I learned long ago to pick a few predetermined distractions to break up the slog of year-end grading. This year’s selections were former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership and the alternative drag reality series The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula: Search for the World’s Next Supermonster. (I have eclectic interests; sue me.) I chose them because I thought they would be wildly different. What I found is how similar they were — and how I longed for Comey to get swept away to become a Supermonster — for him and for all of us.
I longed for Comey to get swept away to become a Supermonster.
If A Higher Loyalty reveals nothing else, it is that James Comey is a man uncritically infatuated with authority, frequently to his detriment. Authority, for Comey, is the guardian of morality, not a mere substitute for an internal moral compass, but its rightful usurper. Each time Comey is presented with a situation in which authority fails to act virtuously, he immediately begins to search for the preexisting flaw within the authority figure or figures present, seemingly unaware of the 1st Baron Acton’s observation that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The good baron’s 19th-century observation is also a central theme of Sophocles’ 5th-century (B.C.E.) Antigone, perhaps the most important piece of political theater in the Western canon. Antigone follows the fate of the Theban royal house after Oedipus’ patricide and incest have been discovered and the cursed man has died in exile. There has been a civil war in which both of Oedipus’ sons have died, fighting on opposite sides. Creon, the new king of Thebes, has ordered that one of the brothers, Polynices, should not be buried on the grounds that he died a traitor. Oedipus’s daughter, Antigone, defies Creon’s command and attempts to bury her brother, fully aware that this is a capital crime. While Antigone’s bravery has historically dominated discussions of the play, the narrative is also deeply concerned with Creon’s transformation from a just man who is anxious to follow both divine and human law, to a cruel tyrant, ready to kill a virtuous young woman. On the website The Conversation, classical scholar Victoria Pagán rightly observes the similarities between Comey and Creon. Yet one cannot help but think that Comey would be completely incapable of absorbing the lessons of Creon. The Creon of Comey’s mind would have been corrupt from the start; authority could not be implicated in the destruction of virtue, since to him it is the very essence of goodness.
Once we accept this perspective, even the most shocking and shameful parts of Comey’s career become inevitable. Like a modern-day St. Claudia Procula (the wife of Pontius Pilate who warned her husband not to be involved in the crucifixion of Jesus), Comey’s wife Patrice Failor warns her husband not to sign a memo authorizing torture during the War on Terror as part of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 Department of Justice. Famously, Comey does refuse to sign the initial memo. And then, rather inexplicably, he reverses course and authorizes his own memo, hiding his justification of torture in a footnote. It is clear that he has personal moral misgivings, but he cannot conceive of world in which those misgivings exert more force upon his actions than his role as a servant of the institutionalized power of the state. He does this with moral certitude, regardless of the details. He signs off on the torture of Guantanamo Bay detainees, prosecutes Martha Stewart and goes after the Mafia with equal sureness because, for him, the details are irrelevant. One cannot help but think that Comey’s greatest grievance against the sitting president is not the ways in which that man has acted cruelly or despotically, but instead has acted without proper reverence for his authority, let alone how he has used the unseemly world of celebrity to catapult himself to the top of the insider hierarchy that Comey adores.
It becomes clear that it is not Creon with whom Comey shares his greatest kinship, but Haemon, the ill-fated son of Creon who is also betrothed to Antigone. In the moment of personal and political crisis precipitated by Antigone’s refusal to obey Creon’s law and not bury her brother, Haemon must choose between the father that he has always obeyed and the virtuous women that he loves. He knows that she is justified, but he cannot betray his own self-image as obedient son and subject. Left without options, he takes his own life. For Haemon, like Comey, there is no life where obedience and virtue are not wedded.
