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Nothing for Granted: Tales of War, Philosophy, and Why the Right Was Mostly Wrong: Selected Writings 2000-2003

by Mark Kingwell

We have hardly set foot upon the deck of Nothing for Granted, University of Toronto philosophy professor Mark Kingwell’s disappointing and haphazard collection of columns from the National Post, when the author himself rings the first clanging alarm: “The pieces are reactive rather than reflective.”

Well, no one who reads newspapers would think otherwise. It seems a rather obvious and unnecessary point to make. So one wonders if this frank apologia is not, in fact, a masquerade to hide a lazier and decidedly more mercantile purpose to the book. In any case, it’s an odd and especially ominous admission from a writer and philosopher as intelligent and engaging as Kingwell.

“There is an art in being inconsequent,” wrote Alfred Kazin of the daily journalist’s tendency to adopt a sententious or overly serious tone. This may explain why the better essays in this collection tend toward the commonplace and everyday, such as the value of baseball’s designated hitter position, a hilarious deconstruction of television’s stupendously awful but irresistible Blind Date, the temptations of technology, or the simple pleasures to be had within the commodity-free zone known as cricket.

Kingwell can be delightful when playing to a crowd with little to gain but sheer amusement. “Food and decorating are the least taxing of aesthetic preoccupations,” he gleefully sneers, “vapid forms of sophistication requiring little effort and yet yielding great rewards in ostentatious superiority.” Incensed to white-hot hysteria when a publishing executive shamefully delights in a preference for a sumptuous meal (“Every course to die for!”) over the pleasures of reading, Kingwell explodes. “There are so many ugly things in that snapshot of a silly life it’s hard to know where to begin. But how about just one: stop saying ‘to die for,’ you loser.”

Zing!

As the subtitle suggests, the meat of the book comprises Kingwell’s musings on politics. And it is to politics and the complicated ethics of leadership and the new world order that he brings the considerable weight of his scholarship. He ranges freely, but his favourite target is the United States and its imperial ambitions. Sadly, it is precisely at the flash point where public policy and private politics collide that Kingwell is most disappointing. What at the time may have been daring and provocative or even courageous too often reads, years later, as trite and churlish and – more damning – recycled.

“Americans,” he writes, “are neither good peacekeepers nor committed conquerors. They are, instead, confused and half-assed imperialists.” The point is not that Kingwell is wrong, necessarily. Or that such crass and childish bullying does his argument a disservice, which it most certainly does. It is to suggest, rather, that events have made moot his objections. One finishes a column not with incentive for further, deeper contemplation, but with a shrug of bland indifference.

It would have been more compelling if Kingwell had helped to unravel answers to the big questions. What constitutes a just war? When does a decision to go to war become valid?

Kingwell provides tantalizing hints of the possibilities of what might have been: “There are always too many gods, or too few, to save us. It is terrifying to realize we are all on our own down here in the land of mortals. But sooner or later, we have to grow up and look after ourselves, cherishing what is good in our dreams and bracing for the nightmares that must come, from inside as well as outside. And then, as we all know but pretend not to, we die.”

Not the happiest advice. But perhaps the wisest.