Life During Cultural Wartime

Never waste a tragedy.

Daily Beast columnist Matt Lewis laments, “The Missing Titanic Sub Is Already a Culture War Battlefield.”

Of course the missing Titanic sub discourse devolved into a culture war shit show in under two minutes flat. Everything is part of the culture war now. Why should this be any exception?

In case you missed it, the media is currently obsessed with a missing submersible carrying five people who paid a quarter of a million dollars per person to view remnants of the Titanic.

But that’s not enough to keep us busy. This feeding frenzy has spawned a second story, which is outrage over the media being more interested in the Titanic sub than the sinking of a boat carrying hundreds of migrants off the Greek coast.

If you want to get meta, I am now proposing a third story: instead of tragedies being unifying events, as might be the case in a healthy society (the smartest brains in the world rallying to rescue Matt Damon in The Martian is pure fiction), they must now be filtered through the hierarchy of victimhood.

Rather than praying for the potentially lost souls aboard both vessels—or at least sending good vibes into the world that tragedy might be averted—our first instinct is to juxtapose these two potential tragedies, weighing which deserves our sympathy and attention, as viewed through the prism of our political ideology.

Determining the hierarchy of victims requires multiple political debates and considerations, including (from the left) white privilege, income inequality, donations to Republicans, affiliation with Elon Musk, and (from the right) the perils of affirmative action.

That’s right, apparently, the OceanGate Titanic CEO told an interviewer he didn’t want to hire a bunch of “50-year-old white guys” to operate his subs because they aren’t “inspirational.” It’s wildly premature to speculate on whether this had anything to do with the current predicament, but that hasn’t stopped the conjecture.


In most other circumstances, five human beings trapped in a watery grave would be either cause for sympathy or action. This is true irrespective of whether there are other, simultaneous, tragedies happening that might also demand our sympathy and attention.

Yet, today, the lives of the five are viewed by many as an opportunity to dunk and score partisan political points.

Some of the most repellant voices on Twitter are suggesting that a billionaire’s life is less valuable than someone else’s because, of course, rich people partaking in dangerous adventures are asking for it.

Many of us might view paying a ton of money to go on an outrageous adventure as excessive and unnecessarily risky. Then again, to someone living in abject poverty, boarding a private jet might seem just as decadent.

Twitter conjecture aside, considerable resources are being spent to find and rescue both the missing submersible tourists and the migrants. That’s good news for a virtuous society, even (especially) as hope dwindles.

And while the media’s selection bias is an ongoing commentary on ratings (and thus, a commentary on us), the modern habit of turning everything into a culture war is arguably a bigger—and more concerning—commentary on society.

While I fully agree that our penchant for seeing every happening through political lenses speaks poorly of us, it’s the very nature of a culture war. The sort who spends a lot of time on social media commenting on the news—which I hasten to remind is a tiny fraction of the country—see themselves in an existential battle for the soul of the country. And both sides think they’re losing badly because the other side is much more ruthless and willing to flout the rules.

I’m intentionally consuming less news while on vacation but haven’t escaped coverage of the missing submersible. Lewis’ column is, alas, the first I’ve heard of the Greek vessel—which says something about the nature of American news aggregators. Like Lewis, I think we should take reasonable steps to save lives in both situations.

Is there something off about the ultra-rich paying huge sums for weird adventures that come with substantial risk? I suppose. But I’m not sure where one draws the line. Mountain climbing is pretty dangerous in the grand scheme of things but we rescue those who get stranded. Surely, the standard shouldn’t be based on whether the activity in question is more expensive than I can afford or riskier than I could justify.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    I think the thing with the submarine is not that it was risky, but that it was needlessly risky: another finance bro who thinks being rich makes him smarter than all those egghead naval engineers, safety regulators, and submariners, and now a bunch of people are going to pay the ultimate price for his hubris

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Nice article in the Times this AM on a 300′ private yacht that rescued 100 of the survivors of the trawler capsize, got them dry clothes and fed them, before landing them in Italy. The article did juxtapose the luxury of the yacht with the squalid conditions on the trawler, but the real story is the responsibility the yachts captain and crewed showed to people in distress.

    But yeah, politicizing the submersible…

  3. MarkedMan says:

    A news story and the reactions to it are sometimes lenses we can use to examine our society, and both of these stories bring a number of different things under the light.

    Lewis’ column is, alas, the first I’ve heard of the Greek vessel

    I was surprised by this, because it’s been front page for at least a couple of days (3?) in both the NYTimes and WaPo with a number of articles and updates in each. It makes me realize how often I assume we are getting the same information. James is well read and highly interested in current events, but this never happened to burble to the top of his news sources.

