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.

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Conrad Black as Tubby Tompkins

Tubby: a boy with a rich imagination.

Over at the Inkstuds radio program I spent a very enriching hour talking with Gail Singer and Frank Young about the work of John Stanley, the journeyman cartoonist who wrote the great Little Lulu comic book series of the 1940s and 1950s.

One of the impressive things about Stanley’s work is that his characters do seem real, as witness the way Frank and Gail could easily talk at length about the personalities of Lulu and her friends.

At one point Gail asked what Lulu would be like if she grew up and suggested that she might have become Barbara Amiel, the conservative journalist who married Conrad Black, Lord of Crossharbour and convicted felon.

Barbara Amiel and Conrad Black: great comic book characters.

Frank and I demurred from this idea. Lulu seems much smarter than Amiel (a.ka. Lady Black of Crossharbour). Lulu is  also kinder and more civic-minded, and in general much more of an authentic human being, although she is only made of pen and ink. Still, Gail’s notion was suggestive in one direction.

If Lulu isn’t quite like Amiel, it is true that there are similarities between Lulu’s best male friend Tubby Tompkins and Conrad Black. Both Black and Tubby can be described as romantic egoists who try to bend reality to their wills, often with disastrous results. Just as Tubby likes to play detective, Black likes to imagine himself as a great military leader such as Napoleon. Tubby, a pre-teen boy, is fond of toy soldiers, as is Lord Black, who remains somewhat boyish even behind bars.

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Conrad Black, Radical

Irving Kristol famously said that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Tom Wolfe neatly inverted this ugly sentiment by observing that “a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.” We can see the wisdom of Wolfe’s statement when we consider the case of Conrad Black, a very conservative tycoon who now finds himself in prison. The experience is starting to turn Black into not just a liberal but something of a radical. In an essay reprinted in the Times of London, Black eloquently critiques America as a “carceral state” where the legal system is stacked against defendants leading to an amazingly high percentage of the population being jailed.

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Conrad Black: Enemy of the Bourgeoisie

Badgered by a BBC reporter about his legal trouble Conrad Black, convicted felon and Peer of the Realm, replied with a startling argument: “The conventional media wisdom in the U.K. is a kind of false bourgeois piety and priggishness that assumes that whatever American prosecutors say is true.”

To many ears it’ll surely seem odd to hear Black, the founder of the National Post and former proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, denouncing “false bourgeois piety and priggishness.” Isn’t he supposed to be a right-winger? Doesn’t he belong to the bourgeoisie himself? What does he think he is, a Yorkshire coal miner on strike against Thatcher?

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