Thirteen Years On….

Me 1OK, let me get this out there and get it over with. A few months ago I was taken to task by someone who was a lifelong friend because on my Facebook page I posted a meme that showed the second airliner crashing into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, and which bore the caption “Everything I needed to know about Islam I learned on 9-11!” I was castigated for not showing a sufficient degree of tolerance and respect for the allegedly peaceful Mohammedans living in places like Dearbornistan, who, it was implied, bore little or no resemblance or relationship to their fanatical “co-religionists” in the Middle East. I put “co-religionists” in quotation marks because I came to understand many years ago, while researching my book The First Jihad, that Mohammedanism (that is, “Islam” — I prefer “Mohammedanism” because they find that insulting; obviously, I’m deliberately not sensitive to their feelings) is not a religion at all: it is a political ideology cloaked in religious trappings. As for “Mohammedanism,” well, let’s just say that the veneration demanded of “The Prophet” is little more than an egregious exercise in hypocrisy, in that it approaches the sort of idolatry that is condemned in the Koran and leave it at that….

Now, thirteen years after the tragedy of 11 September 2001, the world is being unambiguously presented with the real face of Mohammedanism by the words and deeds of ISIS (I refuse to refer to them as ISIL — I will not break faith with Israel by doing so), and yet where is the outrage, the condemnation, the cries of betrayal of their “faith” by the Mohammedans in Dearbornistan? Or in any other “moderate” Mohammedan community in the United States? Or in Great Britain? Or France? Or Germany? WHERE IS IT?

I see no need to explain the perfectly obvious. Everyone of you reading this knows exactly why the cries of outrage, condemnation, and betrayal are so deafening by dint of their silence.

I would advert your attention, all of you, to the observations and comments of THE towering political figure of the Twentieth Century, Sir Winston Churchill, when he chose to address the nature of Mohammedanism. The words are over a century old, and yet their validity and relevance to 2014 are disturbingly profound:

“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property – either as a child, a wife, or a concubine – must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die: but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.”

Just remember that in dealing with violent fanatics, “compromise” is just another word for “appeasement.”

That’s the way it is…

because I’m Daniel Allen Butler, and you’re not.

The Publishing Industry has Become the Refuge of Cowards

I’m finding myself looking very closely at undertaking a radical shift in how I will be doing business post-2016. The business paradigms of my profession are undergoing an evolution so rapid that it is not entirely inaccurate to call it a “revolution,” and despite the hopefulness of some people participating in it, like all revolutions, it’s going to be messy and there will be a lot of collateral damage, namely, a lot of really bad work that should never be allowed to see the light of day is going to find its way into print, whether dead-tree or live electron, at the same time that a lot of genuinely good work will be irretrievably lost in the sheer mass of noise.

The sad truth of the great problem plaguing the publishing industry is NOT that six Big Companies control 85% of what gets into print. The problem is that those six companies have been taken over, lock, stock, and thesaurus, by bean-counters who are incapable of recognizing good writing and allowing it to be properly processed into good reading. Because bean-counters, by definition, deal in concrete concepts and are incapable of grasping anything as abstract as the creative process (numbers are numbers, period; there is no such thing as “creative bookkeeping,” that is merely a euphemism for bald-faced lying combined with outright theft), they rely on numbers, projections, trends, and formulae, rather than talent to make publication and marketing decisions. The Big Six have, in short, become the slaves of conventional wisdom.

It’s all too readily apparent what are the dominant thinking modes. One is “This sort of thing has sold in the past, so it will sell now.” This results in travesties such as Hillary Clinton’s latest door-stop. Her first book, It Takes a Village (the publisher accidentally left the word Idiot off the end of the title), for which she was paid a massive seven-figure advance, couldn’t be given away two weeks after its release back in 1996, but because she is a “name” it is automatically assumed (because this model has frequently worked in the past) that she will inevitably bring an audience with her whenever a new book under her name is published. The model actually failed the first time around, and yet because the conventional wisdom holds that “a name” equals “an audience,” the model was again followed, and the result was an embarrassment for the entire industry. (Whether Clinton was embarrassed or not – or is even capable of feeling embarrassment – is fodder for another discussion.) Unfortunately for authors, readers, and the industry itself, the massive corporate inertia (read “cowardice”) works against a wide recognition that the “name=an audience” model is irretrievably broken.

The other prevalent model is the constant repetition of formula. Clive Cussler, who happens to be a personal friend, has not written an original story since 1981, when Night Probe! was published. His Dirk Pitt novels have become the literary equivalent of the James Bond series of movies, at least through Die Another Day: he hit on a formula with Deep Six and Cyclops that worked, that is, it was commercially successful, and has continually rehashed it through another fifteen sequels. Don’t mistake me here, I’m not taking a cheap shot at Clive – he’s good at what he does, and he keeps his readers satisfied with what he produces. The upshot, though, has been a spate of Dirk Pitt-knock offs, clones, and wannabes created by other, less talented writers, most of which should have been strangled at virtual birth. The flood of vampire novels that washed over the fiction market and nearly ruined the urban fantasy genre in the wake of 2005’s publication of Twilight are a corollary to the formula premise, in this case a more-or-less stock character type and more-or-less stock plot situations for said character type are substituted for the specific lead character of a specific series. Twilight, indeed, should have been strangled while still in the conceptual cradle, even before it reached the status of a published novel. The downshot has been that far more people have experienced in one form or another the Twilight series and its consequences and aftereffects than have even heard of Jim Butcher, even though Butcher was first published five years before Stephanie Meyer, and his Harry Dresden series has done more for the urban fantasy genre than anything Meyer could ever have hoped to accomplish. In some ways, it could be argued that, despite the elements of formula in some of the Dresden novels, Butcher almost single-handedly saved urban fantasy from self-destruction at the hands of the horde of glittery, gloomy adolescent blood-suckers unleashed post-Meyer within it.

Which brings all of this the salient question: how do these two models, “This sold in the past, it will sell now” and “If it’s formula, it will work and it will sell,” become the standards of the publishing industry? The answer is cowardice. Cowardice on the part of the bean-counters who have taken over the majority of the industry, itself an act of cowardice, and a manifestation of insecurity. But then, what should be expected of accountants, who are cowardly and insecure by nature (think about it, think about the nature of cowardice and insecurity)? Creativity, and its handmaiden, an individual allowing himself or herself the liberty to recognize creativity, requires courage. Not the clichéd “think outside the box” courage, which, frankly, is so much bovine excrement, but rather the willingness to simply dispense with the concept of a box and recognize ability and talent when it is encountered – and have the courage to sometimes be wrong. Bean counters are raised from the cradle to believe that the worst thing that can happen to them is to ever make a mistake, to err in a sum, to miss a decimal point, as if such mistakes are irrevocable and bear the burden of eternal damnation. The unintended consequence of this is that the bean counters’ fear of their own mistakes metastasizes into a pathological fear of any mistakes made by anyone, and so they methodically set about to eradicate anyone in the companies and businesses which employ them who might also make a mistake, and in so committing an error could perhaps create a situation which would reflect badly on said bean counters. As long as the quarterly reports show a profit on the bottom line, all is well in the bean counters’ world, and so they will go to any length to ensure that result.

How this has undermined the publishing industry is simple: the bean-counter culture of near-paranoia leads them to first influence, then take over, hiring decisions – in order to be protected from errors, they must ensure that they are surrounded by co-workers who will not make mistakes of their own. In doing so, they allow intelligent, visionary, and creative acquisition and managing editors to fall by the wayside, and instead stock the editorial departments and boards of the companies they dominate with “editors” who have not the slightest practical knowledge of or experience at actual editing, but who will blindly and blandly obey the rules of formula and what sold in the past. They create nice, safe, error-proof editorial environments where new talent is not recognized and rewarded, because doing so would entail a risk and risks are something NEVER to be taken. They employ “editors” who are the masters and mistresses of MSWord, but who have no sense of style or the meaning of the concept economy of words. The good editors, those who will tell an author “You’re too verbose,” or “You’re too vague,” or “Your logic in this argument is flawed,” or “Your characters are stereotypes” or “You simply aren’t making sense here,” have been driven out of the major publishing houses, for the simple reason that their willingness to engage an author in a way that raises his or her writing out of the bland and predictable up to the level of polished, accomplished, and *gasp* innovative and thought-provoking might cause them to decide to publish and promote a book which may not be as immediately profitable as those nice, safe, vanilla books of formula and predictability. (The folly of this safe, secure, “predictable” business model is more than abundantly demonstrated by the long-term success of two highly dissimilar works – J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and Ken LaFollett’s The Pillars of the Earth.) Good authorship produces good manuscripts, but good editorship produces good books. (I say this with absolute assurance that it is a fundamental truth, given that I have nine books published through conventional, “mainstream” publishers, and have experienced good editors and bad, and can flatly assert that the books of which I am most proud are those which received the best editorial work.) The great flaw in the “conventional, mainstream” publishing industry today, and in particular within those six Big Companies, is not their determination to tell us as readers what to read and as authors what to write, but in their cowardice, in their craven refusal to risk making mistakes, and in doing so admitting that they have sold the birthright of their industry for a quarterly mess of pottage.

Where will it end? When the large publishing conglomerates sufficiently marginalize themselves, as they are already doing, by abandoning the very people on which not merely their success, but their existence depends: the readers. Revolutions are not usually regarded as “democratic” processes, and yet, a good historian recognizes that all revolutions are truly democratic in nature, as people vote, not with their ballots, or even their bullets, but with their feet. The publishing revolution will be decided by readers voting figuratively with their feet by leaving behind the drivel, the pap, and the vanilla fluff offered by the mainstream industry. Whether or not the industry will recognize the exodus for what it is before it reaches the tipping point where the industry cannot draw back those departing readers remains to be seen. If it doesn’t happen, I’ve already got my trainers on….

That’s the way it is…

because I’m Daniel Allen Butler, and you’re not….

The Called it “The Great War”

So here I sit in a comfortable chair, laptop on the  desk before me, a cup of hot coffee (black) to my right, a freshly-lit cigar to my left, and I’m going to tell you about the First World War.

Who the hell am I kidding?

All I have at my disposal are words, and there are some thing for which words are pathetically, even tragically, inadequate….

I’m not going to go into the nearly-unbelievable process of how a simple political assassination (of an Austrian archduke) initiated a chain of events which saw the whole continent of Europe go to war with itself in less than six weeks.  If you’re really interested in the diplomatic squabbles, petty political posturing, intrigue, double-dealing, and dissembling , read my book The Burden of Guilt (Casemate 2010) to learn everything you need to know about it.  Once the first German soldier crossed the Belgian border in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan, all of that became irrelevant anyway.  What I’m going to talk about here is the war itself.

Frankly, The Last Post should be playing right now in the background, and keep playing until you reach the end of this column.  That or maybe Geoff Knorr’s arrangement of Holst’s I Vow to Thee, My Country.  Nothing else seems appropriate.

The world had never seen anything like the clash of armies that met each other in the West and in the East in August 1914.

When the Germans decided that the strategic dicta of the Schlieffen Plan overrode the moral imperatives of Germany’s guarantee of Belgium’s neutrality and invaded that little country, they brought the British Empire into the war on the side of the Allies, turning what would have been just one more European war into a truly global conflict – a “world war.” The German General Staff was openly derisive of the six-division British Expeditionary Force, thinking it too small to be worth consideration – there is a story, quite possibly apocryphal, that Kaiser Wilhelm II had referred to it as a “contemptible little army,” giving rise to the nickname which the officers and rankers of the B.E.F. adopted as a badge of honor, “The Old Contemptibles.” German derision notwithstanding, those six divisions were, man for man, the finest troops Europe had ever seen or would ever see again. When they met the oncoming waves of feldgrau on August 22, they handed the advancing Germans setback after bloody setback for the next month, retreating only when their exposed flanks were threatened, their numbers slowly but irrevocably dwindling, as the supporting French armies, bleeding and demoralized, reeled from the shock, surprise, and sheer weight of the German assault.

While the French armies desperately sidestepped to the west in the hope of forming a line which would finally stop and then throw back the German invaders, the courage and tenacity of the B.E.F. inflicted fatal delays and diversions on the German’s unforgiving schedule for advance. It still appeared, though, that the Schlieffen Plan was about to hand Germany the crushing victory she was seeking, for the French had been overextended to the east in their thrust into Lorraine. Had the B.E.F. not taken up its position on the extreme French left, the Germans would have swept in behind the French Army, encircling it, exactly as the German General Staff had intended.
But when the German Army was within sight of Paris, a hastily assembled French army, not letting the time bought so dearly by the B.E.F. go to waste, launched a devastating, unexpected counterattack into the German right flank, while the tired Tommies turned about and lunged at their feldgrau-clad pursuers. These blows threw the now more-than-weary Germans back some forty miles, with the exhausted armies all finally coming to a halt on September 22.

