Are we all Hobbits now?

‘The Hobbit Enabling Act’ – the title alone should keep postmodern theorists in scholarly manuscripts for at least the next decade. Apparently, we’re all now enabled to be Hobbits – but is that what we want to be?

Alternatively, if the dust has truly settled on The Hobbit films saga perhaps it no longer matters. As an immense surprise to all concerned, the films will be filmed in New Zealand. An unclear clarification of the Employment Relations Act and $30m+ later, Warner Brothers don’t mind if they do, thanks very much.

Yet, so far as I’m aware*, no-one has highlighted the aspect of this saga that is present in all its surreal glory in the title of that Act. I mean New Zealand’s national identity or, simply, what we value most.

For some, being able to host mega-films in New Zealand is a sign of achieving our place – and identity – in the world. We show the world, in effect, that we can do what you do too. In this version, Peter Jackson is the pre-eminent “tall poppy” – our national hobbit – that only the envious would want to see fail.

For others, we’re selling our soul and control over our destiny – and our identity – for the fleeting allure of economic baubles. For, in a word, ‘precious’. We become, not a nation of hobbits, but a nation of Gollums. In this version, Peter Jackson is a “spoilt brat” selling us all for pieces of silver.

As Gollums, we have no vision of ourselves, no embedded cultural processes that say, without us even trying, that this is who we are. Today we might like to think that we are ‘all hobbits now’ but, tomorrow, in what image will the market cause us to reinvent ourselves? How will it work its magic to produce some newer, more saleable identity?

Nationalism, patriotism, cultural identity – or whatever you want to call it – has been claimed as the reason why so many New Zealanders felt the need to get particularly hot and bothered about what has gone on. (The Standard blog has had a long series of high comment posts on it – e.g., this one early on in the piece.)

When interviewed by Media Watch on Radio New Zealand National last Sunday, Tim Watkin argued, repeatedly, that it was legitimate for the media to reflect the patriotic and nationalistic, emotional interest in the story – yet, that begs the question of why there is so much nationalistic, emotional investment in a film production.

Markers of this confused debate over who we are were littered everywhere right from the outset (i.e., when Peter Jackson catapulted the issue into the headlines). Heavy emphasis was given to the Australian Union (MEAA) who were supposedly pulling the strings behind New Zealand’s Actors Equity. This, apparently, made the actions of New Zealand actors that much more reprehensible because they were the dupes of Aussie stirrers and interlopers.

Paul Holmes even suggested that the Australian Union was conspiring to lure the prize of filming to Australia (Fran O’Sullivan, more wisely, merely hinted at Australia being in the filming frame when she slipped it into a reference about the incentives Key had negotiated: They were “no more – and arguably considerably less – than Warner Bros could have got from other countries, including Australia, if the movie had been relocated”).

Being duped by Australians is more national humiliation than, it seems, some can bear. Yet, the possibility that New Zealand was being played (i.e., being duped) by a multinational corporation didn’t cross those same minds. Perhaps it’s just impossible to be duped by those who promise us ‘precious’? Perhaps gaining the gold and treasure is what this adventure in national identity is all about? I think that’s how some see it.

Though not all. On the ‘other side’, CTU President, Helen Kelly, tapped the nationalistic vein – as did others – with her comment that changing labour laws to entice Warner Brothers to continue with their plans to film in New Zealand would “challenge the concept of the country’s sovereignty“. The bullies beating up on New Zealand, from this perspective, were not unionists wanting to improve their conditions but multinationals wanting to maximise their profits.

The clash between rival nationalisms then got into its stride.  Fran O’Sullivan, hitting back, claimed that:

“giving the two-fingers salute to Warner Bros would have marred New Zealand’s reputation as a destination for large-scale movie productions”

So it’s about ‘reputation’. That is, it’s about convincing the powerful and wealthy that New Zealand is a ‘good place’ for them to do business. The middle-class concern of preserving one’s reputation – a magnificent virtue that no social or economic climber would ever disparage – is to be contrasted with the vulgar and immature act of ‘giving the two-fingers salute’ (Of course, we’re all Americans today so one finger is all we actually need).

There we have it. How a country (or nation, or culture) makes its way in the world marks out its ‘values’. When all’s said and done, values are not what you ‘hold dear’, they are what you do. What we value underpins our ‘identity’ in the sense that we are identified (by others and by ourselves) by how we act. But it’s not just a matter of choice.

As Marx put it, the ‘modes of production’ shape much of what we do. They certainly shape our identity. It’s no coincidence that in ‘late’ capitalism, New Zealand is in a tussle over what it is.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of the rhetoric of capitalism: On the one hand it’s supposedly all about freedom (to ‘choose’), autonomy, and self-determination; on the other, it’s ruled by the marketer’s maxim about the Royal Road to Profit – give people what they want (i.e., become what they want).

Caught in the middle of this dilemma what should we do?

Fran O’Sullivan makes an interesting aside in her defence of John Key’s deal with Warner Brothers. A two-fingered salute to WBs would be,

[r]ather like the salute that then Labour Prime Minister Lange gave the United States a quarter of a century ago, which ultimately resulted in this country being sidelined by America and Australia when they forged a stronger economic relationship.

There’s that word, ‘ultimately’ – never a word to use lightly. Fran, of course, wouldn’t have known that a day or two later John Key would declare about the just announced ‘Wellington Declaration’ between New Zealand and the US, that,

“I think it will show that the last vestiges of any concern about the anti-nuclear legislation have gone,”

And

“New Zealand is going to continue to run an independent foreign policy”

No doubt in the right-wing ridouts it would be claimed that damage beyond measure was done by pursuing such an ‘independent foreign policy’. But, back in New Zealand, the fact is we survived, principles in tact, and, once again, renowned for those principles. After all, wasn’t John Key invited to a Nuclear Summit earlier this year by the ‘most powerful man on the planet’ just because of New Zealand’s well-regarded reputation?

There’s that word again, ‘reputation’. You see, there’s more than one way to gain a reputation. Some ‘reputations’ last only so long as the foreign exchange rate agrees to play ball. Other reputations are hard won and gained by persevering with what you truly value. They take time but they reap lasting rewards. Not least being how you feel about yourself.

It all reminds me of what my father said, shortly before he died: “Being liked is good – but being respected is better.”

Will Warner Brothers still respect us in the morning?

*Update: Chris Trotter has written a column on the national identity issue. Lesson for me – don’t take days to polish a post!

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