When it comes to Hobbits and the rest of J.R.R. Tolkein’s bestiary, I am pretty much at one with the critic Edmund Wilson. In “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!,” Wilson expressed astonishment, and not a little distaste, at the wild popularity of Tolkien’s kiddie books. “Juvenile trash,” I recall, was one phrase he employed about the whole Lord of the Rings cycle.
I wouldn’t go that far, but I, too, recoil at the cloying and airless tweeness of the Tolkien universe. Still, it would never occur to me to employ “Hobbit” as a term of abuse. I had to wait for Jim Letten, a former U.S. attorney, now an assistant dean at Tulane University, for that rhetorical innovation.
Perhaps “Hobbit” is prosecutors’ code for “low life” in Louisiana. That’s where Letten plied his trade for nearly three decades, until forced to resign last year because some of his top assistants were revealed to have been making anonymous “provocative, even pugnacious comments about active criminal matters” on a public web site. Or maybe it is just part of Letten’s personal lexicon of imprecation, which also, for reasons that baffle me, includes the word “spud,” a term I’d always regarded with affection as a familiar diminutive for “potato,” a tuber I hold in high regard.
These are deep semantic waters.
What is not at all mysterious, however, is the fact that Jim Letten believes that in calling someone a “Hobbit” or a “Spud” he is saying something deeply opprobrious. You can tell this partly by the tone he adopts when uttering the words, partly by the close proximity of other, more familiar terms of abuse — “scum,” for instance, or the ever popular “asshole” — in a video (embedded at the end of the article) of Jim Letten excoriating some reporters. As I say, I happen to like spuds. But there is no denying that when someone calls you “a nasty, little, cowardly spud,” he is not troweling on the praise.
Among the recipients of Jim Letten’s ire was James O’Keefe, the brash young journalist who shot to fame when, posing as a pimp, he and an accomplice exposed various ACORN employees colluding in tax evasion, underage prostitution, drug dealing, and other torts. It was a delicious moment, at least I thought so, but there is no caviling with the fact that James O’Keefe is not popular with establishment politicians. Left or Right, it doesn’t matter: in a corrupt system, as ours has become, the establishment itself is the problem. And James O’Keefe has made a gigantic nuisance of himself by doing battle with the establishment. He is fearless. He is clever. He is relentless and indefatigable. Through the activities of his organization Project Veritas, he asks embarrassing questions. He finds things out. He exposes wrongdoing and corruption to public scrutiny. He speaks truth to power. The wielders of that power hate him for it.
The back story: In 2010, O’Keefe and three accomplices were arrested in Senator Mary Landrieu’s office for entering the building under false pretenses. They pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. Jim Letten was initially involved in prosecuting O’Keefe and his accomplices but recused himself when it was revealed that the father of one of the men involved was a federal prosecutor whom Letten knew.
Here’s what happened at Tulane. O’Keefe went to Jim Letten’s house with his film crew. He rang the doorbell. Letten’s wife answered and O’Keefe politely asked if her husband was at home. She said no. He asked, again politely, if he could leave a copy of his book Breakthrough: Our Guerilla War to Expose Fraud and Save Democracy, which describes the Landrieu case. She said no and closed the door. End of encounter.
This was what Jim Letten described as “terrorizing” his wife.
It is sad what 27 years as a U.S. attorney does for one’s command of English. Hobbit. Spud. And now “terrorize.”
And that isn’t the only “T” word Letten has trouble understanding. Flanked by some scary looking security personnel, he also accused O’Keefe of “trespassing” at Tulane. But, as O’Keefe pointed out, the Supreme Court has affirmed the right of the general public to walk on the grounds of a university even if they have no connection with the university. (Letten accused O’Keefe of many things: violating federal law, violating state law, and, crime of crimes, “harassing a former U.S. attorney.”)
Now I understand that the devolution from U.S. attorney to assistant dean at a second rate (or even a first rate) university is a steep step down. Yesterday, Jim Letten could intimidate the public with impunity, indeed, with the added emolument of media plaudits. Today he is assistant dean for experiential learning, whatever that is, at Tulane’s law school. A certain amount of bitterness is understandable. But take a look at the video below and ask yourself two things.
First, does Jim Letten’s behavior live up to Tulane’s official policy requiring “All individuals and/or groups of the Tulane University community” to speak and act “with scrupulous respect for the human dignity of others, both within the classroom and outside it, in social and recreational as well as academic activities”? Take a look at the video. What do you think? Did the assistant dean of experiential learning at Tulane University Law School act “with scrupulous respect for the human dignity” of James O’Keefe?
Second, what do you think of the police power Jim Letten brought in his wake? I know, I know, for 27 years he’d been used to wielding the coercive power of the state. He could scream at people with impunity. One of his deputies once shoved a defense attorney after losing an argument in the judge’s chambers. And now here is Jim Letten, the assistant dean of experiential learning, confronting a man he had once begun to prosecute. Naturally he surrounds himself with security officers. Of course he insults and intimidates people he disagrees with. That’s the new college way: free speech for me, but not for thee, and if you don’t like it, talk to this armed security guard right over here. “The University encourages the free exchange of ideas and opinions,” says Tulane’s official memorandum, “but insists that the free expression of views must be made with respect for the human dignity and freedom of others.” Is that how Jim Letten acted? Watch the video and make up your own mind.