I've heard you love controversy but defending Jerry Lewis? How could any self respecting disabled person even try to get a job after the telethon? People w/ disabilities have a 70% unemployment rate in part because Lewis and his pity approach have had such an impact on the way we are viewed.
It looks as though some of us forget that societal integration is not an amusing matter to those who barely subsist and are trying to get in. Lest you miss it, here's Harriet Johnson's response to your article. I hope you visit the website.
Also, it is not a small group of disabled militants who want to "dump Jerry." (Though why we militants are discounted for wanting poor, institutionalized folks with disabilities to have food, jobs, housing in the community, etc, is beyond me). Evan Kemp was a Bush, Sr. appointee and he began the campaign against the telethon in the early 1980's. Pity is understandable in a security guard but makes for horrid public policy.--- Best,
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Lorenzo Milam's essay shows that crips are just as able as anyone else to mouth off about things they don't know much about. Milam may be a brother crip, but he doesn't know much the telethon controversy.
It's not about the words, though obviously using bad words is a danger signal. One may assume they are used for a purpose. "Cripple" is analogous to "nigger." On the streets of my home city of Charleston SC, I may hear African Americans greet one another, "Yo! Nigger! What's happening?" But if someone else uses the word about them, it signals disrespect. If a high-profile spokesman uses a term of contempt for the people he's supposedly speaking for, he might expect to catch a little flak for it.
But as I said, the words aren't the problem. The problem is a high profile spokesman for a powerful multimillion dollar media empire telling us "cripples" that if we don't want pity we should stay in our houses. That's what has us up in arms, and, yes, out on the streets.
If you don't hear the animus in this, play the substitute-the-minority-group game. Try, "If you don't want to be groped for being a broad, stay in your house." Or, "If you don't want to be bashed for being gay, stay in your house." Would Milam or any other person of common decency be surprised if the objects of such remarks took umbrage?
Oh, Milam apparently thinks, like Jerry himself, that there's a difference. The difference is supposedly that we are pitiful. Milam accepts as gospel truth the notion that people with muscle diseases are the sad "dying children" that Lewis has talked about all these years. We deserve all the pity we get.
I deny that. And unlike Milam I know what I'm talking about. I'm one of those "kids" who was told at a very tender age that I was terminally ill. Next month I'll be 44 years old, and I'm not dead yet. Jerry says people like me "can't work, can't do anything." That's false too. I work as a lawyer and do other mischief besides.
Like Milam, I encounter pity as a part of daily life. Like Milam, I'm old enough to try to react to it with understanding and kindness. The Security Guard at the grocery store has no idea what my life is really like. People who know me generally get over their pity pretty fast. They come to learn that a life on wheels isn't necessarily miserable, and that most of what they've heard about "Jerry's kids" is a lie.
Like women who have fought for the right to go out without being groped, and the gays who struggle to go out without being bashed, I will struggle for a day when I can go out without being subjected to ill-informed, ignorant pity. To do that, I have to tell my truth. I'll be on the streets protesting the telethon this year, for the 11th year in a row.
If you want the real deal, go to
Learn about the telethon protest from the people who know.--- Harriet McBryde Johnson
§ § §Sirs:
Gotta agree with Harriet on this one. You seem to say that since pity is part of our social landscape, we need to learn to like it and even encourage it. This is not mindful acceptance, but the refusal to educate. Thou shalt not abdicate thy pulpit...--- BC
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I guess Harriet Johnson put you in your place -- you poor pitiful cripple who should stay home. She makes a good point with her analogies to women and gays. If gays don't want to get bashed they should stay home. Preferably upstairs in the back room with the blinds drawn.
You have done what provocative writers do -- you have provoked. Still I hate to see you line up with that evil slob Jerry Lewis!--- HG
§ § §Our writer responds:
Jerry Lewis doesn't know it (yet) but he thinks that he is a crip. That's why I compared his comic art with the definition of Muscular Dystrophy appearing in the Merck Manual. There is a part of him that believes that he's just a kid with a neurological disease. That's why he thinks he can throw around the C-word.