    And what the lens reveals depends on who is looking at its. The author’s reaction to those gloating over the billionaires in danger was, “Culture War”. Mine is different. It just reinforces my observations that prejudice and bigotry is deeply ingrained in our animal nature (and I don’t exempt myself). There is a deep need to identify groups that you can make blanket assumptions about. The christian or liberal or humanistic position is that we should evaluate everyone as an individual, but the reality is that those of us who identify as Christians or Liberals or Humanists just have different groups whose members we can despise, demean and belittle solely based on their membership in that group.

  4. gVOR10 says:

    I am unfamiliar with Matt Lewis, but it seems to me he’s guilty of what he’s accusing others of. Perhaps if you live on Twitter reactions seem extreme. But IRL it seems to me people are having often mixed, but quite natural, reactions to the submersible story. Whether on a Musk rocket or a submarine, it was inevitable one of these billionaire adventure ventures was going to be a disaster. A lot of resource is being spent on what is almost certainly a recovery, not a rescue. It’s a shame poor migrant deaths aren’t all that newsworthy anymore. All of this is true and unremarkable.

    Perhaps I missed something. Didn’t know you were on vacation, James. Enjoy.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    My only objection to the submersible was that it was just another Libertarian fantasy reaching it’s inevitable fate. As far as comparing it to the Greek disaster, that is a ridiculous. Not even apples and oranges, more like lemons and blueberries.

  6. Daryl says:

    Damon’s line at the end of “Martian” is one of my favorites of all time.

    At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you…everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem…and you solve the next one…and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.

    That will get you thru life.

  7. Modulo Myself says:

    Um, it’s funny sometimes when people die. Called gallows humor. Invented around 5000 BCE. And this whole thing is funny, mostly because these are rich people in a sub run by a knockoff Playstation controller. Sorry those are the rules…

  8. gVOR10 says:

    @Modulo Myself: And MIBII beat them to the Playstation/Game Boy joke.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Daryl: I love that movie and the book, and that’s a great line. I would add something else: Before you ever get into such a situation, you will have a better chance of survival if you accept that you are not going to live forever and you wake up every day accepting that this may be your last. Dying isn’t failure. Giving up is.

  10. KM says:

    The rich rarely suffer the consequences of their actions, the ultra rich even less so. By design, the fallout hit and kills those below them so that even when their hubris causes fatal mistakes, they almost never are the ones to die. Stupid thrill-seeking deaths like this and those on Mt Everest serve as brutal reminders that Nature doesn’t give a damn about your green paper or shiny rocks, whispering “Memento Mori” into the wealthy’s ears like the Roman tradition of old. Life doesn’t care about your wealth and neither does the Reaper – it can only put you on a more unusual path to death then most. OTB posters aren’t going to become the new Green Boots, who spent a fortune to die and become a mile marker for other rich people to gauge how close they are to death or glory.

    For the rest of us, it’s darkly amusing to see how shocked the wealthy and their mouthpieces are that bad things can happen to them and that the masses aren’t devastated by it. Yes, you have it coming if you persist in ignoring science and basic reality to build something completely unsafe like that regardless of your economic status; the economic factor just makes it worse since you can pay someone to do it right for you. If someone had jury-rigged this up in their backyard from the scrapheap of rusted cars on cinderblocks, the media wouldn’t be calling it a “culture war” but chuckling that “Florida Man” did it again. A billionaire’s life is worth exactly what the rest of us is and it’s appalling to them we don’t consider it an inherent tragedy when FAFO kicks in.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    I love this whole thing as a story idea, but it’d be tough to top Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.

    God, the rage that must have been unleashed at the ‘captain.’ The guilt of the father who brought his son along. Did he consider killing himself so his son could breathe longer? The smell in there, shit and sweat and fear, oh my! A lightless coffin filled with masters of the universe. Who first suggested that four can breathe longer than five? Three longer than four? Was there murder to go along with the suicide-by-hubris? Were people strangling each other in pitch dark?

    In 20 years a trawler will snag their nets and maybe we’ll get answers.

    In the meantime, how many tens of millions of dollars are taxpayers expected to shell out to rescue these clowns?

  12. MarkedMan says:

    I gotta admit it surprises me that so many people here think the most relevant thing is “billionaire”. My first thought was “thrill seeker”. In the US we spend untold time and money every year rescuing off-trail skiers and hikers, ice climbers, mountain climbers, amateur auto racers, and the list goes on and on. I’m willing to bet that right now in some remote area, there’s a rescue team searching for someone who got themselves into a jam. Maybe multiple someones in multiple locations.

