Recently prosecutors handling the charges against Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite accused of aiding and abetting billionaire Jeffrey Epstein in his years-long systematic sexual abuse and trafficking of young girls, denied the request of Maxwell’s lawyers to turn over the names of her accusers.
These women have lived in fear of the power and wealth wielded by Maxwell and Epstein, terrorized by their intimidation. For years, Maxwell and Epstein maintained their privacy carefully, but these accusers, often facing threats, don’t deserve such privacy, according to Maxwell’s counsel.
The Netflix documentary Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich lays out in painful detail the way Epstein and Maxwell used their wealth to create something of their own private world, manufactured around the sole objective of feeding the illicit and abusive sexual appetites of Epstein and those in his circle. Epitomizing this private world, existing apart from and seemingly immune from the laws, morality, and oversight that apply to and regulate the behavior of most of us in this world, is Epstein’s privately owned Caribbean Island.
The island is something of its own little commonwealth, equipped with all-seeing surveillance cameras and its own security, and it’s not quite clear in the film if the island is subject to any other sovereignty or oversight. And it is here, we learn in the film from those women brave enough to talk publicly, that many of Epstein’s circle of powerful and wealthy men joined him, though the film does not confirm the extent to which each of these men participated in the sexual abuse and trafficking.
This circle, as represented in the film, included such figures as Prince Andrew, Alan Dershowitz, Bill Clinton, and, yes, the current President of the United States Donald Trump.
Watching the film, it struck me that Epstein’s island really exemplifies and clarifies the political dynamics and ruling attitudes in the Trump administration that have been re-shaping in corrosive ways not just the political culture in the nation but American culture and society altogether.
Increasingly we see sectors of our world becoming exempt from the laws that govern most people and that protect our civil rights and even our lives.
Trump, we all recall, famously asserted with great pride and self-congratulation that he could shoot someone dead on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. And he has felt the need to abide by no law or norm, refusing to release his tax returns as every other presidential candidate in history has done, flouting congressional subpoenas, and so on.
The White House is now just another private island for the wealthy, insulating itself, divorcing itself, from the laws and norms that apply to rest of us plebeians.
Trump and those he appoints behave with complete license, doing what they please regardless of laws and norms, in ways often hostile and harmful to very Americans he is supposed to serve and protect.
Private interest trump the public good increasingly in our nation.
Against the Constitution, Trump can take steps to dismantle the United States Postal Service, not in service to the people but in the service of his own private interest of being re-elected. The postmaster general he appointed, Louis DeJoy, who is overseeing this dismantling of the largely revered American institution, has been reported to have tens of millions of dollars invested in private companies competing with the US Postal Service.
Private interests are overruling the public good.
And it’s not just in the White House.
If you don’t like the laws, just go to the Supreme Court and ask for an exemption.
Two recent decisions from the land’s highest court exemplify this point.
In one case, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, the court decided, effectively, not just that religious organizations could deny employees access to the health insurance that covered contraception but, more broadly, any organization could seek such an exemption from our laws by claiming the law conflicted with its own moral values. And keep in mind that the Affordable Care Act already creates conditions whereby such employers do not in any way have to subsidize the costs of contraception or sign any piece of paper that would make them in any way complicit with endorsing, funding, or even knowing about an employee’s use of contraception.
In another case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Supreme Court upheld the right of private religious schools to not have to abide by the same anti-discrimination employment laws other employers do, denying employees at religious institutions and organizations protection from discrimination. This case, interestingly enough, involved one employee who was fired after she told her employer she had breast cancer and another who claimed to be fired on the basis of her age, after she ignored a hint from her administration that she should retire.
In other words, these employees weren’t fired on any religious basis. These institutions were just using that as cover so they could discriminate as they pleased, exempt from having to honor people’s rights.
As Linda Greenhouse put it, writing for The New York Times:
At issue is the nature of civil society itself. The notion that an employer can simply opt out of a legal obligation it finds objectionable on undefined “moral” grounds, or on the basis of an evanescent “complicity” with the distant choices of other actors, threatens the assumption that we all live by the same rules. That thousands of Americans who accept jobs with religious employers might have to forfeit their statutory protections against discrimination — there are an estimated 150,000 lay teachers in religious elementary schools alone — cuts a hole in a legal fabric designed to protect everyone.
Private worlds can be dangerously right-denying. Same-sex couples are banned from demonstrating romantic affection, such as sharing a kiss or hug, on the campus of Brigham Young University, a private institution.
There seem to be many private islands, like Epstein’s, in the United States, that do not have to abide by the laws put in place to protect Americans’ rights.
The White House has become one of them, but as we can see, they are everywhere, finding ways to be exempt from honoring people’s civil rights and basic humanity.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.