Why do dogs lick their own genitals? Because they can. And wouldn’t it be great to be able to do whatever you like? Only those at the very top and bottom of society have the license to live like that. Our culture lionizes them even after the grubby final reel. They’re the Gatsbys, the Scarfaces — but also the Jeffrey Epsteins.
The rich are different, like F. Scott Fitzgerald said. The degree of difference may vary, but the ways of difference don’t change much. The degree of difference between the very rich and the merely affluent is wider now than at any time since the Gilded Age — and wider than it was in 1925 when Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, his groveling tribute to those who differ by having more money than sense. But the ways of difference remain much the same.
The rest of us, restricted by mortgages, taxes, spouses, and bourgeois embarrassment about what the neighbors will say, can only imagine what it must be like to do whatever you want with whoever you want — to be, as we say, above the law. There’s also a fair bit of license available if you’re below the law, in the vast and growing population of illegals and semi-legals. But we tend not to imagine the licenses of poverty with the same enthusiasm. That would be too realistic. The cruelties would be too obvious.
Dr Johnson is reported as saying that ‘He who makes a beast of himself forgets the pain of being a man.’ Most men are as beastly as they can get away with being. Most men have all the imagination and dignity of a dog cleaning his undercarriage, and their stunted idea of wealth’s license is a sex orgy, with sushi and a free bar on the side — a never-ending hip-hop video. And plenty of men will, when they are afforded the license to do it, positively enjoy inflicting the pain of living upon the weak.
You can tell a lot about an age by its choice of emblematic pervert, and how it views the emblematic perverts of other ages. Jeffrey Epstein is to our sordidly plutocratic age as the fictional Gatsby was to the Twenties: an American oligarch with a private jet and a roster of rich and famous friends, like celebrity president Bill Clinton, who’s famed for his good manners towards women; celebrity spare-heir the Duke of York, a portly wastrel who’s known to his mother’s subjects as ‘Randy Andy’; and celebrity lawyer to the celebrities Alan Dershowitz, who’s now trying to extricate himself from a swamp into which he dived headfirst as Epstein’s friend and lawyer. It’s the celebrity-ness of it all that’s distinctive of our time: people being celebrated for celebrity, because celebrity is another license, another of the currencies that can buy anything you want.
Epstein is the kind of person for whom the death penalty was invented. A self-confessed sex offender, he is alleged to have used his wealth to attract, molest, pimp out and then silence dozens of underage girls, many from care homes and poor backgrounds. Harvard, to which Epstein has donated an estimated $30m, has yet to offer the money to a charity, perhaps one for the rehabilitation of victims of sex trafficking. But then, the rich are different.
We know why Epstein was at large until Saturday night. He’s the kind of suspect who’s arrested after stepping off a private jet from Paris. People are linking the re-opening of the Epstein case to #MeToo. Perhaps it has more to do with a public mood that has simmered since the crash of 2008 — the feeling that the rich have got too different for their own good and everyone else’s.
In 2007, Epstein’s lawyers negotiated a plea deal with the office of Florida’s prosecutor Alexander Acosta. Under the terms of the deal. Epstein admitted soliciting prostitutes, but escaped federal charges of molesting dozens of young girls. He served a 13-month sentence, and was permitted to commute to his office each day. Acosta is now Donald Trump’s secretary of labor. At least for now, because the details of the negotiations over Epstein’s 2007 plea deal are about to come out.
Dershowitz, who was Epstein’s lawyer, has tried to have the case reopened, in order, he says, to clear his name. ‘Epstein and Dershowitz’ may sound like the name of a legal firm, but search for it online and you find calumnies about a conspiracy of silence and an alleged underage sex-trafficking ring. It’ll be interesting to see whether Dershowitz manages to clear a name that will be freshly besmirched by having taken on Epstein as a client, and having stood by him for so long as a friend.
The internet merely amplifies the range of the gossip. If you lived in certain quarters of Rome in the early 15th century, you would probably have heard rumors about the Borgias, and about Rodrigo Borgia, known to posterity and notoriety as Pope Alexander VI, who married his 13-year-old daughter Lucretia to the mercenary Giovanni Sforza, and then, when Rodrigo’s elevation to the Papacy raised Lucretia’s value on the marriage market, divorced her by obtaining a signed confession of impotence from Sforza — while she was allegedly pregnant, perhaps by her own father.
The Borgias have been the subject of a pair of popular and crass television series. Henry VIII, the English Bluebeard, remains the subject of popular fascination for his way with the wives. Casanova, whose memoirs abound in Epstein-like depravity, is still so glamorous that in 2018 art museums in Houston and Boston threw political correctness to the winds of commerce and promoted an exhibition of Italian art as ‘Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century’.
So we praise and admire the pleasure-taking, power-tripping perverts of other ages. Not only were they rich, as we would all like to be, and secretly feel we deserve to be. They are now so different that their cruelties are reduced in scale by history’s statute of limitations until they can safely feed our genteel voyeurism. You have too wonder whether, despite the great leveling of the age of democracy, one of the reasons that the rich remain different is that we like them that way, and wouldn’t have it any differently.
Epstein, however, is merely rich, and not different enough. Which is good, because he is once again caught in the law. Gatsby, a crook who had a casual way with women, was found floating facedown in his swimming pool. But that’s fiction. Epstein, the man accused of corrupting minors into sexual massage and more, is still rich enough to cheat us of a happy ending.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.