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.
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