Geoff Heinricks Headshot

Lord Black is Worth Importing

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It's been an embarrassing few days as the release of Conrad Black, or 18330-424 as he was affectionately known until Friday, loomed over Canada. I have no reservation about saying I'm glad he's back in the country. The Conservatives are frosty at best. The New Democrats are developing boils and blisters -- or at least hopping about like they do. I'm just grateful we have a domestic entity worth the breath and energy we're expending.

I'm terrified that I know who Kim Kardashian is and that she was married -- though to whom and for exactly the number of hours I am properly clueless. It is so wrong, in so many ways. I feel violated. With Black's return (or rather short term admission as a temporary resident), he has provided us with one of our own to obsess over, a person with real world accomplishments and who speaks a far more amusing variant of English.

One of the great truths Jane Austen tucked into Pride and Prejudice is voiced through Mr. Bennet: "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?" It is the fuel communities need. It's the fuel real countries need. Without it we may as well all live in Mississauga with a 55" flat screen.

In the early days of a long departed satire sheet called Frank magazine, we were looking for a nickname for Black. I wondered: "What might (the journalist and Master of Massey College) John Fraser have called Conrad back at Upper Canada College?" There was an immediate choice -- Tubby! We gleefully took it up, and it spread. Years later, watching a 2001 documentary on Frank, there was Black walking from the camera, choosing not to comment on the magazine. Yet he stopped, looked back and asked "Do they still call me Tubby?"

Either Christopher Hitchens or Alexander Cockburn (some parts of the late 80s is still a muddle for me) wrote that, "Journalism has the shelf life of a croissant." A satirical hack especially doesn't expect even that much. I was surprised. Black had a decent sense of humour. I suspected as much, as he never served a writ on Frank, and I don't believe he sued Private Eye in England either. This was during a phase when he regularly unleashed a blizzard of legal paper on the world's newspapers and magazines. The theory I held to was he tormented publications that he found the most humourless.

And it remains an untested theory, as I've never met the man. There were a few exchanges a lifetime ago as a media critic, relayed by secretary and through a brief fax in which he offered to sign my copy of Duplessis one day. At the time that fine biography was his only book. Since then he's written a number of tomes the size of cotton bales -- A Life In Progress, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. I look forward to his next book later this year when, it too is released.

To have a writer of his talent and patience again in Canada is something I hope is noted as a positive in his immigration file, although it'll raise eyebrows within the Conservative government -- who, aping a lot of American Republicans, can't forgive Black for writing a favourable biography of FDR. I'd likely applaud if Black was awarded a Canada Council grant, should his reduced circumstances require it and the federal government continue to tolerate such things. It'd be money well spent.

If Black is truly tired of the United States, and unmoved by the United Kingdom, I'd selfishly encourage him to examine us. His fondness of military history and insight into political and corporate psychopathy would certainly result in great Canadian biographies of Andrew McNaughton, or the bizarre World War II rivalry between Harry Crerar and Guy Simonds. (If you don't know the names, that is the reason we require such works.)

Anyway, by now it's should be pretty clear that the American judicial push to take down Black was spearfishing in a tidal pool, while that famous vampire squid plied the economic waters without molestation. None of the genuine titans of the true corporate kleptocracy -- the ones that depressed the toilet handle on the American economy and then pretended it wasn't their mess that overflowed across the globe -- have even for a nanosecond known fear of prison.

These men still sleep as babes in any of the baker's dozen homes they might possess. At least Lord Black did the modern penance of seeing his wealth transferred to lawyers, then adjusting to orange suits without as much as a gentling Savile Row banker's chalk stripe to them.

Convicted, he didn't whine. Imprisoned, he adjusted with quietness. I take the reports as true that a time-serving Lord Black mixed cheerfully with other felons, sanitized their toilets, and tutored them.

He kept out of the headlines and refrained from pitching a series to compete with Hillbilly Handfishin' or Toddlers and Tiaras. These are accomplishments, and have earned him re-admittance to our wobbly society, according to the rules. To deny this is to be an evanescent billow of spite and vengeance.

Lord Black benefitted from that squishy Canadian compassion he occasionally sneered at. There is pleasant diversion in that. The Conservative government may well have had a big thumb on the scale in seeing him admitted with blinding swiftness, as it speaks to the old liberal Canada rather than the precambrian values of Alberta.

And there is a real issue in the hardness of heart shown American deserters and conscientious objectors to the last round of American wars, compared with the kindness shown Lord Black. But that shouldn't cloud our joy.

We should smile and be content that he's chosen Canada. Not the nation whose flag of convenience his late corporations flew (and which ultimately cost him his freedom), or his adopted realm. As a man of the dominion, who once owned and restructured Dominion, he has returned once again to...er...Canada.