In the 2000’s I had a short-lived legal enthusiast blog inspired in part by law professor and legal reform activist Larry Lessig. I moved on from it after a few months but Lessig continued to be of interest to me. While I didn’t agree with everything he put forward he remained a guidepost of someone doing good in the world with the weight of knowledge. Back in 2009 (I forget the context, but believe someone had sent Lessig a DMCA takedown request) I remarked on twitter, “I wouldn’t DMCA Larry Lessig with the Ark of the Covenant in front of me and holding the Spear of Destiny.”
In November of 2015, enamored with Bernie Sanders (I pivoted to Clinton as the primary neared its end) I daydreamed about Lessig having a cabinet position in the Sanders administration.
In late August I was dismayed to find Lessig a signatory of the open letter on wesupportjoi.org, supporting MIT MediaLab Director Joichi Ito after having accepted money from convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein (the site is no longer up, but an archived version can be viewed here). Ito had clearly known not only that Epstein had been convicted of sex offenses, but that he still traveled everywhere with vulnerable young women – including the times he visited MediaLab. Journalist Xeni Jardin pointed this and more out for months and was ignored, harassed, and berated for it. On September 6, Journalist Ronan Farrow published a piece in the New Yorker substantiating it all with internal documentation – Ito purposely concealed millions of dollars received from Epstein while continuing to allow him access to the lab, scientists, and other partcipants. A disclaimer was posted on wesupportjoi at first noting that being a signatory only meant supporting Ito prior to the Farrow piece, and then wesupportjoi went offline entirely.
Today, Larry Lessig published a post on Medium titled “On Joi and MIT” in which he continued to defend Ito and unpacked his own role. The entire post is a horrorshow of convenient self-deception to the point that I sat reading it at my desk, gesticulating wildly and wordlessly.
It would be an understatement to say that I have gone from respecting Lessig and hoping he achieved many of the institutional reforms he seeks – to never, ever, ever trusting him about any kind of institution again. This is a takeaway also reflected with my previous enjoyment of and respect for fellow Ito Signatory Stewart Brand – one of the major highlights of my moving to the Bay Area was a planned membership to the Long Now Foundation, of which Brand is the co-chair and president of the Board of Directors. But luminaries that support a director who brought someone like Epstein into their institution also say something about their own institutional priorities, and my Long Now membership funds will be going elsewhere.
I want to talk about Lessig’s Medium piece a bit.
Lessig starts out talking about wanting to explain his support for Ito – holding back after being asked to, but states that Ito’s resignation changed that. It’s interesting that he links to a New York Times piece on Ito’s resignation rather than the Farrow/New Yorker piece that caused the resignation – Ito was an NYT board member, after all. Lessig goes on to talk about being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and that is worth noting and holding in mind, both because Lessig deserves empathy for that and that being so can elicit uncharacteristic and atypical reactions to situations. I end up wondering if this is one.
Lessig moves on to discuss how Ito consulted him after Epstein’s convictions, and that Ito believed Epstein had reformed.
“Because the truth is that—as I thought about it then—if Joi believed as he did after real diligence, I didn’t believe he was wrong to take Epstein’s money anonymously.”
Lessig acknowledges this as a mistake in hindsight, but the reason is extraordinary. Lessig argues that, but for the discovery that Ito accepted Epstein’s money, taking the money was the right thing to do – and concealing it was the right thing to do.
“Everyone seems to treat it as if the anonymity and secrecy around Epstein’s gift are a measure of some kind of moral failing. I see it as exactly the opposite. IF you are going to take type 3 money, then you should only take it anonymously. And if you take it anonymously, then obviously you will take the many steps detailed by Farrow to keep it secret.”
Lessig effectively argues that but for the harm resulting from discovery, concealing a pedophile’s deep involvement in the lab was not only okay but the right way to do it. The steps Ito took to subvert MIT’s disqualification of Epstein as a donor, and the steps he took to conceal Epstein’s visits and access to the lab and its personnel, are in Lessig’s mind not only not a moral failing but in fact a moral victory. His friend Joi, doing good works, while other lab personnel not only wondered but inquired of the young women that Epstein traipsed through the lab whether they were being trafficked.
The mental gymnastics are extraordinary. And then we get darker – as Lessig characterizes calls for transparency as “unreflective” – he’ll later describe people outraged by this and seeking Ito’s ouster as not just wrong but “crude.”
“But what I — and Joi—missed then was the great risk of great harm that this gift would create. Sure, it wasn’t blood money, and sure, because anonymous, the gift wasn’t used to burnish Epstein’s reputation. But the gift was a ticking time bomb. At some point, it was destined to be discovered. “
Here we get to the crux of Lessig’s argument, in which – unreflectively – he fails to acknowledge that, even then, Epstein’s money was blood money, and it served to further Epstein’s access to scientists and labs for obvious benefits to his reputation. But he again repeats that the problem with taking Epstein’s money, and the reason they shouldn’t have, was the harm caused upon discovery rather than the inherent wrongness of accepting support from and providing institutional access to a convicted pedophile.
Mr. Lessig: the harm caused upon discovery is because of the inherent wrongness of accepting that support and providing that access.
Lessig uses his platform to level an interesting charge: that institutionally MIT directed Ito to do what he did. I can believe it. I want to see evidence of it. And given evidence, I want to see everyone involved burn.
Lessig laments that Ito’s departure leaves MIT less, having lost a “sweet soul” that will soon produce “greatness beyond measure.” And he laments that “we” held wrong to account “so crudely and so painfully and so wrongly. This is us, now. We should all be better.” We – those outraged at this outrage – should apparently feel shame? Is this Lessig’s parting lesson?
I have felt enough shame in my life. When a person in power commits a knowing wrong, conceals it as a knowing wrong, and when discovered lies in their “apology” tour, as Ito has (for instance, see Ito claiming only to have taken $525,000 from Epstein, as one clear example among many), the shame is not on my side in crying out for their power to be rescinded. The sheer level of gaslighting bullshit that represents is amazing.
Kara Swisher published an excellent NYT op-ed today about how this needs to lead to a reckoning for tech.
Xeni Jardin, more than two weeks ago, already understood the lesson:
“Don’t grieve because reality isn’t what you thought it was. Don’t cry because your heroes were hollow and complicit. Be grateful the truth is out. Now you have choices.”
Lessig and Ito should be better. John Brockman and Stewart Brand should be better. Everyone who accepted a dime from Epstein or allowed it or covered it up.
We, the rest of us
should be furious.