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Sinclair and the Blogosphere

Mark Schmitt had some smart things to say about l'affaire Sinclair. Playing off that, I don't know whether or not people will be successful in beating this back or at least making Sinclair pay a price and deterring people from such antics in the future, but the episode shows the importance in politics of having a viable social movement on your side and not just a bunch of disaggregated people who agree about some stuff combined with a handful of professional political operatives in Washington, DC. The existence of real groups in society is important in many ways, as Theda Skocpol taught me, but it's especially important in these sorts of circumstances where only consumer power can forestall the ability of the economically powerful to simply dominate the political arena. But, as Skpocpol emphasizes, progressives have a big problem in this regard. Mass membership organizations like Rotary Clubs and so forth have been on the decline for decades. Perhaps more importantly, so have unions, which were the backbone of the very successful midcentury progressive movement and, in their weakened state, continue to be the backbone of the weakened progressive movement of the late-20th and early 21st century.

On the right, by contrast, you have very viable social networks organized around the churches that white Protestants attend. We have the black churches here on the left, of course, which continue to play an important role, but as long as African-Americans are only around 10 percent of the population, their role will be pretty circumscribed outside of cities with big concentrations of minorities (in such cities -- Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, Detroit, etc., they're absolutely dominant, and in more mixed cities like New York and LA they're very influential).

Looked at demographically, though, what keeps the Democrats in play is the fact that while union families have declined as a proportion of the electorate, what you might call "postmodern" white people -- Judis and Teixeira's professionals, Zogby's unmarrieds, Brooks' seculars -- have increased their share and come to be a larger and larger slice of the base of progressive politics. The problem with these people -- people like me -- is that we tend to be radically unconnected from large, formal, social networks. And not in a coincidental way, this characteristic is pretty fundamental to the essence of the sort of person we're talking about. We're younger, more transient, start families later, don't go to church and are generally without strong roots in anything more substantive than an "urban tribe".

This is all fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn't work very well for the purposes of politics. Political life in all its manifestations -- voting, volunteering, donating, boycotting, letter-writing, petition-signing, calling up advertisers and hassling them, etc. -- is beset with collective action problems. There's almost nothing anyone who's not super-rich can do to influence the political process that, on its own, will make a whit of difference. All of these activities depend on the notion that if lots of people followed your lead, then something important would happen. But in order to get any of this to happen you need to get a large number of people to behave in a not-especially-rational way, hence the collective action problem. Such problems normally get solved through appeals to group solidarity, but that presupposes the existence of a group. Hence the value of a union hall, a church, or VFW outpost, a Rotary Club, or what have you. The knowledge that there's a group of people out there you identify with and who identify with you can be a powerful force above and beyond the ways in which such groups simply aid communications.

This, I think, is one of the more important contributions blogs -- particularly the amateur blogs -- may make to American society in the years to come. They create a sense of virtual community. You feel that you know the people you read regularly, and the people who participate in comments threads on blogs you read. You're aware of a wider network of people you may read occassionally, or only see on the blogrolls of others. You exchange emails with readers, writers, and commenters. And because the network is merely virtual, it's remarkably robust and stable, staying in place as you move. Between June 2003 and June 2004 I was variously in Boston, New York, Italy, New York again, and then Washington but I was always in contact with a circle of people over the internet. As these networks continue to expand and -- in some ways more importantly -- simply continue to exist and deepen over time, they become more and more real. Even where they're not an important organizing force on their own (the way only Atrios and Daily Kos really seem to be) they provide the underlying infrastructure for transient efforts to gather donations, volunteers, people to hassle Sinclair advertisers, or whatever.

It's a tool, obviously, that's available to the right as well and will be used by them. But it's a tool they need less, since they've done better over the past few decades at having a real social movement anyway. And it's a tool that's less well-aimed at that side's demographics, as you can see from the fact that the right blogosphere tends to propound an ideology -- "neolibertarianism" as Jim Henley puts it -- that's rather different from that of the Republican Party and that's obsessively focused on a narrow band of issues.

