Tuesday, July 24, 2007
This from the innocent world of children's books: In the same week Borders enjoyed opening-day sales of 1.2 million copies of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, smashing all previous single-day records, the worldwide bookseller threw plucky Belgian adventurer Tintin off the kiddie shelves and banished one of his books to the adult section.
Tintin's exile came after a customer in London complained that one of his comic books was racist.
The book was Tintin In The Congo.
In it, Tintin and his dog, Snowy, come to be worshipped as gods by the, um, natives.
It seems the complainant was a human-rights lawyer. It seems his wife was from Africa, and was black.
It seems he ignored the comic book's wrapping that warned it was an unexpurgated reissue of the 1931 original and that the crude stereotypes of blacks therein -- which even the author, Georges Remi, came to repudiate because he was embarrassed by them -- reflected the racist colonial prejudices of the time.
It seems Britain's ominously named Commission For Racial Equality agreed with the customer, found that the book was filled with "hideous racial prejudice" and wanted it removed from the shelves.
It seems this perfect storm of professional interest, racial affront and bureaucratic fulmination led to a gutless compromise:
While Tintin's other books will remain on the kiddy shelves, Tintin In The Congo will reside in the adult graphic novels section, where, presumably, it can be read by neo-Nazis, men in raincoats or the thousands of curious readers who will wonder what all the fuss was about.
Meanwhile, pagan, spell-casting Harry Potter, knee-deep in the blood of those several dozen characters viciously murdered around him, will remain right where he is, in the children's section.
Of course, there have been many attempts to lever Harry out of the kids' grubby paws, too. Plenty of cultural watchdogs have deemed it unfit for children.
According to the American Library Association, the Potter series was for several years among the most banned and challenged book in the U.S. school and library system.
It has impeccable company in that regard, including John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They angered parents for naughty words, sexual content and "immorality."
Closer to type, the Potter series joins many banned and challenged books in the children and adolescent genre, including Maurice Sendak's In The Night Kitchen, R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series, Dr. Suess's The Lorax (for its allegorical political commentary) and Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, which, despite being written in 1974, hailed as a classic and made into a movie, is still after all these years near the top of the human rights hit list. And let us not forget James and The Giant Peach, The Bridge to Terabithia (recently released as a movie) and, I kid you not, Where's Waldo? Somebody must have thought he had something to hide.
And somebody out there seems to come up with any number of reasons for banning just about any book: for espousing a religious view, for not espousing a religious view; for homosexuality, for heterosexuality; for left-leaning political views, for right-leaning political views.
Borders should have told the Commission for Racial Equality to take a hike, but instead chose to engage in self-censorship, trading off one freedom for another and exiling a 76-year-old comic book to the furthest reaches of the adult shelves.
Meanwhile, it makes a killing peddling a pagan blockbuster to the hordes of underage Potterphiles.
Why is one deemed suitable for children and not the other?
Money, mainly. Potter is the motherlode. Tintin's not worth making a moral fuss over.
But more subtly, in relativist Western liberal democracies, the taboo of racial stereotyping, even racial stereotyping 76 years old that comes bound in a warning wrapper for the unsuspecting, now has a greater power to stigmatize than any affront to Christianity. Harry Potter practises pagan rituals? Hey, relax. It's just a kids' book.
And nobody believes in God any more, at least not so much as to take affront over a kids' book, unless they want to be thought of as a born-again cracker.
It makes me wonder what the "human rights" lawyer would have done if he had read another of Tintin's adventures, The Blue Lotus.
It, too, has been banned, though not for its depictions of Arab white slavers, pig-tailed Chinese and sadistic bucktoothed Japanese soldiers.
Published in 1946, it was banned in China for its pro-Kuomintang sympathies.
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