Here's the New Statesman's list of the 50 heroes of our time. It looks very similar to a list of the 50 most tiresome egomaniacs of our time.
Some bloggers infer from this that New Statesman readers are idiots. True. But I take another message - the very notion of heroism is unpleasant.
What the list shows is that there's a big distinction between heroism and excellence. I reckon only a handful of the people on the list owe their position to technical excellence: Attenborough, Sen, Yunus, Berners-Lee , Barenboim and - being generous - Gates or Dylan.
Chomsky and Dawkins aren't there for their work in linguistics or biology, but rather for their monomanic dogmatic certitude.
And this is a feature of many heroes. Taking a consistent stand for one's beliefs - especially in the face of oppression - requires a certain pigheadedness, a belief that you have the "Truth" is on your side. This rules out attractive qualities of doubt, reflection, originality and irony.
Of course, many of the heroes on the Staggers' list, such as Peter Tatchell or Aung San Suu Kyi, do indeed have right on their side. But what makes them exceptional is not that they have perceived the truth with more clarity than others - the truths they espouse are obvious - but rather that they cling to it with such strength.
But is this really admirable? Mohammed Atta had strong beliefs, for which he was to make a huge sacrifice. In this respect, he had more in common with Nelson Mandela than either had in common with me. The difference between them was that Mandela's beliefs were right and Atta's wrong.
Another nasty feature of the heroes is that many of them seek power over others. This is partly a product of their dogmatism - they have the confidence to believe they can change the world for the better. They're oblivious to the fact that - except in cases of obvious wrong such as apartheid or tyranny - such attempts fail.
Worse still, though, is that so many of us let them do this. And it's in this fact that heroism is so dangerous. The obverse of the worship of people who have sought publicity is an implicit denigration of the truly admirable qualities of modest endeavour. This puts it best:
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave....
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
The search for heroes doesn't just denigrate what are wrongly called "ordinary" people, though. In looking for heroes - for other people to change our lives - we fail to take control of them ourselves. We abdicate responsibility and acquiesce in inequalities of power. If people had not wanted heroes, we'd have had no Hitler, no Stalin, no Mao Tse-Tung.