In the East, much had been expected by the Allies of the Russian Army, while the Germans feared its immense resources in manpower. But the Russians possessed another quality that neither the French nor the Germans had counted on: loyalty. In September, 1914, as the German First and Second Armies were lunging toward Paris, the French government, desperate for any succor, appealed to the Russian Imperial Staff to launch an attack into East Prussia that would cause the Germans to withdraw some of the divisions that were pressing so hard against the French forces. Tsar Nicholas and his senior officers, though well aware that the Russian mobilization was only half completed, felt honor-bound to come to their ally’s aid, and so ordered an immediate attack into East Prussia from Poland. The Russian commander, Field Marshal Alexander Samsonov, protested that his armies weren’t ready–some of his units were still in transit from their depots, what artillery he did have was not yet adequately supplied with ammunition, and that no operational planning had been done. Nonetheless, the Tsar insisted, and Samsonov obeyed.

At first the Russian forces made rather remarkable progress as they advanced steadily into East Prussia, brushing aside the light screen of defending units the Germans had deployed along the border. The advance continued unchecked for more than a week until Samsonov ran into the German Third Army, commanded by then-General Paul von Hindenburg. The result was the Battle of Tannenburg, an unmitigated disaster for the Russians.

Samsonov’s army, along with that of General Paul Rennenkampf’s, which had been assigned to support Samsonov’s offensive, were encircled and almost completely destroyed. The cost to the Russians was staggering: nearly a half-million men were killed or captured. Samsonov did his best to extricate as many of his troops as he could, then once he became aware of how hopeless the debacle was, rode off into a small wood and blew his brains out. A huge hole had been torn in the Russian front, and had von Hindenburg had the troops available to exploit it, the magnitude of this disaster for the Russians would have been unimaginable. As it was, a crisis was created on the Eastern Front, from which the Russian army would never wholly recover.

That von Hindenburg lacked the troops to properly exploit his victory had been merely a matter of timing however. Though it would ultimately end in disaster, Samsonov’s offensive had thrown a serious scare into the breasts of the German General Staff, and they hastily packed up two army corps from Belgium aboard a few dozen troop trains and rushed them to East Prussia, a process which all told took just under two weeks. When they arrived, though, the Battle of Tannenburg was over, the surviving Russians having stopped their headlong retreat and reformed a stable front. Yet in a curious way their arrival was still decisive, for those two corps would be absent from the Western Front when the French launched their counterattack at the Marne on 9 September. The German First and Second Armies, lacking the fresh reinforcements those two corps would have provided, fell back, leaving Paris in Allied hands, deprived of the last chance for a decisive German victory on land in the West.

By the end of 1914, after a series of sidesteps by the opposing armies called the “Race to the Sea” had ended, two thin, snake-like lines of opposing trenches, growing more and more elaborate with each passing week, had been dug from the Swiss border to the Channel, depriving each side of the opportunity to maneuver, as the armies began looking for a way to break the enemy’s lines. A slightly discordant note began to slip into the strains of Die Wacht am Rhein, or the Marseillaise, or “Tipperary” being sung as the soldaten, poilus, and Tommies left for the front, as it slowly dawned on the generals and politicians alike, and even more slowly on the general public, that something had gone terribly wrong in the calculations that had been made and the assurances given before the troops marched off to war.

It would all be over in six weeks, eight at the most, they had believed; the troops would be “home before the leaves fall.” But when the leaves fell, they only covered the fresh graves of the dead, or swirled into the newly dug graves of those still dying. Then the cry was that the war would be over before Christmas, but Christmas came and went and there was no end in sight, either of the war or the casualty lists. Soon entire military traditions were being overthrown, as realization began to dawn on the Germans and French that neither intellect nor elán were about to deliver a quick victory, and the British saw that their magnificent but tiny B.E.F., decimated in the first four months of combat, could never be resurrected.

What was developing, and what would become the lasting collective memories of the Great War, were methods of living and dying that could only find parallels in the darker passages of writers like Edgar Rice Borroughs, Jules Verne, or H. G. Wells. Open movement ceased as the troops literally went to ground, and the trenches, originally shallow and improvised, evolved into sophisticated systems of deep defensive positions, listening posts, dugouts, bunkers, and communication cuttings. Strategically, the Allies were faced with the task of forcibly ejecting the Germans from occupied Belgium and France. Tactically, it was a bloody and almost hopeless undertaking, as time and again the French and British armies surged forward against the waiting German defenses–and each time found some hellish new innovation that cut them down by the thousands. Machine guns proliferated behind huge entanglements of barbed wire appeared, with barbs the size of a man’s thumb, the better to catch on uniforms, accouterments, and flesh, pinning the hapless victims long enough for the stuttering Spandau machine-guns to find them. Mine-throwers and mortars made their debut, as did flame-throwers and poison gas.

Soldiers learned that sounds were dangerous–the steady mechanical rattle of the Spandau or the Vickers; the “whoosh” and roar of the flammenwerfer; the unforgettable “click-clack, clack-click” of a round being chambered in a Lee-Enfield rifle; the short, sharp scraping of the primer cord being drawn from the handle of a potato-masher hand grenade. And always, always, always the shells–-howling, whistling, warbling, chugging like freight locomotives, whizzing like hornets, or whining like banshees. And there was always the sound a soldier never heard–the one that got him.

Even colors were perilous. There were red Very lights at night signaling corrections to artillery bombardments; green or yellow mists, the terrible tendrils of phosgene or mustard gas, snaking along the ground. White on a man’s gums or blue on his feet announced the presence of trench mouth or trench foot; black on a wounded soldier’s body declared that gangrene had already set in.

Mud, blood, gore, long days or weeks of boredom punctuated by hours of absolute terror, were frame for the sights, sounds, and smells of men living a nightmare where they and their comrades were shot, torn, gassed, pulverized, immolated and obliterated in ways that human beings had never before suffered and endured. As gruesome as recounting such sights, sounds, and images may be, it is necessary, for it is required that there be an awareness (not an “understanding”–-only those who experienced those days can ever “understand” them) of what the survivors of the Great War endured in order to comprehend what happened when peace returned to Europe.

It was an article of faith that the enemy always suffered the worst. The French in particular refined their talent for self-deception, somehow formulating the absurd idea that for every two Frenchmen who died in action, three Germans had been killed–but the truth was that the slaughter was appalling for both sides. In the First Battle of Ypres, in October 1914, where wave after wave of German infantry, many of them university students advancing arm-in-arm singing patriotic songs, were cut down by the deadly accurate British rifle fire. One German division lost over 9,300 men dead out of strength of 12,000–in a single morning. Later, when the Allies were on the offensive, time and again the Tommies and poilus would clamber over the top of their trenches after artillery bombardments that had lasted for hours, sometimes days, or even weeks, waiting for the second-hands of their officers’ watches to touch zero hour, when they would begin their methodical advance, the British to the sound of the officers’ whistles, the more romantic French to bugles blaring the Pas de Charge. They stepped out with dressed ranks and at precise intervals across the shell-torn mudscape that stretched between the opposing lines of trenches known as No Man’s Land. The Germans, having weathered the barrage in the relative safety of their deep dugouts, would emerge to assume their prepared positions and bring down a withering hail of rifle, machine gun, and artillery fire on the advancing troops.   At the Somme, one attack that advanced barely 700 yards took three weeks at a cost of nearly 30,000 lives. Even on days when the public communiques would read “All quiet on the Western Front” (the German read “In dem West ist nicht neuen”), nearly 5,000 men were becoming casualties, victims of sniper fire and random shelling. It was as if a small town was being methodically wiped off the face of the earth each day. The British, who in some ways were becoming even more systematically cold-blooded than the Germans, referred to such losses as “normal wastage.”

In the post-war years, the commanding generals on both sides would be pilloried as mindless brutes who could conceive of no alternative but to feed endless masses of men into a vast killing machine, in the hope that the enemy would run out of troops first. In fact the generals, much maligned as incompetents as they are, and some of them deservedly, really did not intend to slaughter the finest generation of young men their nations would ever produce. Certainly none of them ever enjoyed it, no matter what the slanderers might say in later years. The hard, painful truth was that they were unprepared–-there was no way they could have been prepared–for the war they found themselves given the responsibility of fighting. For years it had been a tenet of military faith, and correctly so, that the day of the frontal assault was over–the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War had first demonstrated that, and the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and the Balkan War of 1912 had only reinforced the lesson. Modern firepower made frontal assaults too costly, for infantry in even a hastily prepared defensive position could hold off several times their number of attacking troops, inflicting unacceptable losses in the process. So for decades the emphasis had been placed on conducting wars of maneuver, which gave an army the opportunity to turn a foe’s flank, and achieve a decisive result in battle without having to resort to the terrible waste of lives of frontal attacks. What the generals never anticipated was a war where maneuver would be impossible, where there would be no flanks to turn, and the dreadful frontal assaults the only option remaining to them. The result was a slaughter the like of which had never been seen before or since.

And yet, somehow, there is still a rose-tinged nimbus of romance that surrounds the Great War. It was the songs–“Keep the Home Fires Burning,” “Lili Marlene,” “Pack Up Your Troubles,” “Till We Meet Again,” and everyone’s favorite, “Tipperary.” It was the magnificently anachronistic traditions–French cuirassier regiments and squadrons of German uhlans looked as if they had just stepped out of a Phillipoteaux painting of the Napoleonic Wars; the Germans wearing faintly absurd spiked Pickelhauben helmets; in England, a tradition harking back to the Hundred Years’ War found newly commissioned subalterns visiting an armorer to have their swords sharpened before leaving for the front.

It was the grandeur of an age that was in fact its shroud. France and Germany had armies of conscripts, it is true, but conscription had been a national institution for generations–what made these conscripts conspicuous was how few tried to evade their responsibility. In Great Britain the situation was even more astonishing: not until 1916, when Britain would be compelled to field the largest army the Empire had ever mustered to carry out the Somme Offensive, would the British Army have to resort to a draft to fill its ranks. These young men, rightly called the flower of European youth, were the most idealistic the world would ever see, untainted by the cynicism and affected, postured disdain of later generations. Instead they steadfastly believed in Ein Volk, ein Kaiser, ein Reich, or Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite and Vive le Republique , or fighting for King and Country.

What Europe was killing, no matter how willing the victims, was the vitality that would leave later generations listless and disillusioned: the fire that had driven the Continent for a thousand years was being quenched forever. By the end of May 1916 nearly two million soldiers once clad in khaki, feld grau or horizon bleu were dead or missing on the Western Front, while another four million had been wounded. And the bloodiest years were yet to come….

July 1, 1916, the first day of the Somme Offensive, would forever be remembered as the Black Day of the British Army. At 6:00 a.m. one hundred twenty thousand Tommies went “over the top” to attack the Hindenburg Line. By nightfall, barely more than twelve hours later, half of them had become casualties, twenty thousand of them dead. The Somme attack had been launched in order to take pressure off the French Army, which was locked in a death struggle with the German Army around the fortress city of Verdun. In the ten months of that battle, each army would lose more than 350,000 dead in an area little more than ten miles square.

The Somme did not end on the first day; the battle continued with a fury that ebbed and flowed until November, eventually gaining a seven-mile advance, at a cost of 420,000 British soldiers killed, wounded, or missing; the Germans losses totaled nearly a quarter million men. But while the British Army’s hopes for a breakthrough had perished in mud and barbed wire, the strategic horizons for the German Army seemed bright with promise. While no one was winning the war on the Western Front,
by all appearances Germany and her allies were winning it everywhere else.

The Central Powers (as Germany and Austria-Hungary styled themselves) began their string of strategic victories in the autumn of 1915, when Bulgaria joined the alliance and helped the Austrian armies overrun Serbia. Even before the Serbs collapsed, an attempt by the Allies to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war by a coup-de-main had failed on the Gallipoli Peninsula at the Dardanelles: over the next two years the Turks would fight the British Empire to a strategic draw. The Kingdom of Rumania, sensing an opportunity to aggrandize itself at the expense of Austria-Hungary, declared war on the Central Powers in August of 1916; by December the Rumanians were suing for peace.

Italy, who had not earned and did not deserve the Great Power status she accorded herself, had ignored her alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the crisis of the summer of 1914. The theme of the Italian Prime Minister, Antonio Salandra, during those crucial weeks was endless repetitions of “Compensation Compensation ” letting it be known that Italy was available to the highest bidder; there had been no takers. However, by the spring of 1915 the Italian government perceived an opportunity to exploit the Dual Monarchy’s preoccupation with the Serbs to the south and the Russians to the north, and declared war, hoping to annex Trentino and the Tyrol, and seize the Adriatic port of Trieste. Instead her attacks were stopped cold by the Austro-Hungarian forces, and a bitter stalemate identical to that of the Western Front imposed itself along the Isonzo River, where the Italians attacked and the Austrians repulsed them with bloody regularity.

