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27 September 2023

Letter of the week: The allure of Olympian thinking

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By New Statesman

I was struck while reading the excellent analysis of the influence of effective altruism (EA; “The effective altruism delusion”, Sophie McBain, 22 September) by the parallel with the cogent critique of the libertarian ideology behind the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA; “The Trussites in exile”, Rachel Cunliffe, 15 September) in the previous issue. What they seem to have in common is the ability to take liberties with other people’s money and justifying this by arguing that this will somehow benefit ordinary mortals. Of course, this kind of Olympian thinking is hardly new, and nor is its perennial ability to hoodwink academics and philanthropists.

What the EA piece overlooked was the link between that movement and the ways in which politicians may have unwittingly assisted the alleged fraud of Sam Bankman-Fried with his networks of well-connected snake-oil salespeople. Similarly, Truss might have similarly been used by those at the IEA such as Mark Littlewood, briefly capturing the heights of a hollowed out Conservative Party, in the same way that the Brexit jihadists previously took over the Tories.
Alan Bullion, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Labour’s priority list

Andrew Marr (Politics, 22 September) focuses on the difficulties in creating electric-vehicle (EV) charging points and boiler retrofitting infrastructure. Like all complicated construction projects, problems will arise that are sometimes portrayed as insurmountable. We now take for granted other services and grid systems – fresh water, electricity, gas, telephones, broadband – that were just as challenging.

The construction of the London sewage system was the biggest civil engineering project in the world at the time, prompted in part by the London cholera epidemics of the mid 19th century. The stench from the River Thames was ignored for years, with the project put off due to cost, until crisis forced the change in attitude to be made.

Similarly, procrastination and conflicting interests will continue to hamper progress in the roll-out of EV charging and boiler retrofit innovations until the last minute. A wartime cabinet may be just what is required for such an undertaking.
Ian Charlton, Sunderland

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Dictators at war

Brendan Simms’s interesting article on the parallels between Hitler’s and Putin’s imperialist aspirations (“What Hitler taught Putin”, 15 September) conveniently omits the role of Stalin’s Soviet Union in defeating the Third Reich. That victory was not a triumph of democracy over tyranny. The Nazi project may have been “morally bankrupted by its evident inhumanity” in the eyes of the Western world, but it was defeated with the help of another morally bankrupt system.
Ursula Haeckel, Liverpool

Scottish enlightenment

The picture caption accompanying Sophie McBain’s piece “The effective altruism delusion” (22 September) labels William MacAskill a “Scottish moral philosopher”. The text more accurately describes him as having received his philosophical education in Cambridge and Oxford. This reminds me of the “AndrewMurrayometer”, which charted the tennis player Andy Murray’s description in the press as British when he was winning and Scottish when he was losing.
Alan G Conn, Birling, Northumberland

Uncommon decency

Finn McRedmond’s comment (“The rise and fall of Russell Brand”, 22 September) that “perhaps British television should be a bit stuffier in the age of unregulated social media platforms” is so apposite. Someone somewhere signed off on Naked Attraction. Someone thought having people eat kangaroo testicles was a good idea. Someone thought it OK to broadcast Brand’s call to Andrew Sachs, and Steve Dymond on Jeremy Kyle. Judging programmes on the basis of taste and decency is somehow considered a bit mimsy. Does no one in broadcasting say, “This is distasteful,” or, “Much too vulgar,” or, “Misogynistic”? Perhaps they should.
Laurie Dunkin Wedd, Tonbridge, Kent

Positive discrimination

I enjoyed Charlotte Stroud’s assault on “cool girl novelists” (Critics, 22 September), as did many of my woman-novelist peers. Any critic who grasps that “we don’t go to the novel to improve our health, but for the far humbler reason that we wish to be entertained” gets my vote.

How ironic, then, that your esteemed magazine rarely if ever reviews such works of fiction – not commercial chick-lit, but literary fiction that contains optimism, comedy, social satire and characters whom readers might care for. They are still being published, by writers such as Elinor Lipman, Marika Cobbold, Nina Stibbe and Vesna Goldsworthy. My novel The Three Graces, about three octogenarian heroines challenging EM Forster’s A Room with a View version of Tuscany, is another case in point.

The critical consensus that only depressing fiction should be taken seriously is at fault. We are all in the gutter, but some of us can still look at the stars.
Amanda Craig, London NW1

Written off

Will Lloyd asserts that “hardly anyone reads… Sylvia Townsend Warner any more” (Critics, 8 September). Wrong. Her work is still in print. It is sharp, clever, unsentimental, original, funny, varied. She wrote short stories and poetry as well as novels. Start with Lolly Willowes, a satirical look at single women and witchcraft.
Michele Roberts, London SE5

Murder mysteries

Having read Anna Leszkiewicz’s review of Richard Osman’s series of novels (Critics, 15 September) and the subsequent replies (Correspondence, 22 September), I am confused. What is the difference between “intellectual snobbery” and having high standards? Perhaps the readers and writers of the New Statesman could offer an answer?
James Martin, Southend-on-Sea, Essex

If “a clever ten-year-old” could write the Thursday Murder Club novels then why doesn’t the older and wiser Nicholas Lezard compose his own blockbusters? It would be a sure-fire route out of the Hove–l.
Gillian Williamson, Saffron Walden, Essex

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This article appears in the 27 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Right Power List