Does the MDA Labor Day telethon
September 2, 2002 3:58 PM   Subscribe

Does the MDA Labor Day telethon do more harm than good from a cultural perspective? Sure the money helps to find a cure, but does it cause 'normal' people to feel undue pity for the physically challenged? Is Jerry Lewis doing more harm than good for the cause? [MORE..]
posted by ZachsMind (28 comments total)
 
At 76 years old, between his declining health and his politically incorrect statements regarding women and other issues over the years, is he no longer a suitable front man for the MDA? I did a search in MeFi, and the last reference to the telethon that I found in the archives was two years ago. Maybe I didn't search right? I can't see a Front Page Post about MDA for this weekend. Are we MeFi'ers ignoring it on purpose, or has the telethon just worn out its welcome in our homes?

If that's the case, where's all that money coming from? Once again, they beat last year's total but just barely. ...I don't know. I still think he's The King of Comedy and always will be, so my opinion is torn.
posted by ZachsMind at 3:59 PM on September 2, 2002


You can't discuss Jerry Lewis and muscular dystrophy without linking to Laura Hershey's punk-as-hell Crip Commentary site. She was an MDA poster child in 1974 but has become one of the most vocal critics of the "Jerry's Kids" idiocy, particularly after Jerry shared this delightful perspective on disability with the world:

"I'm telling people about a child in trouble. If it's pity, we'll get some money. I'm just giving you facts. Pity? You don't want to be pitied because you're a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!"
posted by mediareport at 4:15 PM on September 2, 2002


I recall that Lenny Bruce once remakred that Jerry Lewish had invented MDA--and then gave an imitation of it and Jerry. Lewis currently writing abook on Dean Martin. And a new film or show to come out about those two and their "love" relationship that like many marriages turned to an impossible union. He has now disappeared from ordinary America and shares a small apartment with Wayne Newton in Las Vegas (kidding).
posted by Postroad at 4:51 PM on September 2, 2002


all those years, all that money, and jerry lewis still  isn't fixed?!?!
posted by quonsar at 5:14 PM on September 2, 2002


Btw, apologies for missing the fact that Zachsmind's site prominently quoted the quote I quoted. I only skimmed the site, which links to Hershey's, before posting. Ugh.
posted by mediareport at 5:15 PM on September 2, 2002


Let's not be too hard on Jerry. If he can do for the disabled what he did for the genre of Holocaust Films we just may find a cure. Sure, people are quick to rip his unreleased masterpiece -- The Day The Clown Cried -- but without it, would we have had "Life is Beautiful?" Or "Jakob The Liar?" (shudder) Interested in Jerry's "lost" Nazi film--someone's posted the script at: www.subcin.com/clowncried.html
posted by herc at 5:52 PM on September 2, 2002


The battle to stop people from pitying the disabled is completely and totally doomed to failure. Pity isn't a social construct, it's a basic human reaction, as cruel as that may or may not be. Jerry Lewis isn't causing people to pity the disabled, he's appealing to the unavoidable fact that they do. Meanwhile, $1.6 billion dollars has been raised by his telethons. How else are you going to raise money to find a cure for MDS? "Please give generously, because these people don't need your goddamned charity."?
posted by Hildago at 6:00 PM on September 2, 2002


Sure the money helps to find a cure, but does it cause 'normal' people to feel undue pity for the physically challenged?

Well, really, it's all those special parking spaces and mandated wheelchair ramps that evoke pity in me. The crippled are doomed to a life of confused self-image: "Don't treat me special just because I'm different, but give me special treatment just because I'm different."

Sad.
posted by Ayn Marx at 6:08 PM on September 2, 2002


Let's face it - without the telethon, Jerry Lewis is nothing. His entertainment career ended long ago, nowadays he's cruising on guilt. So every year, he'll haul out the telethon and pretend he's still relevant. He'll be dead soon, and we can have our TVs back on Labor Day.

To be honest, I haven't found him even vaguely entertaining since I was a kid and didn't know any better, but lot's of people tell me I'm crazy for saying it ("That thing he does, putting a glass of water in his mouth and clapping his hands like a seal? That's GOLD, man!")

Jesus, he looks awful, though, huh?
posted by RylandDotNet at 6:12 PM on September 2, 2002


How else are you going to raise money to find a cure for MDS?

