When the Costa Concordia cruise liner struck rocks and careened onto its side off the coast of Tuscany, passengers and press alike compared the modern maritime disaster to the sinking of the Titanic.
The comparison has proven unflattering to the captain, crew, and male passengers aboard the Costa Concordia, who in many cases shoved past women — including expectant mothers — and children to save their own sorry skins.
A grandmother recalled for the Daily Mail, "I was standing by the lifeboats and men, big men, were banging into me and knocking the girls." "Whatever happened to women and children first?" the newspaper queried. What indeed?
The men who behaved badly on the Costa Concordia were cowards, no doubt about it, but they are also products of an age that downplays such erstwhile virtues as chivalry and protectiveness of women. We instinctively recoil from the way they behaved, but there are mitigating factors (I recoil as I write this, but it is true).
There has been a sea change in the way men value women since the Titanic went down almost exactly a hundred years ago, on April 14-15, 1912. That night, in the icy waters off the coast of Newfoundland, men willingly sacrificed their lives for women and children.
The statistics are stunning: eighty percent of the men aboard the Titanic perished, while seventy-four percent of the women survived. It is telling, as Rich Lowry observed in National Review, that more women from third class, located deep in the ship's bowels, survived than did men from first class. Human nature being what it is, some men might have been tempted to make a dash for the lifeboats, but the crew fired shots to prevent this. As Bob Asman, a TV producer, observed at one of the annual black-tie gatherings held by the Men's Titanic Society at the Titanic Memorial here in Washington, D.C., it was the "chivalry and gallantry" of the men that saved the women and children.
As I've been pecking out these paragraphs, it occurs to me that one day it might be considered quaint that once upon a time, long ago, back when the Costa Concordia sank, anybody so much as raised an eyebrow because men had shoved women aside to claim seats in a lifeboat. After all, if men and women are not essentially different from each other, and women are not to be protected, why the hell not get into the lifeboat?
Long ago, feminists launched an attack on the concept of manliness, and you can see the fruits of their campaign in the Costa Concordia. Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, author of Manliness, has said that the "the entire project of modernity can be understood as a project to keep manliness unemployed."
If manliness, a necessary precursor of the virtue of chivalry, is obsolete, why would a crew member risk his life to uphold it? My friend and colleague Carrie Lukas once observed that "gentlemanly conduct isn't about the women at all. It's about the men and their sense of themselves." Today men are discouraged from feeling that there is any intrinsic value in being and acting like a man. If there is no pride, no sense of particular duty to a high cause, why, then, would they possibly surrender a seat on a lifeboat?
Whenever I am on the bus or subway, and I see a man sitting while women stand, I think, "Well, I know what kind of mother he had." But of course, today, the odds are good that he had a mother who taught him that there is no difference between men and women. Women are just as strong, they are told, and in no need of any particular extra consideration or physical protection. Why give your seat on the bus, much less on the lifeboat, to somebody who has no more claim on it than you do?
I was fortunate (though it didn't seem so at the time) to grow up in the house of my maternal grandfather, a man born during Reconstruction, who as a boy picked up spent shells from the Battle of the Crater. Once I remember somebody saying how outrageous it was that my mother stood vaguely at the car door, waiting for her eighty-plus father to fumble around and open the door for her. But I thought: You don't know those two. She wants him to open the door for her, and he wants to do it. It is part of his concept of himself that he try to remain chivalrous even on a walking cane. I feel certain that Papa would have gallantly helped my mother into a lifeboat!
Women today increasingly serve on the front lines of the military, once the most masculine arena on earth. I can't help noticing that in some publications there is almost an exultant "hey, we can get blown to bits too" tone in stories about women facing combat.
A friend of mine, the wife of a retired military officer, once said that a great danger of having women on the front lines is that a male soldier, seeing a female soldier in danger, would rush to her aid, no matter the consequences.
I think that, with the Costa Concordia, we see that her fears are groundless.