There's a great scene at the end of the film "And Justice for All" where idealistic attorney Arthur Kirkland, played by Al Pacino, uses his opening statement to tell the jury that his guilty client should go to jail. The judge bangs the gavel and calls Kirkland out of order. Fed up with a legal system that disregards truth, Kirkland shouts at the judge: "You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order!"
I've been thinking about that scene as criticism rolls in from members of both parties about comedian Stephen Colbert's recent testimony before Congress. Colbert went to Washington at the behest of the United Farm Workers and with the permission of Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who chairs a House Judiciary subcommittee.
The seeds for this stunt were planted a few months ago when UFW President Arturo Rodriguez appeared on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" to promote a campaign inviting unemployed Americans to take jobs as farmworkers. The UFW set up a website with more information and offered to train applicants.
Number of visitors to the website: more than 3 million. Number of people who expressed interest in farm work: 8,600. Number of people who followed through and got training: seven.
What a shock.
One of the interested parties was Colbert, who spent a day working at a corn and vegetable farm in upstate New York. The comedian shared his experience with the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law. His central point: Illegal immigrants are essential to the U.S. farming industry because they take hard and dirty jobs that most Americans simply won't do, and so those immigrants deserve a pathway to earned legal status.
"This brief experience gave me some small understanding of why so few Americans are clamoring to begin an exciting career as seasonal migrant field workers," Colbert said. "Normally I would leave this to the invisible hand of the market, but ... even the invisible hand doesn't want to pick beans."
Colbert even proposed a solution.
"Maybe we could give more visas to the immigrants, who let's face it will probably be doing these jobs anyway," he said. "Or maybe that's crazy. Maybe the easier answer is just to have scientists develop vegetables that pick themselves."
Colbert was correct. Americans are too proud to admit that they're not interested in a host of jobs their grandfathers did. But that doesn't make it any less true. Besides, farm work is a young man's game, and young people are especially resistant to trading in their electronic gadgets for hoes, shovels and pruning shears. It's not just that they think themselves too good for those jobs. It's also because they don't have the skills for such work.
So let's put aside our pride and start treating farm work and the people who do it with more respect. And while we're at it, let's approach the immigration debate with more candor and honesty, and stop kidding ourselves about the kinds of jobs we're willing to do and the kinds we need someone else to do for us.
Still, Colbert's appearance before Congress was a major setback for the immigration reform lobby. That's because he made the event all about Stephen Colbert. He testified in character, hammed it up before the throng of cameras, and turned his congressional testimony into a comedy sketch. This is a serious issue that impacts people's lives, and it shouldn't be treated as a punch line.
And yet, having said that, Colbert shouldn't be blamed for making a mockery of the immigration debate least of all by the lawmakers who, on that score, beat him to the punch. Colbert's critics include Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who hasn't lifted a finger to advance the immigration issue because he knows that it would put congressional Democrats in a tough position, and Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who once suggested installing an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border because "we do this with livestock all the time."
That's the problem with Congress. They take themselves and their proceedings so seriously. And yet, when it comes to their responsibility to ditch politics and lead on tough issues, they don't take their jobs seriously enough.
Some would say that in giving his testimony, Stephen Colbert was out of order. Who are we kidding? On this issue, the whole system is out of order.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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