Cut throat politics

It doesn’t take long to collect examples of throat-slashing gestures on the internet: Here, here, here and here – and that’s just for starters on the first google page.

Interestingly, they are all incidents in highly charged, competitive, high stakes sports in the United States – like this ice hockey clip.

From the second link, here’s the general tenor of how seriously the gesture is usually taken:

that still doesn’t excuse Griffey making an on-field motion even more distasteful than Brantley’s mullet. Considering that both Griffey and Brantley are theoretically on the same team, it’ll be interesting to see how this one plays out. Pretending to slash someone’s throat isn’t something that’s just easily explained away.

From the third link, above, there’s evidence of its institutionalised negative reputation:

The NFL outlawed the gesture in 1999, making it a 15-yard penalty and a $2,500 fine.

Which brings us to the point. Throat-slitting gestures are reminiscent of the sly work of assassins who approach from behind with cold steel.

When “Mr Key is seen gesturing near his throat with his hands” (as tv3 put it, with an interesting degree of judicious carefulness) during an incident involving a man attempting to clamber over the ballustrade from Parliament’s public gallery, the question of just what a throat-slitting gesture implies has become hotly debated.

Was it a throat-slit gesture at all? If it was, was Key simply supporting the Speaker in calling for silence? Or was it intended to convey something more aggressive, more sinister?

Was it a throat-slit gesture? It appears so (the video is open to interpretation, but remains completely consistent with a throat-slitting gesture). There are a number of reasons for believing this. First, John Key hasn’t simply denied it and claimed it was some other kind of gesture. That would have been simple to state, would – presumably – have been backed up by others watching and would be expected as a straightforward clarification.

Second, those to whom it appears to have been directed seemed very clear about its nature. David Cunliffe commented:

“Heat of battle, side on, I thought I saw him do a haka gesture,” says Labour MP David Cunliffe. “I’ve talked to colleagues who are very clear they saw that.”

Third, the reaction was instantaneous from the Labour side of the house suggesting many MPs gained a similar sense at the same time.

This simultaneity of outraged response suggests that it was certainly a gesture fully compatible with the throat-slitting interpretation.

So, was John Key simply trying to call ‘cut’ like an editor? Interestingly, the decision makers ‘at the death’ in gladiatorial combat were called editors. What gestures did they use?

The editor’s gesture signifying that the gladiator should be killed is not exactly thumbs down, but thumbs turned. (http://www.ualberta.ca/~csmackay/CLASS_378/Gladiators.html) Christopher S. MacKay says the thumb motion represents the plying of a sword. The editor might also call out, “Cut his throat.”

So, perhaps even the ‘editorial’ version of Key’s gesture is not completely without at least an historical aggressive intent.

Further, as others have said, it seems unlikely that he was assisting the Speaker to restore order.

I don’t recall any other MP – or Key previously – attempting to quieten the chamber using such a gesture. Also, at best it would be an extraordinarily counterproductive and naïve gesture to have used to help the Speaker out, if that was the intent. Uproar was the likely result.

To be honest, its timing (while the Speaker was already talking to the members) and its silent use (with, apparently, no accompanying words) reminds me most of the kinds of surreptitious communications between pupils at a school. While teacher is otherwise engaged, facial expressions and gestures convey emotions and intent that would not be allowed if observed.

Which leaves me with the throat-slitting gesture as an intended communication about something other than the need to keep quiet (the chamber was, at that point, already quiet).

If, however, it is inevitably speculative to guess what Key may have meant by it, there are a number of more objective meanings that it may well take on as time passes. Just as authors and songwriters discover that their intended meanings are not the only consequential effects of their words and music, John Key may discover that the meanings that will now likely accompany this incident through time are not necessarily the ones he would have hoped.

Meanings are will-o-the-wisps: They emerge at the periphery of our vision and rarely come into clear focus until they have worked their magic.

