Writing in Monday’s Ottawa Citizen, philosopher and social theorist Andrew Potter touched on an aspect of the Conrad Black story heretofore untouched by the Canadian media. “Conrad Black’s trial for fraud, racketeering, and obstruction of justice won’t conclude for a while yet,” he wrote. “But he and his wife have long since been convicted by the public of a far more serious crime: social climbing.” Black’s status as a parvenu manqué is more or less a constant in the British press, where his arrival and departure from the scene are treated with the same wogs-gone-wild disdain reserved for the late Robert Maxwell and Mohamed Al-Fayed. The Canadian media is rather less comfortable talking about the specifics of class and status, since, broadly speaking, Canadian journalists and commentators hew to an egalitarian line with few competing ideas on the other side. Such institutions as the Toronto Club, the Queen’s Club, UCC, UTS, U of T, Queen’s and McGill are pale imitations of their American and British equivalents, and so simply don’t carry the same cachet in the public imagination. What’s left is a sort of crude they-think-they’re-better-than-us-but-they’re-not dialectic that lacks the subtlety and stratification of Anglo-American discourse.
All that having been said, Potter’s effort is a breath of fresh air in that it seeks to illuminate something fundamentally true: “…the Blacks are arrivistes of the first order… But so what if they are? Social climbing is just a particular form of status-seeking, and we live in probably the most status-conscious culture on the face of the Earth.” What Potter misses in all this are crucial details, nuances of the Blacks’ progress and egress and, more importantly, the broader context in which these events are taking place. For instance, Potter writes that, “The class-based model of status is pretty much obsolete. Nowadays, there are multiple and somewhat overlapping social ponds, each with its own status symbols, rules for display, and advancement strategies.” The second half of that formulation is correct but essentially trivial, while the first part is just plain wrong. Class is more important than ever in both sorting and ultimately determining status. How else to explain the rising rate of so-called legacy acceptance at elite American universities, and a related phenomenon, the continued and widening gap between the wealthy and the middle class? As for status existing in different social ponds, well, apes battle over status, too, but they don’t dole out university degrees that establish a pecking order for generations to come or engineer appointed legislative bodies that ossify that same hierarchy.
Potter goes on to write that, “If Lord and Lady Black made a mistake, it is that they chose a rather unfashionable ladder to climb. That’s right, even the various types of status that can be ranked according to status, and the aristocratic positional markers that are employed in the Blacks’ chosen social milieu are, in the opinion of just about everyone, in rather poor taste… In retrospect, the Blacks might have been better settling for a condo in Williamsburg [a “hip” section of Brooklyn], where they could have lorded it over the local hipster aristocracy.” That’s just daft. Conrad Black’s ambitions may have been arcane, given that the “positional marker” most readily associated with class these days is money (and in the end he clearly didn’t have enough of it ready to hand). But they were rational, even admirable, given the class from which he emerged in Canada. Black has something of the amateur about him. He actually loves the “deferences and preferments,” which he seeks for their own sake. In fact, it was only when he sought the brass ring in the more quantitatively oriented upper echelons of American society that he got into real trouble. One of Potter’s summary arguments runs thusly: “…very, very few people are genuinely unconcerned with their place in the scheme of things and how they rank next to their peers. These come in two main types: the homeless person and the English eccentric. The fact that these are often indistinguishable is not a coincidence.”
And more, Conrad Black might well conclude in retrospect, is the pity.