Racists still haven’t come down from the trees

Tintin in Congo

The Offending Book

A friend linked me to a Time / Yahoo News report about a proposed ban on Tintin for racism. The example cited in the article is hair-raising enough. The author tells of a panel in which ‘a black woman bows before Tintin exclaiming, “White man very great. White mister is big juju man!”‘

We may well bemoan those times in our all-too-recent history when people followed simplistic judgments about human value, pursuing them to brutal conclusions. Colonialism in Africa was almost uniformly horrific, for all the improvements made to infrastructure and the gains made for the Christian gospel in Africa. South Africa will be paying for the consequences of white rule for generations still. The article  provides an example from the Belgian Congo, saying,

Leopold’s agents pioneered a ruthless forced-labor system for gathering wild rubber: villages that failed to meet the rubber-collection quotas were required to pay the remaining amount in amputated hands. Some estimates say Congo’s population fell by 10 million during that time.

So, with the benefit of hindsight, and with all of the evidence available to us, it’s easy to agree that racism has been appallingly destructive of Africa, and that it has no place in our society. Well, that was an obvious conclusion I thought, except when I was directed to all the readers’ comments below the article. Here are some of the choice ones, just from the first page (there were seven pages more, but I couldn’t bear to read on):

  • In response to the idea that Tintin renders Africans as childlike (or even simian) and that Europeans are great, ‘Richard’ says: “Show the world some evidence that Tintin was wrong.”
  • Anonymous says, “Tintin was right, 100 percent. They are still not out of the trees,” and again, “A rich continent populated by vicious tribal thugs. Africa will has gone downhill steadily since the blacks took over, country by country destroyed by poverty and violence.”
  • Paladin says (among much else), “The people of Africa deserve Independence; however, the European colonial powers should have governed those lands until they were capable of self government!”
  • Petrus is worth quoting in full: “If anything, Belgium should re-colonize the “Democratic Republic” of Congo. Rather let that area be productive than let it go to waste in the hands of a people who can’t be bothered to stop lazing around. The only “work” those people do is kill each other and their environment, which is a shame because Africa is such a beautiful continent. They need to be told what to do and how to behave because it is clear that they have no idea how to function on their own. They’re just like children. But, naturally, it’s right to blame the “racist whites” for trying to salvage land & precious resources from savages.” It’s not pillaging and theft if you think a resource is being wasted. It’s called salvage. Brilliant! I think we should be allowed to ‘salvage’ all the money that Americans spend on snacks and liposuction too. Oh, and you’re about to buy a Hummer? Sorry, that money is mine now. Give over.

I made a couple of rebuttals, including that whiteness and blackness are hardly criteria that are relevant in this discussion, seeing as ‘white’ technological superiority is founded on gains made by ‘non-white’ civilisations, including those of Egypt, Persia and Turkey. But what’s the point? If, with all the gains made in anthropology, for instance, and with all the benefits of more balanced evaluations of colonialism, people are still unable to see others outside of superficial categories such as skin colour, what good will arguing do?

The website also allows people to show their approval of comments with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. It disheartened me even further to notice that the openly racist comments were usually opposed by only a small majority. Somewhere between a third and a half of the interested readers still remain happy with the suggestion that black people are closer to monkeys than they are to white people. Besides making a tacit argument for their own under-evolvedness, one wonders what benefit such people derive from hating someone’s skin?

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10 thoughts on “Racists still haven’t come down from the trees

  1. Brendon says:

    Yet we still insist on teaching evolution in schools. Don’t they understand where the worldview comes from?

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Hi Brendon! Well, evolution is one potential source of racism under certain conditions, but racism does not follow from evolution per se. In any event, racism has been around a lot longer and more pervasively than the theory of evolution, and racism is maintained by many people who concurrently reject evolution. So I don’t reckon there’s much in that.

  2. Mark says:

    Jordan, your theology articles are very interesting and well written. However, it is apparent that your knowledge of history and conditions in post-colonial Africa, not to mention that of literature, is somewhat lacking to say the least. No doubt, there many (genuinely) racist comments on the website – what else is new on the Internet? Although I’m not sure who is worse intellectually: racists or guilt-ridden multi-culturalists. Both have something in common: ignorance.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Hi Mark. I have no doubt that I am ignorant of much to do with African history. However, I did little more than quote Time Magazine’s citations about Colonialism. So please feel free to be more specific about where my historical and literary expertise lacks and why. It’s hardly fair to say ‘you’re ignorant in much the same way that racists are’, and leave it at that.

