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The dark pleasures of Conrad Black by Pascal Lotbiniere

Many things give pleasure, even the misery of others. There is surprisingly little written about this phenomenon, but there is a lot written about Conrad Black. The last seven years of the life of Mr. Black have been difficult for him, and who among us has not privately, even furtively, taken an ounce of pleasure from that? He is an easy guy to dislike. Black is insightful and he cares about his public image, so of course he is aware of the delight we take in his tribulations. He taunted us with outrageous claims of innocence and superiority and provided a feeding frenzy for our schadenfreude. Our own dark monsters gorged on the meaty morsels thrown off by his troubles, following the trail wherever Conrad led. Deliberately or otherwise, he has taught us the dark side of the joy we get from the misfortunes of others. He has rubbed our noses in the guilt of this pleasure so much that now some of us actually feel sorry for him. He has held his ground and proclaimed his innocence without compromise, possibly to the point of delusion. Everyone who has followed his story has drawn some lessons from it. This man, known for his love of polysyllables, has taught us the meaning of “schadenfreude.” It is a word permanently borrowed from German because we, and even Conrad, could not find the right word in English. “Schaden” is harm, “Freude” is joy.” We did not have to look so far for new names for Mr. Black; his high-flying career has earned him enemies, enviers and unkind nicknames. “Tubby” Black seems to have stuck, and Lord Black of Cross Dressing had a lot of mileage especially when used as a caption for the outfit he put on for his investiture into the House of Lords. Do we feel badly about that now? 2005, the year he was hit with 12 criminal charges, was the beginning of the end for Black’s highest flying. His conviction in 2007 and his return to jail last year after a partially successful appeal deepened our understanding of the dark joys and deep dangers of riding the black serpent of schadenfreude. Black is probably less happy now than while he was accumulating newspapers and going to fancy dress parties, but who knows? He absolutely gets top marks for putting on a brave face. He says he’s a better person for it all. He says he has evolved. His is not an unexamined life so maybe we should believe this. The Dalai Lama says that compassion, the opposite of schadenfreude, is the root of happiness. After following Black’s journey, who does not have a tad more compassion for people of whom we never really approved? It may well be the first time these two names have been linked in the same w w w. th eh appy m ag azi n e. c o m / 1 / 2 2

sentence but here it goes: both Conrad Black and the Dalai Lama have something to teach us about compassion. In a wonderful piece of low journalism, Christie Blatchford noted that Black’s fate hung in the hands of a jury “each of whose thighs appear to weigh more than all of Barbara Amiel on a fat day.” Don’t tell me that you do not share at least a shred of Blatchford’s evil delight in this improbable juxtaposition. By the time Mr. Black was convicted in 2007, the bloom was coming off the dark rose. No one except Black speaks up for his innocence anymore, yet the entire weight of the American legal system, including a visit to the Supreme Court was unable to break his superior spirit – or his spirit of superiority. In a Vanity Fair article, he claimed to be unashamed of his time in jail and even found large words to describe cavity searches, adding the phrase “that generally unremitting orifice” to the long, long compendium of quotable Conrad. That is Conrad Black talking about his bum! Taking joy in hearing about Conrad Black’s bum goes well beyond any guilty pleasure. Surely, our capacity for schadenfreude is now exhausted. Thank you for the journey, Conrad Black. You have given us a greater insight into what it is to be you than you may have intended. We have evolved with you and following one of the laws of untended consequences, your troubles may have made us better people too. Perhaps that, and familiarity with the word “schadenfreude,” are your most lasting contributions to society.

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