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Wearing the skin of the unthinkable
September 19, 2004 9:15 PM   Subscribe

"Black Like me" : the notion of "Race" is know known to be scientifically meaningless, but now roll back the clock to 1959 : "...John Howard Griffin (1920-1980) was a true Renaissance man. Having fought in the French Resistance and been a solo observer on an island in the South Pacific during World War II, he became a critically-acclaimed novelist and essayist, a remarkable photographer and musicologist, and a dynamic lecturer and teacher. On October 28, 1959, after a decade of blindness and a remarkable and inexplicable recovery, John Howard Griffin dyed himself black and began an odyssey of discovery through the segregated American South. The result was Black Like Me, arguably the single most important documentation of 20th century American racism ever written....Because of Black Like Me, Griffin was personally vilified, hanged in effigy in his hometown, and threatened with death for the rest of his life."
posted by troutfishing (47 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
this was required reading when i was in high school. if you haven't read it, you're missing something!
posted by quonsar at 9:18 PM on September 19, 2004


"John Howard Griffin was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1920 but left the United States for France at age fifteen in pursuit of a classical education. While barely out of his teens, he had completed studies in such diverse fields as French, literature, medicine, and music, worked as an intern conducting experiments in the use of music as therapy for the criminally insane, specialized in medieval music under the Benedictines at the Abbey of Solesmes, and was contemplating making the religious life his vocation. He wrote about his experiences at the Abbey and the personal struggles he underwent during this period of his life in his 1952 book, "The Devil Rides Outside."

The outbreak of World War II intruded upon Griffin's plans; he responded to the challenge by calling upon his medical training to serve as a medic in France before spending three years with the U.S. Army Air Corps in the South Seas (where he was decorated for bravery). During Griffin's military service a head injury caused by an exploding shell caused his eyesight to deteriorate to the point that he eventually went completely blind. Nonetheless, he continued writing and turned out several novels before his eyesight miraculously returned in 1957; he later chronicled this dark period of his life in an unpublished work entitled Scattered Shadows.

Griffin's best-known struggle against adversity, however was a self-imposed one: In 1959, after shaving his head and using drugs and ultraviolet light to darken his skin, Griffin spent six weeks travelling through the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia posing as an itinerant black man in order to record a first-hand account of the virulent racism still prevalent in the Deep South. Griffin's account of his experiences, published as the book Black Like Me in 1961, is a gripping tale of degradation and cruelty — an account of a man who becomes the target of rudeness, indignities, insults, racial slurs, and violent threats, and is denied the basic necessities of life — a place to live, work, transportation, even the use of restrooms — simply because his skin is dark. Particularly revealing experiences came at the end of Griffin's investigation when he switched back and forth between his black and white identities and observed the negative reactions he received from people (both black and white) who had treated him kindly just days — or even hours — earlier.........."

posted by troutfishing at 9:21 PM on September 19, 2004


Just to get some preliminaries out of the way, contrary to the widely circulated rumor, Griffin did not die of skin cancer from the darkening treatments he endured.
posted by RavinDave at 9:28 PM on September 19, 2004


RavinDave - My long quote above is from Snopes. I thought the overall bio of Griffith pretty decent, so I offered it up here.

I'd heard that widespread rumor. But - was it Democratic or Republican gossip ?
posted by troutfishing at 9:31 PM on September 19, 2004


Anyone ever see the movie version?
posted by RavinDave at 10:31 PM on September 19, 2004


I'm guessing it was also the inspiration for "The Watermelon Man".
posted by RavinDave at 12:41 AM on September 20, 2004


I read this in 5th grade and was it ever an eye opener. Growing up in an all white community in the North I never really saw this sort of stuff in action. You didn't hear too much racist blather in large part because their were no other races around. This book touched me deeply.

The sad part, although the reactions may be somewhat less overt, it could happen all over again today.
posted by caddis at 5:25 AM on September 20, 2004


I read it in school too--very powerful, but it does seem weird that it was a book by a white guy pretending to be black rather than any number of books by black people documenting their struggles that was assigned to us. I remember we saw the Miss Jane Pittman movie too (with Cicely Tyson) but didn't have to read the book. (this was pre-Roots).

Later, one of my social studies teachers in HS had been a freedom rider (and had a plate in his head from a beating), and we so looked up to him, partially as a result of what we had read and been taught about the whole situation earlier. thinking about it, I don't know that any of us would freedom ride nowadays. At least we would underground railroad, i hope.
posted by amberglow at 5:33 AM on September 20, 2004


I found this in my parents' bookshelf when I was pretty young. I feel obligated to make sure any children I have read this at an early age.
posted by yerfatma at 5:58 AM on September 20, 2004


I always loved and appreciated the Eddie Murphy SNL parody, "White Like Me" it, like Watermelon Man, managed to get the message across in a humorous way. I hope this Book and its inspirations are in for a "comeback." We sorely need this in America, I feel, our collective memory is far too short.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:18 AM on September 20, 2004


"...the notion of "Race" is know known to be scientifically meaningless..."

Not entirely. Especially medically. There are environmental-racial predominances that are useful to racial groups as a whole.

For example, people of African ancestry living in North America, have a higher overall predisposition to high blood pressure than the average. This might be explained by the fact that Africa is geologically old, and lacks much of the surface salts and heavy metals that North America has--which are believed to be associated with high blood pressure. For this reason, it is a good thing that BET channel frequently does PSAs about high blood pressure, saving lives. A combination of "race" and environment.

Another example, somewhat different, is the relative resistance to alcohol of most people in the world, but not in most Native Americans. Therefore, alcohol prohibition is a very real and serious issue on many Indian reservations--again as a medical necessity.

A third example would be the utter misery that many Eskimo and Inuit people feel when they move to warmer, more humid climates, sometimes accompanied by chronic sinus infections.

A fourth, found in the Pima Indians, of terrible diabetes and overweight, they, for the most part, needing far fewer calories in their diet then they get with a "normal" American diet.

But the important thing to recognize is that race, by itself, doesn't matter terribly much, but in combination with voluntary or involuntary environmental factors can be very important to a "race" as a whole.

