The Fountainhead: Jury Nullification

The Fountainhead: Jury Nullification June 21, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 18

After half an hour of monologuing to the court, Howard Roark is almost ready to get around to testifying about the crime he’s accused of. But first, he has one more big howler:

“Now observe the results of a society built on the principle of individualism. This, our country. The noblest country in the history of men. The country of greatest achievement, greatest prosperity, greatest freedom. This country was not based on selfless service, sacrifice, renunciation or any precept of altruism. It was based on a man’s right to the pursuit of happiness. His own happiness. Not anyone else’s. A private, personal, selfish motive. Look at the results. Look into your own conscience.

Now, in our age, collectivism, the rule of the second-hander and second-rater, the ancient monster, has broken loose and is running amuck. It has brought men to a level of intellectual indecency never equaled on earth. It has reached a scale of horror without precedent. It has poisoned every mind. It has swallowed most of Europe. It is engulfing our country.”

This is the same enormous, ludicrous lie that Francisco d’Anconia tells in Atlas Shrugged – that America is and always has been a nation of freedom and individual rights – when in fact, America was built on slavery. From the wall of Wall Street to the cotton fields of the South, we owe our existence as a nation and much of our economic prosperity to the uncompensated labor of millions of enslaved people.

Considering that Roark also says, “Civilization is the process of setting man free from men,” you’d think he could acknowledge slavery, if only to show that the U.S. had improved by abolishing it. But that would jar with the fall-from-paradise story he wants to tell, where everything used to be good and pure until evil socialism slithered into the world.

Ayn Rand wasn’t an unintelligent person, and therefore I can’t believe that she was ignorant of history. Her choice to repeat this whopper of a falsehood in both books shows that this wasn’t a one-time accidental omission, but a deliberate erasure that runs like a poisonous vein through her philosophy. Whenever history is unfriendly to the simplistic morality plays she prefers, she just sweeps it aside and makes up her own alternate facts.

Having said all this, Roark goes on to address the destruction of Cortlandt – by confessing that he’s completely guilty of it:

“I designed Cortlandt. I gave it to you. I destroyed it.

I destroyed it because I did not choose to let it exist. It was a double monster. In form and in implication. I had to blast both. The form was mutilated by two second-handers who assumed the right to improve upon that which they had not made and could not equal. They were permitted to do it by the general implication that the altruistic purpose of the building superseded all rights and that I had no claim to stand against it.

I agreed to design Cortlandt for the purpose of seeing it erected as I designed it and for no other reason. That was the price I set for my work. I was not paid.”

“That I had no claim to stand against it”? Roark never tried to make a claim!

When his oh-so-perfect design was spoiled, he didn’t file a lawsuit or go to the press or take any other measure to assert what he believed were his rights. He didn’t approach the builders of the project to demand compensation, which he could at least have tried. He skipped straight to vigilante violence.

This brand of self-help justice isn’t a remedy that any legal system permits, and it’s obvious why. The world would be a chaotic anarchy if anyone could destroy anyone else’s property at any time, just as long as they feel they were wronged somehow by that person. If Cortlandt Homes had been built exactly as Roark instructed, but one of the construction workers who worked on it was cheated out of their wages, would they have been justified in blowing it up?

Rand doesn’t think of things like this, but only because she takes it for granted that her protagonists are exempt from the ordinary standards of law and morality that apply to everyone else.

“It is said that I have destroyed the home of the destitute. It is forgotten that but for me the destitute could not have had this particular home. Those who were concerned with the poor had to come to me, who have never been concerned, in order to help the poor. It is believed that the poverty of the future tenants gave them a right to my work. That their need constituted a claim on my life. That it was my duty to contribute anything demanded of me. This is the second-hander’s credo now swallowing the world.”

Over the course of The Fountainhead, you can see the tropes that Rand would later use in Atlas Shrugged taking shape. This passage in particular is an obvious foreshadowing of Atlas’ political motif where the bad guys seek to cripple the heroes whom they depend on for their survival. Except… it doesn’t work here. None of this is true!

No one who was concerned with the poor came to Roark. No one told him he had a duty to build a home for the destitute or insisted that they had a right to his help. No one compelled him to contribute anything. On the contrary, he devised a scheme to sneak onto a project for which he wasn’t chosen, and he’s the one who sought to conceal the fact of his contribution under another man’s name. If anything, this is the opposite plot of Atlas Shrugged: the socialists are telling Roark that they don’t want him, and he goes out of his way to help them regardless.

After Roark’s testimony concludes, there’s a brief debate in the courtroom between the judge and the prosecutor: “he had admitted his act, but had not pleaded guilty of the crime”. They debate whether this counts as a plea of insanity, but the judge decides to leave it in the hands of the jury.

You’ll never guess what happens next:

Howard Roark stepped forward and stood facing the jury. At the back of the room, Gail Wynand got up and stood also.

“Mr. Foreman, have you reached a verdict?”

“We have.”

“What is your verdict?”

“Not guilty.”

…Wynand turned sharply and walked out. He was the first man to leave the courtroom.

In a completely unsurprising development, Roark’s strategy of picking jurors with angular faces works. They agree that he had the right to blow up the building and acquit him in an act of jury nullification. (It makes you wonder why he bothered with the big speech, since all people with Objectivist facial features apparently share a telepathic rapport. All he should have to do to be acquitted is to stare silently at them for a few moments.)

As far as we readers are told, this is the end of it. Roark walks out of the courtroom a free man and suffers no further personal or professional consequences. But how can this be the end of it?

For one thing, even if he’s not found criminally responsible, there should at the very least be a civil suit to force him to repay the damage he caused by destroying the building. Unless he somehow manages to pull the same jury trick a second time, he should be on the hook for millions of dollars in damages.

What’s more, Roark’s career as an architect should be as dead as Cortlandt. When he was arrested, we were told that there was a massive public outcry against him: clients canceling his commissions, angry mobs picketing his office.

That furor should only be intensified now that he admitted what he did. Although he was able to find twelve men in New York who agreed with him, the populace as a whole seems to be firmly on Ellsworth Toohey’s side. Roark’s only defender was Gail Wynand, but even Wynand was forced to renounce that position in the face of a tidal wave of public anger.

Roark should be ten times more of a pariah than he was at his lowest point before this. The idea of anyone of importance ever hiring him again seems unthinkable. After all, would you hire an architect to build you a skyscraper, knowing he might change his mind and explode the finished building if he wasn’t happy with how it turned out?

Image: Justice, Randian style. Public domain via Pixabay.

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