Economics, Morality, And Roger Ebert’s Final Years

Austin Hill

4/7/2013 12:01:00 AM - Austin Hill

I never paid much attention to what Roger Ebert said about movies.

Given that I usually take-in only three or four films a year, Ebert’s analysis of any particular film or actor or “scene” just wasn’t going to be something that would capture my attention.

But the final seven years or so of Ebert’s life offer some seriously thoughtful and thought provoking lessons, for those who still care to learn. Whether you reside on the right or left side of the political and cultural aisle doesn’t much matter. Consider some of the facts of Ebert’s final years, and the implications of his actions.

First, Ebert suffered with multiple bouts of cancer for over a decade, yet he and his wife Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert remained married and supportive of each other. Initially diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid in 2002, Roger would discover cancer in his salivary gland a year later. After being in remission for periods of time, he eventually contracted cancer in his jaw bone (which necessitated the removal of his jaw), and he lost his voice. Through all of this, he and were seemingly inseparable.

The things that the Eberts said and wrote about each other during their roughly twenty years of marriage were sufficiently extraordinary, even for otherwise healthy spouses. Yet despite Roger’s immense health struggles, neither of them seemed to have been deterred. Even in the past few years as a voiceless Roger absolutely needed Chaz to speak on his behalf, both out in public and in television interviews, never once did you see either of them convey anything short of love and respect for the other, and neither of them ever seemed awkward or uncomfortable with Roger’s diminished functioning. In a country where the legal definition of marriage remains a widely contested public policy issue all the while more than half of the nation’s marriages end in divorce, the Eberts, whether they intended to or not, publicly emulated what a marriage should be about -both in sickness and in health.

Secondly, Roger’s determination to remain professionally and publicly active despite his debilitations says some extraordinary things – both about Roger’s character, and about the value of human life itself. Losing your voice and having your face become severely disfigured is undoubtedly awful for anybody, but for someone who makes their living in front of tv cameras, such circumstances could be a career killer.

But not for Roger Ebert. Despite the loss of his voice Roger could still write, and what couldn’t be written Chaz could say for him. That’s how things went for Roger over the last seven years or so. Do an online search and story after story emerges of the Eberts playfully appearing at film festivals and movie premiers, Roger offering his signature “two thumbs up” gestures with Chaz doing the talking.

An extraordinary example of the Eberts’ “grace under fire” appears in a video on Youtube. Roger and Chaz are sitting on the set in a remote studio being interviewed by a CNN Host at the Anchor desk. The Host, noticeably awkward with Roger’s appearance and inaudible gestures, thanks Roger for his courage to continue appearing on TV, noting that Roger had been such a handsome on-camera performer for so many years. Through hand signals, scrawling on a note pad, and some vocal help from Chaz, Roger shoots-back at the host and says “what do you mean I was handsome? I think I’m still looking pretty good!”

The fact is, Roger looked rather odd with his jaw removed, but that apparently didn’t matter to the confident and in-love couple known as Roger and Chaz. The value of one’s life transcends their immediate physical appearance and level of functioning, and Roger’s sustained presence in the public square was a testimony to that ultimate truth. Yet on this point, Roger’s final years were an anathema to those who are quick to advocate for rationed healthcare and euthanasia, believing that people as old and incapacitated as Roger quite naturally have a “duty to die.”

Tragically, during the same week that the courageous Roger Ebert left us, some horrific news broke about Medicare, the federal healthcare program for senior adults. Under the federal Obamacare law, funding for Medicare is being gradually cut to allow for increased expenditures on Medicaid, the federal healthcare program for the poor, and on the Obamacare program itself. As a result, a new trend has emerged: Medicare is increasingly denying treatment to elderly cancer patients (Is this the “change” you were “hoping” for?).

From a raw political standpoint, this makes sense. Sickly senior citizens are a less-viable voter-block than are younger and middle-aged citizens (those who can benefit from Obamacare and Medicaid). But from a moral standpoint this is an abomination. Is the life of every elderly cancer patient as valuable as Roger Ebert’s was? In political terms, the answer is “no.”

Thank you Roger and Chaz for some important lessons. Are Americans willing to learn from them?