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JAMES CARROLL

South Korean ferry disaster and us

‘I AM REALLY sorry and deeply ashamed,” said Lee Joon-seok, the captain of MS Sewol, the ferry that sank in South Korea recently. Having abandoned the ship while its passengers were still in peril, Lee was arrested, along with others of the ship’s crew, and will probably be charged with negligence. Hundreds of people are dead or missing as a result of the accident, most of them teenagers who were on a school-sponsored outing. “I take all the responsibility,” wrote Kang Min-gyn, the school’s vice principal, who had been rescued from the ship. “I’m the one who initiated the school trip.” This is from his suicide note, left behind when he used his belt to hang himself, not far from where family members were waiting for news of their children. “Throw my ash at the accident site,” he wrote. Such abject misery drew sympathy from across the world. The wailing of those who’d lost loved ones in the sunken ferry made nearby policemen weep.

A ship is a ready-made metaphor. Plato cites the ship of state; the Bible has Noah’s Ark; the Catholic Church calls itself the Barque of St. Peter. The United States, settled by centuries of ocean-crossers, has understood itself as a ship from Jefferson (the “Argosy”) to Melville (the “Pequod”) to Longfellow (“Sail on, O Ship of State”) to Franklin Roosevelt (“Row, row, row with Roosevelt, on the good ship USA”) to Ted Kennedy (“We can’t afford to drift, or lie at anchor”) to Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Bush (“Stay the course”).

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The sad story of the Korean ferry, with a captain who thought only of himself, suggests a far more disturbing image: that of a shipwrecked commonwealth in which positions of ostensible leadership have been cut off from any sense of common good. The obligation of a ship’s captain to be the last to leave a stricken vessel epitomizes the positive virtue of noblesse oblige — the idea that power and privilege come with responsibility toward those who have neither.

Yet the ferry disaster, with its rogue captain on the run, offers a parallel to what Americans now see throughout our society: the detachment of a rich and powerful elite that looks out for its own advantage, with no regard for the welfare of the rest of those aboard.

A recent social science study (by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page) concludes that a very small clique of economically privileged Americans regularly overwhelm the will of the general public, and a much discussed recent book (“Capital in the 21st Century” by Thomas Piketty) argues that, as a result of multigenerational patterns of savage income inequality, a social mutation has occurred, wholly severing the tie between the extremely wealthy and the vast population.

But the metaphor is wrong. The elite are not the captain; they are the high end of first class, with more and more of the passengers consigned to steerage. And they have not so much abandoned the ship as they have hijacked it. The tragedy of the sunken Korean ferry was compounded when crew members instructed the terrified people below decks to stay where they were, even as the ship was turning on its side. The trusting passengers obeyed, sealing their doom. By analogy, all Americans are urged (by Republican party orthodoxy, for example) to ignore their own peril and advance the interests of the elite, approving policies (on taxation, say) that destroy the broader common good. Regularly voting against their economic interest, a huge percentage of Americans cooperate in their own disempowerment — and relative impoverishment. Meanwhile, so vast has grown the civic gulf between the very rich and the rest that the privileged are blind to the consequences of the social organization on which they depend.

Let’s not push the comparison too far. The Korean ferry was no ship of state, nor were its passengers symbols of any kind; they were living persons who are now dead. Yet the episode grimly reminds us of the plight of all people who are helpless and abandoned to their fate. And unfortunately, the recognition that the world’s rogue captains should “feel really sorry and deeply ashamed” comes far too late, or not at all.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.
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