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      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.

"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.

      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.

      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.


RMS Titanic:

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (8+ / 0-)

    What would you have done in those two and a half hours? What are we failing to do that we could/should do; what are we failing to see looming out of the mist ahead of us?

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 06:18:26 PM PDT

  •  The Thing I Didn't Realize (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xaxnar, Gooserock, palantir, coquiero

    is that all the men working on the ship came from pretty much the same small town. Overnight all the men were just gone. And entire generation or two.

    When opportunity calls pick up the phone and give it directions to your house.

    by webranding on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 06:59:37 PM PDT

    •  And That Happened Again in Both World Wars. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xaxnar, webranding, coquiero

      I had Scots and Irish immigrant friends from those eras who've explained this.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 07:03:49 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  An episode of The Flying Cloud mentions one such (0+ / 0-)

        It's from episode 161:

        "I was able to locate a transcript of his Service record in the Residence’s archives," said Jenkins. "It appears that he held a commission in one of the Pals Battalions: the 11th East Lancashire Regiment. He was wounded several times, collected a number of decorations, and finished the War as a major."

        Everett rubbed the scar on his wrist. "The 11th Accrington," he said, shaking his head in wonder at what this meant. "They were at Serre! Well, we can’t doubt the man’s courage. What did he do after the Peace?"

        The story of the regiment is here, and it's pretty horrifying.

        The 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg is another case.

        Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, commander of the II Corps, ordered the regiment to assault a much larger enemy force (a brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox) telling Col. William Colvill to take the enemy's colors. The fateful charge bought the time needed while other forces were brought up. During the charge, 215 members of the 262 men who were present at the time became casualties, including the regimental commander, Col. William Colvill, and all but three of his regimental Captains.

        The unit's flag fell five times and rose again each time. The 47 survivors rallied back to General Hancock under the senior surviving officer, Captain Nathan S. Messick. The 83.0 percent casualty rate stands to this day as the largest loss by any surviving military unit in American history during a single engagement. The unit's flag is now in the Minnesota Capitol's rotunda.

        As I understand it, that occurred in about 15 minutes of battle.

        "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

        by xaxnar on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 07:18:44 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  No Convincing Evidence for "Nearer My God to Thee" (6+ / 0-)

    but tellingly, the band were listed on the register as 2nd class passengers and outsourced to a private contractor so the White Star Line could avoid paying them union scale.

    [It also says an Irish uilleann (bag)pipe was found on the seabed in the wreckage, and the identity of the owner at the time is known. The Cameron movie's steerage dance scene features one playing with a pickup band, while the movie's sound track is often led by one. My Celtic trad contacts tell me there would be great interest in recovering the instrument to gain design information from it, if the wood survives, for various reasons unique and important to that craft.]

    The band did not play "Nearer My God to Thee" at the end, they were heard by a ship's crew member playing a tune called "Autumn."

    Lifeboats is actually a complicated subject as is now being reported but still a good metaphor for modern society:

    These new superships were, as technology often is, out ahead of governance which in our tradition which is so biased toward liberty that it requires harm to happen either severely or often to drive political consensus to restrain behavior.

    Government was catching up and so according to a historytician show I saw just this week, government was trying to encourage building of sink-proof ships by easing the lifeboat requirement so that they would build the ships better. One concern was that if full lifeboat count was required for these new safety-bulkhead ships, nobody would bother building the ships safer.

    Titanic carried I think 2 more boats than required, but according to some of the new programming on the teevee portrays arguments where engineers or designers are arguing for substantially more on the grounds that regulations were very likely soon to catch up.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 07:02:46 PM PDT

    •  The link to the story of the musicians.... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      palantir, Gooserock, coquiero

      actually goes into what the last tune they were playing may have been - with sound clips. We'll never know for sure; Chapin was probably going with the popular version.

      "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

      by xaxnar on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 07:08:16 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's a never-ending argument (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        and points up the usual problems with multiple "eyewitness" accounts - they don't necessarily agree.

