Conspiracy Theory

Is It Illegal, If You're Important?

I've been listening to audiobooks while I do garden work or walk (I try to do five miles on days I don't go to the gym). Some of them are really good (A Hunter-Gatherer's Guide to the 21st Century, which has interesting evolutionary biology and cognitive science insights about adaptive behavior that modernity has rendered incongruous), some are kind of poor (Chaos, a new look at the Manson murders that tries to connect them causally with COINTELPRO and the CIA but only really demonstrates correlation), and some are in between (One Nation Under Blackmail). This last one is a two-volume tome by Whitney Webb that bills itself as an explanation of how Jeffrey Epstein became so entrenched in elite society. I'm not extremely interested in the sordid details. What do capture my attention are the connections Webb makes between the current scandals and corruption in the past. The Clinton era, the New American Century, Iran-Contra, and even the CIA-sponsored Latin American coups of the 50s. United Fruit, Air America, Lincoln Savings, the rise of both the military-industrial complex and the intelligence-security state after WWII and during the Cold War. Not to mention the pervasiveness of sex-related blackmail throughout US history.

The connections between the oligarchy described by muckrakers of a previous generation like Lundberg and the plutocrats (often the same families or sometimes even the same people!) creating this new world order are an extension to the present of the research I've been doing mapping out this web. This is not to say I straight-up believe everything Webb claims or that I attach the same urgency she does to all of her findings. For that matter, I don't believe everything Lundberg says or the weight he puts on things. One thing I do find really useful is that Webb is quite diligent about citing her sources. There's a wealth of info in her endnotes that I can use to assess the accuracy and importance of people and events in her narrative.

It interests me how similar this recent work is to the things the first generation of muckrakers produced. I wonder whether people reacted similarly at the time? Did regular McClure Magazine readers tend more easily to accept both the focus of authors on exposing corruption and their assumptions about the shared class interests and motivations of the "robber barons" who were the subjects of exposes? Did others shake their heads and mutter “conspiracy theory”?

One of the frames Webb is using is of a network connecting Business, Government, and Organized Crime. Although it's obviously correct to describe someone like Meyer Lansky as a figure of the "underworld", I think we rapidly reach a point in Webb's story where the distinctions between espionage, profit-seeking, and crime become very hazy. Laws change — like Prohibition, which spanned different years in Canada and the US, so someone like Sam Bronfman who was breaking the law at one time and place might be completely legit doing the exact same thing in another time and place. An investment banker might be operating “over the line” while Glass-Steagall is in effect but become strictly legal after its repeal. I've got to imagine the power such an investment banker might have to make that repeal happen must affect their idea about what is legal and what isn't and how much that distinction matters.

I’ll have more to say as I map out the connections Webb describes and attach them to the web I’ve already drawn. In the meantime, although we can all agree that sex-trafficking minors is always and everywhere evil and should be punished, I’m struck by the way other types of illegality may not have meant the same thing for the people who are the subjects of these narratives as it probably does for the readers of the stories.