Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit on bourgeois anti-heroism
These are excerpts from an article by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit published in the New York Review of Books, Vol XLIX, Number 1 (2002).

Enemies of the West usually aspire to be heroes. As Mussolini exhorted his new Romans: "Never cease to be daring!" Islamism, Nazism, fascism, communism are all heroic creeds. Mao's ideal of permanent revolution was a blueprint for continually stirring things up, for a society invigorated by constant heroic violence. The common enemy of revolutionary heroes is the settled bourgeois, the city dweller, the petty clerk, the plump stockbroker, going about his business, the kind of person, in short, who might have been working in an office in the World Trade Center. It is a peculiar trait of the bourgeoisie, perhaps the most successful class in history, at least so far, according to Karl Marx, to be hated so intensely by some of its most formidable sons and daughters, including Marx himself. Lack of heroism in the bourgeois ethos, of committing great deeds, has a great deal to do with this peculiarity. The hero courts death. The bourgeois is addicted to personal safety. The hero counts death tolls, the bourgeois counts money. Bin Laden was asked by his interviewer in 1998 whether he ever feared betrayal from within his own entourage. He replied: "These men left worldly affairs, and came here for jihad."

Intellectuals, themselves only rarely heroic, have often displayed a hatred of the bourgeois and an infatuation with heroism--heroic leaders, heroic creeds. Artists in Mussolini's Italy celebrated speed, youth, energy, instinct, and death-defying derring-do. German social scientists before World War II were fascinated with the juxtaposition of the hero and the bourgeois: Werner Sombart's Merchants and Heroes and Bogislav von Selchow's The Civil and the Heroic Man are but two examples of the genre. Von Selchow was one, among many others, by no means all German, who argued that bourgeois liberal society had become cold, fragmented, decadent, mediocre, lifeless. The bourgeois, he wrote, is forever hiding himself in a life without peril. The bourgeois, he said, is anxious to eliminate "fighting against Life, as he lacks the strength necessary to master it in its very nakedness and hardness in a manly fashion."

To the likes of von Selchow or Ernst Jünger, World War I showed a different, more heroic side of man. That is why the Battle of Langemarck, a particularly horrific episode in 1914, in which Jünger himself took part, became such a subject for hero worship. Some 145,000 men died in a sequence of uttery futile attacks. But the young heroes, many of them from elite universities like the Japanese kamikaze pilots thirty years later, were supposed to have rushed to their early graves singing the Deutschlandlied. The famous words of Theodor Körner, written a century before, were often evoked in remembrance: "Happiness lies only in sacrificial death." In the first week of the current war in Afghanistan, a young Afghan warrior was quoted in a British newspaper. "The Americans," he said, "love Pepsi Cola, but we love death." The sentiments of the Langemarck cult exactly.

Even those who sympathize with the democratic West, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, have pointed out the lack of grandeur, the intellectual conformity, and the cultural mediocrity that are supposed to be inherent in our systems of government. Democracy, Tocqueville warned, could easily become the tyrrany of the majority. He wrote that there were no great writers in America, or indeed anything that might be described as great. It is a common but somewhat questionable complaint. For it is not at all clear that art and culture in New York is any more mediocre that it is in Damascus or Bejing.

Much in our affluent, market-driven societies is indeed mediocre, and there is nothing admirable about luxury per se, but when contempt for the bourgeois creature comforts becomes contempt for life you know the West is under attack. The contempt can come from many sources, but it appeals to those who feel impotent, marginalized, excluded, or denigrated: the intellectual who feels unrecognized, the talentless art student in a city filled with brilliance, the time-serving everyman who disappears into any crowd, the young man from a third-world country who feels mocked by the indifference of a superior West; the list of possible recruits to a cult of death is potentially endless.

Liberalism, wrote an early Nazi theorist, A. Moeller v.d. Bruck, is the "liberty for everybody to be a mediocre man." The way out of mediocrity, say the sirens of the death cult, is to submerge one's petty ego into a mass movement, whose awesome energies will be unleashed to create greatness in the name of the Führer, the Emperor, God, or Allah. The Leader personifies all one's yearnings for grandeur. What is the mere life of one, two or a thousand men, if higher things are at stake? This is a license for great violence against others: Jews, infidels, bourgeois liberals, Sikhs, Muslims, or whoever must be purged to make way for a greater, grander world.

... Self-sacrifice is the highest honor in the war against the West. It is the absolute opposite of the bourgeois fear for his life. And youth is the most capable of sacrificial acts. Most kamikazes were barely out of high school. As bin Laden has said, "The sector between fifteen and twenty-five is the one with ability for jihad and sacrifice."

... There is no clash of civilizations. Most religions, especially monotheistic ones, have the capacity to harbor the anti-Western poison. And varieties of secular fascism can occur in all cultures. The current conflict, therefore, is not between East and West, Anglo-America and the rest, or Judeo-Christianity and Islam. The death cult is a deadly virus which now strives, for all manner of historical and political reasons, in extreme forms of Islam.

... Al-Qaeda is making a serious bid to stage an Islamist revolution that would bring down governments from Indonesia to Tunisia... The West, and not just the geographical West, should counter this intelligently with the full force of calculating bourgeois anti-heroism. Accountants mulling over shady bank accounts and undercover agents bribing their way will be more useful in the long-term struggle than special macho units blasting their way into the caves of Afghanistan.