20 September 2011

Ayn Rand: A Fitting Muse for the Tyranny of the Self

"At this point in my life, I did not think it was possible to significantly lower my estimate of Ayn Rand, or to regard her as even more of a psychological and moral mess than I had already taken her to be.

I stand corrected."

Excerpted by my friend JerryB:

Romancing the Stone-Cold Killer: Ayn Rand and William Hickman
by Michael Prescott

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.)

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.)

"A wonderful, free, light consciousness" born of the utter absence of any understanding of "the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people." Obviously, Ayn Rand was most favorably impressed with Mr. Hickman. He was, at least at that stage of Rand's life, her kind of man.

So the question is, who exactly was he?

William Edward Hickman was one of the most famous men in America in 1928. But he came by his fame in a way that perhaps should have given pause to Ayn Rand before she decided that he was a "real man" worthy of enshrinement in her pantheon of fictional heroes.

You see, Hickman was a forger, an armed robber, a child kidnapper, and a multiple murderer.[...]

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.


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.

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. One might also point out that a person who "has no organ for understanding ... the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people" is what we today would call a sociopath.

Was Rand's ideal man a sociopath? The suggestion seems shockingly unfair - until you read her very own words.

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."

Before we get to the meat of this statement, let us pause to consider Rand's claim that average members of the public are "beings with worse sins and crimes in their own lives." Worse sins and crimes and kidnapping, murdering, and mutilating a helpless little girl? If Rand honestly believed that the average American had worse skeletons than that in his closet, then her opinion of "the average man" is even lower than I had suspected.

We get an idea of the "sins and crimes" of ordinary people when Rand discusses the jury in the case: "Average, everyday, rather stupid looking citizens. Shabbily dressed, dried, worn looking little men. Fat, overdressed, very average, 'dignified' housewives. How can they decide the fate of that boy? Or anyone's fate?"

Their sin, evidently, is that they are "average," a word that appears twice in three sentences. ...Rand dismisses the possibility that the public's anger might have been motivated by the crime per se. Apparently the horrendous slaying of a little girl is not enough, in Rand's mind, to justify public outrage against the murderer.


[As if in liberal-softie mode she depicts him as victim-of-society. H]e had a lousy home life and an unfulfilling job. And it would be asking too much of such a superior soul to put forth the long, sustained effort necessary to rise to a position of power and influence by means of his own hard work.

Rand's statement here reminds me very much of an attitude often found in career criminals -- that honest work is for suckers....

[W]e find her fulminating against the depravity of:

"... the pastors who try to convert convicted murderers to their religion... The fact that right after his sentence Hickman was given a Bible by the jailer. I don't know of anything more loathsome, hypocritical, low, and diabolical than giving Bibles to men sentenced to death.[...]"

I can think of at least one thing that is "more loathsome ... low, and diabolical than giving Bibles to men sentenced to death." And that is: ripping up little girls for fun and profit.

Incidentally, given Hickman's claim that he ransomed his victim in order to pay for Bible college, the jailer's decision to hand the condemned man a copy of the Good Book seems like poetic justice to me."

No one is a pure mixture of good and bad. We are all a mix of talent in some things and mediocrity in others. It is how we use our talents, to what purposes we put them, that makes the difference.

Ayn Rand wrote some remarkably good essays on money. She had insight into the mechanics of some things that is expressed quite well for the layperson. But her moral philosophy and the core of her social outlook seems strikingly underdeveloped,  almost adolescent in its careless disregard, and crudely nihilistic. 

One could speculate about a basis in trauma during a key period of development, some breakage or familial dysfunction, the neighborhood tough guy with the broken heart and home.  But this is all too easy to do, a cheap trick of pop psychologists, without hard data. However, whatever, the cause or motives, the outcomes and effects can be discerned.

Young men and women sometimes read stories about pirates, gangsters, and cowboys, who are 'rugged individualists' with an uncompromising, amoral response to anyone or anything that gets in the way of their fulfilling their needs.

And typically they start to graduate to less one dimensional heroes and role models, people who temper their strengths with restraint and compassion, who build as well as take. The archetype of this is Robin Hood. And finally one hopes, they mature into whole people who have a moral dimension that informs their baser instincts, and they obtain the ability to create, whether it be a home, or a business, or a family.

But some people never really grow up. Something in their psyche is broken, has gone astray, beyond the range of reason. They have a fatal attraction to lawlessness and callousness in the most classic imitation of the immature desire to shock, in their restless search for relief from their hollowness, to finally feel something. And on occasion even these can become powerful figures, despite their otherwise banal and stunted personalities, and beyond a small circle of cultish adherents, become fashionable.

And then the madness is unleashed, and in extreme instances an entire generation can go astray, exulting in their willful disregard for restraint, despising the ordinary and the conventional, dressing in costumes, and imagining themselves to be gods on earth, even as they plunge into the abyss.

From Wikipedia:

"In the early 1950s, Greenspan began an association with famed novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. Greenspan was introduced to Rand by his first wife, Joan Mitchell. Rand nicknamed Greenspan "the undertaker" because of his penchant for dark clothing and reserved demeanor. Although Greenspan was initially a logical positivist, he was converted to Rand's philosophy of Objectivism by her associate Nathaniel Branden.

He became one of the members of Rand's inner circle, the Ayn Rand Collective, who read Atlas Shrugged while it was being written. During the 1950s and 1960s Greenspan was a proponent of Objectivism, writing articles for Objectivist newsletters and contributing several essays for Rand's 1966 book Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal including an essay supporting the gold standard. Rand stood beside him at his 1974 swearing-in as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Greenspan and Rand remained friends until her death in 1982."

Ayn Rand Took Social Security and Medicare Benefits