Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Incredible Lightness of Being John Key

A Gift for Levitation: Asked to explain the difference between himself and the Prime Minister in an interview for North & South magazine, Bill English famously responded: "I’m a stayer, he’s a sprinter. I grind away, John just bounces from one cloud to another".

JOHN KEY’S greatest political gift is his levity. Which is not to say that the Prime Minister is inappropriately frivolous or comical – although he does have a politically endearing talent for self-deprecating humour. The word’s original meaning was "lightness", and it is in this sense that I am using it.

This quality of lightness has not gone unnoticed by Mr Key’s colleagues. His Deputy, Bill English, famously explained the difference between himself and his boss in an interview published in North & South magazine: "I’m a stayer, he’s a sprinter. I grind away, John just bounces from one cloud to another".

In many countries Mr Key’s light touch would not be regarded as an asset. When politicians become prime ministers or presidents in these much older societies they are expected to put on political weight, and to evince at all times a judicious seriousness. In short, they are expected to display gravitas not levitas.

New Zealanders are more than a little ambivalent on the subject of levitas versus gravitas. On the one hand, we do not expect our leaders to embarrass us on the world stage. On the other, we don’t like leaders who put on too many airs and graces or talk down to us.

Like so many other populations descended from pioneering stock, New Zealanders place a much higher value on practical achievement than they do on artistic talent or intellectual accomplishment. Artists and intellectuals tend to make most Kiwis nervous. As voters, we regard a surfeit of intelligence and/or creativity in our leaders as an implied reproach for our own (meagre?) abilities and tastes. In politics it is never wise to let the public think you think you’re better than they are.

Strangely, we don’t seem to mind if our leaders are richer than we are. Money, after all, is a wonderfully democratic thing. With sufficient hard work (and just a little bit of luck) just about anybody can become rich.

By contrast, great intellectual acuity and creative power are innate qualities. No amount of hard work can increase our native stock of intelligence and creativity (although it will certainly sharpen the skills we do possess). It’s an inconvenient truth which gives the lie to, and undermines, New Zealanders’ cherished egalitarian faith. That’s why so many Kiwis are suspicious of individuals with too much talent. It smacks of unfairness, privilege and elitism. Such people are not to be trusted.

Mr Key is certainly a very wealthy man, but that fact alone does not condemn him in the eyes of most New Zealanders. After all, he did not inherit his money – he made it, himself, by deploying the skills he was born with to their best effect. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s humble background; the fact that he and his sisters were raised in a state house by their widowed mother; only serves to reinforce his fellow citizen’s confidence in the universal attainability of the New Zealand dream.

A large pile of cash in the bank does, of course, possess the power to levitate just about anyone up, up and away from the daily drudgery of earning a living. For many people, however, the levity money confers can be personally devastating. It either breeds a sneering sense of superiority, or crippling feelings of guilt and/or obligation.

But, Mr Key’s public conduct reflects neither of these classic responses. His wealth does not appear to have had any malign effect upon him. Miraculously, he has risen above even this.

What it has done is allow him to deploy the otherwise quite ordinary aspects of his life and personality as a devastating political weapon.

The Prime Minister is not a connoisseur of fine art. He doesn’t attend the opera. He has penned no books, made no scientific breakthroughs, climbed no mountains, written no songs. He does not mix with artists or intellectuals, nor does he espouse with any noticeable fervour the grand, all-encompassing ideologies and religions of mankind.

He is, however, a husband and a dad with two teenage kids. He does like to watch the Rugby. He turns a mean steak on the family barbecue, and he drinks his beer straight from the bottle – just like hundreds of thousands of ordinary Kiwi blokes.

John Key’s political balloon is inflated not simply by the fortune he made as a currency trader, but by the paradoxical pressures of New Zealand’s thwarted egalitarianism. Ordinariness is his helium. We push him up to prove that we, too, can rise.

The Prime Minister is said to practice "the politics of aspiration". To aspire is to breath out, to reach up, to soar. John Key bounces from cloud to cloud on the warm updrafts of his nation’s confidence. On New Zealanders’ desperate conviction that politics can be, and should be, the province of ordinary men and women.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 December 2010.


Fatal Paradox said...

I'm not sure who comes off looking worse here - Key or the NZ voting public - but I agree absolutely with your assessment Chris that the PM represents nothing so much as the banal ordinariness and anti-intellectualism that is so prevalent here in 'Godzone'.

If this is egalitarianism then perhaps we would be better off emulating the example of Baudelaire's artistic Dandy, who in the words of the original po├Ęte maudit represents "...a new species of aristocracy, all the more difficult to upset because it will be based...on the heavenly gifts which work and money cannot confer"

Anonymous said...

Certainly there's never been any doubt about wee Johnnie's ability to discover what people want and then deliver it:

"One insider says Key has a pet saying of "whatever it takes" - it is his indication to a caucus member that he just wants something to be done, find a way to do it. But it's a phrase which has a double-edge.
In many ways it has been his modus operandi since as a small boy he dreamed of being Prime Minister."

Of more interest is motivation. "Whatever it takes" to achieve what, exactly? From the quote below, perhaps nothing more than a biggest-dick ribbon. Is the small boy still in charge?

"One of Key's own MPs thinks there is another, perhaps less ingratiating, element also propelling him toward the 9th floor of the Beehive. Speaking on condition of anonymity the MP says Key seems to harbour a deep instinct to be the most important guy in the room. Generally now that he is leader, he is exactly that. But if an outsider comes in who might challenge that status, Key is said to almost physically transform to take up the challenge."

