State of ships / ships of state

I’ll be tying two disparate things together again today, as is my wont, and trying to make it look more like good reasoning than a clever parlour trick. The first is the state of Hungary in which something is distinctly rotten and the second is the coast of Italy, recently decorated with one of the world’s biggest cruise liners.  

Echoes of “Lord Jim”

A French marine lawyer, Pierre-Sébastien Boulay-Paty, writing in the 1800s on the subject of the recently revised maritime code for merchant and passenger shipping concluded that although “we have come a long way from the daunting maxim that the master should necessarily go down with the very hull that has been his home – for courage need not transgress the limits of the foolhardy or suicidal – yet it is nonetheless clear that the captain must be the last person to leave the vessel.” The code, which is just as valid today, at least in theory, also requires that a captain confer with his officers before giving the order to abandon ship. He is then to designate those in authority for the evacuation (should the gravity of the situation require any change to standing orders) and is to carry the counter-signed minutes of these decisions with him, together with the ship’s logbook, when he finally leaves the bridge.

The gigantic cadaver of the Costa Concordia is now a sad witness to how far we have travelled, from “women and children first” to a “devil take the hindmost” attitude that would do credit to the best tenets of Thatcherism. Here we have a captain who was already sitting in jail, possibly facing multiple charges (wilful disregard of maritime regulations, dereliction of duty, causing an environmental hazard …) while the majority of his passengers were still being either fished from the water or airlifted from a ship that could quickly become a death-trap were the weather to worsen significantly. Moreover, many of those rescued not only reported having hardly seen a single officer throughout the entire ordeal, but also that they were jostled aside by crew members desperate to get into one of the available lifeboats, all of which were now on the port side, since the vessel’s extreme list had rendered the starboard boats inaccessible.

Motley dressed as spam

Should we be surprised? Well, no actually we should not. The days when crew serving on passenger vessels were imbued with a sense of maritime discipline have vanished along with the whole concept of a homogenous merchant navy: a body of honourable men and women sharing common values and training. These used to be the pride of all great nations, holding a status only slightly inferior to their more specialized and belligerent colleagues. Nowadays you might be lucky enough to have a few officers on board who have worked their way through the more traditional type of marine training. Then again, you might not. The Brits are still top-notch at this: despite a declining fleet, UK merchant navy personnel are still sought by all the flags of the world. But for the most part, the fine uniforms and polite smiles that greet you on a modern cruise ship belong to hotel personnel who have been retrained, retooled and recycled for service on a luxury liner. Even the “genuine articles” are less genuine than in days of yore. While the captain and his first officer are still highly privileged positions, the remaining officers, the navigator and all the technical support staff are not necessarily a team that have worked together through thick and thin, but are more likely to have been short-hired at competitive rates of pay. They will be competent and doubtless sufficiently experienced, but one should not expect much loyalty or initiative over and above the stipulations of their minimum service contract.

As for the generality of the crew, those who do most of the work will be underpaid and underprivileged in the extreme. Confined to quarters for lack of a visa whenever the ship is in harbour, they will be distinctly third-world and rightfully disgruntled with their lot as they languish in sweaty, waterline cabins while their passengers are enjoying the local night life. They will have little interest in displaying any kind of unusual behaviour, such as bravery, which might draw unwanted attention to the irregularity of their status. Of the Costa Concordia’s crew of about a thousand, 200 were Indians and 300 were from the Philippines, where “women and children first” doesn’t really cut the mustard. The rest were probably the usual motley band of North Africans and East Europeans from the Baltic and the Balkans. Only those with some degree of authority would be Italian.  

Setting another course

This floating United nations, now gutted on the rocks, once represented all that is best and worst in our modern world: a diverse mix of rich and vibrant cultures united in poverty and mutual respect for the harshness of life below decks, where mere inches separated them from the pampered tourists with their glossy women, ‘living the dream’ for a few short weeks in the lap of luxury. The Costa Concordia was a city, albeit a small one, and as such was a microcosm of the socio-economic layer cake we currently inhabit, where the gross devolution of responsibility is designed to serve the gross evolution of wealth. Any attempt to crew an Italian ship of such a size entirely with Italians would be as economically disastrous as trying to have American peaches harvested entirely by American citizens. Yet Angela Merkel has told us that the multi-cultural model has failed, and she may be right … in which case the wreck of the Costa Concordia is not just Captain Schettino’s “SS Patna”, an albatross from which he may never redeem himself, but Italy’s “Raft of the Medusa” as well.

All of this should make Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban seem somewhat less of a populist demagogue and dictator-in-waiting and somewhat more of a visionary exponent of a new, homogenous European nation-state model … after all, he rejects the multi-ethnic paradigm of valid minority contributions to culture, just as he rejects the res-publica of a state in which authority resides in a government that is responsible to as well as for the people, preferring to jettison the former almost entirely and define the latter in a very narrow frame.

Forward to the past

Twenty years ago, when we first took notice of him, he seemed thirsty for democratic renovation and eager enough for the changes his country would have to undergo. But electoral defeat in 2002 at the hands of a socialist coalition, which included many of the communist freeloaders he thought he’d seen the back of, gave him a different kind of thirst, not for democracy, but for revenge. He is having that revenge now and he intends to make it last, by securing his authority with a deluge of restrictive laws (72 in just the last two weeks) that effectively restructure Hungarian political life. You read it here first: we are looking at the start of a dynasty, a dynasty that traces its economic template to the great industrial moguls of the 19th century and its political template to a mix of the ‘Putin/Medvedev model’ with added ingredients even grimmer and frighteningly familiar to generations of Europeans.

Because there is a name for the impressing of the national association of journalists into a fiefdom of the party, there is a name for the subversion of the constitutional court and its reinvention as a mere rubber stamp tribunal, there is a name for the gathering of all previously independent cultural outlets – such as theatre groups, orchestras, opera, ballet and youth organizations – under the aegis of single ministry, there is a name for the political appointment of judges, the submission of the judiciary to political expedient alone and the assignment of particularly sensitive cases to particularly obedient judges, there is a name for the forced integration of the national bank into the finance ministry, there is a name for the coerced adoption of a single state religion and the withdrawal of state recognition for other faiths, there is a name for the monoptic promotion of a doctrine of nationhood as defined by a sole ethnicity, just as there is a name for the aligning of all school textbooks to overlap entirely with that same doctrine …

The word employed by Adolf Hitler was “Gleichschaltung”. It was the beginning of the end. Captain Orban runs a very tight ship, but one which may yet land him on the rocks. We should all take warning!

Edwin Drood

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