A Gordian Knot or a Web of Lies?: Steven Biel and the Meaning of the Titanic

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As we’ve already encountered thus far in the semester, disasters often yield a variety of interpretations. From Father Pernin’s account of the Peshtigo Fire to the “seismic denial” of San Francisco’s leading capitalists, personal motives—whether economic, social, political, or religious—tend to color descriptions and blur otherwise clear observations of human catastrophe. For some, this phenomena would seem a real thorn in one’s side, obscuring the facts of a disaster. But for Steven Biel, it presents an exciting opportunity: the chance to disentangle a web of intersecting, conflicting, and overlapping personal stories, to make sense of a  “diversity of meanings” (118). In Down with the Old Canoe, Biel tackles and interprets this web for himself and—as Dr. Shrout so often encourages us to do in class—”parses out” its various strands to weave a single, intelligible reading.

Well, not really. In reality, the various interpretations of the Titanic were a lot more convoluted and tangled-up than one might think. The disaster itself, Biel writes, was “historically not intrinsically meaningful,” and whatever historical meanings it did offer were “neither simple nor universal” (8). The conventional narrative of chivalric, first-cabin males was nothing but a “myth” in that it “located a disturbing event within routine structures of understanding” (24). The conventional religious interpretation, likewise, owed its existence to the “familiar moral vocabulary” of Protestantism (65). Convenience—whether in the form of a convenient gender or class hierarchy or a convenient religious language—it seemed, determined the Titanic’s various meanings.

But in nearly every instance, ideology also shaped interpretation. Biel notes that just as the conventional narrative reinforced conservative race, gender, and class hierarchies, so too did it undermine ‘traditional values.’ Feminists, for instance, “turned the chivalric myth against itself” (105). Socialists treated the Titanic as  a symbol of Capitalism itself, the iceberg as the imminent threat of Proletarian revolution. African Americans, meanwhile,  stripped the conventional ‘myth’ of its racist connotations to endorse a message of “universal brotherhood” (109). Such a ‘diversity of meanings’ suggested that, despite their advocates claims to timeless truth, interpretations were themselves products of their own time, rooted in an equally tangled social, political, and ideological web. The America of 1912 was “contested terrain” (100). It found itself at the ‘watershed moment’ of a revolutionary, transitional period of American history: the Progressive Era.

As disappointing as it may be to realize that even Harvard’s own Steven Biel can’t find the ultimate strand in this tangled web, the one and only absolutely without-a-doubt true meaning of the Titanic disaster, Biel’s point is an important one. The Titanic was certainly meaningful, but only in that it reflected the social and ideological complexities of a particular historical moment.  As Biel points out, the Titanic really “changed nothing except shipping regulations” (24). Instead, it was the disaster’s role as a sort of blank canvas for American society that created the Titanic‘s meaning.

So, perhaps Nate should consider revising his statement from last week. He claimed that when people attempt to interpret human catastrophes, they tend “to skew their own interpretation of what happened,” thus obscuring the real meaning of the event itself. But what if a disaster, as Biel would suggest, is not ‘intrinsically meaningful’? Well, then it would seem that treating its various ‘meanings’ as a tangled web is futile. Maybe it’s more useful to think of them as a Gordian Knot. Just cut through it all and realize, like Biel did, that ‘meanings’ are historically constructed.

Challenging Nature: Southern California and the Subsidization of Disaster

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“And the mountains erupt, and the valley is sucked into cracks in the earth.”

There’s just something so incredibly ominous that permeates throughout the city of Los Angeles. Just yesterday, the nation’s second-largest city was ranked ninth by the Guardian in its list of the world’s highest-risk cities. Los Angeles’ location as a city is neither ideal nor safe. The city is built on the San Andreas Fault in a valley thickened by smog. L.A.’s lack of inherent water sources forced it to dry out the surrounding countryside through irrigation projects in the early 1900s, leading to lower rainfalls and rural drought (22). Mike Davis’ Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster attempts to determine why and how so many people populated a region so vulnerable. To Davis, shortsighted magisterial and economic decisions have put tens of millions of citizens at risk from earthquakes, drought, floods, wildfires, and a host of other disasters.

