John Key and the serious business of “mucking around”

Another own goal – or two, or three, … it’s lucky Key’s just “mucking around”?

I did my best to resist the temptation to blog about this.

But, in the end, the temptation was too great. Partly that was because of the absurdity of it all – I even thought up a provisional title:

Key goes ‘batshit’ on a gay Beckham bender with Home Brew

(That sentence might be as close as I’ll ever get to writing, in words, the equivalent of a Bach fugue, with its intricate thematic patterning and interwoven connotations – I know, it’s not that close.)

But it wasn’t mainly the temptation to play around with the PM’s unsolicited verbal ejaculations in a blog post title that led to this post.

The real temptation has been to counter the claim (explicit or implied) that John Key should not be judged for jocular utterances in ‘soft’ photo-op situations (which, oddly, Key sometimes wishes to characterise as ‘private conversations’).

Have we all forgotten that joking is serious business?

The final straw that broke the back of my resolve was Key’s challenge to anyone to point out a time he had not acted seriously when his role required him to:

“I dare you to show me one example where I haven’t discharged my responsibility seriously, professionally and appropriately,” he told TV3’s Firstline.

“People have had plenty of chances to see me in action.”

Then there would be times when he was being jocular and having fun.

“I’m often at events when they’re quite light-hearted social events when people would want me to kid around.”

That challenge was one temptation too far – and targets the size of barn doors are always irresistible.

That’s especially so when Key’s smiling and joking are such crucial and, in that sense, such serious aspects of Key’s interpersonal manner. As I said, that’s what finally drew me to comment.

But first we have to follow behind Key’s seemingly unstoppable ‘mucking around‘ – like following the DB Clydesdales with a muck-bucket …

“He’s sleek, affable, has charisma and natural political instincts but lacks experience and gravitas yet has such confidence it’s both impressive and a little unnerving.”

So said Ruth Berry in  a  2006 New Zealand Herald piece on the “mystery man” known as John Key. The piece was inquisitively titled “Will the real John Key step forward[?]”

Berry was overly optimistic about the time it would take (she concluded, late 2006, that “it appears inevitable the picture on the canvas will soon begin to take shape“), and it has hardly involved John Key ‘stepping forward’ but, incident by incident, we’re getting a pretty good sense now of the ‘real’ John Key.

In the same piece, he’s quoted as saying about financial trading that,

“It’s all about pattern recognition and intuition and confidence. You need to be confident, but not cocky.”

Time to apply similar intuitive pattern recognition skills to Key’s joke-cracking ways.

A pattern is definitely there – and now for all the world to see.

John Key’s recent claim  – denials in answers to Parliamentary questions notwithstanding – that David Beckham is, apparently, as “thick as batshit” is a puzzling act of political miscalculation, despite no doubt being delivered with a grin.

How could someone with “natural political instincts” let himself say this given that there seems so much wrong with it?

First, it’s not what we expect from a Prime Minister – unprovoked, gratuitous abuse of someone outside politics.

Second, when initially backtracking from the claims, why, once again, did John Key have to imply that he may not have said something that he did? Responding to  further media enquiries,

Key yesterday tried to distance himself from his remarks as he attended a fundraising event at a Devonport bowling club in Auckland.

“I have nothing to say,” he shrugged. “It was a personal comment and I am not going to engage in talking about something that someone thought they heard me say.”

“[S]omeone thought they heard me say.”? Did he say it or not?

Well, apparently he has “categorically” denied saying it:

Mr Peters: “Yes or no, did he not say at a meeting with schoolchildren that David Beckham was as thick as bat …”

Mr Key: “Categorically I did not say that, no.

“If it helps in terms of clarification, I am reluctant to swear in Parliament but if the member is asking me whether I used the word ‘batshit’, I did not.”

Asked later what he did say, Mr Key said it was a private conversation and he would not repeat it. He refused to say whether he swore.