Perhaps this is all bullshit and will come to nothing, but I don't think so. Rather, the Dean campaign, despite it's very real limitations, was the start of something important. It showed a bunch of people that there are other people out there who are basically like them and that if they work together they can make a difference. And more important that if they want to work together with other people to make a difference, it's easy enough to find the people to work with. The number of people involved (as the Dean campaign also showed) isn't a majority, isn't big enough to dominate the country, but it is enough people to combine with other progressive constituencies to form a majority. And it should get bigger over time.

October 14, 2004 | Permalink


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» The net taking on TV from The Power of Many
Matthew Yglesias takes a look at the organizing effort from the left blogosphere to oppose the Sinclair TV network's plans to air an anti-Kerry film on the eve of the election. These activities aren't limited to one ideological camp. The... [Read More]

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» Gift Basket from Tom Jamme's Blog
Sweet Blessings, a new Christian-based online shop featuring cookie bouquets, candy bouquets and gift baskets, opens with a campaign to donate a portion of all profits to Habitat For Humanity. The devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, while not a... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 7, 2005 9:58:08 AM


Very good analysis. I have seen this problem first hand here in Sacramento. We have a lot of Democrats here, and a lot of Democrat "activists", but it is extremely difficult to get them to actually do things. We have, for example, a Democrat running for the State Assembly in my district who seems to have no support whatever, even to the point that she was unable to come up with the money for a voter's handbook writeup. No donors, no volunteers, no signs, nothing. And, this in a winnable district. We have a Congressional candidate, a very good one, barely able to get a very few volunteers to do precinct walking, and getting a minimum of campaign donations. But, there are two large MeetUp groups of democrats that meet monthly, talk a lot, and feel good about being democrats. But, if you ask them to help out in any way, as I did all summer, you get nothing but excuses. The actual number of people willing to do something to help Democrats get elected is less than a hundred in the whole district. And, the Sinclair problem is working out about the same way. We just don't have a community of Democrats or progressives willing to put forth an organized effort to effect change.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Oct 14, 2004 11:14:40 AM

I think it is also the reason why progressives rely so strongly on government action--they don't form the organizations to engage in large extra-governmental projects at home. (Interestingly they seem better able to form organizations to engage in international projects. I wonder why that is.)

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Oct 14, 2004 11:22:09 AM

I think one contributing factor to the social atomiziation process you've described is the media. One of the most consistent reactions I've heard from people on F9/11 was "I didn't know there were protests during Bush's inauguration." They didn't know because the protests weren't covered. So folks who might have been motivated to social action or joining groups engaged in social action had they seen their political instincts/desires mirrored in reality on the evening news had nowhere to go. The blogs have offered a different mirror for political reality - one that is less comodified and comodifying than the SCLM. Folks of every political stripe (who have access to the technology - still class issues) are more likely to find an affirmation of their instincts in the blogs and that affirmation might motivate them to political and collective action.

Posted by: Pudentilla | Oct 14, 2004 11:24:17 AM

i have to admit, mr. hopkins, i'm one of these 'do nothing democrats' you speak of (though not in the area you speak of). i think i have a pretty good reason, although a selfish one, but i have to admit, even if i didn't have this 'excuse', i'm not sure how open i would be to work very hard for my local gaggle of dems.

i don't know why that is. i work a good bit so i know i cherish my free time but still, i feel this election is the most important in a generation but i'm not very motivated to actually do any 'work' for it. hmmm.

Posted by: Elemeno P. | Oct 14, 2004 11:46:22 AM

sounds like someone has been reading "bowling alone".

Posted by: Christopher Brandow | Oct 14, 2004 11:47:19 AM

In the short term, yeah, unions have declined. But I'm sad to say, they'll be back. Because we'll NEED them with the same kind of urgency that we needed them in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

The management abuses that unions--and the larger progressive movement--had nearly beaten back? They're back.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Oct 14, 2004 11:51:16 AM

We'll probably reach some kind of equilibrium, where the union movement is just large enough that the threat of unionization keeps employers in check, without most employees having to endure the downsides of union shops.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Oct 14, 2004 12:15:59 PM

I agree with Vaughn: excellent analysis.

There are two major issues which face today's Democratic party that I think need to be addressed ASAP by anyone who wants to see that party succeed, and those issues are:

1) the future base/constituents of the party


2) continuous unity

Obviously, working on issue 1 will help realize issue 2. But what I *sense* you're getting at Matt (and correct me if I'm wrong) is that the Democratic party needs to be actively finding a newer constituency - base, if you will - in order for it to survive and to flourish into the 21st century. And I agree (if that is indeed what you are trying to get at).

