Friends, Jackasses, Countrymen: In Dunn tweet, Ebert spoke an uncomfortable truthWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“Friends, Romans, countrymen; lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do live after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar.”
-William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar,” Act III, Scene II
“Friends don‘t let jackasses drink and drive.”
-Roger Ebert, Twitter post, June 20, 2011
I’ve spent a good chunk of time over the past few days thinking a lot about these two quotes, which have little in common beyond a first word. But I think understanding one is crucial to understanding the reaction the other has received.
Everyone knows the “friends, Romans, countrymen” part of Antony’s speech. Few pay as much attention to the words that follow. Antony suggests that when a man like Caesar dies, we all tend to forget all the good he did and only want to focus on his evil actions.
But Antony is being manipulative. He wants to turn Roman society against Brutus and his co-conspirators so he can grab power. He’s playing on society’s actual tendency — an ability to forget all the bad things about anyone who has passed away, and focus only on the good. I suspect this was much the same in Shakespeare’s day as it is today.
When someone dies, the desire is to treat them with kid gloves. No one wants to offend those who loved and cared for them, no matter how monumental the evidence against them may have been. Whether a disgraced head-of-state or a scandalous entertainer, it takes a lot for the media, and society in general, to speak ill of the dead in any form. Basically, if you’re not Osama Bin Laden, we’ll find a way to say nice things.
This came to a head this past week after the passing of Ryan Dunn, one of the stars of “Jackass.” I have never seen the show, and don’t think lesser of myself for it. A bunch of 20-somethings performing ridiculous stunts just never appealed to me. I understand the show has many, many fans, and I harbor no ill will toward them. I hope they also enjoy entertainments which actually have substance.
Dunn and a passenger passed away in a car accident early on June 20. Few details were available at first about the evening before the crash. Dunn had posted pictures of many glasses of alcohol on Twitter in the hours prior to his death. It was estimated that he had been driving over 140 miles per hour at the time of the accident. This led to the assumption that he had been driving impaired.
Film critic and avid Twitter user Roger Ebert soon posted a comment on Dunn’s passing with “RIP” added. Then he posted his infamous second quote.
The response from fans, Dunn’s co-stars and the “blogosphere” was immediate. He was speaking ill of the dead! How dare he call Dunn a “jackass!” This was uncalled for and insensitive and all sorts of other words that can’t be written in a family newspaper. This led many grieving Dunn fans to post such words in forums like Ebert’s Facebook page, which was taken down a day later due to the vulgar content. (It has since been restored.)
Ebert wrote a blog on his site trying to explain. He noted that he used the term “jackasses” because, well, Dunn WAS on a show of the same name. And there was much evidence to suggest he had been intoxicated. Pointedly, Ebert never seemed to apologize for the original tweet. He seemed regretful that people had misunderstood it, but not the sentiment behind it.
I think I understand why. The statement, divorced completely from Dunn’s passing, is hardly controversial. And even connected to him, the words don’t gain any astounding level of offensiveness. Calling Dunn a “jackass,” considering what he was famous for, is a bizarre thing to get angry about. I’ll bet Dunn referred to himself as such.
Ebert’s mistake was timing. Posting such a sentiment before many fans had even digested that Dunn was gone opened himself to such a backlash. And there was no solid evidence that Dunn had, in fact, been driving drunk. (Evidence that now exists — Philadelphia police have confirmed that Dunn was over twice the legal limit during the crash.)
When someone dies, we want to focus on the good. It’s natural instinct — we want others to do the same for us when we’re gone, too. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to reality. Ryan Dunn died in an accident. He was intoxicated. His passenger was killed, and he risked the lives of everyone who shared the road with him that night. If he hadn’t driven, he’d still be alive. What Ebert said was ill-timed, uncomfortable and true. Friends don’t let jackasses — whether on “Jackass” or not — drink and drive.