What's going on?
I have always dismissed stories about pedophile rings among the powerful because they fit too perfectly into our moral/political ecosystem: let's take the worst sin we can think of and accuse our enemies of practicing it on a grand scale, tossing in a vast network of shadowy influence to explain how it has been covered up. And when these theories involve facts that can be checked, like the basement of a certain DC pizza parlor, they turn out to be wrong. But consider this from Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic who writes often about the church:
When I was starting my career as a journalist I sometimes brushed up against people peddling a story about a network of predators in the Catholic hierarchy — not just pedophile priests, but a self-protecting cabal above them — that seemed like a classic case of the paranoid style, a wild overstatement of the scandal’s scope. I dismissed them then as conspiracy theorists, and indeed they had many of conspiracism’s vices — above all, a desire to believe that the scandal they were describing could be laid entirely at the door of their theological enemies, liberal or traditional.Many years ago I spent several months trying to get to the bottom of the Kennedy assassination, reading whatever I could get my hands on. I ended up thinking that any big event could become an intellectual and psychological trap. There are always more connections to trace in more directions, always dead ends you run into because of things still kept secret (like CIA operations in Cuba), always more coincidences that beg explanation. The basic tools of the modern intellectual – research, weighing of evidence, careful reasoning about what is possible or probable – seemed to fail in the face of such a mountain of data and pseudo data. The longing grows for a key that would unlock everything, usually in the form of a smoking gun document or a the confession of an insider who knows what really happened; for surely there must be such people, somewhere?
But on many important points and important names, they were simply right.
Likewise with the secular world’s predators. Imagine being told the scope of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged operation before it all came crashing down — not just the ex-Mossad black ops element but the possibility that his entire production company also acted as a procurement-and-protection operation for one of its founders. A conspiracy theory, surely! Imagine being told all we know about the late, unlamented Epstein — that he wasn’t just a louche billionaire (wasn’t, indeed, a proper billionaire at all) but a man mysteriously made and mysteriously protected who ran a pedophile island with a temple to an unknown god and plotted his own “Boys From Brazil” endgame in plain sight of his Harvard-D.C.-House of Windsor pals. Too wild to be believed!
Where networks of predation and blackmail are concerned, then, the distinction I’m drawing between conspiracy theories and underlying realities weakens just a bit. No, you still don’t want to listen to QAnon, or to our disgraceful president when he retweets rants about the #ClintonBodyCount. But just as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s network of clerical allies and enablers hasn’t been rolled up, and the fall of Bryan Singer probably didn’t get us near the rancid depths of Hollywood’s youth-exploitation racket, we clearly haven’t gotten to the bottom of what was going on with Epstein.
There are certain facts out there about Epstein that I think we can agree on. First, a lot of men seem to think that women reach their height of attractiveness at 15 or 16, and although we have made acting on these desires seriously illegal many of them either don't see anything wrong with this or find that the forbidden quality just adds to the allure. Second, Jeffrey Epstein lived a lifestyle that his known sources of income could not have supported. Third, he was acquainted with a lot of powerful people, including both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Fourth, he got disgracefully lenient treatment from the legal system after his previous conviction on sex trafficking charges.
Maybe Epstein's story will one day be unraveled. Maybe all the details about where his money came from and who visited his island will be laid bare; maybe we will find out who he was blackmailing and how his easy treatment after his previous conviction was arranged.
But I have to say that I doubt it. I believe the great incentives coming from so many directions to lie, obfuscate, misdirect, and obscure will overwhelm our ability to sort through the mass of contradictory statements and claims. Anybody who knows anything will surely lie about it.
In our world a lot of power is wielded indirectly, with a nod or a nudge and a vague promise of friendship. Conspiracy theorists often get this wrong and imagine that something like relaxing the rules on prescribing opiates must have happened because drug companies delivered wads of cash to key Congressmen and bureaucrats, who swore under oath to undertake certain particular acts. Sometimes the world works that way, but much more often it's that friends take each other's side and help each other out. Did prosecutors go easy on Epstein before because they were directly blackmailed, or was it that they knew he was friends with some friends of theirs and had contributed to campaigns of people whose support they wanted? I would bet on the latter. And if I am right, how could we ever know for sure which friends were the ones whose influence mattered the most?
I am puzzled about these events and wish to know more. I doubt, however, that I ever will.