Patrick Stewart leads the Ice Bucket Challenge

Taking the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Photo by Henry Huey via Flickr, Creative Commons

I was doing just fine ignoring the ice bucket trend, until actor Patrick Stewart wowed the world with his response to the challenge and made me look. 

It seems silly, but it turns out that silly — here, asking people to dump icy water over their heads — is a terrific way to fund-raise. Due to its ice bucket challenge, the American ALS Association said today it’s received $53.3 (U.S.) million in donations, compared to $2.2 million during the same time period last year. The challenge allowed Canada’s ALS charity to boost its fundraising goal from a paltry $10,000 (Canadian) to $3 million, reported Global news.

There are confusing aspects to the promotion. It’s unclear where it originated, and whether the first participants designated general charity or ALS as the specific recipient. Oddly, it challenges people to *either* dump water on their heads *or* write a cheque for ALS  – with a third option of doing both. As it turns out, most people are gracious enough to do both. 

YouTube, at the time of this post, offers some 1.1 million videos related to “ice bucket.” A Google search for “ice bucket challenge” delivers nearly 80 million hits. A deluge of news stories ranges from New York Times reports of funds raised to icky photos of wet celebrities to a brief about an ice bucket Halloween costume. Recently some firefighters helping in a challenge were injured when their truck was energized by an electrical wire; that one made international news.

Sceptics, predictably, have protested. Californians, whose state is in the midst of a brutal and historic drought, are asked to dump dirt instead of scarce water on their heads. Critics accused Chinese businessmen of doing the challenge, and vying over who was first, of  shameless marketing. Critics wrote scathingly about problems with the terms of the challenge (Time) or ethical debates over of ALS research using animals (Pamela Anderson), and use of stem cells — one anti-abortion group called ALS research part of a “culture of death.” “A lot of the participants are probably spending more money on bagged ice than on ALS research,” sniffed Will Oremus in Slate. “Narcissism masked as altruism,” snarked Arielle Pardes in Vice. Social media feeds flooded with outraged references to U.S. water boarding torture when former American president George W. Bush took the challenge.

My own first reaction to this phenomenon was to wonder how similar attention could be lavished on top killers that are grotesquely underfunded, like malaria and diarrhea, or similar good will could be turned to the countless horrors in the world. I decided I was being churlish. I think the ALS organizers should ignore the critics — they caught a wave, and good on ’em. I’ll bet, at least after their brains thaw, far more people know the name Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the progressive neurodegenerative disease that’s often called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Finally, I nominate Patrick Stewart for a Class Act award for his own ice bucket challenge — see the video below. One quibble: someone please – please! – tell Stewart it’s sacrilege to pour great whiskey onto ice.

— Deborah Jones


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