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The subtle morality of kissing the as*es of rich as*holes
Leon Botstein thought Jeffrey Epstein was just a “normal” sex offender
As more and more of the nation’s income and wealth is siphoned off to the top, an increasing number of people are kissing the derrieres of the wealthy in order to raise money for worthy causes.
The heads of the entire nonprofit sector of the economy — of universities, museums, concert halls, research institutions, public broadcasters, charitable institutions — have turned into sycophants.
Their kissing often involves bestowing honors on the wealthy — naming buildings after them, awarding them honorary degrees, giving them medals and certificates of merit, putting them on boards of directors, making them trustees.
It also requires endless visits to and from them, countless dinners and lunches with them, and every possible effort to make them feel appreciated and valued — not just for their money but also for their friendship, wisdom, and all-around wonderfulness.
The problem is that some of those derrieres are truly abhorrent, which is causing a great deal of moral confusion and ethical handwringing.
Think of the Sacklers, who made a fortune by getting people hooked on opioids. Or Michael Milken, convicted for junk-bond fraud. Or David Koch, the right-wing mega-donor. All have been the objects of fawning attention by the presidents of universities, museums, and opera houses seeking their money.
Perhaps the worst is Jeffrey Epstein — the disgraced billionaire sex offender. In 2008, Epstein was accused of sexually abusing girls as young as 14, but he minimized his legal exposure with high-powered lawyers, settlements that silenced complaints, and a plea deal that short-circuited an F.B.I. investigation. He served a short time in jail in 2008 and was registered as a sex offender.
Between then and when Epstein was arrested again on July 6, 2019, on federal charges of sex trafficking minors in Florida and New York, Epstein had multiple dealings with several well-known people. (He died in his jail cell on August 10, 2019; the medical examiner ruled it a suicide by hanging.)
In his defense, Botstein explained to The New York Times that he was seeking donations from Epstein for Bard.
“You cannot pick and choose” from whom you’re going to ask for money, Botstein said, presumably because the number of the ultra-wealthy who will give it to you is limited.
Botstein further explained that “among the very rich is a higher percentage of unpleasant and not very attractive people.”
Being the president of a college or the director of a nonprofit is hard enough. Having to spend lots of time with unpleasant and not very attractive people — that is (not to mince words) with rich as*holes — and act as if you enjoy their company must be excruciating.
Why do the rich harbor a higher percentage of as*holes? Botstein pointed out that “capitalism is a rough system,” implying that becoming very rich under capitalism often requires people to act like as*holes.
That certainly seemed to describe Jeffrey Epstein.
Botstein’s further defense is (as it were) rich. He says he “had no idea, the public record had no indication” that Epstein “was anything more than an ordinary — if you could say such a thing — sex offender who had been convicted and went to jail.”
I’ve got to hand it to Botstein. Drawing a distinction that makes it permissible to kiss the derriere of an “ordinary” billionaire sex offender to raise money for a worthy cause, but not to kiss the derriere of a billionaire sex trafficker, is a remarkable achievement in the navigation of moral justification.
I don’t mean to pick on Leon Botstein. My point is that as wealth concentrates in America’s new billionaire class, otherwise reputable people like Botstein must now bow to horribly disreputable people like Epstein in order to raise money for worthy causes.
This gives the super-wealthy extraordinary power over the Botsteins of the world, which — unless the Botsteins are exceedingly careful — could compromise their integrity as well as the worthy causes they represent.