M'Lord misunderstands America
I have thought about Conrad Black often since we had dinner in a posh Palm Beach club one night in February 2008, just weeks before he went to jail.
Black is not a household word, except in Britain and Canada, but he just got out on bail after serving more than two years of a 6 1/2 year sentence for mail fraud and obstruction of justice. He is a British Lord and was CEO of Hollinger International, which owned hundreds of small newspapers in Canada and the U.S., the Daily Telegraph in London, the Chicago Sun-Times and, at one time, the Jerusalem Post and National Post in Canada. He has lost his companies and faces SEC and tax charges, but his fraud convictions may be overturned following a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
His wife, Barbara Amiel, didn't join us for dinner because she was picking up a dog. But talk turned to the topic dogging his life, namely his legal tribulations. He remained convinced that he would never spend a day in the slammer, but would be under house arrest with an ankle monitor pending appeal.
I disagreed and said the Puritans would not relent and woe be to anyone who takes on the world's biggest law firm, the Department of Justice's thousands of underpaid lawyers eager to land a partnership or a bench in New York or Chicago.
Takes one to know one
I launched into my usual rant about American puritanism, with its scrupulous moral rigor and hostility toward pleasures and privilege. Then I turned to the politicization of its justice system, where high-profile cases elect future judges or governors.
Then there was the role of extreme religion in America, a collective cognitive disorder known in shrink circles as "black-white" thinking, excuse the pun. Thus, the good versus evil Hollywood mentality, love-it-or-leave-it politics, them and us paranoia and the declaration of wars in countries nobody heard of, against illegal substances, against poverty and against rich guys who like his Lordship who are simply too fancy and too "foreign."
Thus, I proffered to him that the jurors were not "morons" and the prosecutors not "Nazis," as he described them, but were simply being very "American." This I said sadly meant that his incarceration was therefore required.
And we all know the ending, but the beginning is that Conrad Black has always been very very wrong, despite his breadth of knowledge, about the United States.
His admiration of the "land of the free" landed him into its penalty box and may continue to propel him to seek "justice" down there. He would have been better advised -- whether guilty or innocent of wrongdoing -- to steer clear of America's rough justice by groveling, apologizing then capitulating early and expensively. But he braved on, based on a misconception that he was dealing with the same culture as Canada or Britain.
But the United States, where I was born and raised in Chicago, is not an Anglo Saxon country. It is not a country where people aspire to become members of a leisure class or to create a welfare state. It's a country where many hate government, but will march at the drop of a slogan in to some tinpot country and viciously shame, or call un-American, those who criticize the misadventure.
The United States is the greatest country in the world to live in if you are not old, sick, poor, a minority or too rich and privileged. It is changing, I hope, but it's still a paradox which still believes "In God we Trust" and social Darwinism.
So I totally sympathize with Conrad. He, like others, was put into a penalty box for years because he never understood the American version of the game of life and it punished him severely.
Now he gets it. And now I hope he picks his battles more carefully.
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