FH: Strawman Recognition Guide

The Fountainhead, p11-16

I hate to open on a boring bit, but what the hell, everything in this book that isn’t a boring bit is a strawman, a fundamentally flawed argument, or occasionally a strawman who gets shut down with a fundamentally flawed argument.

We get a scene where Howard Roark gets sidetracked by fixing a flaw in one of his earliest designs and Mrs. Keating has to remind him to see the Dean.

“He turned and looked at her, trying to remember who she was.”

Gee, I wonder why she doesn’t like him?

Once again: trying to present someone as the kind of genius who draws the instinctual revulsion of ignorant mundanes doesn’t work when that character is established to be a massive tool within his opening scene.

Roark sets off in his normal clothes, and I will admit that he does get a good bit here:

“‘But it’s your Dean!’

‘Not any more, Mrs. Keating.’”

Okay, yeah, that’s pretty cool. If Roark was actually likeable, it might even serve to make him badass.

Naturally, the Hidebound Institute™ is designed to resemble a hybrid of a medieval fortress and a Gothic cathedral. Why? Because it wouldn’t be hidebound if it didn’t look ridiculous. I think that’s the lesson that we’re supposed to take here. (Mind you, I’ve always believed that ridiculous is better than dull, and that’s where “Shoebox” Roark does rather tend to fall down.)

Why does the Stanton Institute of Technology have functional ramparts, arrow slits, and corner turrets? No, seriously. Why the hell would anyone put a university with “of Technology” in its name in a perfectly functional medieval castle? Did no-one think it might be a little absurd?

(I might just be biased by my place of residence here – Australia’s existence wasn’t known to Europeans until the age of the castle was well and truly dead. As a result, the university I went to was mainly housed in buildings that looked like buildings, rather than the designer coming back hammered from a Renfaire and putting pencil to paper. How many American universities are or ever have been housed in such a thing as the Institute here? I’m honestly curious.)

Now. There’s a long tradition among people who want to make an argument without getting any of that icky “doubt” stuff on their hands. It consists of making up someone with a dumb argument against your conclusion, so that your avatar can KO the idiot in one round. At this point, you claim to have won the challenge legitimately, despite it not actually being a victory for anyone, least of all yourself.

Naturally, because Rand never met a hugely offensive and stupid argument technique she didn’t like, idiots mouthing transparent horsecrap about traditionalism and quote-unquote “altruism*” make up a truly agonising amount of this book.

The Dean is just such an idiot.

This was around the point when I realised this book was going to be absolute torture.

We mess about for a page and a half describing Roark’s habit of totally ignoring the instructions in any given task and handing in his preferred “shoebox” design whether he was asked for a Tudor chapel or a Renaissance villa.

Can you imagine Roark as a doctor? He’d respond to every challenge with penicillin.


“I’m prescribing penicillin.”

“She has a virus.”

“I am still prescribing penicillin.”


“I’m prescribing penicillin.”

“He’s allergic to penicillin.”

“I am still prescribing penicillin.”


“I’m prescribing penicillin.”

“The patient presented with a broken leg.”

“Which part of ‘I’m prescribing penicillin’ did you not understand?”


The Dean then tells Roark that he’s managed to finagle the expulsion so that if Roark takes a year off and comes back actually serious about learning about architecture rather than rubbing his entirely theoretical brilliance in everyone’s faces, he may be able to come back. Roark, being a colossal ass, responds by chewing the Dean out for thinking he would want to come back to the Hidebound Institution™.

Okay, no. The guy tried to do something nice for Roark, and got it flung back in his face for his trouble. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen: an opinionated, self-righteous twerp with serious sociopathic tendencies, who either ignores or belittles the generosity of others, and is convinced the sun shines out of his own backside and that he is always right. Why are we supposed to root for this guy? Why are we supposed to want to emulate him? These traits are in no way positive. Even traits that are usually good, like confidence and determination, come out horrible when Roark displays them – artistic integrity is good, but trying to maintain it over the broken bodies of your victims is a hideous display of egomania. (That is not hyperbole. You just wait.)

