19 July 2007

A straw in the wind

This is a true story.

A man (white, middle class) goes into a high street bookshop. He comes across a children's comic book written in the 1930s. The book is written in a humorous style, and parodies many of the characters appearing in it (crazy Professor, swearing sea captain, annoying Italian opera singer, incompetent detectives, etc.). It portrays Congolese village natives of the 1930s in an equally irreverent style, as somewhat simple-minded.

(The book's author, now dead, had previously apologised for his ideologically unsound portrayals. "While I was growing up, I was being fed the prejudices of the bourgeois society that surrounded me", he confessed. The book was unavailable in Britain until 2005 because of its controversial nature. It now normally has a warning wrapper around it stating that it features “bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes”.)

The man claims to find the book's portrayal of Congolese offensive, on the basis that his wife is of African extraction. He takes his concern to the police. A police spokesman says the complaint is being treated as a "racist incident".

The man also takes his complaint to the Commission for Racial Equality (effectively a government body). The CRE issues a statement implying the book should be banned:

A hundred years ago it was common to see negative stereotypes of black people. Most people would assume that those days are behind us, and that we now live in a more accepting society. ["Accepting" of what? Ideologically unsound books?] Yet here we are in 2007 with high street book shops selling 'Tintin In The Congo'. This book contains imagery and words of hideous racial prejudice, where the 'savage natives' look like monkeys and talk like imbeciles.

Whichever way you look at it, the content of this book is blatantly racist. Highstreet shops, and indeed any shops, ought to think very carefully about whether they ought to be selling and displaying it. ... It beggars belief that in this day and age that [sic] any shop would think it acceptable to sell and display 'Tintin In The Congo.' The only place that it might be acceptable for this to be displayed would be in a museum, with a big sign saying 'old fashioned, racist claptrap'.
Many journalists and bloggers comment on the incident to the following effect: "yes, of course the book is racist, but we mustn't rush to ban something just because it is offensive".

But conceding, in the present ideological climate, that the book is "racist" is a bit like saying "yes, this publication encourages murder and rape, but we don't think it's necessary to ban it". It is therefore reasonable to assume we do not have very far to go, before we get to outright censorship.