Tintin Goes To Court

Tintin has been involved in something pretty controversial:

A Congolese man living in Belgium is trying to have Tintin in the Congo banned in the boy reporter’s native country, almost 80 years after Tintin first donned his pith helmet and headed for Africa to patronise its people, slaughter its animals, and spark an undying controversy.

Tintin and his creator, the cartoonist Hergé, who launched the strip in black and white in the Petit Vingtieme newspaper in 1930, are national heroes in Belgium, where a multimillion-euro museum celebrates his adventures and the 2m books still sold every year in 150 languages.

However, Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, who has been campaigning for years to have the book removed from Belgian shops, says its depiction of native Africans – including a scene where a black woman bows before Tintin exclaiming “White man very great. White mister is big juju man!” – is ignorant and offensive, and he has applied to the Belgian courts to have it banned.

“It makes people think that blacks have not evolved,” he said.

The verdict, originally expected today, has now been delayed until next week.

It’s understandable why people want such things banned. It’s painful. It’s insulting, right? But I don’t think literature like this ought to be hidden from public view. On one hand, it’s a historical artefact – and one that shows how far much of the world has moved on in terms of equality. If it makes people uncomfortable, then surely possesses some kind of value. Also, if you open that door of removing books throughout time, you also let through the potential for historical revisionism in broad strokes. I’d like to moot the ol’ Chomsky sentiment of “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like.” This is still a form of censorship, after all.

Even as a person of half-colour (though I rarely like to play that card in debates on art), I might not like what I read, but I like my freedoms to read whatever I decide, and not what the law dictates. Still, it makes for an interesting debate, and who knows what those courts will decide.

EDIT: Now linked to on io9, where the debate continues.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

7 replies on “Tintin Goes To Court”

Tintin in Congo is without a doubt rascist by today’s standards.
(The first Tintin album, Tintin in the Soviets, that came the year before is just as guilty of stereotyping. But since it’s anti-communist, not many seem to care.)

Here in Norway both these albums were kept back by the publisher until 2004 (as far as I could find out). When they were finally published, it was as an example of the prevailing attitude in Europe during that time period.

For those who’re not familiar with late twenties and thirties European and American history, most of Europe ,and the USA, were very pro-fascist (,and anti-communist).

Africans were seen as primitive, and barely human. The Nazi teories on race were by no means isolated to Germany, but pervaded the western world.
Sadly this seems to be conveniently forgotten when people discuss WWII and what led up to it.

Tintin in Congo would never have been published now.(Except by people like the BNP.) But the attitude the story represents is part of our history, and shouldn’t be hidden away because of our modern day political correctness.

I can definitely see the temptation to ban it. I love the Tintin comics but I’ve chosen not to read this one because it would upset me.

But I’m with you – banning one book makes all books potentially bannable. Plus, since *our side* (I refer to the anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti- lots of nasty things and pro- treating people like people side and am lumping you in with us whether you like it or not :)) has historically not been the majority, I always worry that when it becomes possible to freely ban things, we’ll be the hardest hit.

I don’t want it hidden away but I’m not sure I want it published like just another item in the series, either. (Although then where do you draw the line? Some of the other Tintins read as borderline offensive today, albeit not so infamously…)

I admire Mbutu Mondondo’s tenacity (he’s been at it since 2007), and part of me wants to applaud the man who picks a fight with the Hergé moneysharks heirs. Don Quixote would pale at such a venture!

But I’m a bit ambivalent towards the case of banning.

Yes, the book’s a snapshot of the middle of last century (seeing as how Hergé edited out the worst of the neo-colonial offences from the first version of 1931). But its historical value doesn’t make it a holy artefact, and in any case, historical value needs a framework to be a valid argument*.

However, I do agree with one of Mbutu Mondondo’s lawyers who questions why the same “racism inside” notice that apparently appears in the English version can’t be used in the French and Dutch version. Not that I’m a fan of that sort of Parents Advisory labelling, but if we’re going to cater to sensitivities anyway, why not in every language? I don’t know how extensive the “warning” is, but instead of something short, I’d rather see a well-written word of the editor that gives a good historical background. If we’re going to cater to sensitivities anyway, why not do it in an intelligent, educational way?

Thing is, as long as we’re able to get along in a polite manner, I’m not so big on catering to sensitivities, mainly because it leads to an incomplete understanding of history and makes for fuzzy borders. Just like “guns don’t kill people”, you could say “books don’t make people racist”. We’ve all got our own sensitivities and we should learn to deal with them instead of trying to make the world a place where we never ever bump into something offensive to our particular sensitivities. Because where do you draw the line?. I think the women portrayed in Sex In The City are horrible, witless and slutty stereotypes. Can we please ban the series? And I quit smoking: do I really want to go through nicotine withdrawal every episode of Mad Men?

*Explicit or implicit. For instance, far worse than Hergé’s depiction of the Congolese, was the state of our Africa Museum until the turn of the century: untouched by the decades, its exhibits were old-fashioned, quaint and terribly neo-colonial. Little advertised clusterfuck of the times: the museum is the follow-up on the success of the 1897 World Fair in which Congolese were brought to the park in Tervuren to play out their daily life in a fake African village. Our climate and the Congolese (living in huts, unprepared for Belgium winter) did not agree well, and people died.
Since the turn of the century they’ve managed to put the money and the plans together for a series of modernisations. Luckily, they’ve chosen to keep the neo-colonial atmosphere of everybody’s favourite exhibition, adding educational tools and historical background, turning it into a thoroughly educational exposition of the times. If any of you passes through Belgium and has time to visit a museum, forget modern and ancient arts or comics: go visit the Africa Museum. It’s the world like you never knew ever existed, no matter how well-versed you are in colonial history.

I apologize for my logorrhoea, all done now. Besides, I have things to do, like figure out which idiot is going to earn my vote in the !surprise! June elections. I just <3 my country…

Banning is never a good option. As far as I can remember there were also attempts to ban the Mariam Webster Dictionary, because it had the definition of oral sex or something similar to do with sex.

Not related, but if we start banning one book, we will be left with only the Bible and who knows if that won’t be banned, because there are so many mass murders and genocides depicted.

I’m currently building a set of the collected Tintin. Volume 1, including Tintin in the Congo, is retailed in plastic, with a big band around it saying “THIS IS OFFENSIVE. SORRY ABOUT THAT.”

(slightly paraphrased)

It is actually Tintin’s crappest adventure, back before Herge had really cracked proper comic-strip storytelling. Why don’t we just ban things on merit?

I had no idea Tintin was a comic. I used to watch the cartoons though, is that the same thing? Young dude with an older man (salior?) friend and a little white dog?

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