My own opinion is that the Prime Minister should stop slithering. He should own the opinions he expresses publicly as the Prime Minister. He shouldn’t duck and dive. And he should stop trying to claim that this is yet another ‘private conversation’ he’s been having while at a public event in his role as Prime Minister.

And a bit of advice: private conversations are best held in private.

Importantly, it’s also not about using the word ‘batshit’. It’s about suggesting that David Beckham is stupid, whatever turn of phrase Key may have used. It hardly matters whether he said ‘thick as pigshit’, ‘thick as a whale sandwich’, ‘several sandwiches short of a picnic’, ‘several hundred million neurons short of a cortex’, or whatever. Using an expletive is obviously secondary to the intent of the comment.

The intent, it seems, was to make an unprovoked, gratuitous insult, presumably for humorous effect. Most of us do it; but we’re not all the Prime Minister.

Third, what is it about Key that he has to show off to school children by demeaning an ‘achiever’ and ‘self-made’ success? Why does he always get seduced by the desire to “entertain” his audience? And, in this instance, it has the disappointing smell of an attempt to drop the name of a celebrity and then, dishonourably, to snicker at them.

Fourth, and worst, is the hypocrisy.

Whatever happened to the right’s condemnation of the left’s supposed “intellectual elitism” and “tall poppy syndrome“? Isn’t that supposedly confined to the lawyers and academics populating the Labour Party benches in Parliament?

It is uncontroversial and widely known that David Beckham is someone who, from pretty modest beginnings, has amassed a huge fortune along with a world-class reputation and a prominent role in charity work. (Even this short biopic gives a sense of his success, and helps humanise the constructed celebrity – complete with father Ted, the shopfitter, and mother Sandra, the hair stylist.)

Does this count for nothing in the right-wing universe of ordinary people working hard, aspiring and achieving?

Where’s the gut-level, right-wing respect for an ordinary-man-made-good that would surely head off at the pass the temptation to make a comment like this?

Apparently all Beckham’s efforts deserve is to get called a “nice guy” but “as thick as batshit” (or words to that effect). Does a condescending, reflexive elitism get any more obvious than this?

David Farrar, in a transparent attempt to run interference for John Key, finds it all very amusing – chipping in with his favourite derogatory quotations about Beckham’s intelligence.

What would Farrar have posted on his blog if it had been Helen Clark or Phil Goff who had made these comments? It’s not hard to guess.

But perhaps the whole thing is just a storm in a teacup? I’d say ‘no’, for two reasons.

First, courtesy of John Key, there are now so many storms sloshing chaotically around in teacups of various sizes at his personal Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – otherwise known as the Prime Ministerial procession through the land – that he needs an industrial strength dishwasher to clean up the mess.

Second, the Beckham comment was not just a ‘gaffe’. It was part of a pattern, and one which hinges on how John Key uses humour and the function it has in his life.

Maybe the pattern doesn’t matter if Key’s so-called ‘gaffes’ don’t get any more disturbing than calling David Beckham stupid to get a laugh.

Except that, sadly, they do.

On the same day that he derided David Beckham he was a guest on a radio show in Otago, The Farming Show. Have a watch of the Prime Minister earning his salary:

Most criticism of the entertainment on offer here by the Prime Minister focused on his comment about a “gay red top“. That choice of phrase reveals part of the pattern – the desire to appear ‘ordinary’ by breaking expectations of how a Prime Minister should talk (dropping into the jargon of schoolyard insults).

Key later said that he was just “mucking around” when he used the phrase:

Prime Minister John Key says he was just “mucking around” and having some fun when he used the word ‘gay’ to describe a radio host’s red sweatshirt last week.

Mr Key is standing by his “jocular” banter with Farming Show host Jamie Mackay and his reasoning for using the word pejoratively.

But that was not the only disturbing aspect of his session on the show. Another was the easy, reflexive and impulsive way in which he, once again, resorted to abuse in a “jocular” way. He said this of hip-hop group Home Brew:

Mr Key also took a swipe at hip hop group Home Brew for criticising him during their acceptance speech for best urban/hip hop album at the New Zealand Music Awards last week.

