Monday, July 16, 2007

Lord Black and Captain Ahab

Canadians have never felt much sympathy for Conrad Black. Perhaps that's because he never displayed much sympathy for them. Black's disdain for what he viewed as the Canadian inferiority complex -- which he felt made Canada an economic backwater and a land of limited opportunities -- was well known to his countrymen.

But, as the Lord of Crossharbour found himself a convicted felon last week, it is safe to say that Canadians were not above feeling a sense of catharsis. For, like a Greek or Shakespearean tragic hero, Black's tragic flaw was hubris. The problem was that he clearly was no Oedipus or Othello -- because, in the end, Sophocles' and Shakespeare's creations were self critical enough to at least acknowledge their flaws. Lord Black appears to be much more akin to the classic American tragic hero Captain Ahab, in Melville's Moby Dick. And perhaps that is fitting, given the fact that Black frequently extolled the virtues of Canada's southern neighbour, going so far as to write admiring biographies of two of its presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon.

Like Ahab, Black felt that he was the constant target of lesser creatures who insulted his intelligence. And, like Ahab, he exhibited a heightened sense of injury. When Ahab was told by Starbuck, his first mate, that it was "blasphemy" to hunt an elemental -- a force of nature -- Ahab responded, "Speak not to me of blasphemy, man. I'd strike the sun if it insulted me." And, like Ahab, Black appears to feel no sense of remorse. Ensnared in a tangle of legal harpoons -- some of which he threw himself -- his raised middle finger is a gesture of defiance. He will go to the bottom, refusing to acknowledge that there are some fates which should not be tempted.

For, unlike Black, most Canadians live in the shadow of fate -- or of a natural environment which can seal one's fate. This is a land where prairie farmers have been known to tie ropes from the back doors of their houses to their barns -- as life lines to prevent their getting lost in a blizzard. Perhaps, because Mr. Black grew up a child of privilege, he knows little of the life of a prairie farmer and the elementals which are the axioms of his existence. Canadians tend to side with Starbuck. They know that one does not do battle with white whales or the Great White North. Admittedly, such an attitude is not very heroic -- to my knowledge the only legacy Starbuck has left behind is the bequest of his name to a chain of coffee shops. But at least one survives -- and saves one's soul.

None of us is qualified to analyze the state of Lord Black's soul. But, for many Canadians, when Black renounced his Canadian citizenship he was, in effect, cutting the rope from the back door to the barn. And they watched, knowing instinctively that Black was going to be caught -- snowblind -- in the storm.

This is not to say that Canadians would not allow Lord Black to return to Canada -- although his conviction makes his application for citizenship somewhat problematic. However, Canada has a long tradition of accepting refugees. They would insist, though, that he serve his sentence in a Canadian jail -- unless that sentence were overturned on appeal. We may not be a very heroic people (in the sense that we do not go in search of monsters to slay) but we are a tolerant people. In the end, I suspect that Canadians would be willing to give the Lord of Crossharbour a second chance. But they would insist that he acknowledge he made a mistake when he cut that life line.

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