Stephen Colbert on Capitol Hill: Did he help migrant workers?

Yes, Stephen Colbert made members of Congress visibly nervous (not good), but he brought cameras and a penchant for one-liners (very good) to help the cause of migrant workers.

Alex Brandon/AP
United Farm Workers of America President Arturo Rodriguez (l.) shakes hands with Stephen Colbert, host of the 'Colbert Report,' on Capitol Hill in Washington Friday prior to testifying before a House committee.

Will Stephen Colbert’s appearance before Congress make a difference in the contentious US debate about the employment of illegal immigrants in farm work?

Hmm, well, he certainly brought a lot of attention to the issue. As one Democratic member in the hearing room said, “I haven’t seen this many TV cameras since [Bill Clinton’s] impeachment.”

Mr. Colbert himself, in his testimony, said that given his own star power he hoped he could “bump this hearing all the way up to C-SPAN1”.

(See, that’s funny because the hearing was shown on C-SPAN3, which is reserved for lower-wattage appearances, usually. At least it’s funny to people in Washington, who watch a lot of C-SPAN.)

But what’s the outcome here? We’ll examine both sides of the issue.

Why it won't matter. Colbert’s appearance might have been too funny. Or rather, it was funny in a way that made many of the members of Congress in the room visibly uncomfortable. Remaining fully in character, the mock-conservative Colbert took shots at Democrats and their poor prospects in the upcoming elections, the predilection of congressmen to not read bills, and even partisanship itself.

“I feel that after my testimony both sides will work for the benefit of America, as you always do,” he said slyly.

That might have hit too close to home for some lawmakers, making them less likely to hear any serious underlying message. Perhaps they had not heard of Colbert’s 2006 appearance before the White House Correspondent Association’s annual dinner, in which he speared both then-President Bush and the media itself and got little applause from the assembled scribes in return. (The public loved it – ratings soared that week. But that’s another story.)

In addition, Colbert’s performance before Congress was indeed a performance – he slipped in some serious commentary, but it was for the most part pure fake “truthiness.” Also somewhat Dadaesque. He expressed surprise that soil was at ground level and mused that perhaps the answer to the migrant worker problem was to stop eating fruits and vegetables altogether.

“My grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean to see an America overrun by immigrants!” said Colbert. “He did it because he killed a man in Ireland.”

What’s that got to do with the plight of undocumented workers?

Why it will matter. Never underestimate the power of pure attention. Hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of Americans tomorrow will know more about the conditions in which migrants work because a comedian picked corn for a day. It doesn’t matter that Colbert did not have a three-point plan for passing a bill that allows illegal migrant workers to work towards legal status by remaining in agricultural jobs. Today those workers are less faceless than they were before.

“I like talking about people who don’t have any power,” said Colbert near the end of his appearance. “And it seems like some 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.”

Yes, his overall appearance might have been self-aggrandizing. But Colbert knows that clips have tremendous power of their own. In today’s world of viral Internet communication all a few pithy lines can travel around the globe before a full policy paper gets its boots on.

Consider what Colbert said about economist Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of market capitalism.

“This brief experience made me realize why so few Americans are clamoring to begin an exciting career as a migrant farm worker ... apparently even the invisible hand does not want to pick beans,” said Colbert.

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