Jeffrey Epstein and When to Take Conspiracies Seriously

Sometimes conspiracy theories point toward something worth investigating. A few point toward the truth.

The challenge in thinking about a case like the suspicious suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, the supposed “billionaire” who spent his life acquiring sex slaves and serving as a procurer to the ruling class, can be summed up in two sentences. Most conspiracy theories are false. But often some of the things they’re trying to explain are real.

Conspiracy theories are usually false because the people who come up with them are outsiders to power, trying to impose narrative order on a world they don’t fully understand — which leads them to imagine implausible scenarios and impossible plots, to settle on ideologically convenient villains and assume the absolute worst about their motives, and to imagine an omnicompetence among the corrupt and conniving that doesn’t actually exist.

Or they are false because the people who come up with them are insiders trying to deflect blame for their own failings, by blaming a malign enemy within or an evil-genius rival for problems that their own blunders helped create.

Or they are false because the people pushing them are cynical manipulators and attention-seekers trying to build a following who don’t care a whit about the truth.

For all these reasons serious truth-seekers are predisposed to disbelieve conspiracy theories on principle, and journalists especially are predisposed to quote Richard Hofstadter on the “paranoid style” whenever they encounter one — an instinct only sharpened by the rise of Donald Trump, the cynical conspiracist par excellence.

But this dismissiveness can itself become an intellectual mistake, a way to sneer at speculation while ignoring an underlying reality that deserves attention or investigation. Sometimes that reality is a conspiracy in full, a secret effort to pursue a shared objective or conceal something important from the public. Sometimes it’s a kind of unconscious connivance, in which institutions and actors behave in seemingly concerted ways because of shared assumptions and self-interest. But in either case, an admirable desire to reject bad or wicked theories can lead to a blindness about something important that these theories are trying to explain.

Here are some diverse examples. Start with U.F.O. theories, a reliable hotbed of the first kind of conspiracizing — implausible popular stories about hidden elite machinations.

It is simple wisdom to assume that any conspiratorial Fox Mulder-level master narrative about little gray men or lizard people is rubbish. Yet at the same time it is a simple fact that the U.F.O. era began, in Roswell, N.M., with a government lie intended to conceal secret military experiments; it is also a simple fact, lately reported in this very newspaper, that the military has been conducting secret studies of unidentified-flying-object incidents that continue to defy obvious explanations.

U.F.O. conspiracy theorists may be way off about Area 51. But the government did keep secrets.

CreditJohn Locher/Associated Press

So the correct attitude toward U.F.O.s cannot be a simple Hofstadterian dismissiveness about the paranoia of the cranks. Instead, you have to be able to reject outlandish theories and acknowledge a pattern of government lies and secrecy around a weird, persistent, unexplained feature of human experience — which we know about in part because the U.F.O. conspiracy theorists keep banging on about their subject. The wild theories are false; even so, the secrets and mysteries are real.

Another example: The current elite anxiety about Russia’s hand in the West’s populist disturbances, which reached a particularly hysterical pitch with the pre-Mueller report collusion coverage, is a classic example of how conspiracy theories find a purchase in the supposedly sensible center — in this case, because their narrative conveniently explains a cascade of elite failures by blaming populism on Russian hackers, moneymen and bots.

And yet: Every conservative who rolls her or his eyes at the “Russia hoax” is in danger of dismissing the reality that there is a Russian plot against the West — an organized effort to use hacks, bots and rubles to sow discord in the United States and Western Europe. This effort is far weaker and less consequential than the paranoid center believes, it doesn’t involve fanciful “Trump has been a Russian asset since the ’80s” machinations … but it also isn’t something that Rachel Maddow just made up. The hysteria is overdrawn and paranoid; even so, the Russian conspiracy is real.

A third example: Marianne Williamson’s long-shot candidacy for the Democratic nomination has elevated the holistic-crunchy critique of modern medicine, which often shades into a conspiratorial view that a dark corporate alliance is actively conspiring against American health, that the medical establishment is consciously lying to patients about what might make them well or sick. Because this narrative has given anti-vaccine fervor a huge boost, there’s understandable desire among anti-conspiracists to hold the line against anything that seems like a crankish or quackish criticism of the medical consensus.

But if you aren’t somewhat paranoid about how often corporations cover up the dangers of their products, and somewhat paranoid about how drug companies in particular influence the medical consensus and encourage overprescription — well, then I have an opioid crisis you might be interested in reading about. You don’t need the centralized conspiracy to get a big medical wrong turn; all it takes is the right convergence of financial incentives with institutional groupthink. Which makes it important to keep an open mind about medical issues that are genuinely unsettled, even if the people raising questions seem prone to conspiracy-think. The medical consensus is generally a better guide than crankishness; even so, the tendency of cranks to predict medical scandals before they’re recognized is real.

