Historian Writing in Newsweek Forgets He Was Talking About Actual Titanic, Not Metaphor for Financial Collapse

As fascinating as the sinking of the Titanic truly is, it's also been an exhausted metaphor for about 99 years now. Or, as The Onion so flawlessly put it: "The Royal Mail Steamer Titanic, the ill-fated emblem of man's pride, took 1,500 to a watery grave on her doomed, allegorical maiden voyage."  

Now, since we're less than a fortnight from the centennial of the sinking of the once-largest ship in the world, over at The Daily Beast/Newsweek, historian Simon Schama has written up an overview of both the tragedy, and humanity's instantaneous need to react to the event. Schama demonstrates this by noting that the very first Titanic film was a 10 minute silent one made by an actress who survived the sinking. And obviously that is bookended by James Cameron's 1997 Titanic which was the most successful movie of all time for more than a decade. Basically, humanity cannot get over this one damn shipwreck and Cameron firmly cemented this fact, but he is not the cause. 

Schama moves through some of the more heart-breaking tales from the night of April 14-15, 1912: Ida Strauss refusing to leave her husband; Benjamin Guggenheim who said he and his servant were "dressed in our best and prepared to go down like a gentleman;" the epic adventures of Second Officer Charles Lightoller who should have a miniseries about his entire life; the disturbingly low survival rate of children in third class, etc. And yes, Schama notes certain class conflict inevitabilities. Hell, there were literal classes on board; First, second (the existence of those folks wasn't interesting enough for Cameron to include in his film because the middle ain't class warfare-y enough) and third. Third got the short end of the stick, but there are also practical factors like the location of their cabins (the belly of the ship) and language barriers. Call it neglect, not malevolence. 

The old story of the hubris of a lack of lifeboats, though, is true. And the crew of Titanic fared badly. Schama notes, dipping a toe into the political scene:

Many had come from worlds embittered not just by poverty but by brutal class conflict: strikes, strike-breaking, and quasi-military industrial lockouts. Some of this acrimony touched the White Star Line directly and the crew closest to steerage—the stokers, firemen, and stewards—knew it. Titanic’s original master during trials at Belfast—one Captain Haddock (yes, honestly)—faced a strike precisely over the inadequacy of lifeboat accommodation on the liners: the very thing that condemned 1,500 to death.

Chillingly, the shortage of lifeboats was due to shipboard aesthetics, the concern not to clutter the promenade deck of first class. But it was supposed by the likes of Ismay that a full complement of lifeboats would not be needed because of the sophistication of that “unsinkable” technology: the Marconi wireless equipment that in the event of an accident would send out distress messages so quickly that other vessels would be on the scene well before the ship could founder.

All interesting, all good. But eventually something goes wrong. This article is 2055 words long. 1887 of them are a solid, evenhanded, moving look at a real historical event. And then Schama can't help himself. He goes from a grim description of shellshocked survivors sobbing for their husbands in lifeboats at dawn to these last 168 words:

Of course, the supposedly unsinkable liner that is global capitalism recently hit an iceberg, and its name was Lehman Brothers. And lo, in the twinkling of an eye there was much screaming, and the fanciest and most sumptuous vessel looked as though it would slide right into the deep. Now, too, it is steerage that gets the short end of the stick, just as it did in 1912. Will we ever learn that the best systems, the most money, the cleverest engineers, and their most infallible designs are of no avail when it’s that imperfect thing—the human being—that drives them at a reckless speed? Forgive me if I doubt it. But as we sail on into that dark ocean of the future where who knows what perils lurk in the darkness, is it too much to ask that there be at least enough bloody lifeboats for everyone—for us in third class as well as the ladies and gents living it up in the state rooms?

And that's the end. Go read it. There is no segue from history to metaphor. It just appears like a pop-up ad.

The Wall Street Journal noted back in September 2008 that the collapse of the financial sector provoked a surge of awful metaphors. As of October last year Heather Stewart at The Guardian was pretty tired of economic metaphors as well. Hell, Schama is certainly not the first person to compare Lehman Brothers to that old ocean liner. But you're either talking about metaphors for financial collapse or you're talking about the actual Titanic. Talk about the safety of ocean liners (sadly relevant), talk about regulation of shipping, talk about whatever you want, class warfare included. Use whatever metaphor you want, too, but if you're sailing smoothly on the calm ocean of cool historical essays and then ram headlong into the iceberg of abrupt, unrelated, politicized metaphors, the death toll of your credibility will be high.