To be sure, there were moments of alarm for the Central Powers. When a German U-boat sank the British passenger liner Lusitania in May 1915, the ensuing diplomatic confrontation with Washington DC left Berlin with the realization that sooner or later the United States would be added to the list of Germany’s foes. And the Brusilov Offensive, launched by the Russian Army in the summer of 1916, was perhaps the most skillfully executed operation of the war, and came perilously close to routing the Austro-Hungarian Army. Only swift German reinforcement stiffened the sagging morale of Franz Josef’s troops, and the Dual Monarchy fought on.

The Allies took the offensive again in 1917, and it would prove to be an annus horribilis. The overture came in April, along a sector of the Western Front known as the Chemin des Dames, where the French, who believed that they had discovered a tactical “formula” which would break the stalemate, opened their great attack. The abortive “Nivelle Offensive,” named after the French commanding officer who conceived and executed the plan, lasted three weeks, cost 187,000 casualties, and gained less than a mile. The French Army, already morally and physically debilitated by the charnel house of Verdun, had been pushed at last to the limits of human endurance. The ranks of the poilus erupted in mutiny. French soldiers would continue to defend la patrie but they would never again be asked to carry out great offensives.
Thus the burden fell once more on Great Britain. A carefully developed plan, strategically sound but betrayed by weather, geology, and–-worst of all–politicians, resulted in the British Army’s collective Golgotha. Officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, it would be forever immortalized as Passchendaele, after a village which stood squarely in the center of the British line of advance. Five months of fighting gave a gain of five miles and a casualty list 315,000 names long. It had been the Tommies’ supreme effort: they had no more to give. If France was morally and spiritually exhausted, Britain had become physically so: there were, quite literally, no more fit men to replenish the ranks of His Majesty’s regiments. Scraping the bottom of the barrel accomplished nothing, for there was nothing there: it is a matter of record that draught notices were sent to men who were maimed, or mentally ill, or even, in a few instances, already dead.

On the other side of the trenches, the human cost for Germany in each of these battles was equally horrible as that of the Allies. Ultimately, German losses at Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele exceeded those of France and Great Britain, and for Germany, with a much smaller population relative to the Allies, replacements were harder to muster. Nor were the losses merely numerical: by the end of 1916 whatever qualitative superiority over the Allies’ soldiers the German soldaten once possessed had dissipated, and only the German Army’s technical superiority kept it ascendant. By the end of 1917, even that was being eroded.

And there was another force, its results less readily visible or immediately obvious, insidiously eroding German and Austrian strength. Neither nation was self-sufficient in food production, and before the war close to a third of Germany’s foodstuffs were imported from overseas. Now the Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany cut off altogether those sources of supply, and by the summer of 1916 shortages became increasingly frequent, while as 1916 turned into 1917, starvation began to loom over the civilian populations of the Central Powers. One way or another, 1918 would be the decisive year of the war.

In the east, battles equally costly in lives but even greater in scope than those of the Western Front would be fought between the Central Powers and Imperial Russia, bearing names like Tannenburg, the Masaurian Lakes, Tagenrog, Gorlice-Tarnow, Lake Naroch, and the Brusilov Offensive; only the immense distances of the Eastern Front prevented these battles from being individually decisive–-it would be their cumulative effect which would play into the hands of the Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries which eventually brought down the Romanov dynasty and then toppled the Provisional Government. Eight decades of Soviet meddling and “revision” have left the reliability of the records of those years suspect, but at the very least it can be stated with certainty that close to four million soldiers, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German, died in battle between August 1914 and November 1917. How many more, mostly Russian, died of disease and malnutrition is impossible to calculate, although the total could easily be double the number of combat deaths.

Yet, if 1918 was to be the decisive year of the war, 1917 was the pivotal one, and in it the hinge of fate turned against the Central Powers. The moral affront of the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the blundering attempt at “diplomacy” which became known as “the Zimmermann telegram” had pushed the forbearance of the American people and their government past the breaking point, and on April 6, the United States declared war on Germany. Almost a year would pass, however, before the weight of American manpower and industry would begin to make itself felt; when it did so, the Allies would be invincible. Germany’s only hope of victory now lay in forcing the French and British to come to terms before the American juggernaut materialized. The collapse of Imperial Russia released sixty German divisions to be redeployed in the West, where for the first time since the opening weeks of the war the Kaiser’s army would enjoy a numerical superiority over the Allies. It was an opportunity that the German General Staff did not intend to waste.

As 1918 dawned, it was clear to the political and military leadership on both sides that the armies of all the warring nations were approaching exhaustion–-the question was who would falter first. Russia had already given up in December 1917: wracked by revolutions at home that lurched successive governments further and further to the left, and dissent, defeatism, and disillusion within the army, she finally made a separate peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk. The French Army had stood on the brink of self-destruction in 1917, and even now replacements marching to the front were heard counting the cadence “Une, deux, trois, merde ” and baaaa-ing like sheep being led to the slaughterhouse. Great Britain had already reached the limits of her manpower, now the German U-boats were taking a dreadful toll of the merchant shipping that was Britain’s lifeline: in April 1917 there was less than three weeks’ supply of food left in the country. The introduction of convoys by the Royal Navy that same month, long resisted by civilian shipping interests, narrowly averted a catastrophe.

Germany’s position was, on the whole, even worse, for the British blockade had been slowly starving the German Empire to death for more than three years. Meat and milk were all but non-existent; turnips had replaced potatoes as a dietary staple; flour for making bread often contained as much sawdust and chalk as wheat. With its new-found numerical superiority on the Western Front, the German Army High Command believed that it had the strength for one last great offensive, but after that there would be no hope of victory: Germany was as exhausted as her foes.
The result was a succession of hammer-blows thrown against the Allied lines, collectively known as the “Kaiserschlacht”–-the Kaiser’s Battle–beginning in late March 1918, with a new offensive opening with each passing month until the July. The first, landing on the British Army, was the most successful, for it had the advantages of superiority in manpower and material as well as strategic surprise; yet in the end it failed, for while the British Army fell back, the Tommies held their line, and dreadful losses were inflicted on the attacking German divisions. It would prove to be a decisive development, for each of the four German offensives which followed were launched with diminishing numbers and declining morale, while the Allies were marshaling their strength and regaining a measure of confidence as each following German offensive was contained and then repulsed.

By the end of July the Germans had lost more than 600,000 killed, wounded, and missing–-irreplaceable losses–-in this succession of offensives, with little to show for it: some territory had been gained, but no strategic breakthrough had been achieved, no decisive result attained, and the German Army was finally exhausted. At the same time, the Allies, infused with new strength in manpower, material, and morale as the American Army began to arrive in France in significant numbers, went over to the offensive. In August and September, their numerical superiority regained, the Allies attacked the German line relentlessly; moreover, by this time they were also gaining a tactical and technological ascendency as well. One by one, through the month of October and into November, Germany’s allies fell away, and finally, in the first week of November, revolution swept over the Reich, the monarchy was dissolved, and the German government, now a republic, asked the Allies for an armistice. At 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the fighting ceased.

*Heavy sigh*

So, what did it all mean?  What was it all for?

I don’t know.

Every nation has its partisans, of almost every social and political bent, as well as its detractors.  The “why” of the Great War will be debated until the end of human history without a consensus ever being achieved, of that I’m convinced.   A nice thought, isn’t it?  Ten million or more soldiers die (and probably an equal number of civilians, East and West) and humanity can’t even agree as to why….

But there is something else of which I am equally convinced.  For every Siegfried Sassoon, who won medals for brave deeds done by other men, and then whined about how “unfair” was the war to a sensitive soul like himself, there were hundreds of thousands of men, better men, who never thought of themselves as exceptional and deserving of special treatment, but, instead, were proud to be “numbered among those who, at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger…” and who, for far too many of them, “finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self-sacrifice.”

I don’t care what uniform they were wearing, whether it was khaki drab, horizon bleu, or feld grau, or when or where they died.  In 2014, the centennial of the first year of the Great War, they all deserve the same acknowledgement:

“They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.”

“Snowmegeddon” Atlanta, 2014

So now it begins.

The accusations of incompetence, ineptitude, and downright stupidity. The evasion of responsibility, real or perceived. The finger-pointing. The back-biting. The back-stabbing. The self-righteous posturing of those not involved in the decision-making process. The self-justifying whining of those who were. The weeks of absolutely absurd and pointless muppet-flailing which will be part of the national and regional dialogue for the next several news cycles.

I’m speaking, of course, of the aftermath of the Great Snowpocalypse of Atlanta, 2014 Edition.

Now, let me begin by staking out a base position. I was out in it. I know, I know, the sentence isn’t grammatically correct, but you get the idea. No, I didn’t spend the night in my car, stranded on a stretch of interstate or parkway because the whole road net had become paralyzed by a combination of winter weather conditions and a typical volume of Atlanta traffic (more on this in a moment). I didn’t have to have to abandon my vehicle a mere two miles from my home and trudge through the (minimal amount of) snow in temperatures in the mid-20s, all the while muttering about “Arctic-like conditions,” fearful that my fate would be reminiscent of the Scott Expedition. I didn’t sleep in a Waffle House or Home Depot–at least, not this time. No, my experience was spending two hours traveling approximately one-half mile in an effort to complete a trip that was totally unnecessary, saying “Bugger this!” (or words to that effect), doing a one-eighty and returning home. However, it was time well-spent, as it gave me an appreciation for the realities of life for those who did spend the night in their cars, walked home in the (minimal amount of) snow, or spent the night in some makeshift ad hoc public shelter.

In the endless volume of punditry and pontificating that will be belched forth in the days and weeks to come, we will be bombarded with countless variations of “What [insert Government Official or Department of Your Choice here] should have done was….!” We will then be told how the schools weren’t closed in anticipation of the coming storm, how salt- and sand-trucks were not deployed and put to work before the first flake fell, and how poor was the coordination and cooperation of the various state, county, and municipal authorities in coping with the emergency.

An article by Rebecca Burns on Politico.com bewails “The Day We Lost Atlanta,” as if the region (“Atlanta” is not just a city, it’s a geographical notion as well) had experienced multiple strikes by nuclear weapons in the hundred-megaton range and been wiped off the face of the planet. The terms “Snowmegeddon” and “Snowpocalypse” are making the rounds among the perpetually smug pseudo-hip to describe the afternoon, evening, and night of January 28, 2014 in and around Atlanta, Georgia. Professional navel-gazers are already creating narratives depicting the day as a Great Natural and National Disaster.

Bollocks.

Atlanta still exists, it’s infrastructure (and no, we’re not going to talk about its flaws, that’s for another day) still functions, and as of today, January 30, 2014, the region is beginning to move with something approaching its normal dynamic. People who can work from home are doing so, people who can’t are, for the most part, staying home from jobs that really would have no point today, because the people who would need their services aren’t going out to avail themselves of them. Schools are closed, a prudent precaution because there’s still ice and snow on the majority of side roads and streets, and given the hills (the endless, endless hills!) here in Atlanta, doing otherwise would be a recipe for multiple tragedies. By the weekend, everything will be back to normal, for weal or woe. So, the bottom line here is that Atlanta got some snow, a bunch of people were inconvenienced, and within a few days all will be as it was before.

What really happened in the “Snowpocalypse”? I mean, what really happened? There was one death, a pedestrian struck by a car as he was walking down the middle of a street. (I won’t even deign to dignify that act of stupidity with further comment, other than to repeat the words of the Great American Philosopher Forrest Gump: “Stupid is as stupid does.”) There were a handful of injuries in minor traffic accidents. A lot of vehicular sheet metal met its doom. An unexpected volume of tire rubber was expended by motorists who had no clue as to how to drive their vehicles in slick road conditions. An inordinate amount of gasoline was consumed by cars and trucks idling for hours on end in the gridlock. And a world-record amount of muppet-flailing has ensued in the aftermath.

That’s it, folks. Atlanta, city and region, got shut down completely for one day, partially for two days. One fatality, a few injuries, a boon for accident attorneys and a big hit in the pocketbook for auto insurers. No buildings were destroyed, no one lost their homes, no one even lost power; in short, no permanent damage anywhere to anything (aside from a few bruised egos among those Southerners who imagined that they knew how to drive in the snow). And that translates into having “lost” Atlanta? Puh-leeze….

Of course, there will always be that Greek chorus of doom ready to chime in with “But what if…?” and “Oh, it could have been so much worse!” Which proves nothing. What might have been is exactly that – what might have been. Pointless conjecture remains pointless no matter how gruesome or titillating might be the details. Deal with the reality, people, not your fantasies.
The gridlock that occurred on the afternoon of January 28, 2014, happens to a slightly lesser degree every day in Atlanta, usually for three to four hours at a time, and happens in the same magnitude at least once a week, as accidents and incidents on the interstate, highways, and parkways create ripple effects that logjam traffic for hours. What happened that afternoon was notable not for its size or scope, but merely for its duration. As for gridlock, the few hours of daily gridlock that Atlanta experiences even in good weather isn’t a patch on the daily lockdown that is part of life in Los Angeles for drivers on the 405, the 605, the 10, the 110, the 210, and the 710. Having lived in West Los Angeles for eight years, I can attest to that personally.