Note that there are always individuals in a "race", up to even the great majority, that are *not* affected, but that compared to *other* groups of people they have a greater incidence of disease or disfunction, or conversely, a greater resistance.
posted by kablam at 8:31 AM on September 20, 2004


Kablam is confusing race with geographic and cultural factors. African-Americans don't have a genetic predisposition to high blood pressure. Generally, studies show (no footnotes to offer) that people of lower economic status have higher incidence of high blood pressure. Ergo.

Nearly all of Kablam's examples are touched on in one form or another in this documentary.
posted by josephtate at 8:54 AM on September 20, 2004


Really, I ask this out of ignorance and genuine curiosity, but what exactly is the difference in race and physical differenced we attribute to race in humans and say the difference in "breeds" of dogs or cats? Certainly a breed of dog is more suited for a climate, etc. but would the difference of human races just be more like the difference in say a black lab and a yellow lab or is there more/less difference than that? Really, I don't understand this enough, could someone explain better or link to somewhere that does? Thanks.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:02 AM on September 20, 2004


Incidentally, I mean this in a genetic sense, I don't know enough about genetics.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:43 AM on September 20, 2004


Pollomacho: Check out this comment from a thread two days ago. In fact, check out the whole thread. I don't know if it exactly answers what you are looking for, but it might help.
posted by sciurus at 9:44 AM on September 20, 2004


great book, it had a powerful effect on me as a child.
posted by cell divide at 9:53 AM on September 20, 2004


Thanks, actually, that helps quite a bit. I just never studied enough about genetics or "racial science" to know what the reality vs myth was. I studied quite a bit of Anthropology and Archeology, but those focus on ethnic and cultural groups rather than racial groups, at least in recent history. I never went into the biological side of archeology, just the material resources I'm afraid to say, so this was distinctly missing from my perceptions. I had realized that linguistic groups and genetic groups tended to run within groups and that those groups were rather randomly distributed, I did not quite understand that this concept was continued on. Perhaps Anthro classes should devote a bit of time to dispelling this myth rather than skirting it altogether?
posted by Pollomacho at 10:16 AM on September 20, 2004


I got my degree in Anthro, Pollomacho, cool. My classes in Physical Anthropology, Human Evolution and Cultural Diversity all wrestled with racial issues in different perspectives. While no consensus was ever reached, at least it taught me [and hopefully others] to think very carefully about race from a genetic or cultural [or any, for that matter] standpoint.
posted by sciurus at 10:23 AM on September 20, 2004


Pollomacho - Did you read the recent Metafilter post on the subject (my second link)? It's got some superb explanations - especially one comment by Ethereal Bligh - that go a long way to addressing your question. As does Josephtate's link.

To answer your question broadly, about 85% of genetic variation is within local populations rather than across large population groups. Further, there are a lot of genetic traits which are not at all obvious and cut across so called "racial" lines, such as partial immunity - shared by Ashkenazi Jews and certain African populations - to Tuberculosis, Malaria, and Typhus ( There's a trade from this too - Sickle Cell Anemia and Tay-Sachs disease ).

So do these shared traits denote a "race" , the "AfroJews" ? (the very name sounds like a wet dream of a Fascist construct meant for vilification of so-called "impure" groups to me) Or, take the relative lack of Alchohol tolerance among Native American populations which Kablam noted : does then then mean that there are really two races on the planet, the high and low Alchohol tolerance races ? Of course not, and it sounds absurd - but, this illustrates my general point - there are no generally acknowledged scientific criteria, as far as I'm aware, for parsing humanity into "races". "Races" ceased to be a meaningful scientific notion with the discovery of DNA (and probably before), and I've never heard of scientists describing animal or plant populations in terms of their "race".

The proper term would be "sub-species", but even that's a contentious notion and the rule of thumb - if they can all interbreed, they're all part of the same species - still holds as far as I know. But, human population groups haven't drifted apart very much at all - now, indeed, I think we're mixing it up again at a pretty rapid clip.

I'm all for it. I think we should all be grey. Or light brown - whatever.

Anyway, there are a number of such invisible, shared, highly specific traits which cut across obvious similarities in - say - body structure, hair and skin color, and so on. So, even the idea of human "breeds" can be deceptive.

______________________


"Perhaps Anthro classes should devote a bit of time to dispelling this myth rather than skirting it altogether? " - That's a great idea.

Also - if you missed the post, you might enjoy my link (third one in this post) to a Metafilter post I recently did on the modern US Eugenecist movement (which displays a profound ignorance about the shortcoming of the dubious notion of "races").
posted by troutfishing at 10:43 AM on September 20, 2004


I should say, perhaps the classes at my school should have devoted a bit of time. I'm sure that there are plenty of schools that do spend a lot of time on it and I'm not sure what the classes are like now that I'm gone. I went to school in the deep south, so maybe the racial issue was just too hot to handle without turning the whole department into a battle zone?

Thanks for the redirects to the prior thread, very helpful!
posted by Pollomacho at 11:18 AM on September 20, 2004


Saying that race is scientifically irrelevant is irrelevant. What else does "Black Like Me" demonstrate, but that race is the one of the overwhelming facts of social life, trumping nearly all every communal instinct of humankind? Sure, the form taken by one race's reaction to another is socially constructed, but the greater part of racial aversion has to reflect some larger biological factor. Maybe it'll be found in some of the newer approaches to evolutionary biology concentrating on sexual selection and what appears to be the variety of reproductive strategies and agendas undertaken by various physical types. Whatever we learn, we have to stop saying "science proves that race is nonexistent." Our entire social life proves that race is real, it is very important for some reason, and that this importance cannot be reasoned away.
By the way, why doesn't somebody go under the old ultra-violet today, and produce a "Black Like Me, 2004?" Could be interesting.
posted by Faze at 12:15 PM on September 20, 2004


Faze: Saying that race is scientifically irrelevant is irrelevant. What else does "Black Like Me" demonstrate, but that race is the one of the overwhelming facts of social life, trumping nearly all every communal instinct of humankind?

I don't think that people mean that race is scientifically irrelevant. I would argue that sociology and psychology are just as much sciences as anything else. Instead, the argument is that like the sneeches on the beaches, race makes trivial biological differences into huge social differences. For example, under Jim Crow laws in the United States, you were either black or white. However in Africa, the differences between tribal groups are considered obvious and significant. Even 100 years ago in the United States, your "race" included which region of Europe you happened to come from.

Our entire social life proves that race is real, it is very important for some reason, and that this importance cannot be reasoned away.

