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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Piss on Pity

The Academy of Motion Picture Art and Science board of governors has voted to honor Jerry Lewis with a special Oscar for his humanitarian work. Academy president, Sid Ganis, has stated "Jerry is a legendary comedian who has not only brought laughter to millions around the world but has also helped thousands upon thousands by raising funds and awareness for those suffering from muscular dystrophy".

When I read Ganis statement about Lewis this is what came to mind: Jerry Lewis' appearance on the CBS Morning Show in 1981 where he stated "If its pity, we'll get some money. I'm just giving you the facts. Pity? You don't want to be pitied because you're a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in your house". Such bigoted remarks are the norm for Jerry Lewis who is widely despised by those in the disability rights community. The most vocal opponents of Jerry Lewis and the MDA telethon are Jerry's Orphans. This group has engaged in a nasty war of words with the MDA and Jerry Lewis. The most articulate person who has opposed Jerry Lewis is the late Harriet McBryde Johnson. Her chapter, "Honk if You Hate Telethons", in the memoir Too Late to Die Young is thought provoking, funny, and undermines pity based fund raising. Another great resource are articles that appeared in the Ragged Edge. The verbal exchanges between Jerry Lewis, the MDA, and Jerry Orphans are heated, personal, and in many cases vicious.

The MDA and Jerry Lewis are of interest to me for a three reasons: First, Jerry Lewis has been the MDA national chairman since 1952 and the telethon has raised more than $2 billion dollars. This money has been collected on a pity based message that is as successful as it is antiquated. This fact by itself is deeply troubling. Second, the explicit pity based MDA campaign has a strange power that has caused a significant amount of harm. For some people such as McBryde, the MDA telethon convinced her that she had a "killer disease" and that her "life was ebbing away". McBryde was able to reconsider her childhood death sentence but perceptively wondered how many generations of children were actually killed. How many died because they thought their lives had no value? How many doctors did not treat children who could have lived? The third reason Jerry Lewis and the MDA telethon is important is because it highlights that disability rights are poorly understood if not entirely unknown. Does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences know Jerry's Orphans exist? Have they ever heard of Johnson? Do they know just how out of step Jerry Lewis and the MDA is in the way they raise money? Sadly, the answer to these questions is likely no. If the Academy were aware the special humanitarian award would not be given to Jerry Lewis. To me this lack of awareness is the sign of a much larger problem: disability rights has in the past and presently utterly failed to resonate with the general public. I am not sure how much one self identified bad cripple can do but I feel slightly better now. You see I just got home from the post office where I sent the Academy president a copy of Johnson's chapter "Honk if You Hate Telethons" and articles from the Ragged Edge. This is a very small gesture not likely to sway anyone but in my dreams and hopes the post office is flooded with such letters.


Becs said...

Glad you brought it up. I've got some free time and I just love writing letters.

FridaWrites said...

I did watch a few minutes of this year's telethon. He has shifted his emphasis some--to talking about technology that can help people with ALS, for example. I specifically watched for the disability rhetoric, not for other reasons. But I still didn't/don't like the telethon and its approach, and I think it lead to some reluctance by one of my friends to mention her specific diagnosis except to people she knew well.

Unknown said...

Let's not forget Jerry's diatribe against the GLBT community not that long ago. He's a fashist.

william Peace said...

Becs, Letters can only help. Go for it!

Nic, You are correct Jerry Lewis has indeed made comments about GLBT people that is offensive.

Frida, I agree the MDA telethon focus has changed dramatically. But it is still a telethon and regardless of the focus all telethons are based on an an antiquated conception of pity. Telethons are inherently dehumanizing. Think about it this way: you own a mid sized company and have money to burn. You see the telethon and decide to donate $10,000. This makes you feel pretty good. Fast forward six months and a person with a disability applies for a job. This person is qualified as are other applicants. Who gets the job? I doubt it will be the person with a disability because at the back of the employers mind is the fact he donated money to help disabled people. What people with disabilities need is not charity but equality and telethons undermine this.

John R. Polito said...

As Harriet asks, "What's the cure for stigma?" Jerry Lewis has done more to build a wall between abilities diversity than any person ever. The economic impact of that wall has been vastly more than the $2 billion in pity money his devisiveness generated.

John R. Polito
Charleston, SC

FridaWrites said...

Oh, yeah, I agree; I'm not a fan of telethons. The whole idea behind it is problematic at best.

william Peace said...

John, I wish there was a cure for stigma. More than any other variable, the stigma associated with disability appears most resistant to change. Jerry Lewis and telethons may raise lots of money but in the long run have no positive effect on the lives of people with disabilities.

Unknown said...

Jerry Lewis getting a special Oscar. Hahahahaha!!