Titanic and The Decline of Western Ethic
A few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting
the late great Mexican poet Octavio Paz in his home. When I expressed muy
anxiety about the dark horizon of Cuba, don Octavio - a true Quixotic
“hidalgo” - mused, “My friend, the Cuban problem is tragic. But those
storm clouds hover over all our futures.” He was referring to what we, with
philosophical caution, call “the decline of the Western ethic”.
One could cite many examples that demonstrate the
lowering of the moral bar of our times; like the increasing mortal violence of
children against friend and teachers; or the Washington-Beijing deal that freed
a Tiannaman Square hero by avoiding a U.N. condemnation of China. Or we could
stick with the latest Cuba-related embarrassment. In Geneva, most Latin American
governments, well aware of that country’s crimes, abstained from a vote that
would have censored again Fidel Castro’s long and brutal dictatorship.
But let us take a different approach, through the
world of entertainment, to see how the most successful motion picture of all
time seems to prove the decline of the Western ethic. That unusual and
fascinating argument is made brilliantly in an April 19 New York Times book
review by Fareed Zakaria. Commenting Hungarian author John Lukacs’ A
Thread of Years, Zakaria signals the profound significance of the gap
between what actually happened on the HMS Titanic 86 years ago and what
Hollywood says happened.
According to the film Titanic,
the first-class passengers- facing certain death - behaved like fourth-class rats. Only the crew’s discipline
and weapons prevented those crazed barbarians from commandeering all lifeboats
and abandoning the women and children. In fact, the opposite occurred.
Survivors’ accounts and ships’ logs show that the “women and children
first” order was greeted with admirably serenity. All children were rescued,
and all but five women, three of who chose to die with their husbands. By
contrast, 70 percent of the men perished. In second class, 80 percent of the
women were saved but 90 percent of the men drowned. One of the richest man in
the world, John Jacob Astor, is said to have fought his way to a boat, put his
wife in it and stepped back and wave her goodbye. The famous millionaire, Ben
Gugenheim behaved in much the same fashion. In reality, the members of the
currently vilified wealthy elite obeyed a code of honor and died like gentlemen.
Which begs the question, why did write-director
James Cameron falsify history and dishonor the honorable. Lukacs’ book
provides a chilling answer. “Because today no one would believe the truth”.
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 operas, 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.
Lukacs believes that the Judeo-Christian tradition,
and in the Anglo-Saxon’s case the puritan influence, forged Western culture.
From the Middle Ages to the First World War, that sensibility helped halt, but
no eliminate, the baser impulses and promoted honorable conduct as much in the
peasantry as the aristocracy. That social decay fill Lukacs with the same
melancholy that it did Octavio Paz. It is easy to cynical blame their worry on
false idealism since infamy has always existed in society. But the danger lies
in its disproportionate increase until it corrupts the moral fibric of society.
In body social, infamy, like poison in the physical body, does not kill. What
kills is the dosage.