Reason on the financial collapse and Lehman Brothers and hey, have you heard about the Reason cruise?

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  • Sevo||

    "Of course, the supposedly unsinkable liner that is global capitalism recently hit an iceberg, and its name was Lehman Brothers."

    Call 911, stat! We have serious injuries to this strawman!

  • widget||

    Damned you, that sentence jumped out at me too. Capitalism has a set of plans and specifications written and designed by top-notch engineers with a attention to every detail, the Titanic didn't.

  • Sevo||

    Can I FIFY?
    'Obamacare has a set of plans and specifications written and designed by top-notch engineers with a attention to every detail, the Titanic didn't.'
    Looks good to me...

  • widget||

    That was my point.

  • Tman||

    Speaking of ridiculous analogies regarding fictitious boats, how awesome is it that Neil Tyson got James Cameron to fix the sky background for the re-release of Titanic?

    Neil deGrasse Tyson got James Cameron to fix Titanic for you

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Can he do anything about the rest of the movie?

    Seriously, though, that's pretty awesome -- props to Tyson.

  • Lucy Steigerwald||

    The way I watch "Titanic," it's about 50 minutes long. I recommend that method, though it's not a perfect fix.

  • Tman||

    The guy who tore apart the Star Wars prequels (Red Letter Media) did this hilarious takedown of Avatar, basically explaining how Avatar was Titanic mixed with Aliens.

    Red Letter Media Reviews Avatar

  • PantsFan||

    I thought Avatar was just Pocahontas?
    http://wtfoodge.com/wp-content.....00x486.jpg

  • ||

    You're both wrong. Avatar is almost completely a ripoff of "Fern Gully"

  • A Serious Man||

    I thought "Dances with Wolves", only the Indians win.

  • Ted S.||

    Dances with Smurves

  • Cytotoxic||

    Wow my generation sure as hell got a lot of eco-indoctrination. It's no wonder we got the 'green wallop' starting in 2005 or so.

  • ||

    Yes. And let's not forget Captain Planet. Not that it has anything to do with Avatar.

  • R||

    The way I watch Titanic it's only one minute long...

  • tarran||

    There was one benefit to that movie; it cured my ex-wife of her love for Celine Dion's music. After we walked out of the theater she turned to me and said "you're right - she screeches." And the CD's never went into the player again.

  • widget||

    The Titanic film was an epic disaster for me. I was out of town, staying in a motel, and a bit stircrazy, so I went out to watch in a theater by myself.

    My wife wanted to go out at watch it with me when I got back home. I should have lied.

  • ||

    Did you know about the Celine Dion love when you married her? Because if you did, you deserve what you got.

  • PantsFan||

    Pluto is still a planet to me, dammit

  • Malto Dextrin||

    Damned right! Pluto may actually have a water ocean underneath its ice crust. Which if true, may mean there's life there. We'll know more in 2015.

  • Zeb||

    That doesn't seem very likely.

  • JW||

    Is anyone else as sick of Neil deGrasse Tyson's attention whoring as I am?

  • Ken Shultz||

    Of course, the supposedly unsinkable liner that is global capitalism recently hit an iceberg, and its name was Lehman Brothers.

    Considering all the damage that was done to the resiliency of our economy in the name of Lehman (and Bear), I think I would have rather suffered another Lehman or two rather than suffer Washington's reaction to Lehman.

    The way TARP tore us apart. The way the taxpayers are still sitting on a ton of GM stock. The way the TARP money was paid back to the government--but no debt was bought back and no taxes were cut to offset that. Lehman being used as the justification for $800 odd billion in stimulus; the creation of a new agency to protect future homeowners from the home loans they want; Baird seizing retail banks and forcing them to be acquired or merged with investment banks--and then turning around and complaining about them being too big to fail?

    Lehman wasn't the cause of all that. The Bush Administration was responsible for some of it, and the Obama Administration was responsible for even more. Barney Frank and some others were responsible for their share in Congress. I'd blame Ron Gettelfinger for his share too...

    The proper metaphor isn't the Titanic. It's as if the Titanic sank, and the federal government sent the Navy out to sink every other American ship in the Atlantic--so that no one can blame the government for letting another ship hit an iceberg again.

