I was walking with the neighbors the other night, something we do most nights, weather permitting. A couple of the folks have dogs, but the rest of us just like to stretch our legs and shoot the breeze as we make our way around the ‘hood. During our perambulation, someone mentioned an article in The Wall Street Journal they had read (“Did Chivalry Go down with the Titanic” by Lance Morrow, Dec. 14, 2018).
To be brief, the author references a portion of a letter written by Winston Churchill to his wife, Clementine, shortly after the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. This letter is contained in a recent biography of the great statesman by Andrew Roberts. In it, Churchill remarks the behavior of the male passengers in helping the women and children into available lifeboats and, in doing so, sacrificing themselves, “Reflects nothing but honour upon our civilization.”
In his article, Morrow contends, “Social evolutions of the past century have dashed apart old sex roles and notions of self-sacrifice,” and that was the gist of our conversation that evening.
Liking to get the ladies in our group going, I noted that a man is supposed to take care of his property. Of course I was immediately rewarded with baleful looks from a couple of the women present. Never one to leave well enough alone, I reminded them women of that time were still considered chattel and essentially owned by their husbands; men were absolute masters of their domains, benevolent stewards of their property, and above all, protectors of their progeny.
In this instance, of course, we are speaking of a particular social class of men: polite society. These men could be absolute despots in private, and extraordinarily ruthless in their business dealings on the one hand, yet still abide by a strict chivalric code of public conduct. This code required one to exhibit qualities of courage, honor, courtesy, justice and a readiness to help the weak. Justice often got short shrift, but courtesy and honor were the hallmarks of this class. Naturally, women, being the “weaker sex,” needed men to take care of them. Occasionally, as on the Titanic, men were required to be courageous.
Try as I might, I cannot begin to imagine what herculean effort of will it took for those men to help their wives and children into lifeboats, then stand and watch them slowly move away from the sinking ship. What thoughts ran through their minds as they stood on that inclining deck and contemplated their imminent death?
I can, however, imagine such an event were it to occur today.
I believe the scene would look much, much different. With what I see happening around me every day and what passes for acceptable behavior at all levels, I would say polite society is a thing of the past. The level of self-interest manifested by so many in our country, if not around the world, leads me to believe chivalry, while perhaps not yet flat-lining, is definitely on life support.
Men are simply no longer relevant in the way they were 100 years ago. They are no longer seen as providers or protectors: roles now quite easily filled by the emancipated and empowered women of the 21st century. Many women perhaps now see men as a luxury, but definitely no longer a necessity. In this way, social evolutions have indeed dashed apart old sex roles.
These same social evolutions, while much-needed, have created a paradigm shift in the overall social fabric, which men are still struggling to catch up to – both mentally and emotionally – and not doing very well for the most part.
It recalls how Mexican subsistence farmers had difficulty dealing with being forced off their lands as the government helped make way for corporate agribusiness. By necessity, these farmers and their families relocated to urban areas where U.S. and European corporations built factories to take advantage of a large and cheap labor force; cheap labor made even cheaper by hiring women, which resulted in a breakdown of the traditional Mexican patriarchal system, an increase in alcohol and other drug abuse among the idle men; violence — especially domestic violence — increased dramatically. Families were broken apart as husbands and older sons sought meaningful employment across the border, were imprisoned or fell victim to the violence.
And what about the women? They suffered as well; they worked long hours as they attempted to provide for their families on meager wages and came home to fulfill the duties of wife and mother. They suffered at the hands of their disillusioned and resentful husbands, and at the hands of predatory factory supervisors and foremen who used their power of financial life and death to take advantage of them for their own gratification. The only winners in this scenario were the Mexican government and the foreign corporations.
If any of this resonates — as it should – it may well lead us to question the direction our country is headed, and the unintended consequences of social engineering, which continue to make themselves known to us. While there are some among us — both men and women — who embody the ideals of chivalry, they are few and growing fewer every day.
In dashing apart old sex roles in the pursuit of gender equality, have we created an even angrier and less civil society?
It would seem so. The norm today is every man – or woman – for themselves. You see it in the workplace, you see it in stores, you see it on the roads and I venture to say you would see it on the deck of a sinking ship, as just as many men clambered into the waiting lifeboats as women and children. Why not? After all, no one’s special or different any more.
Sadly, little these days “Reflects nothing but honour upon our civilization.” Welcome to this brave new world.
Van Elburg has been a resident of Williamsburg, James City County for more than 30 years. He is semi-retired from a multi-faceted business career and currently teaches classes on blues music for the Christoper Wren Association. He is a musician, writer and on-air personality and programming director for the mobile radio station, TheBluesAlley.com.