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The Sinking of the West
It’ll look more like the Costa Concordia than the Titanic.

The Costa Concordia off the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Jan. 19, 2012

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Mark Steyn

Abe Greenwald of Commentary magazine tweets:

Is there any chance that Mark Steyn won’t use the Italian captain fleeing the sinking ship as the lead metaphor in a column on EU collapse?

Oh, dear. You’ve got to get up early in the morning to beat me to civilizational-collapse metaphors. Been there, done that. See page 185 of my most recent book, where I contrast the orderly, dignified, and moving behavior of those on the Titanic (the ship, not the mendacious Hollywood blockbuster) with that manifested in more recent disasters. There was no orderly evacuation from the Costa Concordia, just chaos punctuated by individual acts of courage from, for example, an Hungarian violinist in the orchestra and a ship’s entertainer in a Spiderman costume, both of whom helped children to safety, the former paying with his life.

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The miserable Captain Schettino, by contrast, is presently under house arrest, charged with manslaughter and abandoning ship. His explanation is that, when the vessel listed suddenly, he fell into a lifeboat and was unable to climb out. Seriously. Could happen to anyone, slippery decks and all that. Next thing you know, he was safe on shore, leaving his passengers all at sea. On the other hand, the audio of him being ordered by Coast Guard officers to return to his ship and refusing to do so is not helpful to this version of events.

In the centenary year of the most famous of all maritime disasters, we would do well to consider honestly the tale of the Titanic. When James Cameron made his movie, he was interested in everything except what the story was actually about. I confess I have very little memory of the film except for Kate Winslet’s lush full breasts and some tedious sub-Riverdance prancing in the hold, but what I do recall traduced the memory of honorable men: In my book, I cite First Officer William Murdoch. In real life, he threw deckchairs to passengers drowning in the water to give them something to cling to, and then he went down with the ship — the dull, decent thing, all very British, with no fuss. In Cameron’s movie, Murdoch takes a bribe and murders a third-class passenger. The director subsequently apologized to the First Officer’s hometown in Scotland and offered £5,000 toward a memorial, which converted into Hollywood dollars equals rather less than what Cameron and his family paid for dinner after the Oscars.

On the Titanic, the male passengers gave their lives for the women and would never have considered doing otherwise. On the Costa Concordia, in the words of a female passenger, “There were big men, crew members, pushing their way past us to get into the lifeboat.” After similar scenes on the MV Estonia a few years ago, Roger Kohen of the International Maritime Organization told Time magazine: “There is no law that says women and children first. That is something from the age of chivalry.”

If, by “the age of chivalry,” you mean our great-grandparents’ time.

In fact, “women and children first” can be dated very precisely. On Feb. 26, 1852, HMS Birkenhead was wrecked off the coast of Cape Town while transporting British troops to South Africa. There were, as on the Titanic, insufficient lifeboats. The women and children were escorted to the ship’s cutter. The men mustered on deck. They were ordered not to dive in the water lest they risk endangering the ladies and their young charges by swamping the boats. So they stood stiffly at their posts as the ship disappeared beneath the waves. As Kipling wrote:

We’re most of us liars, we’re ’arf of us thieves, an’ the rest of us rank as can be, But once in a while we can finish in style (which I ’ope it won’t ’appen to me).

Sixty years later, the men on the Titanic — liars and thieves, wealthy and powerful, poor and obscure — found themselves called upon to “finish in style,” and did so. They had barely an hour to kiss their wives goodbye, watch them clamber into the lifeboats, and sail off without them. They, too, ’oped it wouldn’t ’appen to them, but, when it did, the social norm of “women and children first” held up under pressure and across all classes.

Today there is no social norm, so it’s every man for himself — operative word “man,” although not many of the chaps on the Titanic would recognize those on the Costa Concordia as “men.” From a grandmother on the latter: “I was standing by the lifeboats and men, big men, were banging into me and knocking the girls.”

Whenever I write about these subjects, I receive a lot of mail from men along the lines of this correspondent: “The feminists wanted a gender-neutral society. Now they’ve got it. So what are you complaining about?”



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