Something very weird and deeply unsettling was going on in 1920’s America. During this decade Eugenics, the idea that the human race can be improved by proper breeding and – more significantly – by preventing “undesirables” from reproducing, really came into its own in American society. At the same time the celebration of an amoral Superman, an idea derived from a flawed understanding of Nietzche’s Ubermensch concept, led to at least one horrible crime and – for one person – seems to have provided the basis for a horrible “philosophy.”
The problem is that the “one person” was Ayn Rand, and through her writings both of these rotten ideas continue to exert influence over many of the people who help shape our national conversation today. Listen carefully to the leaders of the Conservative Movement and the rhetoric designed to further the Conservative Cause, and you can hear these terrible ideas, filtered through Ayn Rand’s awful rhetoric, thrust themselves into our current discourse.
By the 1920’s the basic idea behind eugenics (“the science of human improvement by better breeding”) had been around for a while. For example, around the turn of the century the Immigration Restriction League had started lobbying to restrict certain races from immigrating to the United States on the grounds that such immigration would “dilute the superior American blood line.” As part of this lobbying the League attempted to impose literacy requirements on applicants under the assumption that literacy could be used as a proxy for intelligence. The League finally succeeded in 1917 when Congress overturned President Wilson’s veto against such a measure.
But the eugenics movement really caught on in the 1920’s. By then numerous states had enacted eugenics laws involving the forced sterilization of those individuals it deemed undesirable, especially – but not solely -- the mentally handicapped or disabled.
In 1927 the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s forced sterilization of the “unfit” in Buck v. Bell. Writing for the 8-1 majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. declared that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” and with that the enforcement of compulsory sterilization laws was off to the races.
North Carolina, my home state, adopted a eugenics forced sterilization law in 1929 that continued in force until 1974. North Carolina’s program even gave social workers the authority to determine whether their clients should be sterilized; the Winston-Salem Journal ran an excellent series on this program a few years ago, which recounted instances in which young black women receiving state aid were sterilized without their knowledge or consent whilst undergoing unrelated surgery – simply for being poor and black. Others were sterilized for simply being promiscuous or homosexual. (Sterilization was not limited to women; in one instance a ten year old boy was castrated.)
Significantly, California was at the forefront of the eugenics movement. Although a majority of all the states eventually adopted forced sterilization laws, California alone was responsible for approximately one-third of all forced sterilizations in America between 1909 and 1970.
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At the same time the eugenics movement was spreading, Friedrich Nietzche’s concept of the Ubermensch – set forth in his Thus Spake Zarathustra– was gaining in popularity. In 1909 a man named Thomas Common had translated ubermensch to mean “superman,” just as George Bernard Shaw had done in his 1903 play Man and Superman. The ubermensch was presented as the creator of new values, values not derived from existing societal or religious beliefs. The ubermensch was to be “beyond” the pedestrian concerns of existing social and moral values.
Of course, this is an idea that is easy to balls up if understood only superficially. Perhaps the most famous example of such a ballsing up is the murder of Bobby Franks – in 1924 – by (Nathan) Leopold and (Richard) Loeb. Both Leopold and Loeb were extremely intelligent, wealthy University of Chicago students who had no need of money and who bore no ill will toward Bobby Franks. They killed Franks simply because they wanted to prove they were Nietzchean supermen by committing “the perfect crime.”
(Although, for all that they considered themselves superior to everyone else, their “perfect crime” was littered with gross mistakes. Leopold left his signature eyeglasses where the body was found, they claimed to have been out in Leopold’s car the night of the murder even though Leopold’s chauffeur was working on the car that night, etc. Far from being “Nietzchean supermen,” when one reads about their crime the two come across as bungling halfwits.)
The case became a national story and their attorney, Clarence Darrow, saved them from the death penalty by convincing both men to plead guilty and arguing for clemency before the judge. In his peroration before the court Darrow expressly blamed the crime upon the boys (they were 19 and 18 years old, and so legal minors at the time) having taken seriously the Nietzchean superman idea that they had been taught at university. Darrow prevailed and both his clients were sentenced to life plus 99 years in prison.
