Officials from Little Ferry, N.J., take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Associated Press
The first I heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a couple of weeks ago, when my daughter Lucy showed me a video of her cousin Emma accepting the challenge.
The challenge started out as a way to raise awareness of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and has turned into a remarkable fundraiser for the ALS Association as well.
Here’s how it works: You have someone dump a bucket of ice water on you and dare a few others to follow suit—on video. Then, post the video to social media—take your pick: Facebook, Twitter, etc. The folks you dare can either accept the challenge, donate $100 or preferably do both.
I was impressed and amused. Impressed because Emma, who lives in Kentucky, was willing to suffer the shock of ice water being poured over her head for a good cause. Amused because a friend takes her by surprise and does the honors before she can.
In accordance with the challenge, Emma posted her video along with who knows how many other shivering sufferers. The videos have gone famously viral—is that redundant?—and the amount raised by the ALS Association has been impressive: The group raised $88.5 million from July 29 through Tuesday, compared with $2.6 million for the same period last year.
My reaction to Emma’s video wasn’t to feel left out that I hadn’t been nominated yet. It was more relief that I was far from splash range of the driveway where Emma got soaked.
I suppose I assigned my niece’s fundraising effort to the “Those crazy college kids! What will they think of next?” category. Even though Emma is several years out of college.
Does this make me a bad person?
I checked with Lucy because my experience is that members of my family haven’t hesitated to bring my character flaws to my attention. Indeed, if you were to ask them whether they consider me a good person who occasionally indulges in selfish behavior, or a bad person, period, there would probably be a seven-second delay before they responded one way or the other.
So I was relieved when Lucy confessed she would probably also decline the invitation to get soaked—were she nominated.
“In general,” she explained, “I don’t put up pictures or videos of myself. I don’t believe anyone gives a [expletive] or should.”
Which, I suppose, raises the questions: Are people accepting the ALS challenge because they’re good Samaritans, because they briefly get to hog the limelight or a combination of the two? And has the selfie gone so far that the most efficient way to get us to cough up dough is to let us glorify ourselves?
And does it matter?
Because the gimmick seems to be working. After all, almost $90 million in a month has been raised. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a fatal and particularly diabolical disease of the nervous system—the person loses control of his or her muscles and eventually can’t speak, eat and even breathe.
Tony Judt, an historian and essayist, wrote a haunting series of stories in the New York Review of Books documenting how the disease ravaged his body. “In effect, ALS constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole,” he explained. He died in 2010.
“The cynicism I had about it has had to be put on hold,” my daughter acknowledged. “If a viral video is what it takes to raise money and awareness for research that isn’t getting enough recognition I think that’s great.”
However, she raised another point that also occurred to me—that the challenge seems to smack of coercion, no matter how gentle or fun-loving.
“It seems like the new chain email,” she said.
I’ve always hated chain mail, which depends on guilt compelling you to keep the chain going.
“I’m seeing more people donating money and ending the cycle rather than accepting the challenge,” my daughter said.
Those who have taken the easier, or at least less saturated, way out include President Obama, who declined to submit to a drenching.
However, Lucy said she felt no pressure either way, possibly because among her friends, “Only the preppiest people I know have done these videos. I think it hit a wall when it came to more alternative crew. Most people doing it among my friends are covered in Vineyard Vines.”
She was referring to a preppy clothing company.
My daughter, Gracie, raised a similar reservation with the campaign’s script. “You get nominated to donate $100,” she said. “Which I think is kind of elitist.”
Emma believes she was among the earliest ice bucket challengers, nominated by friends of hers who were New England college athletes. Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player with ALS, helped launch the campaign.
“People our age have all these big issues, but they feel they can do nothing about it,” Emma explained. “There’s no other issue where you feel you can donate a dollar and it will make a difference. You feel instant gratification. Which is something the millennials care about.”