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Speaking Ill of the Famous Dead: A Pajiba Discussion

By Courtney Enlow | Think Pieces | July 1, 2011 |


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Last week, Rowles discussed the Twit-cident in which Roger Ebert referred to recently deceased Ryan Dunn as a "jackass" who drove drunk, greatly upsetting Dunn's friends, as well as many who read the tweet. But as excellent as Dustin's original post was, it was the comments that got me thinking, because a much larger discussion was beginning to form. With that, I turn to you.

Common rules of decency dictate that we must respect the dead. Is this necessarily the case?

Fact: Ryan Dunn had a BAC of over 0.19, more than twice the legal limit, when he drove 140 mph, and did so on the same stretch of road where he flipped his car eight times fifteen years prior. I'm not going to link to TMZ and give them extra pageviews for essentially posting a photo of a death scene, but believe me when I say that car was destroyed beyond recognition that it was ever anything more than a charred hunk of metal.

So, let me pose the ugly question. Why is it that because, due to speed, trajectory, impact and sheer dumb luck, this person happened to die this time, killing his friend in the process, we are supposed to speak no evil?

I really do feel guilty even writing this, and I don't know that I even necessarily agree with anything I say past the period at the end of this paragraph. I mean, we are raised with the idea that once someone leaves this mortal coil, they are untouchable. That death is such a powerful thing that it renders the memory of those who meet their maker somewhat purified.

But should that be the case? Should it be considered so cruel, cold and terrible to pose the idea that maybe a death of this nature isn't as much a shame as it is what happens when someone drives 140 mph completely wasted? Because I just posed it, and I feel pretty cruel, cold and terrible for doing so.

Think about this: today, Lindsay Lohan is an unmitigated fuck-up with no sense of responsibility, or sense at all, really. At the worst, people laugh at her; at the other end of the spectrum, people feel sorry for her as a sick tragic figure. But, were she to die tomorrow, the scale would tip, and the vast majority would be on Team Sad Tragic Figure. And all because she would have made it to what would seem to the be the inevitable end point. Look at Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse, both of whom, against all possible efforts, manage to still ensconce beating hearts. When their organs just finally up and quit, will we look in horrified judgment at those who, possibly fairly, state that they did this to themselves, that they had all the chances in the world and didn't take them?

I don't mean to focus solely on those possibly suffering from addictions (though, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm not sure I think Lohan is an addict; I think she's an irresponsible dipshit, and those are different things), partly because that's a whole other can of worms and one I understand too much to go on appearing to judge those in that realm, and mostly because--I've said it before, I'll say it again--addictions are different when the addict is famous. Addiction + Fame = The Delusion of Infallibility and Immortality. And, weirdly, they always seem to be right. Charlie Sheen will probably outlive us all. But, in Hollywood, it's so rarely any disease but the vice which knocks someone down. And, no matter how sick or sad someone's existence in this world was, particularly if they took the life of someone else with them along the way, should they be immortalized as a tragic hero simply because they won't be around anymore?

Maybe, yes. A reckless living person is one thing. But, when the day comes where that recklessness finally does them in, it is sad. It is a shame. They will never get another chance to do things differently. Yes, perhaps their actions lead to something terrible, but they didn't deserve it. They didn't have it coming. Why should their entire previous existence be colored by how it ended? Why should people begrudge those who prefer to recall them in soft focus with the flaws diminished?

Death is sad. The senseless loss of a life is a tragedy. But does that loss of life immediately give an individual a force field shielding them from criticism?

So, I put it to you. I've driven you to the devil's advocate cliff. Jump.


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