One of the many good things about living in a city with incredible public library is I’m always finding insightful, original and thought-provoking books that otherwise would have escaped my notice had I been left my own devices to somehow seek them out. Unfortunately, the only downside to discovering these kind of books is once I’ve read them, it takes me forever to write a review. Whenever I encounter a book like Walter Russell Mead’s God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World-a book that is long, informative, well-researched and as deep as it is wide-it takes me a while to digest it all. But, after weighing the pros and cons of his arguments and as well as his supporting evidence, eventually I reach the point when I can start writing about it. So here it goes.
According to Mead, Britain and America’s global predominance over the last few hundred years is a product both nations’ individualistic politico-economic ideology, which in turn is a product of the Anglo-American religious experience. That experience originates with an Abrahamic sense of chosenness and mission, Calvinist zeal and industriousness, religious pluralism and freedom and helped provide the fertile setting for economic dynamism and innovation, democratic institutions and victorious militaries. Borrowing from the writings of Karl Popper, this strength can be found in communities where the opposing forces of religious zeal, traditionalism and rationalism, in competing with each other help create open, and as a result incredibly vibrant and productive societies.
With Mead’s book, just those by Jared Diamond, Victor Davis Hanson and Lee Harris is not a history book, but an interpretation of history and should be taken as such. At best such books serve as one person’s intelligent and insightful commentaries on not just what happened in history but more importantly why. At worst, books like these are written by brilliant individuals who are nevertheless slaves to their own deeply held ideologies, and as a result live in worlds of their own creation. To those who might dismiss Mead as an apologist for a reactionary “triumphalist” school of historical thought, I would urge caution. In his book he blisteringly attacks the arrogance and recklessness that lead to recent invasion of Iraq. He also speaks respectfully and optimistically about Islam, feeling that groups like Al-Qaeda are merely the manifestations of societal growing pains as the religion slowly comes to grips with modernity, just as other groups, (Protestants and Catholics in the West, animist and the like in Africa and North America), had to do same.
While I found God and Gold to be a meaty book thanks its depth and scope, overall I thought Mead’s book was decently written, and considering the ground it covered well-edited too. However, at the end of the book Mead’s almost mystic appreciation of Reinhold Niebuhr went a little too far, but fortunately it didn’t cause me too much grief. In short, this is a book that should generate a good deal of intelligent discussion. And of course, I completely welcome it.