How the James Comey testimony restored my faith in the Humanities in America

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I don’t know how history will regard ousted FBI director James Comey and the FBI’s investigation and involvement in the 2016 election. But because of his testimony, I do know that the humanities are not dead.

It’s not news to me that some Americans think higher education is bad for the country. Dismissing authority is not new to America. I don’t need to go into the history of the American revolution, do I?

It’s not just college in general that is dismissed. I often heard “what are you going to with that?” when I told family and friends that I was majoring in English, minoring in Philosophy. “I just want to write.” I replied. Nobody ever asks that question of engineering students, or teachers, or doctors…. you get the idea. Liberal Arts majors are often the butt of jokes. So, I was worried when cuts to the NEA and NEH were being proposed.

The fact is, people with a Humanities education go on to be our leaders. The old, “how-do-you-get-an-English-major-off-your-porch joke (you pay them for the pizza)” is simply not true. People educated in the liberal arts are the ones developing strategic plans and signing paychecks. More and more frequently, industry leaders espouse the value of a humanities education.

Engineering and poetry?

I remember listening to an ocean engineering scholar give a seminar on wave dynamics to a room full of engineers. He was from Greece and he had a wonderfully rich Grecian accent. He referenced poetry, modern American poetry even, during his presentation. He referred to a poem by T. S. Eliot, The Naming Of Cats, which opens with

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”

The ocean engineer talked about how difficult it was to pinpoint a problem posed by climate change. He was presenting on wave run-up and tsunami inundation. Can we fault the changing coastline, or can we fault out-dated engineering practices? He detailed how bridges collapse, how roads buckle, and how coastal planners are going to have to take these three names of the cat into account: Climate change, out-dated construction engineering practices, and our own society’s expectation of normalcy.

I may have been the only one in the room to catch the poetry references. I was embarrassed for the audience: would they one day be able to reference C.P. Cavafy when they present in Greece?

The ocean engineer shared examples from the Chilean earthquake and tsunami of 2010, data from Japan, and data from his Grecian home, and how cultural knowledge can help deal with rapid change. I felt bad for him, too, that all of his poetry and cultural references were lost on the audience. I sure enjoyed his presentation, and I told him so after he finished. I appreciated his attention to the humanities and how his references helped contextualize the obstacles and opportunities that lie ahead. The poem itself is about our obligations as citizens to fulfill the expectations we have of ourselves for society. The F-ing ineffable!

Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

Funding priorities

A recent poll shows that there is a sharp partisan divide on the value of higher education. And as one writer notes, “How will America continue to lead in a world full of complicated issues if the very institutions that teach the critical thinking skills necessary to navigate these complexities are reviled?” Critical thinking is the currency of the humanities.

As a grant writer, I understand funding trends. It’s no mystery that Humanities scholarship has been underfunded for years. Engineering, Science, Agriculture, and Health Sciences research are getting most of the federal support these days. I prioritize these things, too, but include humanities and liberal arts in the equation.

I am glad to see the continued support for the NEA and NEH. These two agencies support arts and humanities efforts for the public. Whether via museums, theater, or education institutions, these agencies help bring art to people. For examples, music events or art installations in public space most likely had some kind of funding support to make them happen.

While Humanities scholars may not need much to conduct their research — pen and paper will do, maybe travel to a library or an archive, we don’t need mass spectrometers and particle accelerators— the ideas that Humanities researchers uncover often call into question the objectives of our nation’s economic interests, and our own personal interests, too. The Liberal Arts can undermine the state. And James Comey’s testimony proved that that is still true. Ideology and nationalism, or church and state, do not always get along.

Comey himself majored in Chemistry and Religion and his senior thesis was an analysis of liberal and conservative theology and their commitments to public action.

While I have another piece I am writing about the militarization of our cultural identity which explores this topic more thoroughly, I wanted to point out the significance of James Comey’s testimony in regards to the humanities and the necessity of liberal arts education in America. In a nutshell, all hope is not lost.

I listened to most of Comey’s testimony on the radio while driving to meet a colleague at my local community college — a place where access to information can be a matter of life and death for some.

Notes on the testimony

During Comey’s opening comments his voice wavered and cracked when he first said the word “lies.” He did not take this word lightly; he must be a sensitive guy. That was a big word to throw down. The word also avoids the euphemisms so common in government now: Political double-speak with words like misspoke, untruth, and alternative facts.

“Those were lies, plain and simple, and I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them and I’m so sorry that the American people were told them,” he said.

He used the word “fuzz.” Nothing strange about that; it’s just a cool word to use in such a formal setting. “[T]here should be no fuzz on this whatsoever. The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. And it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government. There is no fuzz on that.”

Comey used Trump’s own language, Trump’s go-to word, “fake,” against him. “It’s not a close call.” Comey said under oath, “That happened. That’s about as un-fake as you can possibly get.”

Lies, fuzz, and fake: Not particularly big words, but the emotion, the context, and the source material are tools of the humanities.

