Shame of the Universities, II : the Droit de Seigneur in America

There are scandals that fascinate but don’t educate. And then there are the other scandals, the ones that x-ray a social order, the ones that, in one flash of light, penetrate under the skin of the ruling class and show us the gaudy, gory connections that make up its structure and substance.

The Jeffrey Epstein scandal, from his supposed suicide (the suicide of a man who spent 12 hours a day in his jail, meeting in a special meeting room with his lawyers; the man who supposedly despaired that the jig is up, without the thought crossing his head that he might have information that he could use to bargain with the prosecutors; the man who supposedly knelt and leaned so hard against the sheets conveniently provided for him by the prison system and tied to his bed post that he broke bones in his neck; that suicide) to his donations and friendships, showed what money can buy in America. It showed, even more, what money has bought in America: it has bought unaccountable private power that now rules us in ways that would astonish the aristocracy in 18th century France.

Or maybe not.


Remember, the scandal about Beaumarchais’s Marriage of Figaro, known to all opera lovers. The plot concerns Figaro’s master’s desire to assert the droit de seigneur on Figaro’s bride-to-be: that is, the right of the master to have sex with the bride of the vassal on the first night of the marriage. A fiction, historians say. In Beaumarchais’s day, it was a common enough trope – considered archaic, but evidence of the ghastliness of feudal times.  In the play, the Count has already renounced the droit de seigneur in his own marriage – but he seeks to reassert it with Suzanne, Figaro’s bride-to-be, by buying her consent.


          “Tired of prowling among the rustic beauties of the neighborhood he returned to the castle… and endeavors, once more, secretly to purchase from her, a right which he now most sincerely repents he ever parted with.”


Napoleon, famously, called the play “the revolution already in action”. I don’t think anybody will call the Epstein affair the revolution in action, since we seem to be at a deadpoint in history where reaction rules on all sides. But the revolution, like the kingdom of heaven, can’t be said to be here, or there, but explodes – so who knows.


In my last post about the shame of the universities, I showed a streak of moderation that, a week after writing it, I am rather ashamed of. Before I rundown the farce of irresponsibility that is unspooling before our eyes, I should say, in my most dictatorial voice, that the larger scandal is that there is no SEC like regulatory body to police the concentrated private power of tax exempt universities. What regulation exists consists of mere nudgery. We have no body to force universities to be wholly transparent about their donations. We have no body to investigate the responsibility of the administration in covering up not only insalubrious relationships, but crimes. We allow universities and colleges an incredible leaway to investigate sexual assault, to investigate inside dealing by faculty, to allow deals with for profit corporations, etc. Just as allowing billionaires to flourish is like inviting dinosaurs to your five year old’s birthday party and expecting them not to eat the cake and the kiddies; similarly, allowing Harvard or Yale to be judge and jury of their own doings is not an invitation to corruption, it is corruption in action.


Yale, for instance. Let’s take the recent news about Yale. It too involves sexual assault and an island in the Caribbean – but, at least so far, without an Epstein in it. Instead, it involves Eugene Redmond, a professor at the medical school, who as long ago as 1994 was credibly accused of sexual abuse of students. These students were invited to study on St. Kitts Island, where Thomas seemed to run a private foundation. After hearing that Redmond was tricking students into having sex with him, this is what Yale, in its glory and its power, did:


“… the Yale School of Medicine launched an investigation in 1994 after students from Redmond’s summer internship program reported that he sexually molested and harassed two students. Redmond was reprimanded and signed a settlement agreement that required him to eliminate the program, cease recruiting and any supervising of students in St. Kitts and that he abide by a separate housing policy, the report said.”

If you rub your eyes and think, wow, a cab driver that isolated a customer and raped him would not only be fired by the cab company, but turned over to the police – you obviously do not fit in America. In America, Dr. Eugene Redmond was with Yale. And Yale is no mere cab company, but a trainer of, well, our Supreme Court. So what happened was a stern interdiction of sleeping together. And with that, Yale slapped together its mighty hands. Case solved!


Except that since 1994, Redmond didn’t eliminate the program and Yale did nothing except whistle for 15 years. Cause there was no power on earth prodding Yale to do squat. The state of Connecticut isn’t going to take on Yale. St. Kitts isn’t going to take on Yale. And as for the Feds, they only go to Yale to get educated, and then contribute to its endowment. Its all a little bubble, isn’t it?


