The Key(wi) way to being ordinary – Part II

In Part I of this series, I pointed out that there was something paradoxical about the way in which, in New Zealand, the idea of ordinariness is understood. It is encapsulated in the idea that ‘you can be anything you want, so long as you’re an ordinary [person]’.

I posed two questions at the start of that post.

Let’s now go back to the first question – how ordinary is John Key? In one very visible way (his wealth and his work with international financial organisations that allowed him to accrue it) he’s obviously not ‘ordinary’ in a statistical sense.

Figure 1 (below) from a Statistics New Zealand report published in 2007 (based on a 2003/2004 survey) on Wealth Disparities in New Zealand shows that the vast majority of New Zealanders’ net worth values are well below John Key’s.

The same report also notes that,

Some 16.4 percent of total net worth is shown as owned by the top 1 percent of wealthy individuals, and as noted above this is likely to be an underestimate. Perhaps a more revealing statistic is that at the halfway mark, the bottom half of the population collectively owns a mere 5.2 percent of total net worth, although this takes into account the considerable negative net worth of 6.5 percent of the population. (pp. 7-8)

Key’s millions place him in a minute fraction of one per cent of the population. Not exactly ordinary.

But Trotter’s point is that Key remains ordinary in the eyes of New Zealanders even given his immense wealth. That is, despite the fact that Key’s personal outcomes are so at variance with those for ordinary New Zealanders that still doesn’t exclude him from the favourable label of being ‘ordinary’.

In addition, Key’s background, on the surface, has at least some ‘ordinary’ aspects – raised in a state house (though from a middle class family that, through separation then widowing, came upon relatively hard times), educated at a populous Christchurch state school (Burnside High School), local university (University of Canterbury), did an unremarkable B.Com. (along with many thousands of others) and, early in his work career, got a job with a local firm (Lane Walker Rudkin).

But, surely, those selective facts are not the essence of New Zealanders’ acceptance of Key’s ordinariness? After all, Key’s life also has decidedly non-ordinary aspects, when viewed through the classic ‘Kiwi’ lens.

Perhaps pivotally, he is Jewish. His childhood was dominated by a widowed mother, an Austrian-Jewish migrant, who was keen for the family to re-establish itself. (She was a refugee from Germany when she met the British George Key, a man who had fought in the Spanish Civil War as well as WWII.) She was notoriously outspoken, highly intelligent, well-educated and politically informed. The dinner table, by John Key’s own account, was the battle ground for political debate between his Labour leaning mother and the Muldoon/National supporting Key.

[As an aside, despite these vigorous political debates and his self-reported strong support for Muldoon, Key can’t remember where he stood on one of the defining issues of Muldoon’s time – the Springbok rugby tour of 1981.]

John Key’s early childhood experiences were derived as much from his mother’s more cosmopolitan, sophisticated, Jewish experiences, and- being such a strong personality – her influence upon him, than by those that characterised the ‘typical’ Kiwi child’s experience in suburban Christchurch during the sixties and seventies. At least, John Key seems aware of her profound influence upon him.

And, if you look closely, it shows. Despite his beer-bottle guzzling antics at barbeques with the Royals, there is also something decidedly ‘soft’ about Key’s general manner when compared with classic Kiwi blokiness. In one sense, there’s more of the school chess team than the first fifteen about Key.

Indeed, that ‘softness’ may well be part of his appeal to some New Zealand women who, while disillusioned with the reality of the Kiwi bloke myth are still wedded – sometimes literally – to it as part of their general acceptance of New Zealandness.

In this context, though, ‘soft’ is not meant to suggest that he lacked, or now lacks, drive and ambition, the very traits that set him apart from many Kiwi ‘blokes’. The ‘softness’ is just the residuum of his non-ordinary origins and, as mentioned above, the influence of his mother. He had expectations placed upon him by his mother, in particular, that were anything but ordinary in a New Zealand context.

So, how does someone from a very non-ordinary, cosmopolitan background culture, who was highly motivated to get where he wanted to go learn to live in a country where being ordinary was almost the ultimate virtue? And, how does he gloss those origins and attributes so that he will be embraced as ‘ordinary’?

That leads to the second question above: What does it really take to be accepted as ordinary in New Zealand?

Key’s trademark is his ‘smiley’, ‘relaxed’ demeanour. Of course, no-one succeeds by being truly ‘relaxed’ about the steps necessary to succeed – especially in the high pressure, high stakes world of international finance. So, the obvious conclusion is that it’s an extremely well learned coping strategy to negotiate the social world in a way that won’t compromise – or may even assist – the ambition.

It may well be that the tactic of smiling affably and avoiding direct confrontation would have been very useful social tools to reconcile, within the setting of his early peer group, the clear differences between himself and others. Practised from an early age, the tactic can become second nature.

Then there’s Key’s self-deprecating humour. Such humour is a hallmark of this overarching ‘affable’ social tactic as it, at one and the same time, shows that (a) you understand what potential criticisms there may be of you and, (b) that you are deferring to those criticisms. (See this link for some insight into the ‘serious’ side of humour). It allows Key to burst any bubbles of pretension that others might think he has acquired through his success.

