Sunday, July 15, 2007

Blogging and the Beeb

On Thursday morning I went through my morning web trapline - New York Times, the Guardian, Raw Story, previous day's 9 Chickweed Lane, Girl Genius, the CJR and CSM, Slashdot and Fark.

One of the daily Fark links was to a BBC story. The Commission or Racial Equality wanted to ban Tintin in the Congo, the 1930 adventure's of Herge's famous character and Belgium's national hero. The book's certainly dated. Tintin exterminates animals wholesale trying to get his man. The locals are caricatures. They don't speak well. They aren't bright. They look about like you'd expect. Herge was embarrassed by it in later years. It's never been heavily published or promoted and is mostly forgotten by his fans.

That obviously wasn't good enough for the British government. They wanted it to be banned from sale because the depictions of Africans are pretty distasteful by modern standards.

The BBC had a comment form, so I entered one hoping that it would be accepted for publication on the website. It was a little surprising to get a call half an hour later asking "Are you Dan Gambiera? I'm from the BBC World Service. Would you like to be on BBC World Have Your Say?"

Yes. Certainly.

At 11AM they called back, and I got to speak for a couple minutes. It was nice to see that almost nobody wanted TTitC to be banned. Moved to the adult graphic novels section, maybe. But most saw official censorship as heavy-handed even for today's UK.

So what did your Faithful Amphibian have to say? It's hard to remember exactly, but I recall a couple points....

  • "As a Jew whose hijab-wearing Afro-Asian Muslim wife loves Tintin..."
  • Prohibition won't work, especially in an age where information is freely available. What the CRE did manage to do was catapult it from obscurity to fame. It jumped from somewhere around 30,000 on to 9th place in overall sales in a few hours including a copy that is now heading for Oregon by Royal Mail.
  • If it is so patently offensive to various groups that it must be banned we will also have to include the Quran, the Gospels and anything written by any Jew anywhere. Various members of the Abrahamic faiths find all of these offensive and blasphemous.
  • While we're at it we'll have to ban H. Rider Haggard, P.G. Woodehouse, Damon Runyon, Gone With the Wind, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Mein Kampf just to start with. All of these are available in high street shops.
  • Other racist material is readily available. How many kids are going to spend the equivalent of two hours' pay for a Midlands carpenter to buy any book these days?
  • Dangerous ideas are good. With another turn of the Wheel the CRE's own white papers might be banned. And we wouldn't want that to happen. I mentioned the McLibel lawsuit as a case where commercial interests found a pamphlet to be offensive and objectionable and tried to crush the authors in what turned into the UK's longest trial. I may also have brought up the fact that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring would probably be illegal today under American Food Disparagement Laws.
That's all I can remember saying. Someone else made the point that it should be a matter of parental responsibility and that context is important. It was a different age. People thought differently, and it's dangerous and dishonest to revise history to make it more palatable.

Come to think of it, Herge turned pretty much everyone who wasn't a Belgian into a caricature. Look at Tintin in America or any of the books that take place in Russia or the Orient.

So it was a good day. Thanks to Rustin Wright for reminding me about the McLibel incident.

Update: It looks like the book will not be banned. Barnes & Noble will be reclassifying it as an adult graphic novel.