Tuesday 5 March 2013

Lovers And Haters: Further Thoughts On The Hobbit Dispute

Enforcing Difference: In the American South, during the "Jim Crow" era, it was as vital for whites to engage in discrimination as it was for blacks to suffer it. In New Zealand, during the Hobbit Controversy, it was vital that most Kiwis be seen to be backing Sir Peter Jackson and his anti-union allies. "Hobbit Hater!" - like "Nigger Lover!" - is an insult designed to both discipline and isolate the dissenting minority from the assenting majority.

“NIGGER LOVER!” No accusation was more feared by white citizens of the old American South. Upon its recipients’ shoulders descended – with the sting of an overseer’s stock-whip – the entire, obdurate and unyielding expectations of Dixie’s racially-defined culture.
Following the withdrawal of the federal government’s army of occupation in 1877, a “Nigger Lover” was any Southern white who dared to deviate from the brutal racist consensus which,  vote by vote, law by law, lynching by lynching, was rebuilding white supremacy in the states of the shattered Confederacy.
It is a fact easily forgotten that the “Jim Crow” segregationist regimes of the South were as dependent on the willingness of whites to enforce their will, as they were on the legally engineered incapacity of blacks to defy them.
Securing the full co-operation of Southern whites in the grim business of exploiting Southern blacks, required constant and unrelenting ideological effort. The beneficiaries of segregation had to be reassured that the racist rules of their society represented not simply the most practical answer to the “race question”, but also constituted its best, self-evidently moral, resolution.
To ignore or openly defy the Jim Crow Laws of the South, by reaching out to one’s black neighbours, workmates or employees was, in effect, to engage in an act of brazen subversion. To treat African-Americans as equals was to concede their full constitutional status, both as human-beings and citizens, and thus to acknowledge their right to all the opportunities and services denied by segregation.
“Nigger Lover!”, therefore, wasn’t merely a declaration of racist scorn, it was a reminder – a very sharp reminder – of the white individual’s obligation to maintain solidarity with every other beneficiary of racist bigotry. The whole socio-economic and political order of the South, and their status within it, required whites (either passively or actively, as the situation dictated) to hate and oppress their black neighbours.

THESE MUSINGS on the most devastating disciplinary insult of the Old South were prompted by the past week’s recapitulation of the so-called “Hobbit Crisis” of October 2010.
The release by both the National-led Government and the Council of Trade Unions of hitherto withheld documents and e-mails has confirmed the reportage of that very small number of journalists who refused to accept the “official version” of events which so inflamed New Zealanders at the time. (Again, I raise my hat to Radio New Zealand’s Brent Edwards and Scoop’s Gordon Campbell.)
We know now that the “official version” of events, the version scripted by Sir Peter Jackson and the National Government, and relayed almost verbatim to the public by a distressingly large section of the news media, bore very little relation to what was actually happening.
Being wrong, however, in no way reduced the “official version’s” effectiveness. Sir Peter is a master story-teller and the tale he wove around the hapless Actors Equity Union was one from which it could not escape.
Hobbit Lovers: Even children were enrolled in the campaign to prevent the New Zealand film industry from being unionised.
Because Actors Equity wasn’t simply the villain of Sir Peter’s particular story. His admirers were encouraged to see it as something more: a generic enemy which threatened not only The Hobbit and the local film industry to which it was so important, but also the whole way of doing business in Twenty-First Century New Zealand.
It is important to recall the context in which the Hobbit Crisis took place. The world remained in the grip of the Global Financial Crisis, the Labour Party was moving to the left, and the trade union movement had just held a series of mass rallies around the country. On the right of politics there was a sense of unease – a feeling that, after thirty years of steady advance, its ideology was in retreat.
Sir Peter’s genius allowed him to transform the question of whether The Hobbit would be filmed in New Zealand, and under what sort of labour relations regime, into a litmus test of people’s allegiance to the social, economic and political realities of the “new” New Zealand.
The actual provenance of the epithet used by those opposing the efforts of Actors Equity and the CTU to unionise the New Zealand film industry is unclear. What cannot be disputed, however, is its impact. “Hobbit Hater” – like “Nigger Lover” – branded the recipient as someone hostile to the objectives of national revitalisation. Someone who still saw ordinary workers – even actors – as people with a legal right to bargain collectively for higher wages and improved conditions.
“Hobbit Haters” were the sort of people who wanted to return New Zealand to the bad old days of unbridled union power. “Hobbit Haters” had no respect for Weta Workshop’s Sir Richard Taylor or his army of “independent contractors”. “Hobbit Haters” were people who stood in the way of jobs and prosperity – like Labour and the Greens.
“Hobbit Haters”, like “Nigger Lovers”, refused to recognise what was good for them.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 March 2013.


