|A scene from the recent Titanic miniseries|
Watching the new Titanic mini-series, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the great ship, made me marvel anew at why this tragedy, out of so many in our history, is one that lingers on in popular culture and in our memories. After all, we’ve experienced more recent disasters, such as the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, wherein seven astronauts perished when it blew up just after launch. But astronauts are something of a rarefied species among humankind – expert scientists and athletes – in a way, with skills that most of us don’t possess. The Titanic passengers were you and I, and, whether rich or poor, also ordinary folk undone by hubris on the part of the ship’s builders and those charged with steering it safely from Southampton, England to New York City. But the RMS Titanic was also testament to mankind’s reaching for the sky, and achieving what had been deemed impossible by so-called experts. But as with President John F. Kennedy, who could envision man landing on the moon and even predict which decade it would occur in, the folks who constructed the RMS Titanic could also dream big.
The ship was outfitted with state-of-the-art luxuries from wireless telegraphs available for personal use to on-board gyms, swimming pools, libraries and restaurants, not that different from cruise ships today. (Speaking of which, the recent Costa Concordia Italian cruise ship imbroglio carried plenty of echoes from the Titanic sinking. Unlike the captain of the Costa Concordia who snuck off the ship as it sunk, Captain Smith did the right thing and went down with the Titanic. However, it is believed his incompetence may have led to the ship hitting the iceberg, just as the Costa Concordia captain’s incompetence may have led to the wrecking of his ship. (Sound familiar?) Yet, due to outdated maritime regulations, the Titanic only had lifeboats for about 1200 passengers and crew, estimated to be a third of its total capacity. And due to human prejudices, while most women and children in First and Second Class were considered worth saving, and were rescued, most of the Third Class passengers in that contingent were not. Even among the men who were expected to be last off the ship, a higher percentage of First Class passengers (about 33%) survived versus 10-15% of the Second and Third Class group. Those class biases, prevalent among many of the rich passengers and directed against the poor immigrants, from various countries, stuck below decks, reflect man’s worst tendencies, but the venue where this all took place also symbolized the best of man’s inventiveness and genius. A contradiction reflected and acknowledged, I think, in much of the popular cultural adaptations centering on the tragedy, including even at times, in some scenes of James Cameron’s otherwise vapid 1997 Titanic film.