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I'll take "Western Superiority Complexes" for $500, Alex...
October 11, 2002 3:46 PM   Subscribe

I'll take "Western Superiority Complexes" for $500, Alex... Let the wars begin: The ever controversial Ayn Rand Institute suggests that on the eve of Columbus Day we reject revisionist Politically Correct history that Columbus was a butcher. By what justification could we state that Western Civilization is superior to others? Is multiculturalism a bad idea? Does this suggest we have a 'right' to wipe out peoples inferior to us? Darwinism at its potential worst--or a scary reality to admit?
posted by tgrundke (60 comments total)

 
The winner writes history. Revisionism is more an American thing for example perhaps some UK historians can comment but you wouldnt find revisionism in England to the degree we take it in the USA. As for Columbus being a butcher or not doesnt make for an argument that Western Civilzation is superior or that we should not recognize and respect other cultures.
posted by stbalbach at 4:01 PM on October 11, 2002


Historically speaking and getting _very_ hand-wavy, it could be pretty strongly argued that "The West" basically gave birth to the modern world, for better or for worse.

The bulk of the other questions seem to be sociological and very subjective questions couched in a historical context.
posted by rudyfink at 4:02 PM on October 11, 2002


Revisionism is universal and independent of culture. We all see ourselves, our ancestors and the founders of whatever systems we live within (or whatever systems we wish we lived within) as righteous - or at least more righteous than whatever it is they fought against. How would anything last if we didn't? I'm not saying the Ayn Randists are right - far from - and I don't agree with the selfish reasons for their argument, but human culture is and always will be a selfish thing, and it will propagate itself through mimetically subverting whatever weak countries/cultures/religions/value systems it shares real or imagined borders with.
posted by luriete at 4:06 PM on October 11, 2002


reading over that, i have no idea what i was trying to say, but i apologize for failing miserably.
posted by luriete at 4:14 PM on October 11, 2002


Mmm... objectivists.

Really folks, does anyone (other than Ayn Rand fanatics) take the Ayn Rand Institute seriously? We are talking about the think tank that, besides regularly dishing out a weird philosophy adhered to by mostly angsty, adolescent middle-class males, has brought us *pause*, and *pause* , not to mention its cutting-edge sociological research into *pause* .
posted by blindcarboncopy at 4:16 PM on October 11, 2002


Columbus brought America to the attention of the civilized world

Good point, but replace civilized world with "modernizing Western European world."

Which takes me to my second point...

The inhabitants were primarily hunter-gatherers, wandering across the land, living from hand to mouth and from day to day. There was virtually no change, no growth for thousands of years.

This is just not true. First, any culture grows and evolves over time. Second, Berliner ignores the major Mesoamerican empires of that were located in what is now the Southwestern US, Mexico and Peru. They were "civilized" (i.e. people lived in large cites, had advanced job specialization and growing technology) even by 15th century Western European standards.

As for old Chris? He did do some very important things, like bring east and west together, spurring exploration, advancing trade and enriching European and American culture. It is true that he killed a lot of Indians in the West Indies, but I don't think you can lay the blame for all dead American Indians everywhere on him. He did open the door, but that's too little to make a convincing argument he signed the toe tags of millions of American Indians. Those people were killed at the hands of many different people, from many different countries for many different reasons.

By the same logic is Henry Ford culpable for all deaths in car accidents?
posted by Bag Man at 4:24 PM on October 11, 2002


The inhabitants were primarily hunter-gatherers, wandering across the land, living from hand to mouth and from day to day. There was virtually no change, no growth for thousands of years.

Mhm, those wandering hunter-gathers who were arguably better engineers and astronomers than most of their european counterparts.
posted by nathan_teske at 4:32 PM on October 11, 2002


blindcarboncopy: Ayn Rand is taken seriously apparently far too often:

Executive headhunter Jeffrey Christian says many of his clients are re-reading the 1,075-page novel to remind themselves that self-interest is not only the right thing to do from an economic standpoint but is moral, as well.

(see this USA Today news story. Yeah, I realize that USA Today is not the pinnacle of subtle journalism, but I thought I'd point it out.)

I've really always quite liked the Fountainhead, with the possible exception of some of the silliness at the end about Roark blowing up the building, but then again, I've always taken it as a book about costs of living up to (or not living up to) personal integrity, not as a manifesto for how society should be run.