In the aforementioned article, Ms. Burns bemoans the fact that the events of January 28, 2014 demonstrate that Atlanta’s infrastructure and governmental organization are both woefully unprepared to handle the stress of a major evacuation, and implies that there will be horrible consequences if such an event is every required to actually be undertaken. Well, suck it up, Cupcake, get out of Atlanta more often, take off your parochial blinders, and look around you. NO major city in the United States is prepared for or possesses the infrastructure to handle an evacuation in the face of a large-scale natural disaster. Does anyone remember Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, just by way of example? “Snowmegeddon” was simply a demonstration of that wise old adage that “Crap happens” executed on a regional scale. Were preparations poor? Unquestionably. Were decisions badly-made? Undoubtedly. Are there lessons to be learned, applicable to how to act and react in the face of another such impending storm (Atlanta seems to have a habit of getting hit by a major snowstorm every three to four years)? Unarguably. Will such lessons be learned? Unlikely. The politicians in Georgia, from the governor on down to the superintendent of the smallest school district in the Atlanta area all acted and reacted as their kind always do – avoided making actual decisions until events either compelled them to do so or made the decisions for them. Then, naturally, those self-same politicians began to attempt to lead from the rear, while ordinary, real people rolled up their sleeves and coped. It’s too much to expect politicians to be anything other than what they are, so let’s give up that idea as a lost cause move on to more constructive and productive thoughts. However, I digress….

Bottom line: “Snowmeggedon, Atlanta 2014 ” was and will remain, deservedly so, a joke. A tempest in a teapot, which will be stirred endlessly in the days to come by the nattering nabobs of the chattering classes, an endless source of punditry and pontification by those who wish to appear wise, but who in the end, only can only produce “much sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I survived, along with the rest of Atlanta, save for that one unfortunate individual, “Snowmegeddon.” And I yawned through the whole thing….

Remember, I’m Daniel Allen Butler, and that’s the way it is….

Once More Unto the “Hartley Violin”….

DSCF0169 - CopyIn late March 2013, my attention was drawn to specific statements made by representatives of Henry Aldridge & Son, the auction house, regarding details in the claims of authenticity made for the “Hartley violin.”  This instrument, it was claimed, was the very same violin that Wallace Hartley, concermaster of the eight-man orchestra on the RMS Titanic, played while the doomed liner was sinking in the North Atlantic on 15 April 1912.  If it were true, this violin would be the single most valuable Titanic artifact in existence.

Yet, for that very reason, I was skeptical about the claims made for the “Hartley violin.”  Its survival and sudden appearance over a century after the disaster, without so much as a whisper of its existence ever being uttered in all those years, bordered on the miraculous, and, as in the case of claims about miracles, the same standard of proof had to be satisfied; i.e., extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs.  But almost as soon as those claims were made for this particular instrument, doubts and disturbing questions began to arise, ones that exceeded the bounds of normal skepticism and began to raise questions of deception or even outright fraud.

These included questions about the chain of provenance, the documentation of the coroner aboard the Mackay-Bennett, the ship which recovered Wallace Hartley’s body, and the apparent lack of participation by various experts in highly relevant fields in the authentication and verification of the violin. Specifically, from the beginning, a central issue that was raised was the absence of any mention in the coroner’s records residing with the Public Records of Nova Scotia of a valise or violin accompanying the body of Wallace Hartley. Very early on in the discussions that almost immediately sprang up about the violin, I pointed out that in the press releases passed out by the auction house emphasizing the alleged scientific testing done on the violin, that there was no mention of any violin or string instrument maker, musicologist, or musical instrument historian involved in the authentication process. I also drew attention to the fact that none of the names of any of the alleged “experts” involved in this process were made available to the public, allowing independent verification and confirmation of their work and their results.

Andrew Aldridge stated, “The collection including violin, case, locks, lining, items that are listed on the Mackay Bennett inventory and every other facet have been examined by the FSS and specialists from Oxford University. It was all subjected to the most vigorous tests suggested by the scientists to determine among other things salinity and chemical analysis, the report by the scientists came back positive. The violin has also been examined by a violin expert, an ex head of musical instruments at a major London auctioneer and one of the leading specialists in the UK who provided invaluable asistance. The package that accompanies the collection has been prepared by a number of independent experts, not just ourselves. Of course I appreciate the skepticism of many its perfectly natural. When we first encountered the collection i fell into this group but as a professional you put aside any pre conseved ideas and investigate it. Some of the leading experts in the world have given their seal of approval on the collection both in the Titanic world and in other fields we have sought expertise in. We have been talking to several leading museums and all have seen the completed provenance documentation and all are happy with it, a final decision has yet to be taken where the collection will be exhibited….” (Original spelling and grammar retained.)

It was at this point that I began to feel distinctly uneasy about this process, as there was no identification of the “experts” so that independent verification of the Aldridge’s claims could be made. It also seemed curious to me that only after it was pointed out rather sharply that no mention was ever made in the initial press releases of the participation any experts in the field of string instrument or musical history construction that “a violin expert, an ex head of musical instruments at a major London auctioneer and one of the leading specialists in the UK” were said to have all allegedly signed off the authenticity of the violin. I felt that this was evidence of someone trying to simultaneously backpedal on claims made and cover their tracks when caught out in an inconsistency. I was further troubled by the fact that there was a total lack of transparency on the part of the Aldridges: with these alleged “experts” being kept anonymous, citing them as references without allowing for independent confirmation only weakened those claims. All that was being offered by the auction house at this point was an extraordinary amount of smoke, mirrors, and hand-waving. Obviously, that fell far short of proof. The claim that the violin in question was the actual violin played by Wallace Hartley while the Titanic was sinking requires compelling evidence in order for it to be accepted as valid, not one shred of which has been presented. Someone, in effect, declaring “We have proof” and then refusing to share it with the public does nothing to persuade, let alone compel, acceptance of the validity of those claim of proof. I was firmly of the opinion that failing to make that evidence available to the public was tantamount to refusing to do so.  I still am.

For me, at that point, probably the single greatest “red flag” vis-a-vis the authenticity of the violin was the lack of participation by professional musicians, musicologists, and instrument makers in the verification process. Later statements by Aldridge & Son indicated that such individuals had participated, although, like all of the other “experts” allegedly involved in the process, no names were offered so that their participation and conclusions could be independently verified. Wondering if I might be able to learn from such experts something that would point in either direction regarding the authenticity of the violin said to be the one that Wallace Hartley played as theTitanic sank, I contacted three luthiers (violin makers) about the “Hartley violin” and sought their professional opinions on the likelihood that the violin presented was, indeed, the real instrument that Harley played. I consulted Mr. Timothy Jansma, of Freemont, Michigan (http://www.jansma.com), Mr. Steve Reiley of Guarneri House in Grand Rapids, Michigan (http://www.guarnerihouse.com), and lastly Mr. Ken Amundson of Amundson Violin in St. Paul, Minnesota (http://www.amundsonviolin.com) All three were unanimous in affirming –independently of one another, it should be noted! — that, given the sensitive nature of the finish used on violins, ANY exposure to sea water, even less than total immersion, would have left visible damage to the finish, in the form of a gray “fogging” of the finish where water actually came into contact with the instrument. All three were equally firm in asserting that ten days exposure to the general dampness of the Atlantic Ocean, even aside from any immersion the violin may have experienced, would have resulted in the glue holding the instrument together failing as it returned to its liquid state. All three were categorical in stating that the violin as presented and depicted in the photographs supplied by Henry Aldridge & Son could not be an instrument that survived the events which the alleged provenance of the so-called “Hartley violin” is said to have survived. In point of fact, they were quite firm in stating that no violin made circa 1900 or today could survive intact through such an experience.

Equally intriguing was that all three, upon viewing the photographs of the “Hartley violin” which were published online, agreed that the violin shown was poor-quality instrument, probably of German manufacture, and one that would be more appropriate for a student’s instrument–they were firm in their consensus that this violin was not of a quality that a professional musician would play. Suddenly the figurative red flag that had been fluttering in the breeze became much larger and the waving far more vigorous. If the gross characteristics of the instrument in question were such that from them alone three violin makers with over one-hundred twenty years combined experience could dismiss it as valid, then the absence of any involvement by similar experts in the verification process began to take on a new and unpleasant significance.

Mr. Amundson was kind enough to go one step further and put his conclusions, and the reasoning by which he reached them, into an email for me, with permission to quote him on the subject. The points that he raised, as a professional instrument maker, restorer and historian were pretty damning, particularly concerning the actual quality of the instrument in question, and given that he has sixty years of experience in his field, his statements, along with those of Messers. Jansma and Reiley, combined with their own sixty-plus years of experience, was, I believed – and continue to do so – impossible to gainsay, at least not without resorting to fantasy. I began to wonder exactly what shenanigans Henry Aldridge & Son were up to, and publicly stated that an apology to the Titanic community as well as the rest of the world for their unprofessional behavior was due.

The content of Mr. Amundson’s email in its entirety, with original spelling, punctuation, and grammar intact, makes for interesting reading, as it raises several key points about the violin which the Aldridges have never been able to successfully refute:

“Mr. Butler, I appreciate and respect your efforts to discover the truth about the ‘Wallace Hartley’ violin. I enjoyed the adventure of your phone call today, and the ensuing conversation, as you inquired with me about the possibilities of this violin, being the real thing. I must tell you right off the bat that it is my opinion that this violin, that is shown in the pictures is not the real thing. I look at many pictures of violins every year, and observe many more in person, assessing their condition and value as a service of my trade. I’ve seen every possibility that can happen to a violin, including being driven over by a pickup truck, and several that have been in floods, and or, stored in damp, humid basements, and cellars. They always come apart at the seams, and at all other glued intersections. The most common glue used for centuries is animal glue, coming from the scrapings off the inside of the hyde of an animal. The most commonly used glue is from the horse. It is very quickly weakened and dissolved in its dry form to become liquid again, even though it has held a violin together for a century or more. The top and bottom plates are carved, along with the neck and interior blocks. All the ribs are cut to size and heated and bent over a very hot iron to form the shoulders, waist and hips, ( or upper, center, and lower bouts ) of the instrument. Wood has a memory of sorts and when it comes loose from its glued position, it always looses its bent form and sometimes it nearly straightens out again. The same is true with the linings that assist in the strength of the gluing of the ribs to the rest of the instrument parts. This instrument that is represented in the story line, is most certainly in my opinion a wide grained German instrument from the time period in question, that shows very little skill in the carving and general make-up. Every violin shop has a few of these laying around that probably won’t ever reach their retail rack out of concern for their professional reputation. This man Wallace Hartley would have likely been playing on a fine Italian, French or even a much better German violin, than what is represented in these so-called facts put out by the people representing it. The picture I’m looking at speaks for itself if one has an open mind and minimum knowledge of such things. The straps on the case in the pictures is only meant to help keeping the case closed and were never long enough to wrap around a mans body in addition to the violin case. I’ve seen these violin cases in my career and they are not water proof. 3 or 4 hours in the water and this violin would have been in whole parts, not attached to each other. Then, for this violin to be a whole violin today it would have needed about 100 hours to correctly reglue, refit, and reassemble the violin. WHO did it?, and why is this person not named. I believe this violin could have been owned at one time or another, or even the time period in question, by Mr. Hartley. I believe it could have been the one given to him by a special person as a gift. However, it is not a violin that floated in salt water for 10 days. A more believable story would be that he recieved it as a gift but it was left at home and the people in his life just let it get old like so many I’ve seen, and it was passed down or sold or traded without much thought to its value. A man of his stature would never let anyone place a metal plate on the tail piece of a violin he was performing on, as it diminishes the tone, volume and voice of the instrument. He would have known this about violins. He would have been performing on his favorite ,high quality violin that night and not a violin of this apparent level of quality. I’m making these last few statements only a reasonable possibility, not a settled fact in my mind. Think about it??? If you were drowning and certain to die, would you carefully place your violin in its case and strap it to yourself as a HIGH priority of the moment. There are many other factors that come to mind that would dissolve the popular theory about this violin, but I believe I have made my point. Sincerely, Ken Amundson
Amundson violin www.amundsonviolin.com”

As the story continued to develop through April 2013, inconsistencies in the details of the story presented by the Aldridges began emerge, and parts of the story began to change. First was their assertion that the reason for the lack of any record of the valise and violin among the effects found on Wallace Hartley’s body was that they were discarded, having no value to the coroner because they couldn’t aid in identifying the body. In other words, the world was being asked to believe that a leather valise bearing a set of initials, containing a violin bearing a sterling silver plate with a man’s name on it would have been regarded as useless for identification purposes by the coroner. I found that I was not the only person who had doubts about that statement.

