Thursday, 30 December 2010

A little bit of luck

Cross posted

Chris Trotter's most recent column is a dispiriting analysis of why cost-cutting, beneficiary-bashing, privilege-defending prime minister John Key somehow remains so popular: it's because he's so ordinary, just another Kiwi bloke who is happy to drink his beer from the bottle and weild the tongs at a barbie Even his extraordinary wealth doesn't upset New Zealanders: being rich is fine provided it's not inherited wealth, and it's not flaunted, not displayed in a way that implies that other people are lesser beings. There's no Remmers snootiness about John Key. He's pragmatic rather than being a thinker, and it's a damned fine thing that he doesn't seem to read great literature, or enjoy Beethoven's string quartets, or heaven forbid, try to engage in any sort of intellectual life. We don't want any smart people around here, thank you very much.

I think Trotter is on the money when he says that New Zealanders prefer modest heroes: one of the reasons New Zealanders admired Sir Edmund Hillary so much was his modesty about his achievements. John Key does seem like the chap next door, just an ordinary bloke getting on with the job. Personally, I'd rather that we had some intellectual heft on the 9th floor of the Beehive, and in ministerial offices, along with the nice chap demeanour, and frankly, I'd prefer a country where being smart and well-educated and prepared to talk about policy and ideas isn't regarded as a social solecism, but evidently, I'm in a minority on that one. (The evidence would be John Key's continuing popularity.)

Where Trotter nails it is with this sentence about the way New Zealanders regard John Key.

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.

Just a little bit of luck...

It takes more than just a little bit of luck to become very wealthy. It takes a whole damn truck and semi-trailer of luck to become wealthy. Let's count the little bits of luck that John Key has had.

First of all, there's the luck of being born with a white skin. John Key has never had to experience walking into a shop and being regarded with suspicion just because his skin is the wrong colour. Then there's the luck of being born male - he doesn't have to justify his pursuit of career at the expense of having children, or carefully plan childcare if he wants to do a full-time job. Nor has he constantly had to calculate whether he is phsyically safe when he walks down a street, or has a few too many drinks. He was born able-bodied: no having to negotiate all the barriers that society places in the way of people with physical disabilities, from cars parked over kerbs and pavements, to lack of toilet facilities, to public places that are accessible only through a back door right round the back of the building, to work patterns that demand 10 hours phsyical effort a day, to... the list is endless. He was born with sufficient neural connections across his corpus callosum, so that he is a quick and able thinker, able to grasp difficult concepts quickly and easily. When his family was impoverished during his childhood, because his father died, there was a good quality state house available for him to grow up in, providing him with security. He had the extraordinary good luck to be born to a mother who made it easy for him to get through school and university, who assumed that her children would pursue higher education. He had the good luck to go through university at a time when only a small proportion of New Zealand's population did so, which meant that the government funded virtually all the tuition and living costs for students - no student loans for him. And so it goes. John Key is an extraordinarily lucky man.

Let me be quite clear: it is not John Key's "fault" that he was born lucky, any more than for example, it was Kiri Te Kanawa's "fault" for being born with an extraordinarily beautiful singing voice. It is just a piece of extraordinarily good luck. I do not doubt that John Key has also worked very, very hard. But one person can work hard all his life, putting in extra hours, doing his best to earn a good income and support himself, and still end up at retirement age with not much more than the old age pension to live on. Another will work hard all his life, but because he has been born lucky, because he is in the right place at the right time, he will become incredibly wealthy.

What Trotter points to in this paragraph is the collective delusion that New Zealanders buy into, that being wealthy is a reward for hard work, and that if only the rest of us worked that hard, we too could be wealthy. Far from being a column in praise of John Key (pace the standard cheerleaders on the right), Trotter has given us an exposé of the way we delude ourselves about our prime minister, about the nature of achievement, and about how we regard success in this country. I recommend it.


Chris Trotter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Trotter said...

Thank-you, Deborah.

Those fellows over at Kiwiblog need a crash-course in irony.

Acid Queen said...

I refuse to read anything that Chris Trotter reads. He is a hatemonger of the first degree.

Anonymous said...

Why is it lucky to be born male? I am happy that I was born female, I feel I won the bonus. The joy of having babies, of wearing gorgeous (when I can afford it) clothes, the emotional mind of the female, and the many opportunities for women these days. Men get older quicker, generally die younger, don't have the joy of childbearing or birth, and can never ever be a mother. And if JK was born female he wouldn't be JK, he probably wouldn't be PM, and he could well bat at home with the kdis.

Anonymous said...

Many MPs were put through university for free, it's just that way it was. Don't knock him for that, and you have to admit, he does work very hard. Luck and hard work, not just luck. I won't vote for him, but I do admire his work ethic.


LadyNews said...

Anon at 9:16: what Deborah is trying to say by talking about how John is lucky to be born male is not that she thinks being a woman sucks and we shouldn't be happy to be women, but that men have a certain degree of male privilege afforded to them by our society; such as not having to worry that the choice to have children will harm their career/work choices. Your last line illustrates this: you say if he were born female he might be at home with the kids and not where he is now. This is a privilege we (society) "give" to men. I myself love being a woman but still fully believe that there is a certain amount of bonus/privilege that comes with being male because we have constructed a society that works that way.

