ROMANTICISM AND TERRORISM

I’ve decided to liven things up a bit here at the old homestead, and to that end, will be republishing some of my favorite old posts by moving them to the top of the page.
This is a really good article, and has been referenced by lots of folks on the web:
Among the Bourgeoisophobes
In it, David Brooks pulls together strains of thought which look at what I’ll loosely call “Western Civilization” and violently reject much of it. Why? Damn good question. But ask yourself: Why is it that when I was in college in the 70’s, the leaders of the most violent radical groups were the children of upper- and upper-middle-class families? Why are the leaders of the Islamicist movement the prosperous, the well-educated, in short, those most likely to prosper and succeed in the context of the Western market economy?
There are a lot of reasons.
And by coincidence, I happened to pick up a book that lays out the philosophical underpinnings that support this issue. It’s a damn good book, and one that anyone who grew up in the shadow of the 60’s … that would be anyone born after 1950 … ought to read.
The Roots of Romanticism by Isiah Berlin.
Isiah Berlin is not considered by many to have been a “serious” philosopher. He never wrote the “Big Book” that was expected of him. But he was hella smart, and in a world where there was required reading for college freshmen, his lectures and smaller publications would be on the list.
To brutally truncate his argument into one quote, let me offer this:


Suppose you went …and spoke with [long list of European Romatic intellectual figures, including Hugo, de Staël, Schlegel, Goethe, Coleridge, Byron]
Suppose you had spoken to these persons. You would have found that their ideal of life was approximately of the following kind. The values to which they attached the highest importance were such values as integrity, sincerity, readiness to sacrifice one’s life to some inner light, dedication to an ideal for which it is worth sacrificing all that one is, for which it is worth both living and dying. You would have found that they were not primarily interested in knowledge, or in the advancement of science, not interested in political power, not interested in happiness, not interested, above all, in adjustment to life, in finding your place in society, in living at peace with your government, even loyalty to your king, or your republic. You would have found common sense, moderation, was very far from their thoughts. You would have found that they believed in the necessity of fighting for your beliefs to the last breath in your body, and you would have found that they believed in the value of martyrdom as such, no matter what the martyrdom was for. You would have found that they believed that minorities were more holy than majorities, that failure was nobler than success, which had something shoddy and vulgar about it. The very notion of idealism, not in its philosophical sense, but in the ordinary sense in which we use it, that is to say the state of mind of a man who is willing to sacrifice a great deal for principles or some conviction, who is not prepared to sell out, who is prepared to go to the stake for something which he believes, because he believes in it – this attitude was relatively new. What people admired was wholeheartedness, sincerity, purity of soul, the ability and readiness to dedicate yourself to your ideal, no matter what it was.
No matter what it was: that is the important thing.
(pp 8 – 9)


Sound familiar?
What began to matter wasn’t the endless small adjustments to “objective” reality or to work with others – what mattered was your wholehearted willingness to pull down the temple rather than submit, and your ability to project your dreams and ideals – objectively, your fantasies – into the world and to try and make the world conform to them, rather than the other way ‘round.
Shortly after I read this book, I was having a late-night dinner at a terrible Italian restaurant in Long Beach, CA (wow, too awful to even allow me to remember the name), and the only other party was a group of “modern-Okie” aerospace workers…badly dressed, overweight, uncultured (they were talking excitedly about ‘The Bachelor’). The dads (two couples w/multiple kids) were apparently in the aerospace industry, and I had a jolt of realization…these were the families that built the airplanes that I fly around in, and millions of families like them build our houses, buildings, sewers, provide water and electricity, etc. etc. And I began to look at my own attitudes and wonder just why the hell I felt permission to look amusedly at them, and to wonder for a moment which team I was on, and which one I wanted to be on.
Just a thought.
Originally posted May 8, 2002

6 thoughts on “ROMANTICISM AND TERRORISM”

  1. Another reason for Islamists leaders being from prosperous upper middle class backgrounds is this class has the most ambition to expand their economic success into a political voice in the society and how it functions. When these ambitions are quashed by tyrannical rule the only path for this ambitious middle class is revolutionary changes in the society accompainied by military revolt. Our own revolution was led by the upper middle class colonists and the English revolution resulting in Cromwell was fostered by a commercial middle class frustrated by a king who would not grant them political participation. The pecularity with Islam is that the dictatorial leaders of the Arab world have used Islamic tradition to blame their failure to include an expanding middle class in political participation on “Western imperialism”, the United States being the largest target.

  2. You should also take into account that Romanticism has common roots with Marxism, critical theory, and even Nazism. All can be traced to Rousseau’s critique of free mercantile societies. They manifested themselves in very different ways (“Rousseau’s Hydra” as I’ve called it at WildMonk.net) but all share a gut-level antipathy to the aggregation of material wealth in a societies whose highest values are practicality and common-sense.

  3. The core of this sort of all-for-the-concept idealism is surely deeper than Romanticism, though modern thought identifies it strongly with the names you (or Berlin) cite. The obvious western historical precedents are Socrates and Christ.

  4. Yo, let’s not forget that it works both ways.
    Let’s also rember that this passion also animated Martin Luther King and Ghandi.

  5. I think this is a really bad idea for how to explain what happened with the late 1960’s and current Jihadist movement. Having read the article from the Weekly Standard (a magazine very much influenced by the neoconservative philosophy of its founders), I have great doubts that hatred of the bourgeois is somehow the great linkage between those supporting a two state solution in SW Asia or why many people around the world have criticisms of economic globalization or the Americanization of the world.
    Most people who hold these criticisms are members of the middle socioeconomic class (relative to the cultural context one is in) and have their fair share of technological expertise, midsection flabiness, and dull entertainment. Some of the traits given of Arab/Islamic culture (the sense of universal sensual (I couldn’t use the other word as a censor program is in place) shame) seem to amount to little more than poor stereotypes and to conflate these trends to European anger at American foreign policy is ludicrous. Too much of the article reads as a standard demonization of the left via the right wing’s favorite stereotyping of the left and seeks to uphold one of neoconservatism’s pillars, that of being right (completely arbitrary) justifying might.
    In short, I see little reason to believe that the bourgeoisphobe paradigm has any use for explaining the social dynamics at work behind the causes of terrorism. The idea that one unifying theory could explain the New Left, Jihadism, Nazism, and Marxism is laughable.

  6. “Let’s also rember that this passion also animated Martin Luther King and Ghandi.”
    MLK was not animated by any sort of anti-bourgeois sentiment whatsoever. He is as close to an American saint as we have, and was staunchly pro-America, in that he believed in the heroism of everyday people, and understood the innate appeal of ‘fair play’ to average Americans. He reached out to everyone and did not treat anyone with contempt, even those who were undoubtedly his intellectual inferiors.
    MLK’s mission was hijacked by phony civil rights activists who are actually some of the worst America bashers, and share a philosophical relationship with Communists and Islamists.
    After his assassination, the tone and direction of civil rights was altered, with disastrous results. It is going to take another generation for minorities to get back on the right track.
    Please do not confuse MLK’s mission with those who came after.

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