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Colbert turns truthiness into truth

Honestly, I don't get why so many people are down on Stephen Colbert for testifying before Congress -- passionately, as it happens -- on the rights of migrant workers. What could be more admirable than a celebrity using his power on behalf of some of the least powerful people in our society?

Yet lots of people think there was something terribly wrong with Colbert using his style of humor (and I confess I love Colbert and what he does) to grab attention for a cause that is routinely ignored. My colleague Ruth Marcus wrote that "Colbert's testimony was not history repeating itself as farce -- it was history starting as farce." She continued: "That's to be expected when lawmakers appear, at their own risk, on 'The Colbert Report.' But there is a difference between lawmakers electing to be a prop in Colbert's show and letting Colbert turn their show into his prop."

Colbert even split the House Democratic leadership. Speaker Nancy Pelosi thought it was "great" that Colbert brought attention to the immigration issue, but Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called his appearance "an embarrassment." In the meantime, Politico reported that members of Congress were sending the comedian this message: "Colbert, you're dead to us."

Well, he isn't dead to me. Does anyone think Colbert would have received the attention he got if he had simply shown up at Room 2141 in the Rayburn House Office Building and read a routine statement to the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security? He would have sounded like any other advocate and gotten maybe a couple of paragraphs in the newspapers and on the blogs, and a few seconds on television and radio.

Instead, he took a risk by playing his character, which is what everyone wanted to see. That lit up the television cameras, led to all the controversy -- and suddenly got a lot of folks who never even think about migrant workers to pay attention. And, by the way, before he was done, he offered as passionate a moral statement as anyone has made before Congress. (To her credit, Ruth quoted a bit of what follows, but I think you have to read the whole thing to get at the power of what Colbert did.) Asked why he cared about the migrant issue, this is what Colbert said:

I, I, I like talking about people who don't have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don't have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. And that's an interesting contradiction to me and, um, you know, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers. And these seem like the least of our brothers. Right now a lot of people are least brothers right now because the economy is so hard, and I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them or diminish anything like that. But migrant workers suffer and have no rights.

God bless him for that. And honestly: Would you even be reading this post if Colbert had not ticked so many people off? Would I be writing it? Would those moving words have even been printed and broadcast? Would that subcommittee hearing on migrant workers have received any attention at all? Think about it, and I'm not looking for truthiness here.

By E.J. Dionne  | October 1, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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EJ is exactly right. If Colbert hadn't testified no one outside the hearing room would have spent a moment thinking about migrant workers who have some of the worst living conditions in this country. Good for him.

Posted by: steveh46 | October 1, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Worse living conditions? So why are they here if it's so bad? If it's not better than where their HOME is in Mexico then again why are they here? IF they did migrate LEGALLY, a reputable place to live would be no problem. They knowingly break the law and hide, but then complain they we are not treating them well? GO HOME and problem solved. I treat all criminals with dissent, no matter what color.

Lastly, Mexico is erecting a southern fence themselves to keep out Nicaraguan “illegals”….RACIST HYPOCRITES!

Posted by: thatavkguy | October 1, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

An unfunny liberal comedian, pretending to be a unfunny conservative personality, joking about a significant issue but not as serious as the Economy, jobs, or deficit spending. In fact his testimony took a real issue and trivialized it. When this issue comes up again will we remember the issues or the routine.

I don't have a high opinion of Colbert, he's just an actor with a shtick, but he was head and shoulders over the committee. At least he was trying to be funny. The committee was trying to be serious.

EJ, Don't the Democrats ever do anything you question. Since it took you a week to write this, I must assume this tough one, even for you.

Posted by: flyover22 | October 1, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

The attention was because the Congressional Hearing was a farce and an embarrassment. Democrats think illegals are funny? Maybe Colbert should have "dropped trou" to get a bigger reaction.

Time for more serious adults to take charge. Such a mockery of our Congress is offensive.

Posted by: kitchendragon50 | October 1, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

This nation's foremost student of the labor economics in agriculture is Philip Martin of Cal-Davis. I urge everyone to take a look at his writings. If they do so, they will learn among other things that if we tripled the wages paid to agricultural workers from 8 to 11 dollars an hour to 25 to 30 dollars an hour, the cost to the average American family would be a dollar or two a week. The reason why so many illegal immigrants work in agriculture is that employers can exploit them. If only legal workers were employed in agriculture, we would do something about this problem. This is why the sainted Chavez was an opponent to illegal immigration.

Posted by: jeffreed | October 1, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

To those who can't bear the attention this testimony received I note nothing whatever is on the public agenda as to reforming the labor system which makes our wonderful agricultulral production system work -- migrant, often illegal workers. The fact is this part of the problem --- our dependence on low paid workers -- isn't one Congress has the wit or courage to take up. The country managed in the last big immigration reform to allow many illegals to apply for and receive a lawful status. That was 20 years ago and the fundamentals of this labor system is not different and still requires Congressional action. Dumping on the comedian's comments doesn't change that fact of our lves one bit.


Posted by: crowesq | October 1, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

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