Letting Go of ‘tamerlane’

You all know me as ‘tamerlane’, but my real name is Matt Cavanaugh.


My ‘Nym
When I first began commenting and blogging online in the Spring of 2008, I followed the common practice of adopting a screen name.   I like to engage in serious discussions on politics and religion, two subjects with a power to enrage people like no others.  I do so in a venue — the internet  — that, like road rage, provides an anonymity that too often encourages people to act like boors or even monsters.  With practices like “doxxing” and online stalking, not to mention whatever real-life acts that might result from chance interactions with political or religious fanatics, discretion dictated adopting a pseudonym.

I’m a small businessman dependent on the continued good will of a close-knit community.  I doubt that many of my clients, vendors, colleagues or neighbors share my political or religious views.  I’m an atheist in a predominantly religious culture that seems to rate our morals as just slightly less depraved than those of child molesters.  I wanted to avoid any possibility of my views causing friction in this sphere.

Finally, noms de plume are a long & respected tradition.  Having one of my own allowed me to segregate my iconoclastic views & often acerbic style from my overall everyday personality, which is far more mainstream and mellow.  Interestingly, my friends and I often discuss my online persona in the third person, as in ‘what did tamerlane write this time?’ or, ‘was that as you or as tamerlane?’

When I first selected a name, I was tempted to use something like “S. Adams” or “Publius”, the pseudonym of the Federalist Papers’ authors.  I rejected these as overly pretentious.  Instead, I settled on the slightly self-deprecating choice of a 14th century Mongol conqueror.  My decision-making process was, I must admit, a fairly hasty one.  The primary reason I chose ‘tamerlane’ was simply that, like me, “Timur the Lame” was an horseman with a bum leg.

At first, I was occasionally chided for taking the name of “a brutal conqueror and despot.”  (Would you like me better if I’d chosen a gentle conqueror and despot?)  Over time, ‘tamerlane’ the commenter and writer became a recognized entity in his own right.  When friends who first met me online now call or write, they as often as not address me as ‘Tamer’ or ‘T’.  Maybe I should’ve put more thought into the name, but it did the job, and it stuck.


My Town
During the past few hours, I’ve been thinking a whole lot about the name I write under.  Many of you know that I’m originally from Boston.  I’m proud of my hometown and protective of its witty, warm people and its reputation as a great place to visit and to live.  I’ve been closely following the news of this week’s bombings.  I now live in a rural setting on the other side of the country, and no one I know was injured or killed.  Yet I find the attack has upset me on a very personal level.  That was my town; those were my people.  Don’t you ever fuck with my people.

The news of the hunt for the two bombing suspects has unfolded at a rapid pace over the past night and into this morning.  The suspects murdered one policeman and put another in the hospital.  While fleeing, they threw bombs out the car window.  I didn’t need a map to trace their route; I’ve driven or strolled there many times myself.  One bomber is dead, the other is still on the lam.  They’re brothers, named Dzhokhar and Tamerlan.


A Legacy of … Nothing
Tamerlane is a popular name in the former Soviet republics of central Asia, where these brother bombers were born (Chechnya) & raised (Kyrgyzstan) before showing up in my hometown.  The people there, stifled for centuries by — and now willingly falling back in thrall to — the mind-deadening bullshit of islam, have little to be proud of.  No great authors to speak of, no inventors, no magnificent works of art or edifices of grandeur.  Even the ugly, little capitals of their ugly, little dictatorships were built by the Soviets.  About all they have to instill pride is the faded, misunderstood memory of a 14th century Mongol conqueror named Tamerlane.  So they erect equestrian statues in Tamerlane Squares and steer their sputtering Ladas around the potholes of Tamerlane Boulevards.  They name their kids ‘Tamerlan’ and dream hazily of the day when they, too, will march under the crescent banner to sack the cities of the infidels.

At least the original Tamerlane had an appreciation for the knowledge and culture he was appropriating.  A brilliant strategist, he was

… steadfast in mind … he did not care for jesting or lying; wit and trifling pleased him not; truth, even were it painful, delighted him….

Tamerlane taught himself to speak several languages, had histories and the ancient classics read to him while he dined, and even invented a version of chess.  Contemporaries described him as

highly intelligent and very perspicacious, addicted to debate and argument about what he knows and also about what he does not know.

