The Most Hated Man In The World

After yesterday’s big emotional roundabout, I am once again bored with talking about myself, so I thought it was time I did something other than root around in my navel lint looking for gold, and actually talk something outside my head for a change.

No doubt this too shall pass, and I will revert to form and go back to sorting my entrails soon enough. But for today, we will be discussing some interesting news items I have come across recently.

I hope the sudden shock does not cause any of you undue stress or anxiety.

Now let’s continue.

With the recent centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, there has been a flurry of media and public interest in this most famous of all disasters at sea.

Much of this has just been the repeating of facts already well known. But recently I came across this fascinating article about J. Bruce Ismay and how, as a result of the Titanic disaster, he became, for a time, the most hated man in the world.

Ismay was the chairman of the White Star Line, the company that built the Titanic, and was on board the night she struck an iceberg and sank.

But building the doomed ship was not the crime for which he was pilloried. It was getting on the initial (scant) lifeboat launch with all the women and children that was the nail upon which he was hung in the press and in the court of public opinion.

To further compound the matter, it became clear that he had been responsible for the Titanic’s excessive speed (he controlled the often vilified captain of the ship), and, most crucially and damningly, his decision to reduce the number of lifeboats on the vessel far below the number necessary to carry all the ship’s passengers to safety because he “didn’t want the decks to look too cluttered”.

Well, the ship was unsinkable, so really, why have any at all? Just to make it look more like a ship to the passengers, presumably. After all, you expect to see lifeboats on the deck of a ship, right?

To finally cement his position as public pariah, he refused to talk about his experience on that fateful April night and absolutely refused to take any responsibility for it whatsoever, even to the point of claiming he was on board as an ordinary passenger and had no idea why Captain Smith handed him an ice danger warning shortly before the disaster.

As a result, he got hate mail, he got blackballed from his club, a close friend turned him away at the door, and he lived the remaining 25 years of his life as a shadow of his former self, reclusive, nervous, depressed, and plagued by such horrific nightmares that his screams woke the whole household.

Granted, he was still a rich man. But he was not a happy man, and what else is money for?

I find the story fascinating because it is such a pure personal tragedy to come from the much larger tragedy that is the story of the Titanic. The fact that Ismay went from being one of the most rich and powerful men in the world to a shattered and crippled figure living out his days in misery makes him a highly tragic, though not sympathetic, character.

And all for basically acting exactly like any other rich person who was used to being treated like he was far, far, far more important than anyone else and so he just did what came naturally to such a person. He put himself first.

I think anyone can see by his psychological reaction, especially the nightmares, that despite what he said, he felt incredibly guilty over the entire thing and that this guilt, plus the shock of his sudden reversal of position in the world, were simply far more than he could handle. He could not face it either publicly, privately, or in his own mind. And so for the rest of his life, he was a man living the fragile existence of a soul incapable of facing a terrible, terrible truth.

And it is this profound lack of character that makes him a tragic figure to me. He is a man who failed the test of history and hence became a pariah and a nervous wreck. This is both tragic in the literary sense, and just. Inasmuch as the Titanic disaster was any one person’s fault, it was his, and his failure to take even the pro forma “the buck stops here” responsibility of any leader, let alone any shred of personal responsibility, quite rightfully made him a detested figure in his own life, and will insure his place in the history books as a coward and a failure and a victim of that most classically tragic of attributes, hubris.

And you can see how this sort of thing might happen. I have written before on the corrupting and indeed infantalizing effect of wealth and power, and how there is genetic social programming that emerges from the human psyche when one becomes socially dominant that is entirely unknown to the common citizen who lives in a state of relative social hierarchical equality with his or her peers.

To me, it seems clear that the tragedy suddenly placed an enormous burden of conscience on a man who had grown quite used to the sort of complete lack of accountability available only to those at the very top of their respective heaps. He went from socially dominant to the bottom of the heap, the pariah, the leper, the criminal in all but law, so fast and so unexpectedly that his enfeebled character simply could not take it and as a consequence, he made his situation far worse by refusing to face it, therefore failing one of the most basic tests of human leadership and the chain of command, and thereby condemning himself to that very special circle of social hell reserved exclusively for our failed and disgraced former leaders.

The sheep have no mercy for the shepherd who throws down his crook and runs away.

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