    So yeah, these guys had a lot of money so they chased their thrills in an expensive, unusual way. But while being a billionaire is relevant to how they got into their jam, being a thrill seeker is why.

  13. KM says:

    Not so much “billionaire” as “well-off” – it’s really tough to be a thrill seeker if you’re poor. Cars/ planes/ bikes/ etc cost money and skiers /hikers tend to not be minimum wage workers. It takes cash to do this sort of thing and even a middle-class person must have some spare income for gear and time off. Thrill seeking is not the domain of the wage slave; the best you can usually do is rollercoasters and their ilk but those have safety regs. Which only adds to the disdain since there are perfectly adequate options available if you need an adrenaline fix that don’t cost a fortune or your life. There’s a built-in arrogance of money and power that in order to “feel alive” or “conquer Nature” you need to be able to afford it and thus it’s somewhat exclusive. Yes, you can pay to tandem jump out of plane for not too much money but 90% of the country needs that for things like food or rent. Thrill seeking requires excess time, money and leisure or else it’s just regular danger.

  14. gVOR10 says:

    As is usually the case, reporting on the sub story is awful. Reporters repeating stuff they half understand, heard from people with agendas. This morning I’m seeing everybody saying that they can stretch their oxygen by relaxing. As opposed to the strenuous exercise they’d otherwise be doing? I can’t find an inside diameter beyond “size of a minivan”, but there doesn’t seem to be much they can do but lie there. Everybody’s repeating 96 hours of oxygen. Has anybody said how much battery life they have for the heater? Sufficient for four days at near freezing?

  15. Modulo Myself says:


    There’s a fine line between adventurer and tourist and when the sole criteria for being an adventurer is 250K you are simply a rich tourist. Someone like James Cameron, who knows what he’s doing and is piloting a craft, is not the same as me or you going along for the ride. This is just a rich guy thing which takes no skill or expertise. You can go to Tavarua in Fiji and stay in luxury, but you still need to possess the skills to surf Cloudbreak or Restaurants.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    This is the adventure equivalent of shooting a protected species in one of those bullshit hunts in Africa that involve some asshole (DJTJ) shooting a caged animal and taking selfies.

  17. MarkedMan says:

    @KM: I have to disagree about needing money to be a thrill seeker. I have a friend who used to be a rock climber. When we went hiking (something that does not take money), he would be constantly darting off to climb this or that rock face or tree. When he was a poor college student in Scotland, he and a bunch of his friends would take a climbing rope, tie it to the railing in the center of a bridge, pace it back to one side or the other, tie it around themselves, and then step off the bridge, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. I’ve been out of touch for a couple of decades, but did hear he is now in a wheelchair, but I don’t know if that’s due to climbing or some other misfortune. As for the adrenaline rush that doesn’t risk your life, I guess that’s how I define “thrill seeker”: someone who seeks out dangerous and potentially fatal hobbies or amusements.

  18. KM says:


    As for the adrenaline rush that doesn’t risk your life, I guess that’s how I define “thrill seeker”: someone who seeks out dangerous and potentially fatal hobbies or amusements.

    Isn’t that also the definition of “young male”? Doing dumb, risky things isn’t necessarily thrill seeking as your friends could easily have done that sort of thing on a dare rather then just for the adrenaline rush.

    Hmm, one can also quibble that “college student” , while poor in they are not necessarily generating income, is still a privledged spot in society in that you do have free time to do these kinds of things as opposed to working 2+ jobs just to stay alive. Hiking also does require some money as you need some gear and supplies – not necessarily good ones but things like backpacks, boots and snacks that you may not have on hand otherwise. Do most households that don’t have young students in them have backpacks? My point regarding money is more leisure focused. This isn’t like a single basketball that can be shared between 20 guys in a backlot; everyone needs to be able to have their own potentially meager kit, which takes cash, the ability to be off work to engage in the activity and the ability to get to the activity & back. There needs to be give in your budget, no matter how small, to be able to afford to go hiking or get a ticket to a theme park for a day of rollercoasters. That’s why thrill seeking is usually for the young and the rich as everyone else tends to have things to do and bills to pay.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @KM: If we’re to the point where affluence consists of owning footwear suitable for hiking and a backpack plus some free time, most of our homeless population would qualify. You’re talking maybe $200 worth of kit.

