Back in the mid-1980s, Conrad Black had a column on perhaps the most prominent page of a monthly glossy business magazine inserted in The Globe and Mail.
I was an avid reader.
Not because I agreed with what he wrote: my politics lean left, and Black is to the left of almost nobody. In fact, I could hardly wait for the magazine to arrive precisely because I usually disagreed with his take on issues with about the same vehemence as he pressed them.
The best columns, like his, provoke readers to formulate their own counter-arguments. Real arguments that don’t settle for lazily pleading a case based on feelings rather than marshalled logic, that don’t settle for questioning the writer’s credibility or calling them facile names often invoking a former mustachioed German leader. Black’s quality arguments challenged opponents to intellectual honesty, to build their own best counter-arguments anchored in facts and guided by logic. That deserves respect.
True, he was already a household name after withdrawing $56 million from the surplus of the Dominion supermarket chain’s workers’ pension plan without consulting plan members. After losing at the Supreme Court of Ontario, he eventually settled by dividing the pot in half between workers and company shareholders.
Years later, he achieved even more notoriety for the US convictions for mail fraud and obstruction of justice that landed him, despite a convoluted set of appeals, in a Florida jail.
Recall the video of Black removing boxes of documents under cover of night? It’s easy to imagine him stewing in a jail cell, basting in anger at what he still insists was an unfair conviction for uncommitted crimes, periodically taking a break to teach literacy to fellow inmates or to write an occasional opinion piece for a paper.
John Raulston Saul has famously argued that Black is not even a true capitalist, let alone the giant of industry Black portrays himself to be in his two autobiographies. Saul argues that Black took apart companies he acquired rather than creating new wealth and new jobs.
So, sure, I can understand the argument that he should not be allowed to return to Canada even temporarily, let alone turn it into permanent residence and renewed citizenship.
But Conrad Black deserves credit for preserving and creating good newspapers. When he bought Southam, some predicted he’d be dictating editorials and engineering mass layoffs. It didn’t quite play out like that. Yes, he put Fraser Institute economic libertarians in charge of unsigned editorials and hired more conservative editors — and let go liberal editors. But the blood-letting, the overt political meddling and the quality plunge came mainly after Black sold the papers to new owners. And let’s face it: it’s not because of Black that, unlike Europe, there are no leftwing daily papers in Canada.
Meanwhile, Black started the National Post. The writing was lively and provocative at first, the investigative journalism first-rate. And it was unabashedly, unapologetically conservative — economically and socially. No pretending to objectivity here; the paper knew its mission and went for it with gusto. And published some hard-ass journalism before the cutbacks began and Black left and many readers went back to The Globe.
We often seek sameness, choosing friends who think like us, reading journalism that reinforces what we already believe. But that’s a dead end. In choosing to expose ourselves to a diversity of people and ideas, we have a chance to grow — if we’re lucky.
That’s why Conrad Black should be welcomed home. He creates conversations through his books, commentary and by starting new media. He challenges sacred cows, whether they’re government social programs or other publications.
Celebrating diversity of thought and opinion, celebrating freedom of speech and the right to protest extends — especially — to those with whom we most disagree. Even if that diversity includes a privileged, egoistic, swaggering old white man with an outrageous sense of entitlement.
More to the point, we don’t have to want to invite him to dinner in order to learn from this guy. But reading provocateurs like Black, and honing our own intellectually honest counter-arguments as a result, can make us all sharper.