The Leopold and Loeb story served as the basis for Patrick Hamilton’s play Rope, which was later turned into a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s Rope starred Jimmy Stewart as the former headmaster of the two young killers. I very much recommend the movie, not least for watching Stewart’s reaction upon learning that it was his classroom rhetoric that persuaded his former pupils that an act of pointless murder could demonstrate their “superiority.”
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During the mid- and late 1920’s – while eugenics was catching on (especially in California) and Leopold and Loeb were national front-page news – Ayn Rand was working in Hollywood. During her tenure there a man named William Hickman shocked the nation by kidnapping a 12 year old girl named Marion Parker, killing her, dismembering her body, sewing her eyes open so it would appear (from a distance) that she was still alive, and then tossing her head and torso out of his car at the girl’s father after collecting ransom money he had demanded for her safe return.
This occurred in Los Angeles, where Rand was working, and it occurred in 1927, only three years after the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder. And yet Rand admired Hickman for his crime and with the same rationale used by Leopold and Loeb to justify their own: Hickman was a Nietzchean superman. In her diary, Rand described this admiration: “Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should. . . . [Hickman has] 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.”
Now I suppose that Ayn Rand’s admiration of this child kidnapper-child killer-child dismemberer is old news for some. Mark Ames wrote an excellent piece about this over a year ago and for anyone interested in learning more of the details surrounding Rand’s fascination with Hickman I highly recommend clicking over and reading the entire thing. But I only learned about this recently, and it has started me re-evaluating my previous understanding of Rand’s writings.
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Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t a fan to begin with. About a month ago I was inspired by a Johann Hari column in the UK’s The Independent to compare and contrast some of Rand’s ideas with those being pushed by today’s Republican leaders. The title of the post – Ayn Rand Was Very Silly, But Conservatives Are Just Evil– fairly accurately summed up my thinking about Ayn Rand’s work: that her writing is juvenile and naive, and that while she may have started with a few simple and valuable ideas (e.g.,facts cannot be changed by magical thinking, voluntary trade is better than simply taking what you want by force), her failure to appreciate nuance, complexity and irrationality as Real Forces experienced by Real People in the Real World led her to some dumb and indefensible conclusions.
In short, I thought that Rand was an idiot, but I didn’t think that she was evil. For all of the fact she wrote about how “parasites should perish,” I always understood this resulted from the fact that she filled her novels with one-dimensional caricatures that bear no resemblance to Real People. When Rand wrote about how “moochers,” “leeches,” and “parasites” must die . . . well, in her novels that is all those characters actually are. Calling for the death of cartoon characters never really struck me as all that heinous a crime, and I really did think Rand’s critics tended to go overboard when they claimed she seriously was advocating the elimination of the “non-productive,” i.e., the non-wealthy.
(As an aside, and just because I can’t let this go by without comment, equating “the wealthy” with “the productive” has always annoyed me. To be sure, some wealthy people are wealthy because they have produced something: Bill Gates produced Windows, Steve Jobs has brought us some great Apple products. But for the most part any society’s true wealth – not money, but actual food, goods, and services – is created from the bottom up. For example, the Samurai of feudal Japan were the wealthiest members of their society, but the rice farmer was the source of that wealth, as reflected in the fact taxes were paid to the feudal lords in actual bushels of rice. Conversely, while I am given to understand that Paris Hilton is wealthy, I completely fail to see how she is in any way productive.)
If there was evil in Ayn Rand’s work, I thought, the evil resided in the fact that her acolytes adopted the absurd conclusions reached in her novels as the root and not the twisted branch of her half-baked “philosophy.” So I suggested in my earlier post that Rand’s modern acolytes had simply “found in her novels – just as people can find in any Holy Book they choose to follow, whether the Bible or the Qu’ran – a few phrases that can be twisted to justify what they want to do anyway.”