While Davis does not document a Gilded Age disaster, he argues that many policies adopted during the era had lasting impacts. Because the city had low seismic activity during its expansion period, urban planners had no idea that there would be more than 50 active faults underneath the city (27). The biggest problem of the age was the water supply, which city officials remedied by syphoning off water from rural rivers and lakes into aqueducts for the city (more research to come on that soon!). As a result, farmers and ranchers were dried out of their land and forced to move into the increasingly dangerous city limits (21). Economic interests were not deterred, but rather emboldened, by the possibility of disaster. The boosterism of the Gilded Age (as noted by Rozario) merely encouraged homeowners and businesses to rebuild right exactly where they were whenever disaster struck.

Like Dan noted earlier, L.A.’s short-term economic offerings always seemed to surpass its natural dangers for potential residents. Anyone who observes Davis’ sources would cringe at the thought of moving to Southern Cal: just look at the rainfall totals, the witness accounts of people “sucked into deadly vortices,” or the monetary damage of the floods, fires, and earthquakes in the last century (5). However, the city fortified itself ecologically, economically, and culturally as a city too big to be abandoned. In Ecology of Fear, Davis makes a vital argument against the economic systems that incentivize hazardous urban planning. L.A., a glaring example of the practice, is indeed a city challenging nature. At this very moment, it waits patiently and ominously for nature to respond to its defiance.

“L.A., uptight, city in the smog… Don’t you wish that you could be here too?”

“Seismic Denial’s” Ripple Effect

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A theme common to both Steingburg and Davis’s articles is the role of man in both causing and intensifying the effects of natural disasters.  In “Smoke and Mirrors: the San Francisco Earthquake and Seismic Denial,” Steinberg argues that the alliance between California’s business class and politicians served to redefine the San Franciscan earthquake of 1906 by placing the blame for the majority of the destruction on the ensuing fire.  As nakindig discussed in his post, this “seismic denial” was a common boosters, who popularized it in an effort to protect San Francisco’s image. In order to describe the effects of this “seismic denial,” Steinburg articulates the immediate changes in building codes after the 1906 earthquake and the subsequent easing of the building codes in later years. He argues that “such lenience stemmed directly form the conspiracy of seismic silence that remained a major preoccupation of San Francisco’s business community well into the 1920s” (Steinberg 112). Steinberg’s use of the word “conspiracy” reinforces his argument that the blame for much of the damage in later earthquakes should be placed squarely on the shoulders of man.

Steinberg also pulls in a class-power argument through his discussion of how “pyrotechnics of property destruction have eclipsed the truly deadly story”- that is, the unequal distribution of the earthquake’s damage on the population of San Francisco. Steinberg emphasizes that the poor and ethnic populations were more affected by the earthquake and likewise, more impacted by the “seismic denial.” The decision to undermine the role of the earthquake  in the decimation of San Francisco is responsible for the loss of even more lives (Steinberg 121).  This argument suggests that until building codes and other necessary preventatives were standardized and updated, deaths resulting from post-1906 earthquakes are essentially the responsibility of man and not nature.

The Big One

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After reading Davis’ piece, I was amazed at how dangerous it is to live in California. Davis argues that not only is California susceptible to devastating hurricanes, but that droughts, fires, and flooding can also wreak havoc. According to Davis, California is a land condemned by Mother Nature. At the heart of his argument is the belief that California is on the verge of “The Big One.” If California were to experience a devastating earthquake or prolonged drought, it would become an uninhabitable wasteland. The effects of this possible disaster—which Davis would believes is likely—would cause unimaginably devastation to California and the entire United States. Massive loss of life coupled with trillions of dollars in damage might spell the end of California. Additionally, the economic effects could be catastrophic considering California’s important role in technology and other industries. The question now seems to be why do people live there and what should be done.

I like Morte’s description of the situation: people are playing a “game of chance.” Residents of California know that the area is dangerous, but assume that they will not be affected. This naiveté seems similar to other disasters that we have studied. We found this embracement of invincibility in the Johnstown Flood, where residents knew that there was a possibility of the dam breaking, but did not believe it would ever. I think this situation is most similar to the Galveston Hurricane. Galveston is situated on an unprotected barrier island that stands in the path of hurricanes, while much of California is situated on a fault line. In both cases, the citizens of these areas willfully ignore the consequences of their actions.