He can bounce like a butterfly....but have we glimpsed the sting?

"Key said there had been "enormous growth in the number of people on the DPB, and where people have been, for want of a better term, breeding for a business".
“If we cancelled welfare to 330,000 people currently on welfare, how many would starve to death? Bugger all.”

Or will the Welfare Working Group report just be more of "whatever it takes": 2011's Orewa One - the biggest dick rampant on the backs of the poor.

Robert Winter said...

"Banal" is a good word for Mr Key. I swither between believing that Mr Key represents a victory for the essential anti-intellectualism that marks NZ, or that he is rank amateur with luck on his side (for now), or that we were intimidated by the sheer weight of Ms Clark's intellect and grasp, and have retreated to that lightness of being. He also reminds me of the old adage about there being none so blind as he who will not see, which might be indeed a reflection on NZ society.

Madison said...

I like this article as it shows a good deal about separating the person from the politics. It's a hard idea to do, but in this case it shows why John Key maintains his approval rating from people he is not favoring with National's new laws.

And to Fatal Paradox this is what democracy can bring about and what made me shake my head in my own country as Bush was elected twice. It's not a happy realization that most of your fellow citizens don't want someone who appears smarter than them to be leading them. On the other hand it is often a true indication of how the majority of a country feels even if you disagree with them. I do feel safe telling you that this is what I kept trying to explain to people from 2000-2008 but never succeeded.

Although I would rather have this than a distant aristocracy determining everything. At least this way we are able to change without mass violence or physical revolt.

Unknown said...

Interesting comments Chris.

If by gravitas you mean competence then I do not disagree. If by levitas you mean superficiality I again do not disagree. Farrar has read your blog as some sort of support for Key. I think, and hope, that your comments were a deep attack on all things Key.

He may be rich, ordinary and popular but I prefer that our country's leader is exceptional, principled, and has a future view on how the country should develop and progress. Key is neither exceptional nor principled, nor does he have any future view, especially one which may improve things.

Cycleway anyone?

Anonymous said...

"Key said there had been "enormous growth in the number of people on the DPB, and where people have been, for want of a better term, breeding for a business".
That is an idea the left cannot deal with (moral hazard). The left thinks it can be Jesus; no matter how poor and how many (the masses) the rich will have plenty for everyone, we just need to get our hands on it.

Anonymous said...

There is something about Key that unnerves me. I just don't believe that he is sincere, and that much of what he shows the public is a cover. I could imagine Key having to be the most important guy in the room, that much is obvious. He is not called Smile and Wave for nothing, the guy cannot even sing, but gets huge celebrity status just because he is PM. Isn't that rather hollow? His smile does not reach his eyes very often, and in real life, he comes across as smug and self-satisfied. No, I will not vote for Key, he leaves me feeling cold, I would much rather have the warm intellectual back.


Anonymous said...

Mickeysavage sums Key up to exceptionally well.

What disappoints me is his lack of principles.

The calamity for NZ - voters have their heads buried in the sand.

Flossie said...

Chris, I'm not sure quite how you understand the word "levitas", but for the word in political contexts the Oxford Latin Dictionary offers the following: "unreliability, inconstancy, fickleness, shallowness". If these meanings are what you attribute to Key, then I totally agree with you. Although I'm not at all happy about New Zealanders favouring a man with such characteristcs as their Prime Minister.

Anonymous said...

Of course we have our heads buried in the sand, there are far too many holidays to be had, sales to attend and drinks to be drunk. It's the festive season, and politics is just too depressing! The more things change, the more they stay the same...Keynesia, socialist state under Labour Lite. Still.

Anonymous said...

He has a pretty nasty streak which he ever-so-subtly trots out when the polling dips a tad. Funnily enough that can resonate, especially with the the talkbackocracy.

Anonymous said...

What, political, is John Key about? Few voters would be able to say, as he personally takes the political path of least resistance. The enigma of his political beliefs may really come from him not having that many.

The lighthearted apoliticality of Key is very different from the power politics of Clark. Clark found large parts of the population loathsome, Key doesn't really dislike anybody and remains inoffensive.

It looks like in John Key's mind being a good prime minister doesn't come from showing leadership or ushering in change from new policy but from being the best manager he can be. This is a very different kind of psychology and likely the best fit for times different from the ones we're experiencing.

Anonymous said...

I prefer Clark's brand of 'power politics'any day over the non-politics of the light-weight, wishy, washy Key. What does he stand for? I really have no idea. Does he really live everyone? I think this is a dubious thought. Behind the veneer, I sense that Key craves the power, and he certainly loves the limelight.

He may be a nice bloke, sure, but he is taking NZ nowhere. Disappointing, but not really surprising. Key is a brand name, almost a marketing card-board cutout. He's not very real. I actually hope that Winston makes it back to Parliament, otherwise it's going to be three more years of dreariness.

Ex National voter.
Happy New Year, Chris.

Anonymous said...

"Key doesn't really dislike anybody and remains inoffensive."

Really? What about the unemployed, solo mothers and workers on minimum wage?

peterquixote said...

At the end of the film 'Incredible lightness of being' the beautiful people die in a meaningless death.
New Zealand is an impoverished country and all good parents guide their children overseas with a warning not to come back.
It would be different if there was some dialogue by Trotter and others about the necessity of getting real like becoming the eighth state of Australia, but New Zealanders are losers , we accept lousy currency, we accept poverty,and we write Christmas messages when the invader is coming,
and to all the children leave the bad place, go anywhere, especially Australia or Canada and leave the sickling State NZ light levity death.