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The Titanic Explains the World

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/PA, Files

April 15th, 2019 marks the 107th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. More than a century later, why does this story still captivate so many people’s imaginations? Maybe it’s because, in the words of James Cameron, director of the 1997 Titanic film, “It was like a great novel that really happened.” But as a near-lifelong Titanic aficionado, I have an alternative theory: the sinking of the Titanic was a “lifeboat ethics” scenario involving actual lifeboats. Looking back on the disaster allows people to ask themselves, “Why did this passenger or crew member do what they did? What would I have done?”


The actions of passengers and crew on board also revealed an enduring truth, and one that’s out of bounds for discussion in politically correct environments: Not all cultures are morally equal. There were people from dozens of countries aboard, including 709 immigrants in third class. Their survival rates, along with witness accounts, reveal cultural differences that remain today. Some cultures value human life, particularly the lives of children and other vulnerable groups, while others let the strong trample over the weak. Some cultures are guided by values like mercy and justice, while in others, “whoever has the gold makes the rules.” These cultural differences played out aboard the Titanic in one of the most dramatic displays the world has ever seen.

For any liberal reading this who already has their outrage antenna up, take a deep breath. I’m not about to defend “Western civilization” or “Judeo-Christian culture” above all others. In fact, the sinking of the Titanic reflected very poorly on the British, who owned and operated the White Star Line.  At inquests held into the disaster by various governments, the British repeatedly came across as rancid people who valued titles and inherited wealth above human life. A British couple with the title of "Lord" hogged Lifeboat No. 1 for themselves, their maids, and their yippie dogs. Meanwhile, entire families of British people in third class died. The French were divided along strict class lines, too. French men in first class saved themselves, while all of the French men in second class abided by the "women and children only" rule.


Religion played a role in lifeboat morality, too. While many European men felt comfortable shoving women aside to get their seat in a lifeboat, the few European Catholic priests aboard the ship were offered seats and declined, choosing instead to hear confessions until the very end.

None of the men from various Latin American cultures saved themselves, although they did manage to save their wives before going down with the ship. The Eastern European people aboard, including Hungarians, Croatians, Slovenians, and Greeks, were mostly single men, and every single one of these men died. Men from misogynist cultures had no trouble ignoring the "women and children first" rule while trampling over women and old ladies. The only man in second class who saved himself was from Japan, land of the geishas and "comfort women" held as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Scandinavian men had terrible survival rates, as did Irish men. Most of these men made no attempt to save themselves—but they did use their “male privilege” to help women and children get to the lifeboats. It was Irish steerage passenger Jim Farrell who demanded that the crew open the third-class gates. When a melee broke out around the last lifeboat and crewmen fired gunshots at men trying to get in, some immigrant women ran away in terror; the Irish men grabbed them and dragged them back. Sure, they could have used brute force to shove their way into this boat, but such wicked and unmanly thoughts never occurred to them. One Irish survivor recalled that the last time she saw Jim Farrell, he was kneeling and praying the rosary after hoisting some women in headscarves into the last lifeboat. 


But speaking of headscarves, there was one group of men who did pretty well for themselves! They had far and away the highest survival rate of any nationality in third class.

When the U.S. government held hearings to find out what happened, surviving crewmen singled out one group of steerage men as the worst people on board. While Irishman Jim Farrell uttered the famous words "Good God, man, let the girls past to the boats!" these men attempted to flee with their male children and luggage. Crewmen had to drag wives away from these men, who would not allow them to leave.

No one knew who these people were, but described them as vaguely "Latin-looking" people with brown hair, brown eyes, and shabby clothes. But all hell broke loose when Fifth Officer Harold Lowe described them as "Italian" and admitted to using them for target practice. Throughout the hearings, the aristocrats complained about Lowe, treating him like a member of the dirty working class who didn't do enough to save the important people. In reality, he was the biggest hero of the night. While other officers made exceptions for rich men, Lowe filled his lifeboats to capacity with women and children only, many of them third class. He wanted to stay aboard, but a higher-ranking officer told him to get in Lifeboat No. 14. As the boat lowered, a group of men tried to kick, shove, and push women aside so they could jump in, even trying to toss out a woman they had deemed too fat to deserve a seat. When they nearly tipped Lifeboat 14 into the ocean--on purpose, according to some witnesses--Lowe popped off a few shots.


The aristocrats demanded to know why he did this, accusing him of ethnic cleansing for refusing to let a bunch of men stampede the boat. "What country were they from?" the aristocrats asked. Lowe guessed Italy. Why? Because they looked Italian, or vaguely "Latin." Lowe was then asked a question along the lines of, "Are you an anti-Italian bigot?" To which Lowe responded: screw you. He was the only officer who bothered to return after the ship sank, rowing over a mile to look for survivors in a mile-wide field of dead bodies and wreckage. Lowe rescued five people. Instead of praising him for this incredible act of heroism, the Pompous People berated him for his insensitive language--he apparently called an Asian man floating on a door a "Jap" before saving his life. Perhaps Lowe should have taken a three-hour sensitivity-training course before returning to the wreck so as not to offend minorities. Of course, those minorities would have been dead by the time he arrived.

Lowe was forced to apologize to the Italian ambassador before the hearings could continue. But Italians were not, in fact, the World's Worst Ethnic Group. There were only two on board, a married couple in second class. And they weren't Latin, either--whatever Latin means. Any guesses? The worst people aboard were...drumroll, please...


Arabs, particularly Syrians.

A bunch of adult men, married and single, got into the last lifeboats when hundreds of women and children were still aboard. Women only survived if their husbands let them; single women had a lower survival rate than married men. What kind of culture produces men who would gladly throw old ladies, pregnant women, and children--at least the girls--overboard so they can rescue themselves? 

Of course, most cultures have evolved quite a bit since 1912—but Muslims haven’t changed much in their attitudes toward women. In fact, the behavior of Syrian men aboard the Titanic calls to mind the boats crossing the Mediterranean today, full of “refugees” from the Middle East and North Africa—a suspicious number of whom appear to be able-bodied men.

It was true then, and it’s true now: Not all cultures are created equal.

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