Personal integrity and the passionate pursuit of personal ideals is a very different thing from "Greed is good" or "self interest is the ultimate moral" type philosophy, which is apparently well-rooted in modern executive (and even policymaking) culture. No suprise, I guess, considering social darwinism was popular around of the turn of the century for the moral edge it gave the robber barrons.
posted by namespan at 4:34 PM on October 11, 2002


Since when is an objectivist a worthwhile observer of human nature? They believe in a nutcase philosophy that 99% of the world rejects. That's their right, but then to go on about "human nature" in general, when they are freaks of human nature is just bogus.

In the 2nd to last paragraph he talks about the "racism" of the anti-Columbus crowd's collective self-esteem and ancestor worship. That's the same shit that everyone does. That's what Columbus day is about for chrissakes. The old discoverer is our collective American ancestor, just like the Founding Fathers.

And really there's nothing wrong with this. Normal people aren't interested in living their lives according to some dead lady's fucked up rules. They just want to have a good life and try to be good people. And they use the examples from their family and their nation and their ethnic group as models. Hopefully they're open to the contributions of all kinds of people and the faults of their "own", but that's not ruled out by fetishizing your Italian great-grandfather.
posted by Wood at 4:38 PM on October 11, 2002


y'know, it's not just the current batch of PC kids calling columbus a butcher. much as i dislike those little ninnies, i think they have an okay case. interesting article giving more detail to columbus (who apparently was an enormous asshole).
posted by patricking at 4:51 PM on October 11, 2002


I'd give Western Culture some credit.... much like Robert Pirsig did in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
It's sometimes argued that there's no real progress; that a civilization that kills multitudes in mass warfare, that pollutes the land and oceans with ever larger quantities of debris, that destroys the dignity of individuals by subjecting them to a forced mechanized existence can hardly be called an advance over the simpler hunting and gathering and agricultural existence of prehistoric times. But this argument, though romantically appealing, doesn't hold up. The primitive tribes permitted far less individual freedom than does modern society. Ancient wars were committed with far less moral justification than modern ones. A technology that produces debris can find, and is finding, ways of disposing of it without ecological upset. And the schoolbook pictures of primitive man sometimes omit some of the detractions of his primitive life...the pain, the disease, famine, the hard labor needed just to stay alive. From that agony of bare existence to modern life can be soberly described only as upward progress, and the sole agent for this progress is quite clearly reason itself.
But by the same token, imputing that life just totally sucked for everyone before Western Civilization arrived on the scene smacks of... well, a really bad case of ethnocentrism. Anyone who's spent extended time in the wilderness knows you trade sets of hardships and pleasures. I'll bet our friend at the Rand Institute hasn't ever been more than two miles from a road, or slept more than a single night in a tent. I would miss modern medicine (without which I would probably be lame), and perhaps my favorite musical instruments and addiction to print. But other than that, I don't know....

Another note: one of the coolest pieces of speculative fiction I've ever read is Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch: the Redemption of Christopher Columbus. Very interesting piece of cultural comparison.
posted by namespan at 4:52 PM on October 11, 2002


There is nothing in the linked article that I disagree with - it all appears to be true & valid.

...what justification could we state that Western Civilization is superior to others?

Mmmm...howzabouts health & medicine, technology, freedom, dignity, hygiene, culture (?), science, peace, military, agriculture, civil rights, and on and on and on.
posted by davidmsc at 5:10 PM on October 11, 2002


wow davidmsc, that is the most staggeringly ignorant thing i've read in quite some time.
posted by badstone at 5:30 PM on October 11, 2002


The phrase "Columbus discovered America" still makes no sense to me. To me that's like saying China was discovered by Marco Polo, or that Canada was discovered by Leif Ericson.
posted by bobo123 at 5:33 PM on October 11, 2002


...what justification could we state that Western Civilization is superior to others?

The aqueduct?
posted by Danelope at 5:45 PM on October 11, 2002


that's like saying China was discovered by Marco Polo, or that Canada was discovered by Leif Ericson.


No, that's like saying so-and-so discovered racquetball in college. He didn't discover it for the world; he discovered it for himself and his sponsors.
posted by gazingus at 5:47 PM on October 11, 2002


Ignorant?

