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….