The legal proceedings against financier Jeffrey Epstein are going to be spectacular. The sober-minded New York Times is already running headlines such as “Raid on Epstein’s Mansion Uncovered Nude Photos of Girls,” describing the victims as “minors, some as young as 14.” So, yes, this story is going to be, well, lit.
Epstein is the pluperfect “Great White Defendant,” to borrow the phrase from Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. In Epstein’s case, even the left, normally indulgent on crime, is going to be chanting: lock him up.
In fact, the case against Epstein seems so overwhelming that it’s already been reported, albeit not confirmed, that his lawyers are seeking a plea bargain. Yet even if Epstein doesn’t “flip,” it’s a cinch that many luminaries—in politics, business, and entertainment—will at least be named, if not outright inculpated.
Which is to say, the Epstein case is shaping up as yet another lurid look at the lifestyles of the rich, famous, and powerful, sure to boil the blood of populists on the right and class warriors on the left. In this same vein, one also thinks of the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, as well as the post-Harvey Weinstein #MeToo movement.
Yet perhaps the most aching parallel to Epstein is the NXIUM sex slave case, which has already led to guilty pleas and entangled not only Hollywood stars but also heirs to one of North America’s great fortunes, the Bronfmans.
In that NXIUM case, it’s hard not to notice the similarity between “NXIUM” and “Nexum,” which was the ancient Roman word for personal debt bondage—that is, a form of slavery.
The Romans, of course, were big on conquest and enslavement, and such aggression always had a sexual dimension, as has been the case, of course, for all empires, everywhere. Thus we come to a consistent theme across human history, namely the importation of pretty young things from the provinces for the lecherous benefit of the rich and powerful.
It’s believed that Saint Gregory the Great, the pope in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, gazed upon English boys at a Roman slave market and remarked, non Angli, sed angeli, si forent Christiani; that is, “They are not Angles, but angels, if they were Christian.” Gregory’s point was that such lovely beings needed to be converted to Christianity, although, of course, others had, and would continue to have, other intentions.
If we fast-forward a thousand years or so, we see another kind of enslavement, resulting, at least in part, from profound economic inequality. William Hogarth’s famous prints, “A Harlot’s Progress,” follow the brief life of the fictive yet fetching Moll Hackabout, who comes from the provinces to London seeking employment as a seamstress—only to end up as a kept woman, then as a prostitute, before dying of syphilis.
Interestingly, a traditional song about descent into earthly hell, “House of the Rising Sun,” made popular again in the ’60s, also makes reference to past honest work in the garment trade—“my mother was a tailor.”
If we step back and survey civilization’s sad saga of exploitation, we see that it occurs under all manner of political and economic systems, from feudalism to capitalism to, yes, communism. As for ravenous reds, there’s the notorious case of Stalinist apparatchik Lavrenti Beria, whom one chronicler says enjoyed “a Draculean sex life that combined love, rape, and perversity in almost equal measure.”
In the face of such a distressing litany, it’s no wonder that there have been periodic reactions, some of them violent and extreme, such as the original “bonfire of the vanities” back in the 15th century, led by the zealously puritanical cleric, Savonarola.
Yet for most of us, it’s more cheering to think that prudential reform can succeed. One landmark of American reform was the White-Slave Traffic Act, signed into law in 1910 (“white slavery,” we might note, is known today as “sex trafficking”). That law, aimed at preventing not only prostitution but also “debauchery,” is known as the Mann Act in honor of its principal author, Representative James R. Mann, Republican of Illinois, who served in Congress from 1897 to 1922.
Mann’s career mostly coincided with the presidential tenures of two great reformers, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. And it’s hard to overstate just how central to progressive thinking was the combatting of “vice.” After all, if the goal was to create a just society, it also had to be a wholesome society; otherwise no justice could be sustainable. Thus when Roosevelt served as police commissioner of New York City in the mid-1890s, he focused on fighting vice, rackets, and corruption.
Of course, Mann, Roosevelt, and Wilson had much more on their minds than just cleaning up depravity. They saw themselves as reformers across the board; that is, they were eager to improve economic conditions as well as social ones.
So it was that Mann also co-authored the Mann-Elkins Act, further regulating the railroads; he also spearheaded the Pure Food and Drug Act, creating the FDA. It’s interesting that when Mann died in 1922, The New York Times ran an entirely admiring obituary, recalling him as “a dominating figure in the House…[a] leader in dozens of parliamentary battles.” In other words, back then, the Times was fully onboard with full-spectrum cleanup, on the Right as well as the Left.
To be sure, the Mann Act hardly eradicated the problem of sex-trafficking, just as Mann’s other legislative efforts did not put an end to abuses in transportation and in foods and drugs. However, we can say that Mann made things better.
Of course, the Mann Act has long been controversial. Back in 1913, the African-American boxer Jack Johnson was convicted according to its provisions. (Intriguingly, in 2018, Johnson was posthumously pardoned by President Trump.)
In 1944, film legend Charlie Chaplin, too, found himself busted on a Mann Act rap. Chaplin was accused of transporting a young “actress” across state lines; he was acquitted after a sensational trial, but not before it was learned that he had financed his lover’s two abortions. Chaplin’s career in Hollywood was effectively over.
Cases such as these made the Mann Act distinctly unpopular in “sophisticated” circles. Of course, criticism from the smart set is not the same as proof that the law is not still valuable. That’s why, more than a century after its passage, the Mann Act is still on the books, albeit much amended. Lawmakers agree that it’s still necessary, because, after all, there’s always a need to protect women from wolves.
Now back to Epstein. If we learn that he was actually running something called the “Lolita Express,” that would be a signal that prosecutors have a lot of work to do, rounding up the pedophile joyriders. So it was interesting on July 6 to see Christine Pelosi, daughter of the House speaker, posting a stern tweet: “This Epstein case is horrific and the young women deserve justice. It is quite likely that some of our faves are implicated but we must follow the facts and let the chips fall where they may—whether on Republicans or Democrats.”
So we can see: the younger Pelosi wants one standard—a standard that applies to all.
In fact, if one takes all these horrible cases in their totality—Varsity Blues, NXIUM, Epstein—one might fairly conclude that the problem is larger than just a few rich and twisted nogoodniks.
That is, the underlying issues of regional and social inequality—measured in power as well as wealth—must be addressed.
To put the matter another way, we need a bourgeoisie that is sturdier economically and more sure of itself culturally. Only then will we have Legions of Decency and other Schlafly-esque activist groups to function as counterweights to a corrosive and exploitative culture.
Of course, as TR and company knew, if we seek a better and more protective American equilibrium, a lot will have to change—and not just in the culture.
Most likely, a true solution will have “conservative” elements, as in social and cultural norming, and “liberal” elements, as in higher taxes on city slickers coupled with conscious economic development for the proletarians and for the heartland. Only with these economic and governmental changes can we be sure that it’s possible to have a nice life in Anytown, safely far away from beguiling pleasuredomes.
To be sure, we can’t expect ever to solve all the troubles of human nature—including the rage for fame that drives some youths from the boondocks. But we can at least bolster the bourgeois alternative to predatory Hefnerism.
In the meantime, unless we can achieve such structural changes, rich and powerful potentates will continue to pull innocent angels into their gilded dens of iniquity.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.