Then the Aldridges stated that “animal glue, of the kind that held it together, melts when it is hot, not when it is cold.” But they conveniently ignored the fact that the violin got wet while it was inside the valise – and animal glue, as every woodworker, let alone violin maker, in the world will tell you, softens and returns to its liquid state when it gets wet, which means that whatever the glue is holding together comes apart. This came across as a dodge, pure and simple, as the Aldridges also stated that “The violin was in a near-waterproof leather case…. These things were not submerged, they were not covered in water.” Yet in their first press release about the violin they stated that the instrument had suffered water damage – so it had to be exposed to some amount of water. How, then, did the violin come to suffer water damage? They can’t have it both ways – saying on one hand that it was exposed to sea water then later claiming it was protected by the valise in which it was supposedly contained. Later on the Aldridges made the claim that the animal glue didn’t soften or dissolve because of the freezing temperature of the water – the glue simply froze, rather than melt. Again, any woodworker can immediately spot the fallacy here: even in near-freezing temperatures, if the wood where glue is joining two pieces together gets wet, then it will retain water, and when the wood pieces in question are brought into a warmer environment, that retained water will dissolve the glue at the point of bonding to the wood itself. Again, it was one more hand-waving, smoke-and-mirrors argument that failed to hold up under critical examination. It also pushes past the bounds of credibility to expect an informed Titaniccommunity to believe that in ten days of floating in the North Atlantic, attached to Hartley’s body, the case and its contents would never once have been immersed, even briefly, in the sea; that no waves washed over the body, no spray covered it and the valise, the valise never slid into the water when the body rolled in the swell. Even were such an unlikely possibility to occur, any woodworker, furniture maker, or luthier will affirm that a sufficiently damp environment, not immersion, is all that is required to cause animal glue to soften and separate. I found the bit about the valise being “near-waterproof” amusing: that’s sort of like being “slightly pregnant” – either it is or it isn’t, there’s no “almost” about it.

It was getting harder and harder to keep the stories straight, frankly. First we were told that the instrument had been water damaged but not restored, then we were told it has been restored. Which was it? Was it damaged or wasn’t it? The appearance of the violin changes as different photos are released, in some appearing to have a quite dull finish, but in a beauty shot against a red background, the finish had a quite handsome lustre to it. So just when – and how recently – did this convenient “restoration” take place? We were told that the instrument was in Maria Robinson’s possession (Miss Robinson being Wallace Hartley’s fiancé) from July 1912 until her death in 1939, at which time her sister gave the violin to the Bridlington Salvation Army and told its leader, a Major Renwick, about the instrument’s association with the Titanic. Renwick, according to the Aldridges public statements, wrote in a letter that the violin was “unplayable in its current condition.” Well, to be sure, if it wasn’t restored while it was in Maria Robinson’s possession, it was in pieces when Major Renwick received it – that would be pretty “unplayable.” So, if the violin was restored after it came into Major Renwick’s possession, where are the records, if any, of its restoration?  Here again is still more evidence of the fallacious nature of the story and provenance presented for the violin: if the wood glue “froze” and never came apart, then how did the violin come to be in “unplayable” condition when it was passed on to Major Renwick after Maria Robinson’s death, such that it would require restoration? Are we to believe that Miss Robinson, who loved Wallace Hartley so dearly that she never married, would have neglected or abused the instrument that she had given her fiancé? So if she did not abuse it, rendering it “unplayable,” then it must have come to her in that condition. But that could only have happened if the violin had come apart while it was floating about in the North Atlantic, the result of having gotten wet. Sorry, Henry, sorry, Andrew, but again, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim that the violin never got wet, the glue never failed, and simultaneously offer the public a water-damaged instrument that required reassembly and restoration.

At this point the question must be raised: how do we know that the restored violin in the photographs is the same violin that was given to Major Renwick? If indeed, a point which I will not concede but raise merely for the sake of argument, Hartley’s violin was recovered and returned to Miss Robinson, what evidence is there to prove that this violin being presented as his was not simply one substituted at some point by Major Renwick to keep the legacy alive, done simply enough by removing the silver presentation plate from the original violin’s fishplate and attaching it to a replacement instrument?

One of the most illogical arguments presented to try to uphold the authenticity of the violin in the face of challenges to it was the remark that Wallace Hartley was a “café musician,” not a concert-quality player, who couldn’t afford a quality instrument, nor could he afford more than one violin (the latter detail an attempt to refute the suggestion that the violin possessed by the Aldridges might well have been one owned by Hartley, but was not taken with him aboard the Titanic). This was an argument that demanded credulity on the part of the Titanic community if it were to be accepted as valid. Before he played on theTitanic, Hartley was the concertmaster aboard the Cunard Line’s RMS Mauretania, the most glamorous ship on the North Atlantic passenger run. Andrew Aldridge was asking the public in general and theTitanic community in particular to believe that both the Cunard and the White Star Line would hire a hack violinist to lead the orchestras aboard the lines’ respective flagships. First of all, any true professional musician will have more than one instrument available to him or her, in case unforeseen circumstances render one instrument unusable, even temporarily.  Just ask one.

The final nail in the coffin for the Aldridges’ arguments for the authenticity of the “Hartley violin” was in the list of so-called experts they publicly announced had been consulted to establish the bona fides of the violin. They were, as described by the Aldridges:

Andrew Hooker – violin dealer
Christian Tennyson-Ekeberg – biographer of violinist Wallace Hartley
Peter Boyd-Smith – White Star Line memorabilia dealer
Craig Sopin – collector of Titanic memorabilia
Officials at the Forensic Science Service

What was glaringly conspicuous by their absence were the names of any professional musicians, violin makers, or musical instrument restorers. Not a one was included. To me it seemed either irresponsible or else highly convenient that none of the people who were best qualified to establish the authenticity of the violin were part of the authentication process. (The closest any of the people listed come to having such qualifications is Mr. Hooker, who by his own admission, is only a violin salesman, not a luthier or an instrument restorer. (See http://www.aviolin.com/) When someone wants their automobile repaired, they don’t take it to the person who sold the automobile to them, they take it to a qualified repairman.  ’Nuff said about that.)

I could only conclude, though, that the failure to include such qualified individuals in the authentication process was not an accidental oversight: the only possible explanation for such an omission, outside of sheer bloody stupidity, was a deliberate decision to NOT have such people participate in the “verification,” lest they disprove the authenticity of the violin out of hand.

In yet another attempt to deflect attention away from such glaring errors, the Aldridges attempted to discredit a test (and with it the whole process of criticism leveled at his their claims) done by Mr. Ken Amundson, the above mentioned luthier, in an effort to determine if cold water delayed the rate at which the wood glue separated from the pieces of the violin. Mr. Amundson was not attempting to determine how the water would cause the wood itself to decay, yet that was the point on which the Aldridges tried to show that the experiment failed, as there was no “decay” evident in the wood of the “Hartley violin.” Yet Mr. Amundson was quite explicit in stating his purpose for the experiment: he was attempting to determine the effects of exposure to cold salt water on the glue which holds the violin together by immersing an old violin inside a proper violin case in a large tub of salt water. The water temperature was 40 degrees F (4.5 degrees C), the salt concentration comparable to seawater. Mr. Amundson made the point that within a matter of hours the glue had returned to its original liquid state, leading to the separation of the component pieces. For the violin being promoted by the Aldridge house as the Hartley violin to be the genuine article, it would have had to survive a similar experience and then have been restored at some point in its history. Again, though, no mention was made in the original press releases by the Aldridge’s about the violin having ever undergone a restoration, or any account of it being done in any of the documentation they claim supports the authenticity of the violin. In a later press release, however, they suddenly announced that their violin had actually been restored, but provided no documentation about how they came by that information, or where, when or by whom the restoration was done. These are the sort of holes in the supposed provenance provided by the Aldridges that have fueled my extreme skepticism – the changing details, the gaps in the violin’s timeline, the inconsistency of the violin’s condition with the results of practical experimentation.

There is a point where Occam’s Razor has to come into play, and the repeated introduction of qualifications to the conditions (“if,” “might have,” “possibly,” etc.) becomes an exercise in reductio ad absurdum. Even the Aldridge’s press releases stated that there is water damage on the violin, so it clearly was wet at some point, invaliding, then, the scenario that the way Harley’s body floated kept the valise and violin out of the water, invalid. Even that suggestion further weakens the case made by the Aldridges, for it betrays a lack of knowledge of the effects on a human body when it is near-instantly immersed in freezing-cold water.

The idea that the valise never came into contact with the water because it was strapped to a buoyant object with a cork life preserver – Hartley’s body– this is, quite simply, patently impossible. Because of how the lifebelt worn by Hartley was designed, the posture in which his body would have floated would have required him, as he was floating, to raise the valise to a point level with his chest, and hold it there, making no attempt to use his arms for any other purpose. Moreover, this assumes that Hartley was able to keep the valise out of the water when he jumped into the sea as the Titanic was sinking or as he was washed off the Boat Deck by the rising water. To do so would have required him to hold the valise over his head – remember that any immersion of the valise, however brief, is going to result in some amount of water coming into contact with the violin, to the instrument’s ultimate detriment. There is no possibility for Hartley to be able to accomplish such a feat, as the initial reaction of the human body when plunged unprepared into freezing-temperature water (and by unprepared I mean someone who is not an experienced cold-water swimmer) is an immediate, reflexive clenching of the arms downward and inward, toward the chest, with the inevitable result that anything a person is holding or attempting to hold is immediately released or else pulled into the water as their arms clench. (This is a reflexive reaction, not one that a person without specialized training can control. This I have confirmed with trauma physicians with extensive amounts (decades) of experience with hypothermia, as well as people who have undergone special cold-water survival training.) The bottom line here, then, is that the valise would have been immersed, at least briefly, and the violin would have gotten wet. Once that happened, the deterioration of the glue would have commenced and progressed.

Additionally, still addressing the question of whether or not the violin did indeed come into contact with the sea, a swell came up almost immediately after theTitanic sank, and grew to be sufficiently strong that some of the Titanic‘s boats had difficulty pulling to theCarpathia; more than one survivor remarked on the spray being thrown up by the swells and small breakers. So even if somehow Hartley miraculously had been able to keep the violin dry until now, by early morning small waves would have been breaking over his body. A storm passed through the area during the time when the Mackay-Bennett was steaming out to the area of the North Atlantic where the bodies would eventually be recovered, so again, here is another point at which the valise would have soaked with water, a combination of saltwater and rainwater in this case, no matter in what posture Hartley’s body was floating, even allowing for the possibility, however unlikely, that his body was never overturned by the action of the waves. In the end, there is no possible way that the violin could have avoided significant exposure to water, even if it was somehow never fully immersed.

The pattern kept repeating itself here:  as soon as an objection was raised that called into question the authenticity of the violin, a new batch of explanations would be forthcoming from the Aldridges.  Yet those explanations would contradict earlier statements made by the auction house, or be inconsistent with the physical evidence, or be shown to simply be impossible.  By now the Aldridges were–and continue to do so–falling back on their tried and true habit of essentially trying to shout down anyone who disagreed with them, and for those who refused to be silenced, threatening legal action of one sort or another in an attempt to intimidate the naysayers into silence.  Curiously enough, however, whenever someone would indicate that they had legal representation and essentially invited the Aldridges to “bring it on,” the threats suddenly evaporated.  Some things just make you go “Hmmmmm….”

Meanwhile the most recent spanner in the works was thrown by Mr. Timothy Trower, who has a long association with the Titanic Historical Society (which does NOT endorse the authenticity of the violin, by the way), who announced on May 30, 2013, that he had reviewed all of the documentation and evidence possessed by the Aldridges.  He then declared that he accepted the violin as genuine and authentic, and trumpeted his conclusions in a manner that implied that his highly questionable opinion was the final word on the subject.