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But now I think that maybe I was the one being naive. Maybe her acolytes really did find what she intended they find.
There is something chilling about reading the young Ayn Rand’s admiration of William Hickman and her adoration of him as a “superman,” and then realizing that Ayn Rand is probably the single individual most responsible for shaping our political discourse today. Professing admiration for Hickman in the same terms that Leopold and Loeb used to justify their crimes smells of sociopathy. Go back and read that quote again: there is an utter lack of empathy in it. Worse, there is a celebration of empathy’s absence.
And don’t we see this everywhere in today’s Republican party? What is the modern Republican Plan to Destroy Medicare, if not a complete and total absence of empathy? What was on display two weeks ago when a retiree asked of her Congressman, Rob Woodall (R-Ga), how she would have been able to obtain medical insurance under this proposed voucher system when the company she retired from doesn’t provide medical benefits to retirees, and Woodall responded: ‘Hear yourself, ma’am. Hear yourself. You want the government to take care of you, because your employer decided not to take care of you. My question is, ‘When do I decide I’m going to take care of me?’” (emphasis added).
This pride in their lack of empathy is displayed every time the Republican party insists on trying to cut unemployment benefits at a time when the nominal unemployment rate in this country is about 9% (and the real unemployment rate is much higher). It is displayed when John Boehner, questioned about a further loss of jobs if the Republicans’ austerity plans are put into place responds, “So be it.” It is displayed when Republicans vote to kill the DREAM Act, thereby denying the children of illegal immigrants a legal way to remain in the only country many of them have ever known.
But I think it goes beyond a simple lack of empathy and beyond taking pride in that lack, as terrible as that is already. It seems to me there is a real resurgence in the idea – the basis of all eugenics – that there are those among us who are “deserving” and those among us who are of “lesser breeds.” Now, don’t get me wrong . . . . I am not suggesting that a program of forced sterilization is about to be unleashed. I am just pointing out that the basic idea that there is such a distinction between people seems to be back in fashion amongst many on the Right, and this time the idea derives directly from Ayn Rand’s writing.
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To be sure, such a distinction has been drawn many times in the past, but the prior bases for finding whole groups of people to be “lesser” are now frowned upon. Although there is unfortunately no shortage of people in today’s society who actually do still think African-Americans, or Hispanics, or gays, or Jews, etc. are still “lesser,” by and large those people understand that they can’t say so in polite society. By and large, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. are considered anathema and that is a very good thing.
The other prominent way society has traditionally drawn distinctions between “the deserving” and “the lesser” has been based on wealth. The history of Europe’s economic class struggles is more widely studied here than is America’s own, but America has a rich history of class warfare too. We just have tended to sweep it under the rug and forget about it, because – like racism, etc. – we aren’t supposed to talk about or even recognize “class” in this society. In fact, there is a whole cottage industry, largely funded by the Ayn Rand-extolling Koch Brothers, heavily invested in persuading Americans either that significant income equality doesn’t really exist or that, if it does exists, it doesn’t matter.
But Ayn Rand’s work provides a way to locate and demonize “lesser breeds” and it does so without explicit reference to inherent traits (race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) or to class. Instead, her followers have created a weird amalgam of both types of traits by which they can label certain people “Parasites.”
