After US financier Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest for underage sex trafficking, USA Today asked the vital question that every American desperately wants to see answered: “Who is Jeffrey Epstein? It turns out that the descriptor most used to identify him over the past decades — billionaire — may not even apply.”
Forbes provided the basic detective work as the magazine dedicated to assessing wealth notes that it “has never included Epstein, 66, in its rankings of the World’s Billionaires, since there is scant proof he holds a ten-figure fortune.”
Citing court documents released at Epstein’s bail hearing in New York, Insider subsequently revealed “Epstein’s self-reported assets, which totaled $559,130,954.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A member of a class of people the media has taught US citizens to look up to because individuals who can achieve that magic number are assumed to be very smart and deserving of being seen as a role model for anyone incapable of earning even $1 million
In the minds of Americans, $1 billion represents the threshold beyond which admiration turns to awe, just as $1 million represents the threshold between respect and automatic admiration. Numbers have always been important in American culture, as became evident when the founders made the calculation written into the US Constitution that a slave could count for three-fifths of a white person.
The diminished assessment of Epstein’s assets by both Forbes and USA Today may be premature. Citing the figures Epstein himself had reported, the judge at the hearing “previously called these numbers unverified and unaudited.” Does the judge mean Epstein may be hiding something, possibly in one or more tax havens and may, therefore, be the billionaire he was reputed to be? Or does he mean that, like President Donald Trump, Epstein is guilty of exaggerating his own wealth just to impress people and project an awesome image?
The first hypothesis might be the right one. According to Insider, officials found “piles of cash” and “dozens of diamonds,” which could push up Epstein’s score at least beyond the half a billion he declared.
Forbes seems intent on feeding the suspense around the man’s wealth: “The details of Epstein’s net worth remain shrouded in mystery, prompting questions about his past business partners and how he raised money for his investment firm to begin with.” To Epstein’s credit, however, Forbes adds: “Still, Epstein once mingled with billionaires, including President Trump,” which means he may have accomplished the essential for any ambitious nouveau riche dude from Brooklyn. Even if he didn’t hit the magic figure of $1 billion, he was accepted into America’s — or even the Western world’s — most exclusive club. He earned the right denied to most less-than-billionaire mortals to taxi former US presidents and British royalty across oceans in his private jet.
Though it was hardly a secret before last week’s highly-publicized arrest, everyone is now aware that Epstein has a history that contains a potentially political dimension. That has even become a key feature of the current scandal. He was convicted in 2008 of “soliciting prostitution from girls as young as 14.” But he owed to President Trump’s labor secretary, Alex Acosta, his incredibly lenient sentence: a mere 13 months served at a rhythm of one day per week, which the media call “a slap on the wrist.” Forced to resign, Acosta blamed Florida prosecutors for the scandalous outcome.
Media interest has obviously focused on Trump himself, who appeared to be not just a friend and admirer of Epstein — all the media have quoted his glowing statement from 1992 — but possibly an accomplice. And, of course, Bill Clinton, the only US president to be impeached for a confirmed sexual offense, is also in the spotlight, meaning that Epstein’s activities had bi-partisan appeal.
This is a story with numerous threads that the media will undoubtedly be eager to exploit. Among the outstanding mysteries that will keep the news cycle boiling over the next 18 months, we count these:
1) Which celebrity politicians will be called to witness at Epstein’s trial?
2) What will we learn about the private lives of those who we expect to rule not just over our governments, but also our culture?
3) What scuttlebutt will we discover about “Epstein’s long-cultivated relationships within Hollywood and New York media circles?”
4) What impact will all this have on the 2020 presidential election?
5) And, of course, is Epstein a billionaire or a fraud?
The other matter of suspense that keeps everyone’s curiosity on high alert is the answer to the question: Where and how did Epstein earn, fabricate or steal his billion (or half billion)?
Americans want to know the answer to this one for several reasons. The media in the US routinely encourage the public not just to admire, but also to emulate the successful. How many people, fascinated with Warren Buffett, spend their spare time seeking to discover his secret in the hope of imitating his performance? “If Warren Buffett, a semi-autist from Omaha can do it, I can do it,” they appear to believe. The same doesn’t apply to Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, considered techie geniuses. Nor to Michael Jordan or Kim Kardashian, unique individuals endowed with special “talent” (of varying dimensions). But everyone wants to know about how the wealthy got there.
In fairness to all of Epstein’s A-list friends who now may be suspected of complicity, their motivation for cozying up to someone known for his specific interest in very young ladies need not have been their desire to partake in the exploitation of his apparently unlimited stock of underage girls. Some of those A-listers, such as Katie Couric and Chelsea Handler, are females unlikely to share his proclivities. Another name in his address book, that of Kevin Spacey, would — for other scandalous reasons — seem not to be a buyer in that marketplace. Others, such as Trump and Clinton, but also Charlie Rose and Woody Allen, have been subsequently shamed as predators themselves and may be suspected of an interest in partaking, though nothing points to evidence in that direction. Glamor alone — rather than sexual adventure — may explain their attraction.
The real motivation for anyone in that elite club had more to do with another aspect of their way of life. As Vanity Fair points out, “many others were fascinated or amused or impressed by Epstein or simply delighted that he wrote checks to their charities.” They perceived him as someone who embodied two American ideals: he was rich and had fun. In other words, he fulfilled the American dream of achieving, on his own and unencumbered, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Friendship with him reaffirmed their own identity as unequivocally successful members of an exclusive club defined by their vaunted capacity to fulfill their every desire, legitimate or illegitimate (the latter thanks to a shared sense of discretion).
Whether or not his A-list contacts took a personal interest in his special form of entertainment, we know that it was hardly a secret. He had a reputation for operating the “Lolita Express,” the sobriquet of his private jet specialized in servicing his ultra-private island. Epstein signed checks, threw parties and provided sumptuous occasions for important people to hobnob with other important people. That was surely enough of a reward for most of his friends. Unless you were specifically interested in his merchandise, you could simply take advantage of his generosity and look the other way. That happens to be one of the cardinal rules of the club: looking the other way.
So now with an impending trial, the fun — and most likely the embarrassment for some — will really begin. The coming 12 months or so will be a banner year for US media. They will regale their public with another inimitable Trump election cycle, full of insults, provocations, race baiting and other “cultural” fireworks, guaranteed to draw eyeballs on a daily basis. On top of that — and, to some extent, unpredictably interfering with it — will be the “Jeffrey Epstein show trial.”
Epstein is the real thing. His case is all about what interests Americans the most, the two most spectacular forms of power: money and sex. In a society in which life is defined as a struggle to get everything you want, money and sex are suspected of being the key to happiness, though nobody really understands how or why. Maybe the Epstein drama will be a “teaching moment,” leading to some form of enlightenment about what’s important in human society.
Or maybe it will just be one more example of an expensively produced television serial featuring a cast of stars. Stay tuned. There’s more to come.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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