NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE G oodman Brown was a young, pious man, from a family of “honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs,” when he first discovered that the society around him was full of evil hiding in plain sight. Brown, the main character of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 short story “Young Goodman Brown,” is a 17th-century New England Puritan of good standing who nonetheless finds himself mysteriously drawn into the forest — that ancient literary symbol of foreboding — one night. The culmination of his phantasmagoric silvan journey is the discovery of a secret Satanic ceremony, led by Old Scratch himself, where all Brown’s fellow villagers, including those of purportedly high esteem, are in attendance. “There,” the devilish figure intones, “are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet here are they all in my worshipping assembly.”
It wasn’t quite devil-worship that emerged as a regular elite pastime on July 6, 2019, when police arrested Jeffrey Epstein — though who knows what we’ll learn after Thursday’s arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell, his enigmatic accomplice. But as the crimes of the mysterious financier, sex trafficker, and serial sexual abuser came fuller into public view, so did his highly disconcerting degree of association with our own elite. Just a partial listing of those who, to some degree, counted themselves among Epstein’s associates includes: presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump; lesser politicians such as Bill Richardson, George Mitchell, and John Glenn; British royal family member Prince Andrew; academics Steven Pinker, Lawrence Summers, and Alan Dershowitz; Hollywood heavies Chris Tucker, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, and Woody Allen; billionaires Bill Gates and Leslie Wexner; media fixtures Chelsea Handler, George Stephanopoulos, Katie Couric, and Charlie Rose; and many, many more. Some of these figures are, of course, less guilty than others; Pinker and Handler, for example, were merely at some point meal guests during Epstein’s attempt to ensconce himself among the elite, whereas Prince Andrew’s and Bill Clinton’s hands are far dirtier. Even institutions, such as Harvard University and MIT, would stain themselves by accepting Epstein’s money. As Alana Goodman and Daniel Halper put it in their recent book A Convenient Death: The Mysterious Death of Jeffrey Epstein, many of his friends and associates are “still enjoying life from their perch at the upper echelon of our political, elite class.”
The mysteries of Epstein had only begun to unravel at the time of his arrest. And after his alleged suicide — mere hours after reportedly expressing confidence with his lawyers about the possible success of his legal defense, while supposedly on suicide watch in a high-security prison, with footage of his death unavailable — the hope of completely solving these mysteries may have vanished forever. Which is one reason why Epstein’s death remains an obsession for many. Its circumstances alone seem suspicious; when considered in the context of a man who knew so many, and may have known too much, speculation about there being more to the story is inevitable.
One additional aspect of Epstein’s associations stands out, aside from their pedigree. Several of them — Rose, Spacey, Weinstein — were ultimately revealed as serial sexual predators themselves — rapacious, perverse men who used their fame, their influence, and their sway in institutions to service their base desires. In this, however, they seem representative of a phenomenon in the Western world that it is now impossible to ignore. Stories such as this have emerged with alarming frequency of late, in a striking variety of institutions. The most notorious, of course, is the stunning behavior of the Catholic Church to hide the sexual abuse perpetrated by its priests. But the Church’s grievous sins, her allowance of perverts to themselves pervert an institution into a means to indulge and then to obfuscate their own perversions, have not proven unique. Last month, Deutsch Welle reported on a decades-long program by the West German government to place foster-care children with guardians who were known pedophiles. And the 21st century has so far unveiled many similar stories. Jimmy Savile, for years a television and radio presenter working for the BBC, regularly engaging in charitable acts purportedly on behalf of sick children, was revealed after his death to have been regularly abusing these and other children. The revelations came after his death in part because many at the BBC looked the other way during his life; only other media outlets’ reporting convinced the organization not to continue to do so after his passing. In America, only recently, after several high-profile controversies, did Congress end its maintenance of a taxpayer-funded sexual-harassment settlement fund that kept the details of its use from taxpayers. Even sports are not immune: The Penn State’s football program, under Coach Joe Paterno, was warped into a means to cover up the sexual abuses of Jerry Sandusky, one of its other coaches. Incidents such as this abound, enough for them no longer to be discounted as one-offs.
Indeed, they provide fodder for those among us with more lurid, paranoid imaginations. Two of the most well-known modern conspiracy theories posit the existence of an elite that uses its control of institutions to facilitate its base desires. In the so-called Pizzagate theory, this was all somehow being run out of Comet Ping Pong, a (pretty good) pizza place in Washington, D.C., whose owner donates to Democratic candidates. For QAnon believers, a similar cabal of elite sexual depravity is actually in the process of being revealed and punished by President Trump, whose every action and apparent misstep is actually in service of outing these people for what they are once and for all. These theories are, of course, ridiculous in their particulars, and easily refuted, though that does little to discourage their true believers.
It is wrong to say that such true believers are on to something. But their more serious error may be to complicate a serious reckoning with a real problem, and to mischaracterize the nature of its operation. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder if something is up. After all that we have seen — and who knows what we haven’t — it is hard to deny that one serious possibility of modern institutional decay involves infiltration and corruption by sexual criminals. There are other sources of corruption, of course, but this one is particularly noxious. Yet these things do not happen as part of a coordinated conspiracy, a linked effort by the lizard people, save to the extent that elites will tend to rub shoulders with one another. They happen in isolated instances and are tolerated by institutions and people who should, and often do, know better, but do nothing. “Epstein was hiding in plain sight,” Cindy McCain, wife of the late John McCain, said earlier this year. “We all knew about him. We all knew what he was doing, but we had no one that was — no legal aspect that would go after him. They were afraid of him. For whatever reason, they were afraid of him.” Thus did Epstein prosper, and thus have so many other Epsteins around the world — and likely some at this very moment.
When Goodman Brown awakes the morning after Satanic nightmare, he attempts to go back to his life as he lived it. But he cannot. He looks upon the supposedly pious men he saw cavorting with the devil in the forest but shrinks from them in disgust, and in shame; he, too, was in the forest with them. When he died, “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.” A collapse of faith in institutions perverted by perverts has doubtless added to our social miseries — miseries then reinforced by a lack of strong, trustworthy institutions to mitigate them. But it is not a conspiracy of omnipotent beings that has made them this way. It is the actions, and inactions, of human beings, the perpetrators and their enablers. One of the more harmful effects of conspiracy theories that purport to explain these occurrences is their denial of agency. For it remains in our power to shore up the institutions we once trusted, to convince them that to shield and enable deviants is only to invite evil and to court ruin. It may be a painful process to drag them — and ourselves — out of the dark forest, especially in cases such as that of Epstein, which implicate so many elite and powerful figures to varying degrees. But the only alternative is for our civilization to bring about its own dying hour, one that, like Brown’s, would also be full of gloom.