The mark of brilliant parody is an inability to distinguish between the mocker and the people being mocked. And no one blurs the line quite like Stephen Colbert. Anyone familiar with Colbert and his antics know the particular quirks of his satire: bumper-slogan rhetoric mixed in a paradoxical milieu of faux xenophobia, self-belittlement, delusions of grandeur, anti-intellectualism, and patriotism. All this and more was on display during the Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Immigration. And only some of it came from Colbert.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) invited Colbert to take part in the hearing on account of the comedian’s participation in the Take Our Jobs campaign sponsored by the United Farm Workers. The Comedy Central host attracted a flock of media and young people unlikely to attend a hearing sans Colbert, requiring an overflow room to house all attendees. (Which is where I watched the event, missing the committee room cutoff by two people.) I imagine reactions in the committee room are much more subdued than in overflow rooms. Laughter followed many of the more inane comments offered up by both witnesses and congressmen.
Rep. Lofgren expected decorum to deteriorate during Colbert’s speech, as evidenced by the warning she gave to the audience. But in the wilderness of the overflow room, free from gavel bangs and looks of disapproval, unfettered reactions became the norm early on. Iowa representative Steve King questioned the national-security impact of food production by comparing U.S. food production to food production by Eskimos. (Cue Studio Laughter.)
But the Helpmann winner for best committee performance goes to Judiciary Committe chairman John Conyers Jr. The congressman from Michigan opened his remarks by asking Colbert to leave, a perplexing display that was met with equally perplexed laughter. Conyers’s mumbling questioning of Dr. Carol Swain seemed equally odd. While I’m not too sure if many in the room were sympathetic to Dr. Swain’s proposal, almost all sympathized with her as she endured a barrage of incoherent babble from Conyers, who resembled a parody of a congressman as much as Colbert resembles an authentic pundit.
Colbert’s speech seemed plucked from the script of a segment of his television program. It delivered in the way a Colbert fan would expect, funny, but oddly poignant. Hidden under the rhetoric of Colbert’s speech was probably, and sadly, the most lucid observation by any person in attendance. Colbert noted that helping to raise conditions of working illegals might attract more Americans to farm work, which would effectively achieve the ends of both “sides” of the debate.
It is a sad mark on Congress that the most lucid comment comes from the entertainer who makes a living mocking congress and political types. Lost in the entire discussion of agriculture jobs is a discussion of comparative advantage. As UFW head Rodriguez noted, many of these immigrants have been working in fields since the age of fourteen. Hiring unemployed urban American workers for higher wages seems silly when cheaper and better skilled workers exist on the labor market. Not only do immigrant workers hold a pay-scale advantage, but because they have been working in fields for longer periods of time, they more than likely hold a comparative advantage in farming over urban or suburban Americans — a difference that may be important given the seasonal nature of agriculture, but a fact none of the people in attendance seemed to grasp.