I think this false sense of security reveals something about human nature. We believe strongly in our invincibility, despite a history of losing to Mother Nature. It seems as though we have not learned from the lessons that history has taught us. Despite how foolish our choices can be, I struggle with condemning people that choose to live in disaster-prone areas. I recognize that some people do not have the  choice about where they live. Also, I have never been to California, but I am sure that it is a wonderful place to live. In an ideal situation everyone would be aware of the risk and have the ability to choose to live where they wanted, however, I know this is impossible.

How can you be so obtuse?

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After reading these articles by Steinberg and Davis, I no longer want to live in California. At least with hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural calamities, modern technology provides us with at least some warning. A simple Google search confirmed my belief that scientists have yet to develop a warning system for earthquakes. Let’s get on that science.

We have, however, developed ways to reduce the damage caused by earthquakes. Even back in the early 1900s, there were at least some protective measures available for implementation. Following the destructive 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, one would think that the local government would try to make the city as safe as possible.

The reactions from Galveston and San Francisco following their respective disasters are polar opposites. The hurricane shattered Galveston’s ignorant view of safety from devastating storms. As such, the city did something to improve their chances against another possible storm by creating a sea wall and elevating the city. Mazel Tov, the modifications worked quite well fifteen years later. The earthquake in San Francisco, however, entrenched the city’s belief that earthquakes did not cause extensive damage. Instead, the local government focused on the fire as the main source of concern. Local government in San Francisco enacted a “Wind Bracing” ordinance to their building code. As Steinberg points out, this language was probably chosen deliberately to remove any mention of earthquakes. Earthquakes later on showed the ignorance regarding the building codes to be detrimental, especially to tge schools. Both cities were vying for economic dominance in their areas, but Galveston decided to make their city safer to encourage businesses to rebuild. San Francisco sought to sweep the problem under the rug, as Jean, Betsy, and Sherwood all aptly claim, to protect future business relations. This decision was incredibly ignorant, selfish, and irresponsible. Even the slight modifications that the city made to its building code were soon undermined to pursue cheaper building construction.

I think it’s pretty comical how a small earthquake in Canada sparked the recognition of earthquakes by insurance companies. My favorite line in Steinberg’s article relates to the insurance companies: “Thousands of Californians were putting up their own hard-earned money to protect themselves against a risk the business class had once said did not exist.” Furthermore, the Great Depression combined with the movie San Francisco forced California to acknowledge a natural problem with its geography.

Even today, citizens are testing the government’s safety mandates by making the government enforce its stricter and more expensive building codes. Alluding to arguments made by Davis, the climate may be destructive and on the brink of disaster, but the climate is why people move to California. It’s beautiful. Living near the beach carries risks of flood and hurricanes, but people take those risks to enjoy the beauty. Maybe the risk involved with living in these areas contributes to their beauty. To me, the cost of living in paradise should be higher than living in the desert of New Mexico or the plains of Arkansas.

Interpreting Disaster

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I thought that both pieces had some intriguing arguments. Steinberg helped me answer some questions that I had about the San Francisco Earthquake, while Davis raises more questions for me to figure out that mamorte highlights in his post.

Steinberg seems to answer the question that we had in class Tuesday as to why the San Franciscan businessmen did not want people to know that the city had been destroyed; the businesses wanted other places to assume that the city was fine, and that they could do business as usual with the San Franciscan businesses. Moreover, the businessmen wanted others in commerce to believe that even though the city was earthquake-prone, this would not affect its business because they circulated the idea that the fire did more damage to the city than the earthquake; any city is susceptible to fire. I also agree with Steinberg’s argument that “blurring the boundary between natural and human actions obscures the social and economic forces responsible for calamity in the first place” (118). People try to make it more difficult to pin down the causes of what actually happened in order to disperse evidence for blame. This idea also poses a threat to the reliability of primary source evidence in the study of history and disasters. When people try to make sense of a traumatic event in immediate aftermath while trying not to place blame on themselves or others like themselves, they are much more likely to skew their own interpretation of what happened.

