Colbert, O’Reilly, immigrants, borders

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Long before he was the host of one of the biggest chat shows on American TV, Stephen Colbert was a thorn in the side of the American right. Having fleshed out his fire-and-brimstone TV pundit persona (whose full title was The Rev. Sir Dr. Stephen T. Mos Def Colbert) on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Colbert later landed his own series, The Colbert Report, where he used his larger than life alter ego to pour satirical scorn on right-wing pundits by simply pretending to be one.

He even adapted a French pronunciation of his second name – Colberrr, with a silent T – in the style of many immigrants who sought to distance themselves from their heritage in what were deemed ‘less civilised’ nations. In reality, Colbert is an out loud and proud descendant of Irish immigrants, who came to America fleeing the Famine (although he does joke that they actually left Ireland because his great great grandfather killed someone).

As an Irish American, Colbert was perfect for the role of right wing braggart – after all, his persona was created in honour of one of the best known conservative TV stars, fellow Irish American Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly’s braggadocio and arch-conservatism was an easy target for Colbert’s comedy, with Colbert cast as the playful Loki to O’Reilly’s permanently angry, po-faced Thor. But times change – Colbert’s comedy caught the eye of TV bigwigs, and he was offered the role as host of one of American TV’s biggest draws, The Late Show. O’Reilly’s career changed too, albeit for slightly different reasons.

In April 2017 the New York Times ran a series of articles detailing how Fox News, O’Reilly’s employer, had settled five multi-million dollar sexual harassment lawsuits against their brightest star. Within a week, his primetime show The O’Reilly Factor had lost half its advertisers. Within a month, O’Reilly was fired, a remarkable fall from grace, but an inevitable one given the grand reckoning that was taking place due to the #MeToo movement (head of Fox News Roger Ailes also departed the station after revelations about his treatment of the network’s staff).

O’Reilly was undeterred and opted to continue broadcasting, this time not on a syndicated news network, but on a podcast. This meant he had more time to travel and see the world, so naturally he opted to visit the Old Country. When he tweeted last week that he was in Cavan learning about his ancestors, it was met with mixed emotions – on one hand, it was nice to see him broadening his horizons, but on the other it would appear that he had a lot to learn about Ireland, American history, and basic immigration law. His tweet stated that his ancestors went to America legally, even though the journey took place at a time when America had open borders, and that, because of his impoverished Irish background, he could never be accused of white privilege. Who would ever think of accusing him of that – he, who used his wealth and power to sexually harass women in the workplace, who used his platform to rail against everyone he deemed a threat to his vision of America – ie, anyone who wasn’t white, Christian and heterosexual?

O’Reilly’s tone-deaf, antagonistic tweet showed that he was no more Irish than his comedic counterpoint Colbert – despite O’Reilly telling his biographer “I’m one hundred percent Irish, which is very unusual, you know, for an American this day and age. My bloodline is all Celtic, which is frightening. I mean, you know, I have all of those Irish tendencies, the blarney, which has really served me well, I must say.” Ah yes, the blarney, of which no Irish person ever speaks. That blarney angle is used to explain the presence of a number of Irish Americans in public life – TV pundits like Sean Hannity and Pat Buchanan, politicians like Paul Ryan, even poor old Sean ‘Spicey’ Spicer are all proud of their Irish heritage, even if we aren’t.

All seem to have the notion that their ancestors were not immigrants in the modern sense – their ancestors were a ‘better’ kind of immigrant, who came to work and help build America, rather than the ‘modern’ variety, ie, immigrants who are not white. But even here in an increasingly liberal, compassionate Ireland we are guilty of perpetuating the same myths – we cling to the term ‘undocumented Irish’, a semantic rebrand of our illegal immigrants living in America. The term suggests that our immigrants are different, they are better, they are following the centuries old transatlantic route to greatness, manifest destiny and the American dream.

But one thing you can say for Irish American pundits is that there are plenty of them from all political spectra – for every Hannity there is a Jimmy Fallon, every Buchanan has a Bill Maher, and every O’Reilly has a Colbert, who through a skin-crawling awkward interview with Cillian Murphy (Colbert made leprechaun references) and Pierce Brosnan (Colbert asked him what it is like to be a British icon), shows that on right or left, ‘100% Irish American’ will never mean 100% Irish. After all, we Irish are far softer on borders than the Americans – the Welcome To Cavan sign Bill O’Reilly was photographed next to seemed to mistakenly believe that the landlocked Lake County was somehow part of Ireland’s Ancient East.

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