Class War in Conrad’s Court

Class War in Conrad’s Court

The jury selection for the trial of a Canadian press baron accused of looting shareholder earnings reveals popular discontent with the corporate elite.


During the jury selection process at the Conrad Black fraud trial in Chicago, the judge polled potential jurors on their impressions of Black’s home, Canada. “Socialist country,” one replied. According to press accounts, Black, once the third-most-powerful press baron in the world, turned to his wife, Barbara Amiel, and they shared a smile. At last, a juror after their own hearts–the couple had been redbaiting Canadians for years.

The Black trial is an odd beast: A Canadian who gave up his citizenship to be a British Lord is on trial in the United States for allegedly pocketing tens of millions that belonged to the shareholders of Chicago-based Hollinger International. Every twist is front-page international news, but most Americans have no idea who Black is. In his opening remarks, Black’s lawyer Edward Genson assured the jury, “In his native Canada and England, he’s a household name.”

It makes sense that Lord Black is a nobody in Chicago. Black never needed to bother with politics in the United States–as far as he was concerned, the country was close to perfect. It was the rest of the English-speaking world that required Black’s bombastic ideological lectures. Delivering those was his life’s mission.

Black is the world’s leading advocate of the “Anglosphere,” a movement calling for the creation of a bloc of English-­speaking countries. Adherents claim that the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand must join together against the Muslim world and anyone else who poses a threat. For Black, the United States is not just the obvious leader of the Anglosphere but the economic and military model that all Anglo countries should emulate, as opposed to the soft European Union.

Although the consolidation of the Anglosphere as a political bloc receives far less scrutiny than US military interventions, it has been a crucial plank of Washington’s imperial projects. The movement recently gained some notoriety when it emerged that on February 28, the White House had hosted a “literary luncheon” for George W. Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s new favorite writer, ultra­right British historian Andrew Roberts, author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, an Anglosphere manifesto. But it is Black who has been the linchpin of Anglosphere campaigns for two decades, using his British and Canadian newspapers to reach out and collectively hug his beloved United States. In Britain this took the form of using the Daily Telegraph as a beachhead against “euro-integrationism” and insisting that Britain’s future lies not with the EU but with Washington. This vision reaches its zenith, of course, with the Bush-Blair team-up in Iraq.

In Canada, where Black controlled roughly half the daily newspapers, the push to Americanize was even more strident. When Black founded the daily National Post in 1998, it was with the explicit goal of weaning Canadians from our social safety net (a “hammock”) and forming a new party of the “united right” to unseat the governing Liberals.

So, if Black was going to get a sympathetic jury anywhere, it should have been in the United States, where regular people worship the wealthy because they are convinced they could be the next to strike it rich (unlike those envious, over-taxed and -regulated Europeans and Canadians). Perhaps in 2000, at the height of the stock market bubble, Black would have faced a jury made up of such supportive folks, ones who would have looked at his uncanny ability to divert Hollinger profits into his own accounts and said, “More power to you.” But in 2007 Black came face to face with the casualties of the boom’s collapse and of the ideological revolution he so aggressively globalized. As the judge questioned a pool of 140 prospective jurors in order to whittle the group down to twelve, plus eight alternates, she found men and women who had “lost every dime” in the WorldCom collapse, whose pensions had evaporated on the stock market, who had been fired thanks to outsourcing and who’d had their finances ravaged by identity theft.

Asked what they thought of executives who earn tens of millions of dollars, jurors answered almost uniformly in the negative. “Who could possibly do that much work or be that much capable?” one asked. A union mechanic’s apprentice pointed out that no matter how much he works, “I’m barely getting by as it is, living at home.” No one said “more power to you.”

Many appeared to regard North America’s ultrarich the way Russians see their oligarchs–even if the way they amassed their fortunes was legal, it shouldn’t have been. “I just don’t think anyone should get that amount of money from any company, example Enron and WorldCom,” one juror wrote. Others said, “I feel that there is corruption everywhere”; anyone paid as much as Black “probably stole it”; “I am sure this goes on all the time and I hope they get caught.” John Tien, a 40-year-old accountant at Boeing, launched into such an elaborate lecture about the accounting scams endemic in corporate America that Black’s lawyers asked the judge to question him in private, to prevent his views from influencing the other potential jurors.

Regardless of what else happens in the Black saga, the jury-selection process has already provided an extraordinary window onto the way regular Americans, randomly selected, view their elites–not as heroes but as thieves. As far as Black is concerned, this is all terribly unfair–he is being “thrown to the mobs” because of rage at the system and, unlike American billionaires, he doesn’t “dress in corduroy trousers” or donate his fortune to AIDS charities. Black’s lawyers even argued (unsuccessfully) that their client could not get a fair trial because the average Chicagoan “does not reside in more than one residence, employ servants or a chauffeur, enjoy lavish furniture, or host expensive parties.”

There is no doubt that what is going on in that courtroom looks less like a fraud trial than class war, one at the heart of the Anglosphere. Even if Black wins, it will be harder to sell the world an ideological model that is so deeply reviled at home.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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