Monday, January 23, 2012

Women and children first

The behavior of the captain and many of the crew of the Costa Concordia brings forth these reflections by Mark Steyn. He is right. None of the progress society has seen required the loss of the kind of honorable behavior he describes here:
.... 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. .... 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. ....

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.” .... [more]
The Sinking of the West - Mark Steyn - National Review Online