It is not a given that because people believe something is true, means that it is true. In fact, our psychology is given to multiple fallacies. For example, humans have a strong tendency to believe that the odds of winning a random game like blackjack improve the more you play. In terms of probability, we know that the 5th, 20th or 200th hand have the same odds of winning as any other. But humans believe what they want to believe.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:52 PM on September 20, 2004


I recall seeing a guy on Oprah in the mid 90's who did pretty much the same thing, albeit via a different method, had something to do with drugs. Oprah also had some black guys made over to look white for contrast. Can't find any links to it, though. Anyone?

Also, an Australian company called Epitan is working on a tanning implant that might be useful for those thinking of darkening their skin without dangerous tanning methods.
posted by Poagao at 11:32 PM on September 20, 2004


Sure, the form taken by one race's reaction to another is socially constructed, but the greater part of racial aversion has to reflect some larger biological factor. Maybe it'll be found in some of the newer approaches to evolutionary biology concentrating on sexual selection and what appears to be the variety of reproductive strategies and agendas undertaken by various physical types.—Faze
Faze demonstrates here why debunking the supposed scientific basis of "race" is now, more than ever, so important.

With the recent advances in molecular biology, the mapping of the human genome, the rise of disciplines like evolutionary psychology, biologically determinist ideas about human nature are more acceptable today than they have been for generations. The belief that "race" has a biological meaning is a superstition with a great many practical consequences. Every person who knows better should make an effort to combat this toxic idea everywhere it raises its ugly head.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:01 AM on September 21, 2004


"What else does "Black Like Me" demonstrate, but that race is the one of the overwhelming facts of social life, trumping nearly all every communal instinct of humankind? Sure, the form taken by one race's reaction to another is socially constructed, but the greater part of racial aversion has to reflect some larger biological factor" - Faze, you seem to believe that "races" exist.

They don't. Really.

There's more human genetic diversity among African populations than than anywhere else on Earth and, but for the fact that Africans have darker skin pigmentation, it's easy to see all of the so-called "races" on Earth represented by African sub-populations. Thus, you can find African groups which tend to look, but for their skin color, very much like Nordic or European populations.

I think you're saying that "race" is socially constructed. If so, then I say - let's deconstruct it, for the notion is an outdated and harmful one.

KirkJobSluder's point needs reiteration : "Even 100 years ago in the United States, your "race" included which region of Europe you happened to come from." - Irish immigrants in America were considered to be a "race" all of their own and were often grouped with blacks and dogs - as "subhuman".

I suppose they are fully human now that the extreme anti-Irish prejudices that characterized America in the late Nineteenth Century have died out. I've never heard anyone talk about the Irish "race" except in an historical context.

"Our entire social life proves that race is real" - Surely you don't mean that social beliefs shape external reality - otherwise, the Earth was once truly flat.....until people started to believe it to be a sphere, at which point it must have gone through an extremely bizzare topological transition as the "round-Earthers" gradually replaced the "flat-Earthers".

Arguing the other way around, but the the same vein, produces some interesting conclusions : for example, the end of Apartheid in South Africa must have made "race" in South Africa less "real" as the yoke of repressive laws governing the behavior of South African blacks was lifted.
posted by troutfishing at 4:43 AM on September 21, 2004


"biologically determinist ideas about human nature are more acceptable today than they have been for generations. The belief that "race" has a biological meaning is a superstition with a great many practical consequences." - Yes, I entirely agree - this is a rising political danger that's especially well represented in the US by these two Philanthropic Organizations pushing a Eugenicist agenda : the "Pioneer Fund" and the Manhattan Institute

See "Foundation for Fascism: the New Eugenics Movement in the United States"

The Manhattan Institute, more than any other single source, has provided ideas that are central to the ideology of the current presidential administration of George W. Bush

_________________________

Anti Irish Prejudice in the US in the late Nineteenth Century :

"*During the Great Famine of the 1840's in Ireland, thousands fleed for America.....Many fleed to Boston, and in one year Boston's Irish population jumped from 30,000-100,000
*Looking for labor many Irish turned to servitude. 70% of servants in Boston were Irish immigrants....Bostonians believed that the Irish were a servant race....Bostonians called their Irish female servants the "bridgets" or "biddys" and the males "paddys".......
* Bostonians derisively monikered potatoes "murphies"
* Of the 70% of Irish that were servants, two thirds were Irish women.....Irish servants were noted to be full of melancholy and loneliness....Irish women suffered from high levels of mental illness....As a result, by 1908, there were more Irish than there were any other nationality in a mental hospital
* The Know-Nothing Party-a political party in the late 19th century--developed with "native" Americans who hated the immigrant influx particularly the Irish....Established working class America resented the Irish laborers who would work for anything
* Employers would place signs with NINA scrawled across the front. NINA spelled out is No Irish Need Apply, this would often be seen next to the No Dogs Allowed signs.
* In the 1870's & 80's, Irishman were portrayed on stage and in cartoons penned by famous cartoonist Thomas Nast, RF Outcault and other cartoonists as bumbling, idiots, erratic, pugnacious drunks "

__________________

"The Pioneer Fund's original endowment came from Wickliffe Draper, scion of old-stock Protestant gentry. Draper grew up in Hopedale, Massachusetts - a company town built by his family. Living in what one historian has called a "a quasi-feudal manor house." The company maintained almost total control over the lives of company workers until 1912 when the IWW organized the Draper Company at Hopedale after a four month strike.

Colonel Draper, as he was often called by his friends and admirers was a man searching for a way to restore an older order. Draper believed geneticists could scientifically prove the inferiority of Negros. According to Bruce Wallace, a geneticist who tutored Draper in the later 1940s, Draper "was sure that we had all the answers and that we were just too frightened to say what they meant." Under his direction, the Pioneer Fund's original charter outlined a commitment to "improve the character of the American people" by encouraging the procreation of descendants of the original white colonial stock.

Abandoned by the political mainstream after World War II, Draper turned more and more to academic irredentists still dedicated to white supremacy and eugenics. Most prominent among these early recruits was Henry Garrett, Chair of Psychology at Columbia University from 1941-1955. A Virginia born segregationist, Garrett was a key witness in defending segregation in Davis v. County School Board (1952) one of the constituent cases in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954).(5)......