  • Number 2||

    Isn't Titanic a more appropriate metaphor for government than for "global capitalism?" After all, "global capitalism" itself is simply a metaphor for countless individuals pursuing their individual economic interests in voluntary cooperation with others.

    Government in the Twentieth Century represents the hubris of man, believing that the best minds can micromanage and control every aspect of human life for the "public good." How many icebergs did Government hit in the 100 years since Titanic sunk?

    I am not a skilled, all-knowing professional historian like Schama, but I seem to recall one particularly large "iceberg" that arose slightly more than one year after Titanic sunk. It was purely the product of government, and its death toll was counted in millions, not thousands. I believe they call it "World War I."

  • Ken Shultz||

    Hear, hear!

  • Mike Laursen||

    Titanic’s original master during trials at Belfast—one Captain Haddock (yes, honestly)—faced a strike precisely over the inadequacy of lifeboat accommodation on the liners: the very thing that condemned 1,500 to death.

    I believe he's twisting the timeline around. They all went on strike because the Titanic had sunk, pretty darn indisputably proving the need for more lifeboats. They were all crew members on an identical sister ship.

  • tarran||

    Interestingly, the Titanic's sister ship Brittanic also sank - after hitting a mine in WW I.

    The third ship of the class, the Olympic, was melted down for razor blades in the '30's.

    2/3 of that unsinkable class of ships ended up on the bottom.

  • Mike Laursen||

    Is still give the Brittanic an A-, though. After all, there were people actively trying to sink it.

    The date of the first lifeboat beats anything in the Titanic story for gruesomeness. Sucked into a still-turning propeller and shredded to both.

  • Mike Laursen||

    fate
    bits
    Fucking overzealous Android spelling correction.

  • Not an Economist||

    I saw a show on the Titanic on the Smithstonian Channel recently. So I don't know if this is true.

    Government requirements said all ships above a certain size needed X lifeboats. The original chief engineer responsible for building Titanic thought that was outdated because Titanic was Y times bigger than X, so he wanted to put more lifeboats on. The White Star Line decided to do only what the law required so the chief engineer quit.

  • A Serious Man||

    There is something fundamentally wrong with your movie when the most exciting and watchable part is people dying horrible deaths.

    Ditto for Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, where the only remotely interesting sequence was watching US sailors be blown to bits.

  • mr simple||

    I got drunk and passed out through most of that movie, but the beginning and ending were terrible.

  • Malto Dextrin||

    "Will we ever learn that the best systems, the most money, the cleverest engineers, and their most infallible designs are of no avail when it’s that imperfect thing—the human being—that drives them at a reckless speed?"

    Apparently not. Thus the continued fascination with economic central planning.

  • grylliade||

    It's like an episode of South Park:

    Step 1: Realize that humans are fallible.

    Step 2: Relinquish control of that most fiendishly complex system of all, the economy, to fallible humans.

    Step 3: ???

    Step 4: Profit!

  • Cytotoxic||

    This burst of 3D shit is the second worst thing about Avatar next to that movie itself.

  • JeremyR||

    The one in the 80s was much better.

    Metal Storm: The Destruction of Jared Syn
    Amityville 3D
    Jaws 3D
    Space Hunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

    All classics, much better than modern ones.

  • Voros McCracken||

    "Metal Storm: The Destruction of Jared Syn"

    Saw that one as a double feature with Kull. Why go see a three star movie, when you can see two one and a half star movies?

  • JeremyR||

    That's actually a crux of the arguments that conservatives have about the media being liberal - they inject their politics into everything, not just stories about politics.

    Completely unrelated things, like articles about sports or in this case, the Titanic, somehow it's all a metaphor for class warfare and how socialism is great and right wingers are evil.

  • Huck||

    I doubt he lost any credibility with Newsweek readers. He might have even gained some.
    But another reason this is a bad metaphor is that as Hayek says in Keynes vs. Hayek round 2, the youtube video, the "economy is not a car"; or a ship for that matter.

  • Ted S.||

    People read Newsweek?

  • DannyS||

    There is something fundamentally wrong with your movie when the most exciting and watchable part is people dying horrible deaths. I think that is one of the biggest tragedies of the past century.
    Removal Companies

  • np||

    But as we sail on into that dark ocean of the future where who knows what perils lurk in the darkness, is it too much to ask that there be at least enough bloody lifeboats for everyone—for us in third class as well as the ladies and gents living it up in the state rooms?


