Monday, April 03, 2006


Christina Hoff Sommers opens her review of Manliness with a telling bit of dusty history:
ONE OF THE LEAST VISITED memorials in Washington is a waterfront statue commemorating the men who died on the Titanic. Seventy-four percent of the women passengers survived the April 15, 1912, calamity, while 80 percent of the men perished. Why? Because the men followed the principle "women and children first."

The monument, an 18-foot granite male figure with arms outstretched to the side, was erected by "the women of America" in 1931 to show their gratitude. The inscription reads: "To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic. . . . They gave their lives that women and children might be saved."

Today, almost no one remembers those men. Women no longer bring flowers to the statue on April 15 to honor their chivalry. The idea of male gallantry makes many women nervous, suggesting (as it does) that women require special protection. It implies the sexes are objectively different. It tells us that some things are best left to men. Gallantry is a virtue that dare not speak its name

This used to be the dominant image of the Titanic and the A Night to Remember : cool bravery and self-sacrifice. Today, I'm not so sure.

Hollywood reworked the story in its own inimitable way and puked up a junior high romance coated with class-war pretensions. I guess that is further evidence to support Sommers and Mansfield's point.

Before the Titanic there was the HMS Birkenhead. It, too, is a story that deserves to be remembered. As this site notes, the wreck of the Birkenhead and its aftermath grabbed the world's attention and made "women and children first" the established protocol for maritime disasters.

The soldiers and sailors on board became exemplars of manliness. The King of Prussia had an account of the Birkenhead "read aloud to every regiment in the Prussian Army, as an example of supreme discipline, courage and self-sacrifice"

Kipling referenced it his poem "Soldier an' Sailor Too":

But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill
is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies --
soldier an' sailor too

It is easy to understand why the Victorians were awe-struck:

Capt Salmond climbed the rigging and urged all who could swim to abandon ship. But Lt-Col Seton, his sword still drawn, raised his hands above his head and told his men, "You will swamp the cutter containing the women and children. I implore you not to do this thing and I ask you all to stand fast". Seconds later the Birkenhead broke her back, not a man disobeyed Lt-Col Seton's orders and they shook hands and said goodbye as the water closed in over their heads.

Today the Leo DiCaprio version of the Titanic dominates the popular imagination. The older, historical version is not dead, however. Conservative Christian writers still see useful lessons in the events of April 15, 1912. This writer also remembers the Birkenhead.

The chasm between these two versions is more than academic. When an air-head like Nancy Grace interrogates a theologian on men, marriage, women and ministry, she sees and hears only power, patriarchy, and oppression. When she hears "submission" her sleaze-soaked brain can only picture BDSM and wife-beaters. She is deaf to the counter-point-the call for male self-sacrifice and masculine heroism as a virtue. That sounds like bull to her because she only knows Kate, Leo, and the awful rich fiancé. The real Titanic and the Birkenhead are lost to her.

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