  20. MarkedMan says:

    @KM: I’m not sure what you are saying. Do you mean that anyone who seeks thrills deserves what they get? A fair point. Not one I agree with, but reasonable. Or that rich ones don’t deserve sympathy when things go south on them, but poor ones do? Or that poor people, even kids, never seek dangerous thrills?

    In my experience, “thrill seeker” is a type, and income or station in life doesn’t seem to make much difference. Oh, and FWIW, my Scottish friend didn’t come from money, although I don’t know whether he was actually poor growing up. Since he lived in Scotland and went to a government University his tuition was paid for and he even got a bit of stipend, which would have been true for anyone. His (very real) privilege came from being smart enough to become a scientist.

  21. Lounsbury says:

    the first I’ve heard of the Greek vessel—which says something about the nature of American news aggregators. Like Lewis, I think we should take reasonable steps to save lives in both situations.

    I can assure you in European media this was quite prominent, it seems quite reasonable though that it would not be for American media, any more than the travails on the Mexican border are here typically.

  22. JKB says:


    I follow a youtuber Casey LaDelle. His business is heavy rescue/towing, but in winter he goes into the mountains of Oregon to pull people out of the snow or worse. Some of them are, if he can’t reach/track them, then SAR is going active.

  23. Kathy says:


    This morning I’m seeing everybody saying that they can stretch their oxygen by relaxing. As opposed to the strenuous exercise they’d otherwise be doing?

    It means things like sitting or lying still all the time and not talking. Maybe sleeping as much as possible, perhaps even taking drugs to do so if they had any onboard.

    It’s not much, considering there wasn’t that much activity possible to begin with. I’ve no idea how much this can stretch their oxygen supply.

    Also, numbers of hours of oxygen remaining are reasonable approximations. Not hard numbers like those you see in relation to oxygen masks on airliners, for instance. Those work with oxygen generators, which have reagents to produce oxygen for 10 minutes or so.

  24. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: I agree with the sentiment, but I think you are wrong about the $200. There are many, many people that can’t afford that. But fortunately you don’t need that for hiking. While in college I spent my money on tuition and beer, so when I started hiking I simply wore my most worn out clothes and an old pair of work boots (Blisters! So many blisters!). When I graduated to backpacking I got the cheapest K-Mart stuff imaginable or got things from friends.

    But there are many, many people that can’t afford to spend $200 on a hobby. And coming up with that much money in a pinch to repair a car or pay a fine is out of the reach of almost as many.

  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:
  26. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: I’m sure there’s a strata who can’t get credit. But most working class folks who want $200 worth of gear—that’ll last years!—would simply charge it and pay $300 for it stretched out over a longer time period. People will spend that much on a bar tab.

  27. Stormy Dragon says:

    Well, they found a debris field suggesting the submarine suffered a catastrophic failure of the pressure chamber, so at least they all went quickly. They likely died instantaneously without even being aware something was wrong.

  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @MarkedMan: Joyner’s comment was snarky shitposting based on an illusion that homeless people need to be counted among the uber rich because they have the type of gear needed to wilderness trek. A conclusion based on his vast experience at being homeless, no doubt.

  29. Gustopher says:

    Every single day the billionaires could have decided to make the world a less worse place and still had enough for a life of luxury.

    They chose not to.

    Now that these ones are in trouble, so far as I am concerned they can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

    As we learned from Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Wealth is great power. Their deaths and whatever gets extracted from their wealth in inheritance taxes will do more good than their lives ever did. Sometimes the answer to the Trolley Problem is to build more trolleys.

    Also, someone might want to explain to Elon Musk that if the sub that went down to see the wreckage of the Titanic was named Titan, dropping the last two letters, then the obvious name for the sub to visit the wreckage of the Titan would be the Tit. That might encourage him.

  30. James Joyner says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: My point was simply that we went from chastising billionaires for thrill seeking to arguing that even those who could afford to go hiking were somehow privileged. While that’s probably true in some historical/globalist sense, I’ve seen an awful lot of panhandlers in decent footwear and in possession of basic camping gear. It’s just not that high a bar in a rich country.

  31. Sleeping Dog says:

    @James Joyner:

    Let’s not forget that an enormous amount of equipment can be had for dollars at thrift stores, church rummage sales and yard sales. Those $200 boots and backpack might only cost someone $20.