These people are idiots. They turned up on the red carpet with a goat that then managed to relieve itself or whatever on the red carpet. What idiots,” he said.

In philosophy it’s called the ad hominem fallacy; in football it’s called tackling the man rather than the ball – as David Beckham may be able to remind the Prime Minister:

Abusive ad hominem (also called personal abuse or personal attacks) usually involves insulting or belittling one’s opponents in order to attack their claims or invalidate their arguments, but can also involve pointing out true character flaws or actions that are irrelevant to the opponent’s argument.

If you’re wondering what John Key was reacting to, the lead singer of Home Brew had this to say in his acceptance speech for an award:

“I’d just like to thank the Prime Minister for selling all our shit for not supporting the working class … You sell our shit John.”

He was cut off by music before he could continue.

Notice that, despite the use of expletives, there was no personal abuse aimed at John Key. If the report is correct, the comments were aimed at the asset sales policy.

Now watch the video in the previous link – which includes ‘interviews’ with members of ‘Home Brew’ – followed by the one above of Key on The Farming Show. They reveal an interesting symmetry.

In both clips there is the affectation of a self-conscious ‘I’m not what you expect, am I?’ pose, and yet a conformity to the expectations of the group they are both trying to appeal to; there’s also, in both, an over the top caricature of the self and a willingness to ham it up; both include overt and deliberate displays of arrogance (extravagant $10,000 dollar bets and extravagant cigar smoking).

The only difference was that the lead singer of Home Brew did not personally abuse Key but simply opposed his policies. By contrast, Key reiterated personal abuse – “These people are idiots“, “What idiots!“.

Disturbingly, when it comes to a comparison between a provocatively offensive hip-hop group and the Prime Minister, it’s the hip-hop group that manages to ascend to some serious political comment. The Prime Minister is left blurting out ‘What idiots!’

Even more disturbing, it’s worth remembering that John Key resorted to this abuse of New Zealand citizens (I assume they are) because they had criticised the National Government’s policies in public.

Putting aside whatever prejudices anyone may have against hip-hop groups, young people, brown people, or whatever, can this possibly be acceptable from a Prime Minister? And can it be excused as being simply part of Key’s natural ‘jocularity’?

So much for Key’s “mucking around” – but how important is ‘mucking around’ for humans?

Time for a detour to consider what humour and “mucking about” is really all about.

Human humour is fascinating. Laughter – especially when mirthful- is contagious: “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol).

In fact, there have been literal “laughing epidemics” throughout history. In that link, Richard Provine puts laughter, and joking, into its broader perspective.

Humour is primarily a social capacity, as its contagiousness signals; it’s part of being our particular kind of social animal:

Why do people laugh at all? What is the point of it? Laughter is very contagious and this suggests that it may have become a part of human behaviour because it promotes social bonding. When a group of people laughs, the message seems to be “relax, you are among friends”.

Laughter, that is, is a signal of ‘no threat’ or ‘you can trust me’ – but, like all evolved signals, the capacity to use it deceptively can also evolve.

And it has many darker sides:

In our politically correct, feel-good, be-happy time we are shielded from – and underestimate – the dark side of laughter that was better known to the ancients. If you think laughter is benign, be aware that laughter is present during the worst atrocities, from murder, rape and pillage in antiquity to the present. Laughter has been present at the entertainments of public executions and torture.  … The killers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, were laughing as they strolled through classrooms murdering their classmates. Laughter accompanies ethnic violence and insult, from Kosovo to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

When we laugh, with whom and at whom we laugh are all indelibly linked to our social nature, as Provine carefully dissects:

Laughter is a rich source of information about complex social relationships, if you know where to look. Learning to “read” laughter is particularly valuable because laughter is involuntary and hard to fake, providing an uncensored, honest account about what people really think about each other, and you.

Laughter is a decidedly social signal, not an egocentric expression of emotion.

