As any connoisseur of the manifest absurdities that daily emanate from Inside the Beltway is well aware, what we read in the venerable Congressional Record is not necessarily a verbatim account of what was stated, on any given day, by our lawmakers on the floors of the House or Senate. It is common practice to “emend” the Record with deletions or interpolations after the fact. While such alterations are supposed to be indicated, this is not always the case. An example of egregiously unacknowledged tampering occurred late last year when Senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) entered into the December 21 Record a “colloquy” between the two of them that was supposed to have transpired “live” on the Senate floor. The subject of debate on that day was the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA) (subsequently passed), which, among other things, removed from the Supreme Court any jurisdiction over pending cases brought by Guantanamo detainees—or so Senators Graham and Kyl, two of the DTA’s sponsors, maintained. The problem is that the actual wording of the DTA is rather murky on this point, and it is only in the fabricated “colloquy” between the two senators that such an understanding of the DTA is clearly reflected in the debate leading up to its passage. During the debate, the third sponsor of the DTA, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), made authentically live statements that clearly ran contrary to those interpolated by Graham and Kyl.
Now, these playful senatorial shenanigans would have passed unnoticed had Graham and Kyl left well enough alone, but, in March 2006, Slate.com reported that the senators had, in late December 2005, cited their “colloquy” in an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court, which was then considering Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, a case brought by Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Guantanamo detainee and former driver of Osama bin Laden. In other words, Graham and Kyl, in an effort to influence the Court’s decision, quoted their own fabricated statements in language implying that those statements had actually been uttered on the Senate floor—surely a case of the virtual swallowing up the real.
I have no intention here of considering the ethical implications of such practices, though it might be noted that Senators Graham and Kyl did not exactly set a good example for all those young scholars on our college campuses who are endlessly warned by their English instructors that fabricating quotations is a form of plagiarism. (Whether attributing said quotations to oneself is, strictly speaking, plagiarism is beyond the moral discernment of this writer.) Moreover, one might readily agree with Justice Antonin Scalia, who noted in his dissenting opinion in Hamdan that the distinction between live and interpolated testimony
makes no difference unless one indulges the fantasy that Senate floor speeches are attended (like the Philippics of Demosthenes) by throngs of eager listeners, instead of being delivered (like De-mos-thenes’ practice sessions on the beach) alone into a vast emptiness.
On the other hand, the controversy raises an interesting question: If our legislators can treat the Congressional Record as if it were a work of fiction, editing out and adding in what they please, then why shouldn’t the rest of us taxpayers demand the same right? Consider the example of Wikipedia, that vast, online compendium of collaborative knowledge, brainchild of Mr. Jimmy Wales, whose guiding principle is that anyone, at any time, should have the right to revise any of the encyclopedia’s 4.2 million articles. The numbers talk. The “Wiki Principle” has generated an overwhelming response from an alienated proletariat—the voiceless millions who have risen up in revolt against the elitist masters of the knowledge industry. What could be more democratic?
Of course, it is true that the “Wiki Principle” is sometimes subject to misuse. Everyone must remember Brian Chase, the 38-year-old middle manager from Nashville, Tennessee, who fabricated an entire biographical entry on John Seigenthaler, former editor of the Nashville Tennessean. For 132 days, Chase’s libels against Seigenthaler went undetected by the Wikipedia editors, or anyone else. Apparently, Seigenthaler was unhappy to learn that he had for many years collaborated with the Soviet Union and was implicated in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, for he later expressed his concern about a “new media . . . populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects.”
