Why We Can’t Judge Comey’s Dismissal As Simply Good Or Bad

A single event, the firing of then FBI director James Comey by President Trump, has become in many quarters the sole focus of the broad world of political discourse.  In the midst of an ongoing investigation of something with serious potential consequences, the President, a possible subject of the investigation, removed the man responsible for overseeing that investigation. The resonances with Watergate are hard to resist.  You can even go farther saying that the purported wrongdoing at the center of the Russia investigation dwarfs Nixon’s botched attempted burglary.

Can there really be more than one way to see this story? Or, more accurately, more than one way grounded in good faith and facts?

It’s a loaded question. It’s loaded because of the assumption that if there are two sides to a story, one is true and one is false. And even if we pride ourselves on trying to see someone else’s perspective, there have to be at least some issues that afford no room to take seriously what can only be “alternate facts.” These issues are black and white.  Like a Rorschach Test.

The Rorschach Test has escaped from the confines of its particular purpose as a tool for psychological profiling and entered into the broader cultural vocabulary as a way of denoting something that different people will see different ways, depending on their own prior assumptions.  While the method invented by Hermann Rorschach involved multicolored designs as well as monochromatic ones, it’s iconic image is black ink blots on a white background.

It is ironic that this test is associated with black on white because what the test reveals is something that transcends the choice between two sides and taps into the personal stories that make us individuals.  Each of us imposes our own pattern and ratifies our own narrative to fill in the rest of the space between the inkblots.  To see the whole picture.

The ubiquitous meta-conversations about the reliability or dubiousness of facts threatens to force a choice between claiming certainty and allowing intentional obfuscation. This is what is at stake in seeing, even something as serious and stark as the firing of James Comey by President Trump, in terms of black and white, even when the temptation and provocation make it almost impossible not to. Because it’s a trap. A whole picture can never be painted by the facts. Only a lie can do that.  And waging a war in the name of absolute truth and moral certainty is to be suckered into a fight on a very uneven playing field.

The other course is to recognize the limitations of our own assumptions, the biases that shape our narratives, the places where we have filled in the white spaces with our own pictures, and yet, not allow that uncertainty to be an excuse to let lies stand.  To emphasize that the system of checks and balances was created precisely because our Framers understood the value of ambiguity, especially when compared with the despotic certainty of other regimes.

One fire can not be fought with another fire, especially against one trying to burn stuff down.  There are not two sides to the story, nor is there one true version.  The inkblots are black and white, but the pictures we see are always colored by our own story.

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