Why the Left Loves the Titanic Disaster

David Paulin
The Titanic sank exactly 100 years ago today - a disaster exploited over the years by Hollywood and the ideological left. Their narrative bears little resemblance to what in fact happened in the early-morning darkness of April 15, 1912.

The Titanic storyline embraced by left-leaning filmmakers, writers, and university professors is right out of "Das Kapital." To them, the disaster happened because heartless capitalist put profits ahead of human lives. They falsely claim that this is why the Titanic had too few lifeboats. Above all, leftist ideologues vilify the Titanic's rich first-class passengers. They falsely claim they got first crack at lifeboats -- and as a consequence, passengers in second class and steerage died in large numbers. In this interpretation, the Titanic's legacy was not about women-and-children first. It was about first-class passengers going first.

This false narrative was embraced by filmmaker James Cameron in his 1997 epic "Titanic" -- a view that many impressionable movie goers now take as fact.

The truth was quite the opposite; and in other cases the truth continues to be elusive, the facts ambiguous.

The Hollywood narrative makes for good entertainment. But it ignores the fact that many of the Titanic's first-class passengers -- the "1 percenters" of their day -- voluntarily went down aborad the ship so that women and children could get aboard lifeboats.

Consider first-class passenger Benjamin Guggenheim, 46, the scion of the Guggenheim fortune. As ice-cold water flooded through a gash in the ship's hull, he was overhead to say that he and other social elites had "dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen."

He passed along a message to a survivor, stating: "Tell my wife, if it should happen that my secretary and I both go down, tell her I played the game out straight to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward."

Among other rich and famous passengers who died: American John Jacob Astor IV; Irish businessman Thomas Andrews (who oversaw the ship's construction); and American owner of the Macy's department store, Isidor Straus, and his wife Ida.

Of the Titanic's approximately 2,223 passengers and crew, about 1,517 perished - and 706 survived. The ship's 20 lifeboats could only carry one third of the people on board.

For Titanic aficionados with a leftist agenda, the numbers and percentages of passengers who got to the lifeboats -- their sexes and social classes -- can be crunched to prove just about whatever one wants.

"The reality of class, selfishness, and altruism in the disaster is more ambiguous," observes Edward Tenner in his article "Titanic and the 1%" published by the American Enterprise Institute.

"As Titanic scholars acknowledge, the survival rate of passengers depended in part on proximity to the boat deck. So it is no wonder that nearly all the women and children in first class were saved. Conversely, complex passageways and language barriers further delayed evacuation of third-class passengers. In all classes, as the literary scholar Stephen Cox has underscored in an essay and an excellent book, moral choices cut across social lines.

"Individual responses aside, there are surprises in the statistics. For example, women in third class were significantly more likely to survive than first-class men: 46 versus 33 percent."

He adds: "The most surprising and least known statistic is that nearly twice as many third-class as second-class men survived - 16 percent versus 8 percent - despite the greater distance of the former from the boats. Were the second-class men the most dutiful and chivalrous of all, the true unsung heroes of the tragedy? Were the third-class men simply younger and more vigorous? Or were the second-class men the middle managers of the era, either fatally deferential to the upper crust or disfavored, consciously or not, by snobbish stewards? In any case, a larger proportion of the dogs on the Titanic survived, 4 out of 13, than second-class men."

How come the chivalry of Titanic's richest passengers failed to get proper attention in the "Titanic" movie? Because today no one would believe the truth; so says Cuban-born author and historian Luis E. Aguilar in his essay "The Titanic and The Decline of Western Ethnic." 

He explains: "The modern public; immersed in the moral relativism that justifies all conducts, bombarded by attacks on the hypocrisy of Western culture, will grasp base behavior more readily than self-sacrifice, all the faster if it denigrates the rich and the powerful. As in every Mexican TV soap opera, Titanic's rich behave like pigs. So much so that when Chinese president Jiang Zemin watched the movie, he smiled, "Gentlemen, behold the enemy." For him and many Americans, the movie's cloying, cowardly first class passengers represent that capitalistic ethic."

Were the elites of the Titanic different from the elites today? It's a question Fareed Zakaria tackled his book "The Future of Freedom - Illiberal Democracy at Home & Abroad." In 1912, he contends, elites were more likely to exercise power with responsibility.

