3. The Tintin controversy

The Tintin comics were written and drawn by the Belgian author Herge.  The recent Steven Spielberg film has revived the longstanding debate about these stories. They are not, and never have been, politically correct.

See: http://theconversation.edu.au/tintin-human-rights-and-politics-4874

for a very comprehensive analysis of the social, political and human rights implications of Tintin, written by Sarah Joseph, Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University (who also happens to be a Tintin fan).

Another interesting analysis can be found at: http://www.economist.com/node/12795471?story_id=12795471

Despite their failure to be  politically correct, Tintin books do not infringe a strict French law about children’s literature. The author says: “It is one of Europe’s more startling laws. In 1949 France banned children’s books and comic strips from presenting cowardice in a “favourable” light, on pain of up to a year in prison for errant publishers. It was equally forbidden to make laziness or lying seem attractive. The law created an oversight committee to watch for positive depictions of these ills, along with crime, theft, hatred, debauchery and acts “liable to undermine morality” among the young.

(…) For all the talk about morality, France’s 1949 law on children’s books had ideological roots. It was pushed by an odd alliance of Communists, Catholic conservatives and jobless French cartoonists, determined that French children should be reading works imbued with “national” values. Pascal Ory, a historian at the Sorbonne university (author of “Mickey Go Home. The de-Americanisation of the cartoon strip”), writes that the main aim of the law—which, remarkably, remains in force today, tweaked in the 1950s to add a ban on incitement of ethnic prejudice—was to block comics from America.”

The author goes on to say that Herge  “fell in with a slightly hysterical clutch of hard-right priests and nationalists, one of whom gave him his first job, on a small Belgian Catholic newspaper, the Vingtième Siècle, which fervently supported the monarchy, Belgian missionaries in the Congo and Mussolini and loathed the Bolshevik atheists running Russia and “Judeo-American” capitalism.”

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets

The first book in the series, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was commissioned by Catholic priest and newspaper editor (and avowed Fascist and Mussolini supporter), Norbert Wallez, in 1929. It was blatant anti-Soviet propaganda, intended to teach Belgian children about the evils of Communism.

Leaving aside the stereotyped and caricatured Soviet baddies (just like any baddies in a boys’ own adventure type story), the criticisms of the Soviet Union are pretty much familiar to people and generally accepted by today’s standards. They include comments on the Kulaks. They were “middle class” land owners who grew crops for a living. Get over it. They were not feudal landlords or serf owners. They were dispossessed, a policy which resulted in mass starvation and the death of millions. This is presented in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets.

The book also portrays English cloth-capped trade unionists being given a PR tour.

Fake elections for the one-party state are shown, along with poverty and political discrimination.

Tintin also falls foul of the Soviet authorities, and is subject to arbitrary detention and threats of torture.

Tintin in the Congo

The most controversial Tintin adventure is Tintin in the Congo. In it, the Congolese are portrayed as fat lipped, comical, stereotyped and stupid.

An article in The Economist says that “it is a work of propaganda—not for “colonialism”, as is often said—but more narrowly for Belgian missionaries, one of whom keeps saving Tintin’s life in evermore ludicrous ways: first dispatching a half dozen crocodiles with a rifle then rescuing him from a roaring waterfall, seemingly unhindered by his advanced age and ankle-length soutane.”

Joseph comments: “While Tintin in the Congo is a colonial rant, the book largely reflected contemporary Belgian attitudes to its colony. However, should this racist book be freely available today? Some libraries and booksellers in a number of countries have removed the book from children’s sections. The strongest argument against its broad availability is probably not that the book will promote racism, but that it will provoke feelings of inferiority amongst children of African descent.”

My niece’s daughter is of mixed Australian/African-American background. I hope to be able to read Tintin to her when she is older. I would see, not the need to shelter her, but rather the opportunity to start a conversation: this is history, this was colonialism, this was stereotyping, this was racism… and hopefully we do things better now.

Belgium was a particularly atrocious colonial power. King Leopold III maintained power and intimidated the Congolese by severing their arms or legs. Rather than banning or sanitising the books of that era (which in the case of Tintin in the Congo is impossible, because the colonialist attitudes are totally intrinsic to the whole), I believe we are grown-up and intelligent enough to take a critical stance, and understand things in their historical context.

While the Tintin books may not have always been on the “right side”, as Joseph says, “the books addressed colonialism, the rise of the USSR, organised crime, capitalism, the international drug trade, the prelude to World War II (though the war itself is absent), alcoholism, racism, coups d’etat, multinational corporations, the Cold War, the arms race, the space race, the modern slave trade, the arms trade, the fight for control of oil, commercial air travel, and even the rapacious media obsession with celebrity. In that regard, the Tintin books are a masterpiece chronicle of the last century.”

The other aspect which is shocking to modern sensibilities is the extensive hunting of wild animals which Tintin engages in. As a recent television documentary showed, there is a definite link between wild game safaris and colonialism.

See:  “http://www.abc.net.au/tv/guide/abc1/201201/programs/ZX1296A001D2012-01-02T203330.htm”

The most recent attempt to have Tintin in the Congo banned because of racism has failed. See:  http://mb.com.ph/node/352430/great-

In 2007, Congolese campaigner Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo launched legal proceedings to ban the book, arguing its portrayal of Africans was racist.

“It is clear that neither the story, nor the fact that it has been put on sale, has a goal to … create an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating environment,” the court said in its judgment.

The Belgian court did not believe the 1946 edition of Tintin in the Congo was intended to incite racial hatred, a criteria when deciding if something breaks Belgium’s racism laws.

There is clearly a distinction here between being racist and intending to incite racial hatred – one perhaps expressing an attitude, the other bringing about a consequence.

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