    Bailouts for everyone! Woohoo!

  • ||

    I bet Mr. Wheelchair Historian's happy about those pinko shits gaining in popularity in France. If the French elect an openly socialist commander-in-chief, the irony will be unbearable.

  • ||

    OT: http://news.yahoo.com/military.....05024.html

    Military board says Marine should be dismissed

    CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) — A Marine who criticized President Barack Obama on his Facebook page has committed misconduct and should be dismissed, a military board recommended late Thursday.

    The Marine Corps administrative board made the decision after a daylong hearing at Camp Pendleton for Sgt. Gary Stein.

    The board also recommended that Stein be given an other-then-honorable discharge. That would mean Stein would lose his benefits and would not be allowed on any military base.

  • WTF||

    Lese Majeste, you know. The King's foot soldiers do not dare to criticize the King.

  • Number 2||

    If this had happened, say, five years ago, the headline would have been, "Bush Administration Punishes Military Whistleblower."

  • Bardas Phocas||

    In Newsweek's defense, their eight remaining subscribers expect to have simplistic leftist screeds injected into pretty much everything from the publisher's page to the ad copy.
    Grandma Moses likes it that way.

  • Ted S.||

    And that's the end. Go read it. There is no segue from history to metaphor. It just appears like a pop-up ad.

    What's a pop-up ad? :-)

  • Fluffy||

    In my Charles Lightoller miniseries, he's the craziest "volunteer fireman / arsonist" who ever lived, and the reason he has so many exciting shipwreck adventures is that he's deliberately causing them.

    He even causes WWII to start, and causes the French military disaster that creates the conditions for Dunkirk.

    All of it.

    He was one crazy (but clever) sumbitch, that Charles Lightoller.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I'd watch that, but only if you insert yourself into the story as the dogged insurance investigator who pursues him throughout his travels in an effort to expose him and save your company the Titanic payout. It ends with you, as an old man, working as an extra on Cameron's Titanic, only to see your scenes on the cutting room floor.

  • Mr Whipple||

    From ZH:

    The powers of financial capitalism had another far-reaching aim, nothing less than to create a world system of financial control in private hands able to dominate the political system of each country and the economy of the world as a whole. This system was to be controlled in a feudalist fashion by the central banks of the world acting in concert, by secret agreements arrived at in frequent private meetings and conferences. The apex of the system was to be the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland, a private bank owned and controlled by the world's central banks which were themselves private corporations.

    Each central bank... sought to dominate its government by its ability to control Treasury loans, to manipulate foreign exchanges, to influence the level of economic activity in the country, and to influence cooperative politicians by subsequent economic rewards in the business world.

    - Carroll Quigley (Bill Clinton’s mentor at Georgetown) from his 1964 book Tragedy and Hope

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B.....upervision

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B.....ettlements

    Unfortunately, I don't think the Schama has "Freed Markets" in mind as the solution to the problem.

  • JT||

    Middle class is for TV, upper and lower for movies.

  • Mike G||

    Doesn't this ludicrous close sound like something an editor at Newsweek would have insisted on to "make it relevant," and Schama tossed it off as quickly as possible just to be done?

  • Lucy Steigerwald||

    Good question. But there's no satisfying explanation for how utterly ill-fitting it was. And 100 years since a well-known historical event is a more concrete hook than oh gawd, global capitalism keeps being terrible.

  • Number 2||

    Or that it was added in by a nameless junior editor at the last minute?

  • Slocum||

    After the Titanic sank, there was a 'lifeboats for everyone' campaign -- which contributed to the Eastland disaster in Chicago that killed more than 800. The extra lifeboats made the poorly designed ship even more unstable:

    http://mattstodayinhistory.blo.....-1915.html

  • RPR2||

    it's a metaphor for Elizabeth Warren's sudden expertism.

  • Zeb||

    Tough, inflatable lifeboats were a great invention.

  • Number 2||

    HOW MANY MORE MUST DIE BEFORE WE LEARN: LIFEBOATS KILL!

  • Ted S.||

    Well, Tallulah Bankhead on a lifeboat is certainly willing to kill.

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