11:40 PM, April 14, 1912. Titanic sideswipes (N.B. she does NOT “collide with”) an iceberg. The berg forces in her side, popping rivets and separating plates for a length of over two hundred feet. The separation is mostly quite narrow, but the total area is over 20 square feet. She is doomed.
Having the rare advantage of having the ship’s designer on board, that unthinkable truth is known to the senior officers in a few minutes. It will become known or obvious to the rest of the crew fairly shortly. For them, it is a sentence of death.
In the event of an emergency, each person in the crew had known duties. The stokers were to keep up power as long as possible, the stewards and valets to rouse and guide the passengers, the officers to organize the whole thing. Saving themselves was simply not part of the plan. After as many passengers as possible were saved, they would be told, “Every man for himself.” In icy water that would kill a grown man in twenty minutes, that meant virtually inevitable death.
Within a fairly short time, as the boats were being loaded with women and children (first and a smattering of second class only, thank you), their men began to grasp that there would never be enough boats for them. They, too, were faced with putting a brave face upon it and dying with as much dignity as possible.
What is astonishing is just how well both passengers and crew carried out their roles. Raised and trained with certain expectations of behavior, surrounded by their peers, they behaved amazingly well. Cabin stewards carefully and tenderly loaded their charges onto the boats and calmly waved as they were lowered. Men helped their families into the boats and looked their wives in the eye and manfully lied about there being enough boats to save them, too.
Few scenes are more poignantly courageous than the picture of Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet. They may have been rigidly cosseted in the standards of their classes, but there is something splendid in their actions. Realizing they were doomed, they discarded their lifebelts and went back down below where they changed into evening clothes. Returning to the upper deck, Guggenheim explained that they were, “dressed in their best and prepared to die like gentlemen.”
For the third class passengers, it was another world. Speaking a babel of languages, packed into a world of strangers, they were kept informed by nobody. They were more or less neglected to death where they were not physically barred from going to the upper decks.
Desperate, with no community standards to uphold, they stormed the barricades, tried to force themselves onto boats and generally behaved as panicked people are wont to do.
Needless to say, there were acts of cowardice in first class as there were acts of self sacrifice and bravery in third class. But still, there is a general pattern to be observed: Those with standards to uphold behaved as if the spotlight was on them. They acted as well as their natures would allow them. Those lost in the mob behaved as desperate people have always behaved.
And note that class had little to do with it. The stewards, cabin boys, stokers and the rest were mostly drawn from the same class as the steerage passengers. The officers were almost all derived from the same orders as those in second class.
What can be distilled from this, I think, is a general rule: If the expectations of one’s perceived community are high, the best will rise to meet them in times of crisis.
Which brings us to today and the recent fetish of our media and public to debunk all heroes and debase all ideals. All our heroes must have (obsessively over-examined) feet of clay. If the clay involves some level of moral turpitude, so much the better. Kennedy had liaisons in the White House. Nixon was a foul-mouthed crook. Johnson was foul-mouthed, too, neurotic and maybe a philanderer, too. For that matter, Washington had slaves and Jefferson slept with one. Mary Todd Lincoln was mad and Nancy Reagan consulted astrologers.
Looking at the type of clay that is being touted, it becomes clear that the real goal is to show that all the great men and women were really phonies. The drive seems to be to show that all the greatness and stature they projected was merely window dressing, behind which lurked people who were no better than our neighbors and perhaps a damned sight worse.
Greatness, you see, is really a sham. Idealism is really a mask for greed. Heroism is really motivated by a desire to get a book or movie deal.
But not, be it noted, in the common man. Fred down the road rescues a child and we see a hero. Mary across the way stops a robbery and we cheer her. George from across the street dies trying to save a life and we know there was no greed in it.
No. It is only our leaders and public heroes who must suffer the relentless scrutiny of people who know, before they ever start, that there are fatal flaws to be found if they only look hard enough. They also know that it is their own special duty to expose those flaws.
If a society’s expectations are high, people will often try to exceed those expectations. The real problem is the corollary: If a society’s expectations are low, those expectations, too, will not be disappointed. I don’t know if the low expectations attract low people or if the expectations simply allow low performances from people who are capable of better. Whatever the cause, the pattern is clear.
The question, then, becomes one of who or what is leading the steady decay of public standards of expectation and behavior. I’m sure there are lots of deep, philosophical answers to that one. Let me suggest a purely phenomenological one.
At a recent press conference, the venerable doyen of the White House press corps, Helen Thomas, frustrated by her inability to get details about the President’s relations with Monica Lewinsky, asked, “But doesn’t the American Public have a right to know?”
The correct answer (which the President was unable to give) to that question is, “No.” The American public has every right to know about the ethical integrity of any official act of the President. It has NO right to know about any aspect of any private act of the President. Or any other official for that matter. An understandable curiosity does not equal a “right.”
The second part of the correct answer is, “You, Helen Thomas, are not the American public nor do you represent them. You represent a media company.” There might have been a time when the media represented the American public’s Right To Know. There might still be times, such as Watergate, when they do so. But most of the time Helen Thomas and all the rest really only represent public media corporations. Those corporations care only about getting and keeping advertisers. Their only ethic and only loyalty is to the bottom line. They have learned, far too well, that scandal, crassness and controversy sell.
The degradation of American standards has taken a giant step with this most recent scandal. All of the most basic rules of journalism and good taste have been thrown out the window in the frantic race to claim the largest share of the audience by having the latest dirt on the street first. Confirmation, independent sources, being on the record, have all been thrown out.
It also used to be a standard practice in journalism that the more damaging the allegation, the more confirmation it required. Imputations of sexual misconduct, racism and a number of like charges, however false, can never be washed away. Journalists were well aware of this and took extra care in such cases to have all the facts before going public.
The media claim that their use of leaks and anonymous, unconfirmed sources is a necessity of today’s world. Is it true?
Information in Washington is a buyer’s market. The sellers (anonymous sources) desperately want the information they are leaking to appear in the media. If reporters cannot get anything but anonymous sources without confirmation, it is because, a) they are in too much of a hurry to bother, or, b) the information is too raw, too crude, too incomplete and literally cannot be substantiated. In which case it should not be run.
There are many things that could be said about the horrible melange of rumors, suppositions and unsubstantiated allegations that are this latest Beltway Bonfire. One of them is that it represents yet another step away from our belief in the idea that people can exceed themselves and achieve greatness.
In such a climate, who would dare to run for Hero today?