  1. You comment, apparently disapprovingly, that "Even children were enrolled in the campaign ...".
    That is of course par for the course in any protest.
    Can I assumme that you disapprove of the NZEI in the Novopay protests lining up school children with the union's campaign banners, as shown on TV3?

  2. I don't have much respect for Jackson. He's an action movie hack who has produced one good film in "Heavenly Creatures", who has been reduced to redoing his only big hit because his films after LOTR didn't do much.

    He's representative of the third raters who make up the current "kiwiocracy". It's one thing to be asked to be deferential to people like Hillary who were worthy of it (and who could handle it without becoming insufferable), and quite another to be told that there is something wrong with you if you don't acknowledge the "achievements" of such titans as Jackson and Paul Holmes.

    How low we've sunk.

  3. Unfortunately this will do nothing to dent the current Governments popularity.

    There is a large section of the NZ public who don't get it. As long as there is a long passage of time between the lie and it's revealing then all is well.

  4. Why is it that makers of abusive comments such as 'anonymous' fail to do so under their real names?

    People who make comments on blog posts should be prepared to be identified. We might then get more reasoned discussion.

  5. New Zealand has idealised Jackson undeservedly IMO. His reaction to the union was vile, and I suspect when his authority is threatened that's how he rolls. They talk about tall poppy syndrome in this country but ther's a sence of entitlement thattall poppies get when they become tall poppies. They expect deference from all of their inferiors, and they think their opinions are sacrosanct. There is also a nasty streak in New Zealanders that comes out when their heroes are questioned. Similar to the one that comes out whenever Maori seem to be making progress. It is paradoxical, because it goes with a personal openness and generosity to individuals.

  6. The media were mostly responsible for the public reaction. However, the reason the union got such a visceral reaction for some people is that they only represented a small fraction (the actors) of the people who would work on the job. The majority of workers were not represented and felt that their livelihoods and careers were in jeopardy. You can't have solidarity doesn't work in parts unless you have the buy in from the majority.

  7. Good piece, Chris. I ran into Basil Holmes just after the Weta Workshop march in Wgton. Basil was involved in the waterfront lockout of '51 and his brother Cecil was red-baited out of the National Film Unit a few years before that. I said to him, "This must bring the old times back, Basil," and he said, "Did you see the photo of those two Warner Bros execs in the back of the limo heading to parliament? They looked like gangsters in one of their own movies!"

  8. I to, would be interested to know if the same criticism with regard to using children in demonstrations would be carried to the NZEI and the PPTA and the parents in Christchurch who seemed to think that using children to voice their opinions is a good thing.
    The whole practice-whatever the topic is abhorrent-children should not be used as pawns. Their opinions are unformed and they have no place in such demonstrations.

    Roger Strong

  9. I have to say, Jigsaw, I also find it worrying when I see parents bringing their young children along to demonstrations.

    I wouldn't allow my daughter on a demonstration until she could tell me exactly what it was about and why she wanted to participate.

  10. anonymous@6.17

    Whilst I believe that New Zealand does have a tall poppy syndrome, I find that most of those whom the media and the establishment see as tall poppies are really short weeds on stilts.

    When a real tall poppy comes along, you can make a safe bet that he or she will get mowed down (c.f. the political career of David Cunliffe)

  11. On the contrary Victor, we put them on pedestals and claim they can do no wrong :-).

  12. Mark Christophers7 March 2013 at 08:12

    Well some issues I have with this is the actions of the unions forced the actions of Sir Peter Jackson.

    Had the unions not tried to extort the production Warners wouldn't have had any excuse to ask for more concessions.

    The unions also forced Peter Jacksons hand by enacting a do not sign notice before negotiating so how could Peter Jackson believe that the unions would act in good faith?