  3. Mark says:

    I really am quite tired of people who reap the benefits of what others have provided (whether cheap labour or advanced technology and governance) and then, without knowing much about how or why they are in a position to live high on the hog, dismiss these other people as being either irredeemably savage or as having been motivated by simple hatred. If you think colonialism was so horrific, then I suggest you live up to your principles and get on a plane and leave, preferably after dynamiting GWC (another product of colonialism), because colonialism is the only reason you and I are at the southern tip of Africa right now – not to mention enjoying various Western amenities, such as the Internet, while we’re here.

    Put briefly, the “ignorance” lies here: racists either deny or are ignorant of the atrocities that did occur as a result of colonialism. Leftists either deny or are ignorant of the advantages it brought, preferring to regard pre-colonial societies as basking in some kind of eco-friendly, prelapsarian state. Strange thing is, that since the end of colonialism, post-colonial states have endeavoured to Westernise. If pre-colonial society was so great, why bother?

    Alas, I am not going to a write a thesis on the history of Western colonialism. A selected reading list is appended.

    An interesting article on Georges Remi (Hergé) and Tintin may be found here:
    http://www.takimag.com/site/article/tintins_flawed_creator/

    For colonialism and post-colonialism in South Africa, read South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid, by RW Johnson (2010).

    For a thorough treatment of British colonialism, the books to read are: Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, by Niall Ferguson (2004)
    The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997, by Piers Brendon (2008)
    Brendon takes a harsher view of British colonialism, but balanced nevertheless.

    On why the West beat the rest:
    Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13000 Years, by Jared Diamond (2005)
    The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success, by Rodney Stark (2005)

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      This is clearly a hobbyhorse of yours, but where did I ever suggest that Africa was an idyll before Colonialism or that I am able to distance myself from the latter? Sure, I said that Colonialism was horrific, but not that Africa was ideal. I said that racism was destructive, not that Colonialism was incapable of being constructive in other spheres.

      Even if leaving made sense, the West was largely built on slavery, so I couldn’t even escape there; most of the present world is built on a model of consumerism that I find destructive and wrong, but from which I benefit. Condemning the ills in past or present society is still possible (and necessary) without also having to somehow make yourself not part of society (which is not possible).

      I also am not sure that I understand your alternative. Is it your view then that the past is uncriticisable, as Colonialism must be deemed neutral or even good because I now have McDonalds?

      • Mark says:

        “I said that racism was destructive, not that Colonialism was incapable of being constructive in other spheres.” versus “We may well bemoan those times in our all-too-recent history when people followed simplistic judgments about human value, pursuing them to brutal conclusions. Colonialism in Africa was almost uniformly horrific, for all the improvements made to infrastructure and the gains made for the Christian gospel in Africa.”

        My original point about racists and leftists remains. It is a matter of recorded fact that “civilised” Europeans committed atrocities in Africa. It is also a matter of recorded fact that there were Europeans who attempted to do good things in Africa (with the benefit of hindsight, we may regard them as misguided, or naive or as having left a worthwhile legacy). Incidentally, it is also a matter of recorded fact that some Africans regarded whites as being almost god-like, as caricatured in the “White man very great. White mister is big juju man!” incident in Tintin. That people, depending on their agendas, find reading about atrocities, humanitarianism or naive reverence not to their taste is neither here nor there. They just are, and pretending that these different and sometimes contradictory perspectives did not exist is simply dishonest.

        “the West was largely built on slavery”. Ah, that “explains” why Britain and the American North turned into such basket cases once slavery was abolished, why countries such as Switzerland that never engaged in slavery failed to advance and why places where slavery continued, such as the Arab trade in East Africa, achieved such stunning advances. Clearly absurd. In fact, slavery tends to retard technological advancement because it means there is plenty of forced labour to do the work.

        “most of the present world is built on a model of consumerism that I find destructive and wrong”
        At which period in history have people not been buying and selling goods and services? What is a “model of consumerism”? Should people only be allowed to buy some things and not others? Should we pull the plug on technological advancement? Or should we revert to a pre-industrial society where only the elites can enjoy more than the basics? Or did Soviet Russia have the right approach?

        Colonialism, like all -isms, is a blanket abstraction that covers a vast range of activities over different areas and time spans. It makes little sense to brand everything that could possibly be associated with it as good, bad or otherwise. It happened.

        Of course, “the past” is not beyond criticism. However, one should endeavour to make a right judgment, bearing in mind that we are dealing with the decisions and actions of myriad individual human beings who should not summarily be condemned because they do not have the benefit of hindsight.

