>Yes, dear reader, it is Sunday evening here in the United States, when I do not normally pen a blog piece. Most Sunday evenings I am relaxing in what remains of the weekend, drinking tea (or something stronger) and watching reruns of British television programs. And even more unusually I do not, as a general rule, write about issues which, at least at first glance, appear to be political in nature. However I hope that the reader will indulge me for a few moments, as something has been itching at my brain for over a week now, and I do feel the need to scratch that itch.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with him, the comedian Stephen Colbert has made a living for the past few years playing a kind of arch-conservative on television, and hosting a mock-news/interview program. I have seen the show on several occasions, and never understood what was so particularly funny about it. I did marvel though, at the serious people who would appear on that program, and who ought to have known better.
When he was merely a comedian, Mr. Colbert was harmless enough. What Mr. Colbert engaged in a little over a week ago however, is very disturbing. Or at least, so it seemed to me.
On September 24, 2010, Mr. Colbert testified – in character – before Congress. Most of my American readers are already aware of this (and have probably forgotten all about it), and I will spare those of my readers who are not aware of this from reading a description of what went on. One can see video and read news reports from numerous sources, as it was a very well-covered story.
After this event, there were a number of editors, news commentators, and so on, who went for their own, very obvious pie-in-the-face type of clowning. They noted that Congress is full of buffoons, philanderers, and ne’er-do-well’s. This is certainly true, and it has always been the case that there are people in Congress who, were they in any other profession, would probably have been fired or incarcerated by now.
What disturbed me more than such opinions from the chattering classes was that many of my friends, intelligent people whom I know well, seem to have taken this same view. By testifying in character, they say, Mr. Colbert has shown just how low and ridiculous our legislative process has become. And isn’t that a funny thing.
Personally, I do not believe we hit that aforementioned low when Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren invited Mr. Colbert. After all Mr. Colbert had, in fact, gone out to work with migrant workers on his television show, to see what sort of jobs they had to do. As someone with celebrity status, it was logical – if dangerous – for Congresswoman Lofgren to invite Mr. Colbert to share his experiences and thereby bring attention to the problems faced by migrant workers.
Moreover, let us not allow the Republicans to get off scot-free. Back in 2002, the Sesame Street character known as Elmo was invited by Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham to testify before Congress, on funding for music education for children. Elmo is, in essence, a furry sock puppet, who is voiced by a 6-foot tall actor.
This testimony took place in April 2002, six months after the United States had invaded Afghanistan, and while the previous administration was making the case for war against Iraq. It was not an appropriate time, if ever there would be one, to bring a puppet to testify before Congress. However, Elmo – or his (literal) handlers – can be forgiven because it was expected that he would be testifying in character, even if there were plenty of actual persons to testify, and which would have been far more appropriate.
It would be very easy to blame either of these Congressional representatives – or indeed the chairs of their committees, party whips, and so on – for allowing this sort of thing to go on. Doing so would be in keeping with the already prevalent perception that Congress is nothing more than a joke. However in the final analysis, these people are not to blame. Rather, it is Mr. Colbert who has further lowered the dignity of Congress, and indeed all of us, by his behavior. And it is behavior which he intends to put on wider display when he leads a mock-protest march on Washington in several weeks’ time – an act which, in and of itself, mocks and cheapens our belief in the Constitutionally-protected freedom of assembly, as a means to peaceably protest our grievances to our elected government without fear of reprisal.
When Congresswoman Lofgren approached him, Mr. Colbert should have had the personal grace and the respect for our institutions of government to make one of two choices. Either he should politely decline to testify, or testify as himself, rather than as a television character. Instead, he chose a third path, that of ego-centrism, thereby reinforcing the present societal view that all that matters is “me”, and what “I” want. Mr. Colbert had an opportunity to do good, and instead he did ill, and he will have to live with that. Yet we will all have to live with the reality that this event happened at all, and wonder what our great-grandchildren will think of it, and of us.
You may believe that Congress an atrocious place, gentle reader, and in that opinion you would have very good company among numerous important figures in our history. However the United States Congress is, or should be, something more than simply a place where people go to make fools of themselves. Acts such as that of Mr. Colbert do not raise the level of debate, they cheapen it. And our indifference or amusement at his antics cheapens us, as well.