100 years gone since the Titanic hit that iceberg, and the disaster of that night is still reverberating. By now you may have gotten tired of the spate of Titanic stories in the news, Titanic 3D, and so on. And if that weren't enough, there's also the ABC miniseries premiering tonight. At this point writing anything about Titanic risks overkill. I'll try to add a little something different to the mix, so I'll ask for just a little indulgence.
More below the Orange Omnilepticon.
One of the things about the Titanic sinking that bears some thinking about is the way it captures the imagination. It's been the subject of multiple movies and books; it's a major plot point in a Broadway Musical. It's been the subject of numerous parodies and derivative works.
There have been other disasters involving ships, like the Four Chaplains, or the sinking of the Indianapolis. There's plenty of horror and heroism in both. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald certainly got a lot of attention for a time thanks to Gordon Lightfoot - yet his song about the Yarmouth Castle didn't catch the public's fancy. There's something about the Titanic.
Let me start by giving you the sinking of the Titanic in 5 minutes as imagined by the late great singer songwriter Harry Chapin.
Chapin seized on a historic event from the disaster that actually happened. Consider it just one of several metaphors we're still drawing upon from the Titanic: ordinary people doing their best to do their jobs in the midst of disaster. Taken one way, it's a form of real heroism. Taken another way, it's recognition of how we can get screwed in the workplace...
Chapin's take on it also plays on another aspect of the disaster; the hubris of the idea that Titanic was somehow immune from the forces of Nature, and the ways class and authority manifested in the disaster. One of the things that I find somewhat boggling is reports of people who have seen the movie, but had no idea it was based on a real event. All of a sudden, the missing 8 years of the Bush presidency and collective amnesia about it seems less a deliberate conspiracy and more a commentary on the essential cluelessness of humans.
It may also mark how many people grow up these days without having gone to summer camp, or perhaps it's the choice of songs now being sung around campfires. There are a lot of versions out there apparently, but the basic facts are there. (Chapin almost certainly knew at least one version of this song.)
The metaphor of Titanic as a morality play is certainly an obvious one. The idea of the rich and powerful standing the best chance of survival while the poor were condemned to a horrible death below decks is a powerful image of class warfare in action. I would not be surprised if the song is not sung as often as it used to be because even hinting at "C-W" stirs too many passions.
Ironically, the class warfare aspect is somewhat negated by the numbers of wealthy and famous passengers who did not survive; some by deliberate choice (putting family members first, doing the 'proper thing'), some because they simply didn't/couldn't get into the lifeboats in time. One can't but help think about the Koch brothers and their deliberate campaign to block action on climate change. Do they think they and their family members will be first in the lifeboats?
And while we're at it, we might as well consider the metaphor of the lifeboats. There really isn't a lot to be said about the wisdom or motives of building a ship that could carry up to 3,300 people, but only supplying lifeboats for about 1,100. And they didn't use what little they had as well as they could.
It's not that it was technologically impossible; the designs were available. They could have done better, they knew if the worst happened their measures wouldn't be adequate, and yet they chose to act as they did. If you want a metaphor for Conservative attacks on the social safety net and government because of some delusion that market forces work better than planning and foresight ever will, put it right up there with the idea that no one really needed lifeboats because Titanic was unsinkable.
Hubris, of course, is one of the chief concepts embodied in the Titanic as metaphor - the idea that there was no disaster the ship couldn't cope with, that hadn't been anticipated - and it plays out over and over again through human history. There is something in humans that wants to believe all threats can be prepared for, that authority has the answers, that Mommy and Daddy are still out there to take care of us when bad things happen. (Not to mention the profit motive in cutting corners on safety, or the loss of face in admitting uncertainty.)
It's a problem for individuals - just look at the news every day. It's a problem for institutions - just look at the Space Shuttle disasters, or the Wall Street meltdown. Nobody wants to admit they don't know everything, that they could be wrong, that they're engaging in risky behavior. Silencing dissenting voices, refusing to address uncertainty, and refusing to learn from history is what makes hubris possible. It's a lesson we seem to have to relearn over and over.
If there's one thing about the sinking of the Titanic that bothers me, it's the reaction by the passengers and crew. Planet money compared it with a comparable disaster, the sinking of the Lusitania which was marked by panic and a comparable loss of life. That ship sank in about 20 minutes; the Titanic took two and a half hours and that made a difference they concluded.
The biggest difference, Savage [David Savage, an economist at Queensland University in Australia] concludes, was time. The Lusitania sank in less than 20 minutes. The Titanic took two-and-a-half hours.As a country, as a planet, as individuals, as a species, we're facing a lot of slow-motion disasters that may well prove fatal: economic inequality on steroids; incompetent elites doubling down on failed policies; corruption of democratic institutions and the war on the public good; energy-resource-population issues; global climate change. The list is increasing. We have no shortage of icebergs, and we seem to able to change course about as quickly as the Titanic. There's one particular Titanic metaphor that keeps coming up, usually following a foreseeable disaster: rearranging the deck chairs.
"If you've got an event that lasts two-and-a-half hours, social order will take over and everybody will behave in a social manner," Savage says. "If you're going down in under 17 minutes, basically it's instinctual."
On the Titanic, social order ruled, and it was women and children first.
On the Lusitania, instinct won out. The survivors were largely the people who could swim and get into the lifeboats.
Yes, we're self-interested, Savage says. But we're also part of a society. Given time, societal conventions can trump our natural self-interest. A hundred years ago, women and children always went first. Men were stoic. On the Titanic, there was enough time for these norms to assert themselves.
The people aboard the Titanic had two and a half hours to act. How many could have been saved if they had turned all their resources to survival - making sure the lifeboats were all used and filled to capacity? Improvising rafts? Organizing the departure from the ship as quickly as possible? They had calm and order - what else could they have done with it?
We're facing challenges in which calm and order are going to be increasingly hard to come by. Our response to 911 was anything but rational or effective - and it's become institutionalized into norms of behavior that do not serve us well, and lead to irrational behavior day after day in ways both small and large. How much avoidable waste of time, resources, and human life will have to occur before we smarten up?
RMS Titanic still has lessons for us a hundred years later - if we're willing to learn.
10:21 PM PT: UPDATE: Astronomy Pic 'o the Day has an example of the kind of mirage that may have hampered efforts by the Titanic to avoid ice bergs or get help from other ships.