      • Jordan Pickering says:

        Hi Mark. I’m not sure why all the aggression, and bandying about of terms like ‘ignorant’ and tacit links to Communism. You seem to be taking minor notes of my argument and filling them out with irrelevant and unrelated content that obviously gets you excited, but is not really evident in anything that I’ve written. The following comments are blunt, but they’re not intended to come across as angry or snide or anything of the like. I do not want to raise temperatures about this, but I do want to point out that your comments are misdirected:

        – Your first & second paragraphs: My original point was that racism is based on simplistic judgments about people, and that being ruled under such assumptions is horrific and dehumanising and destructive. I can’t imagine that this is sanely disputed anywhere (I’m pretty sure no people group has ever been grateful for being treated like cattle). As such, your objection that there were well-meaning colonialists and good effects (perhaps economically or in the building of hospitals) has no bearing on the point. I will concede that my point was open to misunderstanding, and hope that that’s all we’re experiencing here.

        – On slavery, I’m no expert. But my point had nothing to do with whether the West ought to have used slaves or needed to use slaves, but only that it did. Anyway, the fact that Industrial Britain could survive abolition is no surprise; whether the Roman empire could have survived abolition of slavery is another matter. My point was merely that ‘escaping’ the evils of one society merely lands you in the evils of another. Nitpicking about whether slavery was always responsible for advance or whether consumerism is evil enough are mystifying lines of argument.

        – On your comment: “They just are, and pretending that these different and sometimes contradictory perspectives did not exist is simply dishonest” [Again with the accusations…]. Who’s pretending that they didn’t exist? Tintin in the Congo was commissioned as a propaganda piece and regretted by Herge (i.e. it was not merely an innocent reflection of the thinking of the era). The guy trying to get the book banned will settle for simple acknowledgment in a preface (as in the British edition) that the perspectives expressed in the book are a now-unacceptable throwback to a past era (i.e. he’s not trying to erase anyone’s perspective from history; he’s questioning whether Belgium acknowledges its role in the Congo). My blanket condemnation of Colonialism (which is not what the post is about, thus the dismissive treatment of the subject) relates to it’s perspectives on race only. It would be irrelevant to my argument to acknowledge that some Colonists were not that racist, seeing as I am taking about a prevailing attitude, not whether it was uniformly held. I don’t know where you see dishonesty there.

        – On your comment: “It makes little sense to brand everything that could possibly be associated with it as good, bad or otherwise. It happened.” The point of history is to learn from it. One can learn something from an overly simplistic reductionism. Once cannot learn anything from ‘It happened’, so I’m again struggling to see your point. Secondly, it is clear from the context (not least of which is the title of the post) that my interest is not in ‘everything that could possibly be associated’ with Colonialism. The post has not much to do with Colonialism at all. The reason why I deal simplistically with Colonialism is that I am not interested in dealing with Colonialism. I am interested in the ongoing and unthinking support for attitudes that ought to have died decades ago. So I am still not clear on the need for your fairly harsh criticisms.

        – Finally, on your comment: “Of course, ‘the past’ is not beyond criticism. However, one should endeavour to make a right judgment, bearing in mind that we are dealing with the decisions and actions of myriad individual human beings who should not summarily be condemned because they do not have the benefit of hindsight.” You will notice that I did not condemn every Colonialist as a racist; I merely condemned Colonialist racism. The myriad individual human beings that I am judging are alive and well now, and do have the benefit of hindsight (and science and much else). So again, I’m not sure who you’re arguing with, but I don’t think it’s me.

  4. Lesang says:

    I am struggling to find the basis for Mark’s accusation of ‘guilt-driven’ multiculturalism* apparently being portrayed by Jordaan.

    Ignorance is not the only problem with racists and ‘leftists’. Reading a lot of history books doesn’t always help. I happen to also be very interested in colonial history, from both European and African perspectives. But what sickens me is the biased ideological agendas that often permeate the literature. Knowledge helps, but only to a certain extent. Besides, how come Mark doesn’t have am equally comprehensive list of books by African authors who were the victims of colonialism? (Please don’t say here, that there aren’t many available, that would be pure ignorance).

    I know very knowledgeable racists. I also know many highly intellectual leftists. ‘Ignorance’ is hardly a criteria here. [Another reason why I agree with Jordaan that the ‘knowledge’ of evolution hardly had anything to do with racism…]. Not all ‘racists’ are ignorant of the atrocities of Apartheid. Some actually know about these and they take pride in them. Not all leftists are ignorant of the benefits of colonialism, many of them still prefer ‘Western’ institutions/values of socialism, universal health care and social justice.

    Racism and ‘leftism’ therefore really has little to do with ignorance.

    I think Mark is trying to use ‘the mask’ of superior knowledge and ‘wisdom’ to evade a really simple moral issue.

    Jordaan’s point is simply that racist assumptions of Colonialism/Apartheid were wrong. This has nothing to do with the ‘guilt-drivenness’ of a despairing leftist.

    If another post was to be put here about the benefits of Western cultural influence on Africa, I won’t be quick to label it racist. It just needs to be based on facts and moral reasoning.

    Lesang

    *As illustrated in the movie AVATAR

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