Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 8 March 1998; on the web by permission, August 2003

I would have thought Barlow and Winter, as leftist intellectuals at pains not to offend people of colour, would have avoided using black as a pejorative. A "black book," according to my dictionary, is one that contains the names of people to be criticized or punished. The title fits. The subjects' names are Black, and this book blackens them. Its cover is black, too: dull black, with "THE BIG BLACK BOOK" in glossy black lettering. Might demonization be the agenda here?

If turnabout is fair play, then Black and Amiel had it coming. On those many occasions when they have trained their sharpened pens on leftist intellectuals, they have cut deep. Their contempt for critics of corporate power is visceral. In the midst of the Council of Canadians' unsuccessful effort last year to block his takeover of Southam newspapers, Black referred to "febrile Maude Barlow's little mind." Here Barlow strikes back, aided by co-author James Winter, a Windsor professor and leading critic of concentrated media ownership.

In implicit explanation of why she married Black, Amiel is quoted here as saying that "power is sexy, not simply in its own right, but because it inspires self-confidence in its owner and a shiver of subservience on the part of those who approach it."

Let Amiel speak for herself. Her husband's power inspires no shiver of subservience in these authors. Toadies they are not, and that is good. Toadies make bullies who they are.

Even if fair, turnabout may still be regrettable. According to the cover blurb, this examination of Black's and Amiel's published words shows that "it is the content of their views, not their extraordinary reach, that we should be most concerned about."

I would argue the reverse. The only reason I can see for a book about Conrad Black is that he owns more than half the daily newspapers in this country, among much else. Barlow and Winter say his views are shocking. I find them predictable. He defends the capitalist system that has allowed him to inherit wealth and multiply it to the point that he is our homegrown Citizen Kane. He despises unions. He loathes governmental intrusion on the markets he hogs. He glories in his power and denies it. No surprise. He has scored big in the Great Game, and trained his mind to think narrowly in terms of it.

The best chapter of the book is the last one, called "Democracy's Oxygen" after the title of one of Winter's books. Its argument against concentrated media ownership would be just as sound if half our newspapers were owned by Bob Rae. Barlow and Winter propose that no company or individual should control more than 25 percent of daily newspaper circulation in Canada. I would go further. If we seriously wanted to oxygenate democracy, our laws would prevent any company or individual from owning more than one daily newspaper, TV station, or other major cultural medium.

I am puzzled why Amiel was lumped in with Black as the subject of this book, also why the title gives her his surname. She has been a journalist for thirty years, Black's wife for only five. He is her fourth husband, not likely her last. Whatever one thinks of her ideas, she deserves to be treated as a journalist in her own right.

Almost a third of this book is an exposé of Amiel's thinking on feminism, multiculturalism, and victimization, as if summarizing her views in a snarky tone were enough to discredit them. I would rather have seen her views contextualized—compared, for instance, to other critics of political correctness like Helen Garner, Margaret Wente, Jean Bethke Eshtain, or Christina Hoff Sommers.

At bottom, I recommend this book. The main reason is its lucid demonstration of the extent to which democratic control of Canadian media has been lost. A different reason is its exemplification of a certain no-holds-barred nastiness that has crept into public debate in our country on both the right and the left. Formulating reactions to this fluent, informative paperback may be a struggle for some readers. It has been for me.

This book is one of a series from Stoddart combatting the slippage of the Canadian economy into the hands of global capitalist players like Conrad Black. Tony Clarke and Maude Barlow have collaborated on a still newer volume in the series, MAI: the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and the Threat to Canadian Sovereignty.