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Jan 29 2012

In Our Degenerate Times

This is what I get for reading the local mainstream paper on a Sunday.

If you don’t read liberal Minnesota bloggers, you may not have had the displeasure of having heard of our local conservative columnist, Katherine Kersten. Yesterday’s column, however, can give you all you really need to know. It contains all the ahistoricality, all the lofty sneering, all the sour distaste for those unlike her, all the appropriation of real tragedies to make her petty points.

Yesterday, Kersten appears to have decided that the sinking of the Costa Concordia is a lesson about the depravity of today just waiting to happen:

The Costa Concordia fiasco inevitably invites comparison with another famous shipwreck — that of the Titanic on April 15, 1912. The contrast in the behavior of those on board couldn’t be starker. In 1912, the Titanic’s crew and most of its male passengers refused to board lifeboats until the women and children were safe. They preferred death in the frigid waters that awaited them to breaching such a point of honor.

This change in the behavior of ordinary people in the face of crisis reveals something about who we have become in the century since the Titanic’s demise.

Since the sinking of the Titanic, we have become a people who insist that human life is important enough for cruise ships to have lifeboats enough for all instead of based on the cargo capacity of the ship. We have become a people who are appalled that second- and third-class passengers would not only die at much higher percentages but have their bodies consigned to the sea rather than recovered for their relatives.

For several generations now, we’ve disparaged the view of life that produced the men who, in 1912, willingly sacrificed their lives in service to others. “Women and children first” sounds patronizing and downright sexist to the modern, enlightened sensibility. At the same time, words like “duty” and “honor” sound antiquated and empty of meaning — and may even bring a cynical smile to the lips of our modern debunkers.

These words sound hollow because we have made them so. The idea of “duty,” for example, begs answers to two questions that few of us can give today: “A duty originating from what?” “A duty directed to what end?” We’re so accustomed to being tongue-tied by such questions that we’ve stopped asking them altogether.

This, of course, is why we are uniform in our condemnation of Captain Francesco Schettino who was derelict in his duty to the people under his care. This is why we are upset that he cast off the duty he took on when he agreed to do his job, originating from that agreement. No one has exactly been tongue-tied in that condemnation either.

Our language has changed in response. We no longer speak of “virtues” — a word that connotes traits of character strongly and universally held. Instead, we prattle on about “values” — a much more neutered term, suggesting nothing higher than “different strokes for different folks.”

Kersten gets this backward, of course. A virtue is the expression of something desirable. A value, on the other hand, is a principle. Values are what underlie virtues. More than that, values are flexible enough to function where simple virtues are not.

Today, we operate on the smorgasbord principle. We select from a vast array of “lifestyles,” based on purely individual tastes. The only overriding principle is that no taste be elevated above others, lest we risk being “judgmental.”

Right. This is relevant to the naval disaster because we consider failure to protect those under your care to be a “lifestyle” that should be protected. She’s totally not reaching for any excuse to denigrate homosexuality here.

Yet every now and then an event occurs to remind us of the price we have paid for abandoning the nobility of soul — or even the idea of a soul — that has inspired men throughout history to move beyond the raw instinct for self-preservation.

Or reaching for an excuse to defend religion as it slips toward obscurity.

The wreck of the Costa Concordia is such an event. We watched, and shuddered for a moment at the “every man for himself” world we have wrought.

This “‘every man for himself’ world” is the one in which Captain Schettino sits under house arrest, facing manslaughter charges. This world is the one we have built large-scale social contracts to allow us to more safely do things like cross seas for fun–so safely that disasters like these are news for days on end. This world is the one in which the captain stands out among the heroes who saved lives when the Costa Concordia sank.

Altogether, that’s not a bad world to live in, despite the presence of ghouls like Kersten.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    feralboy12

    In 1912, the Titanic’s crew and most of its male passengers refused to board lifeboats until the women and children were safe. They preferred death in the frigid waters that awaited them to breaching such a point of honor.

