Given the obsessive fascination of daily horoscopes of self and kin for huge swaths of the populace, the readiness of much of the subcontinent to use the planets as oracles to pick a lifelong marital match, the unflagging grip of particolored neural imagery on those striving to decipher the brain's secret code, not to mention a century of western fealty to Freudian fantasies, Marxian (or -- pick your poison -- Market) moronics and our continuing global affinity for the local equivalent of the Bible and the pin -- it is hardly surprising that the cerebral hermeneuts who elect to do their dechiffrage on behavioral function rather than on spatiotemporal patterns are having a field day freely projecting their animism onto robots' ramblings... We are a superstitious species.
First, it cannot escape the reader's attention that in wooing his confidence to elicit information for his book, the author, George Tombs (in a far milder way) used wiles not unreminiscent of the ones that Conrad Black used to enhance his fortune -- but it is Conrad Black who now faces prison.
Fair enough. Black did it on an incomparably grander scale. So did just about everyone else in Tombs's book, as far as I can tell -- Black's partners and competitors, his supporters and detractors, his defense lawyers and the prosecution, to greater and lesser degrees. Humans are a deceitful and manipulative lot, to greater and lesser degrees, and when that degree passes a certain threshold, they need to be restrained or punished.
And Black undeniably passed that threshold. The only question is whether the proposed punishment is commensurate with his crime, and to this reader it is absolutely clear that it is not.
Conrad Black is a hero-worshipper (and his heroes -- numbering Duplessis, Nixon and Napoleon alongside Roosevelt and Churchill -- are not all admirable); he is a money-maker (skillful, lucky, but not especially creative, if one can be said to be creative at all in the direct quest for money, rather than the quest of something else, with money only a byproduct); he is an ostentatious spend-thrift on a grand scale (not a noble or admirable trait, when so many are so poor, but not in itself a crime); he is considerably more intelligent, learned and cultivated than average (and what intelligence he does not dedicate to money-making, he devotes to reading, writing and publishing on history and politics, likewise on a scale far above the average); his neo-conservative political views are not noble or admirable either (except to other neo-conservatives and money-makers), and, as always in such cases, they depend on a considerable degree of self-deception, alongside the usual quota of deceipt and manipulation.
Conrad Black's business ventures (consisting mostly of buying up newspapers and making them profitable by firing staff and tightening their efficiency) increased their revenues by billions, and he appropriated hundreds of millions for himself in the bargain, through both legitimate and inflated fees and inflated payments from "non-compete" agreements. His crime was pocketing those extra payments rather than passing most of them on to the share-holders of the private company that he had subsequently made into a public one (though I'll wager that he generated an order of magnitude more revenue for others -- "wealth creation" -- than the inflated fraction of it that he withheld illicitly for himself). He also wrote three thoughtful biographies (Duplessis, Roosevelt, Nixon), an autobiography, and a large number of newspaper articles, all in much the same neo-conservative vein. He consorted (and loved to consort) with the rich, titled, famous, and influential.
That's about the size of it. And the question is whether for that he deserves to spend years in a medium-security prison, alongside murderers, violent drug-dealers and mafiosi by way of punishment.
If we set aside our (justified) resentment at the unrestrained and remorseless pursuit of wealth and power (and Black's ideological celebration of that very pursuit), our glee at seeing a high-roller caught in the act of pilfering, our distaste (not untinged with envy) at the self-assured arrogance with which Black operated until his fall, and our (self-righteous) applause when corporate criminality is caught, exposed and punished -- can we really say that Black deserves anything worse for his crimes than to lose his fortune and prestige and to spend the rest of his days repaying his debts?
This urbane, knowledgeable, eloquent (if long-winded and hyperbolical) man was indeed caught in corporate crime that is on no account to be pardoned or permitted. But he was not violent, not psychopathic, and not (this must be stressed) purely venal either, being also an impassioned and resourceful advocate of a political position that I personally find revolting, but worthy of discussion and analysis, if only so that its iniquities can be exposed and rebutted.
I do not think anyone's interests are served, nor any useful example is made, by incarcerating such a man with violent criminals or even common Enron rogues. His assets should be seized to pay back his debts, but he should be allowed to write his memoirs in peace, exiled to his economic Elba, not the US penal system.
To punish Black any more than that would be to show exactly the same lack of understanding and empathy for those less fortunate than ourselves that Black himself showed in his single-minded pursuit of fame, power and fortune, and his benighted championship of that pursuit as the meaning of life.
There is no example to be set here, to warn off similar corporate malfeasance by others; there will never be another like Conrad Black, not even close.
(Tombs's book is fairly well-written, but quite repetitious, not always well-integrated, and with a number of undetected typos.)