Elitism and the Titanic

"Noblesse oblige" was not always used mockingly. The notion that wealth, education and advantage obligate one to do good was once taken for granted.
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Consider this remarkable passage from historian John Lucaks' autobiography, A Thread of Years:

"Of the many differences between the movie Titanic and history, one in particular is telling. In the movie, as the ship is sinking the first-class passengers (all third-class human beings) scramble to climb into the small number of lifeboats. Only the determination of the hardy seamen--who use guns to keep the grasping men at bay - gets the women and children into the boats.

"In fact, according to survivors' accounts, the 'women and children first' convention was observed with almost no dissension, particularly among the upper classes. The statistics make this plain. In first class, every child was saved, as were all but five (of 144) women, three of whom chose to die with their husbands. By contrast, 70 percent of the men perished. In second class, 80 percent of the women were saved but 90 percent of the men drowned.

"The men on the first-class list of the Titanic virtually made up the Forbes 400 of the time. John Jacob Astor, reputedly the richest man of his day, is said to have fought his way to a boat, put his wife in it and then stepped back and waved her goodbye. Benjamin Guggenheim similarly refused to take a seat, saying: 'Tell my wife...I played the game out straight and to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.' In other words, some of the most powerful men in the world adhered to an unwritten code of honor--even though it meant certain death for them. The movie makers altered the story for good reason: no one would believe it today."

This startling passage reminds us that elitism is not what it once was. Today to be elite is a bad thing. Elites are thought of as grasping, cruel and stingy. They are the satiric target in many varieties of anti-intellectualism, but in the end, anti-elite prejudice may well have something to do with the changing nature of the elites.

"Noblesse oblige" was not always used mockingly. The notion that wealth, education and advantage obligate one to do good was once taken for granted. We have lost the idea in part because of an overweening faith in our own gifts.

These days success is attributed to the merit of the successful. If I have made it, I do not owe the society a payback for the blessings I have received. There is a myth -- nothing less than a myth -- that people can in fact make it on their own. But a self-made man, as Twain reminds us, is as likely as a self-laid egg.

After all, talent is not earned. We do not work for our brains. And even if one is gifted, society must give scope to the gifts. A financial genius is wasted, in the mode of Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, if not born in a society with scope for those talents. We have liberated the dynamic of human potential, too often at the price of remembering how much nurturance even the greatest talent requires.

Traditionally elites believed they were destined by God to be successful for a purpose. Position was not solely to the advantage of the privileged but imposed an obligation. Such theological elitism led to all sorts of terrifying abuses and cruelties and an unbearable smugness. But it possessed the tremendous advantage of the belief that benefits were conferred by Providence for a cause.

Tonight begins the Jewish festival of sukkot; all week long traditional Jews will take their meals and even sleep, in makeshift huts. For the thoughtful participants it is a reminder that once everyone lived in such insecure, wooden, thatched dwellings. All of us benefit from the combination of genius, error and massive effort that created secure homes with all the accouterments of modern life. We are blessed beyond the most extravagant dreams of ancient avarice. So even in tough times, we owe a debt to life, to those around us; and the more we have been given, the greater the debt.

In political seasons America turns to hardscrabble stories. Candidates who grew up in deprivation are intrinsically attractive. But we should recall that, just as log cabin stories always had their luster, there was a time when inherited wealth too was a recommendation for public service. We believed in the code of "those who have must give." Spreading that sense of service is indispensable when the ship of state is steady and when, as today.