With Jeffrey Epstein, it was all about the selfies and party pictures.
Yes, his infamous “little black book” of contacts (Gawker link here) contained the names of legions of apparently innocent elite-zip-code personalities (lots of journalists here) who may have never even met Epstein — but he wanted their contact information because they had influence in the public square. Some of the man’s victims made it into the book, as well.
But then there are the people who made it into all of those photos that document the good times shared by the powerful people who were courted by Epstein or who courted him. We are talking about the people who made it to his private island or who flew — for various reasons — on the private Epstein jet. A few were, literally, royals.
It will be hard, but try to make it all the way to the end of the current New York Magazine feature that ran with this revealing double-decker headline:
Who Was Jeffrey Epstein Calling?
A close study of his circle — social, professional, transactional — reveals a damning portrait of elite New York
What do we see in this long list of powerful and famous names?
It’s hard to be more specific than the final words in that headline. This predator’s “little black book” was a guide to “elite New York” — the people with power and access to power. What role did religion play in this drama? That depends on how one defines the term “religion.” (Click here for my first post on this topic.)
Here’s the thesis of the New York piece:
For decades, important, influential, “serious” people attended Epstein’s dinner parties, rode his private jet, and furthered the fiction that he was some kind of genius hedge-fund billionaire. How do we explain why they looked the other way, or flattered Epstein, even as they must have noticed he was often in the company of a young harem? Easy: They got something in exchange from him, whether it was a free ride on that airborne “Lolita Express,” some other form of monetary largesse, entrée into the extravagant celebrity soirées he hosted at his townhouse, or, possibly and harrowingly, a pound or two of female flesh. …
Along with the logs of Epstein’s private plane, released in 2015, the book paints a picture of a man deeply enmeshed in the highest social circles. Collectively, these documents constitute just a glance at the way society opened itself to Epstein in New York, Hollywood, and Palm Beach.
So who are the religious leaders in these pages?
Well, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is as close as you will get to Catholic leaders. If you are looking for a leader in Jewish culture that would probably be Woody Allen (yes, that photo is a bit spooky).
Powerful Baptists? Epstein had more than 20 telephone and numbers and email addresses for former President Bill Clinton. Looking for someone with evangelical clout? Well, Donald Trump didn’t have those connections when he palled around with Epstein.
For many, Stephen Hawking was a kind of post-religion prophet. He made it to the private island, including a special tour in a submarine that was adapted to meet his needs.
This leads to one of the most interesting passages in this story. Other than money and political power, what do people need to be taken seriously in the higher rings of Epstein’s New York City life?
Hint: We are not talking about clout linked to traditional forms of religion.
What seems new, in flipping through the reams of society photos of perhaps the world’s most prolific sexual predator that have been circulating over the past few weeks, is not the powerful and the beautiful who surrounded Epstein, but the intellectuals — the Richard Dawkinses, the Daniel Dennetts, the Steven Pinkers. All men, of course. But the group selfies probably shouldn’t have been a surprise — documents of an age in which every millionaire doesn’t just fancy himself a philosopher-king but expects to be treated as such, and every public intellectual wants to be seen as a kind of celebrity.
Take, for example, John Brockman — a maven in the world of scientific freethinkers who gather for evangelistic gatherings, often called TED talks. Harvard was another crucial post-religious sanctuary, one that would be respected in the Big Apple.
Let us attend:
Cultural shifts like these require visionaries, networkers, salespeople. Brockman is one. A Warhol Factory kid turned freelance philosopher of science turned literary agent to Dawkins and Dennett and Pinker (and many others), in the 1980s he formed a casual salon of like-minded scientists and futurists that came to be known as the Reality Club, a knock against the poststructuralism then dominant in the academy. In the 1990s, he rebranded it as the Edge Foundation, an organization whose central event was an annual online symposium devoted to a single, broad question. In 2000, it was “What is today’s most important underreported story?” In 2006, “What is your dangerous idea?”
Epstein was a regular contributor, and his plane — to judge from the photographs, at least — was an especially appealing way for other contributors to get to ted. They could also catch Epstein at Harvard, where so many of them taught and where he became so prolific a donor that one whole academic program seemed to be run like his private Renaissance ateliers. Epstein had long described himself as a “scientific philanthropist,” and in a press release put out by the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation announcing its “substantial backing” of Edge, he called it “the world’s smartest think tank.”
Want to hear Epstein attempting to speak the intellectual lingo of this post-religious world?
Many contributions to Edge were plausibly the products of genuinely special minds. Epstein’s were not. In 2008, the year he went to jail for prostitution, the prompt was “What have you changed your mind about?” Epstein replied, “The question presupposes a well defined ‘you’ and an implied ability that is under ‘your’ control to change your ‘mind.’ The ‘you’ I now believe is distributed amongst others (family friends, in hierarchal structures), i.e. suicide bombers, believe their sacrifice is for the other parts of their ‘you.’ The question carries with it an intention that I believe is out of one’s control. My mind changed as a result of its interaction with its environment. Why? Because it is a part of it.”
That’s quite a pick-up line, apparently.
Stay tuned. More shoes will drop, I am sure.