My sense at this early stage is that the gesture, Key’s prior words (various versions but, to the effect that – as John Armstrong reported – “That’s down to you”) and the explanation for those words (concerning Labour’s responsibility for the security measures [not] in place during the episode) altogether represent a threat to something quite significant in current New Zealand politics – and I don’t mean the Labour Party.

Surprisingly, whichever version we accept (his critics, his ‘friends’ and the statements from his own office) there is one thing that seems likely to take a big hit – the public image of John Key.

That image has been carefully managed. It presents Key as an affable person, relaxed about just about everything and, so confident about his own life and abilities that he does not have the usual baggage carried by politicians. All that goes west, to varying degrees, in all the versions so far put forward. The lasting impression, therefore, is likely to be that Key is not quite what people thought he was.

Here’s how I think that plays out.

The version that argues that Key was so upset by the episode in so far as it put him under personal threat (the man climbing over the ballustrade apparently called out the names of Paula Bennett – Minister of Social Welfare – and John Key), undermines the idea that Key is a man who keeps his head and calm during times of strife and has some underpinning reservoir of confidence that maintains him through events that would cause others to panic.

Key’s inner confidence has been used to explain part of his appeal. His low-key, Kiwi insouciance has, we are told, set him apart from the fretters, the politically ambitious and the earnestly politically correct.

Key has been relaxed about growing public debtSAS ‘guns for hire’, a low response to the nine-day fortnight policyrace relations, pressure from the US for New Zealand to send its SAS back to AfghanistanNew Zealand’s growth prospects, turning 50, the use of ‘the worm’ in upcoming political debatesbeing accused of being relaxed and IMF warnings that the global economy has entered a dangerous new phase.

This is no coincidence: Being relaxed is copyrighted John Key branding.

Yet, when it came to coming up with likely explanations for Key’s words and gesture in Parliament during the latest incident, all of that notably relaxed manner was side-stepped effortlessly. The official explanation from Key’s office was that his comments and reaction were in relation to Labour’s criticisms of his increased Diplomatic Protection Squad spend. That is, his immediate reaction was to see the incident as a threat to himself and this led him to accuse Labour as being the cause of the incident.

This explanation, itself, indicates someone not thinking clearly in the heat of the moment and, in addition, aware primarily of his personal risk. In short, it supports the claim – made by Labour MPs and others (see comment thread here) – that Key was exceptionally scared by the incident and was consumed by his personal safety and, as a result, his first utterance – and gesture – became an attack on the Labour Party.

That is, the ‘official’ explanation indirectly emphasises – and invites the inference – that John Key is more complicated than the supposedly uber-calm and relaxed John Key of the mythology. He can be scared; that fear can make him do inappropriate things.

People like their leaders to be confident and self-assured individuals. People like to be led by someone who appears fearless. They are less happy to be led by someone they think is fearful.

To date, Key has epitomised, for many New Zealanders, that quiet Kiwi confidence in himself and in where the country is heading (on every issue). But this incident – and Key’s response – bursts that bubble. He seemed – and acted – as if he were vulnerable.

Despite three years of trying, Labour and Key’s other political opponents have been unable to make Key look vulnerable.

It is a truism in human relations and certainly in politics, that the deepest wounds are the self-inflicted ones.

Key would not have realised it at the time, but when he slowly drew that finger across his throat he managed to do what his opponents, so far, have been unable to do – he inflicted the first visible nick to his political jugular.

The slow bleed has begun. It’s obvious from the wall of silence from National over Key’s actions. But the wall can’t hold.

It is in this context that the banning of Martyn Bradbury from Radio New Zealand National over his comments criticising John Key – including his words and gesture during this incident – is primed to open that wound further, when the aim from John Key’s camp, I’m sure, is to stem the flow.

And now there is the Standard and Poors comment in Parliament.

John Key is about to learn just how ‘cut throat’ politics can become as the slow worm of public mythology begins to turn.

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