I’m sure I’m giving you all the impression that I’m a kind of obsessed stalker when it comes to China Miéville, but everyone should read his latest blog post. It’s about the recent decision by the Belgian Supreme Court to reject the application by Bienvenue Mbutu Mondondo…
to have Tintin in the Congo declared unacceptable under the Belgian race relations law. However, he had made clear for years that he would be satisfied if, as in Britain, the book was published with a visible warning, a reminder of the context in which it was written (maybe even of the toxic ideology enshrined within). What Mondondo wanted was an official recognition that this text was a spitting in his face. That it came down to what was always clearly a nuclear option was due to the steadfast refusal of the publishers to countenance this – and thereby take responsibility for what they publish. The Belgian establishment went to cultural war, & it did so not for free speech, but for their right not to apologise for racist slander.
When human rights lawyer David Enright asks for the book to be sold as an adult work, while explicitly, repeatedly, stressing that he does not advocate banning it, nonetheless, cometh the resentment-spewing dissemblers in the comments insisting that he is supporting ‘censorship’. This is a degree of point-missing so great it is hard to believe it is not performative.
(Indeed, an astoundingly small proportion of arguments ‘for free speech’ & ‘against censorship’ or ‘banning’ are, in fact, about free speech, censorship or banning. It is depressing to have to point out, yet again, that there is a distinction between having the legal right to say something & having the moral right not to be held accountable for what you say. Being asked to apologise for saying something unconscionable is not the same as being stripped of the legal right to say it. It’s really not very fucking complicated. Cry Free Speech in such contexts, you are demanding the right to speak any bilge you wish without apology or fear of comeback. You are demanding not legal rights but an end to debate about & criticism of what you say. When did bigotry get so needy? This assertive & idiotic failure to understand that juridical permissibility backed up by the state is not the horizon of politics or morality is absurdly resilient.)
In case you don’t know the book, here‘s a link (provided by Miéville in his blog post) that will fill you in.
Had a look?
Delightful, isn’t it?
I’m not quoting it or putting any of the pictures on here. It makes me feel ill.
Herge (real name Georges Remi) was, by the way, a Nazi collaborator who featured anti-semitic stereotype villains (hook-nosed, cigar-chomping financier called Blumenstein, for instance) in his cartoons. Nice company for Spielberg and Moffat.
Aside from picking over the Tintin issue forensically, Miéville’s blog post is of relevance to this blog because he goes over the various weasely excuses always wheeled out by people who want to sleaze their way out of confronting the racism often blatant in cherished old stories.
Please read the whole thing. I am, however, going to take the liberty of quoting at length and snipping a bit in order to hone in on the points that I’m keen to stress here:
i) One may admit that aspects are unfortunate, but simply refuse to engage with the question of racism.
…Guy Staggs in the Telegraph … segues blithely to allowing, questions of race ignored, that the book is not ‘a good read’.
As if that is what we were talking about. (This – It’s Not Racist It’s Just Not Very Good – is a sort of evil-twin variant of the more common How Can Little Black Sambo Be Racist I Read It As A Child & I Loved It & What’s More I Understood Sambo Was The Hero (cf also How Can I Be A Sexist I Love Women In Fact I Prefer Them To Men aka How Is That Racist Having Natural Rhythm Is A Good Thing) position.)
ii) One can insist that the book’s attitudes ‘reflect its time’, as the court held.
There are two interesting points about this ultra-common defence for every undeniably racist (sexist, homophobic, &c) text in existence. The first is that it is historically bogus. Such ideas, like all ideas, were – are – contested. Certainly & obviously the mainstream shifts, the balance of forces alters, but the implicit or explicit claim that there were no dissident voices on supremacist agendas is a lie. To claim that everyone talked like Tintin about the Congo back in the day is (whatever other serious political arguments we may have with them) to slander, say, Felicien Challaye, Albert Londres, the French Socialist movement that declared at its 1907 conference that colonialism ‘relies on violent conquest and institutionalises the subjection of Asiatic and African peoples’.
The second point is that even if these attitudes do ‘reflect their time’ in the sense of reflecting a then-more-mainstream agenda, so the fuck what? The point about attitudes is that they change, in response to struggle, to a battle for ideas. The question here is whether or not Tintin au Congo is racist. Which it is. That may perhaps in part be because white supremacism was less contested back then – just as well we’re not back then, then, isn’t it? & that instead we live in now, when the resistance of those deemed unable to add 2 & 2 has forced the recognition that this kind of shit is shit. These days a ‘collective synapse’ should kick in ‘forged by mass movements … that have forced a lot of people, particularly white straight men, to have a clue.’
iii) Insist that Hergé was not racist.
Ah, intent. You unfalsifiable talisman of airy exoneration. This is the second twanging string to the Belgian court’s bow, the outraged insistence that the artist was no racist, had no intent to ‘create an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating environment’.
The great advantage for its deployers of this defence is that it is completely unprovable either way. Which is why, whatever one’s opinions of their actual bona fides, it is generally strategic to focus on what a person said or wrote, rather than what they think or are.
Which is exactly what Mondondo & Enright do. Their claim is that this book is racist. Because it is. Intent shmintent: whatever Hergé intended, are these disgusting sub-minstrel figures ‘degrading’? Anyone who denies that the answer is yes is a fool or a knave.
There is the absurd hyperbole, to turn a victimiser’s culture into a victim. In his effort to derail the issue, Staggs insists that the ‘trump’ of racism is ‘used to blot out any part of our cultural heritage that might cause embarrassment.’ ‘Blot out’. Right. Who, after all, could forget the monstrous erasure performed by Stalin on Trotsky, by putting a warning sticker on him & refusing to shelve him alongside The Gruffalo? The Tintin Vanishes. Quick, conjure images of book burning! First they came for the Boy Reporter & shelved him alongside Persepolis & Sandman, & I did not speak out, because I was not a Boy Reporter, &c.
What I’ve quoted above should be read by everyone who’s ever defended Toberman on the grounds that he’s the hero / he’s of his time / the makers weren’t deliberately trying to be racist / whaddayawanndo, ban it??? / etc., etc., ad nauseum, ad infinitum…
It wouldn’t do any good, of course, but least they’d have no way of claiming that nobody had ever pointed out the stupid irrelevance and bad faith of such ‘arguments’.