Although nominally a moslem, Tamerlane blended sufism with Mongol shamanism.    Religion to him seemed more an useful tool for justifying his actions than guiding them.  He established his capital at Samarkand, embellished it with the riches and art he’d plundered, and assembled scholars and craftsman there to transform his barbarian empire into a civilized race.  That dream died with him.

Envy and Resentment

Tamerlan the bomber didn’t want to embrace Western civilization, he wanted to smash it.  Unlike Boston, international students don’t flock to the great learning institutions of the Caucasus.  Unlike Boston, modern Samarkand could never host a sporting event attracting participants from a hundred nations, because no one in their right mind would ever willingly travel to that shithole.

The bomber brothers were welcomed by Boston and its people.  They were given a good education there, even a college scholarship.  They could have become real Bostonians had they wanted — sang ‘Dirty Water’ with us at Fenway, transposed the ‘r’s at the end of words, watched the fireworks from the Esplanade, even worn green with us on Saint Paddy’s or grabbed a sausage on Saint Anthony’s.  They could have partaken of everything our town, built by successive waves of immigrants, had to offer them: the museums, the culture, the music, the history, the learning, the cuisine, and yes, the public traditions and sporting events.  They rejected and despised everything Boston had to offer, because they had nothing to offer back.

I’ve got Paul Revere, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Leonard Nimoy and Arthur Fiedler to be proud of. I’ve got Samuel Morse, Donna Summer, Robert Gould Shaw and Yaz.  Louisa May Alcott, Winslow Homer, Charles Bulfinch and Helen Keller.  The bomber brothers had nothing of value to inspire them, no one worthy to emulate.  Not even Timur the Lame.  All they had was envy and resentment.

Just Me

Like “Adolf”, the name “Tamerlan(e)” can never again be seen without negative connotations.  Miscreant bombers don’t deserve its historic legacy, but I want in no way for my words and thoughts to be misconstrued with their ignorance and their hate.  So it’s time to let ‘tamerlane’ go.  I might consider adopting a new pseudonym later, but for now, at least, I’m just me.

(c) 2013 by Matt Cavanaugh.  All rights reserved.

26 Responses to Letting Go of ‘tamerlane’

  1. List of X says:

    Well, hello from a fellow atheist in Boston :)
    I’m always impressed with people who choose to use their own name on political blogs. But I’m not running my own business, so I won’t be doing that myself anytime soon.
    I don’t think name “Tamerlane” will really be tarnished by association with one of the Boston Bombers. Tamerlan Tsarnaev is not Adolf Hitler. And, as a name of a conquerer, it’s already not a particularly revered name outside of Central Asia.

  2. Jay says:

    Big fan of this move.

  3. fionnchu says:

    I’ve always liked your equestrian nom-de-plume, and I have been desultorily reading for lazy moments “The Mongoliad” — a team effort at an epic first online and now in Kindle form. I had to look up if today’s ethnicity (the place of birth, as it’s in the headlines along with yours) was judged “Caucasian” (from the Northern part of that range in fact) but they are also found to have Middle Eastern ancestry, logically given the confluence of those two domains. As with the peoples of the steppes, a conflicted heritage.

    Many name their children after warlords, patriots, rebels. Depending on who’s judging the nomenclature. Do many live up to these, patron saints of mayhem, foolhardiness, revenge, spying?

    As to your choice, with an even more common Gaelic surname than Cavanaugh, I’ve mused what might happen one day if some idiot with my surname (and once-even more common first name) did something idiotic. Is it a blessing or curse to have a name easily linked to any other out on the web, these searchable times?

    Given I adopted in a moment of little reflection many years ago my own moniker for those politics + religion (+/ teaching) comments online myself, I adapted a conflation of my two Irish surnames. I understand the need for transparency sometimes, and for opacity (well, partial as this is the Net). Not that any identity’s that separate, but unlike you, where I work I am told to keep my personal thoughts separate from my professional employment.

    So, value your ability to choose wisely, for whatever we know you as in the years to come. It will be as if you went undercover (again) or got (re-)married, or entered a Witness Protection Program. And, Stocaí Deargaí abú inniu, gan amhras i mBoston, a chara.

  4. gxm17 says:

    As soon as I saw the older brother’s name in the news, I thought, oh no, not tamerlane! I knew you’d drop your nic.

    Nice post. Very well done. My mother’s family is from Boston. I spent many a summer up north being relentlessly teased for talking sooooo slooooowwww by a bunch of people who can’t pronounce their r’s.

