Thursday, 3 January 2013

Same book, different languages ... and attitudes

I rarely stray into what might be seen as politically sensitive topics on my blog, but sometimes it is difficult not to ... and the following is such an example.

Whilst I was in Blankenberge I visited a bookshop and bought a copy of the Flemish-language edition of TINTIN IN THE CONGO (KUIFJE IN AFRIKA).


It was of interest that in Flemish Tintin is called Kuifje and his dog – who I always knew as Snowy – is called Bobbie.

I already owned a French-language edition of the book – entitled TINTIN AU CONGO – but until very recently I did not own an English-language version ... and herein lays a tale.


Unlike the Flemish and French editions of the book, which are on open sale in high street bookshops, for a long time TINTIN IN THE CONGO could only be bought in England from specialist bookshops, and had to be sold in a shrink-wrap cover with a special warning on the cover.


Why?

Because the book was thought to be racist and to advocate the needless killing of wild animals.

I have 'read' the French, Flemish, and English editions of the book, and one has to accept that even in the modified versions that are now available (the book’s illustrations were redrawn in the late 1940s), they do not comply with the currently – and to my mind, correctly – held views as to how any ethnic group should be portrayed visually, socially, and intellectually. There can be little argument about the fact that the book is racist in the way that the Africans are portrayed ... and even HergĂ© accepted that fact, and in later life expressed shamed and regret about what he had written and drawn. It is also true that a lot of wild animals are seen being shot for no apparent reason.

BUT it is a book of its time (it was originally published in 1931 when the world was a very different place) and in my opinion it should be seen and judged in that light. By trying to limit access to the English edition of the book it would appear that someone somewhere did not think that people who were likely to read the book would be able to make judgements as to its 'correctness'. I think that they were in error, and my attitude to this situation can best be summed up in Evelyn Beatrice Hall's words about Voltaire’s attitude to freedom of expression, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

20 comments:

  1. The great danger of censorship is the erasure of different views, some of which are of interest historically, regardless of the repugnance of those views. When history and literature is erased for political expediency, we begin to have gaps in the fabric of society. What happens when a new regime takes over and decides that all that you stood for is no longer tolerated and will be expunged?

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  2. CoastConFan,

    I totally agree. There are times when censorship is necessary ... but it should not be the norm.

    I taught history for many years, but gave up when I was told to teach 'facts' that were actually politically motivated distorted versions of the truth or opinions purporting to be facts.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  3. It is not the attitude of the book or piece of media that was written before more enlightened time that shouldd ever be in question. It is the attitude of the reader.

    As mentioned,there is but one small step between political, state motivated censorship and open book burnings in the street!

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  4. On a slightly lighter note I did visit a comic book store on my last visit to Antwerp.

    I had a good look around but I could find no 'english' copies of any of the Tin Tin books.

    Are they 'sold under the counter'?

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  5. DeadGuy,

    The problem is that there are people who consider that they have a given right to be arbiters of what is right and wrong ... and if or when they have political power, they can inflict their attitudes on the rest of us. As you wrote in your comment, things can become difficult or even dangerous when that happens.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  6. Jim Duncan,

    I must admit that I had trouble finding the Flemish-language edition of the Tintin book in the bookshop ... because I was looking for the Walloon name, not the Flemish one! I suspect that expecting to find an English-language edition in a country where fanatics for one language still go around painting over road signs in the other language would have been even more difficult ... even under the counter!

    All the best,

    Bob

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  7. A tough one. I am very much against sanitizing historical works and against censoring or banning even the most offensive texts. However, they must be approached in context. Shrink wrapping with a warning is not a bad compromise. A good preface inside explaining the context would be even better. Ideas hidden away will fester and become more dangerous than those left exposed.

    And yet to be hypocritical, I see no need to put Gollywog dolls back into production. Why the idea is different to the artifact is a point to ponder.

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  8. Pat G,

    I agree with you. What I found interesting was the differences between British attitudes to the book and that shown in Belgium. It may be related to the fact that Tintin/Kuifje was created in Belgium and that the book was quite popular in the Congo until quite recently, whereas the book was not published in the UK until 2005.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  9. I am a collector of early videos featuring the mighty sailor Popeye, and liked the disclaimer that came with the discs. To paraphrase: "these films contain stereotypes that are wrong now, and were wrong then, but to remove them would be to deny these prejudices existed". Watching the cartoons featuring the portrayal of American Indians, Africans, or Japanese can be rather uncomfortable, but then Popeye, Bluto, Olive and Wimpy are hardly portrayed as paragons of Western culture.
    -Steve

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  10. Steven Page,

    I like the disclaimer! When I was young I can remember seeing some of the Popeye films that were made during the Second World War ... and in retrospect they were full of racist stereotypes that would give the 'Political Correctness Police' the vapours!

