On Friday, September 24, celebrity comedian and (on his Comedy Central program) pseudo-conservative Stephen Colbert, famous for not “see[ing] race,” addressed the House Committee on Immigration, obliquely taking on the question of farm workers. I do not know the temperature in the New York State farm that he visited for one day (or part of one), or how many hours he actually labored there, or what exactly he did, for though he taped it, only a snippet has been shown to his viewers. Opinion was divided regarding the “appropriateness” of his prank (partly because he remained in character), even within the Democratic Party. But Colbert doubtless thinks he has struck a blow for freedom that will make a difference. Pluckily, he has called attention to the problem, as though no one had ever thought about it before.
But on Monday September 27, the temperature in Los Angeles hit 113 degrees, and my thoughts wandered to the everyday conditions that seasonal farm workers in California encounter. In the 1930s and 1940s, labor advocate Carey McWilliams wrote frequently on the subject in such books as Factories in the Field; * Edward R. Murrow even produced a documentary for television on the subject, one so graphic that it temporarily raised the temperature of the do-gooders in the audience. And one of Woody Guthrie’s most touching protest songs, “Deportee” (1948) referred to the facelessness of nameless braceros, killed in a plane crash, along with other passengers. [Yes, I know these figures–McWilliams, Murrow, and Guthrie– were either communists or fellow travelers, but at least they were consistently raising the issue of worker health and safety.]
The crops are all in and the peaches are rott’ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They’re flying ‘em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees”
My father’s own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, “They are just deportees”
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?
Words by Woody Guthrie and Music by Martin Hoffman
© 1961 (renewed) by TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc.
It is obvious that Colbert, like other “liberals” is not concerned with the conditions of labor among immigrants or anyone else. He is a typical social democrat or “liberal” who has co-opted the 19th C. Left but has no real feeling for the hazards and misery of those who bend over all the day in killer heat, who inhale or handle dangerous carcinogens, or live from hand to mouth, or for those other low level workers who must indulge in mind-numbing activities. (And don’t get me started on the joys of child-rearing and housework, an exhausting task that upper-class women farm out to nannies and casual laborers, always other women). What I am saying is that the very nature of work itself goes unexamined among the left-liberals/social democrats, while corrupt labor unions are incorporated as a sign that the Democratic Party loves “the middle class” (the moniker that has replaced the working class). At least in the days of the old Left, the nature of work itself was the issue, not such populist evasions like “Wall Street vs. Main Street” (notwithstanding the omnipresent caricature of the bloated finance capitalist, beloved of commie cartoonists and “proletarian novelists”).
Seen in this light, Colbert’s gesture was not only “not very funny” as some critics complained, but was at best dilettantish, given the actual life conditions of millions of humans, world wide, but particularly here, the land of opportunity. But Colbert is not alone. Our oppositional culture, such as it is (and I include the “liberal” writers for the mass media), shares in his insensibility and conformity. As for the libertarians and other leaders of the Right, their humanism and sincerity as the charitable alternative to bloated bureaucracies is tested by this issue. If they don’t want socialism (even some variety that has not yet existed), then they should envision alternative policies that more effectively ameliorate the condition of labor– the labor that Stephen Colbert apparently does not think about much.
*Recently republished by the UC Press (2000) and described thus: “This book was the first broad exposé of the social and environmental damage inflicted by the growth of corporate agriculture in California. Factories in the Field—together with the work of Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor, and John Steinbeck—dramatizes the misery of the dust bowl migrants hoping to find work in California agriculture. McWilliams starts with the scandals of the Spanish land grant purchases, and continues on to examine the experience of the various ethnic groups that have provided labor for California’s agricultural industry—Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos, Armenians—the strikes, and the efforts to organize labor unions.”
Postcript: I asked my gardener how he had managed with the excessive heat on Monday. He answered that “it is always like this in my country [sic].” Even if natives of Central and South America had evolved with greater tolerance to heat, that evades damage to the back, or the damage wreaked by pesticides.