    You should add Black Francis to your Bostonian list. And I’d even include Jonathan Richman though he wasn’t born in town, he’s still an icon of that crazy Boston cool and Roadrunner is a bit of pop culture everyone’s heard even if they have no idea where it came from or what it’s about.

    • Matt says:

      I just picked a few that came first into my head. I left out so many — like Copley, whose work easily surpassed anything being done in Europe at the time. One could compile a very long list indeed.

  5. purcellgroup says:

    Matt: Best ever TLN. I’ve not always agreed with all you have written in previous postings, but never failed to be impressed, and yes, proud of your scholarship and writing. This is your crowning achievement, and the right time to tell us all who actually is perceptive and skilled enough to do this.

    Love, Dad

  6. conner43 says:

    I knew you would do something like this, you are first and foremost a true American patriot, and a real Bostonian.

  7. Kara says:

    This is my favorite Tamer piece–very true and open. I like you when you are a bit vulnerable like the rest of us. Welcome, Matt.

  8. Dan Sheehan says:

    Nicely done Matt, I was wondering how you would respond when I heard the news, and I’ve appreciated the thought, honesty and passion with which you’ve responded.

    I’ve always thought of John Lennon’s song “god” in the sense that ultimately we’ve got to just let go of things in order to authentically be ourselves… Ideas, beliefs, even nicknames…to get to the root of who we are.

    I commend you on your courage and candor and willingness to just be you. Can’t wait to hear more.

  9. Bob says:

    hey Matt… well stated, old friend. I posted earlier, but I must have done something wrong because my comments arent showing. I wanted you to know that you should feel free to use “Lohtnem”, or “Notlrac”, if you like…

  10. conner43 says:

    dan ..great point, The longer I live, the more life feels like a constant reel of Groundhog Day.. When will we ever get it right ?

  11. Propertius says:

    Pleased to make your acquaintance, Matt (although I’m giving up my pseudonym when they pry it from my cold, dead hands).

  12. conner43 says:

    Mr.Cavanaugh, meet Mairead Conchobhair, or ni Conchobhair if you will….I have always been callled Maggie to my lifelong embarrassment.. I used to cry over being named after a dog…The surname is easy for a fellow Hibernian.

  13. littleisis says:

    Just you is just fine

  14. fionnchu says:

    Cross-posting my remarks below as I posted them on John Smart’s blog today (slightly amended) under his piece that linked to this TLN one in return last week, “Exit Tamerlane,” Matt and friends.

    Some of this trendoid coverage is silly, but as with the paired-embedded David Sirota “Salon” piece earlier last week, “Let’s Hope the Boston Bomber is a White American” (before identities were confirmed), Joan Walsh reveals contortions Americans face as they and we try to label each other by “ethnicity” and “race.” “Salon” appears to want it many ways: publicizing the frenzy, stoking it, and then castigating “us” for tuning in or debating its ramifications.


    Kevin Cullen in the Boston Globe noted in “A Tale of Two Immigrants” the contrast between the Chinese student at BU killed (how many know her name?) vs. the infamous brothers. He notes that if they could not find happiness in ultra-liberal Cambridge, home of 50 languages and where a nation had welcomed their family as refugees and provided them good educations, that the one brother now in custody is indeed a loser.


    As for our friend the blogger formerly known as TL, whatever he decides, let us know here–and cross-posted to JWS, where many of us “met”–and cheers again from a fellow Mick.

  15. conner43 says:

    Ideally we should not form opinions based on ethnicity or race, which are superficial at best,we all know that.. But we are human animals, and I believe there is some ancient reflex in us that looks for similarities in others, in order to develop trust. Most of us could recognize our near and dear by smell in a pitch black room, it’s in our nature.
    Those self hating wannabe journos who hoped the bombers ‘would be White’, are like Narcissus, in their devotion to their own image of all inclusiveness and hipness. They put their self image before their fellow countrymen. I sometimes wish they all could go for a month of summer camp in N. Korea, it might do them a world of good.

  16. NoEmptySuits says:

    (Cross-posted from JWSmart’s.)

    Whoa! Bye Tamer, and hello Matt. (Funnily enough, after the Boston Bombing suspects were identified, I immediately thought about how you’d feel about sharing a screen-name with the elder of those jerks.)

    Terrific piece, Matt. I especially loved the paean to Boston. The Boston/Cambridge area was this pilgrim’s first home in America and it’ll always hold a special place in my heart for that reason alone. I, too, took very personally the injury to it by the Tsarnaevs.

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