The Titanic's crew, to be sure, also were well-trained and thus facilitated the ship's evacuation as best they could. In contrast, there's the alleged misconduct of the captain and some crew members aboard Italian cruise ship Concordia, a name  synonymous with cowardice and incompetence. But was that ship's entire evacuation a disgrace? There's another side to the Concordia story: Hundreds of passengers, for instance, are shown in photos waiting in an orderly manner in the ship's corridors; and there were reports the ship's staff and passengers rising to the occasion to help with the evacuation.

Consider as well the conduct of passengers aboard the "Hudson Miracle" flight, the US Airways jet that ditched in New York's Hudson River. Even as water flooded into the jet, the jet's evacuation was orderly -- a fact that played a significant role in all passengers and crew members surviving. Many of the jet's passengers were upper-middle-class business travelers. In a sense, it was a triumph of a well-trained crew and the shared middle-class values of the jet's passengers.

It took the Titanic two and one-half hours to sink. Order prevailed in contrast  to what happened abroad the Lusitania during the 20 minutes it took to sink after being torpedoed.

"If you've got an event that lasts two-and-a half hours, social order will take over and everybody will behave in a social manner. If you're going down in under 17 minutes, basically it's instinctual," says David Savage, an economist and Queensland University in Australia, who has studied witness testimony from the Titanic.

And what about those lifeboats? In James Cameron's film, the ship was not fitted with an adequate number of lifeboats due to a concern for aesthetics: it was thought the deck would look cluttered with too many lifeboats.

In fact, the Titanic complied with existing maritime rules. And as a recent Op-Ed article by Chris Berg in the Wall Street Journal observed: It was thought at the time that lifeboats, rather than accommodating every passenger abroad the ship, would instead be used to transport passengers to ships coming to the rescue. "Had Titanic sunk more slowly, it would have been surrounded by the Frankfurt, the Mount Temple, the Birma, the Virginian, the Olympic, the Baltic and the first on the scene, the Carpathia," according to Berg's article "The Real Reason for the Tragedy of the Titanic." "The North Atlantic was a busy stretch of sea. Or, had the Californian (within visual range of the unfolding tragedy) responded to distress calls, the lifeboats would have been adequate for the purpose they were intended -- to ferry passengers to safety."

Hollywood and leftist ideologues make lousy historians. Their retelling of the Titanic disaster offers abundant proof of that -- and in a way their tall tales are part of the poisonous effect of leftist ideology in the postmodern world. 

The Titanic sank exactly 100 years ago today - a disaster exploited over the years by Hollywood and the ideological left. Their narrative bears little resemblance to what in fact happened in the early-morning darkness of April 15, 1912.

The Titanic storyline embraced by left-leaning filmmakers, writers, and university professors is right out of "Das Kapital." To them, the disaster happened because heartless capitalist put profits ahead of human lives. They falsely claim that this is why the Titanic had too few lifeboats. Above all, leftist ideologues vilify the Titanic's rich first-class passengers. They falsely claim they got first crack at lifeboats -- and as a consequence, passengers in second class and steerage died in large numbers. In this interpretation, the Titanic's legacy was not about women-and-children first. It was about first-class passengers going first.

This false narrative was embraced by filmmaker James Cameron in his 1997 epic "Titanic" -- a view that many impressionable movie goers now take as fact.

The truth was quite the opposite; and in other cases the truth continues to be elusive, the facts ambiguous.

The Hollywood narrative makes for good entertainment. But it ignores the fact that many of the Titanic's first-class passengers -- the "1 percenters" of their day -- voluntarily went down aborad the ship so that women and children could get aboard lifeboats.

Consider first-class passenger Benjamin Guggenheim, 46, the scion of the Guggenheim fortune. As ice-cold water flooded through a gash in the ship's hull, he was overhead to say that he and other social elites had "dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen."

He passed along a message to a survivor, stating: "Tell my wife, if it should happen that my secretary and I both go down, tell her I played the game out straight to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward."

Among other rich and famous passengers who died: American John Jacob Astor IV; Irish businessman Thomas Andrews (who oversaw the ship's construction); and American owner of the Macy's department store, Isidor Straus, and his wife Ida.

Of the Titanic's approximately 2,223 passengers and crew, about 1,517 perished - and 706 survived. The ship's 20 lifeboats could only carry one third of the people on board.

For Titanic aficionados with a leftist agenda, the numbers and percentages of passengers who got to the lifeboats -- their sexes and social classes -- can be crunched to prove just about whatever one wants.

"The reality of class, selfishness, and altruism in the disaster is more ambiguous," observes Edward Tenner in his article "Titanic and the 1%" published by the American Enterprise Institute.