Well, a few points, I believe, deserved to be addressed before all the celebrating about the authenticity of the “Hartley violin” got out of hand. First, why did it take so long for all of this newly released information about the violin to be made public? If this information was legitimate, then it was what those of us in the Titaniccommunity had been asking for since the middle of March. There was a distinctly fishy aroma about the time lag: if all of this “information” was already available ten weeks prior to Mr. Trower’s pronouncement, what purpose was served by the Aldridges not simply delaying but outright refusing to make it public? Suddenly we were told that the very sort of authorities which some of us were clamoring to have examine the violin had done so – in fact, supposedly did so even before the first press release by the Aldridges on March 14. How convenient that there was now “evidence” and “expert opinion” supporting the authenticity of the “Hartley violin,” when apparently there was none ten weeks prior. Where did these “experts” and their “conclusions” come from? A not insignificant question.  Suddenly, though, it seemed that they were coming out of the woodwork, no pun intended. And equally intriguing (or suspicious, however you prefer) was that in each instance, only ONE “expert” in each relevant discipline was cited in offering their conclusions, which, of course, supported the authenticity of the violin. In certain instances, such as the question of the silver fish plate, the Aldridges openly acknowledged that had been highly selective in choosing which expert opinion they accepted as valid, ignoring a consensus of expert opinion and instead recognizing only the lone voice of dissent as the authoritative conclusion in regard to that particular part of the violin. This was a badly flawed process of authentication, one that would not stand up to critical examination in a court of law, nor to by a professional peer review, were this data being presented as a scientific paper or a dissertation: the evidence and opinions used to support the conclusion were selectively chosen, there was a startling lack of confirmation from more than one authority, there had been no application of scientific method to the authentication process (no independent confirmation of results and conclusions); for that matter, it didn’t even follow established historical process (multiple sources confirming and supporting each other).

Mr. Trower, in his defense of the violin, produced a personal anecdote-laden blog in the finest Charles Pellegrino tradition, that is, it was as much about him as the question of the authenticity of the violin. But what condemns as suspect Mr. Trower’s declaration of the validity of the claims made about the violin is that in it he very carefully avoids disclosing that he has a prior professional relationship with the party which asked him to evaluate the claims, a party that has a financial interest at stake in the authenticity of the violin. Mr. Trower has been a consultant for Cedar Bay Entertainment, which owns the Branson, Missouri, and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee Titanic Museum Attractions, since 2008 at the latest, possible even longer than that. It was at the request of the owners of Cedar Bay Entertainment that Mr. Trower was brought in to render his judgment: the Titanic Attractions had engaged with the Aldridges to put Wallace Hartley’s violin on display for limited engagements at their two venues.  If it were not genuine, they could not advertise it as being Hartley’s violin, only that they “believed” it to be, and that distinction could potentially cost Cedar Bay thousands of dollars of revenue from guests who would gladly pay to see the “real” “Hartley violin” but might hesitate to spend their money on a “definite maybe.”  In other words, the company which had a vested financial interest in seeing the violin authenticated utilized an “in-house expert” for that process. It was a situation that hardly leaves Mr. Trower looking as though he was playing “honest broker” in the matter – I believe the right word is “ringer.”

Not surprisingly then, Mr. Trower openly accepts the authenticity of the “Hartley violin,” despite his previous claims of skepticism, his epiphany based on a long conference telephone call between himself, the Aldridges, and the owners of Cedar Bay Entertainment. Weakening his case, though, regardless of his relationship with Cedar Bay, is his failure to recognize the Aldridges’ admission of selectivity for what it is. More important, has Mr. Trower – or anyone else outside of a select circle hand-picked by the Aldridges, all of whom have a fiduciary interest in the authenticity of the “Hartley violin” being accepted as real – actually SEEN the documentation he says that the Aldridges are citing, or is he simply taking someone’s statements about it at face value? Mr. Trower himself indicated that he was compelled (rather conveniently) by the circumstances of the discussion in which he participated – a conference telephone call – to simply accept the Aldridges’ assurance of the validity, or even existence, of the “documented” proof he cites. Thus, all of the documentation, test results, diary pages, etc. which Mr. Trower mentions in his blog were never examined by him personally: despite his expressed earlier skepticism of Henry Aldridge and Son, in this instance he simply “took their word for it,” as it were, when the Aldridges assured him of the validity of the testing and documentation, without any independent confirmation or personal examination. As of this writing (19 September 2013) no one outside of the Aldridges has seen the original copies of their alleged documentation, and no one has been able to independently confirm their claimed results. Until that documentation has been published, and is not something for which we are expected to simply accept the Aldridges’ guarantees about its content and veracity, however elaborate the citations may be, I’m not prepared to cave in the way Mr. Trower has – mind you, I also lack the incentive to do so which he possesses.

In the end, it’s that ten-week gap that continues to leave me feeling uneasy–it’s too convenient. Until a reputable Titanic historian, or better yet, a panel of such historians, who have so far been uninvolved with this controversy and who are completely independent of the Aldridges and any organization such as Cedar Bay, can come forward and state “We have personally, physically examined all the evidence and documentation, we have confirmed with the people cited that they have done the work stated, and they have confirmed the results as stated,” I’m still not prepared to accept it as valid. (For the record, both Mr. Trower and I would be disqualified from participating in such a panel, as I acknowledge that my skepticism would very likely interfere with any attempt at objectivity, while Mr. Trower’s business relationship with “Cedar Bay Entertainment, owners and operators of the world’s largest Titanic Museum Attractions located in Branson, Missouri and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee,” would preclude him from participating as well. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Tjtrower.)

In passing, Mr. Scott Bensyl, an attorney with a practice in Kansas City, Missouri, makes a very pointed observation about the “process” by which Mr. Trower has come by his change of heart regarding the authenticity of the “Hartley violin.” He states, rather bluntly, “In my profession, credibility is everything, and past performance IS often (even usually) indicative of future actions. What gets me is Mr. Trower’s willingness to accept what the Aldridge’s are selling, in light of the fact that he has been one of their most outspoken critics vis a vis ‘relics’ from Titanic such as the Blair key. I’m sure that the Aldridges were thrilled to have him come down on their side re the violin, since that past tumult can be spun to enhance their credibility in the current controversy. However, as you say, the expert opinion and ‘evidence’ is a wee bit too convenient to merely be accepted as proof without complete and thorough vetting; as far as I can tell, that hasn’t happened to this point.

“I was somewhat disappointed that some of Mr. Trower’s posting verges on a personal attack on Butler’s reputation. Dan isn’t trying to sell anything, stands to make no profit from the current matter, and has no history of circumspect authentication of artifacts – the historical record is his concern.

“As Mr. Trower and I are both from Missouri, I would humbly encourage him to apply our state motto to the instant matter – a tactic that he has been quite consistent in utilizing in past examinations, hence his deserved reputation for accuracy and veracity in authenticating Titanic relics and artifacts.”

Remember this: we live in an age where information is fabricated, manipulated, and controlled. I have seen, read, and heard nothing to prove that the alleged documentation is not the product of such a process. This is not sheer bloody-mindedness, nor is it a refusal on my part to admit to an error. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I would be overjoyed to learn that the “Hartley violin” is the genuine article – but extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof At the moment, however, all of the documentation, its content, and access to it is still controlled by the Aldridges. Given their past reputation, I’m not prepared to trust them. Once the above-mentioned independent confirmation scenario happens – IF it happens – then, and only then, will I accept the violin as valid.

Again, please understand that this is not simply obstinance on my part, or a refusal to admit to having made a mistake. Unlike others who have been involved in this process, I have no financial interest in which way the question is resolved.  My only priority here is the integrity of the claim made about the violin – and how its validity or lack thereof will affect the integrity of the entire historical record of the Titanic and the disaster.  If “because I said so” becomes the accepted standard of provenance for Titanic artifacts, then the validity of every provenance of every artifact suddenly becomes suspect. At that point, the study of history goes right out the window as a discipline and with it will go everything we could learn from history, because “proven fact” will have become an oxymoron.

That’s the way it is…

because I’m Daniel Allen Butler, and you’re not….

Barack Obama: Ignorant, Inept, and Impotent

DSCF0169 - CopyThe underpinning problem with most of the reporting of the civil war in Syria–and with it the understanding of that war by the American people–is that the media over-simplifies the situation. And by reporting, I mean not only the popular media, but the intelligence agencies responsible for briefing the President. Now, whether they do so because they actually believe their simplified version of reality or because, being the intellectually-crippled cretins they are, they cannot comprehend a more complex situation, or because the President is a morally bankrupt and ethically challenged cretin in his own right, is a topic for another rant. People paying close attention to Barack Obama will readily notice that he is too prone to fall back on a dualist explanation for most of the topics on which he touches vis-a-vis Syria–Side A and Side B, or Alternative A or Alternative B, etc. All the pieces are there for him to be able to present a much more effective picture of the Syrian civil war, but he seems to be more intent on reducing his explanations and decision-making rationale to the level of a rather slow 8th-grader–in other words, his level of thinking when deprived of a teleprompter.

Obama begins with the same premise that most Westerners accept as a given: that Islam is resolutely duolithic, divided only into Shi’ite and Sunni factions. The truth is that Islam is as splintered as Judaism–or, for that matter, the Baptists. He then reduces the civil war in Syria to a simplistic two-part equation: the rebels vs. the Assad regime. He then tries to further reduce that into a Sunni (rebels) vs. Shi’ite (government) sectarian conflict. Obama will frequently refer to “sectarian violence” but leaves it at that, creating the impression that the distinctions are pretty clear-cut. What he rarely mentions is that this is NOT a simple two-way civil war–it’s not even a three-way civil war: there are almost as many sides in this as there are Islamic sects with in both Shi’a and Sunni dogmas. What most Western “journalists” and intelligence agencies either do not perceive, or perhaps cannot understand, or worse, refuse to report (although it is being covered in the Arab media) is that the rebels are NOT some unified popular uprising making common cause against Assad’s regime. There is as much fighting–and slaughter–going on within the rebel movement as there is between the rebels and the government forces. You have the Muslim Brotherhood trying to become primus inter pares within the rebel movement; Wahhabists (who are so conservative they make the Muslim Brotherhood look like Bolsheviks) who are don’t give a damn about any concept of popular government, hoping to supplant the Assad regime–and merrily blowing away anyone who gets in the way (for more on Wahhabism, see The First Jihad–the Battle for Khartoum and the Dawn of Militant Islam by (surprise!) Daniel Allen Butler; Casemate, 2006); then you have the Shi’ite population of Syria (about a fifth of the people living there) who aren’t particularly fond of the Alawis, a branch of Shi’ite Islam which the Assad family has traditionally embraced; and you have the Druze, who are hoping to re-create the Jabal ad-Druze, the Druze state that existed briefly (1921-1925) in the wake of the collapse of the Ottman Empire in 1918. (For more on that bit, see Shadow of the Sultan’s Realm–The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by (surprise again!) Daniel Allen Butler; Potomac, 2011.) This listing of factions is far from comprehensive, but you get the picture: there are a lot of people fighting over how big a piece of the pie they are going to get.

Obama also makes the mistake, and in doing so further misleads the American public, of insisting that the rebellion in Syria did not simply follow in the wake of the “Arab Spring” of 2011 but that it was inspired and given impetus by it, and that the revolt remains some sort of popular uprising against a repressive and authoritarian regime–because that regime WAS repressive and authoritarian. Again, this is wishful thinking on the part of Obama: he assumes, though he should clearly know better, that the rebellion broke out in the hope that the Assad regime would be replaced by a more responsible, possibly even representative government. It has been widely–and erroneously–reported that the rebellion started in April 2011 in an idealistic response to the killing of peaceful protesters, who were inspired by earlier revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and who spontaneously rose up to challenge the Assad dictatorship. The sad truth is that the more violent ethnic and sectarian factions resident in Syria saw the government’s repression of the early protests as an opportunity to de-stabilize the regime and fill the resulting power-vacuum, in much the same way the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt.  This in no way denies that the Syrian government forces are guilty of killing, kidnapping, rape, torture, and mutilation of Syrians of both genders and all ages. But Obama has attempted to play on the sometimes too-sympathetic nature of the American people to garner support for his proposed intervention: to people living in Western societies, the sort of brutality as described is unconscionable, and would be regarded as legitimate grounds for a revolution if it were ever done by Western government, hence the Syrian rebels would appear to be justified. However, we are not talking about a Western society here, we are talking about an Arab society. The tragedy experience by Syria even as you are reading this is part of a larger Arab tragedy, a product of the Arabs’ unfortunate history.