That this tactic appears to work so well in the New Zealand context says something important about what is meant by the value of being ‘ordinary’. It turns out that ‘being’ ordinary is not the issue. Instead, it’s more about demonstrating that you do not challenge the value of ordinariness.

To ‘be ordinary’ in New Zealand is not, paradoxically, to conform to some list of attributes or even life experiences (though no doubt that helps). As may probably also be said of America, it is not similarity of origins or life experiences that matters in determining whether you are or are not an ‘ordinary Kiwi’ (‘a true American’).

Both are settler and immigrant societies that, from the start, had to fashion a nation state out of people from a range of different cultures, places and backgrounds. Instead, what fundamentally counts is overt acquiescence to the value of being ordinary, of being Kiwi(in America, it is about ‘being American’).

As that young North Island farm boy put it so well 27 years ago, so long as that acquiescence is present you can do whatever you want (within broad limits) and have come from any origins. There is, however, a catch. It’s the catch the Englishman in my story spotted immediately.

Acquiesence is not just about openly agreeing with the myth of the virtue of ordinariness. It also involves the suppression of alternative stories (and potential virtues).

To put it more technically, in everyday discourse, to be accepted as ordinary in New Zealand it is important not to mention alternative experiences and virtues (e.g., the virtue of creativity, of intellect, of activism, etc.) and, if they can’t be avoided, to demonstrate, in every other respect, that you see ordinariness as the pre-eminent virtue that has been the bedrock of your life (and your success).

Interestingly, this type of social suppression of certain, values, ideas and experiences can create what Michael Billig has called a ‘dialogic unconscious‘. In effect, the Freudian notion of unconscious repression begins in the public arena of discourse (i.e., in the arena of what can and cannot be talked about and made explicit in day to day conversations).

Publicly, the ordinary becomes extolled while other values are suppressed. In that discursive context, ordinariness becomes a deeply embodied protective persona, donned to survive in a social world that cannot tolerate fundamental differences that threaten the only collective unity on offer: Commitment to the settler/pioneer ideology that hinges around the purposes of taming nature and building one’s environment/home out of that nature.

An ideology is nothing other than a set of ideas about what life is about. But every ideology also embodies values, forms of emotional expression and behavioural norms. The settler ideology comes with its own particular values and assumed virtues: Pragmatism; practicality; endurance; perseverance; absence of complaint about (your) life.

Over-archingly, it is underpinned by one value: Commitment to these other values.

It might seem odd to say that (pakeha) New Zealanders gain their identities principally by commitment to an ideology. Few New Zealanders would call themselves ‘ideological’. In fact, the ideology to which they are committed has as a central idea (and value) that being ideological is a problem, not a solution; something to be avoided.

But the fact remains, we are not, that is, so much united by culture, background or even by the sheer weight of collective history in the same place – by natural processes – as we are by an ideology.

If you’ve ever thought that New Zealand has the feel of a ‘suffocating’ culture it’s probably this process you’ve been experiencing – the day to day ideological purging of those insufficiently committed to the dominant New Zealand (pakeha) ideology. You can ‘achieve’ anything you like out in the public world but you have to be, and clearly show in your day to day life, that in doing that you’re actually just an ordinary Kiwi.

Even more tellingly, when it comes to being ‘aspirational’ you’ll get the message completely wrong if you think that means you can aspire to be something other than an ordinary Kiwi rather than aspiring purely for external achievements. You can conquer Everest but, if you do so, you better say ‘We knocked the buggar off’ rather than, for example, quoting a suitable line from Shakespeare.

If you feel like quoting Shakespeare then you should take a deep breath, conjur the quintessential Kiwi attitude, suppress Shakespeare and say something ruggedly pragmatic and understated. To do otherwise is to suggest that, just possibly, it was the added insight into life given through immersion in great literature that poured itself into your motivation to conquer the world’s highest mountain. That would be betrayal of all those New Zealanders who think you got there through manifesting something they share with you – your ordinary New Zealandness.

Just how many truly different New Zealanders have been caught, tragically, in this particular cultural vice is anyone’s guess. At the broad cultural level, you could say that New Zealand’s culture has a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell‘ policy when it comes to the expression of non-ordinary aspects of one’s life and self – and Key has learnt to keep well and truly to his side of the bargain.

John Key has learnt that it is best to let New Zealanders think that he got where he has on the back of his ‘ordinary Kiwi’ attributes rather than through experiences and attributes that were very non-ordinary and very non-Kiwi. Being affable and relaxed – quintessential elements of ‘personality Kiwiana’ – allow Key to give free rein to his decidedly non-Kiwi, non-ordinary background and experiences, and the self-focused capacities they have imbued in him.

In New Zealand, then, to ‘be ordinary’ requires only one necessary condition: That you never suggest that being something other than an ordinary Kiwi might be just as good as being an ordinary Kiwi, let alone that it might be better.

John Key may ride high, as Trotter suggests, on “the warm updrafts of his nation’s confidence” but it was not Kiwi ordinariness that put him in the levitated position of being able to take advantage of those updrafts.