This is the central tragedy of A Higher Loyalty — and James Comey’s life. It is also very depressing to read. That’s why I alternated my reading with watching episodes of The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula, which exists in a world that radically contrasts with Comey’s. The Boulet Brothers are nightclub producers best known for elaborate stage productions that effortlessly straddle the gap between hilarious camp and genuine horror. Dragula is a re-packaged version of a party they ran for years; it bursts with the Dionysian ecstasy of transgressive nightlife at its best. Aesthetically, it is dark and beautiful at the same time. And while I am sure all concerned parties would strenuously object to this characterization, at least publicly, the most raw and frightening part of the show is how toughness and vulnerability co-exist without comment or mitigation, a rare occurrence anywhere in our culture — never mind reality TV. The show is a celebration of the polar opposite end of culture from Comey’s world of insider power. These are the outsiders among the outsiders. Drag queens who cannot find a place among other drag queens. The furthest of the edge.
Dragula bears this mark everywhere. The mainstay of any realty show competition, the elimination challenge, here is called “extermination” and centers around acts of physical and psychological courage to create “toughness” in competitors. If one is, say, trained in literary analysis, it is difficult to watch this and not see a deeper meaning, a metaphor for outsider-ism: toughen up or you die. Find a greater power within yourself or those with authority will crush you. The harshness of this message exists alongside something else that is genuinely rare in reality TV: compassionate and engaged judges.
I’d given up watching talent show TV long ago. I frequently appreciate artists who emerge from it, but the judges always rub me the wrong way. This is especially true because of the mythology that frames judges as mentors and guides. There is enough mindless cruelty in the world, enough feigned compassion; I really don’t need to watch more. But the Boulet Brothers are not that. Perhaps it’s good acting (and if it is, no need to disabuse me), but I was moved by critiques that were kind, by mentors really acting as such.
The most counter-cultural thing I have seen on TV in a long time.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Season 2, Episode 9: “The Last Supper.” The episode is a reunion show before the finale and brings back all the competitors for what we have come to expect from such things. For the most part, it is a standard reality show reunion: bitching, fighting and repentance. And yet, for a few minutes, it is something truly unique. This moment of manna revolves around contestant Monikkie Shame, who was at the center of a social media firestorm after it emerged that she had used racist language in 2016. The sequence trots out the normal postmodern penance process, but the Boulets’ participation in the ritual is unique and refreshing. The message: people make mistakes and should have the opportunity to grow and do better. Twitter death threats are not only unnecessary, but unhelpful. We should all engage in the hard work of re-orienting moral compasses. The compulsion to do and be good must come from within.
While this should seem like common sense, in the time of #cancelled, it is not. Moreover, it probably isn’t the best response if you are merely trying to protect your brand. It’s the best response if you care about people and understand that no amount of outside chiding can produce a hard-won conscience. It is the most counter-cultural moment of the show. The most counter-cultural thing I have seen on TV in a long time.
In Euripides’ Bacchae, the god Dionysus has returned to his mother’s native Thebes, sending its citizens (particular the women) into an ecstatic frenzy. Pentheus, the buttoned-down Theban king, resists the coming of the god and his orgy of excess. In his desire to rein in our messy humanity, Pentheus is warned by the chorus:
Do not mistake the rule of force
for true power. Men are not shaped by force.
For me, Dragula provided the chorus to A Higher Loyalty’s tragedy. I think Comey might benefit from a sit-down with the Boulet Brothers.
Dragula is about power and authority as much as A Higher Loyalty. The difference lies in how the principal actors relate to it. While Comey bows down in complete submission to an exterior source of power and is completely entranced by institutional authority, the Boulet Brothers encourage their “monsters” to find an interior power that renders authority, any authority, with its dangers, rejections and failures, utterly obsolete. History would be different, indeed, if Comey had somehow absorbed this lesson. What if Comey could say, “…fuck anyone who places themselves above us in the first place. We’re all equal and nobody has authority over anyone else,” like Swanthula Boulet told Vice in an interview earlier this year? Instead, Comey became a different, far more sinister monster, the kind who wears a grey suit and just follows orders. This is why A Higher Loyalty frightened me and why Dragula gave me hope. And why I wish that one could redeem the other.