    Ah, but for the details. Each lifeboat required two crewmen, and few of the lifeboats were actually full when they set off. Not quite a quarter of the men on the crew were saved (there were women who were considered “crew” as well, and 87% survived); more than half of the women and children in steerage died.
    I will grant, however, that very few modern rock bands would have kept playing while the ship went under. Possibly due to the danger of electrocution.

  2. 2
    'Tis Himself

    Like so many things that happened a long time ago, the Titanic sinking has myths that everyone knows which never actually happened.

  3. 3
    Rike

    But doesn’t she have it backwards? Weren’t those men on the Titanic the selfish ones, putting the women and children on the boats to keep fighting another day, while they were going to heaven to sit with Jesus and sing pretty songs?

  4. 4
    F

    Case of projection, maybe? As far as “degeneracy” goes, I mean.

  5. 5
    Nomen Nescio

    if this were truly an “every man for himself” world, we should expect to see widespread panic and chaos in a mad scramble for the lifeboats as soon as word is given to abandon ship. yet while i’ve seen some acerbic criticisms of what went on aboard the Costa Concordia, nobody has claimed anything like that went on.

    there have been charges that the decision to abandon ship was delayed too long, that the crewmembers were not well versed in the passengers’ languages, that the procedure was not well enough drilled or prepared — but i’ve seen nobody claiming there was any panicked scrambling of the strong over the bodies of the weak towards safety.

    of course, that the ship went down in easy sight of land in the Mediterranean instead of miles from anywhere in the freezing North Atlantic might perhaps have had something to do with it also. still, the old meme that “everybody panics madly in a crisis situation” doesn’t seem to have as much truth in it as people usually fear.

  6. 6
    jamessweet

    Leaving aside how badly wrong she got it about the actual reality of evacuation scenarios on the Titanic vs. the Concordia, the accidents themselves sound a lot to me like “Same Shit, Different Century.” (I hadn’t realized they were separated by almost exactly 100 years!) Any time huge human-made disasters like this occur, it’s inevitably a mixture of a) blind deference to an authority figure exercising questionable judgment with b) plain old bad luck. The Tenerife disaster was perhaps the best studied of this phenomenon, and the conclusion is clear: If you want to prevent accidents like this, the very best thing you can do is foster an atmosphere where subordinates are willing to voice their concerns to superiors, and even to flat-out tell their superiors they are wrong.

    Of course I’m sure that sort of insubordination and lack of respect for authoritah goes directly against Kersten’s “virtues”.

    As to the crap she’s actually talking, even if she was correct in the details (and feralboy12 points out many ways in which she is not), there’s really only two numbers you need to know here to compare which evacuation was conducted with “virtue”:

    Costa Concordia death toll – 33 (if you count all the missing as dead)
    Titanic death toll – 1517

    “Woman and children first”? How about we go with “adequate lifeboats and sensible evacuation policies first”?

  7. 7
    lordshipmayhem

    Ms. Kersten claims that

    In 1912, the Titanic’s crew and most of its male passengers refused to board lifeboats until the women and children were safe.

    Let’s examine this a little more closely, shall we? Let’s ask a contemporary commentator to the Titanic disaster. Here’s what George Bernard Shaw has to say about the cry of “Women and Children first!” in a series of correspondence between himself and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

    What is the first demand of romance in a shipwreck? It is the cry of Women and Children First. No male creature is to step into a boat as long as there is a woman or child on the doomed ship. How the boat is to be navigated and rowed by babies and women occupied in holding the babies is not mentioned. The likelihood that no sensible woman would trust either herself or her child in a boat unless there was a considerable percentage of men on board is not considered. Women and Children First: that is the romantic formula. And never did the chorus of solemn delight at the strict observance of this formula by the British heroes on board the Titanic rise to more sublime strains than in the papers containing the first account of the wreck by a surviving eye-witness, Lady Duff Gordon. She described how she escaped in the captain’s boat. There was one other woman in it, and ten men: twelve all told. One woman for every five men. Chorus: “Not once or twice in our rough island history,” etc. etc.

