Monday, February 23, 2009

Jerry Lewis

I've never been a big fan of the comedy of Jerry Lewis. His unrestrained hamminess always seemed to come out of a limited palette; see him once, you've pretty much seen the whole thing. My mother, who was not noted for having any sense of whimsy, pretty much hated his act.

However, when she worked in the shopping center industry, she had the chance to meet Jerry Lewis and talk about "his kids," and, from then on, she was a fan of the man (still wasn't running out to the video store to rent The Nutty Professor, however). His sincerity was obvious, and, whatever what one might think of the bathetic moments of the annual telethon, he has devoted a remarkable amount of his time to raising money for muscular dystrophy treatment and research.

So I was pleased that Jerry Lewis was given the Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars last night. (I hope that the brevity of his acceptance was by his choice, rather than a desire of the producers to leave more time for the odd grinning of Danny Boyle, or limitations of his health.) I know about the controversy that surrounds his efforts, the concern of disability advocates about the references to "his kids," the alleged portrayal of the disabled as less than whole, but one must temper current sensibilities with the recognition of what Lewis has tried to do.

According to the telecast, he's raised $2 billion for the cause, and, by any measure, that is impressive. It reflects a sense of commitment and dedication that no one should deny, even if they find the approach somewhat old-fashioned and even insensitive.


$2 billion is a rounding error in the current stimulus package. There are 604 people on the Forbes billionaire list from last year who have more money. Despite the effort and the hectoring and the staying up all night every Labor Day, Lewis has rasied a comparatively small amount of money.

What this shows, I think, is the inherent limitation of private charity. This was the biggest flaw with Bush's "compassionate conservatism," that we could somehow get necessary things done through total reliance on the private sector. There will simply always be things to do that free market capitalism cannot and will not accomplish. We should perhaps ask ourselves if things should be considered in that light, that certain things that cannot pay their way should not be done.

But many of them should, and part of being a community of any size is that we give to the common, that we help those for whom capitalism has not provided the means to do certain things. The rigid ideology which has strangled public thought over the past 25+ years is a direct cause of our current problems. Now we're playing catch-up, with all the potential for mistakes that entails.

Should we replace roads with light rail in certain places? Of course we should, but our reluctance to take on such projects means that the cost of inserting rail into already-developed areas is much higher than it would have been a few decades ago. Add to that the need to spend money on shovel-ready projects, and we'll end up both improving the roads and shoehorning some kind of inadequate rail projects into populated areas, and that doesn't sound real smart at all.

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