The desire to revise versus the need to remember

The net result of retrospective judgement, this coy cringe of political correctness, is to change the truth, to present as history something that simply was not so for fear that the truth offends contemporary eyes. Is any such revision truly harmless?

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Four days ago, Valery de Theux de Meylandt, a Belgian Procureur du Roi - a public prosecutor whose opinion is sought and usually followed by the country's courts - submitted his report in a case brought by the Congolese campaigner Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo.
The prosecutor's advice was to reject Mr Mondondo's contention that author Georges Remi, better known as Hergé, the creator of Tintin, was racist.
The book under scrutiny is Tintin in the Congo, a work that Mr Mondondo is not alone in finding offensive - though racism wasn't the first charge levelled at the author. His boy reporter's apparent complete disregard for African wildlife was the first aspect of the work, originally written in 1931, to draw comment. By the time Tintin leaves Africa, he has shot 13 antelopes, killed an ape to wear its skin, injured an elephant, stoned a buffalo and, in one of the most gruesome scenes, blown up a rhinoceros with dynamite having drilled a hole in its back to insert the explosives.
It is all as out of step with today's sensibilities as Hergé's depiction of the native Congolese natives as lazy half-naked imbeciles, utterly reliant on their Belgian rulers for any hint of civilisation. It is that inherent racism rather than any environmental malpractice with which Mr Mondondo has taken issue - and it is that charge of racism that Monsieur de Theux de Meylandt has urged the Belgian courts to reject, on the grounds that Hergé's writings were simply "a reflection of his time".
The ruling is not the only reason the Tintin books are back in the spotlight this week: Stephen Spielberg's 3D film The Adventures of Tintin has also just been released. However, it is unlikely that Tintin's exploits in the Congo will ever make it onto the big screen, no matter what the Belgian court rules.
But intention is key in any case brought on grounds of racism. Mr de Theux de Meylandt in his report reasoned that Hergé's intention could not possibly have been to incite racial hatred. However distasteful to readers today, Hergé did not mean to cause upset because, put bluntly, the author could not and did not know any better. He was working in the context of his time, with the information at his disposal - a paltry combination of missionaries' writings and imperialist propaganda written in the days when the African country was a Belgian colony.
Hergé himself admitted as much in later years when he looked back with regret on this his second Tintin book and admitted: "I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved."
That isn't good enough for Mr Mondondo - though time will tell whether or not it is for the Belgian court. He wants the book, which already contains a disclaimer and, in some countries, has been placed in the adult rather than children's section, removed from shelves entirely. The images are offensive here and now, he argues, so the book ought not to be on public sale.
Four weeks ago parents in Cairo brought an argument with a similar conclusion, though on a very different work of literature. This time it wasn't a children's comic book but a school textbook that they were demanding to have withdrawn on the grounds that its content was offensive - specifically quotations and images of Hosni Mubarak.
Since the dictator had fallen, they argued, such inclusions were inappropriate. The book ought not to be taught as it stood. The images and the quotations ought to be removed.
In almost every detail - content, genre and geography - these cases are miles apart. But in one very important way they are linked; two points on the same sliding scale.
Both, after all, centre on works that have engendered a particular response - the peculiarly painful wince of recognition that comes with seeing something that was once acceptable but no longer is; the prick of collective conscience combined with personal discomfort. Both illustrate an instinctive human reaction to not only look away but to actively rub out the source of that discomfort so that, looking back again, it is no longer there. And therein lies the danger.
It happens all the time in little ways - those minor adjustments that make something more palatable today than it was yesterday. It is often done with the best of intentions, a sort of self censorship rather than anything more official or obviously sinister: the substitution of one word for another, for example, the switching of a name such as Wing Commander Guy Gibson's black Labrador in Peter Jackson's remake of The Dam Busters. Those who see the 2012 version of the wartime epic will know that dog as Digger. Those who saw the 1955 version will know the dog as Gibson did.
A harmless enough alteration, some might say, but is it really? The net result of this retrospective judgement, this coy cringe of political correctness, is to change the truth, to present as history something that simply was not so for fear that the truth offends contemporary eyes. Is any such revision truly harmless? After all, who decides what is and what is not appropriate? Whose sensibilities take precedence over the facts and, once begun, where does the process end? Can anybody claim that they have a right not to be offended? Ought any view or truth be suppressed or removed on the say-so of another?
At any given moment, in any given place, there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas that it is assumed all right-thinking people will accept without question. In some parts of the world that orthodoxy is actively, even brutally, imposed with acts of law and threat of violence. But it need not be. More often there is simply a sort of tacit understanding that certain words or images just "won't do". Unpopular or unfashionable views are quite easily stifled without any need of an official ban and history is rewritten and re-edited without resistance.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, orthodoxies have fallen with their dictators. What was once publicly acceptable no longer is. Everything that once stood without question is subject to retrospective judgement and revision. Celebrities who barely a year ago performed for now disgraced and dispatched dictators are lambasted as the realities of those regimes emerge.
No doubt when recounting her life's achievements Beyoncé, for example, will not include last year's private performance for Hannibal Qaddafi. Similarly, Mariah Carey is unlikely to list her concert the previous year for Hannibal's older brother Mutassem.
The implication of the current criticism is that they should have known - and perhaps in some cases they should. But the reality is they may simply have swallowed the prevailing orthodoxy of the time, one now so entirely reversed that yesterday's honour is today's disgrace.
The point is that yesterday's reality must not simply be erased or finessed as a result. Hergé's depiction of the Congo may be offensive to contemporary eyes but it must not be judged according to the standards of today, found wanting and rubbed out. Hosni Mubarak's regime may have been toppled and all that he stood for may have been overthrown but a veil must not be drawn over the reality of his rule and the fact of his existence. Because exchanging one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. Recognising the realities of one and the shift to another might well be.