  32. KM says:

    My point is more that while people of all ages can do dangerous things in search of a high or thrill (like drug use or speeding), thrill seeking as a classification is usually defined as something adrenaline provoking sought out beyond normal life and activities. For instance, nobody would have considered hiking to be a thing before the Industrial Revolution because walking in the wilderness was how you got places. Plenty of people had just as thrilling an experience hundreds of years ago on trails as those today (maybe more considering lack of safety gear) but we wouldn’t consider them to be chasing that high. Extremely fast driving/ drag racing can be done on most drivable surfaces but even thrill junkies will tell you there’s specifics not on basic roads you need to have to get the most of it. Race courses are built for a reason and people pay to be able to do what they can do on empty roads…. well, before the cops get you at any rate.

    Is doing a cannonball thrill seeking behavior? No. High dive into a pool? Not particularly. Is cliff diving? Yes. Same behavior, different circumstances. Those circumstances usually come with a cost or exclusion, limiting who can participate. Can a poor youth from NYC go hiking in the Rockies? Can a kid from a trailer in Mississippi surf the waves of California? Maybe but the barriers in place of time/money/effort/circumstances say no. Instead they seek something else – as you noted, $200 is not always feasible for someone making $10hr sweeping floors before working the overnight stocking shift at Job #2. Many cannot afford to take the day off to go pursue their dangerous hobby just like they can’t afford to take a sick day. The urge might be there but the capacity is not. Self-destructive behavior is not the same as thrill seeking, nor is the stupidity of youth. Thrill seeking requires means and thus billionaires who FAFO get little sympathy from many who don’t have the luxury to toss their life away to get a momentary extra hormone boost.

  33. OzarkHillbilly says:

    As one who has spent weeks in expeditionary caving, in the dark for as much as a week at a time, dropping virgin pits and pushing virgin passage, I just want to say that done right, there is very little thrill, except for in finding the aforementioned virgin passage, in the knowledge that you are among the first 3 or 4 people to have ever been there and then to return with the data, sketches, and maybe even a few pics of what was found.

    While I have known some well off cavers, most are just regular folks spending more than they really can afford for the joy of their pursuits.

    All of which is not to say that sometimes things don’t go south, like taking a peeler off a wall and having a bolt give way, or getting stuck for several hours (not fun), or being in just the wrong place at just the wrong moment in geological time and having a Buick sized boulder try to crush you and your compadres. All of which is just to say that, just like walking around above ground, shit happens. Sometimes your lucky, sometimes you aren’t.

  34. Matt says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Only the delusional thought there was any hope of them surviving. Using that kind of carbon fiber in that application meant that an implosion was inevitable. The only question was if the window would give out or a fire a la apollo 1 would happen first.

  35. gVOR10 says:

    @Matt: You’ve made me curious about the carbon fiber issue. Can you provide more info or a link.

  36. Michael Cain says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    There’s a fine line between adventurer and tourist and when the sole criteria for being an adventurer is 250K you are simply a rich tourist.

    For a few million you can take your chances in a space capsule where catastrophic failure will likely be broadcast live globally.

  37. dazedandconfused says:

    Our for-profit media is disproportionately staffed with political pundits as that area is their bread and butter. It’s a never ending story, and most everything else is intermittent. They fundamentally structured to look at everything through a political lens…and they just can’t help themselves. Many of them are not broadly educated, they got the gig for being good on camera.

    To the incident, Bob Ballard weighs in. He mentions vehicles from many nations have been going down this deep since the 60s, and this is the first one ever lost.

    What makes this sub unique is it appear to be the first attempt at doing it cheaper.

  38. dazedandconfused says:


    Being poor provides all the thrills one can ask for. The thrill of victory (I ate good today!) to the agony of defeat (Winter!) regularly. Being rich and comfortable can get pretty boring. Fighting for survival never is.

    This sort of activity, like the near-space flights, might be categorized as bungee jumping for billionaires.

  39. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @dazedandconfused: Fighting for survival never is.

    Just want to say that “fighting for survival” at 12,000 ft lasts about .05 seconds.

  40. dazedandconfused says:


    True, but fighting to survive an explosive compression wasn’t the game. As in fighting to survive a broken bungee cord isn’t the bungee jumpers’ game.

  41. grumpy realist says:

    Considering “the six-pack” found in typical GA aircraft (which uses very “dumb” technology for very good reasons and you can still fly off it with no trouble under VFR), my beef wouldn’t be with the use of the video-game controller so much as with the material they decided to make the submarine out of. This is one of those areas where considering the result of a failure, you test, and over -engineer, then test, then engineer again. I suspect micro-cracks, lack of T-stoppage junctions, delamination, then POOF IMPLOSION!

    Mama Nature ain’t a video game, guys.