Seriously, though, what is that money used for? As far as I know, it funds hospitals and buys wheelchairs and stuff, but actual hard medical research? I dunno. Now that the genome is mapped, it seems like only a matter of time before they whip MD, so (pity aside) is this telethon even necessary anymore?
posted by RylandDotNet at 6:15 PM on September 2, 2002


Now that the genome is mapped, it seems like only a matter of time before they whip MD, so (pity aside) is this telethon even necessary anymore?

it could be. like the march of dimes (which was originally a charity aimed at ending polio), the telethon could be refocused or it could be generalized for many problems.
posted by moz at 7:01 PM on September 2, 2002


Well, really, it's all those special parking spaces and mandated wheelchair ramps that evoke pity in me. The crippled are doomed to a life of confused self-image: "Don't treat me special just because I'm different, but give me special treatment just because I'm different."


Ayn Marx, do you honestly think those concessions are made just because handicapped people are "different"? I don't want to preach, but that's an incredibly insensitive statement. If I had to guess, I'd bet you are young and in good health...otherwise you'd realize that "special treatment" makes a world of difference to someone with a disability.

I know this is off-topic and I apologize. Iye.
posted by Zulujines at 7:12 PM on September 2, 2002


Geez...the MDA telethon snuck up on me this year, didn't realize we were already on top of another Labor Day weekend...having said that, let's go easy on Jerry, OK? He looks like shit, I know, and that's really sad, but I believe that's due to some serious side-effects of steroidal (prednisone?) medication that he must take. And whether the telethon is "relevant" or not -- come on, do you know any other person who has raised (or caused to be raised) that much money for any cause, worthy or not, slugging it out year after year after year, even after your best pals and co-workers have gone to that Vegas Strip in the Sky...you just gotta give Jerry his props...worshipping Jerry is one of the few things that the French have got right.
posted by davidmsc at 7:22 PM on September 2, 2002


Sure the money helps to find a cure

You know you've been reading MetaFilter too much when you think that said, "Sure the monkey helps to find a cure."
posted by kindall at 7:38 PM on September 2, 2002


MDA is working on research into a variety of different muscular-neuro disorders. The fact the genome has been mapped doesn't mean that it won't be another decade or two before the mysteries of misfiring neurons and degraded nerve sheaths are unraveled and remedied.

The billion+ raised by the telethon not only funds the continued, invaluable research, it provides outreach services to MD patients, which can become fairly costly. It's a lot more than wheelchairs, it's also transportation and therapies and in-home equipment like special beds and minor modifications for access and such.

And though the typical image is of a child, the MDA helps as many adults as kids. These diseases know no age boundaries, and neither does the assistance which is made possible, in large part, through the efforts of the people who work through the night each Labor Day to raise money.

Begrudge Jerry Lewis his pathetic movies, (though there is one that almost makes up for all of the crap that came before) his friendships with some of the biggest hacks in showbiz history (Norm Crosby peddling jokes my seven year old rejects as stale is not a telethon highlight I'll be remembering fondly) his commentary about women in comedy or his inexplicable fame in France. But how can you begrudge anyone who has spent more than 50 years in an effort to help so many people for no reason other than "he could," someone who uses his fame, however waning, for reasons beyond garbage self-aggrandizement?
posted by Dreama at 7:43 PM on September 2, 2002


Actually Zulu I don't believe it's off topic. I tried to generalize this thread so that it covered all aspects of the telethon including how some are more insensitive than others. Where those lines are drawn. However, I don't want to see this deteriorate into accusing fellow MeFites of insensitivity. We each have opinions. Opinions should be challenged, but.. well I didn't introduce this thread to start a fight. Just to pose some serious questions.

I've thought about the very questions I posed, and read the comments by each of you. I'm still torn. I hate seeing him like this, but perhaps we owe him this. Maybe we owe Jerry one day a year. It's a small price to pay.

Ever since I was a child, I knew Jerry Lewis would be doing the telethon to his last dying breath, unless a cure was found in his lifetime. I never imagined it would mean we'd have to see his deterioration, but that is perhaps inevitable. It is true that the journey to a cure is closer to its end than we could have imagined. Some would even argue that many medical advances of recent decades are at least in part due to the medical research money that MDA has managed to procure, much like the efforts of NASA in the sixties & seventies led to technological advances we now take for granted. Tang led to other powdered drinks like Kool-Aid and Gatorade. Anything in your pantry that's vacuum sealed? Thank NASA. I don't know offhand what devices used in hospitals today were due to repercussions from MDA research, but I wouldn't be surprised if today's standard practices of physical therapy for anyone with a broken leg owe thanks to medical personel working with atrophied limb patients due to Muscular Dystrophy. Wheelchairs weren't electric when Jerry started.