"As Titanic scholars acknowledge, the survival rate of passengers depended in part on proximity to the boat deck. So it is no wonder that nearly all the women and children in first class were saved. Conversely, complex passageways and language barriers further delayed evacuation of third-class passengers. In all classes, as the literary scholar Stephen Cox has underscored in an essay and an excellent book, moral choices cut across social lines.

"Individual responses aside, there are surprises in the statistics. For example, women in third class were significantly more likely to survive than first-class men: 46 versus 33 percent."

He adds: "The most surprising and least known statistic is that nearly twice as many third-class as second-class men survived - 16 percent versus 8 percent - despite the greater distance of the former from the boats. Were the second-class men the most dutiful and chivalrous of all, the true unsung heroes of the tragedy? Were the third-class men simply younger and more vigorous? Or were the second-class men the middle managers of the era, either fatally deferential to the upper crust or disfavored, consciously or not, by snobbish stewards? In any case, a larger proportion of the dogs on the Titanic survived, 4 out of 13, than second-class men."

How come the chivalry of Titanic's richest passengers failed to get proper attention in the "Titanic" movie? Because today no one would believe the truth; so says Cuban-born author and historian Luis E. Aguilar in his essay "The Titanic and The Decline of Western Ethnic." 

He explains: "The modern public; immersed in the moral relativism that justifies all conducts, bombarded by attacks on the hypocrisy of Western culture, will grasp base behavior more readily than self-sacrifice, all the faster if it denigrates the rich and the powerful. As in every Mexican TV soap opera, Titanic's rich behave like pigs. So much so that when Chinese president Jiang Zemin watched the movie, he smiled, "Gentlemen, behold the enemy." For him and many Americans, the movie's cloying, cowardly first class passengers represent that capitalistic ethic."

Were the elites of the Titanic different from the elites today? It's a question Fareed Zakaria tackled his book "The Future of Freedom - Illiberal Democracy at Home & Abroad." In 1912, he contends, elites were more likely to exercise power with responsibility.

The Titanic's crew, to be sure, also were well-trained and thus facilitated the ship's evacuation as best they could. In contrast, there's the alleged misconduct of the captain and some crew members aboard Italian cruise ship Concordia, a name  synonymous with cowardice and incompetence. But was that ship's entire evacuation a disgrace? There's another side to the Concordia story: Hundreds of passengers, for instance, are shown in photos waiting in an orderly manner in the ship's corridors; and there were reports the ship's staff and passengers rising to the occasion to help with the evacuation.

Consider as well the conduct of passengers aboard the "Hudson Miracle" flight, the US Airways jet that ditched in New York's Hudson River. Even as water flooded into the jet, the jet's evacuation was orderly -- a fact that played a significant role in all passengers and crew members surviving. Many of the jet's passengers were upper-middle-class business travelers. In a sense, it was a triumph of a well-trained crew and the shared middle-class values of the jet's passengers.

It took the Titanic two and one-half hours to sink. Order prevailed in contrast  to what happened abroad the Lusitania during the 20 minutes it took to sink after being torpedoed.

"If you've got an event that lasts two-and-a half hours, social order will take over and everybody will behave in a social manner. If you're going down in under 17 minutes, basically it's instinctual," says David Savage, an economist and Queensland University in Australia, who has studied witness testimony from the Titanic.

And what about those lifeboats? In James Cameron's film, the ship was not fitted with an adequate number of lifeboats due to a concern for aesthetics: it was thought the deck would look cluttered with too many lifeboats.

In fact, the Titanic complied with existing maritime rules. And as a recent Op-Ed article by Chris Berg in the Wall Street Journal observed: It was thought at the time that lifeboats, rather than accommodating every passenger abroad the ship, would instead be used to transport passengers to ships coming to the rescue. "Had Titanic sunk more slowly, it would have been surrounded by the Frankfurt, the Mount Temple, the Birma, the Virginian, the Olympic, the Baltic and the first on the scene, the Carpathia," according to Berg's article "The Real Reason for the Tragedy of the Titanic." "The North Atlantic was a busy stretch of sea. Or, had the Californian (within visual range of the unfolding tragedy) responded to distress calls, the lifeboats would have been adequate for the purpose they were intended -- to ferry passengers to safety."

Hollywood and leftist ideologues make lousy historians. Their retelling of the Titanic disaster offers abundant proof of that -- and in a way their tall tales are part of the poisonous effect of leftist ideology in the postmodern world.