Well..."howzabouts health & medicine, technology, freedom, dignity, hygiene, culture (?), science, peace, military, agriculture, civil rights, and on and on and on."

The West unlike most every other culture in the world today has no problem adopting things from other cultures that will be useful. We take what is good and leave what is bad. How is the medicine, freedom, technology and science over in India, China and the Middle East?

If Western beliefs are no better than any other culture than what in our culture would be worth fighting for, nothing?
posted by Recockulous at 5:58 PM on October 11, 2002


I wouldnt stay in the United State if I knew there was a better culture to move to. Is immigration from the East to West higher than West to East? People arent risking their lives to escape from the United States and flee to China or Cuba. There must be something appealing about the west. But probably not since all cultures are equal.
posted by Recockulous at 6:08 PM on October 11, 2002


badstone: wow davidmsc, that is the most staggeringly ignorant thing i've read in quite some time.

Guess you haven't read much of anything during said long time. BTW, pleased to meet you, too, badstone...now if you can refute anything I've said or agreed with, or have anything constructive to add to the discussion, I look forward to your comments.
posted by davidmsc at 6:18 PM on October 11, 2002


I think we should revert to small bands of hunter-gatherers. The non-sedentary lifestyle will be immensely healthful, and we won't have this problem of obese kids porking up our world. H+G societies can collect all the food they need for a day in three hours, allowing plenty of leisure time for fun and relaxation. The food is all fresh and healthful. Did you know that dental problems, especially caries, are nearly nonexistant in the fossil record until the beginning of agriculture? H+G is better for the environment, better for humans, and the smaller bands will allow for evolution of the species, weeding out the feeble and stupid of our world. No reliance on oil, no weapons of mass destruction, no war. People die when they're decently aged, but before modern medicine has drawn out their lives to make them dementia-ridden shells of their former selves. And all Western Civ ever did was fuck that up. Best. Idea. Ever. Beat that, DavidSMC.
posted by The Michael The at 6:27 PM on October 11, 2002


great idea, TMT.

Are you willing to off yourself? because I'm pretty sure that the Earth can't hold >6B hunter-gatherers.
posted by goethean at 6:33 PM on October 11, 2002


Only after the rest of the world more or less kills itself off, what with the impending WW3 and all. Then there'll be a lot fewer. But you're more than welcome to join me.
posted by The Michael The at 6:37 PM on October 11, 2002


It all sounds like a subplot from The Sopranos that turned into a real life squabble.
posted by oh posey at 6:50 PM on October 11, 2002


The West unlike most every other culture in the world today has no problem adopting things from other cultures that will be useful...

Check out Japan.
Still trying to find something about the semiconductor trade wars of the 1990s.
posted by casarkos at 6:54 PM on October 11, 2002


Luddites with laptops.....
posted by Eekacat at 6:54 PM on October 11, 2002


Indeed. Cultural relativism is bonkers. American culture is, in theory, the amalgation of all beneficial aspects of other cultures. When the European (and Arab, I should add; Battuta should be as famous as Polo) explorers crossed the Cape of Good Hope, they brought back new societal norms. When Zheng He reached Mombasa in 1459, the Ming called him back and closed China's doors to foreign influence.

As was said above, there's a reason people move to the West. We're not better in every way, but it's ridiculous to suggest all cultures are equal.

As for going back to a state of H-G, feel free. There are a lot of places in the world that would let you do just that if you wanted. Once you figure out how to get food from 3 hours of work and live longer than 33, let me know.
posted by Kevs at 6:57 PM on October 11, 2002


...what justification could we state that Western Civilization is superior to others?

Metafilter?
posted by dchase at 7:28 PM on October 11, 2002


This op ed fails to take into account all that Africa, Asia, and South America contributed to the world.

The one thing I really like about western society is that we have a semblance of separation of church, and state, it allows us to do good not because we have to please a god, but because we believe it's good. Our founding fathers in the US, for all their faults, were smart people who set the ground work for us to evolve into, good, or bad, a society that values freedom, and is pretty tolerant of other peoples views. We are defiantly more tolerant then our fore fathers were, but calling us the top of the heap, and ignoring what our true history is, won't allow us to learn from the mistakes we have made, and if we ignore our past failures, we of course are doomed to repeat them.
posted by jbou at 7:33 PM on October 11, 2002


[The Ayn Rand Institute] has brought us *pause*, and *pause* , not to mention its cutting-edge sociological research into *pause*

And where would we be today as a culture without our in-depth knowledge of pausing?
posted by kindall at 7:36 PM on October 11, 2002


I don't like Ayn Rand.