Marianne Williamson spoke about health care during the June Democratic debates.
CreditHolly Pickett for The New York Times

Finally, a fourth example, circling back to Epstein: the conspiracy theories about networks of powerful pedophiles, which have proliferated with the internet and peaked, for now, with the QAnon fantasy among Trump supporters.

I say fantasy because the details of the QAnon narrative are plainly false: Donald Trump is not personally supervising an operation against “deep state” child sex traffickers any more than my 3-year-old is captaining a pirate ship.

But the premise of the QAnon fantasia, that certain elite networks of influence, complicity and blackmail have enabled sexual predators to exploit victims on an extraordinary scale — well, that isn’t a conspiracy theory, is it? That seems to just be true.

A QAnon conspiracy supporter at the “Demand Free Speech” rally in Washington in July.
CreditStephanie Keith/Getty Images

And not only true of Epstein and his pals. As I’ve written before, 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.

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!

And yet.

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.

So to worry too much about online paranoia outracing reality is to miss the most important journalistic task, which is the further unraveling of scandals that would have seemed, until now, too implausible to be believed.

Yes, by all means, resist the tendency toward unfounded speculation and cynical partisan manipulation. But also recognize that in the case of Jeffrey Epstein and his circle, the conspiracy was real.

Oklahoma Faces Off Against J & J in First Trial of an Opioid Maker

J & J pushed back hard, arguing that the state itself looked the other way as its own drug review board and prescription monitoring program for years neglected to swoop down on sources of diverted opioids. In addition, it said, Oklahoma could not tie any death directly to the company’s products — Duragesic, a fentanyl patch, and Nucynta, an opioid pill it no longer makes.

.. “You hear about pill mills,” said Larry D. Ottaway, the lead counsel for a J & J subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals. “You don’t hear about patch mills.”

Indeed both sides introduced what are sure to be their signature earworms, themes that will be echoed throughout the trial, estimated to take about two months.

“If you oversupply, people will die,” said Brad Beckworth, who represents the Oklahoma attorney general’s office. He repeated the phrase to drive home the state’s argument that J & J sent squads of salespeople to persuade physicians of the broad utility of its fentanyl patch, indicated specifically for cancer breakthrough pain.

In doing so, said Mr. Beckworth, J & J convinced doctors to “start with and stay with” medications intended only as a last resort.

When Your Money Is So Tainted Museums Don’t Want It

Nonprofits should not allow themselves to be used by the wealthy to scrub their consciences.

When it comes to blood money for the arts, how bloody is too bloody?

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided that money made from selling the opioids that have killed several hundred thousand people is too bloody. It announced it would no longer take donations from members of the Sackler family linked to OxyContin. “On occasion, we feel it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest,” Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s president, said.

Gifts that are not in the public interest.” It is a pregnant, important phrase. Coming on the heels of similar decisions by the Tate Modern in London and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the spurning of Oxy-cash seems to reflect a growing awareness that gifts to the arts and other good causes are not only a way for ultra-wealthy people to scrub their consciences and reputations. Philanthropy can also be central to purchasing the immunity needed to profiteer at the expense of the common welfare.

Perhaps accepting tainted money in such cases isn’t just giving people a pass. Perhaps it is enabling misconduct against the public.

This was the startling assertion made by New York State in its civil complaint, filed in March, against members of the Sackler family and others involved in the opioid crisis. It accused defendants of seeking to “profiteer from the plague they knew would be unleashed.” And the lawsuit explicitly linked Sackler do-gooding with Sackler harm-doing: “Ultimately, the Sacklers used their ill-gotten wealth to cover up their misconduct with a philanthropic campaign intending to whitewash their decades-long success in profiting at New Yorkers’ expense.”

It was strong stuff: The State of New York was officially claiming that in taking Sackler money, arts institutions had allowed themselves to be used as lubricant in a death machine. “It’s a remarkable statement,” Benjamin Soskis, a historian of philanthropy at the Urban Institute in Washington, told me this week, “the sort of thing we heard from critics of philanthropy on the periphery of power but rarely, in recent decades, from those at the center.”

Are museums, opera houses, food pantries and other nonprofits to be held responsible for how their donors have made their money? It is a question being asked more and more as a century-old taboo shatters.

