In case you’re a fan, don’t worry: Tintin never was a concentration camp guard, nor did he work for the Vichy Government. But we didn’t pull this one on you just for shits and giggles, either. Having grown up on Hergé and Spielberg, the idea came to us quite naturally: to use Tintin as a case study illustrating the crypto-fascist tendencies embedded in the comics our kids read and the films they watch. (Obviously, we are by no means the first or the only ones calling attention to these issues.)
Tintin, underneath his clean-cut boy-scout appearance, is a shady fellow for sure. Unlike Indiana Jones, a character very much influenced by him, Tintin is humble, well-mannered, and completely asexual. Both his round face and personality are devoid of edges of any kind. Conceived between the two great wars, he belongs to a completely different era. He might as well be a medieval monk, a Stone Age skull hunter, or a space alien.
Or a Nazi. In the 1930s, pretty much everybody was a fucking Nazi. A whole host of attitudes and political views that we can unambiguously denounce today as “fascist”, or simply monstrous, were completely mainstream, and not just within some marginalized, populist, and xenophobic movements catering to the fears and frustrations of disenfranchised “white trash”. Back then, fascist thought was common, even trendy, in academia, in the press, and among widely respected political leaders — such as Sir Winston Churchill who, in 1937, bluntly told the Palestine Royal Commission:
“I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
It was the guy with the micropenis, Hitler, who spoiled the franchise. After the collapse of the Third Reich, racial theories and battle cries for Lebensraum lost their luster. As did eugenics, a field in which some of the greatest early contributions had come from the US (particularly from the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, headed until quite recently by Nobel Laureate James Watson, a living personification of historical irony).
The entertainment industry, too — always keen to sense changes in the zeitgeist — began to clean up its act after the war. In 1946, the year Steven Spielberg was born, Hergé omitted most of the colonial references from Tintin in the Congo when it was published as a redrawn, colored album.
One could argue, though, that Tintin’s adventures as a Belgian-born white-skinned demigod in colonial Congo are more obscene than sporting a swastika on his sleeve would ever have been. Belgian rule of the country was pioneered by King Leopold II, who ushered in a decades-long nightmare of genocide, looting, rape, and wanton brutality. It was a project that made the king both a fantastically wealthy man and one of the greatest mass murderers in history, responsible for the deaths of 10 million people. Even after Leopold II gave up his personal sovereignty over the region, Belgium held onto its African outpost until as late as 1960.
But because of the way history is written, images such as these…
This is not to argue that Tintin should be forever shunned, but rather to point out the reductive, binary thinking amplified by Hollywood: bad guys must wear black hats. If giving simplistic answers to complicated questions is a hallmark of fascism, its flip side is the act of spinning simple, self-evident things into complex questions. When it comes to the Second World War, Nazis we can all agree on but, say, wiping out all major Japanese cities with nuclear devices and fire bombs, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, can be discussed politely as “a very complicated decision”. In a similar vein, images of Tintin the Colonial Master beating up a “juju man” or fighting “Red Indians” can all be filed under “it’s complicated”. Because, you know, it was a different time!
Four blacks, three Jews, and a dog
Like Hergé’s Tintin stories, postwar Hollywood began to shed its old skin, by and by replacing negative racial stereotypes with “positive” ones, like the Noble Savage and the Magical Negro. But the underlying attitude remained and still prevails: white is the default, the neutral standard, the clean white slate upon which you can draw characters of any kind. Non-white characters are not people; they are representations of whatever community they’re perceived to be a part of in the mainstream collective imagination — kind of like we have “food” and we have “ethnic food”.
A derivative, unwritten rule is that if you want to show, say, a dumb black juvenile delinquent in your film, you better include a worldly-wise black college professor somewhere in there, as well. Neither the teenage criminal nor the professor are human: they are components of a bland political statement, a pledge of allegiance to conventional norms of propriety and decorum.
Case in point: the breathtakingly propagandistic Argo about the Iran hostage crisis. One can easily be fooled into watching the film with a degree of interest. After all, it’s a true story (right?), and really intense stuff happens to its heroes: virtual prisoners in a hostile land, they are unable even to step outdoors; when they are forced to, they’re immediately accosted by mobs of irrationally aggressive locals who hate people of the Great Satan; and their escape plan is nearly foiled because of a puritanical Muslim immigration official who loses his shit over images of scantily-clad women. So blinded by rage are these scary, hairy Persians that they put together a slave kids’ sweatshop to piece together the shredded head shots of the Americans; and finally, in hot pursuit of the infidels through an airport, they violently shove and rough up innocent female bystanders, even chase the airplane along the tarmac!
Except that none of that ever happened. So what do you do when you want to tell this “true” story, to gloss over the history of the US screwing over the country, and to spice it up with violent, sexually repressed, raging Muslim fanatics? Here’s what: you make sure to hire an actor hailing from Greater Iran for one of the minor good-guy roles.
There’s at least one documented instance of a director explicitly appealing to his own use of the “token good minority” technique. Speaking with author Jack Shaheen for the book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, director Edward Zwick cites it in defense of his racist schlock thriller The Siege. By casting Tony Shalhoub as a nice Lebanese-American federal agent, Zwick apparently “created balance”. Comparing the screenplay of Argo with the finished movie, it seems that the CIA officer played by the Armenian-Georgian Yuriy Sardarov (above) is no more than a politically correct afterthought: his lines are cobbled together from at least three different original characters.
