Titanic, Costa Concordia, and the Collapse of Western Civilization

Over at the Corner NRO, Mark Steyn has a post about the lessons he draws from the chaos on board the Costa Concordia, which he contrasts with the orderly evacuation of the Titanic 100 years ago. The difference between the two disasters, he says, tells us a lot about the problems of contemporary society. (HT John Cole) Like you, my initial reaction to this was to roll my eyes. Here's what he says:

On theCosta Concordia, in the words of a female passenger, There were big men, crew members, pushing their way past us to get into the lifeboat. [In contrast, the] men on theTitanic 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 wouldnt 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 its every man for himself operative word man, although not many of the chaps on theTitanic would recognize those on theCosta Concordia as men.

Let's complicate Steyn's observations with some actual facts about survival rates. On the Titanic, these varied dramatically by social class, even among women and children. Less than half of the third class women (46% saved) and children (34% saved) survived, compared to 100% of the first and second class children, and 97% and 86% of the first and second class women, respectively. Second, Steyn says that the women and children first ethic "held up under pressure and across all classes." In fact, despite the large number of third class women and children who went down with the ship, a significant number of first class men declined the opportunity to "finish in style" and opted to save themselves instead. Interestingly, adherence to the norm of women and children first seems to have been most completely internalized by the men in second class, just 8% of whom made it into lifeboats, compared to 33% of the captains of industry in first class. (At 16%, the survival rate among third class men was higher than among the middle class men riding in second class, but still half that of the first class men.)So a disaster in which theelites play by their own rulesand in which thepoor survive at about half the rate of the wealthy and middle classis Steyn's example of how a well ordered society responds to adversity. Maybe my initial reaction was wrong. Steyn's Titanic praise may actually be a perfect metaphor for contemporary National Review Republicanism.

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

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