The Common Good

Pride Goeth Before a Sail

Word to the wise: don't get on a cruise ship in a year ending in the number 12. Especially if the captain feels a little too sure of himself.

Max Dannenbaum, Getty Images
Max Dannenbaum, Getty Images

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Earlier this year the world was captivated by images of the Costa Concordia capsized off the Italian coast. The captain allegedly ignored the navigation maps, ran aground and at least 30 people died as a result.

April 12 marks the 100th anniversary of the disaster of the Titanic, which sank about 360 miles from Newfoundland when the famously "unsinkable" ship hit an ice berg. Three hours later, it was an underwater grave two miles below the frigid surface of the North Atlantic.

The deaths on the Concordia represent less than 1 percent of the 4,252 passengers aboard, while the Titanic lost about 70 percent of its estimated 2,228 souls on her maiden voyage.

As the world awaits results from an official inquiry into the Concordia disaster, the Titanic -- even 100 years later -- continues to raise profound ethical, moral and theological questions.

The massive Titanic was equipped with the most advanced technology of its day, and its sheer luxury and hubris represented the apex of pre-war glamour, glitter, and gold. "God himself could not sink this ship," one crew member boasted.

A single first-class one-way ticket cost more than $30,000 in today's dollars. The pampered first-class passengers were treated to superior cabins, superb dining facilities, libraries, smoking rooms, an exercise gym, swimming pool and squash courts. In the end, they also were awarded a much higher survival rate than the poor immigrants who traveled in the lower decks.

Some sobering statistics tell a ghastly story and confront us with disturbing evidence that class and money mattered on the Titanic -- in both life and death.

The differences between those who lived and those who died are shocking: because the crew followed the chivalrous code of "women and children first," 97 percent of women in first class survived, along with 86 percent of women in second class. Fewer than half of the female passengers in third class survived. Overall, only 20 percent of the men lived, compared to 75 percent of all women onboard.

The role of gender, age, wealth, and class in such dire situations is part of what is called "lifeboat ethics." There's also the fact the Titanic's" lifeboat capacity was only half the number required for all passengers and crew. It was, it must be said, a case of criminal neglect.

Following the disaster, vessels were dispatched to rescue any survivors and recover bodies. Incredibly, the primary emphasis was to identify the wealthy victims by name while the less affluent dead were merely assigned numbers for burial. The reason, officials said, was to prevent bitter estate battles among the families of the deceased rich. Talk about class warfare!

Among the wealthy souls who perished 100 years ago were the real estate magnate John Jacob Astor IV; the mining tycoon Benjamin Guggenheim; and Isidor Strauss, the co-owner of Macy's, and his wife, Ida. The arrogant Guggenheim refused a life vest and returned to his cabin where he donned a tuxedo, as did his valet. He told a crew member; "We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen." And they did.

Although most people think the Titanic was a British ship, the real owner of the liner was another prideful "Master of the Universe," the American financial giant J.P. Morgan.

Before we get swept up in sentimental romanticized versions of the tragedy and the re-release of James Cameron's big-screen blockbuster "Titanic," we need to remember what really happened.

Or, to be more precise, what caused it to happen.

"Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall," Proverbs warns us. F. Scott Fitzgerald put it another way: "The rich, they are different."

Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the upcoming "Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations." Via RNS.

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