When Draper first founded the Fund in 1937, he was looking for "useful science." He was convinced that scientists had the answers he was looking for, but were too timid to admit the truth of race differences, Negro inferiority and the value of eugenics. From the 1960s to the 1990s the Fund has singled out individual academics whose work proved useful in the political struggles against integration, open immigration and other right wing causes....."


___________________

The Bush Family connection to the Eugenics Movement :

"....Before the firms were seized, Prescott Bush hired the Dulles brothers to conceal the Nazi ownership in these firms. Any window of deniability slammed shut the minute Bush hired the Dulles brothers to conceal the Nazi's ownership. This is when it becomes treason by both Bush and the Dulles brothers. It confirms that both parties knew that the continued operation of these companies was in violation of U.S. policy and of the Trading with the Enemy Act. Moreover, it confirms that both parties freely chose to aid the Nazis when the U.S. was at war with Nazi Germany.

The Wall Street law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell employed both John Foster and Allan Dulles. Throughout the 1930s and the early 1940s, the Dulles brothers were busy cloaking Nazi ownership of numerous corporations and their cartel arrangements with I.G. Farben. Not only was their work treasonous in and of itself, it also delayed the production of war materials and munitions.
Aside from his 23 corporations seized for violating the Trading with the Enemy Act, Prescott Bush was a leader in the American eugenic movement. The American eugenic movement was successful in the passage of sterilization laws in many states for anyone judged unfit. These laws served as the basis of the Nuremberg Laws passed by the Nazis. Much of the Nazi eugenic research was funded, even during the war, with money from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation. The Harriman's were also large financial backers of the movement.

After the war, John Foster Dulles, with the aid of Rockefeller money, led a world tour of third-world nations stressing the danger of population expansion of nonAryan races......"


______________________

""A clique of U.S. industrialists is hell-bent to bring a fascist state to supplant our democratic government and is working closely with the fascist regime in Germany. I have had plenty of opportunity in Berlin to witness how close some of our American ruling families are to the Nazi regime. . .They extended aid to help Fascism occupy the seat of power, and they are helping to keep it there." - William Dodd, U.S. Ambassador to Germany, 1937"

_______________________

"What's Hiding In GW's Cabinet?", by Robert Lederman
posted by troutfishing at 5:35 AM on September 21, 2004



posted by troutfishing at 6:53 AM on September 21, 2004


I think we should all be grey.

The Lathe of Heaven.
posted by languagehat at 7:28 AM on September 21, 2004


Kablam, any documentation for
the relative resistance to alcohol of most people in the world, but not in most Native Americans.
I've heard this before, but have never seen any research.
posted by theora55 at 7:34 AM on September 21, 2004


If anyone's still listening, let me say that while race might not be a biological fact, racial aversion may be a biological fact. In other words, we might be biologically hard-wired to interpret certain outward appearances of others as the markers of a threatening group, and to then hate those who bear that appearance. This type of fear and hatred may have conferred a reproductive benefit of some kind. Maybe we all CAN'T get along.
posted by Faze at 8:52 AM on September 21, 2004


theora55 - I'm pretty sure Kablam's generally correct, but no time to look this up at the moment (how's that for being vague?) but I think there are a few populations here and there outside of the New World with lower resistance to Alcohol as well.

languagehat - that was on my mind.
posted by troutfishing at 9:56 AM on September 21, 2004


From a FAQ: All large-sized breeds of purebred dogs are candidates for hip dysplasia. Although the disease is particularly common among certain large breeds (from Bernese Mountain Dogs, Bloodhounds and Boxers to Rottweilers, St. Bernards and Welsh Corgis) mixed breeds of all sizes also are subject to hip dysplasia and not even the toy breeds are spared. However, the incidence is lower in small dogs. Large-sized breeds with a relatively low incidence of hip dysplasia include the Borzoi, Doberman Pinscher, Great Dane, Greyhound, Irish Wolfhound and Siberian Husky.

Now I think we can all agree that Bloodhounds and Greyhounds can mate, ergo they are the same species.

Nonetheless, its the Bloodhounds that have the higher incidence of hip dysplasia.

Is this not akin to the susceptibility of various human ... "breeds" to certain diseases or conditions?

Isn't race basically the same as breed?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:16 AM on September 21, 2004


Did you read the other comments??

What you and most other people think that "race" means is equivalent to "breed". It's intuitive and it's possible. It's also something we now have the science and tech to actually check and...it turns out that it's not true.

You've heard that Blacks get sickle-cell anemia. You think that proves the biological basis for "race". So, first let me ask: how do you define "black"? Aren't all dark-skinned Africans considered to be "black"? Would you expect, then, that all dark-skin Africans would have a susceptibility to sicke-cell anemia?

But all dark-skinned Africans don't have a susceptibility to sicke-cell anemia. Only some regional clusters of genetically related Africans have the susceptibility to sicke-cell anemia. (And, by the way, it corresponds to regions where malaria is endemic. Sicke-cell anemia provides some resistance to malaria.)

African-Americans share a susceptibility to sicke-cell anemia. That's because they are genetically related, they share a common ancestor as a result of the fact that most of the slaves were taken from a particular region of west Africa.

Being dark-skinned or whatever it is that socially defines a particular race is no more a reliable indicator (and, in fact, less so) of genetic relatedness than is, for example, sharing the surname "Smith". That is to say, sometimes it indicates genetic relatedness, sometimes it doesn't. You can't generalize about the biological characteristics of all "Smiths" because they're not necessarily biologically related.

You can generalize about breeds of dogs, for example, because, in fact, that they're the same breed actually does indicate genetic relatedness. And genetic relatedness implies that there will be variety of shared traits.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:29 AM on September 21, 2004


But all dark-skinned Africans don't have a susceptibility to sicke-cell anemia. Only some regional clusters of genetically related Africans have the susceptibility to sicke-cell anemia. (And, by the way, it corresponds to regions where malaria is endemic. Sicke-cell anemia provides some resistance to malaria.)

but isn't it still a useful and meaningful categorization to make if those who share a physical characteristic exhibit a significantly higher likelihood possessing trait x than the rest of the populace even if large numbers, maybe even the majority, of people sharing that physical characteristic don't have trait x?
posted by juv3nal at 6:12 PM on September 21, 2004


Another example, somewhat different, is the relative resistance to alcohol of most people in the world, but not in most Native Americans. Therefore, alcohol prohibition is a very real and serious issue on many Indian reservations--again as a medical necessity.