    All the best,

    Bob

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  11. I lived in several European countries (quite a number of years ago) due to military service and of all things (this during the depths of the Cold War) the library on post had copies of all kinds of books, including Das Kapital, Mein Kamph, and a number of esoteric, political, and religious books not well regarded in Western Democracies at the time. We even had a subscription to Soviet Life (that was a chuckle). The idea was to allow everybody access to books no matter how pernicious and provocative. This allowed a free exploration of ideas, which allowed soldiers to go face to face with the ideologies we were trying to contain. In some cases, owning copies of these books in our host country, was punishable off post. I really liked the idea that the government (at that time) was not afraid of comparison and full disclosure of history and ideas, no matter how bad they were. Amazing that the government could be so enlightening and trusting at that time.

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  12. What really gets up my nose is, as a noted New Zealand personality once remarked, that my intellectual inferiors tell me what I may or may not read (or view), and in what conditions.

    That might sound arrogant, and I am not altogether against censorship. i do it myself. But bear in mind this point: I do it myself for myself and in the past, for my children (not theat I go nuts about it).

    You know: it never occurred to me until the wowser brigade hit town that the Gollywog had anything to do with Africans or African races. Even then I had to be persuaded.

    But you do get weird things alleged. Such as the western attitude to the colour Black as representing something evil. That never had anything to due with race (Africans used to be thought of as blue in colour) but the blackness of night, and the particular cold blackness of mid-winter.

    Or the Washington D.C. being fired for use of the word 'niggardly' which has no connection whatever with colour or race. You can bet the ones who made the greatest song and dance about it was some ignoramous white dude aout to score points.

    AND WHAt's the deal against stereotypes? Stereotypes abound, You see them every day. That's what they are: types. The problem with stereotypes in literature (inter alia) is that are as much cliche. So are anti-stereotypes. But then, so to some extent are archetypes.

    Where the most care has to be taken is in communications that attempt to persuade to a point of view - in particular a socio-political point of view. But even then that ought to be a matter for the responsible individual to decide. Nor ought the responsibility and good sense of individuals be second guessed.

    The world is full of gullible, easily swayed individuals, to be sure. OK: sway them.

    Shrink wrapping Tintin is plain stupid.
    Cheers,
    Ion

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  13. CoastConFan,

    It sounds to me that you served in the armed forces of a country that seems to have been a very enlightened view as to you ‘knowing’ any potential enemy. It is much easier to get into the head of your enemy if you have some understanding of the structure of his society, his mores, the political views to which he is subject, and the economic climate in which he lives.

    It has always struck me as odd that people who claim to be secure in their beliefs – particularly political leaders – fear ideas that run counter to their own, and will go to great lengths to ensure that those ideas do not get exposure within their society. What do they have to fear? If their people share their beliefs, then nothing; if their people don’t share their beliefs, then their leadership is out-of-step with what their people want and needs to change. It would seem to me that what they really fear is losing power … and everything that goes with it! In this case it is not about true belief; it is about ego.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  14. Archduke Piccolo (Ion),

    I begin to worry when a society seeks to change people’s views by censorship and language change. Does it not trust its people?

    Probably not … well at least its political leaders (and those that influence them) do not. In the UK we are well down the road to having a ‘Nanny-state’ where individuals cannot exercise their own decision making powers, are risk-averse, and always have to have someone to blame when things go wrong. ‘Nanny-state’ knows best.

    Your comment about the use of the word black is interesting. When I was a child, non-white people were called ‘Coloured’, with the N-word used as an insult; in my 20s and 30s they became ‘Black’, and any use of the word black other that to describe a racial group (such as blackboard, a black day etc.) was deemed racist and was changed; when I gave up work the N-word was used by young Black people to describe each other … but if I had used the term it would have still been seen as racist. Newspeak is alive and well … and living in the UK and other countries!

    Stereotypes are a way in which people learn to cope with the world around them, and if used positively can put people at their ease. We expect our police officers, our firefighters, our teachers, our doctors (the list is almost endless!) to behave in certain ways; in other words to behave in a stereotypical fashion. Pre-judging a person by their skin colour IS wrong … but having expectations based upon their role within society is not.

    This has been a very interesting discussion.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  15. There are many valid points, from many directions.

    Sometimes I am concerned that by playing Colonial games where the non-Europeans are the "bad guys" that I'm perpetuating some of the intolerance of the past and glorifying some of the jingoism and imperialism. Or at least, being insensitive to it. Although my intention is more about recreating the old Hollywood-type adventure stories for my amusement.

    That concern is certainly one reason why I sometimes lean towards fantasy gaming (not to mention being a longtime LOTR fan I just enjoy the genre). It can be more "cut and dried"; the bad guys are the bad guys. (but then I've come across people who will try to equate orcs with the downtrodden native peoples of the colonial period - so maybe you can't 'win").

