Titanic and Titanic.
This weekend, to celebrate our anniversary, my boyfriend and I went to see Titanic in theaters—in 3-D, because billionaire James Cameron is heavily invested in 3-D technology and will continue to force it into everything even if makes his movies worse.
But I digress. When it comes to my relationship with Titanic and with the historical event itself, obsessed is not a word I would own up to, but it’s probably the one that works best. I’ve seen every theatrical release and re-release of Titanic, I used to own the two-VHS box set and can still annoyingly pinpoint exactly after which scene you switch to the second tape. I also own the DVD and a digital copy, which I bought through AppleTV once DVDs were no longer a thing anymore.
Watching Titanic for probably the hundredth time, it’s too easy to make it a metaphor for everything. The ship is the Earth and the icebergs they’ve been ignoring warnings about the entire time are climate change and the lifeboats are rocketships to Mars. Sure.
But the one new thought I had this time around was that at least they were willing to go down with the ship (except this guy, famously, though, he didn’t actually dress up in women’s clothes, a myth I could write a whole different essay about). These days, I don’t think any of those responsible would. Shame is no longer a corrective force among the elite.
Two years ago, I wrote an article comparing the class dynamics of Titanic to those on the Princess Diamond cruise ship that was stranded off the coast of Japan at the beginning of the pandemic.
The title, “Are We Living in a New Gilded Age?” was already rhetorical when I wrote it, but now it’s simply cringe. A railroad company creating a toxic wasteland in East Palestine Ohio (avg. income $46,500 and falling), the plan-cession, people freezing to death in Buffalo and trapped in their homes in Southern California because of a lack of emergency infrastructure and a complete abdication of responsibility by elected leaders—what more proof do you need.
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Anyway, here’s an updated version of the article I wrote in May 2021, an older version of which you can read, here.
When James Cameron’s Titanic arrived in late 1997, it sparked my decades-long obsession with the historical event. In an attempt to separate truth from fiction, I spent the next few months on the web and in the library, reading every account I could get my hands on: ship’s logs, survivor testimonies, old newspaper articles on microfiche, etc.
I loved Titanic, in part, because of its emphasis on the economic stratification of the Gilded Age. Elementary school-aged me couldn’t believe that we had once lived in a society so rigidly segregated on the basis of money, even to the point of giving lifeboat access preference to first-class passengers and locking third-class passengers below decks.
The film highlights the excesses of the Edwardian Age and the absurdity of unbridled capitalism. It’s a morality play in which the old values of Industrial-Era capitalism are sent to the bottom of the icy Atlantic where they belong, along with that very priceless necklace.
Back then, the wealthy characters of Titanic seemed to me almost like caricatures. From the main villain, robber baron stand-in Caledon Hockley (might as well have named him Richie Rich), to Bruce Ismay, a White Star Line investor who pushes for reckless speed despite iceberg warnings and is such a dullard that he has no idea who Sigmund Freud is. “We’re dressed in our best and are prepared to go down with the ship,” announces Benjamin Guggenheim, son of mining tycoon Meyer Guggenheim, while waltzing down the grand staircase with his very frightened-looking valet.
At one point, Rose’s mother, played by Frances Fisher, shrilly wonders whether the lifeboats will be seated according to class, to which Rose responds with the same looks of disgust a Zoomer or Millennial gives their MAGA-loving parents when they grouse about mask mandates.
Fisher’s character is perhaps the most exaggerated of the wealthy first-class passengers, most survived, while 1517 other passengers and crew members drowned or froze to death. Yet, I’m starting to wonder whether her character is exaggerated at all.
The pandemic has been just the latest, though perhaps the starkest, expression of the money-based caste system that continues to pervade our society. From who had to keep working, to who had access to testing and cutting-edge treatments, exotic vacations, and early vaccines, to which communities and businesses received the most financial aid or the most hospital equipment, I’m beginning to see Titanic not as an admonishment of our past but as a warning for our present
The HBO documentary The Last Cruise follows a group of passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which sat, quarantined, off the coast of Japan for weeks while infection spread throughout the ship. Throughout the documentary, the disparity between the luxury passengers' experiences and those of the ship’s crew, crammed together in quarters below decks, kept bringing me back to my favorite childhood film.
The gap between the rich and the poor on the Diamond Princess is not nearly as wide as it was on the Titanic. “Wealthy” here implies middle class and from a rich country. However, compared with the pastry chef, who earns a salary of just $997 a month — just enough to feed her two kids, she says — the passengers seem very well-to-do.