Jerry Lewis, and the tens of thousands of people who rallied to his cause, have served mankind in both obvious and subtle ways, some of which may never be measured. When I drive by a handicapped parking space and can find no other, I try to remind myself of this. It's a small price to pay for things like remote control devices.

Didn't Jerry Lewis practically invent the concept of a director actually seeing on a television monitor what was being filmed? Prior to his efforts as a director, all other directors could do was look through the viewfinder on the camera, and then wait for the film to develop so he could watch the 'dailies' the next day. That's not an MDA related advancement, perhaps. It's a Lewis related advancement in visual entertainment. Even Stephen Spielberg owes a debt to Jerry, and by proxy, any film you've enjoyed which was made in the past forty or so years owes Jerry a debt. I wouldn't be surprised if during the course of all these telethons, crew people flying by the seat of their pants discovered new little ways to make simulcast performances between cities more possible, because that annoying old fart who used to have a career demanded they let him see U2 in Europe during his telethon.

There've also been times over the years when Jerry managed to get people to work together in ways that they wouldn't have otherwise done, had it not been for Jerry's kids. He even got back with Dean Martin briefly one time, even though they both probably hated it. At least before the cameras they made everyone feel anything was possible. If Martin & Lewis could talk to each other without clawing their eyes out, maybe world peace is even possible.

So yeah. He's old. He's hurting. It's painful to watch him now. We've unlocked the genome. We've made further advancements in science than ever. We have a better idea today what causes Muscular Dystrophy than we did half a century ago. Is this all due directly to Jerry? Maybe. Maybe not. Just in case though, maybe we should cut him some slack.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:12 PM on September 2, 2002


ZachsMind: the Stop Pity link and Laura Hershey both acknowledge the value of the money in their FAQs (although they also point out there's no real public accounting of how the money is spent).

The deeper point here is that some people with MD feel Lewis' presentation to the public (MD is always a "killer disease" and you're "half a person" if you have it) did them real harm when they were young. Lewis' approach also flies in the face of important developments in the disability rights community over the last 30 years. Hershey says it best:

Don't you want a cure?
Medical research is a worthwhile goal. Some people are passionate about cure; their desire for a cure outweighs everything else. For others, however, cures are far less important than you might think. We believe that disability is a natural part of life. It's part of who we are. Cures, if they come, will be in the future. We can cure prejudice and discrimination -- the real "killer diseases" -- right now.


I think people with disabilities are right to raise questions about the appropriateness of the kind of patronizing attitude Lewis consistently demonstrates about their lives, and ask the MDA folks to join the 21st century in its approach to fundraising. And to get some better jokes.
posted by mediareport at 10:46 PM on September 2, 2002


Dreama: But how can you begrudge anyone who has spent more than 50 years in an effort to help so many people for no reason other than "he could," someone who uses his fame, however waning, for reasons beyond garbage self-aggrandizement?

I'm more or less baffled too. At a certain point people are going to have to weigh the rhetoric vs the results and Jerry will simply be on top. When PC thuggery ends he might be remembered by all as a true humanitarian and not just someome who made some comments which some find questionable.

In no uncertain terms Laura Hershey wants to end the telethon because of its lack of PC sensibilities and because of her 'progressive' view on the image, not the rights IMHO, of the disabled. I think this more or less defines PC stupidity and would severly cripple (oh wait I'm not allowed to say that) MD research.
posted by skallas at 11:02 PM on September 2, 2002


While I might not like Jerry Lewis as a person, I would still argue that the telethon is the best thing he has ever done.

The telethon is a calculated plea for money, sure... and some would argue a not particularly creative plea. It has been very successful, however, and has achieved some serious results, both as a fundraising effort and as a platform for political action. Most recently, The MD-CARE act was signed into law, passing both the House and Senate with a unanimous vote, which is basically unheard of. This would have never happened without the telethon, or without the testimony and efforts of Jerry Lewis.

Jerry Lewis' efforts don't strike me as something that anyone would do who doesn't care. Obviously he does care in his own way... if people think that they care in a better, more appropriate, more effective way, they are more than welcome to raise funds and provide an alternative.

I'm not saying that Jerry Lewis should be given sainthood, but what is wrong with celebrities using their time and effort to help such organizations and causes? Is the goal to fundamentally attack charity or having a social conscience because it, like everything else in life, is prone to abuse or excess?

