Defending Colbert’s Stunt in Congress

For those of you who haven’t heard, Stephen Colbert testified before Congress a couple of weeks ago. The subject? Immigration reform. Colbert was invited to speak at the—take a deep breath—House Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law subcommittee hearing on Protecting America’s Harvest. Colbert spoke about the brief experience he had picking beans at a New York farm as part of the United Farm Workers’ “Take Our Jobs” campaign. One day of manual labor—not exactly enough to render him an expert. But Colbert’s lack of authority on the subject was not what infuriated many members of Congress. Rather, it was his decision to testify in the character of his television personality.

Colbert cracked several jokes to his captive audience with comments like, “Maybe this new ag jobs bill will help. I don’t know. Like many members of Congress, I haven’t read it.” He employed his usual satirical style to poke fun at Congress while still commenting on the bill. However, not everyone thought Colbert’s statement was amusing.

Several of the members of Congress before whom Colbert testified were outraged and offended by the “inappropriate” use of farcical comedy in Congress’s hallowed halls. Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN) said that “using an actor in character to give testimony makes a mockery of the committee process.” Others claimed Colbert wasted valuable time and therefore, taxpayer money as well.

Were Colbert’s actions, as some angry viewers have claimed, “a travesty” or “blatantly out of place”?

Ok, everyone. Let’s be honest: five minutes of testimony is a drop in the bucket compared to the months and months spent discussing agriculture or immigration bills. The American public can’t—and shouldn’t—complain about Colbert. When you compare one Comedy Central anchor to hundreds of members of Congress, infamous for their infighting and bickering, it begs the question: how much better could those 300 seconds really have been spent?

I posit that Colbert’s testimony was, in fact, an efficient use of time.

Yes, Colbert’s appearance was a publicity stunt. However, this is hardly unprecedented. Elmo from “Sesame Street” also testified to Congress in 2002 on the topic of musical education in public schools. One cannot possibly argue that Elmo is an authority on any subject, so why was he invited to testify? As with Elmo’s stunt, Colbert’s celebrity appearance was used to draw public attention to an important issue, which—judging by some of the furious reactions it has gotten—seems to have been accomplished.

In drawing attention to this issue, Colbert greatly enlarges the national audience focused on both the bill and the topic of immigration in general. His satire helps increase public oversight of our elected officials in a time when democratic participation has reached a record low. Social critics bemoan the deterioration of American values when no one shows up at the polls, but when a celebrity figure uses his status to generate interest in an important issue, many more howl about the waste and lack of seriousness.

Colbert’s testimony was very serious. He broke character at the end of questioning to say that he believed “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,” and that he was merely a proxy speaking on these workers’ behalf. Colbert’s method for making his point just happens to be a sharply satirical one as opposed to straightforward political speech. But that’s why we have freedom, right?

Whatever your political beliefs, you have to agree that democracy in America depends upon popular participation. Go ahead and hate Colbert for his opinions, but don’t hate him for daring to pull your attention to an issue he cares about.

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