The current political climate — a dysfunctional one in which comedians are journalists, nearly one in five Americans think President Barack Obama is Muslim, and fringe political parties become mainstream overnight — got even more bizarre last week. This time, though, it came at the cost of an important issue, one that affects thousands in Santa Cruz and neighboring towns like Watsonville and Salinas.
At a congressional hearing called “Protecting America’s Harvest,” comedian Stephen Colbert was called as an expert witness by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) to testify in front of a House subcommittee on a new immigration bill.
The invitation was extended to Colbert after he spent a total of one day in August working in the fields of upstate New York picking beans and corn. The stunt was part of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union’s “Take Our Jobs” campaign, which invites U.S. citizens to try their hand at the hard agricultural work that only migrant workers are willing to do.
The idea that Colbert could possibly be an expert on the plight of migrant workers after spending only one day doing their work is ridiculous and insulting. Colbert appeared to recognize this himself, ironically stating, “I believe that one day of me studying anything makes me an expert.”
While Colbert’s musings were indeed funny and attention-grabbing, they hardly progressed migrant workers’ rights. Rather, they made a farce out of the entire proceeding.
Prior to the hearing, it was unclear whether or not Colbert would stick to the extreme Republican persona he embodies on Comedy Central. Well, stick to it he did.
In one display of absurdity, Colbert expressed his intent to submit video footage of his colonoscopy to the Congressional Record, to demonstrate the vegetables and fruits are an important source of “roughage.”
It is unlikely that Colbert, who has used his comedic persona outside of his show prior to this, would want to make fun of an issue as serious as the plight of migrant workers. In his defense, Colbert’s testimony was quite earnest at times, stating at one point, “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 themselves.”
While Rep. Lofgren’s decision to invite such a non-expert to testify may have been well intentioned, it was certainly misguided. Assuming her intent in inviting Colbert was to elicit mass media attention around this issue, the attention came at too high a cost.
It’s unfortunate that Lofgren felt the need to rely on theatrics to push her legislative agenda, especially because it didn’t work. The media’s coverage of this event has hardly centered on the real issues of migrant farm workers, focusing instead on the strange blurring of the line between fantasy and reality.
Congress is not Hollywood. Staging media spectacles fit for public relations offices in Beverly Hills should not be a part of the policy-making process. Colbert’s testimony undoubtedly overshadowed that of other witnesses at the hearing, such as UFW resident Arturo Rodriguez and chairman of the U.S. Apple Association, Phil B. Glaize, both of whom lent more credibility to the hearing than Colbert ever could.
And, of course, those affected most by this issue, migrant farm workers themselves, were absent from the entire proceeding. If Congress really wanted to gain an expert understanding of the poor conditions, low salary and health dangers migrant farm workers face, why not actually call one of the migrant workers to testify? It may not have been as funny, but at least it would have been real.