Further clues about the social context of laughter came from the surreptitious observation of 1,200 instances of conversational laughter by anonymous people in public places. … Contrary to expectation, most conversational laughter was not a response to jokes or humorous stories. Fewer than 20% of pre-laugh comments were remotely joke-like or humorous. Most laughter followed banal remarks such as “Look, it’s Andre”, “Are you sure?” and “It was nice meeting you too”.

the average speaker laughs about 46% more often than the audience. This contrasts with the scenario of stand-up comedy in which a non-laughing speaker presents jokes to a laughing audience. Comedy performance proves an inadequate model for everyday conversational laughter.

Gender determines the proportion of speaker and audience laughter. Whether they are speaker or audience (in mixed-sex groups), women laugh more often than men. In our sample of 1,200 cases, female speakers laughed 127% more than their male audience.

On average, men are the best laugh getters. These differences are already present by the time joking first appears, around six years of age. Based on this evidence, it is no surprise that your school clown was probably a male, a worldwide pattern. Laughter is sexy. Women laughing at men are responding to more than their prowess in comedy. Women are attracted to men who make them laugh (ie, “have a good sense of humour”), and men like women who laugh in their presence.

Amazingly, we somehow navigate society, laughing at just the right times, while not consciously knowing what we are doing. Consider the placement of laughter in the speech stream. Laughter does not occur randomly. In our sample of 1,200 laughter episodes, the speaker and the audience seldom interrupted the phrase structure of speech with a ha-ha. Thus, a speaker may say “You are wearing that? Ha-ha,” but rarely “You are wearing… ha-ha… that?”

If that’s laughter, what of humorous behaviour itself?

Unsurprisingly there’s a number of theories of humour, including ‘superiority theory’, the theory that,

says that people laugh to assert that they are on a level equal to or higher than those around them. Research has shown that bosses tend to crack more jokes than do their employees [Presumably, when the two are together.].

And, again,

Women laugh much more in the presence of men, and men generally tell more jokes in the presence of women. Men have even been shown to laugh much more quietly around women, while laughing louder when in a group of men.

In other words, who tells the jokes is an assertion of status. And men, unsurprisingly, laugh as a substitute for chest-beating when in male company. John Key ‘having a go’ at the radio announcer’s “gay red top” is no random jibe.

Key’s ability to appear ‘jokey’, ‘affable’, and even child-like may connect with many New Zealanders who like that ‘ordinary’, ‘fun-loving’ demeanour. It may endear some people to him as he meets and greets, does photo-opportunities and soft events like the Farming Show – for all the reasons discovered by the research on laughter and humour just mentioned.

And of course any politician should be allowed to be humorous and to ‘muck around’ at times. But ‘mucking around’ is as revealing of character – in fact far more so – as is the ability to read staged speeches in the aftermath of serious events or during significant policy announcements.

In fact, the latter category of Prime Ministerial responsibilities are usually so carefully managed that few politicians would even have the opportunity to present themselves as jocular joke-crackers at such times. So Key’s ‘seriousness’ at those events is irrelevant.

But what about John Key’s seriousness in relation to the issues or policies linked to such responsibilities? Does his joke cracking extend to decision making around the Cabinet table?

Key’s challenge to identify times when he has not been serious about serious issues is best refuted in his own words:

Mr Key said he was notorious for cracking jokes on topical issues and it would not be out of character if he did so about the Megaupload millionaire during his GCSB visit on February 29.

He said making such joke would not mean he had been briefed about the agency’s spying on Dotcom that day.

During a press conference at Auckland airport this afternoon, Mr Key said he made jokes about “everything from water to ACC” as well as Dotcom.

He said he would not cut back on the jokes he made.

Key may have forgotten that he has already answered his own challenge.

In responding to criticisms that he has become too (re)lax(ed) of late, John Key reminds us all that he has always been like this and that this is just who he is:

I came in as John Key and I’m going out as John Key. The media or our opponents will try and portray that as being too casual. I don’t agree with that.

