Burning things (and people) you don’t like seems to be a popular way of getting rid of them. It’s also a great way of getting publicity for a cause. And as people in show business know, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
One of the examples that always springs to my mind is the group of anti-war protesters in California who publicly burnt a dog.
It was during the Vietnam War, and they burnt the dog in protest against the war. The public outrage was enormous, and newspapers editorialised about how they were harming their cause, and their action was counter-productive because it made people who might be sympathetic to their cause more likely to be hostile towards it.
But in fact the negative reaction, the outrage itself, was the whole point. They demonstrated that American society was far more concerned and far more outraged about a dog being burnt in California than it was about hundreds of human children being burnt in Vietnam by American napalm bombs.
And the latest in a long line of such protests is that of Terry Jones, minister of a small church in the backwoods of Florida, USA, who threatened to burn copies of the Qur’an. It caused tweets of outrage to flow through Twitter, and huge protests throughout the world. It certainly put his church on the map.
Jones’s threats will be subject to the law of diminishing returns. Next time he threatens to do burn a Qur’an – and I fear there will be a next time – he’ll be handled with much more caution by the US media, which has made itself look ridiculous in being outfoxed by the crackpot pastor of a miniscule [sic] church in the swamps of Florida.
US President Barack Obama, in a memorable soundbite, said that it would be a recruiting bonanza for Al-Qaeda.
President Obama was probably right, but he has done little to stop the even more powerful recruiting bonanzas for Al-Qaeda caused by burning children in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Those outraged by the burning of the Qu’ran may demonstrate in the streets, wave a few placards, burn an American flag or two, and go home feeling self-righteous, just like the Revd Terry Jones.
It is the ones whose cousins and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts who were killed when the US forces bombed wedding celebrations, or went on their killing sprees in places like Fallujah who are more likely to join Al-Qaeda.
In the 1960s there was also the phenomenon of the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in protest against the Vietnam War. Instead of burning other people or things, they burnt themselves.
This had a spin-off in South Africa, when staff and students at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg were protesting against some government atrocity — I think it was the banning of student leader Ian Robertson.
I was overseas at the time, but a friend wrote to me in a letter about the protest, which took the form of a torchlight procession into the centre of the town. As they were crossing the bridge over the Umsinduzi River the procession was attacked by National Party-supporters. One of the protesters was an English lecturer and atheist, Cake Manson (who was thought by the English Department to be the greatest playwright since Shakespeare). He retaliated by sticking his lighted torch in the faces of the attackers, shouting the war-cry, “Burn you Buddhist bastard, burn!”
And that takes us back to California.
When rioters in Watts, California, began shouting ‘Burn, Baby! BURN!’ in the turmoil of 1965, they were echoing the most popular cry on rhythm-and-blues radio: The trademark of Magnificent Montague, the most exciting R&B disc jockey ever to stroll through Soulsville.
In Los Angeles on KGFJ, and earlier in New York on WWRL, Montague yelled ‘Burn!’ whenever he was playing a record that moved him. His listeners followed suit, calling Montague and shouting ‘Burn!’ on the air. The emotion in that exchange reverberated with as much excitement as the music of Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.
There’s something about the Burning Times…