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Titanic lessons in the age of swagger


TitanicThe sinking of the Titanic is an event that punches even beyond its considerable weight. The loss of any ship on her major voyage with the death of over 1500 people deserves to be remembered. But the sinking of the Titanic continues to fascinate more than does any other shipwreck.

The Titanic was a symbol of swagger: the insouciance that flows from self-absorption and an insuperable conviction of invulnerability. It was the biggest passenger ship in the world, setting world records in every statistic. It was proclaimed to be indestructible, armoured against any demons of the sea. It was to take risk out of ship travel. On its maiden voyage it gathered the great and the good of the age who partied on even as the ship was holed.

In retrospect the Titanic has become the larger symbol of the end of a swaggering era that was marked by great self-confidence and belief in inevitable progress. Its sinking was the drum roll that welcomed the trenches of Belgium, the beer halls of Munich and the sealed train entering Russia. The dead multiplied exponentially.

Other historical events have been freighted with the same symbolic loading as the loss of the Titanic. The invasion of Rome by the Visigoths in 408 CE was the climactic event of late antiquity.

The Roman Empire made swagger an industry. The choreography of imperial travel, of punishment, of rhetorical celebration, of battle and of history making proclaimed Rome immortal and invincible. The sack of Rome was inconceivable. But the fact that it happened pointed to a long-standing reality that the Empire relied on Barbarian armies for its own defence. When they were double-crossed Rome's vulnerability became manifest.

The stock market plunge on 29 October 1929 is also a symbol for the end of a swaggering age. The self-confidence and the conviction that a speculative bubble could never end were accompanied by a titanic flaunting of wealth and febrile relationships. Although the Great Depression had many subsequent spikes and falls, the plunging of the Dow Jones Index and of speculators from windows are the abiding images of its ending.

It brought misery to millions although, unlike the Titanic's Edward Smith, the captains of industry generally found well-appointed life boats.

Then there are minor Titanics: the times when a swaggering organisation suddenly hits a reef. The discovery last year that a Murdoch newspaper had hacked the phone of murdered English schoolgirl Milly Dowland may yet be seen as a Titanic moment for the News print media. Certainly the company has never lacked swagger, displaying an unrivalled self-confidence, an assurance of trustworthiness and the capacity to intimidate critics and politicians.

That aura has now dissipated under the constant disclosures of doubtful practices. But the fact that the company's shares continue to rise suggest that the implosion requisite for a comparison with the Titanic may never eventuate.

The lesson of the Titanic is that swagger has its costs. Installing lifeboats for only half of those who travelled on the ship was a gesture of supreme self-confidence but also of supine regulatory failure. It led to an avoidably high loss of life. When we remember the tragedy, those who died should matter more than the ship and its pretensions.

Similarly assurance in the making of money that is not guided by an ethical compass is exciting to watch. But in commemorating financial disasters we should focus on the price paid by the poor and unemployed in nations that were despoiled by the profit takers.

The story of the Titanic also suggests that when swagger begins to walk the streets it is time to head for the lifeboats. Fascination with the Titanic may imply that we always need to relearn this lesson, and that we find it hard to apply it to the circumstances of our own times. In the world of finance, the churches and the press, mirages of oases surrounded by palm trees always look solid, especially to those who speculate on them. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Titanic, News International, Murdoch, News of the World



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Existing comments

Fantastic article Andrew. As we remember those who died 100 years ago, may we also remember that self-confidence is the reflection of human hubris that says we don't need a power outside of ourselves to live and thrive.

Nils | 12 April 2012  

Christians seem to have indulged in a certain measure of swagger. Claiming to hold "The Word of God" and to be able to interpret it must be about as far as can be gone in this line. The Angels must smile as religions continue to evolve, and the members of each new expression congratulate themselves on having at last achieved that vital "hot-line" to the throne of God.

Robert Liddy | 12 April 2012  

I find it very sobering to realise that the best example I can think of in my own life time is the 'sinking" of the mid 20th century Catholic Church. Not too many lifeboats there either.Especially for the steerage passengers...

Margaret | 12 April 2012  

Thanks Andrew. Swagger precedes a Fall? The Global Financial Crisis was brought to us by the "Big Swinging Dicks" of the finance sector. It's a little concerning that the Clean Energy Futures package is ultimately intended to become an Emission Trading Scheme, thereby leaving the environmental and economic future of all humanity to the tender mercies of these same swaggerers.

David Arthur | 12 April 2012  

Note that a swaggering captain abandoned ship today ensuring that he won't go down with it. Reckon he has probably organised a safe and stable lifeboat.

john frawley | 13 April 2012  

Better to ensuree that there are lifeboarts to seek out before one begins what could be a totally fruitless and fatal search. In our times....pollies and commentators need to legislate so that employees who are suddenly confronted with the news that they'll not get their entitlements will indeed get them...ahead of the Taxation Dept or anyone else. Now that's titanic task worth getting down the slipway!

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 13 April 2012  

Despite signs of present and future difficulties, the Captain of the good ship "Catholic Church", in his recent (2007)book "Jesus of Nazareth" seems to be proclaiming "Steady as she goes." He affirms the basis of the Church's preaching to be the Gospels, and says "I trust the Gospels" despite the emerging fact that the Gospels were written by Greek-speaking 'Gentiles', who adapted them to their own traditions, by including in them in the "infancy stories" and many of the "miracles" taken from stories of their traditional 'pagan' gods. Conclusion? All passengers should look to their own safety, and rely only on the True Fundasmental, the Two Great Commandments: "Love God above all, and everyone else as yourself. "

Robert Liddy | 13 April 2012  

Once again a great thought here Andrew.Sadly as others have commented , we never seem to learn.In the Titanic disaster the steerage passengers suffered the biggest loss of life, in the various financial disasters it is the ordinary people who suffer, in the hubris of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church so evident at present, it is the ordinary parishioner who suffers. I wonder if we will ever learn?

Gavin | 14 April 2012  

Thank God for the life insurance industry and the proliferation of funeral insurance ads on the telly these days - making sure that while we are all sinking (some faster than others) at least those left behind will be left with a smile.

AURELIUS | 15 April 2012  

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