What to make of comedian Stephen Colbert's appearance Friday before a House Judiciary subcommittee examining the issue of giving undocumented immigrant laborers who harvest the nation's fruits and vegetables legal status?
The role of a good satirist, from the time of Jonathan Swift until now, is to make people see uncomfortable truths as he makes them squirm. On that score, Colbert succeeded.
Rep. John Conyers, chair of the full House Judiciary Committee, was so discomfited, even before the Comedy Central channel star began his testimony, that the Michigan Democrat had placed a request that Colbert enter his testimony into the record without speaking.
Colbert, by the way, pulled a fast one. The written testimony he submitted to the committee was a severely boiled down version of what he actually read. It lacked the edge and all of the jokes of what he delivered when it was his turn to speak to the committee.
In the persona of his right-wing talk show host, he skewered the powerful on both side of the partisan aisle, weaving in tough truths amid the jokes.
He also comforted the afflicted, the hard-working if undocumented agricultural workers, some of whom he spent time with when he took part in a United Farm Workers program that allows Americans to be a farm worker for a day.
.. This is America. I don't want my tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian.
(I initially didn't know what that Brazilian line meant but that what Google's for. I have since learned that's its like a power bikini wax.)
Because my great grandfather did not travel over 4.000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see the country overrun by immigrants. He did it because he killed a man back in Ireland. That's the rumor, I don't know if that's true. I'd like to have that stricken from the record. So we do not want immigrants doing this labor and I agree with Congressman King, we must secure our borders.
I participated in the UFW's Take Our Jobs campaign. One of only 16 people in America to take up the challenge. But I realize that number may change in the near future as I understand many Democrats may be looking for work come November.
"Now, I'll admit, I started my workday with pre-conceived notions of migrant labor. But after working with these men and women, picking beans, packing corn, for hours on end, side by side in the unforgiving sun, I have to say and I do mean this sincerely, please don't make me do this again. It is really, really hard. For one thing, and I did not know this, when you're picking beans you have to spend all day bending over. It turns out, and I did not know this, most soil is at ground level... This brief experience gave me some small understanding of why so few Americans are clamoring to begin an exciting career as seasonal migrant farm worker...
... Maybe this ag jobs bill would help. I don't know. Like most members of Congress, I haven't read it.
Maybe we could offer more visas to the immigrants who, let's face it, will be dong these jobs anyway. And getting legal status might give these immigrants more recourse if they're abused. And it just stands to reason to me that if your co-worker can't be exploited, than you're less likely to be exploited yourself.
And that itself might improve pay and working conditions on these farms. And eventually Americans may consider taking these jobs again. Or maybe that's crazy. Maybe the easier answer is just to have scientists develop vegetables that pick themselves.
The genetic engineers at Fruit of the Loom have made great strides in human-fruit hybrids. The point is, we have to do something because I am not going back out there. At this point I break into a cold sweat at the sight of a salad bar...
... I trust that following my testimony both sides will work together in the best interests of the American people, as you always do.
That last line drew huge, knowing laughter.
Colbert certainly focused more attention on the plight of agricultural workers than would it would have otherwise received on a Friday morning.
And some critics thought he trivialized the issue and the majesty of a congressional hearing.
I must that as I watched Colbert's performance at the hearing, part of me reacted that way, too.
Channeling such criticism, a reporter apparently asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi if it was proper for a comedian to be testifying before a congressional committee:
As Politico.com reported:
Asked about whether the comedian’s appearance before a House panel Friday morning was appropriate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she hadn’t seen it but applauded him for testifying before Congress.
“Of course I think it’s appropriate. He's an American, right? He came before the committee. He has a point of view. He can bring attention to an important issue like immigration. I think it's great.”
Of course, she could have said that, considering the daily antics of Capitol Hill lawmakers, there was little risk Colbert could do to anything to further diminish the augustness of the House of Representatives beyond what the lawmakers had already done.
In the end, the subcommittee's chair, Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) decision to have Colbert testify, was a comic "truthiness" caffeine shot, during what would have otherwise been a typically sleep-inducing hearing.
Of course, both parties can play this game. If Republicans win back House control in November, could we see Rush Limbaugh testify next.