Rony Guldmann: Silicon Valley elites Joseph Bankman and Barbara Fried, Stanford Law profs and progenitors of disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried

Philosopher and attorney Rony Guldmann writes:

Q: Can you explain the Bankman-Fried connection?
A: I met Joe Bankman and Barbara Fried during the 2007-2008 academic year at Stanford Law School, where I was their student and mentee. I already had a Ph.D. in philosophy from another university and was interested in pursuing the legal academic track. Their courses that year were well suited to that end. Joe, along with then-dean Larry Kramer, was teaching the Legal Theory Workshop, a year-long seminar designed to groom Stanford Law students for academic careers. Barbara, along with Prof. Josh Cohen, was teaching a course called “Luck in Morality, Public Policy, and the Law,” which meshed with my philosophical interests.

Those classes went as well as could have been hoped for. Joe and Barbara were both drawn in by my Legal Theory term paper, Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression, which examined what conservatives maintain is the covert oppressiveness of the liberal elites—also known as the New Class or the Clerisy, among other labels. And so, they became my academic advisers. I charmed them well enough that they quite spontaneously offered me a two-year academic fellowship to stay on at the law school after graduation, which I accepted.

Unfortunately, things later went sideways, at which point they initiated the gaslighting detailed in The Star Chamber of Stanford. My hopes for an academic career were at an end. Even so, I vowed to one day expose my advisers’ gaslighting, by making of it a case study in the cultural pathologies of liberalism and academia, first unearthed in my term paper. That’s the purpose of the memoir, which crafts a philosophical argument through the tale of my convoluted association with the Bankman-Fried power couple. I had been toiling over it for more than a decade before it finally appeared on Amazon in April 2022, after many delays.I didn’t learn that one of Joe and Barbara’s offspring had emerged as the celebrated crypto wunderkind Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) until fairly recently—only a month or two before his fall from grace, quite by happenstance online. So, it’s pure serendipity that my former advisers should be thrust into the national spotlight just six months after the memoir’s belated release—utterly uncanny, just like my story itself. Ruminating on the denouement of my association with Stanford toward the close of the book, I summed up the situation as follows:

“Now clear-sighted as to the nature of my jihad, I could see in hindsight that what Barbara had diagnosed as my proclivity to “make specimens” of people was perhaps more worrisome than I could then appreciate. But that penchant had always lain latent in my research agenda, spurring me on inexorably according to an invisible logic, and I would hold Stanford to account by dint of it. … Reflecting on Barbara’s prophetic prescience alongside my own premonition all through the summer of 2008 that I’d be engrossed in the project [Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression] full time by the upcoming fall, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we were all vessels for forces larger than ourselves, wooly-minded though that sounds, with these signs from a wise providence auguring a distant yet destined day of reckoning when balance would be restored to the universe.”

That arguably superstitious trust in the fates has, to my mind, been vindicated by the astonishing, unpremeditated timeliness of the memoir, as the spectacular fall of SBF, in combination the role his parents will inevitably play in the various narratives set forth to explain it, will hopefully garner the memoir a lot more attention than it otherwise would have gotten. Truly do I have the favor of the gods (unlike a lot of crypto investors these days). I believe the research agenda I first initiated at Stanford—beginning with Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression and culminating with the memoir—positions me to help elevate the emerging discourse on the fall of SBF. My work—written both for and about SBF’s parents—can illuminate some of the profound questions naturally raised by this epic debacle.

I’ve never met SBF, but I distinctly recall once espying him as a teenager alongside his parents in the late summer of 2008, when Joe and Barbara hosted a gathering at their home for law students contemplating academic careers. My outsider’s impression was one of authentic and harmonious familial relations. From what I’ve read, Joe and Barbara were seriously committed to cultivating their offspring’s moral capacities (moral philosophy being one of Barbara’s specialties). And yet we all know how things panned out. My best guess is that they were as blindsided as anyone. How did that happen? That’s where my research agenda and memoir come in.

To explain is not to excuse, but SBF was raised on the Stanford campus, by not one but two academic superstar parents. So he was being marinated in the elite culture and its vices from the day he was born—the elites’ hubris, their unfounded sense of moral and intellectual superiority, their penchant for stealth, subterfuge, and plausible deniability. These unfortunate tendencies can express themselves in a host of ways. Apropos my feud with my advisers, the medium was a campaign of barely noticeable psychological warfare. Apropos their wayward son, it was epic financial fraud. But the underlying ethos is the same. That ethos was reproducing itself in SBF in subtle ways that Joe and Barbara, snuggly ensconced in their elite bubble, could ill understand, and that’s why he broke bad despite their high-minded intentions. They aren’t responsible for SBF’s (alleged) crimes, but they are responsible for contributing to a culture in which the rise of SBF became possible. The Star Chamber of Stanford can help us understand why.

Q: Is it fair to call you a conspiracy theorist?
A: I’m alleging a conspiracy to gaslight based on circumstantial evidence and inference rather than direct observation. So, yes, I suppose it is. The memoir is a meticulously argued highbrow conspiracy theory for inquiring minds, and I wear my tinfoil hat with pride. I don’t endorse every conspiracy theory out there, of course. I don’t believe the moon landings were faked or that the World Bank has been infiltrated by an alien race of reptilian shapeshifters.
Conspiracy theorists get a bad rap. But no matter the stereotypes we’re not all alike, and our theories should be judged on their own merits. I know my allegations are stranger than fiction, but I think they hold up on close reflection. Plausible deniability is a thing, and extraordinary events do occur in the world from time to time. Did it all transpire exactly as I’ve theorized? Maybe not. Are my claims substantially true as to the big picture? I think so, but readers will judge for themselves. That’s the fun of the book.

Q: Aren’t you exploiting your former affiliation with Stanford to raise your own profile?
A: People wouldn’t be taking on all that student debt to attend Stanford and kindred institutions if not to thereby grow their symbolic capital. My strategy here may be unorthodox, but it was born of necessity, as the memoir explains. Stanford embraces diversity, so it shouldn’t begrudge such transgressive undertakings. This kind of book isn’t without precedent, by the way. William F. Buckley went after his alma mater in God and Man at Yale. John Leboutillier went after his in Harvard Hates America. Now it’s Stanford’s long overdue turn in the spotlight. That’s just an occupational hazard of being a preeminent university. Academia is a dog-eat-dog world, and I’m punching up here, doing my bit to hold the elites to account, so please spare me the crocodile tears.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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