“No amount of charity in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them,” Theodore Roosevelt said after John D. Rockefeller proposed starting a foundation in 1909. It was not a lonely thought at the time.

But in the decades since, not least because of the amount of philanthropic coin that has been spent (can it still be called bribing when millions are the recipients?), touching all corners of our cultural life, attitudes have changed. And, as I found in spending the last few years reporting on nonprofits and foundations, a deeply complicit silence took hold: It was understood that you don’t challenge people on how they make their money, how they pay their taxes (or don’t), what continuing deeds they may be engaged inso long as they “give back.”

When I speak privately with people working in nonprofits, as I often do, especially younger people, I hear this complaint again and again: They agonize about having to stay quiet not only about their donors’ membership in a class that has benefited from an age of inequality but also about specific conduct by many donors that often worsens the problems the donors and nonprofits are working to solve.

And so the decision by the Met and the other museums may be a small sign that this compact is cracking — and perhaps that nonprofits are taking a broader view of their role in public life: not only as doers of good in a particular area of work but also, if they’re not careful, as enablers of broader, if more generalized, societal harm.

“Turning down money runs against the grain of the thinking that’s long governed charitable boards — that they are stewards of the interests of particular institutions, with considerations of broader public interest being peripheral,” Mr. Soskis, the historian, said when I asked him about the Met. “What we are seeing more and more of, through the spread of social media, and an increased willingness to critically engage major philanthropic gifts, is the assertion of the public’s interest in the philanthropic exchange.”

It remains to be seen whether other arts institutions will follow the lead of the Met, Tate and Guggenheim — and more broadly, whether the nonprofit sector will begin asking itself some deeply uncomfortable questions.

Should anyone working to make cities better and more equitable take money from JPMorgan Chase, which paid a huge sum for its role in helping to bring about the 2008 mortgage disaster and financial crisis? Should anyone working to help families affected by President Trump’s immigration policies take money from Mark Zuckerberg, whose soft-pedaling of Russian interference in the 2016 election allowed anti-immigrant hate to spread and potentially helped Mr. Trump gain votes?

It remains to be seen whether other arts institutions will follow the lead of the Met, Tate and Guggenheim — and more broadly, whether the nonprofit sector will begin asking itself some deeply uncomfortable questions.

Should anyone working to make cities better and more equitable take money from JPMorgan Chase, which paid a huge sum for its role in helping to bring about the 2008 mortgage disaster and financial crisis? Should anyone working to help families affected by President Trump’s immigration policies take money from Mark Zuckerberg, whose soft-pedaling of Russian interference in the 2016 election allowed anti-immigrant hate to spread and potentially helped Mr. Trump gain votes? Should any health institution take money tied to Pepsi or Coca-Cola?

Make no mistake: To ask these questions opens a can of worms. The Sacklers are an easy case. Once the complicity turns more diffuse, it is hard to say whether a nonprofit is participating in an injustice by taking money — or doing the best it can in a flawed reality. What’s next after this? Is there a statute of limitations on looking for blood money? What kind of moral purity test are these institutions supposed to use? Once you begin to raise these dilemmas, how do you actually draw those lines around what’s acceptable?

The Met has already drawn some lines. It won’t remove the Sackler name from its galleries; it won’t return money already donated. What it should do is go beyond a single act of rebuffing to model a new process for evaluating money.

Past and future donations could be judged on various criteria:

  1. Was the money legally and fairly made?
  2. Is the money owed to tax evasion or extreme legal tax avoidance?
  3. Is the museum effectively selling a modern papal indulgence for a sin that shouldn’t be so easily pardoned?
  4. Does the donor have a duty of reparation to people they have exploited or harmed that gives those parties more of a right to the money?

And the public should be brought into the process. Public-facing institutions enjoy the privilege of being untaxed, so citizens should be able to comment on and scrutinize prospective donations.

These questions will long be with us. These museums have forced an essential conversation. For far too long, generosity has been allowed to serve as a wingman of injustice; giving back disguises merciless taking; making a difference becomes inseparable from making a killing — sometimes literally. It is high time to reject these alibis for treachery.

Opioids: Kicking America’s Addiction (podcast)

America is now deep in an opioid epidemic…. With thousands dying from heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioid overdoses. If you want to know more about how we got here, go back and listen to last week’s episode. ..On today’s show we’re looking at treatment. Over almost 20 years, the number of people in the US looking for treatment for an opioid addiction jumped by more than 600% ….  So the pressing question of the moment is this: how can we possibly help these people?

Transcript with Footnotes