03.28.2011 0

The Politics of Tragedy: Then and Now

By David Bozeman – April 14 marks the 99th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. 2012 will surely see major world-wide commemorations of the 100-year mark, but the event is already the subject of countless books, movies, documentaries, plays and, of course, metaphors.

No recent account is finer than author Stephen Cox’s The Titanic Story from 1999. He is one of the few to challenge the notion, inherent in many recollections and so prevalent today, that most disasters are exacerbated, if not caused, by the arrogance and folly of the rich.

The spectacularly filmed (and enormously watchable) 1997 Titanic paints White Star managing director J. Bruce Ismay and others as cartoon caricatures of evil and complacency. Ismay, of course, survived while so many women and children perished and, according to years of conventional wisdom, had urged the captain to speed through ice fields to attain a more desirable arrival date.

As Cox shows, the truth of Ismay is more complex and nuanced than the myth. Furthermore, Cox is one of the few (if not the only) authors to cover the congressional hearings into the disaster with an air of skepticism. Just days after the sinking, with survivors still numb from shock and grief, Senator William Alden Smith (R-Michigan) summoned many to testify before an official inquiry.

Cox calls Smith “an ingenious busybody, cherishing the typically twentieth century myth that if anything goes wrong, the United States government must do something about it” and notes that “The moral inquiry came to naught. Smith could find no evidence that Ismay (or any other corporate official) was directly responsible for what happened to the Titanic or was privy to any negligence.”

But let’s face it, the rich are just no darn fun. Rose, the despondent first-class heroine in the 1997 film found not only love but a rousing, foot-stomping good time with the third-class passengers below deck. They, apparently, were the most tragic and heroic victims of the disaster, though, in truth, acts of courage and heart-breaking passion defied class distinctions. In all fairness, the outrage and inquiries of the day yielded some life-saving regulations, including lifeboat capacity for every person onboard an ocean liner and increased lookouts for icebergs in the North Atlantic.

Still, whereas history should not cede itself to Hollywood filmmakers, public policy should not be molded by hysteria and pre-conceived notions. The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, premiered almost simultaneously with the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, and it is garnering discussion even today with the Japan nuclear situation. Indeed, fear and outrage drive public discourse in blizzards and heat waves (“Climate change!”), hurricanes such as Katrina and the Gulf oil spill (which led to a ban on further offshore drilling). With some variation, the culprits are usually the same: the wealthy, the productive and, in political terms, the Republicans.

So, should we stock up now on iodite pills and leave nuclear policy to the environmentalist left?

Hopefully, cooler, more reasoned heads will prevail. Even with our best intentions and the strictest of oversight, natural disasters will strike. Man-made disasters can be minimized, but no human activity exists outside the margin of error.

Cox quotes Walt Whitman that the purpose of embarking upon a journey (such as discovering the meaning of the Titanic) is to “encounter all the wreckage of past decisions and still be able to see, with the mind’s eye, one flag above all the rest.” As we in the 21st Century reflect on disasters past, what symbol do we see, what is the standard, by which we judge all else, that we seek to maintain?

David Bozeman, former Libertarian Party Chairman, is a Liberty Features Syndicated writer.

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