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The Titanic and the Titan: Different disasters, similar stories


Published : 07 Jul 2023 08:04 PM
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The story of the Titan disaster reflects a fascination with extremely wealthy people. We often believe that those privileged few, who are normally spared life’s large and small inconveniences, would also naturally be spared something as awful as an untimely death. 

I think we have a macabre attraction to the dissolving of wealth’s perceived invulnerability, and this, in part, might be one reason for the non-stop coverage of the Titan.

Another reason for the interest is that this is a story about hubris. We know how attempts to conquer the physical world’s iron laws can sometimes end. 

The more certain one is of victory, the more dramatic the failure. Captain Edward Smith of the Titanic is infamously said to have remarked that his ship was 

unsinkable. 

Likewise, Stockton Rush, an engineer and CEO of the company that ran tours to view the wreck of the Titanic, once told a prospective passenger that a trip on the Titan was “safer than crossing the street.”

In many ways, the reporting of this story is like century-old newspaper accounts of the Titanic disaster itself. 

It suggests that decisions about what and whom to include in such narratives have not changed much in over a century.

First, there were and are the timelines of tragic happenings leading to the vessels’ respective final moments. Then, we read about their designs, displacements, lengths, weights, navigational instruments, and maximum speeds.

In 1912, The New York Times featured photos of the Titanic’s richest passengers: the Astors and Guggenheims, among others. They were names as familiar to reading audiences then as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are to us now. They discussed the victims’ family histories, vast fortunes, and business endeavors. 

The Los Angeles Times reported that the scion of a family that owned the Pennsylvania Railroad, J.J. Thayer, who was aboard the Titanic, was “one of the best full-backs that ever played on a college team.”

In 2023, CNN, NBC and other news outlets described the Titan’s passengers in similar ways. For instance, we know that two were billionaires. 

We not only know their names, but we also know their spouses’ names, the names of their businesses, and where they liked to travel. We are left with three-dimensional views of actual people.

But the reportage of both the Titanic and the Titan was and is more than simply an appeal to prurient interest in the fall of the mighty, or another abject lesson in hubris.

The stories also underscore deeply ingrained class biases and negative views of the other that are not only bound up in narratives, but also in laws and institutions. Hundreds of the Titanic’s passengers were emigrants from places like Ireland and Syria. Many were escaping poverty or conflict back home and looking forward to better lives in the United States. 

They travelled in the third-class steerage compartments and as a rule were not allowed onto the upper decks. 

Even as the ship was taking on more and more water and it was becoming clear that she would sink, crew members still prevented many from ascending the stairs to reach the lifeboats.

The Los Angeles Times reported the exact number of women and children in the first and second-class cabins and estimated their survival rate; however, it did not know how many were in steerage. None of them got their pictures in the newspapers. They were fatality numbers, not three-dimensional people.

Four days before the Titan disappeared, a fishing trawler bound for Italy was carrying migrants from Afghanistan, Syria, and Egypt, as well as other Middle Eastern and African countries. 

After experiencing engine trouble and taking on water, it capsized and sank. Of the trawler’s estimated 750 passengers, only 104 survived. Among the missing were 100 children.

It was one of the worst maritime and migrant disasters in history, yet compared to the Titan story, it received comparatively less coverage. 

This incident is the latest grim chapter of migrant losses at sea that has, as Human Rights Watch estimates, already surpassed 25,000 missing or dead since 2014.

Not only was the reporting different, the rescue efforts were not even remotely comparable. One Greek coastguard ship approached the fishing boat, but that was a considerable amount of time after Greek and Italian authorities were notified that it was in distress. The vessel unsuccessfully attempted to tow the trawler, and that may have inadvertently contributed to its capsizing.

By contrast, multiple ships of the US Navy, US Coast Guard, US Air National Guard, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Canadian Coast Guard spent a week and millions of dollars on search and rescue efforts to find survivors of the Titan.

The greater news coverage given to the rich over the poor and the more textured humanizing of citizens over migrants obscures inconvenient, uncomfortable realities. Whether it is intentional or not, much of the reporting effaces people and their terrible dilemmas about staying in place or finding refuge elsewhere. The former means suffering chronic unemployment, grinding poverty, or even death. 

The latter translates to taking a chance and, together with one’s children, maybe die on the way to places where rightwing, xenophobic politicians increasingly stoke the fires of fear and resentment of immigrants.

Thousands of asylum seekers know perfectly well that millions of Ukrainian refugees were rightfully welcomed with open arms while they face growing barriers. Many also realize that humanitarian laws in their destination countries have often been more deeply gutted than ever before. They take the chance anyway.

Those are the terrible choices that thousands of people are forced to make every day. The media frequently describe migration or migrants as a “crisis.” They are not a crisis. 

They are facing multiple crises that compel them to make life or death decisions.

The need for safe harbor has rarely been greater.


Michael Slager is an English teacher at Loyola University Chicago. 

Source: CounterPunch