Col­bert strikes out

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion - JONAH GOLD­BERG jgold­berg@la­timescolum­nists.com

Stephen Col­bert’s “tes­ti­mony” be­fore Congress last week was a clear sign that ironic rot (if you’ve got a bet­ter term, let me know) is sink­ing into the foun­da­tion of our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

Irony or post-irony or ironic post-what­ever has been metas­ta­siz­ing through the cul­ture for decades. The most fa­mous ex­am­ple was “Se­in­feld,” a hi­lar­i­ous show that was fa­mously “about noth­ing” and much-de­rided by earnest writ­ers on the left and right for its de­tached mock­ery of any deeply held prin­ci­ple or con­vic­tion.

But it hardly be­gan with “Se­in­feld.” David Let­ter­man launched a talk show that made fun of talk shows. Be­fore that, “Satur­day Night Live” crafted bril­liant fake com­mer­cials and news­casts (which, sadly, are the only funny parts of the show these days).

In the 1990s, Washington fell in love with Hollywood in an un­prece­dented way. In count­less films, politi­cians, re­porters and pun­dits played them­selves. There was also an in­flu­en­tial, and oc­ca­sion­ally funny, sit­com called “Mur­phy Brown” that jumped back and forth from make-be­lieve to re­al­ity. Things got par­tic­u­larly con­fus­ing when Vice Pres­i­dent Dan Quayle crit­i­cized the show for glam­or­iz­ing out-of-wed­lock birth, and the show’s cre­ators re­sponded by hav­ing the fic­tional Mur­phy Brown whine about per­sonal attacks on her life­style.

Things got out­right weird with the cre­ation of “The Daily Show,” a fake news pro­gram hosted by Jon Ste­wart since 1999 that of­ten pro­vides some of the best (and oc­ca­sion­ally the worst) crit­i­cism of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics (and is revered on the left as some­how newsier than news). For what it’s worth, a se­nior Repub­li­can con­gress­men told me that “The Daily Show’s” piece on the GOP “Pledge to Amer­ica” was the only one that drew blood.

“The Daily Show” be­gat “The Col­bert Re­port,” in which Col­bert plays a jin­go­is­tic, know-it-all, bor­der­line bigot. In other words, he pre­tends to be what many lib­er­als claim Bill O’Reilly is. That’s the joke, get it?

It was this Stephen Col­bert who was in­vited to tes­tify be­fore a House ju­di­ciary sub­com­mit­tee on im­mi­gra­tion and la­bor. It was an ex­cru­ci­at­ingly in­ap­pro­pri­ate spec­ta­cle. “This is Amer­ica,” Col­bert in­veighed. “I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mex­i­can.”

But who, ex­actly, is Col­bert par­o­dy­ing here? O’Reilly doesn’t talk like that. Nor does Sean Han­nity or any of the usual tar­gets Col­bert’s sup­posed to be lam­poon­ing.

The real up­shot of Col­bert’s shtick is that he’s mock­ing peo­ple who dis­agree with him — or with the left-wing base of the Demo­cratic Party — on the com­pli­cated is­sue of im­mi­gra­tion.

This was made abun­dantly clear by the sober tes­ti­mony of Carol Swain, a Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor of law and po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, who ar­gued quite ef­fec­tively that a steady flow of cheap mi­grant la­bor de­presses wages for poor blacks and other Amer­i­can work­ers while keep­ing work­ing con­di­tions grim.

Though Col­bert would ob­vi­ously deny it, his tes­ti­mony amounted to call­ing Swain — an African Amer­i­can woman of very hum­ble back­ground — an ig­no­rant bigot, be­cause her anal­y­sis runs counter to the lib­eral party line.

Col­bert’s de­fend­ers point to the fact that other celebri­ties have tes­ti­fied be­fore Congress. “I would like to point out,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-El Monte) noted dur­ing the hear­ing, “that in the past the Repub­li­cans have had wit­nesses such as Loretta Swit, who played ‘Hot Lips’ Houli­han from ‘MASH,’ to tes­tify on crush videos.” True enough. But she didn’t tes­tify as “Hot Lips.”

Col­bert’s tes­ti­mony re­duced the topic to a black-and-white is­sue in which peo­ple on the other side are fools or big­ots wor­thy of cheap mock­ery. I thought the whole point of Col­bert was to stand against that sort of thing by mak­ing fun of it, not by do­ing it. Are our pol­i­tics re­ally im­proved by mak­ing con­gres­sional hear­ings even more of a joke?

On Oct. 30, Col­bert’s “March to Keep Fear Alive” will join Ste­wart’s “Rally to Re­store San­ity” on the Na­tional Mall. They will ra­tio­nal­ize the stunts as send-ups and put­downs of all that is wrong with our pol­i­tics. But by slowly de­gen­er­at­ing from satire into plain old mock­ery, these guys are slowly be­com­ing too-clever-by-half ver­sions of the very peo­ple they claim to de­plore.

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