The real villain is not Jerry Lewis. He's just the point man. The real villain is a world that has always and will always see us as pitiable. I have gotten this pat-on-the-head business from places far from America --- Mexico and Spain and Germany and England --- among others. Thus I know that the concept of pity is rooted in something that goes deeper than Jerry Lewis and his telethon. It probably is one of those Christian burdens they lay on us --- that we are all sinners, that we are sinners from birth, that we will die sinners, and we are to suffer for our sins. Remember, the word "pity" comes from the Latin pietas (piety) which comes from pius (pious). They don't call him Pope Pius for nothing.
Up to a hundred years ago, the disabled were seen as comic characters, to be taunted and made fun of. Just watch Buñuel's Los Olvidados to get a full dose of that and, perhaps, to be glad that it is, now, something else that we must fight.
I often find myself thinking that the loathing that so many of the disabled have for Lewis is but a reflection. For so many years I resisted people trying to reach out to help me (help me to get out of the car, to open the door, to offer some service unasked). I can remember my rage at the helping hands. That they would do all that without my specific invitation, without my consent...
I now suspect my reaction was a reverse Narcissus. Narcissus not only fell in love with his own reflection, he had no idea in the world who it was that was being reflected back at him. He couldn't see what was there before his own eyes. The concept is right out of Jung. Loathing is a reversal, the anima vs. the animus. Like the female part of men, the masculine part of women --- it must be hidden; and, often, being hidden, becomes hated.
There is a bit of the cripple in everyone, and most people can't stand it. As James Baldwin said in Notes of a Native Son --- the scorn, the condescension that whites felt and feel for blacks grows out of the shadow self. It is the dark part of their own psyche that they detest. Viewing a black man, whites put on him their own passionate, sensual self, which (being good Christians) they loathed. Like Narcissus, they had no idea that they were before the mirror.
If, as a crip, I loathe the man who is offering to help me, it is, in truth, not him that I despise, but the part of me that pities me. Jerry Lewis is the point man for that part of me that requires that I vitiate my own self-pity through projection.
Hate, scorn, vilification: these are the tools that the militant crips use against him. To treat him thus means that he has won much of the battle before it has begun. Hate and scorn and vilification just don't cut it, for if he is to be shown for what he is, it must be done with the tool that gave him his early fame: comedy; mockery --- best of all, slapstick.
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Many of those who criticize me bring up the question of poverty and the lack of job opportunities for the average disabled person in the United States. To attack Lewis for being responsible for this miserable state of affairs doesn't strike me as rational. We live in an oligopolistic state with generous socialistic programs for very wealthy individuals and for large corporations.
Offering government-sponsored opportunities for the poor and the disabled is seen as feeding laziness, creating a class who will gradually become addicted to what they used to call a "hand-out." We are part of a society that spends 100 billion dollars a year on "The War on Drugs," so for us to invest in perpetuating other addictions is seen as wrongheaded.
This is why our legislators have turned existing and useful programs like SSI into something out of the Nazi police state, complete with interrogations (long forms), punishment (cutting off monies for tiny infractions), and mad-making rules (right out of Kafka). The easy cant is that all government assistance contributes to societal rot.
Our politicians have been reared on the likes of Horace Greeley, Norman Vincent Peale, and the One Minute Manager. The distress, isolation and agony of the disabled is just too far from the horizon of those who make our rules. The lives of the poor and dispossessed are a mystery to them, and our media does little to enlighten them. No one in Trent Lott's family will know the inside of a nursing home. The pain and the smell of such places is simply inconceivable to those who run our lives. And I doubt that it will change --- because now, as opposed to a hundred or even fifty years ago, very few can get into the U. S. Congress from what we used to call the other side of the tracks.
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However, it is important to remember that no where in my writing did I suggest we give up the fight against the Lewis-types in the world. I may see the battle against pity as having no better chance that the one we waged against the war in Viet-Nam (in specific) and a life-long battle against war as a process for resolving political differences. I have just asked that we give up the hate and vituperation. We are far better off to treat the pity-meisters as silly fops who must be humored --- in all senses of the word.