While I am not without some sympathy for Mr. Seigenthaler, I would argue that, to the contrary, what is needed to liven up the dismal tracts of the Congressional Record is precisely more “volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”—armies of them, in fact. As anyone who has actually tried it knows, reading about congressional debates in the Record is, if anything, more mind-numbingly tedious than watching them on C-Span, which itself has all the fascination of watching orangutans grooming themselves at the local zoo. Senators Graham and Kyl, bless their hearts, have taken us a step in the right direction. Imagine how much more participatory American democracy would become if we could all add our two cents, after the fact, to congressional debate. What a sense of empowerment it would generate! What tremendous therapeutic value it would have for all those millions of victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, who could then begin to feel that they are asserting some control over their own destinies! Of course, the Congressional Record would have to go “live” online, while providing enough bandwidth for the purpose, which might prove expensive. If necessary, a small fee might be charged for the opportunity—say, one dollar per hour. Indeed, enough revenue might be raised to make a small dent in the national debt or, better yet, to finance more pork-barrel projects in your home state. In any event, I have undertaken to provide a modest example of how much more edifying the Record might become if ten-dollar-a-haircut proles such as I were provided an opportunity to “emend” and interpolate from the comfort of our own homes, or, if you like, while soaking up the soothing ambient chatter at our local Backyard Burger.
The following excerpt from the Congressional Record is my own emended version of a debate that took place on the Senate floor on May 18, 2006. The topic of debate on this occasion was a proposed amendment to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, 2006: “Sec. 162: Preserving and Enhancing the Role of the National Language,” an amendment cosponsored by Senators Inhofe, Graham, Kyl, Byrd, and Alexander. After a lengthy apologia for the amendment by Senator Inhofe, Senator Graham is about to speak. The presiding officer is Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). The reader will note that emended and interpolated passages have, following the example of Senators Graham and Kyl, been concealed:
The PRESIDING OFFICER: The Senator from South Carolina.
Mr. GRAHAM: Mr. President, just to put this debate into perspective for myself and myself alone, I wish that I could speak English. It would make me a better person. The truth is that I know enough English to be dangerous. I lived in Germany for 4 years and I picked up a little English from my German friends, but I was always somewhat embarrassed that they spoke better English. . . . It would be great for our country if our young people could speak German . . . umm, pardon me, English . . . because we live in a global economy and a global world (sic) and speaking English (sic) would make our world a better place. . . . When it comes to our nation, it is important that we focus as a nation (sic) on learning English. We need to promote that because, whether you are crossing the border as we speak or whether you are (sic) born and bred here, your life will be tremendously enhanced by learning to speak English. Opportunities will exist for you that will not exist otherwise. There are many jobs in our dynamic global economy that require some knowledge of English. Though, of course, many of those jobs have been outsourced to places like India where they also speak better English than I do. But I was talking of other jobs, such as . . . well, as far as I know telephone soliciting still requires some English, for there are still places in this great nation where the people still speak English, and if you’re trying to sell them a magazine subscription or a condominium then you’d better speak their language!
Mr. BYRD: If I may interrupt my distinguished colleague . . .
The PRESIDING OFFICER: Senator Byrd, you are out of order, sir.
Mr. GRAHAM: That’s quite all right, Madam President, I’ll happily yield three minutes of my time to the distinguished windbag . . . um, pardon me, distinguished senator from West Virginia.
Mr. BYRD: I thank you, Senator, for yielding me some of your time, and I’ll gladly pardon you for that little slip of the tongue. I’m quite aware that I sometimes do tax the patience of my distinguished colleagues here in this noble chamber, this temple of democracy where so many great orators of the past have spoken out on pressing issues of the day, so many masters of the noble tongue of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton, masters of the English tongue, that is, which is the pressing issue of this memorable day, and about which I feel pressed to speak, though three minutes is hardly enough time to begin to marshal my thoughts, thoughts which have sorely vexed my waking hours, because it troubles me mightily to admit that, even in my great state of West Virginia, many Americans no longer speak the Queen’s English. Sadly, during my last campaign, I was informed by my aides that I would need an interpreter. Imagine that, my honorable colleagues! Right here in America. Now, I suppose that our people out there in the heartland are speaking some kind of English. Perhaps it’s some kind of hip-hop English, some gangsta-rap English. Whatever it is, I can’t understand it. I’m too old, I guess. Some might say “old and in the way” . . .
The PRESIDING OFFICER: Senator, your three minutes is about to expire; perhaps you’d better get to the point . . .
