“i’m in the field with a shield and a spear” [tintin in the congo]

November 3rd, 2011 by | Tags: ,

Heidi MacDonald found a report in the Guardian about Tintin in the Congo. I guess there was a move to ban it due to racist content, but a judicial advisor has rejected the idea that the book is racist. Here’s a few quick thoughts/jokes on the subject.

1. I liked this reasoning on the part of the advisor because it’s full of crap:

De Theux de Meylandt said in the document seen by Reuters that Tintin author Georges Remi (better known as Hergé) did not intend to incite racial hatred when he depicted his cartoon hero on an adventure in the former Belgian colony in a 1931 work that was updated in 1946.

“The representations (of African people) by Herge are a reflection of his time,” De Theux de Meylandt wrote.

Intention is a key criteria in substantiating a charge of racism. The court is expected to deliver a judgement rejecting or accepting Mondondo’s argument that the book’s depiction of Africans is racist.

“We see in particular that Tintin in the Congo does not put Tintin in a situation where there is competition or confrontation between the young reporter and any black or group of blacks, but pits Tintin against a group of gangsters … who are white,” De Theux de Meylandt also wrote in the statement.

2. It’s kind of interesting how the law (I assume) approaches racism as a conscious act–“intend to incite racial hatred”–rather than something that just happens. Intent, near as I can tell, has basically zip to do with racism. Inciting racial hatred is a racist act, but it is not the sum total of racism. Racism can be clutching your purse when someone hops onto an elevator or looking at a certain type of woman as a sex object first. Racism can be dragging a man behind a truck until he dies in agony. Racism can be denying home loans to black families, shooting a grandmother in the face because you got the wrong house, underestimating a stranger, overpraising a child, and more. Racism is a lot of things. It’s a system. It’s an opinion. It’s an act. It’s an emotion. It’s whatever. Intent? Not really relevant. If I didn’t mean to step on your toe, you’re still sitting there with a flat toe, right?

3. I love love love “The representations (of African people) by Herge are a reflection of his time.” Man oh man do I love it. It’s the ultimate Get Out Of Jail Free card. “Oh, it was just the time! Weren’t they so quaint back then with their casual racism? Land sakes, mint juleps, landed gentry, southern belles, I do declare!” That got away from me a little. The point is, the racism in this drawings is okay because it was okay at the time. It’s quaint, like, I dunno, cocaine in Coca-cola or those enormous dresses women used to wear in the 1800s that doubled as circus tents.

I don’t believe in a sliding scale of morality and neither should you. If lynching somebody until their eyes bug out is a dick move in 2011, it was a dick move in 1911. If drawing an entire race like they were darkie nigger savages is a racist act in 2011, guess what bruh, it’s a racist act at every other point in time, as well. It’s dehumanizing. If you argue it isn’t, you’re objectively wrong. That’s the entire point of that type of art.

4. Think about the context, too. Depicting blacks as subhuman is a tried and true tactic. Churches used to teach that blacks were the descendants of Ham, son of Noah, and used the curse of Ham as a justification for slavery. (You know I heard somebody tell me that in church as a kid? That really made me mad, because I was young enough to know that story was full of crap, but they were old enough to have probably heard it from actual slaves.) Black men and women were depicted as hypersexual because they were closer to savagery than whites, which had the bonus of making it a-okay to sleep with them whenever you felt like it, and then to deny it to the heavens should you get caught (shout-out to the Thomas Jefferson clan). They’re violent. They’re dangerous. They’re stupid. Take your pick.

The savages in Tintin in the Congo are particularly disgusting because of the time period the book came out in. Congo was a Belgian colony at the time, and the book portrayed the people as stupid “Me Too Stupid To Know How Talk Right” savages. It is explicit propaganda. It posits a world where the Congolese are too stupid to be civilized on their own. It’s Deepest Darkest Africa, The Dark Continent garbage all over again. And man, I wonder what the point of depicting the citizens of a colony of your country as subhuman? Could it be to shore up the idea that you’re supposed to be there? That being there is right? Golly.

