Learning to Sympathize with Conrad

Conrad Black, drawn by Charles Checketts, from The New Quarterly #102 (Spring 2007)


I did a column for the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago on what Conrad Black learned in prison. You can read the column here or below:

From the Globe and Mail, Friday, Jul. 23, 2010

When Conrad Black joined the ranks of convicted felons in 2007, he was disappointed to find out how quickly he was disowned by some of his well-heeled friends, notably double-talking diplomat Henry Kissinger and polysyllabic pundit William F. Buckley, both of whom displayed a loyalty of the calibre commonly credited to shipboard rodents.

I had the opposite reaction to Lord Black’s disgrace: During his salad days as a press baron and would-be aristocrat, I thought he was insufferable, but I have grown fonder of him as a result of his time as a jailbird.

His orange prison jumpsuit ennobled him far more than the ridiculous ermine robes he acquired upon his elevation to the House of Lords.

Part of my new-found sympathy derives from the simple fact that I’m exactly the sort of bleeding-heart leftist that he loves to rail against.

Once he was no longer an oppressive capitalist, but rather a common criminal, I had to reassess what I thought of him.

Since I already believed that the American criminal-justice system was far too quick to imprison non-violent criminals – an unfortunate tendency that we are starting to imitate in Canada – the tycoon started looking like a victim of prosecutorial overkill.

Equally endearing was the fact that while in prison, Lord Black seemed to undergo an intriguing ideological conversion. He came to see his own plight not just as an individual injustice but as evidence of a wider social problem. Suddenly, he was writing articles eloquently critiquing the “war on drugs” for turning the United States into a “carceral state.”

In discovering his social conscience while behind bars, Lord Black joins a long list of right-wingers who have had to go to jail to realize we don’t live in a world where everyone gets their just desserts.

In describing his shift from left to right, the late Irving Kristol famously said that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Novelist Tom Wolfe neatly turned this tired epigram around by observing that “a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.”

Several cases testify to the accuracy of Mr. Wolfe’s jest.

Chuck Colson was once one of the nastiest political operatives in the Nixon White House. But while doing jail time for his role in the Watergate cover-up, Mr. Colson not only became a born-again Christian but also an advocate for prison reform, arguing for unfashionable policies of rehabilitation.

Mr. Colson’s career path was eerily echoed by British Conservative politician Jonathan Aitken.

In 1993, Mr. Aitken wrote a celebratory biography of Richard Nixon, a precursor to Lord Black’s own 2007 hagiography of the disgraced president.

Six years later, Mr. Aitken was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. While in jail, he made a notable display of pious remorse. In the words of one British newspaper, Mr. Aitken became “the most visible penitent since Job.”

Upon regaining his freedom, he not only took up prison reform, he went so far as to write an admiring biography of Mr. Colson.

Pat Nolan, a one-time Republican lawmaker in California, also trod the Colsonite path.

After serving time in federal prison in the early 1990s for racketeering charges, he joined Mr. Colson’s Prison Fellowships Ministries and has played an important role in trying to forge bipartisan political alliances to improve the safety and security of prisoners. Mr. Nolan has been especially active in the cause of eliminating prison rape.

Of course, the uncharitable might say it shouldn’t have taken actual slammer time to make these men aware of social problems.

A more understanding view would be to say that, while only a few of us actually live in prison, we are all prisoners of our experiences.

Unless we have our noses rubbed in the uglier aspects of life, it’s all too easy to be dismissive of those less fortunate than we are.

Short-story writer Flannery O’Connor liked to put her characters through the wringer. In A Good Man Is Hard To Find, a mean-spirited, hypocritical old woman finds a measure of redemption when she and her family are captured by a group of murderous thugs.

As one character observes, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

One could say of Lord Black that he would have been a good man if he had felt the possibility of prison and disgrace every minute of his life.

Now that he is out on bail and possibly heading for legal vindication on the charges of fraud, will he continue to be a critic of the prison-industrial complex? Or will he revert to his earlier brand of Darwinian capitalism, quick to condemn the poor as victims of their own bad character?

For myself, I’m not sure that it matters so much what he does from now on. He has already had his moment of great crisis and handled himself with a measure of grace.

As many have noted, what makes Lord Black so intriguing is how charmingly archaic he is. While most modern plutocrats are as sleek and colourless as a quarterly report, he carries himself with the liveliness of an earlier age.

Not just Flannery O’Connor but Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope would have loved such a character, a complicated rogue worth at least a triple-volume novel, with his arcane vocabulary, grand pronouncements and naked need to prove himself.

Even his name seems oddly fictional: Conrad Black, a worthy counterpart to such Dickensian scoundrels as Mr. Micawber and Harold Skimpole.

Convicts have complicated souls. The great novelists knew this. And through his legal ordeal, Lord Black has given new proof of this old truth.


5 thoughts on “Learning to Sympathize with Conrad

  1. Did Conrad Black get more “liberal” or “libertarian” while in prison – his critique of the US justice system and the war on drugs sounds like something I’d read in Reason or watch on Stossel.

  2. I’ve always found Black’s writing extremely entertaining. Arresting even.

    And I sympathized with his clear-headed take on journalists: This isn’t a social agency: it’s a for-profit company that I own; if you don’t write in a manner I approve of, then here’s your hat, there’s the door.

    So far so black and white. Where the complication commences: did he honestly believe that he was working within the letter and spirit of the law when channeling profits away from shareholders into his own coffers- I think he did/does – or was he knowingly breaking the law/ blotting out his conscience – bilking innocent investors…

    Delusional or not, as you say, a colourful character, in many ways to be admired

  3. Conrad didn’t do hard time. One thing you may not be aware of is the difference in the US system between prison and the so-called “Club Feds” where white collar criminals are sent.

    If anything, while decrying it, you’ve made a case for it in describing Black’s turnaround.

    Nigel, you have a tenuous grasp on the reality of Black’s ownership. First off, the first sentence should read “it’s a for-profit company owned by shareholders who I’m bilking, if you don’t write …” Second off, that’s just it — he was running for-profit papers precisely as social agencies – his goal was to promote his political views and to try to push him another rung up the strange Brit-aristo social ladder he seemed to think it was cool to climb. As a result, he made all sorts of decisions that made no business sense whatsoever.

    Hiring his wife as a columnist for the Sun-Times; hiring that damned queen or princess who couldn’t write for crap as an advice columnist (I once wrote a send-up called “Que Sera, Sarah”). Hiring Mark Stein, who spent a decade as a Sunday columnist without ever entering the consciousness of any of my fellow Chicagoans, except as a punch line.

    Black destroyed the Sun-Times. He took a going concern and nearly ran it into the ground, and only now that the courts took it away from this moral shambles of a man is it righting itself. Weird that you’d defend the guy for a “clear-headed take on journalists.”

  4. [Robert] Downey [Jr.] has indicated that his time in prison changed his political point of view somewhat, saying: “I have a really interesting political point of view, and it’s not always something I say too loud at dinner tables here, but you can’t go from a $2,000-a-night suite at La Mirage to a penitentiary and really understand it and come out a liberal. You can’t. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone else, but it was very, very, very educational for me and has informed my proclivities and politics ever since.” NY Times April 20, 2008 http://is.gd/mOxNOs

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