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Can I get you to introduce yourself? “Just hello, my name is…”
Hello, my name is Conrad Black.
And what do you do?
I write and I invest.
Lord Conrad Black is many things to Canadians. Media baron, historian, conservative hawk, convicted felon, supernatural figure stronger than our weather patterns, apparently. And a lot of that mystique, I think, has to do with the fact that he always has something to say about everything.
I’m happy to speak spontaneously, but don’t expect a rant.
I’m not kidding. Take Barack Obama.
A disaster. I think it’s a wonderful thing that they broke the barrier about having a non-white presidency, I give him credit for that, he ran a genius campaign he took the Clinton’s party right out from under them, and Bill and Hillary are hard-ballers, they’re not aren’t amateurs. But he’s been, in my opinion, a terrible president. You can’t run the debt of 233 years of ten trillion dollars up to eighteen trillion dollars in six years without everybody paying for it. And you cannot manage the foreign policy of a great power by drawing red lines and retreating from them and abdicating his commander-in-chief and calling for pivots that are just retreats. Supporting democracy here and undercutting it here. Unfortunately I think he’s not a competent president.
Or General Motors.
Very interesting company that was skillfully put together by Durant from a bunch of ingredients. At the outbreak of WWI the head of it, Mr Wilson said to President Roosevelt, You tell us Mr President what you want and we’ll produce 5% of it. It was American industrialism as its greatest, and then it became a colossal bureaucracy and gradually went bankrupt.
Or... white privilege.
You mean the privilege of white-skinned people? Well, as long as it’s earned it’s good, when it’s maintained by oppression and discrimination it’s bad. But on the other hand most white-skinned people, like most people, are susceptible to arguments of egalitarianism and equity. But if it is a privilege in the sense of an oppression of others it’s bad, if it’s a privilege that people have earned, good luck to them. I’d say that about people of every other pigmentation.
You get the idea: he thinks in chapters, speaks in footnotes. He orbits historical texts and loses himself to the minutiae of quarterly earnings. And while his media company, Hollinger Incorporated, has all but dissolved, he remains an imposing figure in Canada’s id, with regular appearances on TV, on radio, and in newsprint. So I had to ask, what does Lord Black do to unwind? I mean, do you have Netflix? Do you binge-read, or binge-watch, for that matter.
The only things I binge watch are things that not everyone would regard as relaxing. I get into these YouTube historical connections, it’s very ingenious as you and I’m sure your readers know, the way they lay them out. I remember just a few months ago I had occasion, I wanted to see what Albert Camus said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for literature. So I did, and they had it there. And then beside it were five famous speeches in French, well, I watched all of them. And they were completely different, you know, one was Malreaux with the movement of the corpse of the resistance leader Jean Moulain to the pantheon and the speech he gave in the presence of General De Gaulle, and this one was a speech De Gaulle made, and one was the vspeech Maurice DePlussey.... So I was sitting there like a zombie watching these things for about four hours but it was terribly interesting [laughs]. These guys speak for 20 or 30 minutes each, but they’re all very good. But I don’t do much physical in that sense, I go out for a walk or something, I have an exercise program, I have a gym and a swimming pool in my house, but I have to watch it in the gym because it’s easy to put my back out, it’s not what I’m doing it for, I’m doing it for muscle tone, or whatever. I always feel life’s competitive enough, not to carry the competition over as some of these people do to golf and tennis, I don’t have an aptitude for these sports anyway. I’m always astounded how fiercely competitive most people are at them. Chess I don’t mind, it doesn’t do much for you physically but it’s a good mental exercise, I like to play chess.
This week on The Arcade, I sit down with Lord Conrad Black at the University Club in downtown Toronto. He’s written a curious new book, in many ways, it’s the book his entire career has led to. It’s called Rise to Greatness: A History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present.
Showing it in its true status as a great nation, a great success story, written in a reasonably lively but vigorous fashion.
Oh, and a quick warning. If you haven’t guessed, things are going to get Canadian. Very, very Canadian.
...someone like Hemingway would be too trendy, and Dickens would be kind of ambiguous.
Why was now the time to release such a singular account of Canada’s history?
Because I had concluded that since the separatist threat in Quebec had eroded, and the poor correlation of self-confidence between Canada and the United States had been an issue all my life, as Canada always felt naturally somewhat overawed by this gigantic and very dynamic neighbour. Since those two factors had occurred, Canada had broken out into a period of spontaneity, and national and psychological security that it had never known before, and this was a rather unrecognized triumph for this country. The whole process of 400 years of history, of moving this country from a handful of settlers and a few thousand native people to being a G7 country with a very peaceable civil record, a distinguished war record, a high standard of living, was not just a series of fortuitous events and coincidences but something that had to have been a result of a distinguished history, and a more distinguished and interesting history than had largely been recognized even by Canadians, much less foreigners.
In a recent op-ed for the National Post, you said critics of Rise to Greatness made the unfortunate mistake of reviewing you over the contents of your book. What do you make of that reflex?
This gets tangled up in the lengthy history of my relations with certain strata of the intellectual communities within this country. For reasons it’s not for me to elaborate on, there’s some kind of cuckoo bird that flies out of the head of some of these people and that can’t respond to me or anything I do rationally. Now, that is not reciprocated by me, I don’t feel that about everybody else, but it must unfortunately now that I am seventy years old, be admitted that there is that group of people and they have been around for a long time. Their numbers have shrunk and their ability to generate a conformist echo chamber for their views has vanished, but that rather embitters them rather than imposing upon them the commendable notion of considering whether they had it wrong to begin with. And so what we have here is elements of the critical community, operating on the traditional assumption that small through their numbers are and questionable though their own talents are, they have the ability to sandbag a new book, just by writing somewhat snide reviews about it.
But they couldn’t attack the actual contention of my book, they were not prepared to say, this is rubbish, Canada is not a great country, how dare he write that our leadership in Canada has often been distinguished, Canada’s essentially a failure, a bore, and a mediocrity. They can’t say that because that’s what I was attacking. And so since they don’t want to join with me they have to nibble around the edges and try and find ludicrous, utterly implausibly absurd trivial issues to dispute with me.
And I found the process more amusing than anything else, but as I wrote in the piece that you refer to, they’ve been obviously ransacking my book to find things that they could object to. And they haven’t really found much. And they can’t, if I may say so, complain that it’s not competently written. I mean that’s one thing that I don’t think anyone’s ever accused me of, of being an incompetent writer, they may not particularly like my style but they can’t say that I can’t write, which is incidentally not an honour that I could accord to all of them. So they were left in this position of being unable to say, the fact is, we don’t like this guy for historic reasons but he’s written a very good book. Because their small-mindedness and warped nature wouldn’t permit it. Or possibly even instructions from on high would have militated against it. But the main issue I think is, I always anticipate in this country, unlike in the United States and in the United Kingdom, a skewed set of reviews because there is in the this country unlike those other countries, a body of opinion that’s hostile to me, not a majority I think, but it’s there.
So what are you trying to put across that your critics don’t seem to get? I mean, what is the message?
the message I’m putting across is a good message, my whole message is, this is a greater country than we think it is. And let’s just re-examine the facts and let’s not become braggarts or boastful or dismissive of anybody else or insufferably pompous as a nationality, which we know something about from others, let’s not do any of that but let’s have a recognition of our own achievements as a nationality.
So, this country’s history is one of skill and nuance, and this careful dance between sets of powers. Yet in your estimation, it’s been largely overlooked.
If not overlooked, underestimated in precisely the qualities you just mentioned, that were necessary. And not only necessary, they had to be there all the time. One serious slip and the whole thing would have failed, and nobody made such a slip. If we’d ever once, for example, between 1815 and 1914, seriously affronted the Americans, I mean really offended them in a way where an impartial observer would say that the Americans really have been very grossly insulted by Canada, they would have just taken Canada over. And it’s not as if the Americans never, ever gave us cause to be obstreperous, they did, I mean, it must be said in general that they’ve always been good neighbours and we should always be grateful we are where we are instead of say, Poland, stuck between Germany and Russia, all great civilizations but there’s been terrible barbarities between them. And we haven’t had to put up with that from the Americans. All the same, it’s an unusual accomplishment, never once to have actually given the United States the provocation it was frequently looking and hoping for to seize this country, and always to maintain, despite the many exasperations dealing with the British colonial office, maintain sufficient of goodwill that they made the Americans to understand that attacking Canada would cause real problems with the British. It is no easy feat in effect to manipulate greater powers than yourself. It was the feat of the Americans that the founding of their country, when they got the British to evict the French from Canada and then recruited, miraculously, the French to assist them in evicting the British from America. But to do something like that, to in effect play these two great powers off against each other for a whole century, that is an art.
You know, it occurs to me that this speaks to a very Canadian problem, this reluctance to talk about ourselves. Which sort of plays out as this inability to talk at all. "Let’s never talk about our victories, or our potential—"
Or even instead of that, let us dwell upon our flaws and even magnify them, let us dwell upon our shameful record with the Native people. And again, I’m certainly not suggesting we sweep any bad aspects of our history under the rug, not at all, and I don’t do any of that.
Reluctant as I say I am to impute motives to people, especially to categories of people, I think the answer lies in what I think we might call distinctness. All the other G7 countries and other major nationalities not in the G7, like China, India, and Turkey and Egypt and Brazil and all sorts of places, all have a culture that is essentially contained by their borders, I mean of course there are overlaps, but in general the French speak French, the Germans speak German. The Americans set up a different model where they all speak the same language but it became the largest over time, the largest country speaking English, but also became a world nation, and a magnet to the world because of the wealth of their geography and their ability to present their political system as the greatest possible maximization of freedom and individual liberty, there was an element of that that wasn’t exactly true, but that’s not the point of that, it was substantially true and it was a tremendously powerful message and it was very successful. We couldn’t do that because the Americans had already done that, and we were divided between two languages and we were not the most numerous speaker of either of them, and so our position was comparatively ambiguous. And the Americans, usually for good reasons not at all negative ones, really don’t think of Canadians as foreigners, it is for as you know, for a European or a person from another continent, very difficult to tell an English-speaking Canadian from an American from a northern state, the distinctions are much subtler than between someone from Boston, say, or someone from Texas. Someone from the Great Plains and somebody from Alabama. So there was this indistinctness, and Canadians felt it themselves, they could relate very easily to matters in the United States and to some degree to other English-speaking countries. And at times the English-French arrangement in this country have been a matter of weakness, not strength, and we all are aware there’s lots of abrasions even now. So it’s always been complicated, and it’s always been difficult. It’s always been as if we’ve been trying to make a race with reduced lung power, or always with some kind of a handicap because there was this ambiguity about the country or this combination of ambiguities. But on the other hand it’s worked very well, and this is the secret that I’m trying to expose. The fact is, for the first time in 400 years, we’re under no threat of any kind, internally or externally, including a threat of inadequate self-confidence or any reason to have such a lack of confidence. So where do we go from here? It’s a big success story, at a level it’s never been at before.
Okay. Hang on. Do you think that success is spread evenly? Let’s talk about Canada’s media industry. In many ways we’re not as robust as the UK’s print industry, and we’re definitely not as strong as the web and broadcast industries of the US, so where do we fit in?
It is in a state of flux, obviously. I thought that when, well, this may sound like a self-serving statement, but when we were the big newspaper owners I thought our newspaper industry was highly competitive. The British-written daily press is a, it is vibrant, but it has terribly low levels of integrity. And it is in fact in many was a disgraceful institution, there are exceptions to that of course. But the London Fleet Street ethos is unbalanced and a negative thing in that country, and nothing to be proud of, although there are as I say exceptions. In the United States the daily press has not really been very distinguished, with a couple of exceptions, through all of its history. It’s just sort of a lucky utility. Where the Americans of course are tremendously strong is of course, and they have been for a long time, is the film industry and the television industry. Again I think most of the product is absolute pap, rubbish, but their production values are good and their ability to promote it, is remarkable. In broadcasting, I am not one of those who is such a fervent admirer of the BBC, I believe in public broadcasting and there is no doubt that the BBC has its moments, frequent moments. But its news service, especially the domestic news service the British people themselves get, is very biased and not reliable. It’s very anti-Israel, it’s generally rather anti-American, and it’s not representative of the British public. I think their ability to put on dramas and put on cultural programs is very good. And I think, you refer to the CBC, I think the CBC has suffered from being a hybrid, it’s neither one nor the other. And I did not agree with Massey’s recommendation, in the 1950s, the Massey report basically wanted all television and radio entrusted to the CBC, I think that would have been a disaster. I think we have to have private sector competition but I think we need to fund the CBC properly and we haven’t done it, and I think the corporation has been ground down by budgetary reductions, which are essentially political oppression by antagonistic governments masquerading as vigilant and efficient monitoring of the use of the taxpayers’ resources. But also it must be said that the CBC has allowed itself at times to become an unrepresentative infestation of fundamentally unacceptable sentiments. I mean, the French CBC was just a raving hotbed of ostentatious separatist propaganda for decades, and it was a scandal. Trudeau, for one, pointed that out. And I have to say it was extremely amusing and effective when he did it. Remember the time when he threatened to fire the entire French CBC television service and replace them with, how did he put it, Chinese and Japanese vases? He said at least it would be educational. But there certainly is room, in my opinion, to make public broadcasting, in French and English, a much stronger force in this country. And I would be in favour of that. And there are people that could do it, but very few were in the stature to try. I thought Pierre Juneau was very able-headed at the CBC and he had the political influence, he was friendly with Trudeau and Trudeau didn’t cut his budget. But since then I don’t think we’ve had that. And I mean I go there a lot, for one reason or another. There’s all these consultants milling about, if you have to bring in consultants it means you don’t really know how to run your business, so the answer isn’t to bring in consultants it’s to get people that know how to run the business. Which does not mean consultants, if they knew how to run a business they’d do that, wouldn’t they? For the rest, when it’s a straight matter of the language, printed, we are directly competing with other countries that write in English: the Americans and the British. And they’re bigger countries than we are, with a broader and deeper tradition of this kind of thing than we do. So it is hard to compete, but it can be done.
Your previous company, Hollinger, at its height, was one of the world’s largest newspaper chains. So I’ve got to ask, what do you make of Canada’s newspapers today?
Most of them are quite mediocre now, unfortunately. And in dealing with the internet they focus just on cutting costs and the fact is, anyone who buys a broadsheet newspaper today is an A, B, C1 reader, who’s not that sensitive to cover price. If you strengthen the coverage and paid for it by raising the cover price you’d get more towards the British model where circulation revenue is larger than it is here, and advertising revenue is a smaller percentage of income. And if you did that you could increase the advertising revenue because you could make the case that the demographic was tremendously advantageous, I just don’t think they’re doing it right.
What about their attempts at 21st century journalism?
It’s unlimited, I mean, I think it’s sort of inspiring in a way, but I would make this point: that the traditional names will still pull the eyeballs because they’re great names in public relations. The Toronto Globe and Mail is a great trademark even if the paper isn’t very good, and I’m not saying it isn’t, it’s not a bad paper, but it’s a huge trademark. And in a field where digital access is unlimited, where picture definition on the internet is comparable to television, so there is a practically unlimited number of places to go to, a big famous historic name like that can be used to draw people in, you just have to use it right.
Not to shift gears too dramatically, but I’m curious actually, how do you consume media, how do you read? I mean, I understand you have a considerable library.
I have thirty thousand books in my house in Toronto, I think we have ten or fifteen thousand in England. So it’s a lot of books. But I know you can Google most of this stuff, but if you’re looking for particular passage in the book and you’re writing as I do late at night, if it’s 2 am and you vaguely remember something, somebody wrote something in such and such a book, you’re not going to be able to Google it. And you’re not going to be able to get it from anyone else at that hour, but if you’re able to say, well, I actually have that book, it’s just on the shelf up there, then it does make life easier.
There’s also that tactile quality of holding a book...
I like it. I don’t much like reading on screens. We all have to do it a lot, but it’s not the same, it’s very impersonal. You’re right, it’s missing the tactile thing. When you change subjects it’s gone, you see, but when you put the book back on the shelf it’s still there. I understand it’s inefficient, a greater waste of space, but psychologically it’s a great attachment.
I ask about your books, and to extrapolate, your accomplishments, because collecting is a lot like listing. I’m paraphrasing heavily here, but Umberto Eco once said, we list because we don’t want to die. Which is an interesting meditation on the idea of legacy. What do you make of that?
I’m always hesitant to contradict him, he’s one of those people who always seems a bit glib but when you think about it it’s usually right. Do you mind just repeating that?
Yeah, paraphrased: "We list because we don’t want to die."
If by we don’t want to die, I mean obviously we don’t want to die, but on the other hand obviously we’re going to, so if what he really means is, we collect and we list to try to leave something behind that mitigates the act of death I think he’s probably right. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think we do it because we enjoy it while we’re alive, but some desire for permanence or at least something to be positively remembered for is probably part of it. If that’s what he meant I think he’s right.
I began this interview asking how you unwind. I did that because it’s really hard to separate Conrad Black the man from his accomplishments. So what do you consider the ingredients of a legacy.
I’m not sure. I’m still working on that, but I suspect what you would need to do, is do something distinctive and do it well, so that people remember it. I mean, essentially a legacy is what people remember you for. If you don’t do anything significant, or if you do something significant but make an absolutely disaster out of it, it’s a legacy but it’s not the kind of legacy I think you’re talking about. Kaiser Wilhelm had a legacy, but not, I suspect, the kind he wanted to leave. If you don’t do anything significant, your legacy is really just among those people that you knew, it’s essentially limited to them, and there’s no particular reason for it to be perpetuated beyond their ability to remember you. Not everyone has to leave a legacy, and I don’t think we should get into the business, whether consciously or otherwise, trying to convince whole population they have to leave a legacy, I mean, some people do and some people don’t, and some people don’t care about it, they get through their lives as pleasantly as they can and pass on. If you’re asking me about myself, despite the fact that I’m 70 I still feel the same way I did 30 years ago, I’m still building my career, I lost a whole year dealing with the onslaught unleashed upon me in the United States with its Canadian helpers, so as far as I’m concerned I’m really only 60 instead of 70, so I’m now doing what I should have been doing in my 60s, and when I get to be 80 I will consider what to do. As long as I have the mental and physical stamina I never have any interest in retiring, I might change what I do but I wouldn’t retire. My father was a very successful man and retired in his late 40s, and died prematurely in his 60s, and the last 20 years of his life were an anticlimax.
Mr. Black, thank you very much.
That was my conversation with Lord Conrad Black. Rise to Greatness is published by McLelland and Stewart, it’s in stores now.
I’ve been trying to stump you this entire interview, so, tell me about... The Moon.
It’s there. It reflects the sun but it doesn’t do much else, does it?
It might help with the tides now and then.
Yeah, yeah. They can be good if you’re trying to float your boat, but damned inconvenient if you’re swimming.