It really is quite a trick, and it provides Conservatives a moral justification to demonstrate their “superiority” by evidencing a complete lack of empathy for these lesser people. More concretely, it provides Conservatives the opportunity to justify as a virtue the elimination of all assistance to people who have been passed over by our increasingly concentrated and polarized economy. To understand how it works you have to break it down into a series of small steps:
(1) There are two types of individuals: “Producers” and “Parasites;”
(2) Producers create wealth, goods and services, jobs and employment, and because all of society rests upon their work they must be protected at all costs;
(3) Parasites’ contribution to society is a net negative, and they are constantly looking for handouts from the creative Producers in order to survive;
(4) You can tell who a Producer is because Producers are wealthy. They wouldn’t be wealthy if they were not producing, so if you are wealthy than you automatically must be a Producer;
(5) You can tell who a Parasite is by whether they accept any government assistance. If they are collecting unemployment benefits, Medicare/Medicaid or Social Security payments, if they receive housing assistance or food stamps, if they receive state-provided education benefits, etc., etc., then this is only because they are consuming more than they can pay for and therefore are by definition Parasites;
(6) This is not about class warfare. Parasites aren’t “lesser” because they are poor, they are “lesser” because they are greedy and not living within the small means that they can provide for themselves;
(7) This is not discrimination (racial or otherwise), for precisely the same reason;
(8) Anybody can stop being a Parasite and become a Producer. So the fact you receive government assistance of any kind means that you are morally inferior and evil;
(9) Since nobody who is morally inferior and evil should be supported by the tax dollars of good, hardworking Producers, nobody who actually needs government assistance should be allowed to receive it;
(10) Since the only people deserving of government assistance don’t need it, all government assistance programs should be eliminated immediately.
It really is quite remarkable, the perfect synthesis of those two terrible ideas swirling around in 1920’s America when Ayn Rand first arrived here from Russia. The first is that – for the good of society as a whole – the “lesser breeds” (i.e., the “Parasites”) must be encouraged to wither and die without any support from our society (although they will be allowed to reproduce, if only to live in abject poverty). The second is that the superior nature of true Nitzchean supermen (like Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and the ever stoic John Boehner) is demonstrated not by any Jesus- or Buddha-like compassion for the less well off, but by denying the less well off any such compassion.
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If you want to see an example of this type of right-wing blather a simple Google search will pull up as many as you may like. Right before the last election, Free Republic posted The Coming Civil War: Producers Vs. [sic] Parasites, by Bradley Harrington who – after the obligatory Ayn Rand opening quote – wrote:
. . . I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that fully half of our population is receiving government aid of some sort and amount from the other half.
And this guess, while a guess, is at least close, for the tax figures bear it out: In [sic] 2008, IRS figures show that the top 50 percent of the country’s adult population (with incomes greater than $33,000) paid 97.3 percent of collected taxes, while the bottom 50 percent paid the other piddling 2.7 percent.
And if you (mistakenly) think that this is the price we pay for “helping the poor,” you’d better check your premises on that one as well: for despite the untold trillions of dollars we’ve poured into the so-called “War on Poverty” since 1967 alone, when 31.8 million people lived under the poverty line, we now have 38.9 million people there instead. This isn’t “welfare”; this is parasites living at the expense of the producers – period! (emphasis added).
You can find unlimited examples of this theme on right-wing sites, but I certainly am not going to link to any more. Reading this type of dreck once is enough for me.
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I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that the amorality and viciousness that Ayn Rand apparently learned to embrace in the 1920’s should have proved to be so popular among so many of our business and political elites. I have long suspected that the reason top-flight CEO’s get paid what they do is because there is only a small pool of people so lacking in empathy that they will repeatedly cut their labor force, ship jobs overseas, and slash worker benefits (“Chainsaw” Al Dunlop, anybody?) in order to bolster the bottom line and thus “earn” their multi-million dollar annual salaries and a $100 million golden parachutes.
Similarly, there has always seemed to me to be something deeply psychologically disturbed about many of the politicians who seek high office in this country, and their apparent willingness do anything, say anything, and grovel as necessary in order to achieve it. (Newt Gingrich? Mitt Romney? Richard Nixon?)
So learning that Ayn Rand’s ideal beau was a psychotic killer who as a child “liked to strangle cats and snap the necks of chickens for fun” shouldn’t have been too shocking. And yet, somehow it was.
Like I said, I can be pretty naive sometimes.
Cross-posted at Casa Cognito.