They have more relatives who are lawyers (2005)

"The rich are very different from you and me," F. Scott Fitzgerald once said in an apocryphal exchange with Ernest Hemingway, who supposedly replied, "yes, they have more money."

Conrad Black still has a big pile of green, but is hemorrhaging millions of dollars a day in legal fees as he fights eight counts of fraud in a Chicago court. With his former lieutenant, David Radler, willing to testify against him, Black’s situation has veered from the tragic to the farcical. Several years back, when the print baron sought a title in Britain’s House of Lords, Prime Minister Chretien dusted off a hoary parliamentary law that would have nixed Black’s Canadian citizenship if he succeeded. In response, the former head of Hollinger huffed and puffed and blew this subarctic pop stand for good, so he could flounce about in Merry Olde in a swish red robe with white trim. Ironically, Black is now seeking to reactivate his Canadian citizenship, in the hope it will offer a bulwark against extradition to the US.

Black, Radler, and their bottomless sense of entitlement came to mind during my reading of Hugh Kenner’s 1972 biography
Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller. An intellectually adventurous thinker and inventor, Fuller was born into a very wealthy Boston family. A rich uncle, Kenner writes, "did Bucky the favor of taking him aside to explain in Boston's terms how the world was." The unpleasant but unassailable truth was this: there wasn’t enough to go round for everyone. This had apparently been been proven mathematically, three generations early, when the statistician Thomas Malthous demonstrated exactly how population tended to outstrip resources.

The balding bhramins of Boston, like the elite class elsewhere, "had outgrown the era of the Golden Rule, the formulation of a less crowded world." Bucky’s uncle explained that "the possessions of the haves were now founded on the destitution of the have-nots, and despite Sunday-school pieties serviceable to placate women, that was henceforth the unalterable state of things."

In Kenner’s retelling of it, the rich uncle told the young lad that it was necessary for a rich man "to cultivate enough of the red tooth and the unsheathed claw to ensure that he and his loved ones should be haves. This was not nice, and he need not distress the innocent by talking of it, but there was really no choice."

It had been established that a man's chance of passing his life in any comfort was about I in 100. "It is not you or the other fellow," the uncle explained, "it is you or one hundred others." To prosper in the Fuller way with a family of five, he would have to slit the throats - genteelly, of course - of 500 others. "So, do it as neatly and cleanly and politely as you know how, and as your conscience will allow." The author adds that this was "the new role for conscience: the lubricant of murder."

Not incidentally, Malthus’ notion inspired at least one famous thinker, Charles Darwin, who redifined the "fittest" as survivors by definition. A long tradition of social Darwinism, resulting from a misapplication of his thinking, led to some of the worst horrors of the twentieth century. But this was all well in the future at the time of Bucky’s instruction.

Although only a select portion of the very wealthy have any explicit belief or understanding of Malthus, the world has pretty much always functioned as the powerful’s game preserve. From the battles of Agamemnon to the resource wars of the Bush-Cheney junta, the unpleasant truths of power have been shielded by a bodyguard of lies: the twin fictions of patriotism and domestic security. Meanwhile, the poorer parts of the world continue to function, in the language of thermodynamics, as "entropy sinks," where energy, material and cheap labour fuel the high-end lifestyles enjoyed in a dying empire and its outposts.

By imagining historical necessity and biological destiny were one and the same, Fuller’s relatives had had discovered that human evolution had peaked, by happy coincidence, with themselves. However, the young Bucky ended up rejecting their Scrooge-on-steroids reasoning, based as it was on nineteenth-century, closed system ideas, and went on to become one of the twentieth century’s true visionaries.

This brings us full circle to Conrad Black, an elitist to the bone, who got away with murder only in the metaphorical sense. His alleged crime, if we are to abbreviate the prosecution’s brief, is that he went too far. It is acceptable for winners to genteelly prey upon losers. But if creative accounting methods appear to short the stockholders, or other members in the charmed circle of privilege, all bets are off. Tigers don’t prey on lions, and haves don’t go after haves. The rich are indeed different: they retain legal counsel.

Geoff Olson