Guest Column2/26/09

Do the ends justify the means?

Feb. 26, 2009

By Edwin Cooney

I’m not much of a television watcher or moviegoer. Even as something of an old time radio listener, my thoughts and feelings about Jerry Lewis — actor, comedian and Labor Day Weekend host raising funds to conquer muscular dystrophy — are ambiguous to say the least. Believe it or not, I’ve lived weeks and months at a time without giving Jerry Lewis a single thought. In fact, I’ve probably thought more about the rock singer Jerry Lee Lewis than I have about that other guy.

Then, last week, someone sent me the following petition:

To: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

This petition has been launched to object to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ announcement that it will give Jerry Lewis its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscar Awards ceremony on February 22, 2009. During his decades of hosting the Labor Day Telethon, Jerry Lewis has helped to perpetuate negative, stereotypical attitudes toward people with muscular dystrophy and other disabilities. Jerry Lewis and the Telethon actively promote pity as a fundraising strategy. Disabled people want RESPECT and RIGHTS, not pity and charity. In 1990, Lewis wrote that if he had muscular dystrophy and had to use a wheelchair, he would “just have to learn to try to be good at being a half a person.” During the 1992 Telethon, he said that people with MD, whom he always insists on calling “my kids,” “cannot go into the workplace. There’s nothing they can do.” Comments like these have led disability activists and our allies to protest against Jerry Lewis. We’ve argued that he uses the Telethon to promote pity, a counterproductive emotion which undermines our social equality. Here’s how Lewis responded to the Telethon protesters during a 2001 television interview: “Pity? You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!” Jerry Lewis has also made derogatory comments about women and gay men. His outdated attitudes and crude remarks are dehumanizing, not humanitarian. Therefore, we the undersigned support the actions and arguments of the coalition group The Trouble with Jerry. We protest the Academy’s characterization of Jerry Lewis as a “humanitarian.” And we ask that the Academy cancel its plans to give Lewis the Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

The petition is sponsored by the “Trouble With Jerry” Committee and the chief petitioner is Laura Hershey. Ms. Hershey is right, of course, but the tone of her petition makes her sound as intolerant and as arrogant as her target. Even the name of her Web site might be objectionable to some: I don’t object to the word at all, but some do object to the word “crippled.” I think there are a lot of people who will tell you their bodies are crippled and their eyes are blind. What they rightfully object to is being called crippled, blind or deaf and yet, that’s how people identify them. Chalk one up for Jerry.

Ms. Hershey, right as she is, obviously has other fish to fry. She doesn’t like Jerry Lewis’ type of outdated thinking on a host of socio and political issues. Okay! Fair enough, but as I understand it, the Jean Hersholt award is an achievement award and not about attitude. Even more, her position begs a crucial question.

If medical science finds a cure for muscular dystrophy with some of the dollars Jerry Lewis has raised, should mothers or fathers or future patients not take that medicine or vaccine because the funds raised were raised through pity? My guess is that Ms. Hershey would gladly swallow the pills or take the shots regardless of the method used to raise the funds to stamp out MD. We don’t avoid going into the White House or Capitol Building in D.C. because they were constructed with slave labor, do we? Should we?

Many years ago, I was told by people who worked at the office that handles celebrities as they fly in and out of Chicago that singer Robert Goulet and actor Jerry Lewis were the most impossible people they had to work with, while Muhammad Ali and Elvis Presley were the nicest.

No, I don’t much care for Jerry Lewis, but the time and the effort he’s dedicated to finding a cure for muscular dystrophy is a hell of an achievement unless I miss my guess! Also, it should be kept in mind that Jean Hersholt was honored for his establishment of a relief fund to provide medical aid to movie industry employees who otherwise couldn’t afford medical care. Fundraising, after all, is exactly what Lewis has been largely about since 1966. Have any of us, who don’t work in the medical profession, done more about finding a cure for MD than has Jerry Lewis? If Jerry has exploited a negative reality to achieve a good, shouldn’t society be big enough to say, “Thank you, Jerry?”

Even if it hurts a bit to acknowledge that arrogant so and so, I think we’re poorer if we sign Ms. Hershey’s petition. Whether we like him or not, Jerry Lewis deserves this award.

Edwin Cooney is a national political and historical columnist.