Okay, yeah, the Dean is kind of an idiot who looks down on the practical side of the discipline. Guess what? He’s only that way to make Roark look better. He fails. That character doesn’t turn up for quite some time, and contains even higher levels of obnoxiously bad arguments.

“‘I came here to learn about building. When I was given a project, its only value to me was to learn to solve it as I would solve a real one in the future. I did them the way I’ll build them.’”

I was like that when I was 17, offering criticisms of postmodernism in essays where I was supposed to pretend to like it. But here’s the thing: I’m not like that now, and I’m only 23.

Roark’s mental process of “screw playing the game, I might as well deliberately waste everyone’s time” is exactly the same as mine was six years ago.

I think part of the reason I hate Roark so very much is that he’s what I could have been if I did not possess the ability to learn from my mistakes. I learned that being a huge asshole was not a good thing. Roark, apparently, did not. (It’s a similar thing to my problems with objectivism in general – I can agree with many, although not all, of its starting points, but I don’t think that the conclusions it reaches are correct or sustainable.)

Hang on, I’m starting to like the Dean. He’s done one nice thing in the three pages he’s been here, when Roark has had significantly more screentime and has generally come across as a jackass. Rand really doesn’t want us to like the Dean. So obviously it’s time for stupid arguments that no-one could ever parrot with a straight face. I haven’t seen the movie, but if they included this scene, I suspect the actor playing the Dean had to do 25 takes because he kept corpsing.

“‘You must learn to understand – and it has been proved by all authorities – that everything beautiful in architecture has been done already. There is a treasure-mine in every style of the past. We can only choose from the great masters. Who are we to improve upon them? We can only attempt, respectfully, to repeat.’”

Oh, Dean. You were doing so well. You were smart, competent, and likeable. You had your faults, but you tried to be a good person, even to the asshole known as Roark. And now we find you parroting this total bullshit because Rand wanted Roark to win an argument to establish, in the face of all evidence, that he is awesome. (That this fails really badly is mainly because, well, killing five immobile scarecrows does not make you an awesome swordsman.)

Following this, the Dean then never gets any actual arguments. He just gets assertions. He asserts that the sacred tradition of architecture is to be a hack. He asserts that all the good ideas having already been taken is self-evident. His sole response to Roark asking why the Parthenon should be considered great architecture is to remind us that it’s the Parthenon. (I can’t fault him there, though. Given the question, it’s surprising that the Dean was able to form coherent words at all.)

Roark then gets a bit of a speech which has the Dean dumbfounded despite most of it being a collection of bad Modernist assertions to counter the Dean’s bad traditionalist assertions.

The high point has to be:

“‘Rules?’ said Roark. ‘Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, in one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul.’”

Okay, in order:

#1 is simply “my way is better than your way, neener neener” whining. What makes your way better than everyone else’s? Could you actually address that question at some point, rather than just calling all your critics idiots?

#2 and #3 are true but irrelevant.

#4 is just kind of straightforwardly wrong and dumb and ludicrous. Every house has the same purpose: to be a house. Train stations have the purpose of being train stations. Shopping malls have the purpose of holding shops.

#5 is again true but irrelevant.

#6 doesn’t really mean anything, and even if it’s accurate, it doesn’t automatically mean that you can’t represent part of that idea with, say, Doric columns.

#7 is kind of a daft metaphor.

#8 just means nothing to me.

#9 is a bit awkward in an age of transplants, and #10 brings us right back into the Daft Metaphor Zone.

I know that I’m supposed to view Roark as being the Lone Hero With Integrity, but here’s the thing: if Classical architecture is still selling, then the capitalist thing to do is to gear up to do Classical architecture. One would think that a die-hard anti-Communist like Rand would recognise this point somewhere, but no, it gets ignored in favour of People I Like Should Stand Up For Their Beliefs, People I Don’t Like Can Just Die In A Fire Somewhere (see also: Rand’s views on homosexuality, which are just kind of horrifying).

The Dean then gets another bad argument, in which he argues that the proper creative process is based on not being creative and in attempting to blur the artists into a kind of homogenous mush.

I cannot imagine any architect ever saying that.