You are not going to change me and if you do, it will look like a fraud, it will be a fraud.

The defensiveness continues with his challenge to show him an example of where he had been required to be incredibly serious and wasn’t.

I always am. Frankly, I work 19 hours a day pretty much and six-and-a-half days a week. Within those days is a huge range of things I’m doing, a massive range.”

I agree – and interestingly, there’s not a joke or wise-crack to be seen in the article. This is obviously one of those times that he has “been required to be incredibly serious. An attack on his affable, jokey manner is, it seems, very serious business.

And I agree that John Key has probably always been like this. This is how he is.

But that’s not because he’s a harmless jokester. It’s because joking is the most serious part of John Key. It is his modus operandum – and always has been. It is the way he has not just learnt but has thoroughly embodied from an early age in order to achieve his personal goals, victories over opponents in competitive contests and, of course, the status they deliver.

Key has always been deadly serious about these things. Being ‘rich’ and being Prime Minister were quite obviously overwhelmingly serious goals even when he first formulated them as a child. Affability has been his chosen means to those ends.

And he is also very aware of the advantage he gains in pursuing his goals in this way:

But essentially he sees it as the media’s problem, not one that comes between him and the public. He hasn’t changed the way he behaves.

“These stories have always been there from time to time. Actually they are an example of where the media is generally out of sync with the public.

“The public talk colloquially, the public’s grammar’s not perfect. They kid around and I don’t think they overly mark me down for that. They just see me as a normal guy.

In one of the most surreal but revealing moments of self-reflection from a politician in recent years, Key’s comment that “You are not going to change me and if you do, it will look like a fraud, it will be a fraud” pretty much lays the truth out in plain view.

It seems that it has been through the means of almost constant joke-cracking, smiling and (pretty lame) humour that Key has made his way in the world. The self-reported nickname of the ‘smiling assassin’ he gained in financial circles testifies to the utter seriousness with which he covers his personal goals and ambitions beneath almost continuous instances of jest, shrugging appearances of relaxed indifference and boyish grins delivered in a range of emotional tones, from dismissive irritation to triumphant glee.

So he is right; should he ever shed his jokey, smiling carapace it would be a fraud. His entire way of being – and coping with the world – would cease.

We all are what we are and, to a large extent, we are not the authors of ourselves – so, fundamentally, I do not judge Key for the way he is.

It’s just that while this particular way of being may have been effective for becoming Prime Minister – and, if Key’s reading of public sentiment about him is correct,  for staying Prime Minister – it is not suitable for being Prime Minister.

Mike Moore once cited, unsurprisingly, the famous aphorism that, in politics, sincerity is everything – and once you can successfully fake that you’re made.

In Key’s case – and in the context of New Zealand politics – that aphorism needs tweaking.

In New Zealand politics, being ordinary is everything – and once you can successfully fake that, you’re made.

No-one whose ambition is for political leadership is remotely ordinary. If John Key were truly a relaxed, hokey-dokey kind of a guy he wouldn’t be where he is, and wouldn’t have succeeded in his previous career.

John Key’s constant joke-cracking, grinning and “mucking around” is his way of ‘faking’ ordinariness. It’s also why it’s hard to pin down just who he is.

Key remains New Zealand politics’ “mystery man“. What you see may well be what you get.

But here’s the rub: What you see is utterly opaque – which I imagine is often the point of “mucking around“. For John Key I suspect it has always been the point, whether he realises it or not.

It’s all very real – and very serious.


It’s worth reflecting on two final points.

First, when UK newspaper The Sun reported John Key’s comments about David Beckham it cited a few of his comments but also comments of two women, one of whom at least knew him well:

Even his missus Victoria told him in a 2000 telly documentary: “You make yourself sound stupid and you’re not.

In 2004 Rebecca Loos, who alleged she had an affair with the star, insisted the former Man Utd star is brighter than people give him credit for.

