At first it seemed little more than a bizarre rant, only slightly worse than those to which we've grown accustomed, given the source. To wit, Rush Limbaugh, who on September 11 condemned President Obama for speaking that day about community service, and encouraging young people to become involved in service projects as a way to help make America a better place. Far from seeing such a call as a positive request to take personal responsibility for improving one's nation, to Limbaugh, it was little more than the "first step toward fascism," intended to conscript the young into a volunteer army, bent on helping to carry out the President's political agenda.
Community service, Limbaugh explained, was something that should be done by convicts. Specifically, he offered: "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." Yes, of course. That's not insane at all.
The anti-social nature of the diatribe was stunning. Service, according to the gospel of Limbaugh, is for suckers, for society's "losers," for people who have committed crimes. In other words, it should be viewed as punishment rather than as something to be applauded and encouraged. To do for community is a fool's errand.
Yet as bizarre as his words may seem at first blush, they actually illustrate with bold clarity the fundamental (and increasingly common) core of the conservative belief system. They speak to the sociopathy that is at the heart of the far-right worldview. It is a worldview that holds, quite simply, that doing for others is contemptible; that doing for self is the purpose of human life; that altruism and service are somehow pathologies pushed by collectivists and should be subordinated to selfishness and greed.
Sound too extreme? Well if so, consider this. Among the most interesting phenomena of the past year--and especially since the inauguration of Barack Obama--has been the explosion of interest in (and sales of) books by the late author, Ayn Rand: most prominently her classic novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Indeed, the latter had an all-time record year in 2008, and 2009 sales are on a pace to shatter even last year's numbers.
Far from a simple believer in limited government and a free market economy, Rand's philosophy--now being endorsed by tea party protesters and anti-Obama minions across the nation (indeed the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights was among the sponsors of the 9/12 march on Washington)--was predicated on one overarching notion: that a commitment to selfishness and a rejection of altruistic behavior were the height of morality. That's not to say that she merely rejected compulsory altruism via taxation, but altruism even privately chosen. To do for others, out of a charitable impulse or out of some faith-based commitment, for example, is morally and ethically suspect, for neither feelings nor faith are rational bases for human actions, according to her philosophy known as Objectivism. Unless one's assistance to another were rooted in some self-interested motivation, it was to be condemned.
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?"
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. Those whom Galt condemns in the book, and thus, whom Rand is herself condemning, are referred to as "parasites" who are unworthy of life. Indeed, Galt's contempt for the weak of the world prompts he and his colleagues to banish the word "give" from their small utopian "gulch." Giving, after all, much like calls for community service, is for suckers.
Even though Galt feels certain that his strike may well kill the vast majority of the world's inhabitants (because they are simply too stupid to survive without he and the other "perfect producers"), he firmly believes, and thus, so does Rand, that this outcome is moral--more so, than say, taxes or charity. In keeping with his strange morality, he not only withdraws his superior talent, but also sabotages the nation's infrastructure (the roads and bridges) thereby making the transport of fuel and grain impossible, resulting in chaos, starvation and general suffering.
This is what the Rand-bots are reading, the vision of society they endorse: one comprised of better people, and decided inferiors, sub-humans even, who are worthy of death for their laziness, their sloth, their lack of industriousness. No wonder people imbued with such a truly sadistic mindset as this would oppose health care reform. To this way of thought, those without health care deserve their suffering, and that suffering should be of no concern to the rest of us.
Those who have written biographies of Rand--including former acolytes--paint a uniformly disturbing picture. Rand, according to Nathaniel Branden's My Years with Ayn Rand, Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand, and Jeff Walker's The Ayn Rand Cult was narcissistic in the extreme, incapable of empathy, often cruel--going so far as to have an affair in full view of her husband--as well as paranoid, addicted to amphetamines, and obsessed with her belief that average people were "ugly, stupid and irrational."
Interestingly, despite her general disdain for humanity, there were people she seemed to admire greatly, such as William Edward Hickman, whose credo, "What is good for me is right," she described in her Journals as, "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard." But Hickman was no simple expositor of personal greed and self-interest; no mere modern day libertarian; no pedestrian practitioner of excessive self-love. No indeed. He was a sociopathic murderer. In 1927 he kidnapped a 12-year old girl from a school in Los Angeles by the name of Marian Parker, chopped off her legs, cut our her internal organs, drained all of her blood and then spread parts of her body all over the city.
Of Hickman, this sick murderer, Rand had almost nothing but positive things to say.
She indeed critiqued those who would condemn Hickman's actions for having committed "worse sins and crimes," such as those she ascribed to his jury. Among those "greater" crimes--greater than mutilating a child--she included being, "Average, everyday, rather stupid looking citizens. Shabbily dressed, dried, worn looking little men. Fat, overdressed, very average, 'dignified' housewives." Their ordinariness, in other words, placed them below Hickman, in Rand's mind. "How can they decide the fate of that boy? Or anyone's fate?" she implored in her Journals.
It was Hickman's willfulness, his disregard for others, which so seems to have resonated with Rand. It fit perfectly with her own developing philosophy, which she would articulate perfectly in her original notes for The Fountainhead, wherein she wrote, "One puts oneself above all and crushes everything in one's way to get the best for oneself. Fine!" Thus Hickman's crime, to Rand, was "a daring challenge to society," rather than the act of a seriously deranged person from whom the society should seek protection.
Indeed, Rand speculates that Hickman's real crime may have been merely that he was "too impatient, fiery and proud" to accept the slow, soul-crushing death that his life had become. She even went so far as to blame the crime on Christianity, which she described as "ludicrous tragic nonsense," capable of turning this "bad boy with a very winning grin, that...makes you like him the whole time you're in his presence" into a sadistic killer.
And so, interestingly, the right is increasingly cleaving to the words and philosophy of a woman who was not only, in all likelihood, mentally disturbed, but the functional equivalent of those who fell in love with say, Charles Manson or Ted Bundy, even after their crimes were exposed.
This is what the right is coming to. This is what they really mean when they call themselves "values voters." The values of which they speak, far from being "Christian," and far from being rooted in concern for the country, are--at least for many--firmly grounded in selfishness, applied narcissism and operationalized, organizational sociopathy. That they would seek to make a hero of Rand, and forge a movement based even in part on her thinking is all the evidence one should need that the patients are running the asylum known as the American right. Only, their kind of craziness is not nearly as sympathetic as that displayed by the typical person suffering from mental illness. Theirs is a special kind of crazy, not organic as is the case with so much mental illness, but rather, rooted in anti-social, almost cult-like propaganda. Sadly, it is a propaganda that, even with its horrific message is currently being read by more than a million high school students across the country: probably more than a few of whom are the very ones whose principals and teachers, or parents, refused to let them hear the President speak for fear he might indoctrinate them into such awful projects as community service (or, as it turned out, merely staying in school).
They want their country back, they tell us. And the country they want, so far as their reading habits would suggest, is a nation based on greed, me-firstism and an utter disregard for the well-being of the community. As for me, I will gladly stand with the opposite tradition. Do we want a culture of compassion or contempt? That is the choice. And we should proclaim our answer, compassion, boldly and without apology.
Tim Wise is the author of four books on race. His latest is, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama