Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Sparkle of Weath

Conrad Black is on trial. So what? The sad and bitter truth of the matter is that Black is actually not important. Certainly, he doesn't merit the attention Canadian media heap on him. The only good thing about this trial is that it can tell us something. This trial is, in microcosm, about damage control. What needs to be controlled is not is the widespread perception that the wealthy somehow might not deserve to be vastly richer -- unbelievably vastly richer -- than the rest of us. What needs to be reigned in is the idea that there is something wrong with unbelievably rich people flouting the basic moral conventions of society and good sense in instances of truly shocking self indulgence while others go hungry.

Since the first day of the trial, well, since long before it, Black, his legal team and his wife have tried to portray this trial as being about something that it is not. The legal issue is straight forward: did Black, his friends and colleagues, break the law in the course of amassing their huge fortunes. Did they take money that was legally the property of others. However one spins it, the this is a trial about theft. It is not petty theft because of the amount of money involved, but the same basic legal principles are involved: did Black et al take something that was not their's. If they did, they are thieves. If they did not, they are innocent.

From the beginning -- indeed, long before the beginning -- Black and co (but mostly Black's legal team) have argued that they have done nothing wrong and because of that, this trial must be about something else. It must be a malicious prosecution organized by people who dislike Black, by his enemies, he might even believe. Year's ago, Black's wife said something similar during the prosecution of Martha Stewart. Barbara Amiel -- a sometimes columnist for Macleans -- argued that the prosecution of Stewart was small-minded. It was conducted by little people who were envious of Stewart's wealth. Little people, as it were, were using the legal system to bring down the big people who, in real life, they otherwise could not touch and of whom they were envious. The prosecution had nothing to do, in her view, with the legal issue involved (did Stewart take something that was not her's?), but instead was being conducted for other reasons. Amiel's argument bears striking affinities to Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. Those who have read this book know that it is about a number of things but one thing it is about is a discussion of the development of religion. Nietzsche argues that the Judeo-Christian tradition has a number of things wrong with it but one of the things it has wrong with it is its origins. It is a religion, he says, of the weak used to control the strong and powerful who otherwise would dominate society. What Amiel did was substitute legal system for religion.

It was very important early on for Black's legal team to establish this point: being wealthy is not a crime. The judge, in fact, ended up saying so. The discourse went something like jurors should not be blinded by the sparkle of wealth. The legal principle seems solid enough: just a case on the facts. The cultural discourse is something else: be aware that the only reason Black might be before the court is that he is wealthy. I'm not 100% certain but this, I think, is the argument Black and his legal team would want to make. It is the counter-narrative they wish to tell. If Black is not guilty, why is he in court? Because the sparkle of wealthy blinded envious people who used the legal system to work out their own frustrations.

Is Black guilty? I don't know. I don't care. What I care about is the way CBC and other media picked up on this story. What is interesting is that the Canadian media framed this story in exactly this way: criminal or maliciously prosecuted by envious small-minded individuals who are just trying to take down one of the supermen? The problem here is severalfold. Not only is the Canadian media reading a script that could have been written by Black's legal team, but they are reading it uncritically. They are framing this issue in a certain way and in so doing are missing other stories. What might those stories be?

Well, there are a bunch but the key story that could be asked is the legitimacy of vast accumulations of wealth in the first place. Even if it is legal, is it right -- in a moral sense of the world (and, folks, I believe we need moral values to be a civilized society) -- for the already super rich to enjoy perks beyond like birthday parties that cost more than some people's yearly incomes? Let's say Black is completely innocent of the charges before him, one can still ask: does this make his actions right? Is a legal system that allows such gross inequalities of wealth a good legal system or is it so riddled with loop-holes as to be malfunctioning? What happens when large -- indeed massive -- private corporations have little or no effective oversight? Do they function in the public good? Do they function in their investors' good?

There are no easy answers to these types of questions. I don't mean there to be. I've said before, ethics is complex stuff. Societies are complex things. If the answers were simple, we'd all live in Utopia. What concerns me is not the ease of the answer but the fact that such questions are not being asked. The problem is not that one produces this or that answer, the problem is damage control. As long as this issue is framed as a criminal v malicious prosecution by the little people issue, we cannot advance to ask the more important questions and, what is more, we cannot advance to ask the more important questions regardless of how this trial turns out. If Black ends up being guilty, then he is a criminal. If he ends up being innocent, then this is a malicious prosecution. If he ends up being guilty, then the story is that the legal system worked and nabbed a criminal. If he ends up being innocent, then the story is the question: why was he prosecuted in the first place? In either instance, the way this trial is being framed can lead nowhere in terms of critical analysis. It focuses attention on Black and not the important social, cultural, legal, and economic issues that should be addressed. This is a shame because cases like this should/could provide a change to explore inequities in society and to consider our basic ethical principles. The fact that this one won't is a tribute to how effective the damage control surrounding it really is.
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