I would far rather that celebrities support causes like muscular dystrophy than be strictly out for themselves. One very sad fact as a celebrity is that helping charities often makes you more of a target than anything else. Did Live Aid really do anything for Sting or Bono, or did it just overexpose them, make them a target of satire and ridicule, and build them up so they can be knocked down more effectively, without putting any real $$ in their pocket?

Criticizing celebrities for being charitable and suggesting ulterior motives is a shitty, counterproductive thing to do. It doesn't just hurt the celebrities, but also those they are trying to help.

Sure, pleas from celebrities based, in part, on pity can be crass, but I don't see anyone protesting Sally Struthers because she urged people to pity hungry children in 3rd world countries. Perhaps our efforts should go into teaching children how to more effectively pick through city dumps for a living?

As for Jerry not releasing a bad movie, it simply is not relevant. It's a movie... not home videos of him torturing puppies.

Jerry Lewis has certainly looked better and is going to die soon enough -- when he does I'm sure that there will be a MeFi post about how much he will be missed. Numerous celebrities will step forward to honor him, and someone will step forward to emcee the telethon, which will undoubtedly continue, as it has a life of its own.

Such is life.
posted by insomnia_lj at 5:19 AM on September 3, 2002


RylandDotNet

No kidding, he does look awful. I was flipping through channels and hit the telethon, with him being interviewed by Larry King. It took me quite a while to realize that that was Jerry Lewis. I guess I haven't seen the telethon in many, many years...
posted by Windopaene at 9:13 AM on September 3, 2002


Jesus, he looks awful, though, huh?

Is that evil Kirk?
posted by uftheory at 9:51 AM on September 3, 2002


We can cure prejudice and discrimination -- the real "killer diseases" -- right now

Gee, thanks Laura Hershey, I guess I really needed that quick biology lesson.

The only way prejudice and discrimination is going to kill people is if it starts carrying weapons. Otherwise I'd say the finger is still firmly pointed at the disease. It's one thing to be PC, but another to be so PC that all grip on reality is lost in the attempt to blame every negative thing in the world on prejudice.

Prejudice is lousy. discrimination sucks. No one is going to argue that. Having people talk to you as though you were a moron, or even worse, talk to whoever you're with about you as though you don't even exist just because you're in a wheelchair, is a lousy thing. Getting stares all the time and not being able to maneuver around the racks in a store can really ruin your day. I've been there, and every day I'm grateful that those days are over for me.
But it didn't kill me. Getting my legs crushed by a Hyundai, that almost killed me. Being treated differently because I was in a wheelchair just pissed me off. There's a difference.
posted by Kellydamnit at 10:19 AM on September 3, 2002


"I guess I haven't seen the telethon in many, many years..."

Actually, as recently as 1999, he still looked like himself. It's been only the past couple years that Lewis' health has really gone downhill.

And to be fair, Kelly? Not that the physically challenged need me of all people to rally behind their fight for PC treatment, but still.

...You were able to walk away. You may understand better than I can what it's like to be disabled, but a person with a lifelong disability can't walk away from it, so they'd probably look at you blankly while you explained to them that you can sympathize.

They'd probably register your empathy as pity. Maybe the belittlement of pity doesn't kill them. Maybe it just makes some of them wish they were dead? Maybe it's not sympathy or even understanding that they want. Maybe they just wanna be treated as if they were 'normal' even though by definition they are not. Maybe that's just too tall of an order for us 'normal' people to offer?

I dunno, but if Lewis got his wish and MDwere a myth tomorrow, perhaps the issue would no longer matter. If wishes were horses and maybes were mountains...
posted by ZachsMind at 12:18 PM on September 3, 2002


But it didn't kill me. Getting my legs crushed by a Hyundai, that almost killed me. Being treated differently because I was in a wheelchair just pissed me off. There's a difference.

well, what put you in a wheelchair didn't actually kill you either. So what it comes down to is comparing the disability itself to the social status that came with it. Maybe the frustration of not being able to do things is worse than the humiliation of feeling like people don't accept you, but one of those things is much more easily remedied.

Some people living with a muscular disease may not be as focused on dying as they are on living. The reality of life for them is that they're going to die earlier than some of us. Maybe they accept that and want to enjoy what they've got, the way the non-disabled don't generally spend all their time and energy searching for ways to scientifically prolong life past the current expectancy, but instead try to find as much joy and fulfillment in the time allotted them.

