Letter From New York: April 23 2009 Pride Goeth Before the Fall

April 15th stands out in all American minds as the dreaded day when tax returns are due. However, the 15th of April is a notable day for other anniversaries and events. It is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, of Leonardo DaVinci’s birth, and the sinking of Titanic.

The loss of Titanic has become legend, at the bottom is a true story – Titanic was a real ship, it carried real people, it struck an iceberg, it sank. The real story has become larger than itself, a story upon which much meaning is applied, inspiring books, films, a musical, catch phrases – “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” and has become an allegory for heading blissfully, arrogantly, determinedly without caution into catastrophe, sailing without enough lifeboats for all. Wealth meant celebrity in 1912 and Titanic was chock-a-block with millionaires. Their presence aboard gave it a luster it has never lost. The richest man in the world, John Jacob Astor, was not saved by his fortune. Molly Brown, a Denver doyenne, created a legend that night and has been immortalized as The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

On board was a cross section of the western world at the time – the rich, the middle class and the poor who hoped for more. It was sailing from the old world to the new; it was the height of the technology of the time.

Like so many things in life that end badly there are a surfeit of “what ifs” and “if onlys”.

What if the men on watch had had binoculars? If only the watertight compartments had gone one deck higher, if the nearby ship, the Californian, hadn’t sent its radio operator to bed just before the SOS signals began to be sent, if the men on their deck had paid heed to the rockets flaring into the night. What if the ship had not tried to avoid the iceberg – a head on collision would have saved Titanic from sinking. What if the last iceberg warnings had actually reached the bridge? If only attention had been paid…to so many things.

It is a story of bravery and selflessness and selfishness and bad behavior. It was men and women first, though first class men had a better survival rate than women and children in steerage. When John Jacob Astor asked to join his young, pregnant wife in a lifeboat, he was turned down and stepped back like a gentleman. His body was recovered some days later. Ida Straus stayed with her husband, Isidore, who was a department store tycoon. J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line, owner of Titanic, stepped into a lifeboat and a lifetime of shame.

Its loss has been the backdrop for many films, most notably TITANIC in 1997, a blockbuster of immense dimension. There seem to be an endless number of websites devoted to Titanic – it is a story that has burned itself into the Western collective consciousness as a story of meaning with lessons to be learned. Proud and confident in technology and the inevitability of progress, the ship sailed and each one of those things suffered as a result of its loss.

It is a story that will not be forgotten, nor should it be. It is a reflection of things that result when man thinks he is in control of events. Not so different from the flaws that propelled us recklessly into this economic mess – pride, feeling nothing could bring down the colossus, shoddy workmanship.

Yes, shoddy workmanship. It is likely that Titanic sank because the steel of its hull was made with too much slag and was brittle; its rivets were not good, not the best metal and not done by the best hands and so popped as the iceberg glanced the ship. The parallel to our economic crisis is that lack of attention to details are important things when push comes to shove – or iceberg meets metal.

Titanic’s story is a lesson, an allegory for what we do wrong – and the courage shown when things go badly.

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