I also liked Davis and his piece about the ecology of fear, comparing disasters in different time periods and how they’ve developed. I think it’s interesting how he claims that disasters will continue to have more catastrophic effect, even though we have had a lull in terms of calamity from disasters since the Gilded Age. I am not saying that I disagree with his main argument, but I find it intriguing.

Keynes loves SoCal

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What really struck me about the readings for today is the deep economic implications that disasters and potential disasters have. I really liked Betsy’s analysis of Steinberg’s claim that the business elites of San Francisco cried “fire” and not “earthquake” to ensure that capital continued to flow into the city. The assertion that this was a freak accident was not just lying to ensure the flow of capital, but Californians really did refuse to accept the dangerous environment that they were living in. Since so much has been written about Steinberg, and because I find that Davis provides some unique and compelling economic arguments, I am choosing to focus on Los Angeles and its disaster culture.

I first found it really interesting that disasters in Los Angeles can essentially be used to prove Keynesian economics correct. Davis quotes a veteran reporter who claimed, “For the Clinton Administration, the Los Angeles earthquake has provided a politically salable reason for doing what it has sought to do for most of its first year in power: pump billions of dollars into Southern California’s ailing economy.” (Davis 48) After relief was provided, especially to economically important sectors, (transportation, technology and the wealthy) the economy of SoCal began to heat up again and return to its status as the most economically productive region of the country. For me this both strongly affirmed the legitimacy of Keynesian economics and highlighted the usefulness of disasters in testing economic theory because essentially post-disaster the entire economy needs to be rebuilt.

I also think it is worth noting that in terms of disaster relief, not much has changed since the Gilded Age, the policy is help the wealthy first, and maybe help the poor if there is still enough time and money left. The image of the houses of the rich in Malibu being rebuilt very quickly and with federal money, while poor elderly minorities were homeless really stuck out to me. This image also reminded me of what we learned about the San Francisco earthquake where the wealthy whites used the earthquake as an excuse to shoot the poor chinese and even had government permission. This government sanctioned inequality provides for an complex ethical debate. Who should we help first? While the poor need it most, the wealthy are most important to getting the economy back on track. It is a complicated issue with no clear answer.

The economic discourse around seismic enlightenment

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The fireman’s commission, on the thirtieth anniversary of the temblor, published a report assessing the structural progress made since the 1906 earthquake. “The lessons of 1906 were speedily forgotten. Public apathy, an aversion to admitting that earthquakes occur in California, and the desire of building construction speculators to build for profit, combined gradually to prevail over the counsel of engineers” (115). The 1906 earthquake left at least 3,000 dead – but did little in the way of encouraging structural change. It was only after experiencing more earthquakes in the 20s and the 30s that Californians began to accept their precarious geography. It was only then understood that “Economic development depended on open recognition of earthquake risk.”

In this course we have talked extensively about who shapes the perception and narratives of disaster. And in the case of the 1906 “fire”, Steinberg argues that business elites and politicians fueled by their economic interests shaped the discourse. At the time of the temblor, San Francisco was developing into a banking hub and already led the West in trade and manufacturing. As a result, the economic elite cried “fire” rather than “earthquake” – seemingly positing the disaster as nothing more than a freak accident. Business leaders assumed indifference to the damages of the earthquake calamites in order to ensure continued investment in the city. However, Steinberg was quick to point out that the earthquake did in fact cause tremendous damage, pointing to the fact that the quake damaged 95% of the chimneys in San Francisco. Steinberg reports that in all, the jolt was responsible for 20% of the damage. (However, Steinberg does a good job of explaining the difficulties of classifying the fire and the quake as two separate occurrences.) Yet at the time, the quake was understood as “a little shake in the earth’s crust. . .constitu[ing] no real source of danger.”

This reminds me of some of the responses to Galveston Hurricane. Leaders of the city initially resisted the idea of constructing a sea wall. For although Progressive prudence encouraged its construction, building the massive wall meant that the city had to recognize that it was in a dangerous location.

Steinberg concludes his argument talking the modern implications to this disaster surrounding social justice. The 1989 jolt encouraged improvements in earthquake resistant construction – but these advancements have not yet reached the more marginalized citizens.  Jean concludes her post with an important question, “has the legislation constructed in the wake of disaster been beneficial to all classes in society (outside of economic benefits)?” For while it is true that there is “no safe place”, Steinberg argues that real estate cartel continues to quell the seismic enlightenment in favor of profit. “The idea of no inconveniencing someone – but allowing them to be killed, well, things seem to be upside down.”

