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Opening Arguments

Big numbers

Ever hear of the steamship Sultana? Most people haven't (including me, until I stumbled across an article about it this week), even though its demise marked the worst maritime disaster in Amercan history. (And here's a whole book about it.) On the night of April 27, 1865, the steamer was on the Mississippi River near Memphis, loaded with soldiers who were veterans of some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The boiler exploded, and more that 1,800 of the passengers died. It should have been one of the biggest stories of the country. But:

The magnitude of the catastrophe was overshadowed by the turbulent events that shook our nation and filled the newspaper headlines in April of 1865-namely the end of the Civil War, the assassination of President Lincoln, and the capture of John Wilkes Booth. As a result, the explosion of the Sultana has been all but passed over in the pages of history.

Imagine a story of that magnitude being dispatched to the inside page. It wasn't big news then, so it hasn't been much-studied history, either. One reason newspapers downplayed it, and readers didn't raise a fuss, was that the country had just gone through four years of mind-numbing casualties. Certainly1,800 fatalities is a lot if we're just considering the incident in isolation -- only about 1,500 died on the Titanic, and look how famous that sinking has become. But when the deaths occur as a footnote to a conflict in which more than 600,000 perished, they tend to seem diminished in importance.

There's a general lesson there worth pondering, I think: When the numbers become so overwhelming that it's hard to comprehend them, we become desensitized to big numbers we once would have noticed. When the federal deficit is approaching $16 trillion and we're incrasing it by $4 billion a day, nobody blinks an eye when it is reported that a few hundred million are lost here and there to waste, fraud and abuse or, increasingly, plain old incompetence.



Thu, 03/22/2012 - 8:56pm

I think it depends on where you live. I lived for 14 years in South Carolina, where people are still angry about the Civil War - excuse me, I mean The War of Northern Aggression - and won't shut up about it.

I grew up in a Union state - West Virginia - and had never heard of the Sultana disaster, either. It's pretty common knowledge in Dixie.