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Columns

April 17, 2012

Titanic was a microcosm of U.S. economic disparity

Haunting reminders of the Titanic tragedy have wafted over us with the centenary of its sinking. The maiden voyage of an impressive, state-of-the-art vessel, was a little like that of the Challenger space shuttle, at the cutting edge of developing technology. But the shuttle carried our pride in science and space exploration, not hundreds and hundreds of people.

In a way, this powerful and luxurious ship carried a special status as the largest of its kind at the time, symbolizing for Britain the kind of prestige and progress that America also was striving to achieve in the world.

It sailed at a time of heavy immigration to the U.S., and it was a time of robber baron wealth as well as the pressure of poverty. The only social safety nets were those of private charity. It was a time of bigotry and stratification, of classism, and racism, of course, taken for granted and essentially accepted as the status quo.

Steerage passengers constituted a third of the 2,214 on board, but only 180 of the 708 survived _ 25 percent. 62 percent of first class and 42 percent of the second class did. Actually, third-class passengers had no direct access to the lifeboat decks. Beyond that, emigrant passengers were associated with ill health, and the gates separating them from second- and first-class areas were required to be locked.

There were other built-in factors favoring the upper class. Staff were trained more to meet the comfort needs of the wealthy passengers than in procedures for loading and lowering lifeboats.

But then, there were only boats for 1,178 of the more than 2,200 passengers, and when the crew are included, there were lifeboats aboard for only about half of all the people on board.

They were by custom considered the prerogative of first class. Half of all launched had only first class, but were only partly filled.

The radio was enough of a novelty that it was actually used more for maiden voyage social messages sent by high society, than it was for official navigation.

It is even unclear, for example, that radio messages about icebergs in the waters ahead even got to the bridge of Titanic. The ship was unsinkable, after all, not to worry.

Well, we have similar attitudes about the approaching dangers of global warming. Yes, yes, not to worry.

There are interesting parallels between us as a society today, and the society of 1912. Some of the people on the ship counted, and some did not. Titanic carried the traditions, and the self-satisfied stratifications into which people were sorted, valued, and cared about.

We, too, allow for favoritism, and even racism, to separate us from one another. We have the 1 percent and the 99 percent. We have a huge gap of wealth and well-being, between groups who send their kids to school hungry, and those who can buy a second car just for its color.

The currently disadvantaged tend to be blamed for their own inequity or held responsible by such as Mitt Romney. The conservative self-righteous measure their worthiness as if they had earned millions cutting lawns.

Romney actually argues that his wealth is a measure of both his virtue and his qualification to be president. The right wing is so anti-government, and so concrete in opposition to any deficits, that it opposes effective health care reform that would improve care for all and reduce costs in the long run.

As such needs are pointed out, they are dismissed with the assumption that it is a private-sector problem. Those problems happen to "those" people. Not to "us."

With Mike Wallace's death, I am reminded of a "60 Minutes"-type program back in the '60's, called "Don't Get Sick in America" where people go into debt for life, go bankrupt or die because of illness.

Fifty years later, the silent assumption is that the system works. It works for "us."

Expecting people to be individually self-sufficient is a very appropriate incentive to be so, when one is in an economic environment with flexible and available opportunity. That is the group side of the equation in which individuals are supposed to ply their survival skills.

The smug assumption that each man must look out for himself is usually advanced by those only too willing to look out for themselves, often at the expense of others.

Without fairness, such assertions lead to fear, social stress, and the need for market regulation. Just like the Titanic needed lifeboats for more than the first-class passengers.

William Masters can be reached at wmasters@thedailystar.com. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.

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