When an alien population is not scary like the Iranians in Argo, it is idealized. Doesn’t make much difference if it’s the Sioux Indians in Dances with Wolves or the Space Smurfs of Avatar: both are just as fictional and, more importantly, their Wonderfully Enlightened Qualities are the ideals of a leftish, vaguely spiritual, contemporary westerner, i.e., your average Hollywood dweller. Kevin Costner’s Sioux aren’t only perfectly good, but they are better at being us than we are. And in the final end, following a longstanding Hollywood tradition, the most heroic Noble Savage of all is always the white American who goes native.
Same might be said of Hollywood’s fashionable religion of choice, Buddhism. David Chapman, a Buddhist writer and scientist, has a fascinating series of blog posts making the case that “Western Consensus Buddhism” is a mishmash of Protestant Christian values, German Romantic Idealism, leftish politics, and New Age, and that it has little to do with any historical form of Buddhism.
It is odd sometimes to witness people attempting to enforce the ban against human complexity on (what they consider to be) depictions of themselves. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is a film about a middle-class couple with children. They happen to be two women. One of them has an affair; happens to be with a man. This was not all right, apparently, and a backlash ensued. The message was clear: it is not permissible to just casually tell a story of two women in a relationship — you know, as something mundane and normal — except as a kind of public service announcement about The Lesbian Minority Group. Even if you believe that the main function of storytelling is to change people’s attitudes, that movies should be conceived of like Sesame Street or the USAID-funded didactic soap operas in developing countries, censorship of this type would be exactly the wrong way of going about it.
A truly diverse film industry would have room for a wide spectrum of stories about a variety of different kinds of lives, not just white, straight, middle-class stories with a quota for “other”. As Joel and Ethan Coen put it when, in the midst of the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy, they were asked about the mostly white cast of their latest film: calling for diversity in Hollywood is important, but factoring that in when you’re imagining and telling your story is “not in the least”. “You don’t sit down … and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,’ — right? … If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about how stories get written and you don’t realize that the question you’re asking is idiotic.”
But, sadly, that is the way a lot of Hollywood screenplays are written, which is one of the reasons they so often are idiotic.
The Third Way
If only Spielberg had stuck with the lighthearted groove of the glorious coke-addled ‘80s, along with his tongue-in-cheek depictions of the Orient in the original Indiana Jones flicks: the turban-headed monkey-brain connoisseurs and evil temple priests chanting “Kali Maaa..!” He stole all this stuff from Hergé, which makes it even funnier that Spielberg’s own Tintin is totally PC.
This type of dated Orientalism represents Spielberg at his least offensive, though. It’s his “serious” and preachy stuff that is just downright fucking obscene. Remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the saber-wielding Arab warrior, showing off his fierce swordsmanship only to be summarily shot dead by Indy? The poor guy reminds me of Spielberg himself, as he tries to have his cake and eat it too: to ingratiate himself with the Academy of Motion Pictures with his fierce finger-wagging, while employing every conceivable, tired old cinematic tool of emotional manipulation to maximize box office revenue.
In Amistad, Spielberg’s super-serious and very, very Oscar-worthy take on the evils of the Atlantic slave trade, in the scenes intended to be “intense”, even somewhat shocking, the audience is regaled with a mildly exotic sounding score — the sort of New Age-y muzak with bongo drums and synth strings one might expect to hear in an ad for an airliner — as muscular black bodies are aesthetically and very Oscar-worthily being whipped and crammed into the slave ship’s stowage. And blistering fucking barnacles, Lincoln, a film celebrating the virtues of “political compromise” by an ardent supporter of Obama, the president who made the truly colossal “compromise” of adopting George W. Bush’s most fascist policies and giving them a nice, liberal veneer.
Since we mostly associate fascism with nationalism, militarism, and racism, it’s easy to forget that, back in the day, fascism was called “the Third Way” (a term which these days means the Clinton-Blair-Obama-type “centrism” that much of the Hollywood crowd identifies with). In economic terms, it represented corporatism. It was opposed not only to the Soviet-style planned economy or the welfare state model, but also to free market laissez-faire. Since we live in a corporatist world, it’s no wonder that we often find ideologically corporatist undertones in mass entertainment.
In a sense, the explicitly jingoistic, testosterone-filled action films are more of an aberration in the canon of Hollywoodian crypto-fascism. All the silly flag-waving and fetishizing soldierly virtues almost seems like an afterthought, just an excuse for blowing shit up and maybe getting the Pentagon to furnish a mega-production with cool hardware and gadgets. Surprisingly, the totalitarian spirit can manifest itself much more clearly in a feel-good chick flick like The Intern. Watching the film — the story of an old man who finds meaning in his life by becoming both a grateful corporate lackey and wise primordial father figure for the young female protagonist, all delivered in the tone of a McDonald’s employee training video — was a fascinating experience. It was as if, wandering through the woods, one would discover a pile of droppings belonging to some non-human creature. What kind of being had produced the turd?
The roots of corporatist totalitarianism run deep. The British East India Company was the biggest and mightiest corporation of its time. Belgian rule in the Congo was kicked off with an even more overtly corporatist strategy, with King Leopold II as the majority shareholder in private companies that, in practice, owned the Congo Free State. Even after the king’s reign ended and the territory was annexed by the less unhinged Belgian state, white rule was based on the “colonial trinity” (trinité coloniale) of state, missionary, and private company interests.
If there’s anything new under the sun, it’s that along with the continuing rise of liberal secularism, the Church has gradually ceded its place within the trinity to the high priests of entertainment and news media — both those who conjure up new adventures for the hundred-year-old hero reporter Tintin, as well as today’s colonial-minded journalists following in his footsteps.