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A Bill of Apology

Fact-Checking the Constitution

by BEN TRIPP

An alert reader recently took issue with my characterization of the Electoral College as not being mentioned anywhere in the Constitution; she notes that it bloody well is, or words to that effect. I know this perfectly well, and was mystified by my own assertion in the piece in question–but I have discovered the error, and will weasel my way around the damning accusation in a moment, as soon as I’ve said a few self-indulgent words about the process by which I develop my stories. I’m sure this will fascinate everyone, and afterwards I will deliver an even more interesting lecture on the metabolism of the red-spotted eft.

One of the most common questions people ask me is “Where do you get your ideas?” (The very most common question is “How can you live with yourself?” which is a silly question, because who else can I live with? I’m attached to me like Siamese twins. It’s a nightmare.) My ideas come from the world around me, of course. I’ll see a student thesis on Iraqi weapons programs, for example, and it gets me to thinking. I’ll come up with a unique perspective on the issue, copy large passages from the student essay, add an introductory paragraph, and pass it off as an entirely original work by the British intelligence service. Next thing you know, Colin Powell is reading it to the UN. Other times, I’ll take one of my ill-informed paranoid speculations and gin up a gossamer framework of half-truths and augury to support the thesis (this is known among journalists as ‘The Bill O’Reilly Maneuver’). But however I arrive at the premise for an article, the hard work begins when it’s time to build the arguments within it. People rely upon the media for their facts, and this is especially important in the arena of political journalism, where facts lie as thin on the ground as spotted owls. I may be a satirist, but I take facts very seriously indeed. Often.

As America’s most respected journalist, it is incumbent upon me to be as accurate as possible in my writings, and to check and recheck every statement in the essays to ensure they are both accurate and informative. Otherwise global chaos could result, as many world leaders except in the United States base their policy decisions upon my recommendations. For this reason, I employ fact checkers. Fact checkers are very small folk with dense fur on their backs and broad webbed feet. Their job is to examine my writings for statements that can be proven or disproven as fact, and to separate these factual statements from other categories of remark such as ‘cheap laughs’, ‘idle surmise’, and ‘inflammatory lies’. These categories make up the bulk of my pieces, and so the fact checkers for the most part spend their days roaming the grounds and swimming in the moat, where they are occasionally eaten by the enormous gar that lurks under the drawbridge.

Once the fact checkers are done ‘scrubbing’ my pieces, which means making them less amusing by insisting upon accuracy, the remaining material is sent to the lawyers. The lawyers inhabit the north tower during the days, although as soon as the sun is low they bolt like rabbits back to the village, partly because I’m too cheap to pay for candles, and partly because the forest is crawling with giant wolves. I think they’re wolves; they could be enormous mutant coatimundi or something but that’s exactly the kind of speculation that panics people, as one of my fact checkers just pointed out. So let’s say wolves. The lawyers examine my work to ensure that I’ve said nothing libelous or actionable against any person or institution, and that any opinions I state in the course of a piece do not suggest themselves as anything other than my own judgment. This process generally takes my pieces from around 5,500 words to anywhere from1,400 words to three sentences.

But the journey from idea to published piece is still not finished. Because once the relays of functionaries and menials have gone over each article with a fine-toothed rake, I am ready to work up the final draft. I return to the escritoire with quill in hand and slash mercilessly at the manuscript, stripping out excess verbiage, honing each phrase until it gleams (this is best accomplished with a few passes over a buffing wheel primed with bobber’s compound and then fine hand-polishing with French Dialux Green jeweler’s rouge). This is the hardest part: is every joke a boffo, a sockaroo? Have I extracted every yock? Which is le mot juste, ‘verbosity’ or ‘prolixity’? Is there a single point which has not been made, a single insight undelivered? I will slave over this stage of the writing for upwards of two or three minutes, rebuffing all offers of refreshment or entreaties to come to bed, until perfection is achieved or I get bored. Only then is the gilt-edged document engrossed on finest cream-laid archival linen (inked by monastic scribes whose calligraphy is descended from the hand that illuminated the Book of Kells), then quarto bound in limp calfskin and delivered to the publisher.

Which is why, when said reader noted that the Electoral College is in fact mentioned in the Constitution, in direct contradistinction to my own proposal, I felt the sting. You can imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth around here; it sounded like a cut-rate dentist’s office during an earthquake. Scores of fact-checkers felt the sting of my Panang lawyer, with which I laid about me in a frenzy of rage. Then one of the conventional lawyers suggested I parse my words. Maybe the correspondent was wrong. “Nay,” I cried, bull-necked with fury. Because it came to light that during the research phase of developing the essay, which I forgot to mention but is terribly dull with a lot of me wandering around the stacks of the estate library with its million-odd volumes, humming tunelessly (me, not the books; the books mutter in damp weather, but never hum), I pulled down the wrong copy of the Constitution! I now note that the version I was looking at is marked ‘DRAFT’, and came from the personal library of Thomas Jefferson, including some amusing doodles in the margins that should have alerted me to its status. An original source document, certainly; I never use anything else. But the wrong one. Not only does this early draft’s preamble begin “Us the Persons of the United States”, it also says “no monkey business” in Article VI, clause 3, which was amended to “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The Framers were a pretty sharp bunch.

However, I did dig up the final version of the Constitution, which was misfiled among my signed first editions of Paine’s ‘Common Sense’. I used it as a bookmark, like a fool. But that’s of no matter now. Upon perusing the hallowed document, I discovered the germane passages. It seems the Framers, who in those days used hardwood and square nails, which is why the framing is so sturdy, couldn’t figure out how to deny the common man the opportunity to vote for the highest office in the land. So they settled upon the Electoral College at the instigation of one James Wilson, who was a Scotsman and had hardly gotten off the boat at the time, so what the hell did he know? But there it is. The manner in which the electoral college operates was revised in Amendment XII, and it is this revision which we operate under today. This established, I returned to my original notes for the piece in question, which boldly asserts that the Electoral College is “a peculiar system and isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.” And then I understood. What we have here is not a bizarre factual error, but an editing error. It’s still an error, and it will haunt me to the end of my days, or the end of today, at the very least. But let it be understood: the term ‘Electoral College’, not the institution itself, which is a well-established mechanism accepted by all Constitutional authorities including the ones on my payroll, is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution. So the text in question should have read “a peculiar term and isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Constitution”, not “a peculiar system and isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Constitution”. There’s even a subsequent gag that falls completely flat without the amended text, for which I also apologize.

I hope this clears up the Constitutional crisis I unwittingly precipitated by this textual gaffe, and I wish to assure the readers that other than this trifling lapse, absolutely every single word of all of my earlier pieces, and God willing all of my future work, if any, is virtually one hundred percent reliable. No guarantees, however, as I’m a little low on fact checkers right now–they’ve fled into the forest to escape my wrath, and there was an awful lot of howling out there last night.

BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and political cartoonist. He can be reached at: credel@earthlink.net