New Lessons in Hubris

The submersible Titan’s loss was no Greek tragedy. We had no hero with a tragic flaw; there was no grand discovery or revelation; we had, however, plenty of reversal of fortune (peripeteia). What we saw in the last week was a tragedy of spectacle, which humans always enjoy and which the media willingly provide.

At the same time, we and the media are guilty of giving short shrift to the thousands of desperate migrants now being lost at sea. A boat off Greece capsizes and hundreds die in the water. Viewers happily cut back to the more uncertain fortunes of the Titan. Its ending, predicted by some, was the anticlimax of a week-long deathwatch that drew millions of viewers. Few, I’m sure, wanted to think that the human drama was already over. Fewer still wanted to contemplate those hundreds dead in the Greek waters.

The four lost Titan passengers each paid $250,000 to die a quick, unsolicited death. An enormous air-sea search costing millions—as we will no doubt learn—was really a wasted effort since the sub imploded near the Titanic just an hour and 45 minutes after launch. Where was the effort to rescue the Greek immigrants?

Stockton Rush, the idiot savant who led OceanGate and piloted the dive, pitched the unimportance of safety and preferred innovation over proper testing and certification. The company will now be facing perhaps years of lawsuits. Rush already had a couple before his last and fatal dive.

I was immediately struck by the happy hubris of this guy in interviews. Well, how could sane people believe in someone who used off-the-shelf video controllers and RadioShack parts in vessels like this? An uncertified carbon fiber hull? Is the urge for perilous adventures so strong as to confound rational thinking? Two of the five passengers on board were experienced, smart, capable Titanic divers. They still bought in to this ride.

James Cameron, the seasoned ocean explorer (and “Titanic” filmmaker) was one of the few who spoke out about the disaster. He has made more than thirty successful dives to the Titanic. “OceanGate,” he said, “didn’t go through certification. It wasn’t peer-reviewed by other engineering entities, by any of these what they call classing bureaus that do certification for vessels and submersibles and things like that. That was a critical failure.”

I watched his interview on CNN. Toward the end he remarked on the supreme irony that both the Titanic and the Titan disaster were caused by hubris, that arrogant pursuit of power that goes against nature, the gods and human reason. So far, he’s the only commenter I’ve heard to use that word with regard to what happened in 1912 and what happened last week.

Titanic fascinates us because it seems like such a colossal failure of some kind of system back then, and 1,500 people paid the price for it. . . . The warnings were not heeded. They were warned about the ice, they had radio, Marconigrams, the Titanic captain was handed multiple warnings of ice ahead [yet] he steamed full ahead into a known ice field on a pitch dark night with no moon. If that isn’t a recipe for disaster, I don’t know what is.

It took just over a hundred years to prove once again that when the fates align, humans are their mindless victims.

5 Replies to “New Lessons in Hubris”

  1. Hubris in the headline. Wonderful.
    On the human front, there was one person in the Titan disaster who was a true victim, the 19-year-old son his billionaire father took along. I hate to think what the mother is feeling, as I can’t imagine that she didn’t have fears about the boy’s safety, whether she knew Rush was a gambler with his own and others’ lives or not.

    1. I was just about to write the same thing, that the only sympathetic character was the kid, who was afraid to go on the dive, but he saw how much his father wanted to go, and he wanted to be with him as a Father’s Day gift. As for Stockton Rush, the CEO of Oceangate who is totally responsible for the implosion, nothing, and I mean nothing good can be said about this ridiculous cowboy hustler who led people to their deaths because of his unbelievably stupid belief that “safety concerns are the enemy of innovation.” A real dickhead who is now a dead dickhead. Thanks for another excellent blog post, John.

  2. Seeing the photo again of the overloaded boat off Greece emphasizes the point, and makes one feel sick again.

  3. Although I feel compassion for the 5 among the Titan disaster (perhaps more for the 19 year old who was afraid but went along to please his father), my heart aches for all those lost at sea in the Greece disaster. It is a pity more attention was not given to that story in the media.

  4. Some people were philosophizing about the callous or gallows-humor responses to the Titan situation (lots of comments and/or memes, as you may have seen), eg, why are people’s reaction to this so seemingly uncaring or mean?
    Steve Albini replied thus:
    “Because it completely encapsulated everything awful about now. Outlandish amusement for the wealthy, trollish libertarian disdain for expertise and regulation, macho bro daredevilry capped off by signing a waiver. The only thing missing is a cop murdering somebody.”

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