This is utter, utter bullshit.

From the Stanton Peele Addiction Website:

Why are so many indians alcoholics?

1. There is a history of the introduction of foreign intoxicants by dominant or conquering cultures, and the results are uniformly bad ones. Perhaps the most often noted example in addition to the Native American one you discussed is the impact of opium on the Chinese when imported by the British from India, where it had been used ceremoniously for centuries without harmful effects. In China, however, this foreign substance quickly became a pernicious and addictive habit, a symbol of subjugation and escape, as represented best by the sordid opium den. (Notice, however, that the Indians had their revenge by introducing tobacco smoking-to which they were not traditionally addicted---to white people.)
2. Your analysis of the context of the introduction of alcohol to Pacific Coast Indians is an excellent one, and leads you in the right direction. I was particularly struck by your description of the use of social disapproval by Indian leaders to repress drunkenness; a direct and successful modern equivalent for this is found among American Cantonese Chinese in New York's Chinatown Obviously, these social strictures were destroyed with the decimation of the Pacific tribes. Ironically, I debated Jim Milam before the NIAAA in San Diego in 1989, and he gave an impassioned description of Indian drinking, from which he concluded exactly the wrong and useless message that Native Americans are genetically predisposed to alcoholism. In fact, those working with Indians note that they quickly acknowledge the disease concept, then continue drinking outrageously.
3. Observers and scientists note a greater tendency to flushing (based probably on acetaldehyde build-up) in Asiatic peoples. Some have therefore uncritically (along with Milam, social psychologist Stanley Schachter) attributed drinking problems among Native Americans to this biological phenomenon. This holds not a thimble-full of water: To wit:
4. The lowest alcoholism group in the U.S. and in an international survey by Helzer et al. was the Chinese. Just as the highest alcoholism groups in the U.S. are Native Americans and Inupiat, who also flush, Helzer and Canino (1992) were stunned to discover that the alcoholism rate among the neighboring (to the Chinese) Koreans was fifty times the Chinese rate.
5. Joseph Westermeyer and Dwight Heath have examined Native American drinking and point out wide variations in problem drinking, not by racial group, but by cultural situation.


Encyclopedia of North American Indians - Alcoholism, Indian

It is difficult for the contemporary reader to fully appreciate the drinking practices in the United States during the nineteenth century. We are apt to compare descriptions of early drinking by Indians or frontiersmen with the more familiar drinking habits of the urbanized, largely middle-class society of the late twentieth century. The consumption of alcohol in nineteenth-century America, however, was unlike anything twentieth-century Americans are likely to experience in their own lives. Between 1790 and 1840, Americans drank more alcoholic beverages—nearly half a pint of hard liquor per adult male each day—than at any other time in our history. The most popular beverages were cider and whiskey. Water was usually of poor quality, milk was scarce and unsafe, and coffee, tea, and wine were imported and expensive.

When the frontier moved west of the Appalachians, settlers were cut off from the East and were forced to develop their own markets. Land transportation was too expensive for the bountiful corn crops to be hauled over the mountains. Whiskey was widely produced because it was easily preserved and traded, and it soon became the medium of exchange on the frontier.

During the colonial period there were already two distinct styles of drinking distilled spirits. Many Americans took small amounts of alcohol daily, either alone or with the family at home. "Drams" were taken upon rising, with meals, during midday breaks, and at bedtime. Ingesting frequent but small doses develops a tolerance to the effects of alcohol, and this style of drinking did not generally lead to intoxication. The other style of drinking was the communal binge, a form of public drinking to intoxication, and practically any gathering of three or more men provided an occasion for drinking vast quantities of liquor.

Although consumption declined for the nation as a whole during the latter half of the nineteenth century, binge drinking spread to the western frontier and became an integral part of the periodic gambling, fighting, and whoring sprees engaged in by trappers, miners, soldiers, and cowboys. Thus, western Indians had as tutors some of the heaviest drinkers in the nation at the time of their most disruptive contacts with Anglo-Americans. And Anglo-Americans, for a variety of reasons, encouraged this style of drinking among the western Indians. Fur companies, for example, preferred to pay trappers, white as well as Indian, with liquor rather than money so that they would drink up their profits and be forced to trap the next year. Not only did the Indians learn the binge style of drinking from observing those who introduced liquor to them, they also found the white man's notion that a man was not responsible for actions committed while intoxicated consonant with their own notions of possession by supernatural agents. Supernatural power was obtained in dreams or induced trance states that resembled the intoxicated state. Over the years the nation became increasingly urbanized, and drinking styles changed radically after national prohibition. Drinking on Indian reservations, however, continued largely unchanged due to their relative isolation from the larger society.


See also Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation By Robert B. Edgerton Craig MacAndrew

Here from Stanton Peele's Diseasing of America - 6. What Is Addiction, and How Do People Get It? - Values, Intentions, Self-Restraint, and Environments is a synopsis:

Craig MacAndrew and sociologist Robert Edgerton surveyed the drinking practices of societies around the world. They found that people's behavior when they are drunk is socially determined. Rather than invariably becoming disinhibited, or aggressive, or sexually promiscuous, or sociable when drunk, people behave according to the customs for drunken behavior in their particular cultural group. Even tribal sexual orgies follow clear-cut prescriptive rules—for example, tribe members observe incest taboos during orgies, even when the family connection among the people who will not have intercourse is incomprehensible to Western observers. On the other hand, those behaviors that are permitted during these drunken "time outs" from ordinary social restrictions are almost uniformly present during the orgies. In other words, societies define which kinds of behaviors are the result of getting drunk, and these behaviors become typical of drunkenness.

*The tribe members in question are the Lepcha of Nepal, she most sexually active culture on earth. Man, do they have the drunken orgies. However, sex with a 4th cousin is incest, and, as drunk as they get, they don't get it on with 4th cousins.

North American Indian drinking is culturally, not genetically derived.
posted by y2karl at 6:51 PM on September 21, 2004 [1 favorite]


but isn't it still a useful and meaningful categorization to make if those who share a physical characteristic exhibit a significantly higher likelihood possessing trait x than the rest of the populace even if large numbers, maybe even the majority, of people sharing that physical characteristic don't have trait x?