And Tanya at 9:18, Deborah states pretty clearly that she thinks Key probably DOES work hard (as well as has had some privilege), so I think it is fairly clear she has already admitted that. And just because she says he was lucky enough to attend Uni at the time he did (when it was far more financially accessible) doesn't mean in any way that she is "knocking him" for it. Acknowledging circumstance and good fortune that had worked in combination with a person's own efforts/abilities isn't done to diminish that person's efforts, but merely to recognize that as Deborah says there are often things beyond a person's own control that can contribute to their outcomes. Because if we don't acknowledge that then we are basically setting people up to feel that if they haven't become a billionaire/CEO/Prime Minister/astronaut it is 100% their fault and can only be because they didn't work hard enough. And really the situation is a lot more nuanced than that, because there are many more factors that contribute to people's circumstances than how hard they try. As Deborah said, someone could work their hardest and try their best all their life, and this doesn't guarantee wealth/success/whatever.

reader said...

Thank you hand mirror writers for helping keep me what passes for sane this year. All the best for 2011, look forward to continuing to read and learn from you.

Anonymous said...

Trouble is, we could all say we are lucky. We are lucky to be born in a Westernized, wealthy country. We are lucky to be born to good, loving parents etc (hopefully!), we are lucky to have free education, health, hospitals, etc. We are lucky to have access to tertiary education should we so wish. We are lucky to have a welfare net to fall back in in times of need. Female or male, to be born in NZ is lucky, lucky, lucky. The rest is up to us. Key had the smarts to make a fortune, he just hsd that mindset. I don't, darn it! Happy New Year, by the way. I am not a National voter, these days, bor a Key supporter. Just saying. Thanks for a cool, feminist blog, even if I don't always agree with the posts.


Anonymous said...

Sorry re the typos, it's way past my bedtime!

Hugh said...

The essence of Key's "normal bloke" image is that people have a mental image of what a multi-millionaire is like that he doesn't match. Of course this is because the mental image of said millionaire is largely fictional and derived mostly from uninspired media - Duck Tales is probably as responsible as any other work. All Key has to do is not swim around in a giant fucking bin of dollar bills or snoot around in a top hat and hey, look at him, he's just a regular bloke!

I'm always amused when people say Key doesn't seem like a rich guy, he just seems like a regular guy who happens to have a lot of money. Given that a rich guy is just a regular guy with a lot of money, it's a fairly meaningless statement.

I'd also be careful to go around saying we have no doubt that Key works hard. There's really bugger all evidence of this. I suppose he might well work hard, but if he didn't, how would we know? Indeed you could probably make a case that "hard working" is not necessarily something we want in our politicians.

Hugh said...

Oh and first anon, I found your little paean to the wonderfulness of being a woman quite startlingly gender essentialist. Do you really think being a mother is better and more rewarding than being a father? Do you think men can't wear gorgeous clothes? Do you think the emotional mind of the female is really superior in some way to the emotional mind of the male? Isn't the idea that men don't feel emotions as intensely and strongly as women one of the central tenets of patriarchy, and as such not something we as feminists should be celebrating?

Anonymous said...

Okay Hugh, point taken. Also had a re-think on the 'hard-working' Key. Everyone has to work hard to survive I know, on the whole, and yes of course men raise kids, wear gorgeous clothes etc, I just don't see any advantage in being male or female, these days. The sexes are now equal, thank goodness (except perhaps in the pay packet, at times).

As the Minister of Tourism, does Key ever take Kiwi holidays? See, us non-millionaires can't buy property overseas and whizz over there every year, but then I am playing the card of envy, I suppose.

Happy New Year, may the election hold some surprises, and may we see some honesty and prinicples from National and co, for a change. No matter what, Key will never get my vote again, the smile and wave act wore thin long ago, and I think Winston has a good chance of getting back in. That would make it interesting.

Au Revoir.


Boganette said...

"The sexes are now equal, thank goodness" - when did that happen? Haha - I guess I have nothing to blog about now then.

Happy New Year everyone!

Hugh said...

I've been thinking a lot about this post, and the Trotter piece, and I wanted to share some thoughts.

I think you are underestimating the degree to which that childhood poverty held Key back. Even with a supportive mother and a generous state education system it would have been harder for Key to have achieved the academic success he did than his contemporaries. I don't think the benefit of a supportive mother outweighs the difficulties caused by poverty.

I also think that the emotional impact of losing a parent at a young age can't be overstated. I hope most of us don't know what that's like. That is one aspect of Key's life where he was actually quite unfortunate in comparison to most of his contemporaries.

So is it accurate to call Key "lucky"? To a certain extent I'm uncomfortable weighing up fortunes against misfortunes. It seems callous to say that the luck of having a supportive mother or being access to state-funded healthcare and education outweighs the bad luck of losing a parent at a young age. In fact it seems callous just to weigh them. On the other hand it can't be denied that simply by virtue of being born in New Zealand Key is lucky as compared to somebody in Somalia (or, given that Somalia was actually relatively stable and safe when Key was a youngster, Zaire).

On your overall point, that Key's achievements can't simply be reduced to hard work but are also owed to good luck, I agree. I'm just not entirely comfortable describing somebody who grew up in a single-parent poor family as "lucky". It could have been worse, but it could have been a hell of a lot better, too.