When Did Bigotry Get So Needy?

By Guest Contributor China Miéville, cross-posted from rejectamentalist manifesto

Stand down: literature has defeated the Thought Police. Belgium’s supreme court has defeated the mischief-making of the whining PC brigade. Tintin is not banned. Huzzah!

The badness of the bad faith involved in the commentariat’s discussion of this issue, the relentlessness of their categoric elisions, the unpleasantness of their crowing over the victory, should come as no surprise. This was never, at root, about banning.

Yes, Bienvenue Mbutu Mondondo was applying to the court 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, and 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’ and ‘against censorship’ or ‘banning’ are, in fact, about free speechcensorship 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 f-cking 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 and 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.)

There are a very few attempts to insist that Tintin au Congo is really not racist, but this is a hard line to take, given its shameful cavalcade of j***aboo grotesquerie & preening white supremacism. How then, can that, the key issue, the racism of a book that shows stupid, rolling-eyed & thick-lipped Congolese unable to string coherent language together or add 2 and 2, worshipping a white boy’s dog, considering him a ‘big Juju man’, be avoided?

1) One may admit that aspects are unfortunate, but simply refuse to engage with the question of racism.

One commentator, who proudly proclaims his predisposition to find against liberal do-gooders (and does so, though on utterly confused grounds), is forced to admit the book is ‘shockingly patronising & insensitive’. He simply ducks, however, the key question of whether it is racist. Similarly, Guy Staggs in the Telegraph stresses only that “campaigners claim that Tintin in the Congo causes offence”: indeed they do, and one might think the rightness or not of that claim is germane to the issue. Forlorn and unexamined, however, it goes, as Staggs 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 and I Loved It and 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.)

2) 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, etc.) text in existence. The first is that it is historically bogus. Such ideas, like all ideas, were–are–contested. Certainly and 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? And that instead we live in now, when the resistance of those deemed unable to add 2 and 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.”

3) 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 and 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 and refusing to shelve him alongside The GruffaloThe Tintin Vanishes. Quick, conjure images of book burning! First they came for the Boy Reporter and shelved him alongside Persepolis & Sandman, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Boy Reporter, etc.

Staggs must surely then be full of contumely for anyone who was willing not merely to provide context for but to actually alter the sacrosanct ur-text: this would be capitulation to the Thought Police. Someone like, er, Hergé, who decades after the book’s first publication, revisited and reworked it, expressing embarrassment for the earlier version. Almost as if returning to shameful work in the light of new understandings was a civilized thing to do. (Though the rethink was both wholly inadequate and appears to have been as much to do with anxiety about hunting as about the racism.)

With his reference to “any part” of culture, Staggs encapsulates another bullshit argument: the slippery slope. That if you allow that this should be adapted, or even contextualised, or shelved differently, then everything that “might cause embarrassment” (again the ducking of the question of whether such embarrassment–or rage–is justified) will be threatened, & everything will end up banned.

That no one has suggested this is irrelevant to him. Indeed, what is suggested, rather, is that in the case of controversial art, we have a thoughtful discussion about what is and is not appropriate in what circumstances. Mondondo advocates no measures with regard to any other Tintin book, no matter their depictions of Africans, nor any other classic deep-structured by racism. If any such argument does come up, we will discuss it on its merits. There is no slippery slope.

There will be hard cases and grey areas, yes. Of course. We are intelligent people: we can work it out. No originals will ever be “blotted out,” lost from memory for researchers, especially in this era of digital archiving. Just as Sunflower the Pickaninny Centaur is not forgotten, despite Disney’s best efforts, nor Agatha Christie’s original title of And Then There Were None. Nor is anyone saying such questionable figures may never be used–the question, rather, is what you do with them. Bluster, nostalgia & resentment being pitifully inadequate.

Indeed, Staggs’ Everything Will Be Banned argument is not only bogus, but reversible. The totalitarian logic it imputes to his opponents lies, instead, with him. Mondondo has not suggested that everything embarrassing be blotted out. Staggs, however, does insist that nothing, no matter how repulsive, should ever be even contextualised, let alone, sometimes, even, in certain contexts, adapted. He is the totalitarian. He must, by this logic, wish to live in a world where any black child–any child–excited to see Fantasia must be shocked by (no warning allowed!) and suffer through Sunflower, must wander into bookshops to be faced with mass-selling books calling them N****r in the title.

It is a strange, depraved morality that chooses relentless fidelity to racist texts over consideration of the day-to-day lives of children & others. Or to put it another way, ‘fuck you people, we care about our little n****r dolls more than we care about you’.

These are not merely debates about old texts. The golliwog, for example, has recently been invoked not merely in a peculiar and doggedly unapologised-for sneer at a young black man, but, without caution or rigour, by feted & hip artists, one of whom announces that the figure is reclaimed. As if no racist calls any black child golliwog any more.

No, this is not only about children (adults having just as much right to expect not to be degraded by the culture that surrounds them) but it is, absolutely, about them. Mondondo started his action out of concern for his young nephew. Enright requested the reshelving because of the thought of his children seeing themselves reflected through this vicious distorting mirror. Is that really such a bad standard to adopt, at least as a starting point? To suggest that we should not treat as innocent cultural slurs that make life harder for children? (PDF) Is it harder or easier for a traveller child to go to school the day after Jimmy Carr’s “gypsies stink” gag? To get a bus under one of Channel 4’s astonishing new posters? Is it a good day when a Congolese child chances upon a contextless Tintin au Congo alongside Miffy, or a bad day?

We have established that this is not censorship, not banning. Nor is it thought-policing, nor political-correctness-gone-mad. What if it is, at a bare minimum, basic fucking decency? Civilisation?

