James Comey and the Perfect Chair: An Analogy for Our Angry Alt-Reality

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James Comey and the Perfect Chair: An Analogy for Our Angry Alt-Reality

Tired of all the Comey theories, the backchannel whispers, the unchecked vitriol? Great. Because today I’d like to talk to you about chairs.

But first: Comey.

When I sat at my keyboard yesterday evening and read that Donald Trump, a game show host, had fired the Director of the FBI, James Comey, who was investigating his campaign for committing treason, I was gripped with anger. But I didn’t mistake that feeling this time, as I had on November 9. I’ve had enough experience now to know it. Yep: you’re getting angry about democracy again, Rog.

Yet there are a great many Americans out there who are delighted (and deluded) they might finally get the chance to lock her up! And that the Russia investigation, the most important political investigation in U.S. history, might get shut down and shifted into an investigation into people leaking news to the press, like it’s always been done since ears interpreted mouth sounds. And there’s also a diminutive Italian rage-a-holic spending the night in a certain Washington, D.C., hotel tonight, who I’m sure has his eye on a recently vacated seat. You’re gonna need to spin around in that chair for about nine minutes to get it down to where you can use it, Rudy.

The truth is I’ve fallen almost entirely out of touch with this part of America. And I don’t really care. Much of what that sphere of America stands for makes me exhausted, depressed, cynical, cold, and angry. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this alternate sphere of America wants something new: it wants to rule. It doesn’t want to govern or cooperate or compromise. No, it just wants to rule. And Trump is the first leader we’ve had in this country since I don’t know when who, instead of wanting to serve, wants to rule.

Ruling, of course, requires violence. Trump’s firing of James Comey is a disgraceful act, and make no mistake, it’s an act of violence. Which, again, is why I wanted to take a moment out of my day to talk to you about chairs.

The Perfect Chair

In my five years teaching college literature I had exactly one good idea: the chair lecture.

I gave it each fall semester the week of September 11 and always looked forward to it, but I never thought it would mean what it does now. In fact, I often thought it was useless, in the same way I’d sometimes think the classes themselves were useless. But the fact that the chair lecture isn’t useless anymore is one of the most depressing realizations I’ve had since the election.

Today, after taking yet another hammer blow to the already cracked American plaster, it seems especially relevant again.

I piggy-backed the chair lecture onto an essay called “Haunted By War” by Chris Hedges. Hedges believes we need war: we can’t escape it, can’t get rid of it. It’s cultural, economic, romantic, just human—an ultimate force that gives our lives meaning. He says there have been about 29 years of human history total when there hasn’t been a war somewhere on the planet.

Hedges says that’s because “war makes the world understandable.” It reduces things to black and white, wrong and right, win and lose, us and them. It’s simple. Clean. Decisive. But everyone affected by war has to give in to it, no matter which side they’re on. In this way, we can see war as a kind of god, or maybe the only common religion, that can bring “us and them” together as one.

You see where this is going, right?

Anyway, at some point in the class discussion I’d start into the chair thing.

I’d first ask if anyone in the room wanted to try to narrate the September 11 attacks from the perspective of one of the terrorists. I wanted to see if these kids could feel something, or at least speak something, of the other side’s experience, unspeakable though it might be. Luckily, someone was always brave enough to do it, and they’d always do it well. Almost always the worst writer in the room. But they’d nail this.

Then, with that alternative story fresh in our minds, I’d ask a few volunteers to come up to draw on the board. I’d have them stand a few feet apart from each other. No looking. Give it some thought, I’d say. Don’t be overly detailed, just try your best to represent what you see in your head: the definitive chair. The most “chair” chair.

I’d give them two minutes, then they’d take their seats and the class would judge their chairs.

There was usually a ringer artist. They’d do a wicker. An elaborate print. Once someone drew Frank Sinatra—get it? And there was more often than not an awful artist who drew what looked like an impossible chair broken impossibly. And floating. So we’d all praise the great chair and laugh at the shit chair.

Then I’d point out how different each chair was. And these differences could be radical too— classroom chairs, recliners, folding chairs, ladderbacks, stuffed and printed, cushioned, bare wood. Not only did they look different, they were even used for different things.

I’d let them murmur a bit, then I’d ask, “Which chair is most chair?”

They’d point out the shit chair was clearly unchair. But then, upon closer inspection, we’d eventually agree that none of them were necessarily correct.

“To take a leap from here,” I’d say, “it’s not completely insane to say the reason these chairs are, upon closer inspection, so radically different is because the people who drew them had years and years of their own experiences and memories of chairs—and those were radically different.

“And when each of you heard the word ‘chair,’” I’d say, “all those experiences and memories slammed back together right up front in your brain in that moment, and the strongest of them, for whatever reason, made an image. And then you drew it.

“So we’re not just looking at chairs,” I’d say. “Cheesy as it sounds, we’re looking at representations of each other’s realities. Little glimpses of each other’s lives. Of each other.”

Then I’d pick up an eraser.

“This,” I’d say, “is war. Violence. The nuclear option.” Then I’d walk indiscriminately from chair to chair and erase them one by one. Some girls would go awww whenever a chair got killed. When I got near the impossible chair, students would ask me not to kill that one. These chairs had taken on stories. Lives, even.

I’d leave one standing. Usually the bad one. “Now,” I’d say, “is this the most chair chair?”

No one ever thought it was, including me. But I’d point out that if this chair were to claim it was the right chair, it couldn’t be wrong. There were no chairs around to disagree. There was only one chair, and it was the perfect chair. It was the perfect chair because there was only one chair.

Which then would lead me to ask this question:

Does this mean war trumps truth?

I mean, that’s how it works, right? Can “the truth” exist if it literally doesn’t exist, not even in memory? If there’s only one thing left, is that thing perfect—was it right all along?

Sartre said existence precedes essence, but existence also supersedes essence. Existence swallows essence whole.

In other words, better to be a live chicken than a dead duck.

Truth and True Believers

The point isn’t that every chair is perfect in its own way, or that every chair is right, or even good. The point is that no chairs are perfect, none are right. Everything breaks down at some point, and nothing is perfectly true. Even gravity has wiggle room, but that doesn’t mean the law doesn’t offer truths dependable enough for us to live by.

And yet here we are in America, absolutely poleaxed by a sheer, dumb certainty projected from perhaps one of the most insecure people on the planet. We’re frightened and angered at our cores in ways we haven’t felt for our entire lives. There are irreconcilable interiors in this country, but in the end, for our ruling party, it’s not about arriving at a truth. It’s about true belief. And Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey illustrates this perfectly: Trump wants belief. He doesn’t want truth.

Ah, but let’s go back to the classroom. Because next I’d draw a puffy little cloud on the board and sit a question mark in the middle of it and call it god. Allah. Yahweh. Ganesha. Science. Love. Drugs. Music. Chain reactions or inviolable physical laws. Some universal moral law. My point: everyone worships something. We all need something to explain the world, or something that at least answers to the fact that the world can’t be explained.

So, I’d go on, that big question—does truth always lose to violence?—that’s the reason we have whatever it is we have up in our cloud. We need to reassure ourselves that if the evil “thems” wipe out the good “us”-es there’s still a truth that’s more important, larger than mere survival. Or mere strength. Or violence. Or anger.

War can’t be god. That’s why we have god.


Then I’d let class out and sit quietly for a couple minutes because I’d just scared the shit out of myself.

Let’s make no mistake about the nature of what we’re dealing with here. Donald Trump is, right this moment, carrying out violence against our democracy.

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