But the point is that, for example, people who share the trait of "dark skin" are not any more likely to have sickle-cell anemia than anyone else.1

African-Americans are because they're actually genetically related. The point is that people think that dark skin signals that everyone with dark skin shares some common traits (because it's assumed that ultimately they're all related to each other) beyond simply having dark skin. But they don't. Everyone who has dark skin has...dark skin. Just like everyone who has blonde hair has blonde hair. You can't say anything about them beyond that.

Yes, since a portion of the global population of dark skinned people are related to each other and share the genetics that make sickle-cell anemia more likely among them, then given any random dark-skinned person, they're more likely to have sickle-cell anemia. This is just a matter of pure chance.

You could say the same thing about people with the first name of "Keith" (my first name). I have a genetic bone disease. Therefore, if you know that, and know that a person with the bone disease has the name "Keith", then if you meet any random person named "Keith", he's more likely than another person to have a bone disease. There's a correlation, but not a causation. If, for example, someone changes their name to "Keith", they're not suddenly more likely to have a bone disease.

So, again, yes, there's a limited amount of utility in screening populations in this way. The utility's greatest when the population you're screening actually has a causal relationship between the trait you're screening for and the trait you're looking for (as is the case with African-Americans and sickle-cell anemia). But one has to be careful with stuff like this because it's easy to assume there's a causal relationship when there isn't. And if you assume a causal relationship, then you go looking for other causal relationships built on the same assumed mechanisms (like the authors of the "Bell Cuve" did).

1 It seems that I'm going to contradict this a few sentences later. And it's true that I'm being fast and loose with my language. The salient distinction here is between an acausal correlation and a causal relation.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:39 PM on September 21, 2004


I find myself siding with EB a lot lately......but, I'll offer my own idiosyncratic reactions - " let me say that while race might not be a biological fact, racial aversion may be a biological fact. In other words, we might be biologically hard-wired to interpret certain outward appearances of others as the markers of a threatening group" - Faze, I am listening. And, I tend to agree with you on that call. As long as you put "racial" in quotes or substitute "perceived difference aversion" there instead of "racial aversion" (I'm being a stickler there about the use of the term "race").

But - yes, I think you're on solid sociobiological (scientific) ground there....or the ground's being firmed up even as we type.

Human nature is not all sweetness and light - bloody gristle hangs from the gaps between our very social teeth.

This, we be.
______________________


"but isn't it still a useful and meaningful categorization to make if those who share a physical characteristic exhibit a significantly higher likelihood possessing trait x than the rest of the populace even if large numbers, maybe even the majority, of people sharing that physical characteristic don't have trait x?" - No, it isn't, or.....

Well, there are correlations between physical characteristics and traits, yes.......depending on what you consider a "physical characteristic".

Characteristics not visible to human sight are still "physical" so - then - yes.

But, consider this counter-example :

"The sickle-cells gene, Tay-Sachs gene, and cystic fibrosis gene confer protection for African blacks, Ashkenazi Jews, and northern Europeans against malaria, tuberculosis and bacterial diarrheas respectively.
"


Ashkenazi Jews, some Europeans (not all of them), and some Africans share these genes.

But, these genetic similarities are belied by the obvious visible differences.

So - again - do the groups, very different in their outward appearance, who share these disease-resistance traits constitute a "race" ?

________________________

Y2Karl, that was a comment and a half and then some.

I'd have to partially reserve judgement about the overall question (I've been involved with people who have lower alchohol tolerance although I'm very sympathetic to your view) but your larger point - about the power, or supremacy, of human social conditioning and cultural belief over the mere power of intoxicants and other chemical influences stands up quite well, I feel.
posted by troutfishing at 8:21 PM on September 21, 2004


make that some Ashkenazi jews, too--this says only 1 in 30 (and 1 in 300 for non-Jews, which is more than i thought.)
posted by amberglow at 8:25 PM on September 21, 2004


amberglow - Oy, I'm assuming a more than passing interest (or moi, via my sweetie).

You're right, some indeed : a wee sliver.
posted by troutfishing at 9:25 PM on September 21, 2004


y2karl confuses alcoholism with a lack of resistance to the effects of alcohol. The two are not the same. Two beers to a European-ancestried adult person are usually shrugged off, even if they are a non drinker. Two beers to a Native American can be a staggering drunk, unless they are an established heavy drinker.

This is simple observation. And it has no direct relationship with alcoholism, which is a syndrome for which the diagnosis is well established. It is also very, very obvious when driving through a city like Gallup, NM early in the morning, and seeing passed out drunks in fields like a battle had occurred.

As I said before, alcohol prohibition is a very important issue on many indian reservations. Alcohol smuggling and moonshining are constant threats. These are not moralistic blue laws, or "cultural differences" that cause such widespread despair and anguish, but a real physiological difference in the effect of alcohol on Native Americans.

As with the case of the Pima Indians, whose liver is so efficient they can live on half the caloric intake of a European ancestried person, certainly there is no grand genetic difference; but a very real environmental-racial difference nonetheless.
posted by kablam at 9:31 PM on September 21, 2004


Trout, I think you've gone a bit awry with your example. The key word there is "respectively", meaning the sickle-cells gene (conferring resistence to malaria) in the case of blacks, the Tay-Sachs gene (confering resistance to tuberculosis) in the case of Ashkenazi jews, and the cystic fibrois gene (conferring resistance to bacterial diarrheas) for northern Europeans. There's no reason to group the three together.

(What follows isn't addressed to troutfishing specifically, just a further clarifcation of my argument.)

The key idea in the modern conception of "race" is that the superficial characteristics we associate with "race" are but the tips of the icebergs of a great many characteristics that individuals in a racial group have in common. Skin color, for example, is thought to be a "marker" for deeper, systemic differences. That such deeper systemic differences might exist is rationalized on the basis of the genetic divergence of populations through selection and inheritance. Particular examples of how such systemic differences might manifest themselves aside from skin color include very non-scientific pop-hypothesis like "blacks have a higher bone density than whites do and that's why there are so few champion black swimmers" to personality theories of temperment on the basis of race (the "hot-blooded" theories so popular in the nineteenth century), to theories of racial divergence of general intelligence ("The Bell Curve") to many other examples in the popular imagination.