I don't like the Ayn Rand Institute.

But somehow, I think they hit the nail on the head with this article. Score one for the Randroids!
posted by oissubke at 9:44 PM on October 11, 2002


Western civilization is for the moment superior to other cultures. It will surely rot and fade. But, there are no alternatives that presently justify jumping ship. Until that phase change occurs, I'm sticking with George Will and his observation that this happy worship of diversity is the lethal embrace of emptiness.
posted by paleocon at 10:03 PM on October 11, 2002


Don't forget to mark your calendars, denizens of civilization, for Leif Ericsson day is October 9th!
Only 363 shopping days left!

posted by hama7 at 10:12 PM on October 11, 2002


What does bashing Columbus day have to do with bashing "Western Civilization"? Given that some here have admitted that "Western Civilization" is not perfect, maybe bashing Columbus day has more to do with the idea that among those (few and minor) imperfections we might find "not respecting treaties" and "genocide". And that far from being purely ancient history, those (few and minor) imperfections continue in one form or another into this century and into today.
posted by Wood at 10:14 PM on October 11, 2002


American culture is, in theory, the amalgation of all beneficial aspects of other cultures.

And I am, in theory, the King of the World.
posted by riviera at 10:30 PM on October 11, 2002


By the way, davidmsc, I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone use the word "dignity" as a justification for "Western Civilizations's" superiority. Is that something that you just intuit, or is there some sort of reasoning behind that? Or were you just typing away?
posted by Wood at 10:59 PM on October 11, 2002


a little off-topic maybe, but one thing I've never understood about "Randroids" is that if you know their underlying motivator is that of their self-interest, then why would you associate them or have them represent you in any policy-making fashion?
posted by mcsweetie at 11:06 PM on October 11, 2002


Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
posted by dagny at 12:27 AM on October 12, 2002


As for the article, I'd say it's pretty much spot on, and is a nice followup to my previous MeFi-posted link. We're living longer and better, and we have the secular, limited state and capitalism -- two signs of respect for individual rights -- to thank for it.
posted by dagny at 12:31 AM on October 12, 2002


He's a little shrill in spots, but Howard Zinn brings up some good points. It's not so much about soothing the multiculturalists' delicate sensibilities as it is about placing history in context and telling the whole story.
posted by luminol at 2:25 AM on October 12, 2002


all I can read from that New Yorker article is that Columbus was a man of his times and culture (/PC crowd appeal), but perhaps far more adventurous than others around him, for whatever reasons there might be. By negating Columbus's value we are essentially destroying foundational myths of a culture (Western one in this case). Such myths exist in every culture, and I'm not clear what benefit there might be in getting rid of these. Colonialism (here meant as a denial of identity, including its less 'peaceful' aspects) is bad not only when it is applied to others but also when it is applied to your own culture.
posted by bokononito at 2:30 AM on October 12, 2002


A professor I had for a course in early American literature and history (his specialty) said, of this very debate that he'd like to "inject some complexity into this morality tale". It seems that the Ryandians would rather step back into the 19th century and cop the line their grandfathers did.

Western civilization, from the viewpoint of western civilzation, is certainly a good thing. But that's a bit like saying "from the viewpoint of people whose favorite color is blue, blue is the best of colors". I'm certainly a fan of it, but there's no yardstick external to all cultures by which to judge it. All statements about the superiority (or inferiority) of cultures come down to personal preference for living one way over some other. There's nothing wrong with that. It's human to prefer certain things and not others. It's also human (but not such a good thing) to try and see your preferences as 'natural', 'objectively true', etc.

