The 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.



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