I've said in this comment section before that the Democratic party of 1965 was not the same as it was in 1940, and the 2004 Democratic party cannot be the same that it was in 1965. Times change. So does the party. But there's still an unsettling amount of Dems who still want to cling to aging 60s hippies, shrinking unions and the disenfranchised as the party's base. Now, let me be clear: the Dems are not to ignore these people. But they can no longer be the rock of the party. That's the 1965 Democratic platform. 2004 needs something different. I think Matt Y is working on finding out just what that different base needs to be. And the Dems need to do the same.

As for issue 2, *continuous* unity, this is important in the sense that the Republicans have been supremely re-energized and very much united and organized since 1994. That's why they won back Congress and the White House during that time. Democrats, meanwhile, flailed about from 2001 - late 2003/early 2004, and only now are they united - but only to defeat Bush. John Kerry doesn't really "wow" the party, and many of the people on the 2004 Dem prez ticket bandwagon aren't even Democrats. They're Greens or Libs or Socs or Inds who are just pinning their hopes and chances on the Democratic nominee this time around.

And this is what I mean about *continuous* unity. We can't just band together at the last minute and really expect it to do much good. Who knows, maybe Kerry will win next month? But the chances aren't as good as they could have been had the Democratic party, and those on the left, been united longer than just 9 months to a year.

Sorry to be so long-winded. I'm a Democrat and will be voting for John Kerry. But that doesn't pre-clude me from pointing out the obvious flaws within the party of my choice, and showing how i think they can be fixed.

Take care.

Posted by: Matt (not MY) | Oct 14, 2004 12:21:15 PM

Just a quick point about African-Americans that you've got wrong, they make a large percentage of the population in southern states like Mississippi and South Carolina (35%+) Maybe the lack of focus in the south helps your point about Dems not motivating anyone in winnable areas of the country?

I think it has to do with the coalition of special interest groups the Dems now represent. The history of the progressive movement has always focused on labor in more rural areas remember, from farmers to union steel and coal miners. It's most successful when it's a grass roots effort pushing the establishment. Too often today progressive ideas seem like the urban establishment attempting to educate the masses about eating meat or wearing fur. Progressives would do better to drop all ideas about free trade and focus on the one thing everyone has in common, urban and rural. We worry about our jobs and our prospects for advancement.

Posted by: Just Karl | Oct 14, 2004 12:25:39 PM

"Rather, the Dean campaign, despite it's very real limitations, was the start of something important"

Stirling Newberry and cobloggers, at BOPNews, are very seriously looking at this. He worked, I think, on the Dean campaign. I hate to paraphrase a work in progress, and you should read his stuff.

But basically, he believes that the model of few at the top leading a mass movement no longer works in this mass media age. Think of small functional or local elites(leaders) with feeders.
Nodes in a network or cells in a guerrilla war.
Basically he is trying a post-modern analysis of something he believes is occurring spontaneously.

Think of "memogate" or Katherine of Obsidian Wings recent work on rendition. The net or blogosphere can be very fast but isn't powerful unless it can reach the pop media. So commenters would reach bloggers who would reach Marshall or Reynolds who could reach Rather or Hume. And the structure would vary according to expertise on particular issues.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 14, 2004 12:28:09 PM

It was rather obvious this would be policy, but I'm still suprised they were stupid enough to write it down where somebody could see it:


I think your organizational problem is simply that the self-help approach of private sector membership organizations clashes badly with the "Tax the snot out of the rich, and use the money to PAY somebody to do the work!" Democratic ideal. Republicans actually believe people should be working together outside of government to solve their own problems, so it's scarcely suprising that they do it.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Oct 14, 2004 12:29:18 PM

Excellent analysis, but one thing is missing: interest. The Republicans are better organized because a bunch of people are financially interested in their victory. These folks fund their campaigns. The Dems used to have these people (unions, urban firms, big defense contractors like KBR and General Dynamics, etc.) But, since Vietnam, these sources of revenue have dried up, leaving the Dems with trial lawyers, a few unions, Hollywood, and little else.

