“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.

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

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.

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

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