I'm not saying all people in their position feel this way or that I would take that view if I were in their position, but it seems reasonable to me that some MD patients to express that perspective. I didn't even realize the telethon was going on, but it does seem unfortunate that Lewis is the front man. He's not funny, and it sounds like he's a jerk. Nice that he puts one day a year in to help a good cause but no reason to offer him sainthood.
posted by mdn at 12:37 PM on September 3, 2002


Not that it matters, but I'm still disabled. I just happen to be able to walk. And I would still put a much higher value on fixing my legs than eliminating those people who feel the need to stare at me because I walk funny or ask rude questions about my injuries and scars, or, in an alternate sort of fun, the people who look at me like I'm scum for parking in a handicapped spot because they don't see a cane or wheelchair.
And, I know I'll end up in a wheelchair again, unless there are some impressive advancements in medical science, and that time it will be for the rest of my life.

Regardless of that, I still think a far higher priority should be placed on curing the diseases and fixing the problems that confine people to wheelchairs, canes, and crutches, than eliminating the human instinct to notice those who are different. At this point, it is illegal in the US to, say, refuse to hire someone because they are handicapped. Short of that, saying one wants to eliminate discrimination of the handicapped is like saying you want to eradicate racism, or sexism, or any of the assorted reasons people from group A decide they don't like people from group B. It's nice to talk about it, but finding a cure for the ailments may actually prove faster and easier.


As an aside, getting somewhat back to the original topic, it looks like Jerry Lewis will be bumping my favorite daytime infomercials again next year. I really suspect he's just sending all the money collected to France. It's the only rational explanation for his popularity there.
posted by Kellydamnit at 1:11 PM on September 3, 2002


In no uncertain terms Laura Hershey wants to end the telethon because of its lack of PC sensibilities

Is there some sort of alignment of constellations that's suddenly resurrected the term "PC" as a valid criticism? Yeesh, when did *that* happen? skallas, Hershey offers some specific issues she'd like to see addressed, including a more thoughtful and respectful approach that doesn't encourage the world to think of people with MD as "half a person" or "mistakes who came out wrong." Just imagine living with MD, or sitting with a relative who has MD, watching the telethon as that cute little statement sailed through the airwaves. Are you really saying that's not a fair criticism for someone with MD to make, skallas?

Kellydamnit: I still think a far higher priority should be placed on curing the diseases and fixing the problems that confine people to wheelchairs, canes, and crutches, than eliminating the human instinct to notice those who are different.

I'd agree. But what I'm seeing in Hershey's writings is an attempt to balance excessive pity (perfectly exemplified in Lewis' well-documented history of horrible comments) that comes at the expense of encouraging people with MD to live dignified lives *as they are*, while also working and hopeing for a cure.
posted by mediareport at 3:56 PM on September 3, 2002


Hershey offers some specific issues she'd like to see addressed, including a more thoughtful and respectful approach that doesn't encourage the world to think of people with MD as "half a person" or "mistakes who came out wrong."

While there is no doubt that those particular quotes could be more PC, I have to wonder whether people with MD don't think (and say) the same things about themselves everyday. A genetic abnormality is a mistake that came out wrong, is it not? I have watched the telethon before and never noticed him say anything of the sort, so I wouldn't judge him on just a few quotes.

Given that Mr. Lewis traditionally tries to stay awake for the entire duration of the telethon, can we really be surprised that he has said such things? Frankly, for someone who has represented those with MD basically every day for over twentyodd years, I'm surprised there aren't hundreds of quotes we are talking about here, rather than a handful.

People aren't so cut and dry, and I suspect that most all of us could be made to look far worse under such scrutiny.
posted by insomnia_lj at 7:26 PM on September 4, 2002


A genetic abnormality is a mistake that came out wrong, is it not?

the logic issue aside (as opposed to a "mistake who came out right'?), he refers to the people, not the disease as "mistakes". (note "who" instead of the "that" you use...)

Frankly, for someone who has represented those with MD basically every day for over twentyodd years

I dunno if that's true, but he's only in the spotlight ONE day a year. If he really felt an empathy with those he was representing, it would show in the words he chose.

Kellydammit, I agree that emphasis of $ deserves to be on research and seeking cures, but from a PR perspective, it can't hurt to draw some attention to the reality of the disabled person's life, and the hope that they can be treated normally. Which I think is happening; I think people are becoming more comfortable and normal around people in wheelchairs. Of course I don't have statistics or anything, but it's a recognized minority, it's something people know about and don't freak out over, because of access laws and discrimination laws.
posted by mdn at 7:36 PM on September 4, 2002


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