So, no, “it was the times!” is a crap excuse. Will Eisner and Hergé both drew unbelievably, cartoonishly racist depictions of black people. A lot of other people did, too. Racism! It exists. Don’t pretend it didn’t because you like how somebody put lines on paper. Plenty of great (and bad and normal) people do scumbag things here and there. Just accept it!

5. Tintin in the Congo: it’s objectively racist. It’s stupid to try and ban it, though. Even racist speech is free speech.

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11 comments to ““i’m in the field with a shield and a spear” [tintin in the congo]”

  1. From my perspective as an American, I’d rather comics not be banned/not banned for racist content outright in favor of putting a disclaimer or something in front saying whatever to the effect of “okay look, this thing has some hella racist depictions in it by today’s standards” like what got done with the English language editions of Astro Boy and Cyborg 009.

    Of course, those disclaimers generally include some underpinnings of moral relativism as par for the course. You seem to be adamantly rejecting the validity of moral relativism as a concept, and if that’s the case then I don’t know if I can get on board with that. The assertion of the existence of non-relative morality has fueled more wars throughout history than I can remember to bubble in on a Scantron, but on the media side of things I don’t think stuff like Speedy Gonzales or the 1960s episodes of Sesame Street were never appropriate for children to watch just because they’re not considered appropriate now. There’s no way to see the future, so people have no choice but to abide by “what’s okay at the time.”

    This is why the disclaimers on reprinted old editions of stuff bring up authorial intent; not to somehow claim “this isn’t racist after all” so much as to note “this racism is born out of not knowing any better, not active malice.” Whether or not racism perpetrated out of malice is initially born from ignorance is another matter, but to use your analogy: you may still have a flat toe at the end of the day, but you’re more likely to be okay with the person who didn’t mean to step on your foot than the one who deliberately did it to see you hurt.

    Maybe “okay” is too strong a term. Maybe it’d be more apt to say “tolerated”? Example: “Aunt Jemina is probably always gonna be problematic, but the logo keeps getting changed as years go by to reflect what’s tolerated.”

  2. @Daryl Surat: I think in the case of Speedy and Sesame Street (and Tintin, really) craft factors in. Those are all really well-made things with problematic aspects.

    I’m not sure where I stand on disclaimers. I think better a disclaimer than just pumping stuff out there, but something about it sorta irks me? I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve thought it through properly. If you can disclaim without apologizing, maybe. I liked this one from the Looney Tunes sets:

    “The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent the WB view of society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as to claim these prejudices never existed.”

    And people will always abide by what’s okay at the time. I don’t see us as really having a choice in that. Twenty years from now or whenever, kids are gonna be all, “Whoa man, grandma and grandpa were CRAZY homophobic, huh? How crazy is that!” But I think using “it was the time” as an excuse/salve, rather than an explanation (like “it’s okay because it was the time and this guy is great”, versus “it was the time and that sorta sucked, but this guy is great so please bear with us”) is much healthier.

    But no, I totally see what you’re saying. Very valuable insight. Thanks.

  3. It’s complicated, isn’t it. The trickiest one for me is “Song of the South”, which depicts happy blacks and happy whites and no conflict and no denigration of anyone … which, strangely enough, is the problem. How do you show something like that without being complicit in one of the many lies about slavery (i.e., that slavery was more benign than we currently give it credit for, and perhaps it was even the way things ought to be)?

    I don’t buy the moral relativism argument either, despite which I’ll toss out a contrary anecdote. I was recently talking with someone who grew up in Poland in the 1980s; there are no blacks to speak of in the entire country, and the common misunderstanding of this Pole and his friends was that blacks were subhuman near-monsters. Then they saw some Western movie with a badass black soldier in it — “Aliens”, perhaps — he was the coolest guy any of them had ever seen, and they decided they all wanted to be black. So, I guess some small allowances need to be made for genuine ignorance.

