Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy American financier, was found dead in his prison cell in an apparent suicide on August 10, 2019. He had been awaiting trial on sex trafficking and conspiracy charges, to which he pleaded not guilty in July. This article by Ellis Cashmore, author of “Kardashian Kulture,” was written prior to Epstein’s death. Click here for an interactive timeline on Jeffrey Epstein.
and Jeffrey Epstein
“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific
guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with,” Donald Trump told New
York magazine in 2002. He was talking about Jeffrey Epstein,
described as a “mysterious, Gatsbyesque figure … with cash to burn, a fleet of
airplanes, and a keen eye for the ladies.”
Now, President Trump’s buddy Jeff has emerged improbably as the raw material for a litmus test. The handling of allegations against him involving sex offenses against young women under the age of consent has raised suspicions of political cronyism and excessive leniency, prompting many to wonder whether #MeToo is just another quirky cultural moment, or whether it has genuinely upended all the usual questions about men’s historical rights and immunities. In an era in which gender has become a burning or at least smoldering issue, a case implicating the US president, his labor secretary and perhaps other as-to-yet undisclosed dignitaries promises to test the resilience of the #MeToo movement to its limits. Will the movement prevail, or will the patriarchal old guard restore business as usual?
Not yet two years since the revelations of
Harvey Weinstein’s profuse sexual maleficence and there are already doubts over
whether #MeToo can maintain momentum. Dozens of cases involving public figures,
many with the kind of status and influence that would have insulated them
against scandal in the past, have been paraded in our media, leading many to
assume a new era has arrived. After all, dozens, perhaps even hundreds of
predatory men have been exposed, shamed and ruined. But actual prosecutions
have been few.
But Weinstein apart, there hasn’t yet been an accused to rival Epstein in terms of wealth — estimated by the Financial Times at more than $500 million and his annual income over $10 million — or political connections. Rolling Stone lists his powerful associates: Apart from Trump, Epstein is on good terms with Bill Clinton, Attorney General Bill Barr, former Harvard President Larry Summers, Ghislaine Maxwell, the daughter of the media mogul Robert Maxwell, and Britain’s Prince Andrew.
Epstein stands accused of trafficking and sexually abusing dozens of underage girls at his homes in New York and Palm Beach, Florida, between 2002 and 2005. The latest case, which has been brought by the Manhattan US attorney’s office, comes over a decade after a controversial plea deal in Miami that enabled Epstein to escape a potential federal indictment for sexually abusing dozens of girls between 1999 and 2007. He pleaded guilty in 2008 to state prostitution offenses. In July, he pleaded not guilty to the charges at an initial hearing, at which he was denied bail, the judge deciding Epstein’s “alleged excessive attraction to sexual conduct with or in the presence of minor girls [that] … appears likely to be uncontrollable,” designating him as a flight risk.
On one level, the trial will be about an
individual with an unwholesome criminal appetite for young girls and a penchant
to use his influence either to cover up his maleficence or minimize the
fallout. On another level, it will be a major confrontation in the
post-Weinstein culture war, a war that is being won by #MeToo advocates who
have successfully persuaded hundreds of women — and some men — to come
forward and name their abusers, even after many years.
Yet there is still a lingering suspicion
that the Epstein trial could be different. Will a man who has sedulously
cultivated friendly associations with the rich and powerful and, for years,
staved off attempts to incarcerate him, finally be brought to book? Or will he
feature in a show trial, an exhibition designed to satisfy public opinion
rather than ensure justice?
Those who believe #MeToo is an unstoppable force, much like the River Alpheus that coursed through King Augeus’ putrid stables that hadn’t been cleaned for 30 years. If the #MeToo movement is still flowing with fury, Epstein will face a punitive prison sentence, the maximum being 45 years, according to CNN.
Case of Bill Cosby
It’s a plausible argument in favor of
#MeToo’s effectiveness. Consider the case of Bill Cosby, like Epstein, a
well-heeled figure with influential friends and, in his case, an A-list
celebrity presence. Once one of the most popular comedy actors in the world,
Cosby was charged with sexual assault and, in 2017, went to trial. It resulted
in a hung jury and declared a mistrial. Cosby walked. Remember: This was before
the Weinstein case broke.
The retrial was conducted in the aftermath
of the Weinstein scandal and resulted in Cosby’s conviction. He is currently
serving a three-to-10-year prison sentence and is presently appealing the
conviction. The cultural shift inducted by the scope of the Weinstein
allegations was crucial in determining the different outcomes. In the #MeToo
era, jurors are less likely to defer to traditional forms of authority or
uncritically accept the testimonies of powerful men.
There are a few differences worth nothing,
though. While Cosby was comparably rich, better known and had several friends
in high places, he couldn’t boast the interconnected circles of contacts in
international politics, global finance, philanthropy and academia. And, of
course, Cosby is African-American. Epstein is white — a factor that may, or may
not, be significant. One of the consequences of #MeToo is that it has
challenged everyone to criticize historical assumptions, not just about men’s droit
du seigneur, but about an
erroneous white moral superiority.
Doubters are waiting for #MeToo to run out of steam. A favorable verdict for Epstein will be a reliable indication that they’re right. But can he possibly get a light sentence? It would be extraordinary, though not impossible. Epstein has not helped his own case with his acknowledgment that he does lust after women, even after pleading guilty in 2008 to state charges of soliciting prostitution; nor by his astonishing claim that his sexual behavior was not merely motivated by carnality. In a plan he might have lifted from “The Boys From Brazil,” he apparently wanted to impregnate up to 20 women at a time in order to enrich the human race with his genes, according to The New York Times.
How the association with Trump plays out is anybody’s guess. Previously, the 45th president of the United States was effusive about Epstein: “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.” This now seems sickening, and Trump may yet be forced to explain his tribute, even if it was long ago.
Verdict on #MeToo
There is a point in any cultural movement’s
life where you want to stop the clock and examine what is happening here and
think about what comes next. This is that point. #MeToo has transfigured the
landscape, changing not only attitudes and perspectives, but entire
institutions and the behavior of people who operate those institutions. Its
effects radiate through societies, almost everywhere in the world.
The question remains about what comes next.
Much turns on the Epstein case. Here we have an overprivileged white male who
appears to have indulged his taste for underage women with relative impunity.
He has been able to do so, we learn, not just because he is a man who happens
to be white and wealthy, but because he has the best kind of friends — ones
that can grant favors.
If he succeeds in securing a softish
verdict, it will remind us that, for all the advances initiated by #MeToo,
conservative forces can overpower anything and keep the status quo intact. If
he receives the punishment the available evidence suggests he should, #MeToo
will gain fresh impetus and restore the belief that genuine change has happened
and will continue to happen.
*[Ellis Cashmore’s book, “Kardashian Kulture,” will be published on
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