    So, what was all that about duty and honour aboard the Titanic? All the evidence is that the disaster was mishandled from the moment her crew was first warned of ice in her path – indeed, from the moment that the designers discarded the idea of one space aboard a lifeboat for every potential soul on board. Only a small handful aboard acted in a “professional, seamanlike” manner, and that woefully short list does not include her captain. Captain Smith seems to have been stunned into inaction by the discovery that for the first time in his career, he was aboard a ship that was going to sink.

  8. 8
    Brian Westley

    In 1912, the Titanic’s crew and most of its male passengers refused to board lifeboats until the women and children were safe.

    Kersten has already forgotton J.B. Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line, who managed to find a lifeboat seat.

  9. 9
    Jim Baerg

    Nomen Nescio – ‘still, the old meme that “everybody panics madly in a crisis situation” doesn’t seem to have as much truth in it as people usually fear.’

    My one relevant experience backs that up. I was in Mississauga during the evacuation after the train derailment and it was a quite orderly & non-panicky affair.

  10. 10
    robertbaden

    She seems to have forgotten honor died in the trenches during WWI.

  11. 11
    Art

    There are all sorts of things going on in the Titanic sinking and some of those have gotten lost in time.

    It was a very class conscious time. It was taken as entirely normal, even a great good, that the first class would get first seating in any movement. This was the habit of the day and stepping outside this pattern would be entirely out of character and accepted as being against good order.

    There is also the fact that most people of the time thought that the main cause of death during a sinking was drowning. That as long as you had floatation, and didn’t actually go down with the ship, you could float around in the water and safely await rescue. This is almost true in warm water and calm seas as long as rescue comes quickly. So many people found afloat but dead from hypothermia was a real shock.

    In the this context life boats were seen as an accommodation to the young, old, and infirm or injured. It can also be seen where holding back the second and third classes was understood as just the way things were done, and a nod to good order. It was assumed that there were plenty of life jackets or expedient flotation so the delayed lower classes would be wet but, for the most part, unharmed as they awaited recovery by a rescue boat. I suspect that many people understood there was some flaw to this plan, and nobody was comfortable striking out without aid of a boat, it just wasn’t done, but few people had an understanding of what the flaw was.

    Our understanding of immersion in cold water and how the body reacts to lowered core temperature has altered our assumptions. It is easy, far too easy, to assume the people in charge of the Titanic had an understanding similar to our own. Had they known, and acted as they did, they could be accused of reckless indifference. As it is, based on what we have evidence that they knew, the main cause of loss of life in this tragedy was ignorance and misunderstandings of the risks involved.

  12. 12
    Stacy

    Testing…my comment seems to have been lost in cyberspace–can’t think of any reason why I’d be blocked (!?)

  13. 13
    uBjoern

    http://www.explosm.net/comics/2692/

  14. 14
    Stephanie Zvan

    Sorry, Stacy. I don’t see anything. The aether must have eaten it.

  15. 15
    Stacy

    Oh, well–thanks for checking, Stephanie! Condensed version: I was echoing Nomen and Jim Baerg. Conservative fantasies aside, people mostly behave pretty well during disasters.

  16. 16
    Cynthia

    Well, I read the whole column by Kersten. Won’t be wasting my time with her again. What a piece of…drivel.

  17. 17
    Natalie

    Oh Katherine Kersten! Haha! Her nephew was a really good friend of mine and a roommate back in college. He did NOT share her worldview and values.

  18. 18
    Natalie

    By the way, isn’t “every man for himself” the central tenet of most American conservatism?

  19. 19
    Biodork

    Gah. I get the willies every time I read a Katherine Kersten article.

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