But to Columbus, you don't have to study long to find out that he, by our standards, a Pol Pot of his day. The murder commited at his hand and under his direction at Hispanola alone would earn him that distinction. Should we go on "celebrating" (read: ignoring the bad stuff so we can have an unsullied hero) his accomplishments? If you take the time to read his journals, I doubt you'd find him good company. He had ambition, to be sure. And his views on other cultures weren't atypical for his time (though there were dissenters, like Bartolome de las Casas, even in his day). But he's hardly an unproblematic 'hero' worthy of worship. I think it might be good if we got beyond hero worship and strove instead for understanding the picture in its fullness. Columbus: a brave, ambitious adventurer who made it possible for Europe to spread to America. But also Columbus: a cultural imperialist who initiated the slave trade and had no problem at all killing any non-european who got in between him and impressing his financial backers.
posted by wheat at 5:03 AM on October 12, 2002


"we reject revisionist Politically Correct history that Columbus was a butcher"

I thought he was a sea captain.

But to Columbus, you don't have to study long to find out that he, by our standards, a Pol Pot of his day. The murder committed at his hand and under his direction at Hispanola alone would earn him that distinction

you learn this from teacher or did you venture into your own analogy 101 nightmare. after some coffee I'm going to attack your premise with all my weight.
here are some points to wrestle with.

-did columbus renounce his religion publicly.
-did columbus resort to guerilla warfare. (or the 13-14 th century version of) on his own land.
-did columbus evacuate his own people into the countryside.
-did columbus hold his countries King hostage for years when he seized power.
-did columbus execute and torture large amounts of his own people or political cadre.
-did columbus declare the end of history.
-did Columbus ruin his countries agricultural system.
-did columbus tear apart the family, forcing children to be killers and 'snitches'.

columbus did terrible things, no doubt. But "Pol Pot"?
posted by clavdivs at 7:33 AM on October 12, 2002


Okay, I publicly retract "Pol Pot" as a bad analogy. And I'll grant that Columbus was a more admirable person than Pol Pot ever tried to be. What I would like to emphasize is that Columbus was at the helm of a lot of killing which, in our common parlance, would be dubbed genocide. He wasn't just an innocent bystander or some far off commander. He was right there. And he wasn't just a product of his time. There were other conemporary voices which declared the evil of his actions.
posted by wheat at 8:15 AM on October 12, 2002


Fuck Columbus. He was lost.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:42 AM on October 12, 2002


What I find to be the most interesting contradiction of the article is that if you read The Fountainhead, at one point Rand states that the only natural manner for man to live beside man is "Hands off!"

The fact that much of "Western Civilization" was forced upon the native peoples kind of contradicts that, eh?

On a related note, the Rand bashing has some legitimacy, but I would suggest that a careful, critical reading of her texts does yield some very interesting and useful nuggets.
posted by tgrundke at 9:14 AM on October 12, 2002


Could someone please give a robust definition of what "Western civilization" is, including its nature and boundaries, before we continue arguing about it? Is it an ethnic identity? Is it an attribute of a society? Does it reside in ideas, in artifacts, or both? Is contemporary Japan a "Western" society? Why or why not? Is "Western civilization" just a polite term for the culture(s) of people of European descent? Or does it mean something that transcends race and ancestry? What relationship does "Western civilization" in 1492 have to "Western civilization" in 2002? Can its boundaries even be clearly defined?

Right now, I see a lot of arguing about the alleged greatness of the snark, but I'm still not sure what the snark is, or where it ends and the rest of the world begins.
posted by skoosh at 9:39 AM on October 12, 2002


thank you wheat.
posted by clavdivs at 10:04 AM on October 12, 2002


Well said, skoosh. I was starting to wonder which "Western civilization" was being discussed, especially since davidmsc credits this entity as the sole provider or "technology" and "agriculture" to the world.

Both the Chinese and the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys (the latter of which currently goes by the name Iraq) will be excited, I'm sure, to learn that their innovations in agriculture have gained them membership in Western civilization.

And as for "technology" - by which, davidmsc, I assume you mean modern high-tech and not, for example, the plow - you might find it enlightening to learn who discovered zero. This is just one of a great many of the key mathematical concepts on which Western civilization's spectacular technological advancements are based that came from places not used to thinking of themselves as Western civilization.

Bag on cultural relativism's occasional tendency toward hyberbole all you want, but I find it pretty difficult to deny its central tenet: that no one culture has the market cornered on civilization.
posted by gompa at 10:42 AM on October 12, 2002


interesting to see people who believe in evolution reject the idea of social darwinism put forth by ayn rand. hmmmm....
posted by jasontromm at 10:47 AM on October 12, 2002


I've thought the same thing jasontromm.

