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Effective Altruism’s Problems, Hilarious Classics, and the Eternal Rodeo
A dip into the arts-and-culture archive.
Good afternoon, everyone—I’m Bulwark Associate Editor Martyn Wendell Jones, filling in today for JVL. With the weekend arriving and Thanksgiving following close behind, today’s a great day for a relaxed literary lunch. If you can’t afford the time (or cost) of the “five-hour, two-bottle” repast that some literary types favor, perhaps you can at least take twenty minutes at your desk to enjoy a great piece of writing over takeout or warm leftovers.
Today’s Triad revisits three delightful and fascinating cultural essays from the past few months that you may have missed when we first ran them in The Bulwark. Enjoy!
1. Effective Altruism Is a Short Circuit
The saga of Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced founder of cryptocurrency exchange FTX who ripped off his customers to the tune of billions of dollars, has begun a new chapter. A couple of weeks ago, a jury convicted him on seven counts of conspiracy and fraud; they needed only four hours to reach the unanimous verdict. He’s now awaiting sentencing.
A little over a year ago, Bankman-Fried was still being hailed as a boy genius and moral entrepreneur. He advocated a utilitarian-style philosophy popular among the tech-bro set: “effective altruism,” which holds that the more money you make and donate to effective altruist–approved causes, the more good you will do in the world. In this view, moral decision-making becomes a matter of mere calculation.
In an intellectually rich and beautifully written essay, philosopher Mary Townsend explores the moral framework of Bankman-Fried and his colleagues and finds something rotten at its core.
An anxiety for goodness of this sort—an anxiety for rules, for shibboleths—is different from the painstaking work of figuring out what on earth is best each time life forces us to make use of our terrible freedom. That work requires us to step into a more ambiguous world where goodness is harder to achieve and sometimes even harder to discern, but also a world where, one hopes, the language we use to position and understand goodness would not be so easily co-opted by frauds like Bankman-Fried. The FTX founder had built his public profile on a commitment to effective altruism, but as he explained to Vox shortly after the discovery of the fraud he allegedly perpetrated, he always secretly took the ethos of the philosophy to be “dumb shit.”
Townsend wants us to confront the inescapable moral ambiguity at the heart of modern life, and she pushes us to take seriously our need to make moral judgments of the non-procedural kind, even in situations of uncertainty. It’s a true invitation to philosophy. Read the rest.
2. All Classics Are Funny
“Oh, you have to read it!” is a funny way to recommend a book to me, a grown man. I have enough obligations. Don’t give me homework! The publishing industry encourages this browbeating style of advocacy by filling promotional materials for new releases with words like “necessary” and “urgent.” This is why walking into a bookstore can sometimes feel a bit like accidentally pulling up your high-priority folder in Outlook.
The most reliable vehicles for literary enjoyment—the “classics,” meaning those books that are still being read after being reread and misread by one generation after another—have been given this treatment for a long time. If a book appears on your high school English class syllabus, you do, literally, have to read it, or at least pretend to read it. It can be difficult to enjoy a book under those circumstances, and the lingering association with the classroom might provide a further barrier to enjoyment even years after graduation.
Writer Joel Cuthbertson is alert to this problem. He has good news: Books that have lasted tend to be books that are funny. He puts it even more strongly:
I have developed a modest theory about all this having to do with classic books: All classics are classics only insofar as they’re funny. It might sound more reasonable to say, “only to the extent that they can be funny,” or “only if they’re sometimes funny,” or even, “All classics are not funny, except for Jane Austen.” I hold no truck with such tact. Consider Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a work dedicated to depicting the horrors of America’s chattel slavery. One-liners abound: “Sethe struggled to stand and discovered that not only could she do a split, but that it hurt.” Another grand volume in the canon of world literature, War and Peace, is outright farcical: “Can they be coming at me? And why? To kill me? Me whom everyone is so fond of?” Even Faulkner gets his licks in, devoting an entire page in As I Lay Dying to one line: “My mother is a fish.”
What follows is a grand tour of literary delight. One of my favorite things about this essay is the sense Cuthbertson has for how play and imagination enable us to make sense of the world. Read to the end to learn about the oldest surviving one-liner, a wry inscription on a clay tablet fired almost two millennia before Christ was born. It’s a fart joke. Read the rest.
3. The Glories of the American Rodeo
Longing for the summer is something I normally do in February or March, when the holidays are a fading memory and all I know of the present is being damp, cold, and flecked with street salt. But even now, at the height of a glorious fall around the Great Lakes, I am experiencing a bit of nostalgia for the late summer, thanks to a charming essay about the rodeo by Clare Coffey.
As you walk up through the fields to where the floodlights gleam, you pass an old man who came on horseback, a big silver buckle on his belt and a feather in his hat and a (surely deservedly) self-satisfied grin on his face. You pass wranglers and coordinators of various kinds leading and lugging horses and cattle from where they should not be to where they should be. As you approach the chutes, the smell of animal sweat and straw and good clean cattle dung intensifies and dominates the normal carnival smells. Something clangs; something is moving in the dimness. I always pause for a minute. It seems impossible that a bull should be in that narrow space, that all his rippling, archaic mass should be so casually separated from the unconcerned human world of asphalt paving and plastic port-a-potties by a flimsy metal gate. A bull in a field is one thing. A bull under the bleachers is another.
I hope you have a wonderful weekend and holiday ahead, and hey, if you haven’t upgraded to a paid Bulwark subscription, why not do it now? Your support makes it possible for us to publish both our resolutely pro-democracy journalism and our wonderful coverage of culture, ideas, and the arts, which are some of the things that make liberal democracy worth fighting for in the first place.