Now, one way one could evaluate these hypothesis is simply to test them empirically. That is, do black people actually have higher bone densities and/or fail to become good swimmers when all else is equal? Many such studies have been done over the last hundred years or so, and, in general, they're somewhat inconclusive. Certainly there's not been overwhelming evidence that such things are true.

But another much simpler means to evaluate these ideas became feasible only recently with the science and technology of molecular biology and the related advances in genetics. Given that population genetic divergence occurs at the genome, and that's where all these sorts of differences are encoded, we should simply be able to look at the genome of racial groups and see if there are predictable similarities among all members of any given racial group. The whole iceberb, the tip and the part underwater, all are represented in the genome, right? So we only need a way to quantify in general how alike and dissimilar two genomes are to each other and we should immediately see whether there's a correlation between relatedness (similarity) and racial identification.

And, as I've been saying, it turns out that we don't find that correlation. There is no "rest of the iceberg" below the waterline. Racial characteristics such as skin color don't represent larger, unseen differences between groups of people.

In a way, this is odd because even if genetic similarity didn't imply relatedness, there is the possibility of convergent evolution where a similar genetic trait could arise independently in two seperate populations. Or, alternatively, a given trait could be so interdepedent on some other biological systems that the existence of that trait necessarily implies the existence of some other characteristics. So even if there's not actual increased relatedness among members of a racial population, it's conceivable that they might share some traits besides the traits which are superficially indentified with race.

However, in the case of skin color which is the chief racial characteristic in the modern understanding of "race", the genetic difference that allows this is very trivial and not interdependent upon a bunch of other systems.

All told, what's happened is that through chance the idea of race involves an apperance that seems to strongly intuitively imply the existence of other shared characteristics when, in fact, the appearance that's so intuitively compelling is even less meaningful than it might otherwise have been. This puts "race" in something like the worst-of-all-possible-worlds situations: it seems to be true as much as almost anything can intuitively seem to be true, but it's about as false as something that can seem so true could possibly be false. That it's actually false is why there's so many bad consequences to the belief in this idea; that it seems like it must be true is why it's so hard to convince people that's it's not true.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:03 PM on September 21, 2004


These are not moralistic blue laws, or "cultural differences" that cause such widespread despair and anguish, but a real physiological difference in the effect of alcohol on Native Americans.

Your real physiological difference is a fantasy. You can state your beliefs as fact all you want but one thing you can not do is provide a link to support such clap trap because there simply is no scientific evidence to support it..

From the Encyclopedia of North American Indians link above:

Western Indians live almost entirely in rural areas and may be expected to have death rates from alcohol-related causes more in line with those of the rural populations of the states in which they live. This is in fact the case for the Navajo tribe, which is the largest single tribe in the nation. When death rates for cirrhosis, suicide, homicide, and accidents among rural Navajos and Anglos in Arizona were compared, they were found to be virtually the same with the exception of deaths from accidents. There is also evidence to suggest that the proportions of these deaths due to alcohol abuse are virtually the same in the two groups. The higher rate of deaths due to accidents is due to environmental differences rather than to a higher proportion of alcohol-related accidents.

Tribal differences continue to be large, however, and the situation found among the Navajos cannot be generalized to all tribes. The Pueblos of New Mexico, for example, seem to have lower rates of alcohol-related deaths than do rural Anglos, while the tribes of the northern plains appear to have rates higher than those of their non-Indian neighbors.



Alcohol use and abuse is a heterogeneous phenomenon both among and within various tribes, and no global explanation, either racial or social, appears to account for it.
posted by y2karl at 7:50 PM on September 22, 2004


EB - Damn! You're right, I totally misread that and - Reaganesque - was constructing a whole series of related synaptic connections. Thanks for the close reading.....

....and for your superb ensuing comment. You might consider writing a piece which is a commentary on the current cultural fallacies concerning "race" - just a thought.

"As with the case of the Pima Indians, whose liver is so efficient they can live on half the caloric intake of a European ancestried person, certainly there is no grand genetic difference; but a very real environmental-racial difference nonetheless..." - Atwixt Kablam and Y2Karl, I looked into and found one quick reference to picque my interest :

"Losing the wine flush: a cure for the red face
Filed under: Ramblings and Rants [ from Vinography : A wine Blog ]

Ruth, like many Asian Americans, has at times been reluctant to drink wine because of her tendency to turn a deep shade of red after even just half a glass of red or white.

The cause of this "wine flush" has to do with how many Asians metabolize alchohol. Alchohol is absorbed through the stomach and small intestine. About 10 percent is eliminated by the kidneys, lungs, and sweat glands, but the rest is dealt with in the liver by two enzymes: alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). I don't know enough about the body's chemistry to know how these two enzymes actually manage to break down the alchohol, but it's enough to know that they do.

It's this second enzyme (ALDH) that is missing (or low) in up to 50 percent of Asian people, and is not present at all in most Native Americans and Inuits. People with less ALDH will often flush and sweat after drinking alcohol, and if their quantities of the enzyme are quite low, they may also become ill after drinking even small amounts of booze.

Recent studies also suggest women have fewer of these enzymes than men.

The wine flush ranges from a light pink to a deep red purple in my experience, and for many it's embarrassing, which is why my ears perked up the other day when an Asian colleague at work claimed to have a cure for it.

He swore that taking a Pepcid AC tablet before or during drinking, significantly reduced or even eliminated his wine flush.

After a few highly scientific tests, we have found that it really does work. How it works is a mystery that won't be solved here. Pepcid AC contains Famotidine. According to DrugDigest.org, "Famotidine is a histamine-2 receptor blocker, or H2-blocker. It works in the stomach on a pump that releases hydrochloric acid when stimulated by histamine. Famotidine prevents histamine from stimulating this pump, thereby reducing the amount of acid that is released into the stomach." What I don't know, is how the level of acid in the stomach correlates to ALDH levels and alchohol metabolism.