The wealth gap on the ship is also the result of the gap between rich and poor countries. Most of the ship's crew members are Indonesian, with others from various countries around the world, including India and the United States. Yet, wealthy countries like the U.S. manage to charter transportation for their citizens, while the bulk of the Indonesian crew members are stuck on the ship long after the last passengers disembarked.
The luxury passengers are not without legitimate concerns. Some have health issues; some even contracted the virus. But the amount of time they spend complaining about boredom, unappetizing food, and perceived gruffness from the crew members (who, they are careful to note, were no longer getting tips) contrasts sharply with the panic of crew members forced to work side by side, preparing meals, cleaning the ship, and caring for sick passengers and fellow crew members.
When Jerri Jorgensen, the co-owner of a sex addiction clinic, complains about the lengthy temperature checks required during their last disembarkment and laments that the rescue plane that will take the American passengers back to the states won’t be “Comfort+” she makes Frances Fisher’s “I do hope [the lifeboats] won’t be too crowded,” seem less caricature and more insight into the brainlessness of class privilege.
Are we living in a new Gilded Age? Wealth inequality was stark even before the pandemic. In the years since Titanic’s release, rising inequality and increasing concerns over healthcare, education, housing, and debt have fueled speculation that history is indeed repeating itself.
Since last March, the rich have gotten 54% richer, while the poor have lost $3.7 trillion. The pandemic has given us PPP lifeboats for Fortune 500 companies, while millions of families who were already struggling are now drowning in debt, food insecurity, and housing precarity due to the pandemic.
The juxtaposition of the rich winning the pandemic while the poor suffer evokes the images of those third-class passengers locked in steerage during the initial part of the sinking, perhaps the most damning scene in the movie. While there’s little evidence that the actual third-class passengers were deliberately prevented from boarding lifeboats, the disparities speak for themselves. More first-class men were saved than third-class children, despite a clear “women and children first” boarding policy for lifeboats.
The disparities of this pandemic speak for themselves too. For the rich, the pandemic has meant inconvenience and boredom. For the poor, annihilation. Poor people are more likely to contract and die from the virus for various reasons, including an inability to stop working, an inability to socially distance at home, as well as chronic health conditions caused by poverty and our abominable healthcare system.
The Titanic foundered 109 years ago this April. In less than a century, we seem to have unlearned all of the lessons of that era. When I watched Titanic for the first time, I was shocked by a world where one’s class was the absolute determiner of one’s fate. Now I am confronted with a stark reminder of how little has changed.
While most of the immediate fallout from the Titanic disaster focused on the failed emergency response as well as reckless directives from Captain Smith, it has remained, in the public imagination, a cautionary tale of class privilege run amok.
As David Hyussen notes in his article “We won’t get out of the Second Gilded Age the way we got out of the first,” The Gilded Age was ended, not by Progressive Era and New Deal reforms, but by decades of radical labor organizing:
“Although middle-class philanthropists and technocratic politicians gave voice to policies that began to curtail inequality, they did not generate the conditions that made such policies either politically possible or effective. That took decades of widespread, sustained, and explicit anti-capitalist organizing from working people — in labor unions, youth groups, radical political parties, and coalitions of mass protest — from the 1870s through the 1940s.”
We perhaps see similar trends in the wake of the pandemic. As the pandemic has laid bare the poor labor conditions, low wages, and poor job insecurity facing essential workers, the U.S. has seen an uptick in worker organizing and strikes. Despite recent losses, there is hope, including the PRO Act, which has passed in the House and is supported by all Democratic senators except Kyrsten Sinema, Mark Kelly, and Mark Warner, and the Labor Secretary's recent announcement that many gig workers should probably be classified as employees.
Globally, rich countries are feeling the pressure to share resources (after refusing to do so for weeks) and stop hoarding vaccines. However, with the help of Bill Gates, drug companies are still refusing to waive patents that would make it possible for poorer countries to manufacture more vaccines because it might threaten future profits. (Possibly because they’ve discovered we’ll all need new ones every six months.) Whether this pandemic will ever end, then, might depend on invigorating the anti-capitalist principles that got us out from under the thumb of the Robber Barons. Oxfam estimates that just the increase in wealth the top 10 billionaires have received in the past year would be enough to pay for every single vaccination. That might be a place to start.