He referenced his mother. He wished he would have kept his dinner date with his wife instead of accepting Trump’s invitation. Comey’s words about the important women in his life are the things that normal people say to one another, not locker room talk.

And then, when asked by Senator Heinrich about whether or not the commission should believe Comey or Trump about Trump’s demand for loyalty: “Do you want to say anything as to why we should believe you?” Heinrich asked.

Comey said, “He’s a dirty, rotten liar.” While he did not say that about Trump specifically, the fact that Comey said that exact phrase within that context cannot be dismissed. Choosing our words carefully and making sure we use our words accurately with evidence is at the very core of the human experience. Saying such things calls into question the very foundation of our belief systems:

“[M]y mother raised me not to say things like this about myself, so I’m not going to. I think people should look at the whole body of my testimony, because, as I used to say to juries, and when I talked about a witness, you can’t cherry-pick it. You can’t say, “‘I like these things he said, but on this, he’s a — he’s a dirty, rotten liar.’”

Boom.

He talked about context and truth, honesty and equity. “You got to take it all together. And I’ve tried to be open and fair and transparent and accurate,” he said. These are the things the liberal arts and humanities teach us.

He admitted his own humility. He humbly and jokingly said that he was “between opportunities” when Senator Kamala Harris thanked him for his time.

And something really interesting happened when Senator Feinstein questioned him: “You’re big. You’re strong. I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you’?”

He talked about himself subjectively and objectively. “Maybe if I were stronger, I would have.”

“I was playing in my mind, what should my response be?” He was practicing the art of narrative and story. “Again,” he continued, “maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance but that — that was — that’s how I conducted myself. I — I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.” Our own narrative may not be the only narrative.

He took responsibility for himself. Is this something only the humanities can teach us? I don’t know, but empathy is something the humanities do teach us. He displayed the kind of leadership we should all demand of our leaders.

The big deal

And then, comes the moment when my heart leapt from my chest, when I was once again reassured of the value and necessity of a humanities and liberal arts education.

Senator King was questioning him about the influence of Trump’s suggestive language, when Trump said to Comey in private about investigating Flynn, “I hope you will hold back on that.”

King commented, “[W]hen a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like ‘I hope’ or ‘I suggest’ or — or ‘would you,’ do you take that as a — as a — as a directive?”

Comey replied, “Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”

“I was just going to quote that,” said Senator King, quickly bouncing back into the conversation. “In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ and then the next day, he was killed — Thomas Becket. That’s exactly the same situation. You’re — we’re thinking along the same lines.”

Only someone versed in history can identify contextual similarities between a present event and an historical event that took place nearly 900 years ago. It was refreshing to hear that kind of exchange in that space at that time.

The significance of the Henry II quote should not be overlooked. After all, this incident inspired pilgrimages to see the remains of Thomas Becket, the very meddlesome priest who Henry II’s knights murdered because of his suggestion. And it was some 200 years later that Geoffrey Chaucer would compile his Canterbury Tales about the stories pilgrims told each other while they walked to Canterbury to see Thomas Becket’s final resting place. Becket’s tomb still draws pilgrims today and Chaucer is still being taught today. He’s considered the father of English literature.

Image courtesy of godecookery.com

By that time in the testimony, I had arrived at the community college. It was raining out and I was a few minutes early, so I sat in my car listening. I knew this testimony was an historical moment and I wanted to hear as much of it as I could. I sat in my car in the parking lot with the windows rolled up and I cheered out loud to myself when Comey said that famous meddlesome priest quote. I cheered so loudly, my ears buzzed.

Whether James Comey’s invoking this important passage will have Chaucerian significance, I cannot say. But, perhaps, it will inspire us to embark on journeys to places where information can be freely exchanged through story and the sharing of ideas.

Comey spoke plainly, he referenced specifics and larger contexts, and he used language with grace. These are all things that the humanities teach us.

So, to James Comey, even if history doesn’t shine favorably upon you, thank you for restoring my faith in the necessity of the Humanities and the value of a liberal arts education. Intellectualism is not dead. There is hope for us all.

And to people who say higher education is bad for us, I want to ask them why they believe that. So many of the things we value (e.g., living beyond forty, participatory democracy, the internet) are a result of higher education. If anything, we should put more of our resources in public elementary and secondary education so that we can keep inquiry and understanding alive and well. While some might consider higher education elitist, a thirst for knowledge is universal.

Next up for Comey? As Senator Harris said during the testimony, “I’m sure you’ll have future opportunities.”

Next up for me: A “James poem” for James Comey is in the works.

For video and transcripts of the testimony, see: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/08/us/politics/senate-hearing-transcript.html?module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Politics&action=keypress&region=FixedLeft&pgtype=article

For more information about the significance of the “meddlesome priest” reference, see: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/08/opinion/meddlesome-priest-comey-trump.html

Special thanks to JD Mackenzie, Adam Michaud, and Michelle Moyd for their careful reading, critical comments, and generous suggestions.