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.