Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sapristi! Will Belgium Ban Tintin?

Probably not.

But a man from the Congo, who now lives in Belgium, has asked the courts of his adoptive home to ban one of the early adventures of its national hero. Tintin in the Congo, as many readers may be aware, is contains the racist stereotypes that gives words like "imperialism" and indeed "Belgian Congo" such unhappy resonance in the modern world.

In Britain, the book is now sold with a warning label, as if it were a packet of cigarettes. The plaintiff has indicated that he would accept a resolution of this sort. We suppose it's not a bad idea; today's bien-pensant parents ought to know whether we are buying a jolly children;s tale about walking on the moon, or an historical artifact that serves to remind us all of how far European societies have come in a very short time -- but which we might not want tour children to read right away.

That said, however, we would also like to say something that bears repeating as often as possible, no matter how obvious it may seem: Banning books is a bad idea.

It is a bad idea for many reasons, not least of which is that it will likely fail. Books that have been banned often emerge, later, with an heroic glow about them, at least in the minds of their enthusiasts. Which is why you don't ban Mein Kampf, at least if you are smart. You turn it into a textbook, or better yet a cliche. Make it so well-known, so tiresomely pedestrian, that people groan at the sight of its cover, and mock its readers on late-night television.

Far more important, though, is the fact that banning books is an imposition upon the rights of free expression. Books that deliberately and deceptively defame an individual, especially a living one, may deserve an exception. May, we say, because even Britain's overly-strict libel laws strike us as tyrannical.

But in this case, it is appalling to suggest that the best response to a display of ignorance is a corresponding display of intolerance.

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