India Uncut

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Two kinds of heroism, and a conceit

Do read Lee Harris's piece on the lessons from the Titanic, and particularly the inspiring stories of the realistic heroism of Thomas Andrews and the optimistic heroism of Maggy Brown. Andrews's lesson is particularly apt for our times:
Shortly after The Titanic struck the iceberg, Thomas Andrews went below decks to see for himself what damage the hull had suffered in the collision. Six of the watertight compartments were flooding, and no one knew better than Thomas Andrews that his ship could stay afloat with four flooded compartment, but not with six. He immediately consulted with the captain of the ship, rapidly made the cold-blooded calculations required in the emergency, and informed the captain that The Titanic would sink within an hour and a half, and two hours at the most. For both Andrews and the captain, this was a virtual announcement of their death-sentences; neither man could possibly abandon the ship. Both would in fact go down with her, with Andrews heroically struggling to save as many of the passengers as he could in the little time that remained. Yet surely his most heroic act was his refusal to entertain any illusions about how long his ship would stay afloat; his determination to face the worst case scenario without flinching from its implications, and to face it immediately and without a moment's hesitation.
Andrews, of course, had designed and built the damn(ed) boat. So many people in his place, full of the soundness of their design, would have deluded themselves about their failure, created reasons to keep believing in its infallibility, and many further lives would have been lost as a result. It's hard to admit when we're wrong, and self-delusion is one of the most common qualities of our species.

So can you think of people today who remain in denial about the fallibility of their designs and their worldviews? I can think of plenty who, after all the lessons of the 20th century, still retain "The Fatal Conceit."
amit varma, 2:54 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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