Cultural relativism seems to contradict itself when all cultures are supposed to be judged by thier own standards, but the past has to be judged by the standards of the present.
posted by Recockulous at 11:23 AM on October 12, 2002


interesting to see people who believe in evolution reject the idea of social darwinism put forth by ayn rand. hmmmm....

I believe in the general validity of Newton's laws of motion, but I don't believe that my social actions by necessity have equal and opposite reactions. I believe in E = mc2, but I don't believe that the energy I devote in society is generated from the annihilation of mass. (Or if it is, it's through a different, aerobic equation.) Hmmm indeed. Such slapdash talk of 'social darwinism' and 'cultural relativism' doesn't inspire confidence that you can criticise those historians who are prepared to take on myths by offering up the evidence. The Ayn Rand Cabal (and davidmsc) seems happy simply to throw about a handful of rootless abstractions, in the hope that they stick. That's just fucking clueless.
posted by riviera at 12:46 PM on October 12, 2002


Wood: maybe bashing Columbus day has more to do with the idea that among those (few and minor) imperfections we might find "not respecting treaties" and "genocide"

Well said. I'd just like to add that both of these failings seem utterly contrary to the ideals of reason and individual liberty. Would some friendly objectivist care to enlighten me as to what I'm missing here?
posted by moss at 12:48 PM on October 12, 2002


moss: as a friendly person who's read a lot of Ayn Rand and agrees with many of her principles that relate to the individual moreso than her principles that relate to society, I'd have to say that I didnt exactly agree with the article.

However, one part of the article I think sums it all up fairly well though:

if one thinks his ancestors were good, he will supposedly feel good about himself; if he thinks his ancestors were bad, he will supposedly feel self-loathing. But it doesn't work; the achievements or failures of one's ancestors are monumentally irrelevant to one's actual worth as a person.

along that idea, I think it is very important to become aware of the true situations and actions surrounding Columbus without comprimising any 'self-worth', 'patriotism' or 'dignity' when looking on the american culture. As an american, Columbus's actions make me feel bad, sure. But worse still is that I should never get the chance to become aware of those negative aspects of his character or dismiss those actions simply to make myself and my fellow north american dwellers feel good.

I would rather have truth than comfort.
posted by erisfree at 1:46 PM on October 12, 2002


I'm sure that if a race of technologically superior aliens discover our planet and decide that we are underutilizing it, inhabiting it sparsely or failing to develop it that the Ayn Rand Institute will be the first to justify any massacres, enslavements and confiscations the aliens commit in order to put our planet to the proper use.
posted by pyramid termite at 1:54 PM on October 12, 2002


Such slapdash talk of 'social darwinism' and 'cultural relativism' doesn't inspire confidence that you can criticise those historians who are prepared to take on myths by offering up the evidence.

At least someone else can.
posted by Recockulous at 4:13 PM on October 12, 2002


Moss, what treaties did Christopher Columbus break? and did he single handedly whipe out the whole native american race? Individual liberty was a concept popularized in America. But we are not allowed to take any credit or have appreciation for it because it did not come about through the ways of some utopian society that will never exist.

Columbus day celebrates the first time America was truly opened up to the European world. We dont have a "we killed all of the Indains day." Equateing Columbus day to that is ridiculous, the same as equating Columbus to a Saint.
posted by Recockulous at 4:44 PM on October 12, 2002


I didnt think that Columbus actually got to the main land, I though that he landed in the Bahamas.

And from the museum visits I made in Nassau earlier this year, I gather that the native population was completely irradicated wiped-out shortly afterwards (taken from their islands to other islands as slave farmers). I gather CC aint thought of too highly there.
posted by couch at 6:58 AM on October 14, 2002


damn. Im sure that I'd closed that strike out...
posted by couch at 6:59 AM on October 14, 2002


I kind of like to read it this way too!
posted by hama7 at 10:07 PM on November 8, 2002


Im sure that I'd closed that strike out...

You did, but you left the "/ " off on your closing [strike].

(view source)
posted by hama7 at 10:09 PM on November 8, 2002


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