To be continued …

This entry was posted in National Identity, New Zealand Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Key(wi) way to being ordinary – Part II

  1. Pingback: The Key(wi) way to being ordinary – Part III | The Political Scientist

  2. abp says:

    Thank you, this (parts I and II) is brilliant.

    Most resonant with me was,
    “It turns out that ‘being’ ordinary is not the issue. Instead, it’s more about demonstrating that you do not challenge the value of ordinariness … Acquiesence is not just about openly agreeing with the myth of the virtue of ordinariness. It also involves the suppression of alternative stories (and potential virtues).”

  3. rob says:

    Brilliant and insightful. This is a game we all play, ostentatiously not putting on airs. The way Key plays it is masterful. But it’s everywhere- so many of our leading personalities play it too, wittingly or not.
    But I wonder if it has more than one face- if it operates a little differently in men and women? And I think you take it a little too far here: “only one necessary condition: That you never suggest that being something other than an ordinary Kiwi might be just as good as being an ordinary Kiwi” We’ve become a little more accepting of difference in the last 30 years. It plays to our egalitarianism that being something ‘other’ might be just as good as being ordinary.
    O, but still- woe betide you suggest- or worse, act as if- being different and extraordinary might even be better! 🙂

    • TPSA says:

      Good point about me going too far. I agree that there’s been an increase in acceptance of difference (the 60s and 70s weren’t for nought, after all!).

      I think that’s partly because of activist efforts; but – and part of me hates to point it out – I think it’s also because ‘the market’ (as an ideology) has no fundamental problem with the colour, sexuality, ethnicity or gender of a consumer. Diversity in a population actually aids (triggers or even provokes) diversification of markets, products, services, etc..

      Of course markets – and elites – can play the opposite side of that coin very well too – wherever the profit happens to lie at a particular point in time (a bit like supporting Saddam Hussein or Hosni Mubarak – today it’s worth doing, tomorrow it’s not: ‘Oh Blah Di, Oh Blah Dah, life goes on …’)

  4. CUP says:

    Hey, I really enjoyed this. You write really well.

    Definitely concur that there’s a prevailing “don’t ask don’t tell” attitude. It resonates personally re that paranoid feeling I’ve sometimes had, like, “Hang on, you should hate me, why are you being all friendly?… Oh, you haven’t realised what I am….”

    And have you noticed how the key to being a “successful” Asian immigrant is not to speak “good” English, but just to make sure you can say “howaya?” and “giddaayy”?

    It kind of feels to me like it’s part of that whole “smallness” myth that we all believe (tho 4 million is hardly small, but that’s irrelevant – we do believe it), and maybe a sense of settler fragility that arouses the kind of traditional-society egalitarianism you dance around with in Part III. Basically, we want all the numbers that we can get – so you’re counted as in for as long as you don’t mark yourself as out.

    Certainly explains mumbling as a national pastime.

    • TPSA says:

      Hi CUP, and thanks very much for the compliments.

      Certainly explains mumbling as a national pastime.

      Now, there’s a point. What better indication is their of a ‘all heads below the parapets’ kind of society?

      I mentioned Billig’s ‘dialogic unconconscious’ but never thought about how the suppression of both volume and clarity in public conversations are themselves very telling markers.

      You’ve got me thinking … (thanks!)

      • CUP says:

        And need I draw attention to a certain Dr Key’s, shall we say, fluency in the subdued rhythms and cadences of the local vernacular?

        Seriously, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s consciously contrived, but he’s a master at conveying ideological positions simply through his manner of speech. The electorate of “tea tie tok-a-row” provides one charming example.

        And I think I would go as far as to say that the symbolic significance of his “chats” with Tony Veitch is consciously evoked.

        • TPSA says:

          The Veitch ‘chats’ are revealing. The fact that he’s committed to them regularly suggests he – or those who advise him – thinks he needs to shore up his popularity with that part of the electorate.

          It comes across as a pretty clear signal that he doesn’t want some people at least to think that he takes Veitch’s actions too seriously.

          As a peripheral member of my in-laws said when I questioned Key’s judgment on this issue: “That’s not fair. He [Veitch] has done his time and Key is right to forget it. That’s what we should all do.”

          Remarkably compassionate sentiments, though I know in this particular person’s case that those sentiments wouldn’t apply to other offenders and other offences.

          Key is courting that inclination and suspicion that Veitch was actually – and still is – the victim. Pretty obviously, Veitch’s professional rehabilitation couldn’t be more complete than having the PM ‘chat’ with you regularly.

          We are told – e.g., by Matthew Hooton, Michelle Boag and such – that Key is a ‘different kind of politician’ who is so principled he won’t go into coalition with Peters – despite the possibility that over 100,000 New Zealanders might vote for NZF – supposedly because the latter hasn’t given a clear explanation of the Owen Glenn saga.

          Yet, he’s happy to be interviewed repeatedly by someone convicted of assaulting his partner. I guess there are principles and then there are principles.

Leave a Reply