If you read the papers about this, it is not: Yale covers up crime. It is about “Yale lapses”. It is not about Connecticut lapses, lapses in U.S. law, because, as we know, the government has delegated its power to Yale. The headlines, as usual, say more than they know.  


This news was rather overshadowed by the continuing fallout of MIT’s Jeffrey Epstein connection. Epstein was such a valued contributor to MIT that he was even sent a little trophy, the same type of token they awarded people who were “disruptors”, speaking out about, say, sexual harassment. That must have pleased Epstein – here these metoo feminists were, and here he was, and they got the same award.


The latest letter of non-apology apology comes from MIT professor Seth Lloyd. The letter was obviously penned with some help from the PR department, which has studied the “nerd tunnel vision” defense of George Church’s apology and decided it needed tweaking. So Lloyd comes out firmly, very firmly, in a parenthetical aside, against raping children. It is almost heartwarmingly moral, and makes me want to curl up in MIT’s lap. Here’s the entire, bizarre-orama quote:


When I learned of Mr. Epstein’s arrest and subsequent conviction, I was deeply disturbed. (I should have been equally disturbed by his plea bargain. His crime was termed “soliciting prostitution.” Children are not prostitutes.) But upon reflection, I decided to visit Mr. Epstein during his prison term in Florida. I believed, at the time, that I was doing a good deed. Mr. Epstein expressed remorse for his actions and assured me that he would not re-offend.

After Mr. Epstein’s release, I resumed attending the discussions that he convened with other scientists and accepted two grants from his foundation, one in 2012, and a second in 2017. These were professional as well as moral failings.


I for one wonder greatly, greatly about the “upon reflection”. What was that reflection like? Epstein, who loved to fund neuro-sounding shit, would probably have enjoyed the shit out of Lloyd’s distance-putting. The suicide went to his death knowing for a fact that if he could make it through his problems in NYC, the universities would quietly come calling again – after a suitable ‘upon reflection’ period.


Of course, the dribble of apologies (which will accompany many university president heralded investigations, leading to nothin) will all contain boiler plate language about being “horrified” by Epstein’s crimes. This is to laugh. In the New Republic, Eugeny Morozov, a tech guru, published an email he received from John Brockman (a literary agent and general connector for high profile sci and tech people, who runs the Here’s what Brockman was saying in 2013:


Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire science philanthropist showed up at this weekend’s event by helicopter (with his beautiful young assistant from Belarus). He’ll be in Cambridge in a couple of weeks asked me who he should meet. You are one of the people I suggested and I told him I would send some links.

He’s the guy who gave Harvard #30m to set up Martin Nowak. He’s been extremely generous in funding projects of many of our friends and clients. He also got into trouble and spent a year in jail in Florida.

If he contacts you it’s probably worth your time to meet him as he’s extremely bright and interesting.

Last time I visited his house (the largest private residence in NYC), I walked in to find him in a sweatsuit and a British guy in a suit with suspenders, getting foot massages from two young well-dressed Russian women. After grilling me for a while about cyber-security, the Brit, named Andy, was commenting on the Swedish authorities and the charges against Julian Assange.

“We think they’re liberal in Sweden, but its more like Northern England as opposed to Southern Europe,” he said. “In Monaco, Albert works 12 hours a day but at 9pm, when he goes out, he does whatever he wants, and nobody cares. But, if I do it, I’m in big trouble.” At that point I realized that the recipient of Irina’s foot massage was his Royal Highness, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York.”

Isn’t that cute? As Xeni Jardin (one of the editors of Boing Boing) says: they all knew. (go to her twitter account – which is digging much deeper than, say, the NYT, which has still not reported on the story that its business journalist, Landon Thomas Jr., took 30,000 bucks from Epstein – while reporting on him. @xeni)

You can’t combine a social democracy – even of the mild New Deal/Great Society type – and a pre-1929 economic order. I should add a codicil: you can’t have a social democratic culture and a plutocracy. The squeeze operated by the upper one percent effects more than “social mobility” – it effects our most basic freedoms. It closes off emancipation with a chopper. We need to open it again – even if it takes a chopper.




I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.
About Roger 78 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

1 Comment

  1. This is a refreshing riposte to the implication that inequality is really not a problem. Along with the common theme that these world-bestriding great men deserve a little wink wink nudge nudge because of their greatness.

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