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    Ask Tamburlaine: Burning Korans Is a Bad Idea

    Who on Earth is crazy enough to burn the Koran? Until two weeks ago, my answer has always been "raging lunatics in Elizabethan drama." You know, stage characters from the age of Shakespeare, the kind of people who are prone to cutting off their own hands, biting off their tongues and spitting them on the stage, or baking their enemies in pies and serving them for dinner. The people who make Hamlet seem well-adjusted. Certainly, I didn't think of it as the kind of thing real people did.

    The Koran burner my students know is Tamburlaine the Great, the world conqueror in Christopher Marlowe's two-part extravaganza Tamburlaine the Great. This was one of the great hits of its time, likely bigger than most of Shakespeare's plays, and Shakespeare's own characters quote it from the stage. But since no one teaches it in high schools, and almost no one teaches it in college, here's the basic story:

    A raving megalomaniac conquers most of the world and makes speeches about it. Nobody can stop him. The crazier he gets, the more he wins. Then he burns the Koran (just because) and BAM! He's dead.

    And yes, this play was written in a Christian country, for Christian audiences who tended to think of Muslims (like the Pope) as agents of the Devil. But even they thought Koran-burning was a no-no.

    Now, I have actually exposed unsuspecting college students to Tamburlaine. And they all say the same thing: the dude's crazy. For ten acts, he's running around putting women and children to the sword. He's putting heads of state in cages and using them as footstools. He's making enemy kings draw his chariot around the stage, like they're horses. He cuts himself with a sword, to show one of his good-for-nothing sons who the real tough guy is. He generally behaves like Kim Jong-Il off his meds. And no matter what crazy thing he's done, he comes back later to top it with something crazier. Then, in Part Two, Act Five, he sets a Koran on fire. And that's just too much for everybody.

    And what does he have to say after he does that?

    But, stay. I feel myself distempered suddenly.

    That's right. It's the Don't Burn People's Holy Books Flu, and it kills him within a scene.

    So take it from heavily fictionalized crazy people, kids: don't burn Korans, or any other religious works that hundreds of millions of people value. It only leads to trouble. Try to behave like the saner and more rational characters from English Renaissance drama, like Titus Andronicus, Richard III, or Lady Macbeth.

    I wouldn't bring this up if Tamburlaine were only an imaginary character. But of course, fictional characters have their way of influencing real people, and some of Tamburlaine's admirers were so excited by him that they set out to be little Tamburlaines themselves. But they were going to make it happen right there in London! And if Tamburlaine the Great had been a big hero by killing so many many filthy foreigners like Arabs and Egyptians and Turks, the little Tamburlaines would kill some filthy outsiders themselves! Which filthy outsiders?

    The Protestant refugees from Europe who'd taken refuge in London. Like bakers and shoemakers.

    Some of them left a note on a church door in 1593, promising to murder all of the refugees and their children (who were foreigners, after all):

    Since words nor threats nor any other thing
    Can make you to avoid this certain ill,
    We'll cut your throats, in your temples praying
    Not Paris massacre so much blood did spill.

    It goes on and on like that for dozens of lines.

    It's signed "Tamburlaine."

    And there's the lesson. When you train people to focus their rage and fear on some foreign scapegoat, to imagine Muslims or Turks or some other group of "strangers" as frightening and inhuman, there can come a moment when the people you've gotten worked up unpredictably switch their fear and hate and thirst for blood to another group of "outsiders" that you didn't expect, some group that's closer at hand and easy to get at.

    And once the mob forms, it's too late to say, "No no, we didn't mean them." Once you start whipping up a mob to go after those stinking foreigners, you don't get to tell them exactly who counts as a stinking foreigners and who doesn't. They know who's not one of them. Mobs don't listen to lectures about details. It's the principle of the thing they care about.


    I just realized: I'm a stinking foreigner. Damn!

    You just realized that? Really?

    The rest of us never forget.

    I know I never much liked the cut of his jib. 


    Of course, to quinn the eskimo, all of us are stinking foreigners.

    This is some pretty awesome context that I've not seen anywhere else.

    Are you allowed to just outright COMPLIMENT someone like that here at DagBlog?

    'Cause if so, I'd just like to say... Dij is the greatest.

    Whereas the rest of you are kinda... meh.

    (Good trolls here, though. Quality.)

    You've got to be kidding. Slap Flair on the back of the head with some medieval pulp theater, and he taps out? C'mon man! Yesterday you were poopooing this whole affair.

    My question is, who is Tamburlaine in this scenario? Preacher McAsshat? Yeah, he'll probably need police protection after this. Big deal. Is he going to inspire a wave of 'burn the furriners' vigilantes? I don't think so. He's a sideshow. Just look at the guy.

    The more serious problem is the Republicans trying to get the mob incensed, by any means necessary, under the assumption that they'll be able to ride that tiger. And there's a good chance that they're right.

    I still poopoo the affair.

    But I do like medieval theatre.

    What can I say? I'm an aesthete and nice guy.  Who hits people with his shiny championship belt.


    (Quinn, I hope that answers your question.)

    What are you? One of those guys that can read the minds of goats?


    You people frighten me.

    Not me. I specialize in the pygmy three-toed sloth.

    And that should be a lesson to us all. 


    Kind of like the transition Hitler made, regarding who he blamed for all the bad things like unemployment and angry youth, being a pariah country in Europe,  and loss of cultural respect, when Germany's economy was tanked after WWI, and the people needed someone to blame.  The corporations siren whispered advice to the ambitious man was to switch targets, (to get the light to stop shining on them), find another group to blame,  and by that adjustment gain their money and support to win the brass ring.  Perhaps someone who recalls more details of this historical curiousity can expound more. 

    But what does Alan Keyes think?

    Burning question answered!

    And, incidentally, he appears to on board with the one-two-shuffle that's going on here to get liberal people whipped up into a frenzy that resembles, "Yes, I know there's a First Amendment, but...," so that they can then turn around draw false equivalence between Jones' Krazy Karnival of Kombustible Korans and Park51.

    Take the word "what" out of the original sentence and you have a real question.

    i'm late to the party here but even if it's way too late, i just have to say this is a great post.  love your synopsis of tamburlaine.

    but even more I love the way you segue it into the heart of the piece.  what was then is now.  jacked up mobs are the same eternally. 

    i do wonder who you think will be killed in tamburlaine's place though.  boys in uniform in afghanistan?

    Thanks very much, Anna.

    Who gets killed in Tamburlaine's place? I don't think it's a simple substitution. I think as you heat up the rage, it whips around randomly, so that the victims are unpredictable. And I don't think it stops at one victim or set of victims.

    Well, as some guy once said, "the play is the thing."  What one catches may not be the conscience of the mob, but all the fluttering unformed fears and hatreds just beneath the surface.  Be careful, be very careful. 


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