Activism for Hire
The M.I.T. Media Lab’s Ties to Epstein Lift Into View a Cynical Feedback Loop Between Activism and What It Seeks to Combat
Earlier this month, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow revealed evidence that M.I.T.’s famed Media Lab had failed to disclose the full extent of its financial entanglement with ignominious financier Jeffrey Epstein. Despite the knowledge that Epstein had pleaded guilty in 2008 to a felony charge of solicitation of prostitution involving a minor, reports claim, the Media Lab continued to accept financial gifts from him and those in his network, to consult with him on the allocation of such gifts, and to pass them off (publicly and internally) as anonymous donations. Emails and other documents show the efforts made by Media Lab Director Joi Ito and other university officials to conceal Epstein’s role in securing millions in donations for the lab, as recently as 2014. The next day, it was announced that Ito had resigned from his position and that the university would pursue an independent investigation.
Part of what makes this revelation so scandalous is the M.I.T. Media Lab’s self-styled reputation as an iconoclastic and dissident research outfit. In early 2017, the Media Lab launched its Disobedience Award, an annual $250,000 prize given to groups or individuals engaging in what the lab called “responsible, ethical disobedience.” (Seemingly a contradiction in terms, the funding of “responsible disobedience” begs the question of to whom or what disobedient actors are asked to be responsible here.) The award, bankrolled by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, gleefully officiated the marriage of venture capitalism and activism. The inaugural prize went to a research team focused on the Flint water crisis. The following year, in 2018, the award went to pioneers of the #MeToo Movement Tarana Burke, BethAnn McLaughlin, and Sherry Marts for their work raising awareness about and combatting sexual assault and harassment.
Especially disturbing is the realization that Epstein’s money, connections, and influence were quietly at work behind — even if they did not directly fund — the Media Lab’s very public commitment to the #MeToo movement.
This revelation lifts into view a cynical feedback loop. Epstein’s close involvement with the Media Lab exposes the university’s troubling role as a laundering mechanism between private capital and public activism. It emblematizes the deadlock created when charitable donations by the rich and powerful are used to fund efforts that seek to expose and dismantle precisely the consolidation and abuses of power that such patrons can represent. Activism finds itself caught in a dangerous bargain when it serves a public relations role for the structures it directly or indirectly challenges, potentially making them more impervious to future resistance.
High-minded institutions, such as universities and art museums, have found themselves caught between the values they promote and the values associated with the funding they accept and depend on.
When exposed for public view, their patrons’ global investment portfolios and offshore holdings bespeak a crisis of institutional ethics. We need to have a conversation not just about “clean” vs. “dirty” money but about how financial support for progressive causes is a tool by which the wealthy and influential can buy themselves a clean slate.
The Media Lab’s Disobedience Award itself raises serious concerns about how private money and university fundraising and promotion can be used to domesticate, co-opt, and tame disobedience, enlisting activists into what art critic Isabelle Graw has called “subversion for hire.” While this strategic co-option does fund important activist projects, it exchanges that funding for the project’s ethical credibility, which it uses to legitimize and cleanse the reputations of those whose wealth and connections empower to act with impunity.
The point is not to blame activists when resources are scarce and money is needed for their work to have impact; as a matter of course, no money is ever pure. Indeed, the discourse of purity is often an alibi for inaction. But it is becoming increasingly clear that we must think carefully as a society about how to negotiate the role that activism is given to play in relationship to corporate funding. Individual resignations and university ethics investigations should not obscure the larger problem. In this case, the university, rather than acting as a mere intermediary between donors and activists, must take on an active role in the matter. In the short term, M.I.T. needs to investigate this sordid affair, but in the longer term, the scandal poses an opportunity to reflect on the public mission of the university and its increasing reliance on private donors.
The use of activism as a mechanism by which the powerful immunize themselves against criticism is nothing new. While we may respond with surprise when something like this happens, we should remember that capitalism has always enabled those who have the means to buy silence by empowering others to speak.
Anna Watkins Fisher is an assistant professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. Her research examines the relationship between radical politics and state and corporate interests.