Generally when politicians use cultural references, I see it as a ploy to increase accessibility to their message. Sometimes these appeals miss the mark, as was the case when President Barack Obama spoke at this year’s Democratic National Committee LGBT Leadership gala, insisting that he had always “believed that discriminating against people was wrong,” punctuating this emphatic statement with the testament: “I had no choice, I was born that way… In Hawaii.” [Insert rimshot.]
Nevertheless, the thoughtful use of other people’s words and concepts is a powerful vehicle for relations between the public and figure in that audiences are often receptive to that type of knowledge.
Thus, the geek in me was piqued when Senator John McCain referred to the Tea Partiers as “hobbits.” Due to my being familiar with the literary origins of this reference, I immediately questioned why name-calling has a place in this conversation.
During a Senate floor hearing at the end of last month, McCain read from an article by the Wall Street Journal referring to Tea Party members as hobbits who “could return to Middle Earth having defeated Mordor.” Here, Mordor is the negative foil to the Tea Party agenda, waiting to be infiltrated by the hobbits, who would then defeat it so that they could scurry on home to Middle-Earth.
First of all, Mordor, here treated like some sort of negative force, is a location; Democrats, the actual negative force he’s referring to, are an entity. These separate concepts are only comparable if Mordor, in this particular context, is meant to be metonymic for the evil force that is the wizard Sauron and his dwelling near Mount Doom, where the One Ring of Power is meant to ultimately be destroyed.
Second, Mordor is a location that exists within the geographical plane of Middle-Earth, where the majority of The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy takes place. While Mordor is in a different location than the residence of the hobbits, Middle-Earth would not be a place to return to after the defeat of Mordor, for the hobbits would not have left Middle-Earth to begin with.
Third, I don’t think McCain ever read those novels.
My nit picking may come from having read all three volumes of the LOTR Trilogy and watched the hours of commentary on all the Director’s Cut DVDs. However, the fact that the reference does not succeed, but is eliciting such response from Tea Partiers, is important to acknowledge, despite having read the “Tea Partiers are hobbits” bit verbatim from an article from the Wall Street Journal.
Interestingly, while McCain has pointed out on Hannity (which is always a good time) that he was not so much attacking the Tea Party as he was acknowledging the WSJ’s attack on the Tea Party and using their language to articulate his greater belief that Republicans on the whole need to proceed accordingly in order to put pressure on the President and the Democrats (who would then be the bad guys in this whole LOTR situation), he also refused to make a public apology as per a request by an incensed party member on the grounds that “what [he] said was true.”
Is it really, though? Are Tea Partiers really comparable to hobbits in a way that such a reference would even warrant the comment’s apparent offensiveness? No one seems to be paying attention to the reference itself, only the supposedly negative, metaphoric nature of the comment and the fact that he won’t take it back.
Since he probably didn’t mean to imply that the Tea Party movement are a resilient people who aim to take responsibility for destroying an intoxicating object of power for the salvation of their existence, despite their half-ling size, one of whom gets stabbed by a ghostly knights, starves, is wrapped up in a spider’s web, gets a finger bitten off, and edges the brink of insanity for years, could McCain have made the reference with ostensibly negative hobbit traits in mind?
Like, I dunno, they are short “half-lings?” That they’re small… and short? Or something?
Seeing that he probably didn’t comb LOTR for allusionary similarities, McCain may have improperly insulted the Tea Party with a reference that he believed to be negative in a manner that would be generally understood. The hobbits, as an allusionary reference, were conveyed as creatures that could be used as a comparison to the nature of those being insulted. But that is not the case. McCain has misused a reference, perhaps lacking clarification on the primary part of the WSJ article, that the Tea Party and the media took for granted as an issue of contention, assuming that he knew what he was talking about.
As a public figure, it would do for McCain to research his references for maximum impact, while that is his prerogative, as is his right to stick to his guns and not acquiesce to a request for an apology. We respected Bush for that; ya know, before everyone got pissed off about it. Perhaps more important than the “clumsiness” with which McCain made the comment was how easily people reacted to the comment as an insult, despite it not being properly executed. While the comment was made with the malice to warrant such a reaction, the comment had no real weight in terms of a descriptive insult, seeing as it doesn’t actually work unless you squint.