Life in a Bubble or Life on the Edge

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After reading both Mike Davis’ and Ted Steinberg’s articles about the buildup of California and specifically Los Angeles and San Francisco within the past century, I could not help but be drawn to numerous ethical and psychological dilemmas faced by all those associated with the region.  Both articles paint an ominous forecast for California and imply inevitable devastation.  They clearly show how vulnerable the area is and how likely a massive catastrophe (most likely greater than the 1906 earthquake) is in the near future.  Nevertheless, I find their arguments pushing for relocation shortsighted.  I think they draw on some unique scientific proof, but their suggestions seem unrealistic.  Individuals residing in California have understood the risks and still proceed with their lives.  Scaring residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco will ultimately change little, for they have understood the risks for some time.

Let me begin with some of the facts that Davis points to.  He notes the unusual climate and geological location of California implying how the region is susceptible to weather anomalies.  He notes that the rivers hardly ever reach their flowing average, but on the rare occasion they do, can flow at 3000 times their capacity.  How after taking land samples, the area had experience catastrophic droughts comparable to Mayan proportions.  Finally, he notes how the vaults are ticking time bombs ready for explosion.  Forecasters predict an 80-90% chance of a big earthquake by 2025 and that in the past 195 years there should have been 17 catastrophic earthquakes, yet only 2 have actually occurred.  Essentially, the area is doomed.  At any point there could be a flood, a drought, a heat wave, or a massive earthquake.  But isn’t the climate what makes California so beautiful and appealing.  I’m not implying that people live in California for the risk of disaster, but that people see this tropical, Mediterranean mix as an appealing hybrid.  The risks are a natural consequence for living in such a nice area.  Even if there is a “dry spell” of earthquakes, people continue to play the game of chance.  We are always playing the odds and clearly the climate of the west coast is appealing.

From an economic prospective, the growth of the region makes relocation impossible. People moved out west for economic promise and hope for a better life.  As Steinberg notes, even in the immediate aftermath of 1906, the region quickly rebuilt.  By the 1930’s people began building for profit and in the 1950’s there was an explosion of housing.  The Redwood shores are a great example.  Real estate moguls built up the area and even hired scientists to prove that their housing was no greater risk than anywhere else.  Basically, if they didn’t do it, someone else would have.  Sherwood makes some great points in his post that I believe support this claim.  The conspiracy about the blame on businessmen for the improper memorialization of the 1906 earthquake is unwarranted.  Capitalism is part of our United States’ culture and someone took the opportunity that was there.  There was now an economic draw because people were moving their businesses out west and families therefore relocated.  By the middle of the century the reward in terms of livelihood was too great to ignore and risk became almost a non-factor.  Even today, as Davis notes, the government (Clinton administration) pumped money into Southern California so there is an economic investment that cannot be ignored.

Finally, while both authors note the costs of abandoning the west coast, the reality is impossible.  Who would fit the bill for disaster fortification?  From the governments prospective they have four choices: 1. Stop people from living in dangerous area (but the California government would lose millions in taxes and lose residents) 2. Force earthquake remodeling (California would lose millions again because people would sell buildings at lower costs and relocate) 3. Pay for remodeling out of their own budget (but as Davis notes, the people in CA not from the vulnerable area would feel their tax money is wasted) or 4. Do nothing and proceed as is.  Unless there is a disaster, the government will always do number four.  From an individual prospective, it fiscally does not make sense to remodel.  Insurance agencies pay up to 43% for a destructed house.  If you put in twice the money that your house is worth remodeling for earthquake prevention and the house still gets destroyed, you basically double your losses. From an economic standpoint, people are willing to task the risk.  Steinberg notes that a city like San Francisco would need to spend $835 million to save 415 lives.  While you cannot put a dollar amount on a life, neither the city nor an individual will willingly sacrifice that much when it is still a game of chance.  We cannot expect people to live in a bubble or alter their lives completely to construct this bubble.  Californians know their risk and we should all step back praying that they continue to beat the system.