  4. David… now this is a landmine and while I agree with #5…. I also have to put myself in the place that I will not support this movie.

    Younger, my class was given a Tintin book to read and after skimming through it, I flat out told the teacher I was not going to read it for some of the very points you made here. I got an F for the assignment and my teacher’s enmity for the rest of the year.

    Now I can see the ‘reflective of the time’ argument… but what I don’t get is the folks who LOVE these books not understanding just why some minorities might have hang ups about it…. Close-minded is close-minded… and I’m looking at you period piece TV also..lol

  5. I’m gonna keep it short because I’m tired, and when I type for too long when I’m tired I lose my point:

    There are two types of racism; ignorance and stupidity. The ignorant can be educated. The stupid can’t. Stupid most often chooses to stay stupid even in front of contrary evidence of their ideas.
    The ignorant racism can be both extremely benign and extremely poisonous. Maybe it’s as small as asking an Asian if they want a set of chopsticks at a restaurant. But like Chunky said, about the Polish friend, sometimes there aren’t many opportunities to be corrected, in which case that ignorance stands undisturbed and probably perpetuated.
    Damnit I lost my point. Maybe it was that either Herge or the judge are just ignorant and haven’t had the opportunity to be told better. Maybe my point was that it’s complicated. Not that their actions are okay, just that maybe this is a teaching opportunity for the people that aren’t stupid and are willing to listen.
    I don’t know. I’m goin to bed.

  6. Ridiculous PC!

    All this controversy is old news. Hergé would be the first to admit and regret the racist content of his work. As early as the ’70s he was showing regret over this album, which, it must be stated, was the second volume in the series, prior to the author starting using extensive research in his comics and showing respect for world cultures. Hergé was ignorant of the Congo indeed, and the facts about it came from a Catholic priest with a political agenda. It’s worth remembering that Hergé originally published Tintin in a conservative, Catholic newspaper, which certainly influenced him.

    This album does not reflect Hergé’s later views or albums, and it was considered by the author a mistake from his early career. I think this shows a lot of character and humility. In his later comics he learned to show respect for other cultures. He even received an award from the Dalai Lama for the positive portrayal of Tibet in ‘Tintin in Tibet.’

    Do give it a rest.

  7. I think the news here is the judical advisor and his derpy logic. Which is newer news and isn’t yet tired enough to be made to give a rest.

  8. 3:
    It is a reflection of the times. Western Europe was a white society at the time. Hergé probably didn’t encounter any real black people. People with different skincolor werent as common in countries like Belgium as they are now. My grandmother was born in the 1930’s. She encountered her first real life black person in the late fifties. Hergé was born in 1907. His world was even more white than the world of my granny.
    You can blame Hergé for not doing any research. Now that’s objectively right.

    @Daryll B.
    Really..Get off your high horse. And you know what? Most Americans aren’t going to see the Tintin movie anyway. So you not supporting the movie really doesnt matter.

  9. Roy, it isn’t a high horse. You are free to watch the movie if you like. All I was doing was giving my side of it from a previous experience… Don’t try to flame this one up… As you did say, he was doing a reflection of the times… and I HATED those times. Nuff said…

  10. My main problem with the “those were the times argument” is that it seems to really say “hey, those were the times, everyone was racist/sexist/etc,” when that’s far from the case. There are always people who knew better but either went along with it anyway, simply kept there mouth shut, or actually tried to change things.

  11. “There are always people who knew better but either went along with it anyway, simply kept there mouth shut, or actually tried to change things.”

    True enough; for example, a person couldn’t really argue that Jefferson didn’t know slavery was wrong, because he was asked more than once how he can champion freedom while keeping slaves, and couldn’t ever come up with an answer. Slavery had its enemies long before Abe Lincoln came along.

    And I won’t want it said of this day and age that “those were different times, people didn’t know homosexuals were real people with actual hearts and minds”. Screw you, Mr. Hypothetical Future Historical Revisionist; plenty of us get it and have understood it for decades, and those who don’t are simply exercising their right to be crappy.