Sunday, 15 April 2012

The RMS Titanic and the Romantic Twilight

Today is the 15th of April 2012, the one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. I’m sure memorials will be held in Britain, Ireland, Canada, and the United States. 1,517 people died in the tragedy. Not meaning to sound crass, but by the standards of deaths in the century that followed this number is quite low. So why does this event stand-out? I do not believe that it is just about the body count. It’s about what the Titanic has come to represent. At the risk of appearing melodramatic, the sinking of the Titanic represents the sinking of Western Civilization itself.

This is the story of two centuries, the long Nineteenth Century (1776-1929) and the Twentieth (1929-present) or what I like to call the Romantic Era and the Socialist Era, though some people prefer the terms Modern and the Post-Modern.

The dominant political ideology of the Nineteenth Century is now called Classical Liberalism and the primary economic policy is now called free market capitalism. Both emerged from the Scottish Enlightenment. These ideologies were base on the premise of individualism and upholding the Natural Rights of life, liberty, and property. It could just as easily be called the age of heroes for it was a time when self-sufficient individuals were free to carve their own place in the world and in history and did so.

By contrast the 20th Century displays a distinct lack of confidence that at times festered into outright panic. This is understandable considering the unprecedented levels of emerging crisis. There was World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, the Cold War, and now we have the fear of global terrorism. I call this the Socialist Era because now more than in the previous century people look to the government to save them from their fears in the form of social and economic central planning. To fund this salvation, governments tax, borrow, and spend more than ever before and in many countries the public sector is larger than the private sector. The public sector in Britain is now larger than the public sector in Communist China.

I call the transition period between these two eras the Romantic Twilight which dates from 1900-1929. It was during this period when the confidence that characterised the Anglosphere during the Romantic Period began to waiver and the enemies of the Romantic began their ascendency.

The symbolism surrounding the Titanic characterises the split between these two eras. For the Romantic it was a tragedy because it symbolised the failure of our aspirations. For the anti-Romantic post-moderns it symbolised the fall that comes with arrogance. This is a view that has been expressed in many of the countless songs, films, and television programs that have been produced. As recently as James Cameron’s film Titanic this same view emerges and is used to create of false picture of the upper-class passengers.

I found this article from the National Review dated 19 April 1999 called Paying for Beauty - motion picture 'Titanic' misrepresents the social codes of the wealthy.

Yet Cameron-who, as I say, did his homework-knows that there were many true gentlemen in first and second class who indeed, according to their code of behavior, "did the right thing." For example, we see in a cameo shot Isidor Strauss and his wife. They are lying together on a bed in their stateroom, waiting for death. Cameron knows that their real story is more complicated and much more poignant.

Isidor Strauss created the great department store Macy's. In his late 60s, rich and retired, he toured Europe with his wife. They were now heading home on the Titanic. As the ship sank, Mrs. Strauss was allowed to board a lifeboat. She pleaded that her elderly husband be allowed to board too. This was allowed. But Mr. Strauss refused to board. He said, "I will not go before the other men." That was that. She said that she had spent her life with him and would not leave him now. She stepped out of the boat, and they sat on deck chairs to watch others load.

The point here is that the upper-class gentleman's code of that era was deeply felt and sternly enforced. It involved "setting an example" for the rest of society. When things went wrong, one bore it with stoicism, or irony, or humor. Perhaps above all, one was deferential to women.

Col. John Jacob Astor, whose ancestors first earned their money in fur trading, also makes a cameo appearance in Titanic. He was traveling with his second wife, young and pregnant. She pleaded that he be let into a lifeboat with her. Second Officer Lightoller refused: "Women only." Without complaint, Astor withdrew. Apparently while swimming in the ocean he was crushed by tons of steel as one of the funnels tilted and crashed. Benjamin Guggenheim, of the great steel fortune, met a similar fate and asked a departing passenger to tell his wife he had died "like a gentleman."

It is possible that Cameron intuited that a modern audience would scarcely believe that any such code of honor existed. Yet I think he never considered for a moment trying for genuine complexity here, because he had a very different, more up-to-date ideal in mind: that of Jack Dawson.

For us, the denizens of the Socialist Era, it probably is difficult for us to conceive the orientation to reality that characterised the Romantic Era. It is much easier to stick to the stereotypes that we are familiar with and portray the events aboard the Titanic as the sort of class warfare that Cameron depicts.

This is called creating a frame, or context, for the narrative. We may frame the story of the Titanic in the Romantic mode and glorify the courage and the morn the tragedy of the person’s involved, or we can frame it according to the socialist narrative in which the wealthy industrialists arrogantly thought that they has created an unsinkable ship and they paid for their arrogance with their lives and the lives of the lower class passengers as innocent victims of this arrogance. If this was a modern tragedy, they would no doubt be calling for greater government regulation to ensure people are no longer the victims of rich industrialists more concerned with profit than with saving lives.

Recently another interesting narrative has emerged from the conspiracy theory crowd. Socialism needs money to work, but as an economic system it does not create wealth, it consumes it. One means to generate revenue apart from taxation is by manipulating interest rates and thus control the money supply. Over time this creates inflation and devalues the currency, but if you can be among the first to get this newly created money before it devalues, then there is a profit to be made – quite literally. Governments accomplish this through a privately owned central bank.

The wealthy men behind the formation of America’s central bank, The Federal Reserve, supposedly faced opposition to their plans from three men who had the wealth, power, and influence to challenge them: John Jacob Astor, Isidor Strauss, and Benjamin Guggenheim. Coincidentally, all three men died on the Titanic. The conspiracy theorists posit that this was no coincidence.

My personal narrative for the disaster is that the Romantic Era was one of boldness, confidence, and faith in both humanity and in truth. The Titanic disaster was one of a series events beginning with the public outcry against the events of the Boer War in 1900 and culminating in World War I that undermined that public confidence and essentially bloodied the waters for the sharks.

Throughout the 1920’s confidence continued to ebb away until the final crushing blow came with the stock market crash in 1929. After this point, supporters of the Romantic values and virtues became a joke to be misrepresented and parodied at best and non-politically correct enemies of the people at worst.

Since then we have seen a gradual decline in standards. A standard presumes that there is a right way and a wrong way. To put it in more philosophical terms, there is virtue and vice, good and evil, true and false. The Romantic Era believed in standards. There were standards of behaviour, dress, education, conduct, and belief. The Socialist Era sees the imposition of standards as being judgemental, unfair, small-minded, and bigoted. As a result we have seen a decline in standards, particularly when it comes to matters of character.

I began this essay with the melodramatic assertion that the sinking of the Titanic symbolises the fall of Western Civilization. I think people are drawn to the imagery associated with that period of history and the standards that made it possible, but at the same time it is alien to them. The sinking ship is the sinking of those people and their rules.

The oikophobics of the Twentieth Century seem to glibly celebrate its demise beneath a sombre veneer. The post-modern Romantics on the other hand mourn the loss of a world that was where men were gentlemen and women were ladies. To them, the corridors of the Titanic seem a far cry from the vulgarity depicted in modern reality television. We wonder what life would be like in a world where people had that kind of self-confidence in themselves, in each other, and their society and culture again. And we know that without that kind of self-confidence we as a civilization are most assuredly doomed.