In shipwrecks, we can see our sad transition

  • Article by: KATHERINE KERSTEN
  • Updated: January 28, 2012 - 4:30 PM

With Titanic, honor and virtue. With Costa Concordia, every man for himself.

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Costa Concordia

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The wreck of the Costa Concordia hit a collective nerve as the giant cruise liner capsized off the Tuscan coast on Jan. 13.

Minnesotans may have responded with a special shudder. The disaster called to mind another horrific incident involving the demise of an engineering marvel -- the collapse of our own Interstate 35W bridge in August 2007.

We've come to take for granted the wonders of engineering with which we live. In our scientifically advanced world, interstate bridges aren't supposed to fall or huge ships founder on the rocks. But in the Costa disaster, we saw a ship that's a virtual city on the water -- with thousands of merrymaking residents -- swamp like a child's boat in a bath tub.

Most of our horror and disgust, however, was reserved for the behavior of the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino. Apparently, the Costa Concordia sank because Schettino was joyriding in the 110,000-ton equivalent of a horizontal skyscraper. News reports suggest he sailed within 150 yards of the shore because he wanted to impress a former colleague there.

As captain, Schettino was charged with protecting the lives of 4,200 passengers and crew. Yet he reportedly ordered dinner with a "mystery woman" an hour after the cruise liner hit the rocks, and then raced to save his own skin once it foundered. He abandoned ship while thousands were mobbing the lifeboats, and refused to return even after the Italian Coast Guard instructed him to do so, according to news reports.

Later, when asked why he had made it to shore before others had been evacuated, Schettino claimed he had "tripped" and fallen into a lifeboat. How's that going to play with a jury in the lawsuits that are sure to follow?

But the captain wasn't the only man on the Costa Concordia who was derelict in his duty. Some male crew members reportedly knocked down everyone in their path, including women and children, to snag a spot in a lifeboat. Beefy male passengers followed suit.

The Costa Concordia fiasco inevitably invites comparison with another famous shipwreck -- that of the Titanic on April 15, 1912. The contrast in the behavior of those on board couldn't be starker. In 1912, the Titanic's crew and most of its male passengers refused to board lifeboats until the women and children were safe. They preferred death in the frigid waters that awaited them to breaching such a point of honor.

This change in the behavior of ordinary people in the face of crisis reveals something about who we have become in the century since the Titanic's demise.

For several generations now, we've disparaged the view of life that produced the men who, in 1912, willingly sacrificed their lives in service to others. "Women and children first" sounds patronizing and downright sexist to the modern, enlightened sensibility. At the same time, words like "duty" and "honor" sound antiquated and empty of meaning -- and may even bring a cynical smile to the lips of our modern debunkers.

These words sound hollow because we have made them so. The idea of "duty," for example, begs answers to two questions that few of us can give today: "A duty originating from what?" "A duty directed to what end?" We're so accustomed to being tongue-tied by such questions that we've stopped asking them altogether.

In 2012, we no longer try to direct our lives according to principles of virtue, as our great-grandparents and their peers on the Titanic generally tried to do. Self-restraint is foreign to us. Life is about emotional fulfillment: getting ahead, enjoying ourselves and cultivating a personal sense of well-being.

Our language has changed in response. We no longer speak of "virtues" -- a word that connotes traits of character strongly and universally held. Instead, we prattle on about "values" -- a much more neutered term, suggesting nothing higher than "different strokes for different folks."

Today, we operate on the smorgasbord principle. We select from a vast array of "lifestyles," based on purely individual tastes. The only overriding principle is that no taste be elevated above others, lest we risk being "judgmental."

In this moral universe, who can be surprised that modes of life that require self-mastery and sacrifice lose out? Is it any wonder that immediate gratification -- or the promise of safety and security -- win the day?

Yet every now and then an event occurs to remind us of the price we have paid for abandoning the nobility of soul -- or even the idea of a soul -- that has inspired men throughout history to move beyond the raw instinct for self-preservation.

The wreck of the Costa Concordia is such an event. We watched, and shuddered for a moment at the "every man for himself" world we have wrought.

___

Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at kakersten@gmail.com.

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