On the Enid Blyton bulletin boards, warriors bemoan the PC Brigade taking from them the N-word and, above all, the golliwogs. Just as Hergé’s defenders must, to be rigorous, turn their ire on Hergé, so Blyton’s shock-troops must loath and detest her daughters: it was they who decided to remove those much-missed racist caricatures.

‘My sister and I came to the conclusion in the 80s that because of the multicultural society we now had, that the gollis should disappear from the books. … [W]e felt that it was not right in this day & age to use them if they were considered to be a parody of part of our population.’

Spin? Post-facto justification? Off-handed extemporisation? We can’t know. But whatever spurred such words & thoughts, it’s striking–it’s shameful–that the 30-year-old apolitical polite good neighbourliness of Blyton’s own daughters shows more concern for people’s feelings, more pragmatic understanding of the problems & politics of culture, than any of today’s huffing defenders of the Boy Reporter, or ‘post-ironic’ revivalists of slanders.

China Miéville is a writer and activist who lives in London. His latest novel, for readers of all ages, is Railsea, forthcoming in May 2012.

  • Anonymous

     Really. And how exactly do you propose to change people’s minds, if you can’t challenge the mainstream, normative, cultural hegemonic discourse? How on earth are we supposed to fight against pervasive racist/classist/sexist/transphobic/etc norms, if we can’t even use LAWS which are supposed to protect PEOPLE (most of all children) from being tokenized and attacked?

    These cultural products promote and perpetuate a hateful culture. They can be distributed, but they must be restricted (if anything, put a disclaimer at the front and say: “This is seriously dehumanizing shit, beware”).

  • PatrickInBeijing

     If I were trying to ban the book, I might have to  prove that it is patently racist (which actually in this case should not be hard to do!).  But I would settle for locking it up in the adults only section of the library or bookstores where it is kept away from kids.  That would be my number one goal.  We don’t prove that every issue of every “adult” magazine is “obscene” in order to try to keep it away from children.  Nor should we have to with books like this.  I don’t think we should refuse to do something now because the world might change in ways we don’t like.

    Books like this are not only racist, but promote racism.  I agree that the “best way to achieve better outcomes in society is to change people’s minds”, but when?  In the meantime, why not protect ourselves?

    As to the Supreme Court, who cares?  I don’t trust them at all.  The way to do this is by going after both booksellers and the publisher.  They will learn to be reasonable rather than go out of business.    And the “free speech…. protects unpopular speech” argument?  I used to buy that.  But it really isn’t true.  Speech is limited in many many ways, and most of them are intended to protect the white power structure (they sure as hell don’t protect Muslims, for instance).

    I used to be a liberal, but I got gored too many times.

  • Jay

    Excellent, eloquent article. I especially appreciate the often-ignored point that there have *always* been people who disapproved of and challenged racism, which makes the constantly trotted out ‘product of its time’ excuse ring painfully false. If there weren’t people who challenged this stuff back in the bad old days, nothing would ever have changed, would it?

  • k.eli

    This article is full of so much win that I want to prostrate at your feet. Everything you said was absolute truth. It never ceases to amaze me how some people will do everything in their power to excuse blatant racism and yet still claim they’re not a racist (because apparently only cross burners with mullets are racists). And I just love the line – “but that’s the way things were back then.” Oh really, according to who? Who determined that those kinds of beliefs and images were okay because I certainly don’t think it was the people being victimized by them (or do their beliefs and their very humanity not count?).
    Interestingly enough, when the makers of Looney Tunes released their multi-volume Golden Collection on DVD a few years back, one of the volumes was rated “Adult/Mature” and had a forward by Whoopi Goldberg explaining that that disk contained the “censored 11″ – Looney Tunes cartoons that were very racist in nature and had been banned since the later ’60s (although some were still leaked after that). But the world didn’t stop turning; Looney Tunes fans weren’t denied from ever seeing Porky Pig again. So I don’t understand why the Belgian government couldn’t even be bothered to – at the very least –  put a freaking warning sticker on the book. Ugh. God forbid we ever prevent some white people from waxing poetic nostalgia for the racist icons of their youth. 

  • k.eli

    This article is full of so much win that I want to prostrate at your feet. Everything you said was absolute truth. It never ceases to amaze me how some people will do everything in their power to excuse blatant racism and yet still claim they’re not a racist (because apparently only cross burners with mullets are racists). And I just love the line – “but that’s the way things were back then.” Oh really, according to who? Who determined that those kinds of beliefs and images were okay because I certainly don’t think it was the people being victimized by them (or do their beliefs and their very humanity not count?).
    Interestingly enough, when the makers of Looney Tunes released their multi-volume Golden Collection on DVD a few years back, one of the volumes was rated “Adult/Mature” and had a forward by Whoopi Goldberg explaining that that disk contained the “censored 11″ – Looney Tunes cartoons that were very racist in nature and had been banned since the later ’60s (although some were still leaked after that). But the world didn’t stop turning; Looney Tunes fans weren’t denied from ever seeing Porky Pig again. So I don’t understand why the Belgian government couldn’t even be bothered to – at the very least –  put a freaking warning sticker on the book. Ugh. God forbid we ever prevent some white people from waxing poetic nostalgia for the racist icons of their youth. 

  • Anonymous

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    • Anonymous

      If you follow the @Racialicious feed, it automatically converts everything to a shorter URL.

  • Anonymous

    You know, it is really difficult to Tweet your stuff when you don’t use a URL shortner. 

  • Anonymous

    Hi China, really good to see you on racialicious.

  • Anonymous

    Hi China, really good to see you on racialicious.