January 23, 2012

Someone's sunk, anyway

Mark Steyn laments that shipwreck victims couldn't all go down like the men on RMS Titanic and HMS Birkenhead before her.

Leaving aside the Birkenhead victims--who, well undeniably admirable, were all active duty soldiers in one of the most stiffly disciplined militaries in history, and so might not exactly be the best example of people forgoing their best interest in a disaster situation--the tragedy of RMS Titanic isn't the greatest example either, surely. It's hard to look on a tragedy where the survivors in lifeboats sat on their oars and refused to help hundreds of dying swimmers as an example of human greatness.

And while MS Costa Concordia's captain this month deserves everything that's come and is coming at him, and more, it is also a known fact there is no record of Titanic's captain giving one useful order after his ship drove into that iceberg, overcome by an apparent catatonia. A perfectly understandable failure of leadership, but in the end if you're on a boat going down and you have a choice before the captain who flees or the one frozen in a stupor, it's hard to say which would be better.

Ultimately, of course, the survival rate on the Italian cruise ship, panic and all, will be over 99 per cent, whereas Titanic's was 60%... if one counts the 710 survivors as a percentage of the 1178 lifeboat spaces available in those days before laws were passed on such things. The simple fact is that survival percentage could have been much higher, too, if the rule on women and children first hadn't been quite so strictly followed by the ship's officers, or all those third-class women and children who ended up trapped below when the ship sank had been sought out and encouraged to join their social betters before the davits swung out.

And that's the really cloying phrase in Steyn's piece, the one that showed he gave no real thought to this analogy at all: "the social norm... held up under pressure and across all classes." That is simply not a true statement, as Penalver outlines.

There is no question there were admirable and memorable actions aboard RMS Titanic. One always seeks and hopes for stoicism in ourselves and others in the face of great tragedy. But the social norm Steyn is pining for is one which doesn't see the deaths of over 240 third-class women and children who missed out on the whole "women and children first" thing, as quite so tragic as to outweigh the stylish example set by the 175 doomed first-class men who died with them. That's a social norm society can do without.

Posted by BruceR at 10:37 PM