She said: “He’s not as thick as people make him out to be.

“He had a different kind of upbringing and education to mine, but he’s not stupid.”

Could it be that David Beckham, like our Prime Minister, learnt early on that playing the “I’m only an ordinary guy” card had its payoff?

David Beckham may not be so inherently ‘stupid’, after all.

And John Key may not be so inherently ‘jocular’, after all.

Second, there’s an interesting, recent, evolutionary take on humour. It comes from three researchers, including the philosopher of cognitive neuroscience, Daniel Dennett:

In brief, the researchers assert that humor serves an evolutionary purpose: In comprehending the world, we sometimes commit too soon to conclusions we’ve jumped to; the humor emotion, mirth, rewards us for figuring out where we’ve made such mistakes.

If that’s true, New Zealanders may come to have the last laugh at the mistake they appear to have made in taking Key’s joke-cracking ways as just a bit of “mucking around“.

This entry was posted in New Zealand Politics, Political Psychology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to John Key and the serious business of “mucking around”

  1. LynW says:

    Another excellent read.

  2. Puddleglum (I enjoyed your name-sake’s character when I first read the Lewis book, having a life-long interest in swamps, bogs, marshes, quagmires etc.), I found your thinking here very sound and useful. You’ve diced-up the mucking-around and presented it logically, the way I best like things served. It rings true to me – someone who joshes his way into acceptance in the way ‘some’ other people do. Thanks.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Robert,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post and that you took the time to comment. Much appreciated.

      One of the things that fascinates me about John Key’s popularity is trying to work out just in what way Key seemingly ‘connects’ with aspects of the mythical ‘Kiwi character’. My sense is that he worked this out when quite young and, as an outsider (which he clearly was in both family background and, consequently, personality and inclination), has perfected that approach through his life. But, under the constant exposure of being Prime Minister, there are cracks that open up and reveal (a) that his demeanour is a well-rehearsed tactic (as our demeanour is for so many of us), and (b) it conceals an underlying, highly pragmatic self-interest.

      ‘Mucking about’, I think, is a means of deflecting attention from those two ‘facts’ and, simultaneously, providing an escape route should he be held to account.

      I picked the name ‘Puddleglum’ simply because I was about to do my first comment on The Standard and thought that pseudonyms were de rigeur. I had been reading the Chronicles of Narnia to my daughter (that evening) and so cast about for something from it to use as a pseudonym (Aslan seemed far too grand and pretentious!).

      The decision was quite hurried but, in retrospect, it’s one of those decisions that just seems so appropriate – especially the famous scene in the Silver Chair when Puddleglum stamps out the fire that is creating the drugging smoke for his comrades. His reasons for believing in the rightness of living as if there were a better world – irrespective of whether it exists or not, it makes for better living here and now – has always seemed persuasive to me. I tend to the view that we – people – create our human world in how we live and interact with each other, so that means how we act in the here and now matters immensely. Living as if honesty matters, for example, creates a world in which being honest matters. Living as if self-interest is the primary motive in life creates a world in which, indeed, it is.

      Puddleglum’s insight is reminiscent of Vaclav Havel’s equally famous quote about hope (i.e., words to the effect that hope is not the expectation that things will turn out a certain way, but the conviction that something is right to do irrespective of how it turns out).

      And I’ve always liked that kind of glum humour from which Puddleglum never departs – Eyeorishly insightful about the human condition. It amounts to the negation of Havel’s first definition of ‘hope’ (the expectation that things will turn out a certain way), thus leaving only the second definition to live by. That latter version of hope has the advantage of being invulnerable to apparent setbacks – it’s the triumph of a concern for the nature of the means over the supposed nature of some future ends (and, I guess, the insight that means are ends – probably the most important ones when you’re lying on your deathbed).

      Thanks again for commenting.


  3. Pingback: ‘What they see is what they get’ | The Political Scientist

  4. Pingback: PMs just wanna have fun … | The Political Scientist

Leave a Reply