I'm going to spare Ruth the embarassment of having before and after pictures posted here, and as a creative person you couldn't have trusted that I didn't photoshop them anyway. So I simply leave it to you to try yourself, or offer to friends. Ruth is glad to know about it, and especially excited at the prospect of not having to be bright red in her wedding dress after a few sips of Champagne at the reception.
Posted by alder at May 12, 2004 10:41 AM | TrackBack


Comments

the blockage of the flush comes from blocking histamine type 1 receptors, which are partially blocked by H2 blockers like pepicid/tagamet/zantac. But traditional antihistamines focus on type 1, so you'd get a better effect from taking claritin (or generic alavert/alacare), zyrtec, allegra, or even benadryl although this last one is sedating. The best solution is drinking more moderately ;)
Posted by: enoch choi at May 17, 2004 07:42 PM

Found your article when researching same "flush" with alcohol... However, I am neither Asian, Inuit, nor Native American (primarily West European descent) and can find myself embarassed (without alcohol) if I become anxious or nervous. Although Benadryl (yes, it's sedating) works against wine, it doesn't work nearly so well when I speak before crowds or similar situations. Any ideas???
Posted by: Yankeepat at June 5, 2004 06:36 PM........"


This material seems to me an unlikely hoax.
posted by troutfishing at 8:50 PM on September 22, 2004


troutfishing, requoting Stanton Peele from above:

Observers and scientists note a greater tendency to flushing (based probably on acetaldehyde build-up) in Asiatic peoples. Some have therefore uncritically (along with Milam, social psychologist Stanley Schachter) attributed drinking problems among Native Americans to this biological phenomenon. This holds not a thimble-full of water: To wit:
4. The lowest alcoholism group in the U.S. and in an international survey by Helzer et al. was the Chinese. Just as the highest alcoholism groups in the U.S. are Native Americans and Inupiat, who also flush, Helzer and Canino (1992) were stunned to discover that the alcoholism rate among the neighboring (to the Chinese) Koreans was fifty times the Chinese rate.
5. Joseph Westermeyer and Dwight Heath have examined Native American drinking and point out wide variations in problem drinking, not by racial group, but by cultural situation.


People constantly cite some underlying genetic explanation for a perceived social problem. But junk genetics is junk genetics.
posted by y2karl at 2:11 PM on September 23, 2004


y2karl - I'll have to have another look then : junk (read ideologically driven/corporate sponsored) science seems to be everywhere these days, and I respect your intelligence. So.....

On preview, I'm casting my lot with your position - on the basis, at least, that there are those who would magnify very minor human genetic differences in order to suit their ideologies.
posted by troutfishing at 5:03 PM on September 23, 2004


From Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research News Release: View of American Indian Drinking 'Bias" - Alcohol Problems Not as Serious As Most Believe

"Previous research has tended to report on only one tribe or to aggregate American Indian samples in ways that do not permit explicit examination of cultural issues," said Paul Spicer, associate professor of psychiatry in American Indian and Alaska Native Programs at the University of Colorado Health Sciences, and first author of the study. "While no one study could do justice to the tremendous cultural diversity among contemporary American Indian tribes, we wanted to include two distinct tribal populations representing important variations in aboriginal subsistence adaptation, social organization, and religious/spiritual traditions in order to document possible cultural differences in alcohol dependence."

"A lot of what was 'known' in the past about alcohol use among American Indians was anecdotal, stereotypical and fueled by bias," added Fred Beauvais, senior research scientist at the Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research at Colorado State University. "This manuscript helps to clarify that there is more abstinence from alcohol among American Indians than there is among non-Indians. I think the average person would be taken aback when hearing this since it contradicts the conventional wisdom."


Social Origins of Eugenics

Genetics appeared to explain the underlying cause of human social problems – such as pauperism, feeble-mindedness, alcoholism, rebelliousness, nomadism, criminality, and prostitution – as the inheritance of defective germ plasm. Eugenicists argued that society paid a high price by allowing the birth of defective individuals who would have to be cared for by the state. Sterilization of one defective adult could save future generations thousands of dollars.

Eugenicists and their wealthy supporters also shared a mutual antipathy for political radicalism and class struggle. They were alarmed by the increasing strength of militant labor unions and the rise of the American socialist party, especially after the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. These movements were, to some extent, correctly judged to be associated with immigrants from southern Europe, especially Italians, eastern Europeans, and Jews. These new immigrants were seen as troublemakers, and the eugenicists purported to have data showing that the problem was in their genes. The solution to the problem was simple – selective immigration restriction.

Eugenics was seen as a way to solve all of these combined problems because it placed the cause in the defective germ plasm of individuals and ethnic groups, and not in the structure of society itself. Eugenics used the cover of science to blame the victims for their own problems. Eugenicists seemed to have the weight of rigorous, quantitative, and thus scientific evidence on their side. To those with economic and social power – and imbued with the new spirit of scientific planning – eugenicists appeared to offer a rational and efficient approach of treating social problems.

In an era troubled by rapid and seemingly chaotic change, eugenics offered the prospect of a planned, gradual, and smooth transition to a more harmonious future. With its emphasis on planned breeding, eugenics provided the biological counterpart to new theories of scientific control and rational management in business. Just as a new group of professional managers was making a place for itself in American economic life, eugenicists emerged as scientists with a special expertise in the solution of perennial social problems. Eugenics provided what seemed to offer an objective, scientific approach to problems that previously had been cast almost wholly in subjective, humanitarian terms. Whereas charity and state welfare had treated only symptoms, eugenics promised to attack social problems at their roots.


Sociobiology Sanitized: The Evolutionary Psychology and Genic Selectionism Debates

Followers of some older hereditarian and race-based theories now call themselves "evolutionary psychologists" to seem up to date, just as parts of the French right and British National Front embraced sociobiology. David Buss (the "doctor of love," as one website calls him), a genuine evolutionary psychologist of sex differences in human mating strategies, joined the University of Texas faculty. The already present Texas Adoption Study group now has integrated with Buss in a program in Evolutionary Psychology of Individual Differences (including racial differences). One of their members, Professor Joseph Horn, whose studies allege the intellectual inferiority of Mexican-Americans, and who was at the time head of the conservative National Association of Scholars chapter at UT, had his views exposed by a Chicano student newspaper. The Chicano students noted that Horn as Dean of students, was in a position to implement his views concerning Mexican Americans unfitness for technical or quantitative fields in advising Chicanos. In the name of free speech--evidently for faculty only-- the UT administration prevented distribution of the newspaper.
posted by y2karl at 5:45 PM on September 23, 2004


Trout, kablam, and especially y2karl, thanks for the responses. This is something I've been curious about for a long time.
posted by theora55 at 8:31 AM on October 7, 2004


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