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  16. Don’t confuse free speech, as speech that has no consequence. Speech has consequence, some good and some bad – like yelling, “fire” in a theater. But somehow stifled speech is the worst of all or speech erased forever. There are rewards and punishments for speech, just because it is priceless doesn’t mean it is worthless.

    The written word can endure ages. I just finished a book on Mesopotamian cultures with translated quotes from a tablet that was 5,000 years old and it humbled me that those people could be gone so long and yet later be understood by a future culture that they could not comprehend. But we can comprehend them, because they are the same kind of human that we are.

    @ Fitz-Badger, I play historical simulations also, but never glory in the politics of the past. Games can be enjoyed as an intellectual puzzle. I’d just as happily play Zulus, Mongols, Soviets, Persians, Germans, Klingons, Goblins or Cthulhu for the sheer challenge. In a way it’s a celebration of the average guy in armies who were just struggling to survive a conflict. I suspend value judgments for the over intellectualizing types who cannot relax dogma and partake of fellowship in a game.

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  17. Fitz-Badger,

    Fighting Colonial wargames can be a minefield … which is one reason why I have gone down the imagi-nation route. By making the conflict ‘fictitious’ I seem to be able to justify the morale dilemma to myself. I even went to the extent of adding the following text to the opening page of my Colonial Wargaming website:
    ’The people, places, organisations, and events described herein are fictional, and exist only in the imagination of the writer and the reader. Any resemblance to real people, places, organisations, or events is purely coincidental. Nothing on this website should be construed as advocating colonialism, denigrating native peoples, or promoting any particular political, racial, social, or moral agenda or viewpoint.

    I have never had any adverse comments about my website, so I assume that my caveat covers any objections that people might have. After forty plus years of wargaming, I have tried to stop worrying about it … but I still do.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  18. CoastConFan

    The line between what is acceptable freedom of expression and that which is not is one that seems to constantly change with the current mores of society. Likewise the consequence of exercising ones freedom of expression can vary from place to place and time to time. What is acceptable for one generation is not acceptable to the next. Things change, and we must move with the change … but the fundamental principle that the individual has the right to freedom of expression – and to accept the consequences thereafter – must remain an essential human right … even if that right may have to be curtailed at times in order to preserve the lives of others.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  19. Bob,

    An interesting discussion, indeed. Personally, I don't feel that staging a colonial wargame for the private entertainment of oneself and friends is condoning racism or imperialism any more than enjoying watching Gary Cooper in Lives of a Bengal Lancer or Connery and Caine in The Man Who Would Be King, or reading one of the Flashman novels.

    Do Italians feel guilty about the Roman Empire, and worry about the 'morality' of fielding miniature legions, I wonder?

    I suspect the concern about 19th century colonialism because the peoples whose lands were colonised were of a different racer, whereas the Romans often conquered and enslaved people of the same race (though they themselves might not have seen it that way).

    Perhaps we should all hang our heads in shame because our ancestors may have driven homo neanderthalis to extinction? Or is 'speciesism' not so heinous as racism?

    One could argue that ANY vaguely realistic wargame, condones and glorifies the infliction of physical violence on human beings!

    I found the pictures of shattered bones from medical archives and contemporary drawings/paintings of wounds that appeared in a recently published book on the effects of musketry and artillery fire in the Napoleonic Wars so disturbing that I sold the book and decided, henceforth, that my own wargames would feature either Imagi-Nations or simply be games of toy soldiers.

    Is that a cop-out, morally speaking? Probably. But that might lead me to abandoning the hobby I enjoy altogether, so best not to think too deeply upon the matter...

    Regards,

    Arthur



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  20. Arthur1815,

    I don’t think that it a bad thing to think about the morality of our hobby every so often; in fact I would go as far to say that it is a positively good thing. If you never challenge ourselves, then how can we defend what we do to others who are not wargamers, and who so often see us as war lovers, warmongers, and militarists?

    I suspect that some of the angst that wargamers in the UK and other English-speaking countries go through may be a product of our Protestant/Puritan history, which has affect that way we think about the world … but that is a whole new topic that we could discuss for a long time!

    I was interested about your comment about the book you recently bought – and then sold – and the fact that you intend your future wargames to ‘ feature either Imagi-Nations or simply be games of toy soldiers.’ I must admit that I am moving in the same direction, but for slightly different reasons. I enjoy the historical part of our hobby … but as I get older I seem to prefer the imaginative side more. In addition, I want to re-fight Operation Barbarossa … but without the atrocities conducted by both sides. The only way I can see to do this is to ‘fictionalise’ the conflict so that I can ‘write out’ that aspect of the war. This probably is a cop-out … but if it means that I can enjoy my hobby, then so be it!

    All the best,

    Bob

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