I literally cannot fit that definition of creativity to anyone in any creative job ever.

I cannot imagine an architect saying it. I cannot imagine it from an artist. I cannot envision a writer or musician agreeing. It doesn’t matter if you’re into comic books or web reviews. Nobody would ever say this.

Humans act like humans. As a refinement, artists act like artists. The Dean is here acting like neither an artist nor any other sort of human.

I did mention that this book is terrible, right?

Roark’s response is also terrible in its own special way.

“‘I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards – and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.’”

Unfortunately, you do. You stand at the beginning of a tradition of seventy years of naked elitism, open disdain for those traits of humanity that allow us to function as societies, sociopathic behaviour, hideous cruelty, enthusiastic support for wrong-headed economic policies, absolutist extremism, anti-historical nonsense and so very much hypocrisy, ignorance, arrogance and stupidity.

Well, okay, you and John Galt.

The Dean responds with a condescending comment along the lines of Roark hopefully outgrowing it. Sadly, given the climax, I doubt any character development so interesting is likely to happen.

We then get some background details involving the “fallen creator” Henry Cameron, who will be The Mentor and a sign that not all modernists are huge assholes, only the ones who haven’t felt the sting of failure, learned compassion through shared suffering, or otherwise had reality rubbed in their faces. (so, Roark).

Then we get more background details in which Roark’s mathematics professor praises him as a “great man”, before we’re told that Roark not only has no known relatives, but doesn’t care whether he has any or not, and makes no effort to find out. He has no friends. He joined no fraternities. He had no interests outside architecture.

No wonder he’s so boring. He seems to have gone out of his way to avoid anything that might make him interesting, relatable, or likeable.

In Roark’s defence (three words I will probably not be able to pull out very often), he has made an effort to learn the skills of labouring and building, but that he still seems to have no regard for builders as human beings at any point makes me suspect that he didn’t make all that many friends at work either.

Next up, the Dean points out to Roark that he can’t build without a client, and Roark responds with something that will probably end up in my eventual list of the top ten most hypocritical lines in this book:

“‘I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.’”

Remember those words. They will be relevant later.

Finally, we get close to the end of the argument, as it turns out that Roark has no interest in convincing the Dean that he’s right. That would neatly explain why he is so, well, unconvincing.

“‘You don’t care what others think – which might be understandable. But you don’t care even to make them think as you do?’


‘But that…that’s monstrous.’”

Have to say…yeah, it kind of is. The total indifference towards others Roark shows throughout this part is pretty chilling. I’ve called him a sociopath before, and I stand by that, and this is why.

It’s also kind of belied by Rand’s own words later in this book, in which failing to agree with her is treated as a guarantee of bringing down society. Real subtle way of not caring whether others agree with you.

Finally, the Dean ends the interview.

“‘Now I agree with the Board. You are a man not to be encouraged. You are dangerous.’

‘To whom?’ asked Roark.”

Try…I dunno, everyone? Very few of the traits you display in this book are the kind of thing that makes a man safe for society.

“He knew the source of his actions; he could not discover theirs. He did not care. He had never learned the process of thinking about other people.”

Okay, see, in psychology, they consider that a warning sign.

We wrap up the chapter with Roark forgetting the Dean and humanity entirely in order to envision how he would have designed the school. The description we get consists of bare grey walls with long bands of windows.

Dammit, Roark. Please stop making my mockery of your design style less dull than your actual design style.

I’ll see you on Monday, when I will hopefully have something to say that is not “Ayn Rand sucks”.

– OSM out


* I’m just going to address this here. I am aware that Rand is arguing mainly against Auguste Comte’s definition of “altruism”. Which is okay, the idea of practicing it unchecked and at gunpoint is a bad one, and I would certainly resent it if it was done to me. But here’s the thing: I don’t believe anyone has genuinely attempted to practice it with force. Most examples that used it as rhetoric were less about “sharing is good so share everything” and more about “I’m fed up with you exploiting me, give me your stuff or I’ll kill you”. Rand’s tendency to leap to the absolute screaming extremes, I think, left her with difficulties when dealing with people who did not exhibit that kind of absolutism, such as most of humanity.


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