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?