    At the end of the day the productions have been good for NZ and all it mostly cost was a rebate on tax paid which means its a pretty good deal all round.

    Also its a bit rich complaining about the use of kids in protests after all unions aren't shy about using them...Novapay and port workers protests immediately spring to mind

  13. Mark Christophers: I could not believe what I was reading when I read your comment!

    "The unions also forced Peter Jacksons hand by enacting a do not sign notice before negotiating so how could Peter Jackson believe that the unions would act in good faith?"

    The union's advising people not to sign a contract before it has been negotiated does not for one minute suggest that the union is intending to act in bad faith. Rather, it is bad faith to try and bypass negotiation where you think that would be to your advantage.

  14. Mark Christophers7 March 2013 at 11:00

    To Olwyn

    "The union's advising people not to sign a contract before it has been negotiated does not for one minute suggest that the union is intending to act in bad faith."

    Stopping the production from starting is not the way to go about things. It sounded like a threat (because thats what it was) and it got treated as such.

    There were numerous productions that the union could have targeted but they chose Peter Jacksons, why not Spartacus?

    The unions handled this very poorly and middle-class NZ let their feelings show in the form of an anti-union protest.

  15. Anoymous@5.16

    I'm not sure you're really disagreeing with me.

    You're just looking at one side of the coin: the pseudo tall poppies that flourish

    And you're ignoring the other: the genuine tall poppies who get mowed down with monotonous regularity.

    As a long-standing immigrant to New Zealand, I'm always struck by the pervasiveness of both these characteristics.

    Sit on any committee or be part of any group of working colleagues and observe the one with fresh ideas, a stronger than average sense of responsibility and better than average intellectual grasp.

    And then observe him or her being gradually isolated by the majority. Observe, as well, the tactics of those less talented but more adept at manipulation and ad hominem arguments.

    And then tell me that New Zealand doesn't have a tall poppy syndrome!

  16. No Victor, you're looking at one side of the coin – maybe also, but still one side. That hypothetical worker you discuss can be seen in a number of lights, not all favourable. Besides I've worked in this country a long time to and never seen that. And the difference between a genuine tall poppy and a pseudo tall poppy is? I suspect it's in your mind.

  17. I see The Dom Post buried the real story (revealed by previously withheld documents)in the final paragraph of its front page story (good on RNZ's Mediawatch for also picking up on this, last week).

    It was particularly hard down here in "Wellywood" for those of us who took a pro-Actor/Union line. A little like being both an Aucklander and critic of the Americas Cup campaign during the 90s.

    As for White Southern "Nigger-Lovers": My reading of US Gallup Polls conducted during the 40s and 50s suggest that something like 10-15 percent of whites in the South took a liberal/progressive line on Civil Rights issues (depending on the specific issue). Which may not seem much, but it was a few million (so they did exist, though I wonder how many were ex-pat Northerners).

    As for children marching - my parents took my older brother and I on anti-Vietnam War marches as early as 1965 (when I was still in nappies). Don't think it did me any harm.

  18. Anonymous@3.54

    I would have thought the difference between the genuine tall poppy and the phony one is simply that one is genuine and the other phony.

    If you believe that it is genuinely wrong to be more capable, dedicated and focused than other people, then you are merely illustrating my point about the pervasiveness of the tall poppy syndrome in New Zealand and providing it with a dubious and destructive moralistic gloss.

    And it could be that the absence of manipulation and skullduggery in working and other environments is all in your mind rather than their presence being solely in my mind.

    Meanwhile I remain conscious of having addressed both sides of the equation, whereas you're simply denying there are two sides, perhaps because one of them has never previously occured to you.

    If denial makes you happy, who am I to force you out of it?

  19. Staff at Weta were ordered and or obliged to march on Parliament... so they could ensure their rights would be constrained by being contractors rather than honoured as staff. The former ensures higher returns for Sir Pete and Sir Dick...

    This reminds me too of the hatred against the hospital pass the owners of the NZ America's cup regime offered Sir Russell Coutts and his subsequent villification by all in sundry... They offered him and his team a $10 million dollar debt... The Swiss offered him $10 million. Now I suspect he loathes the country of his birth... that made him the winner he is.