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The joke’s on us

The Tintin Comics controversy shows that political correctness is taking all the fun out of life.

india Updated: Sep 03, 2009 23:19 IST

There’s a lot in the Tintin comics to give offence.

George Remi’s caricatures are as much about peoples as about the individuals the intrepid Belgian reporter meets in his adventures across continents. They’re all there: the goose-stepping Kraut, the maharaja and the naked fakir, the Chinese opium smuggler, the marauding Bedouin, the Soviet apparatchik, the Japanese warlord, the tin-pot South American dictator, the rapacious Greek tycoon.

Each is a parody of a nation that does not sit well with its modern image. But they did exist over the half century that Remi churned out his exquisitely detailed cartoons. And for generations of 10-year-olds reading their first travelogue, these stereotypes were very real — that’s what made them funny. We learnt to laugh at ourselves through potted history.

Sometimes the joke went too far. Remi sent Tintin to Congo in 1931, when it was a Belgian colony, and has since apologised for the naïve colonial view of his youth. Overtly racist themes were removed in a 1946 edition, and further sanitised in 1975. Yet, Tintin in Congo is off children’s shelves in both the US and Britain.

Now Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, a Congolese, wants the book, where black Africans “look like monkeys and talk like imbeciles”, withdrawn. He is threatening to take Tintin’s Belgian publishers Moulinsart to the European Court of Human Rights.

The intellectual sophistry in applying modern sensitivities to events past is dangerous. A politically correct Great Books Index would make for a short read. And an acquaintance with history is our best armour against repeating it.