Defending Roger Ebert

Slate's Culture Blog
June 22 2011 6:27 PM

Defending Roger Ebert

The following is a guest post by Slate's chief political correspondent John Dickerson.

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Getty Images

I'm glad Roger Ebert spoke up. Jackass performer Ryan Dunn killed himself and Zachary Hartwell Monday night in a car accident after leaving from a bar. Afterward, Ebert tweeted," Friends don't let jackasses drink and drive." He was immediately set upon. How could Ebert be so crass? "I just lost my best friend, I have been crying hysterical for a full day and this piece of shit roger Ebert has the gall to put in his 2 cents," Jackass star Bam Margera wrote .

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Ebert was right. I was sick to my stomach when I read about Dunn but not because I knew Dunn or was a fan. I was sick for his friends and those who loved him, and for those who loved Hartwell,a former Navy Seal and newlywed. You can see the anguish in Margera's face. What a waste.

But it wasn't Ebert's gall that bothered me. It was Dunn's. He was driving 130 to 140 mph in his Porsche, endangering not only his life but Hartwell's and that of anyone else on the highway. It takes gall to be that cocky with other people's lives. It takes gall to be that careless with the love and friendship of your friends and family. Dunn, who'd been busted for speeding and drunk driving before, was also drunk. His blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. That takes gall, too.

Maybe Ebert spoke too soon, especially since at the time all he knew was that Dunn had been drinking, not that he was legally drunk. We withhold immediate judgment on the dead for a reason: We don't want their last foolish act to be all that defines their life. We also want to be sensitive to the loved ones who are experiencing such pain.

But all of this pain is exactly why Ebert was right to speak up. This is the kind of pain that is caused by acting selfishly. Let the moment pass, and the lesson fades away. Maybe it's insensitive to make a lesson of death, but when you break the public trust by driving at murderous speeds and you further break that trust by doing it at twice the legal drinking limit you lose the protection of privacy.

We just spent several weeks hearing thousands of opinions about Rep. Anthony Weiner's lewd tweets. No one worried about crossing lines then, and few seemed to care about what the effect of the snickering commentary on Weiner or his wife or his family. It was as if his behavior opened the door to anything.

All Weiner did was send pictures. The stupid behavior underlying the sad deaths of Dunn and Hartwell is so much worse, and yet somehow Ebert isn't supposed to speak up? If only someone had the courage to speak up and keep Dunn off the road before this awful thing happened.

Photograph of Ryan Dunn courtesy of Getty Images.

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