        It's reasonably certain that they did not play the American version of "Nearer My God To Thee" - even though some American survivors claimed they did, and that's the popular choice for movies etc. (This is set to a tune called "Bethany".)

        American passengers might or might not have recognized the now-common British version, set to a tune called "Horbury".

        But there's a third version, which was popular (especially with Methodists) on both sides of the Atlantic: a tune by Sir Arthur Sullivan, called "Propior Deo" - which sounds enough like "Bethany" that it could be taken for it at a distance (e.g. out in a lifeboat).

        Against which there's Harold Bride's assertion that the last thing he heard them play was something called "Autumn" (now believed to refer to "Songe d'Automne", a sombre litle waltz).

        To which must also be added that bandleader Wallace Hartley was a devout Methodist and was very familiar with the Sullivan setting, and that in the Daily Sketch on April 22, 1912, a colleague of Hartley’s recalled how some years earlier, while working aboard the Mauretania, he asked Hartley what he would do if he found himself on the deck of a sinking ship.  Hartley replied that he would assemble the ship’s orchestra and play “O God Our Help in Ages Past” or “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

        Did he? We'll probably never know for sure. But it remains a tantalizing possibility.

        If it's
        Not your body,
        Then it's
        Not your choice
        And it's
        None of your damn business!

        by TheOtherMaven on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 10:40:35 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Oh--Fairly Well Known--Dead Musicians' Families (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      were billed for the cost of the lost uniforms and I think some for wages paid in advance for days the musicians were no longer alive and working, by their subcontractor employer.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 07:14:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  ya know.... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xaxnar, eXtina, coquiero

    funny you should mention the summer camp song....
    I did go to summer camp (50's-60's) and we all learned the Titanic song.  BUT, we weren't allowed to sing it because the camp directors childhood friend had perished on the Titanic.

    I think, therefore I am........................... Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose AKA Engine Nighthawk - don't even ask!

    by Lilyvt on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 07:45:37 PM PDT

  •  just curious, have you had a long time (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    interest in the Titanic or did you learn all this recently? All I know of it is the actual sinking part from a previous lifetime and have resisted learning anything more in this one. I never knew there were any songs, I heard one just today and had to turn it off - it was horrible, the music was entirely inappropriate to the content and lyrics.

    "I'm sculpting now. Landscapes mostly." ~ Yogi Bear

    by eXtina on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 08:32:14 PM PDT

    •  Bits and pieces over the years (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Plus all the things that have been in the news lately.

      There's a museum at Fall River, MA  which has artifacts recovered from the wreck, and a model of the Titanic from one of the movies, along with other displays relating to the maritime history of the region.

      (Battleship Cove too)

      "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

      by xaxnar on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 08:57:32 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  thanks but I can't really look at that stuff (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        coquiero, xaxnar

        without being gripped with terror

        "I'm sculpting now. Landscapes mostly." ~ Yogi Bear

        by eXtina on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 09:03:28 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Interesting take on life, death and variations.... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Fictional story (I hope) of someone who was brought back from death. The person responsible was then asked

           "Do you remember where you were before you were born?


          Then how would you feel if you were suddenly pulled back there?!?!?"

          Terror is where you find it; some days just waking up is an act of courage.

          I have a desktop picture of the Taj Mahal. It's a wonderful, beautiful building - but it's also a tomb.

          "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

          by xaxnar on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 09:31:38 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  RMS Tyrannic (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    "The biggest thing in all the world!" the brilliant Bruce McCall wrote and illustrated a fantastic piece for a 1974 edition of the National Lampoon about this ship, scathingly sat arising the size, the hubris, and the class distinctions of this imaginary ship. It was a time when 'Liberals' were really in your face and unafraid to go after the 'Establishment', and boy do I miss those times.

    I believe the Tyrannic piece is reproduced in a couple of the NatLamp anthology books for those who don't still have the old issues in their attics!

    Romney 2012 - Let them eat cake!

    by Fordmandalay on Sun Apr 15, 2012 at 10:13:09 AM PDT

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