternal life, is relative concerning our interactions with other beings. Or as The Urantia Book puts it:
“Liberty subject to group regulation is the legitimate goal of social evolution. Liberty without restrictions is the vain and fanciful dream of unstable and flighty human minds.”
“Unbridled self-will and unregulated self-expression equal unmitigated selfishness, the acme of ungodliness. Liberty without the associated and ever-increasing conquest of self is a figment of egoistic mortal imagination. Self-motivated liberty is a conceptual illusion, a cruel deception. License masquerading in the garments of liberty is the forerunner of abject bondage.”
[Editing note: Epilogue slightly edited to include links and formatting change.]