Mr. BYRD: Now don’t you take that tone with me, young lady! I’ve been addressing this assembly for over fifty years, and I’ll get to my point in my own good time. I’m sure that my honorable colleague from the great state of South Carolina, where they still mind their manners, will yield me a few more minutes of his time.
Mr. GRAHAM: Sir, I would very much like to finish . . .
Mr. BYRD: Thank you, Senator. I graciously accept your offer of additional minutes. Now, as I was saying, I may be old and in the way, “but when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw,” as the Byrd of Avon has his sweet Prince Hamlet say, ha ha—I meant the bard of Avon, of course. Just a little joke, ladies and gentlemen. What I mean to say is that I wholeheartedly support this amendment to “preserve and enhance the role of the national language,” the English language, but I humbly suggest that we give some thought to what we mean by that. I’ve heard it stated on this floor today that we are going to entrust this job of English preservation to Homeland Security! Now, I ask you, does anyone in that department speak English? Because not a week goes by when I don’t receive reams of memos and reports and all manner of classified documents from those people, and not a one of them appears to be written in English. Now, well may you ask, to whom should we entrust this sacred role? To the English professors? Well, as far as I can tell, they stopped speaking English some time ago. To our newscasters and journalists? I’m afraid that most of them never spoke English in the first place! So, as you can see, my distinguished colleagues, though I am proud to be one of the sponsors of this amendment, I believe that we need to proceed with caution.
The PRESIDING OFFICER: Senator Graham?
Mr. GRAHAM: My thanks to the Senator from West Virginia for his support for this amendment and for his eloquently stated concerns, which we certainly need to address. At the moment, however, I would like to return to my earlier point. The goal of this amendment is to say that English should be the national language. Everyone, whether he be the President of the United States or a migrant picking sugarcane in Louisiana, should learn to speak English. And while I would encourage every American to enroll your (sic) kids in taking (sic) Spanish or Swahili or Edo or Tagalog or whatever the case may be, because they will be more successful as individuals in a global economy, from a national perspective, it is important that we maintain our common sense of being one nation by massacring . . . uh, mastering the English language. We must be both global and national. We must not abandon our native tongues, but we must master our own tongues . . . um, tongue. I yield to Senator Durbin.
Mr. DURBIN: What troubles me, and I think the Senator from South Carolina is still tied up in knots about it, too, is what happens when a person is here legally in the U.S. but has limited language skills—what happens when that person goes in to vote? What kind of guarantee do we have that that person will be properly instructed in a language they (sic) can understand, to vote for the party that best serves their (sic) interests? What happens when that person goes into a courtroom? What kind of guarantee can we give that they (sic) will be treated fairly?
Mr. GRAHAM: That is a great question. I am glad to answer. As you know, we live in a global economy. Therefore, a variety of government services are provided by law in languages other than English. That decision has been made in the Voting Riot . . . uh, Rights Act. There are a bunch of indecencies—pardon me, incidences (sic) in our law that would authorize such a service to be provided.
Mr. DURBIN: May I ask the Senator to yield for a question?
Mr. GRAHAM: Yes.
Mr. DURBIN: Can the Senator point to me in (sic) a current situation where a government service is being offered and explained in a language other than English—and that is usually the case?
Mr. GRAHAM: Right.
Me. DURBIN: In my home state of Illinois, that language might be Polish . . .
Mr. GRAHAM: Right.
Mr. INHOFE: Will the Senator yield to me so that I can answer this question?
Mr. GRAHAM: Right.
Mr. INHOFE: I would remind the Senator from Illinois that the Court Interpreters Act was passed in 1978. They did not, as (sic) that time—there was a problem that (sic) corrected. That act protects already existing constitutional rights such as the Sixth Amendment (sic), and the Fifth Amendment (sic), and the 14th Amendment (sic), and Due Process. I believe that takes care of the problem you have.
Mr. DURBIN: I don’t know whether to direct my question to the Senator from South Carolina or the Senator from Oklahoma. What is happening on the floor of the Senate is getting dangerously close to a debate . . . And I ask those on C-Span to turn up the volume.
