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Titanic deniers and the dark side of popular culture

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SAINT JOHN, N.B. -- The sinking of the White Star liner Titanic in 1912 is one of the most powerful impressions in our popular culture.

This marine disaster has resulted in several feature films, many books and articles along with the creation of a number of museums devoted exclusively to this iconic vessel.

Perhaps it is now best remembered via the 1997 film Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Less well-known now are the British movie A Night to Remember (1958) and a full-length feature film produced by the Nazis in 1943.

The sinking was the subject of a lecture recently given by Prof. Leon Litvack of Queen's University, Belfast (where Titanic was built) to an audience at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. The speaker emphasized the great difficulty in sorting out the details of the tragedy, so encrusted has the story become in myth and legend.

Litvack focused a part of his talk on the music played by the band as the ship went down. Lionized as heroes of their profession in the post-disaster era, it is now difficult to figure out what piece these men actually played in the face of almost certain death. The evidence points to the hymn Nearer my God to Thee, but even this is contested ground.

Meanwhile, objects associated with the Titanic have in our culture taken on the status of holy relics. Litvack mentioned a Titanic musician's violin selling at auction recently for US$1.4 million. He could also have pointed to an original Titanic boarding pass that fetched US$149,800 at auction in 1999. For me, this university lecture represented a rational discussion of an important aspect of our popular culture.

At the same time, it reminded me of a personal experience that is at the other end of the investigative spectrum. In 2010, I arrived at Heathrow Airport in England where I was met by a driver who was to take me to my destination.

Along the way, we passed a building where my cabbie indicated he would be attending a lecture later that same evening. Then it began. I suddenly had the feeling of being trapped, of dropping down "a rabbit hole" into a different universe.

My driver knew all about the "so-called Titanic" disaster of 1912. He bombarded me with the "real facts" of the episode. As best I can remember, the alternative version of history goes something like this:

The Olympic, another White Star liner, was involved in an accident with a British naval vessel and the costs were going to ruin the company. So they faked the construction of a sister ship named the Titanic by switching nameplates on the Olympic. The plan was to fake a sinking, rescue the passengers, claim the insurance on the phoney Titanic and still have her as the old Olympic. It all went wrong and the Titanic hit one of the rescue vessels or an iceberg or something. I was assured most of the crew survived and were given new identities by the White Star company. Whew!

I have since learned there is a cult of Titanic disaster deniers based mainly in Britain who truly believe all this. Their arguments are similar in structure to those of the deniers of the American moon landings of 1969-72, the people who claim the 9/11 disaster in New York City was not a terrorist act, the many persons who believe the U.S. government has covered up the "truth" about UFOs and so on.

What these things have in common is an unproven allegation of conspiracy kept secret even though thousands of individuals must be part of the conspiracy. Other standard features are the mishandling of evidence, the undue focus on loose ends common in all historical events and the charge that those who don't believe in their interpretation have been duped by the authorities.

While scepticism is a valuable thing in rational, scientific inquiry, that of the Titanic and moon-landing conspiracy theorists oversteps the bounds. Their practices might best be termed "irrational scepticism," denying key events of our recent history ever took place.

Meanwhile, this subject raises an interesting question about the dark side of popular culture. Given the similarity in the structure of their arguments, do those who believe the White Star company tried to fake the Titanic sinking also believe the moon landings were shot on movie sets on Earth and the destruction of the twin towers in New York was a government plot?

Troy Media columnist Fred Donnelly's career in journalism covers more than two decades. He writes on popular culture.

-- troymedia.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2014 $sourceSection0

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