For four thousand years, the Levant or Middle East or whatever you want to call it, has been the breeding ground, battleground, and homeland to constant procession of empires. The Sumerians, Egyptians, Syrians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs (yes, briefly!), Seljuks, Ottomans, French and British have in succession conquered then occupied part or all of what is modern Syria. For all of that time the people who would eventually morph into the Arabs knew no other form of governance but oppression and represssion–the Arabs have, by dint of centuries of experience, assimilated that to be the natural order. The rule of the strong, and their right to rule as a consequence of their strength, became–and continues to be–the cultural norm for the Arab world. Even where the nominal trappings of a representative government exist or have existed, there has always been a strongman at the top, with absolute or near-absolute power available to him, whether or not he ever chose to exercise it.  And lest anyone try to point to Egypt as the exception to that rule, I would point out that while Gamal Nassr and Anwar Sadat were popular, they ruled as dictators, using the fictions of a democratic process. (The best historical example of how this works would be Caesar Augustus, whom though he had been granted absolute power by the Senate, continued to pretend that the Senate actually ruled Rome, though mostly it simply rubber-stamped his wishes into law. So Nassr, Sadat, and Mubarik.) This is the form of governance that culturally the Arabs have come to accept and expect–loyalties are not given to the nation by people who have no history or sense of nationhood: prior to 1946, Syria had never existed as a sovereign nation, so its people have never having a sense of long-standing “national” identity. Loyalty in Arab culture is given to individuals, whether they be hereditary national rulers, prominent religious figures, or tribal authorities. The Arab culture is one of the few still extant where tribal loyalty can, and often does, trump governmental authority. Hence the rebellion in Syria is not an attempt on the part of the Syrian people to remove and dismantle an oligarchical system of government, but rather an effort by parties (groups, factions, however you want to style them) within Syria to supplant the existing oligarchy. Portraying it as a simple “Us vs. Them–and we want to be free!” scenario is wildly misleading, even deceptive. The Syrians aren’t fighting a civil war as it would be understood in the framework of a Western culture, but then the Syrians aren’t a Western culture, and attempting to impose Western cultural standards on them does both the Syrians and the West a grave moral disservice.

This is not to say that the Syrians, and by extension the Arabs, are not cultured. But Arab culture is mostly incongruent with Western culture, and attempting to impose either one on the other is a recipe for disaster. Always has been, always will be. (And please, let’s not have anybody bring up the Turks as an exception to this rule–the Turks are, as any Turk will, with fierce pride, point out to you, not Arabs.) The attempt on the part of Barack Obama to impose by force the Western standards of conduct in warfare, then, is an act of not merely political hubris, but also a demonstration of cultural ignorance. Which brings us to the core question of this entire debacle: by what right does Barack Obama presume that America ought to intervene in the Syrian civil war because the Assad regime allegedly used chemical weapons against the rebels?

There were two attempts in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods to codify, by means of international treaty, what had long been traditions and understandings between nations at war. These were the two Hague Conventions, 1899 and 1907 (which for some reason most people mistakenly refer to as “the Geneva Convention”), which were later modified at a conference held in Geneva in 1925. It was in that conference that prohibitions on the use of chemical weapons were first proposed. That was only after the Great War, when the Germans had pushed–and burst–the envelope of what was permissible under international law (exhibiting that peculiarly German fondness for asserting that whatever is de jure legal is de facto moral) and introduced in succession tear gas, mustard gas, and phosgene gas on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. Suddenly everybody began using chemical weapons, all the while shouting “Well, THEY started it!” as though that was some sort of justification. The world powers, having recognized that lines had been drawn–and pretty much adhered to–in the past, decided that a new set of lines needed to be drawn for the new weapons introduced in the First World War. Hence the international proscription on the use of chemical weapons. The first proscriptions were codified in the 1925 Geneva Protocol to the 1907 Hague Convention; further proscriptions were written into the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. It is under the provisions of these two documents that Barack Obama believes there is legal and moral justification for whatever action he proposes be taken against Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

Unfortunately for Obama, he either conveniently ignores, or, equally convenient, is utterly ignorant of, the contents of the 1925 Geneva Protocol to the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Both documents address the use of biochemical weapons against foreign armed forces and foreign civilian populations by a combatant nation; neither of them clarifies the question of the legality of the use of chemical weapons by a government against its own population. Moreover, Syria was not signatory to either (it didn’t exist as a sovereign state in 1925, and Hafez al-Assad refused to sign the 1993 instrument), and so it can be argued that the Assad regime isn’t bound by the restrictions of either in any case. Not only that, but no mechanism is in place in either document allowing for intervention by outside powers in the event that a government uses chemical weapons against its own citizens. (Let me add, literally parenthetically, for those who are tempted to protest otherwise, that simply exclaiming “It’s the right thing to do!” doesn’t work: it is de facto if not always de jure (again) that what one nation does to another tacitly permits the same to be done to itself. Hence, by presuming to act against the regime in Syria because we disapprove of its actions within its own borders, Obsama is admitting to the right of foreign regimes to intervene by force in American domestic issues if they believe they have the moral justification to do so and the strength to back it up. That has always been the flaw in the logic of regime change–a nation cannot simply reserve a right solely to itself because it presumes to arrogate a morally superior position. Think about it: “I can hit you, but you’re not allowed to hit me back!” didn’t work too well at recess in 3rd Grade, did it? And when you get right down to it, if history proves anything about international relations, it’s that they have all the subtle dynamics of an elementary school playground.)

As for the weeping, wailing, hand-wringing “Somebody’s gotta do something!” set that try to justify US intervention on the grounds that if some sort of action isn’t taken against him, as Assad’s position deteriorates, he will employ even more chemical weapons, that sort of rationalization collapses under the weight of its own stupidity.  A successful American attack on the government forces will only worsen their position, which will only increase, according to this line of reasoning, Assad’s willingness to further use chemical weapons.  The whole rationale for intervention thus becomes counter-productive, inducing the exact result the intervention was meant to preempt. The historical precedent–and international law is shaped as much by precedent as it is by international consensus–has always been that what a nation’s ruling regime does within its own borders is that regime’s business, not the world’s, no matter how unpleasant that conduct may be. Adolf Hitler didn’t become an international criminal until the spring of 1938, when he took his act outside of Germany’s borders and essentially coerced Austria into an Anschluss with Germany, then did the same thing later with the Sudetenland. Saddam Hussein didn’t become an international criminal until he invaded Kuwait. It may not be pretty, and it may not seem fair, but guess what? Life isn’t always pretty–and life is never fair, it just “is.” Those are two self-evident truths that Barack Obama, living in his narcissistic fantasyland, appears to habitually fail to grasp: the whole of the situation with the Syrian civil war and the Administration’s desired response to it smacks of  being one where Barack Obama feels that he must, because of the position he occupies, respond in some way, and is unable to formulate a response which is both effective and personally satisfying. He sees this as a circumstance in which he must act in order to appear a strong, resolute leader, when in truth he is incapable or understanding that such a leader would strongly resolve to do nothing, because that is what the circumstance truly warrants and deserves. If Barack Obama wants to lash out in anger against a regime that conducts itself internally in a way with which he disagrees, fine, he may do so–but he should know better than to pretend to the American people, let alone the rest of the world, that self-righteous indignation provides immunity from retaliation, and he has no business trying to use international law as a figleaf in his attempt to conceal that the real reason for his desire for action is anger at his own perceived impotence.

That’s the way it is…

because I’m Daniel Allen Butler, and you’re not….

The Worthlessness of a Human Life

DSCF0169 - CopyTrayvon Martin is dead, and George Zimmerman, the man who admitted to shooting Martin, has been found not guilty of 2nd degree murder in Martin’s death.

There is no justifiable reason for my ever having to have written that sentence. I didn’t know Martin, I don’t know Zimmerman; from what I’ve been able to learn about the two of them, neither one of them is or was someone with whom I would have knowingly, willingly associated. Not because there is or was anything inherently “wrong” with them, rather that there just seems to be little if any common ground – there simply would have been very little chance of our paths crossing.

Now, however, not only I but every man, woman, and child in North America who has radio, television, or internet access knows the names of those two men, and the incident in which the two of them had their rendezvous with their own personal destinies. Why is this so? Because of the media circus and political “event” that were manufactured around an altercation, the details of which remain somewhat ambiguous, between those two men which led to Martin’s death at the hands of Zimmerman.

And that never should have happened.

No, I don’t mean Martin’s death – that was a tragedy, yes, but it was the consequence of two young hot-heads, each determined to prove who was “da man” to the other, both hopped up on that mix of testosterone and machismo that seems to be the near-exclusive province of those who are in combination young, stupid, and/or immature. That was a confrontation the like of which I believe was predestined to be played out by each of them, if not together then separately.

No, what should have never happened was that I should have ever become aware of the existence of either Martin or Zimmerman, or that Martin’s existence was ended by Zimmerman. There was no good and sufficient reason that I should have ever known about it. I live hundreds of miles from where the incident took place. Equally violent – and tragic – confrontations take place on a weekly – sometimes daily – basis much closer to where I live. So why did I find out about it? Why was I compelled to become aware of Martin and Zimmerman and how their destinies collided and only one of them walked away from it?

That is the real tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin. The fact that I was forced to become aware of it. I was forced, along with you, and you, and you, and all the rest of you, to be aware that an altercation occurred on February 26, 2012 between these two men, whether any of us gave a damn about it or not. We had no choice. And that is the tragedy.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s well and truly tragic that Trayvon Martin was killed. The death of any young person, and especially under such incredibly stupid circumstances, is always a tragedy. It’s equally tragic that George Zimmerman has to spend the rest of his days knowing that he took someone’s life. Unless he’s an utter sociopath – and I’m not offering an opinion there, neither explicitly, nor by implication or inference – that knowledge will mark his soul and gnaw at him forever.

The real tragedy is that both men were deprived of every single shred of humanity they possessed by people and organizations intent on using one or the other or both of them to advance agendas, racial, social, legal, political – and financial. They were immediately reduced to ciphers, the whole of who and what they were completely marginalized as being irrelevant. They were transmogrified into representing a specific culture within the general population. They became avatars for subsets of the national community – roles they had never embraced in their real lives. They became simply “the black guy” and “the white guy.” Nothing more. And they would never be identified without a racial tag attached to them, as if their race summed up the whole of who they were.  Never mind that both men were someone’s son, brother, boyfriend, buddy, classmate, uncle, whatever. Instead, all identity, all individuality was leeched away from them as if such things were inconvenient – or were brought forward only when it was convenient, when reminders of Martin’s or Zimmerman’s humanity would serve the agendas of one side or the other. Instead they were completely dehumanized, the better to serve the purposes of outsiders who neither cared for nor had an interest in the actual welfare and well-being of either man. They became worse than pawns, they were reduced to the status of tools. And tools, as we all know, are always discarded eventually, when their usefulness has ended.

Somebody is dead, people!   A person — a human being  — is dead!   Shouldn’t that have been the focus here?   And yet that simple, heartbreaking reality became entirely marginalized by the fact that Martin was black and Zimmerman is white.  Trayvon Martin wasn’t even allowed the dignity in death of his personal humanity, because that death and that identity became completely overshadowed by an immense racial pissing contest!

The taking of a human life – surely the greatest tragedy of all, for the victims are not limited just to the dead – became a secondary consideration as a horde of navel-gazing pundits, beginning with the President of the United States and ranging down through the Attorney General, to Fox News and MSNBC, to Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Geraldo Rivera, and Bill O’Reilly, to the NAACP and the likes of Ted Nugent, all began waving Martin’s bloody hoodie in an effort to rally support for their causes or encourage belief in their version of not only what happened, but why. A government/media carnival sprang up, complete with midway, barkers, sideshows, even refreshment vendors. Even Martin’s mother got into the act, trademarking her son’s name so that she could collect royalties off of any commercial use of it. (“Gee, thanks, Mom! I’m so touched by how you intend to remember me! Maybe you could have brought back a little dignity to my demise and simply sued the other people who wanted to cash in on my name, rather than cashing in yourself?”) A street brawl between two knuckleheads was transformed into some sort of metaphor for race relations in the United States, or the case for or against gun control, or whatever cause the incident and George Zimmerman’s subsequent trial could be used to promote. Never mind how tortuous that transformation had to be, as long as the cause was served, the agenda advanced. And am I the only person who finds it almost painfully ironic that “the white guy” doesn’t identify himself as a Caucasian, but rather as a Hispanic? Can there be any more explicit indicator of how skewed this entire affair ultimately became?

The question hangs begging, then: what have we discovered as a result of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Affair? The only conclusion of substance that I can see is one that almost makes me sick to my stomach to have to write: that the value of a human life has been reduced to how much its extinction or preservation can benefit a particular political cause or social agenda. Face it people, the way things stand right now, the only way your life or death will mean anything will be determined by how it can be used by the politicians, the media, and the racial watchdogs.

So, pilgrim, what are you going to do about it?

I’m Daniel Allen Butler, and that’s the way it is.

The Titanic II–Ship of Dreams or Ship of Fools?

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So, here I sit with my Quorum cigar in one hand, Balvenie in the other, perusing the drawings and computer generated graphics in the souvenir booklet produced by the Blue Star Line for the recent gala in New York City which I attended, where it was officially announced that the construction of the Titanic II would begin this month, and the details of the new ship’s design made public in full for the first time. A multiplicity of thoughts are racing through my head about this new ship, which will make her maiden voyage in April 2016, including the debate over the tact–or lack thereof–in attempting to build such a ship, the arguments over just how “authentic” such a “replica” (if that is even the right word) can actually be, and the general wisdom of the entire concept.