1st C-SPAN VIEWER: Did you hear that, Doris, he says there’s going to be a debate. Turn up the volume!
2nd C-SPAN VIEWER: I can’t find the remote!
1st C-SPAN VIEWER: Aw, forget it. It’s too late.
Mr. GRAHAM: Let’s go back to the original answer and incorporate it into the question . . . oh, sorry, I meant the original question, of course . . . What was the question?
Mr. BYRD: Madam President, if I may interrupt . . .
The PRESIDING OFFICER (sighing): Would someone care to yield time to the Senator from West Virginia?
Mr. INHOFE: Madam President, Senator Kennedy had planned to address this body this morning, but hasn’t yet arrived. I don’t think he would object to yielding three minutes to Senator Byrd.
The PRESIDING OFFICER: What seems to be the cause of Senator Kennedy’s delay, Mr. Inhofe?
Mr. INHOFE: I believe that he was detained in the cloakroom, Madam President.
The PRESIDING OFFICER: I see. Senator Byrd, you may take three minutes.
Mr. BYRD: Speaking of interpreters, Madam President, and with all due respect to this august assemblage, it seems to me that what we are hearing today is a part of the problem. To put it bluntly, I can’t understand a damn thing my distinguished colleagues are saying. I propose that we need to attach a rider to this amendment, to the effect that English only shall be spoken on the Senate floor. What a sad commentary this is. What has befallen the transcendent tongue of Shakespeare and Milton? Where is the poetry, I ask you? That’s what we need. That’s what the American people need: poetry! Why, when I was a poor boy of seventeen I worked, as many of you know, in a slaughterhouse. As you can well imagine, that was not a pleasant occupation. But I made it pleasant and uplifting by memorizing poetry by night—by the light of a kerosene lantern, mind you—so that I could recite what I had learned as I toiled on the floor of that slaughterhouse. Now here I stand on another floor, and what do I find? I find the English language slaughtered, drawn, and quartered! I am grateful that Billy Byrd did not live to witness this. I’m speaking of Billy, my beloved old dog, course. Many of you have heard me speak of him before. Billy was a lover of poetry. Many a night, I recited Milton to him as he lay at my feet before the fire. Paradise Lost was one of his particular favorites. But he was especially fond of limericks. Now, I like a good limerick myself. A man and his dog can’t live by blank verse alone. No, indeed. I remember one limerick that used to set Billy Byrd’s tail a waggin’! Now, let me see. How did it go? Oh, yes,
“There was a young belle of old Natchez
Whose garments were always in patchez.
When comment arose
On the state of her clothes,
She drawled, When Ah itchez, Ah scratchez.”
“When Ah itchez, Ah scratchez,” ha ha, that’s the part that Billy liked the most . . . Ah, yes, I do miss old Billy. Sometimes of a night, I just don’t know what to do with myself . . .
The PRESIDING OFFICER: Senator, your three minutes have expired.
Mr. BYRD: “The sun like a Bishop’s bottom / Rosy and round and hot / Looked down upon us who shot ’em / And down on the devils we shot. / And the stink of the damned dead . . . ”
The PRESIDING OFFICER: Senator! That will be quite enough! Will someone see that Mr. Byrd is returned safely to his office? Now, I see that Senator Kennedy has found his way out of the cloakroom. Senator, I believe you have something to say about this amendment?
Mr. KENNEDY: Ahem . . . Madam President, my esteemed colleagues, it is my understanding that this amendment alters no existing law and is merely a statement of policy, an affirmation that we should all, if possible, learn to speak English. In short, this is an amendment which is perfectly harmless. Have I understood correctly, Senator Graham?
Mr. GRAHAM: Right.
Mr. KENNEDY: Then, speaking for the people of the great state of Massachusetts, I give it my wholehearted support.
The PRESIDING OFFICER: Is there any further comment? None? Then let us proceed to a vote. All in favor? All opposed? The ayes have it. The vote is unanimous. Let it be so recorded.
1st C-SPAN VIEWER: My, that was exciting. Is Oprah still on?