Paul Greenberg
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Happy days are here again

The skies above are clear again

So let's sing a song of cheer again

Happy days are here again

No wonder the Titanic became not just a metaphor for a whole, calamitous century but a cliche. The story of its maiden and final voyage in 1912 featured a whole pantheon of modern gods that have failed: science and technology, expertise and efficiency, mathematical probability, the worship of the biggest and best. ... In the case of the Titanic, they all added up to one more chapter in man's unending history of hubris.

. .

The RMS Titanic, largest and greatest liner of its advanced time, would be beyond the reach of fate or chance, safe from the forces of mere Nature. ("We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe the boat is unsinkable." --P.A.S. Franklin, vice president and general manager, White Star Line.)

With its watertight compartments, advanced navigational equipment, failsafe mechanisms and latest communication systems, the great ship was a product of the best engineering and design of its Edwardian time. Britannia ruled the waves. What could go wrong?

Everything, of course.

The great ship, 900 feet long, 25 stories high, weighed 46,000 tons. A modern wonder of the world, it carried more than 2,200 passengers and crew. (Only 710 would survive.)

The odds against the ship's encountering an iceberg on its course, let alone being sunk after a collision with one, were overwhelming.

But everything that could go wrong did.

One by one the decks of the floating palace disappeared into the icy North Atlantic as the band played on.

. .

In the end, what sunk the Titanic was no modern phenomenon at all. It was as old as the Greek tragedies: Hubris. It was man's certainty that, thanks to his superior intelligence, his specialized knowledge, his brilliant innovations and modern advances, he can overcome all obstacles, avoid all perils, and sail blithely on.

But it turns out there is an ocean after all, and a limit even to the arrogance of man.

Warnings were dismissed, the fatal speed maintained, and assumptions held to. Never fear, anything unforeseen could be handled by midcourse corrections. There would always be a way to avoid trouble, or at least postpone it, no matter how close it loomed.

. .

The same sublime confidence that led the Titanic to disaster on the high seas in the advanced year 1912 also dominated the era's international relations.

One more summit of world leaders could always be held to calm tensions, at Algeciras in Morocco one year, at The Hague the next. Those firmly in charge of the world's affairs were much too enlightened to let things spin out of control. From their vantage point on the bridge, they would guide us all to safe harbor.

Europe's royal houses were intermarried. European civilization united all. The spread of industrialization, education and general prosperity would prevent the outbreak of any general war. A new and better age had arrived.

These were modern times after all; science had replaced fate some time ago. Planning and progress were the order of the day.

And then came Sarajevo. And the lights were going out all over Europe.

. .

All that is history now. The world has come through a sea of dangers to emerge triumphant into a new era of peace and prosperity. The great recession that marked recent years has ebbed, the tide has been reversed, enlightened statesmanship and daring leadership have carried the day. Hope and change have triumphed, happy days are here again.

Doubt it? Just look at the latest figures on the rebounding American economy:

Last month 243,000 new jobs were created in this country. Onward and upward go our economic fortunes. Not since this president's first full month in office has the unemployment rate been so low. It's down to 8.3 percent nationally after dropping for five consecutive months.

The skies above are clear again, so let's sing a song of cheer again. Especially since it's an election year again.

All those worries about Europe's economic woes holding us back have dissipated. Greece totters, Italy and Spain are next in this row of dominoes, but don't worry, be happy. Any crisis can be postponed, the bankrupt bailed out, the financial contagion contained, the euro saved.

The stock market reacted to the latest unemployment figures by jumping 156 points, or 1.2 percent in a day. "Dow Highest Since May 2008" --Page 1, Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2012.

We all know what happened after May of 2008: the financial panic of 2008-09 and the subsequent Great Recession. But why go into detail?

To quote our president, "the recovery is speeding up...." To borrow a reassuring phrase from another president, "the fundamental business of the country ... is on a sound and prosperous basis." --Herbert Hoover, October 25, 1929. Needless to say, it wasn't.

Maybe this economy is recovering, as so many of us expected it to do sooner or later. Ours is a resilient country with enormous resources, and a people with deep reservoirs of strength.

This patient may indeed be on the road to recovery, but Dr. Obama appears incapable of giving it what it may need most: a good leaving alone. Instead, he always seems to be running around rearranging the deck chairs on the U.S.S. Economy, whistling a happy tune as the band plays on.

Another payroll tax cut here, another $1.3 trillion deficit there ... who cares? With any luck, nothing will go wrong, at least not before Election Day.

Meanwhile, another great ship, the capsized Costa Concordia, still lies on its side off the coast of a picturesque Italian island, another victim of a heedless captain and age-old hubris. And waits to become not just a disaster but a symbol.

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Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.