(I just know I'm going to be lambasted for this one. Oh well...)
I have seen a lot in the blogosphere about Jerry Lewis and
how many people in the disabled community
think he should not have received a
humanitarian award. That Jerry Lewis, despite raising around 2 billion dollars
for Muscular Dystrophy (MD), Amyotrophic
Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and Spinal Muscular Athropy (SMA) is not a humanitarian. Money raised alone does
not a humanitarian make.
I became curious about the whole business. What has Jerry Lewis done or said (or not!) that is so horrible? Would people with Muscular Dystrophy, ALS, and SMA (or one of several other degenerative neuromuscular conditions) be better off without Jerry Lewis?
Personally, I have never liked the guy. From the moment I first saw him on the telly, in one of his older, black-and-white movies, where he over-exaggerated every nuance (actually, “nuance” is way too strong a term under these circumstances). I remember at the time, my beloved Da was giggling at the same movie, while I, all of about 9, was transfixed in horror. I couldn’t understand how a performance could be so overwrought and under-funny at the same time. That experience was an eye-opener for me, because it introduced the concept that people like Jerry Lewis exist. People who are loud, brash and over-exaggerated in almost everything they do.
Years later, probably in the 90s, I saw part of one of his telethons somewhere –I think it was in an airport or somewhere similar where I couldn’t leave and couldn’t change the channel. I disliked his patronizing and pitying attitude, but then I thought to myself he’s JERRY LEWIS. What do you expect? And I listened some more, and realized that he had been on the air for a horribly long time, and he did this every year, and I just had to admire his passion and dedication, even if I disagreed with some of his language and attitudes.
Because –whatever criticism one can level at Jerry, and
there has been plenty; here is the one fact I keep coming back to:
You really cannot fault the guy’s dedication and work ethic.
So aside from some outdated concepts in the telethons –and let’s face it: The man will turn 83 years old next month. How can you expect him NOT to have some old-fashioned notions? How many old people do you know who are politically correct? Indeed: I just used the term “old people”. What people -young or old, do you know who are politically correct all the time?
I decided to find out what Jerry had done that was so bad and had pissed off so many people. I went onto the site The Trouble with Jerry (TTWJ), which is the main protest site and I watched a few of the videos of the protests. The first thing I noticed was that many of the protesters at the Academy Awards did not appear to have Muscular Dystrophy at all. They claimed Jerry did not speak for them. They are right. Jerry’s causes are MD and ALS, not disabilities in general. Then I noticed discrepancies in some of the Jerry-attributed quotes. “Jerry said to have a disability is to be half a person”. Well, I happen to be familiar with that particular quote (the original, that is), in context and that’s not actually what he said at all.
These discrepancies piqued the interest of the researcher and analyst in me. What other quotes have morphed with repetition amongst dissenters or have maybe been taken out of context? What did Jerry actually say about people with disabilities? Is he really a bigot or maybe somewhat misunderstood?
I searched their site for the Jerry Quotes which indicated “bigotry towards people with disabilities. There are 10 of them. In over 50 years, he has said or written 10 statements (three from the same article), which some people with disabilities found distasteful, as well as hosting a schmaltzy telethon every year for almost 50 years which is outdated in tone.
10 statements in 50 years! What a complete and utter bastard! He should be shot rightaway. Or as my sister once famously said "he should be put against a wall and gassed!" Oops sorry! My sarcasm escaped just there.... (Full disclosure,. Jerry Lewis has also said bigoted things about women and the LBGT community, but I am not addressing that here). Then I looked at some of the actual quotes. Many of them seemed to have been deliberately “misunderstood”. "Jerry said if you are diagnosed with ALS "you might as well put a gun in your mouth"". Yes he did. TTWJ choose to interpret this statement as Jerry saying that all people with ALS have no quality of life or should be shot. I choose to interpret it as follows:
An ALS diagnosis is a sure death sentence
Which -as of now- is true. There is no cure. And as the quote was taken from a telethon to raise funds for ALS research, I think my interpretation makes more sense than theirs. Spin is interesting, no?
In fact, when I picked through the 10 quotes, I realized the nastiest things Jerry Lewis said about people with disabilities were directed at his detractors; at TTWJ and it's ilk, those demonstrators who have been a thorn in his side for years. They were not directed toward people with disabilities in general.
Now, I started a detailed analysis of Jerry’s article for
Parade magazine, the one that seems to spark the most derision from his
detractors, but then I saw that Blake at
I Hate Stairs produced a far better breakdown of it, from a better perspective
(i.e. someone who has a condition which is similar to MD) than I ever could, so
I am going to send you over there to read it.
And then read his brother's piece on the Jerry Lewis haters.
So to my point: “Know your enemy”: First off, anyone who wants to Jerry-bash (and let’s face it, he is an easy target) should at least afford the guy –and themselves- some basic respect and do it in a meaningful, well-thought out and well-researched way, instead of deliberately “misunderstanding” quotes of his (and now who is perpetuating disability myths?).
And secondly: When I say “know your enemy, I mean know who is your enemy. Jerry Lewis is not the enemy here. Muscular Dystrophy is the enemy. Jerry Lewis has been fighting Muscular Dystrophy longer and harder than almost anyone on the planet. And while your enemy’s enemy may not be your friend, Jerry Lewis is not your enemy.
I have to tell you; -on a personal level, I feel a bit weird about writing this whole piece. Never in my entire life did I ever think I would devote 1,300 words in defense of Jerry Lewis. I never liked the guy! And also, this is not my fight! I don’t have MD or a related condition. In fact, I only know two people who do: Stephen Deal, who is a virtual friend, and my friend’s son; -we’ll call him Robbie, who is a little older than my own son, Joe.
Having read Stephen’s blog for months, and having only a tiny inkling of what Robbie and his family are going through, and having been very distressed by their plights, I have to say that I am siding with Jerry on this issue. (in case you hadn’t guessed), He earned that award. Yes, some of his wording and money-raising tactics are old-fashioned, but I suspect Jerry thinks the end justifies the means. And in Jerry’s mind, as in mine, there is only one end: a cure, and almost any means are justifiable. Because MD is one nasty fucker, which is usually fatal (fast or slow, but degenerative and fatal), and you wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy.
Stephen Deal is perfectly capable of speaking for himself should he choose to weigh in on this topic, so I didn't ask him for any input on this piece. However, I asked Robbie’s father what he thought about the Jerry protesters, and while he wrote a long and well-thought-out reply, I am going to go for the cheap soundbite and only use his last line.
“None of these disparaged people are doing anything to save my son's life or the lives of other peoples' sons. So, they can go fuck themselves.”