Academy’s Humanitarian Award for Lewis Gets a Big Thumbs-Down

By Arthur W. Blaser


December 10th, 2008, was Human Rights Day.  It marked the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that declaration had “more impact on mankind than any other document in modern history.”


December 10th was also when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governors announced its decision to give Jerry Lewis the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, to be presented at the 81st annual Academy Awards on February 22nd.


Why should we care when Lewis’ tactics are so patently and transparently shallow and offensive?  As STV wrote in the blog, “The Defamer,” “There should be no doubt that the statuette accompanying the Hersholt Award will validate even Lewis's gravest missteps.”  ( )


Lewis’ divisive influence mustn’t be associated with “humanitarianism” in 2009, when Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and sites around the globe will witness renewed passion for social justice.   More than ever, the world should be promoting rights, universality, equality and openness.  The Academy’s award is perverse (an outrage more than incongruous) for many reasons, among them:


1.    The award is not in keeping with the Academy’s potential for humanitarianism.  At their best, motion pictures break down barriers between “us” and “them.”  The hundreds of examples include “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Blood Diamond,” “Malcolm X,” Wall-E,” “Murderball,” “My Left Foot,” “Coming Home,” “At First Sight,” “Norma Rae,” “Silkwood,” “Philadelphia,” “Milk,” “Gandhi,” “Cry Freedom,” “Little Big Man” and “Children of a Lesser God.”  (Many of the best movies are “flawed,” which usually means that they made people think about social justice issues.) Humanitarianism also underlies the actions of a plethora of people in every aspect of the motion picture

     industry.  Many people are involved in almost every movement for             human rights, peace, the environment and other social justice issues.



2.    The award wrongly associates “humanitarianism” with a charity or medical approach.  Humanitarianism entails a social approach, emphasizing how society, rather than targeted individuals, can be changed.  Doris Zames Fleischer and Frieda Zames chronicled “The Disability Rights Movement” with an apt subtitle: “From charity to confrontation.”   Embracing disability rights and independent living means rejecting the deficit model.  For decades, Lewis has promoted that model.  Instead of recognizing what society lacks, Lewis emphasizes what people are lacking, with such statements as, “My kids can’t go out in the workplace.”  We’re all better off if we change the workplace, rather than the kids. The Academy’s award extols crass manipulation.  Lewis’ telethon tactics are the antithesis of humanitarianism.  Their basis in pity is negative, what the “kids” allegedly can’t do (although they often can) and the audacity of “nope.”  


3.    The award should recognize our common humanity.  Jerry Lewis and the MDA presume a hierarchy between the helpers and the helped.  While many organizations recognize disability-related social change issues, Lewis ignores them.  The Christopher Reeve Foundation promotes community access through “quality of life” grants as part of its work -- not so with Lewis and MDA.  Changes came to the Special Olympics, evident in its endorsement of “The Ringer.”  The renaming of organizations like The Arc, TASH and VSA Arts (no longer “Special”) is accompanied by participation in common concerns. The Academy’s award reminds us that the outrages keep on coming.  Just as it is erroneous to assign the outrages of Stonewall and Selma to the past, Lewis’ recidivism demonstrates the persistence of inaccurate, insensitive, offensive images.  From the MDA Telethon’s beginning in 1966 to the 1991 Parade interview to the 2001 “CBS Sunday Morning” show to the reference to  “illiterate fag” on the 2007 broadcast followed by 2008 Australian television remarks on cricket as a “fag game,” we’ve been treated to divisive rhetoric.  A 2009 award promises to extend the divisiveness.


4.    The award exemplifies power and privilege at its unkindest. It’s an illusion that awards like the Oscars and Olympics can be free from politics. We must bring humans and universality back in, inside and outside of the awards.  A 2009 “humanitarian” award for Jerry Lewis encourages a false separation between “humanitarianism” (represented by Lewis) and “politics” (represented by critics of the award).  We have important challenges, including the Community Choice Act and the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act.  Moving on to enable integration into the community requires coming to grips with a question that should have been answered long ago: “Why should people be given a choice if they are not worthy of rights?”


5.    An award for Lewis’ “humanitarianism” is for numbing the mind, not sharpening it.  Lewis’ defenders insist that critics need to “lighten up.” An Australian journalist remarked that gay rights organizations objecting to Lewis’ comments needed a “humour bypass.”  Not so.  Far from being “PC police” with no sense of humor, it’s common to appreciate a wide variety of humor that makes us think.  Josh Blue, Alex Valdez, Ellen DeGeneres, Dick Gregory, Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg and many others use humor to sharpen the mind. 



It is hoped that we can then move on to consider broad issues related to the construction of “disability” in writings such as Mary Johnson’s “A Test of Wills: Jerry Lewis, Jerry's Orphans, and the Telethon,”  from the September 1992 “Disability Rag” ; Laura Hershey’s 1993 essay, “From Poster Child to Protester”;  or Harriet McBryde Johnson’s “Honk if You Hate Telethons” from her 2005 book, “Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life.”


Our newly elected president, Barack Obama, has pledged that the U.S. will rejoin the human rights community.  One way of looking forward would be if America becomes a party to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  The new year also will welcome the Oscars, the Emmys, the Peoples’ Choice Awards, elections, Nobel Prizes and other forms of recognition.  These can either be occasions for affirming or ignoring our common humanity.  A humanitarian award for Jerry Lewis at the 2009 Oscars is a sure means of looking backward.


Arthur Blaser is professor of political science at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., where he has taught since 1981. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Ohio State University and his J.D. from Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles


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