For those of you who have been living under a rock or on some deserted island for the last year, in the words of Inigo Montoya, “Lemme ‘splain–no, there is too much: lemme sum up.” For several years, Clive Palmer, a billionaire businessman from Australia, had been tossing around the idea of building a replica of the Titanic, the legendary White Star ship, widely believed to be “unsinkable,” that sank on her maiden voyage after colliding with an iceberg in April 1912. Similar projects had been mooted–and abandoned–ever since 1998, in the wake of the runaway commercial success of James Cameron’s soggy sea saga, “Titanic”–or, as it’s known in some circles, “Jack and Rose and the Leaky Love Boat.” The difference between Clive’s idea and those that had earlier been proposed was that, unlike the rest, he had the financial wherewithal to turn his dream into steel.

And so as the centennial of the Titanic disaster approached in 2012, Palmer formed the Blue Star Line, contacted the Finnish design firm of Deltamarin (which had previously designed cruise ships for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruise lines) to create his “replica” of the Titanic. A number of internationally recognized authorities on the Titanic were brought in as advisors to help shape the final design, both in appearance and appointments. On February 26, at a gala dinner aboard the Intrepid Air, Sea, and Space Museum in New York City, the details of the finalized design were made public, and while the event was taking place, the agreement with the Chinese shipbuilding firm of CSC Jinling Shipyard, in Nanjing, China, was finalized. The first steel for the Titanic II will be cut this month. (And, yes, for you die-hard John Birchers out there, that’s “China” as in “the People’s Republic of China”–the Chicoms, the Red Chinese, the Commies. Ironic, isn’t it, that these days the communists are better capitalists than western nations?) So it appears that the Titanic II is a done deal, the question not if she will be built, but if she will be completed in time for her scheduled April 2016 maiden voyage.

Palmer’s effort in bringing his dream (I really can’t bring myself to call it a “vision”) to reality has proven to be, perhaps not surprisingly, highly polarizing, particularly within that world-wide conglomeration of fanatics known collectively as “the Titanic community.” Opinions range from paeans of praise for Palmer amid outright expressions of ecstasy that the ship will be built so that something akin to traveling on the original Titanic will be possible, to condemnations of Palmer as an incarnation of the antichrist, and his employees and supporters as hell-bound demons, for “defiling” the legacy of the doomed liner and “profaning” the memory of the 1,502 people who lost their lives when the Titanic sank. (Yes, those words have actually been used in some of the criticisms of the Titanic II published on-line.) There seems to be little, if any, middle ground, or allowance for a reasoned appraisal of what Palmer is – or isn’t – going to accomplish with his latest pet project.

It has to be acknowledged that Clive Palmer has a reputation for concocting and promoting sometimes eccentric (critics would amend that to “erratic”) ideas, and has been known to fail to follow through on some of them after they’ve been put into motion. It was this reputation that was in no small part responsible for much of the criticism, not to say outright derision, which initially greeted the announcement that he intended to have a reproduction of the Titanic built. Yet it is impossible to deny, now that the requisite legal “t’s” have been crossed and “i’s” dotted, that the Titanic II is well on its way to becoming a tangible reality. What remains to be seen, then, is what the new ship will accomplish. It is in this arena that the critics are their most vocal – and savage.

By far and away the loudest carp coming from the ranks of the Titanic II critics is that international maritime safety regulations, in particular the SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) conventions, make it flat out impossible to construct and sail an exact replica of the Titanic. A myriad of details, large and small, from the capacity and placement of the lifeboats, to the internal layout of the ship, to the materials used to build her, forbid it. This is all true. However, many of the nay-sayers then immediately declare that because the Titanic II cannot be an exact copy of the original, it is somehow a sort of fraud, an intellectual scam – because the original cannot be duplicated, the replica cannot possess any merit of its own. This is patently and self-evidently false, a conclusion which would be immediately obvious to these whining wankers if they stopped flapping their lips long enough to think through what they are saying.

History can never be “re-lived.” It can never be vicariously experienced. The most dedicated historical re-enactor will tell you that, no matter how deeply they immerse themselves in their period, they are always conscious on some level that when their “encampment” is over, they go back to the world of smartphones, contact lenses, hybrid cars, fast food, modern suburbia, and the 9-to-5 grind.  They know they are simulating history, not actually living through it. Similarly, no matter how exact the reproduction of the Titanic would be the Titanic II, anyone boarding her would only be surrounding themselves with the trappings, the accoutrements, of the real ship. No one today could actually experience life aboard the Titanic as it truly was, because every incident, every detail, would ultimately be perceived through the prism of the early 21st Century and the life-experience of the individual. No one going aboard the most precise replica could truly “experience” the Titanic, because he or she would lack the knowledge, the mother’s-milk subconscious perspective and perception of the world of 1912. They would lack the mindset, the social consciousness, the prejudices, virtues, and vices of the people who lived in 1912. They might be aware of such things on some level, but not having been born into them, are unable to integrate them into their own lives, and so understand the Titanic and her world the way that those who actually sailed aboard her did.  The people who claim that the Titanic II, by failing to be an exact recreation of the lost liner, is somehow deceptive and misleading simply do not understand that their complaints are based not on their imagined shortcomings of the new ship, but of their own flawed perceptions and expectations. They are asking for the impossible – impossible not because of the limitations imposed on the design and construction of the Titanic II but because of their own failure to understand the limitations imposed in their own desires.

More insidious, in some ways, is that camp of loud-mouthed, self-righteous, self-proclaimed “guardians” of the Titanic’s “legacy” – whatever that means and whatever it is, they never actually get around to defining it – who shrilly declaim that the whole idea of the Titanic II, “name and thing,” is simply one more expression of capitalism as its money-grubbing worst. Building and sailing the ship is nothing more, they declare, than an attempt to “cash in” on the tragedy of the Titanic disaster, to make money at the expense of the original ship’s victims. The entire concept, to them, is, in toto, a massive “cash grab.”

These are, of course, the same people whose homes are laden with every single possible form of Titanica, from artwork (invariably cheap prints) to models (some rendered with amazing fidelity, others the worst of mass-produced knockoffs) to paperweights, pens, key fobs, notepads, t-shirts, sweatshirts, stuffed animals, shot glasses, wall plaques, trinket boxes and cheap costume jewelry fabricated to resemble a key prop (itself a fabrication) from the 1997 film. All of these tchotchkes are, of course, rendered to resemble or recall or represent the Titanic, in some way or form. But never mind that – it’s the Titanic II that is the “cash grab,” not their precious “memorabilia.”

And yet, by the very standard these harpies hold high, if the Titanic II is a “cash grab,” then every book written about the Titanic (including accounts by survivors and their descendants), every movie made about her, every artifact exhibit, ever speaker’s presentation, every model kit manufactured, every souvenir sold at every Titanic-related gift shop and venue, every single item, whatever its individual virtues or vices, being marketed which is Titanic-related, anything involving the Titanic for which cash is exchanged, is equally a “cash grab.”

These are very, very little people who have nothing to offer by their stridency. Their pseudo-self-righteousness, moral posturing, and ethical condescension is as pathetic as it is transparent. They cannot be consistent in their condemnation, lest the rest of us recognize their hypocrisy for what it is – an attempt to be recognized amid the sea of anonymity in which they find themselves and which they so richly deserve. Into the dustbin of irrelevance with them….

But having disposed of the ship of fools, is it inevitable to conclude that the Titanic II must be a ship of dreams? There is no simple answer to that question, for dreams are by definition individual and subjective. Yes, the Titanic II is meant to make money: Clive Palmer didn’t become a billionaire by throwing money away willy-nilly with no plan to make a return on his expenditure. There is a very significant segment of the cruising public who have become so jaded by – or fed up with – the offerings of the majority of the cruise lines, with their endless parties, repetitive ports of call, art and jewelry auctions, loud music and louder Tannoy systems, that they will embrace the Titanic II like a long-lost relative. Palmer has sensed this, and tailored his creation to appeal to that market. More to the point, while the Titanic II will not be an exact recreation of the original ship and her times, she will be a distinctive experience in her own right, one that will deserve to judged on her own merits. If given the opportunity to present them to the world, the Titanic II has the potential to become as distinctive – and well-regarded – as any ship afloat today. While she will never rival the legend of the original Titanic – and what ship possibly could? – she has the potential to carve out her own niche on the North Atlantic by offering a unique experience; if that experience satisfies the dreams of those aboard her, then she will have served her purpose. While it would be folly to ask, let alone demand, that the Titanic II take her passengers wholly back to 1912, it may be possible for her to capture the echoes of those last golden years of the Edwardian Era — before civilization committed suicide in 1914.

But that’s another story, for another time….

I’m Daniel Allen Butler, and that’s the way it is.

Welcome to my world!

Welcome to my world.  The world of Daniel Allen Butler, author, historian, speaker.  Sometime curmudgeon, sometime all-round nice guy.  Often imitated but never duplicated.  Educated and opinionated, conservative and Christian, I answer to no one by my own conscience and my God.  If you’ve stuck around this long, then you’ll probably enjoy the observations and commentary that will be appearing here in the weeks and months to come.  Make no mistake, I’m here for the long run.

Why? you may ask.  Why are you here in the first place, and why do you plan to be here “for the long run”?  Because I’m a historian, and history is the only thing in the adventure that we call life that matters. “OK, wait a minute,” I can already hear you saying, “I know you’ve got a reputation for arrogance, but isn’t that going a little far even for you?  History is the only thing that matters?  What about science?  Art?  Literature?  Music?  Engineering?  Politics?  What about…love?”

Well, what about them?  Distilled down to their respective essence, every one of those pursuits or disciplines or dreams is nothing more than the product–and sum–of their histories.   Every scientific advance, every piece of research, every new discovery, theory, hypothesis or breakthrough is possible only by relying on the body of scientific work that precedes it–in other words, on scientific history.  Art is perceived as, understood as, art because of the vast body of “artwork” that humanity has accumulated and produced.  The creation or production of “art” is a response to history: artistic creation is either the continuation of a school of work, a style, a technique–or else it is the reaction to the perception of an absence of art, the realization that up until the moment some piece of artwork is created, whatever it provides to humanity was lacking.  in other words, a response to history.  The same applies to literature and music.  Think about it.

Any engineer who attempted to construct a building or machine, and did so without reference to the established principles of design and engineering that apply to his or her specific discipline does so at grave risk, if not of life and limb then at the very least of reputation.  And what are those established principles but a history of successful engineering?  The simple devices that we take for granted every day–the wheel, the hinge, the lever, the screw, a flight of steps, a drinking glass, shoes, these things and tens of thousands of seemingly mundane items just like them–are all the current expressions of centuries, sometimes millenia, of development and refinement.  No one needs to invent the wheel–it’s been done!  It’s history!  Now the question is not how to invent it, but how to refine and use it, without the need to repeat all of the experiences of those countless generations who have used wheels in equally countless forms and ways

Politics?  Well, politics is a perverse–or perhaps perverted–form of history.  Although the attribution varies (I believe the observation originated with Churchill), the truth that “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to relive them” is inescapable to anyone but a credulous fool.  Sadly, most politicians now and in the past have seemed to be wholeheartedly determined to ignore that fundamental truth and pretend that history has no relevance, or that there is nothing to be learned from it.  More the fools they.  But don’t get me started on politicians, at least not today, or this might just turn into a discussion on the merits of the various designs of lampposts….

Let me expand on what I said in the preceding paragraph–that the truth that “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to relive them” is inescapable to anyone but a credulous fool.  What is a larger truth here is that anyone who claims to ignore the past, denies its relevance, asserts that they only live for the present, and that present is all that matters, is indeed a credulous fool.  More to the point, their ignorance is dangerous, both to themselves and to those around them.  Anyone who says “I have no use for the past” is telling you that they never learn from their mistakes, that they are so shallow and ignorant that they refuse to recognize how the experiences of others can be of benefit to them.  And someone who cannot or will not learn from his or her mistakes is, quite frankly, insane, if the definition of insanity indeed be doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result.  I urge you to avoid them like the plague–someday you’ll thank me for it.

Oh, and what about love?  How can love and history have any kind of connection?  Well, ask yourself this: whenever you’re looking toward a new relationship, aren’t you basing your hopes and expectations for that relationship on what you’ve experienced in relationships in the past?  Don’t you tell yourself that this sort of person is someone you’re going to avoid this time around, because of what happened in the past?  And really, doesn’t love begin when we come to be aware of its absence in our lives?  Don’t we start to love the moment when we realize that it is something we need, something we have–something to be shared?  It arises from experience one way or another, and “experience” is just another word for “history.”

You and I are the products of history, both our own and that of the societies and nations in which we live.  Who we are, who we aspire to become, what we value and what we discard, our moral compasses, our dreams, our fears, our loves, are all the product of history on a level great or small.  Only fools pretend otherwise–and only other fools listen to those pretenders.  Don’t be fools–learn your history, before it comes back to teach you its lessons the hard way.

Remember, I’m Daniel Allen Butler, and that’s the way it is….

7 February 2013