This is why Rove and Norquist are so hell bent on labor law, tort reform, obscenity, and, ahem, Israel. They want to kill Democratic fundraising.

The web helped the Dems remedy this imbalance, giving middle class liberals a way of contributing to liberal politics without investing time. We'll see if that serves as a sufficient replacement for those other sources.

Posted by: AWC | Oct 14, 2004 12:36:42 PM

In the short term, yeah, unions have declined. But I'm sad to say, they'll be back. Because we'll NEED them with the same kind of urgency that we needed them in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

Last time around, the courts made unions legal. When the steelworkers tried to strike during WWII, Life magazine published a picture of a union leader's butt with a bayonette wound in it just below the kidney, maybe about to be bandaged, with a comment about "Doesn't he know there's a war on?". But unions were legal in peacetime. Will they be legal this time around? Will we have some peacetime?

Posted by: J Thomas | Oct 14, 2004 1:14:17 PM

I have to admit, I have never been a member of a union, but I talk to friends who are. They tend to resent their own unions, distrust those who run them, and feel that they get nothing for the dues they pay. These are people who earn a very good living in blue collar jobs, have very nice homes, but worry constantly about the large corporations they work for going under or cutting back. They hold the unions they are members of to be a large part of the problems that they face, and yet they are not active within the union. Great people, hard workers, but it is their apathy that allows the zealots leading their unions to destroy their jobs from within. Similar to how the apathy described by Vaughn Hopkins could allow very capable candidates to stay out of office, and place in people who have their own agenda, and not the good of the group as a whole.

I may tend to be conservative, but I have always admired the passion of the liberals, even when I thought they were misguided. As a person with no political affiliation I may be off base, but flip had posted a response earlier under "Four More Years" that called for “forming a coherent progressive vision (and I mean that in the sense that emphasizes the root PROGRESS, meaning things actually change for the better, rather than just trying to hold on to outdated protections and programs of the status quo) “.

The nation as a whole places into office those who are able to create the greatest groundswell of support, and not necessarily the person who represents their overall views the best. That is why these presidential debates were so disappointing to people who looked for somebody to support. In the campaign you have those on either side who would vote for a dead goat if it was on their ticket, then you have those who grab a single topic that they support, finally you have those who run down the other candidate. So how do you decide which candidate represents your views?

As a soldier the war issue is something I feel very at ease talking about, and an issue where I support the president. As a father I am concerned about education, never really got any answers there from either side – made a good jump off point for name calling and pulling stats from their forth point of contact. My wife is unemployed, mostly because we move so often, so how are their social and economic programs going to stimulate more jobs. Again, I never got any real answers. Partial Birth Abortion clear voting records – leave the name calling alone and move on. The fact remains, Bush should have been easy to beat – if the Democrats had made a clear effort to give the people somebody who represented our views, and had viable options to the administration. Don’t come in telling us that the president has screwed things up so badly that it doesn’t matter who is on the democratic ticket they are better. Get out there, with a plan. Don’t tell me we rushed to war under false pretenses. Fact is president Bush lead this nation to a war, which has resulted in the removal from power of a very dangerous man – "Very good MR. President. Now here is where I will pick up that war and move forward…". Drop the bullshit bickering about WMD, the bottom line is there are terrorists in armed conflict with U.S. forces every day – how will you engage them? Don’t tell me you would have had Christopher Reeves walking again.

We need plans and policies that represent the American public’s desires and views. Forget Kerry’s fake tan, or Bush leaning on the podium. As long as the people set back apathetically and take what is handed to them, then we will have more of the same. In failing to make a decision, you have decided. but we must choose from what is in front of us now.

Posted by: Kevin | Oct 14, 2004 1:16:52 PM

I am increasingly feeling disheartened by this whole Sinclair thing. I'm currently a student at the University of Washington and upon hearing about the SBG fiasco, I attempted to mobilize some people around my school to dissemenate information, such as the boycottsbg.com, so the large contingent of people we had at our fingertips (40,000) could contact their friends around the country where SBG affiliates are located.

Unfortunately, so far, very few people have been interested. I contacted the Young Democrats, who by all accounts, seemed totally inept and unwilling to put forth and effort (which is absolutely fucking mind-boggling to me). They reassured me they planned on showing "Going Upriver" on campus as a retort. Good job guys, that'll teach those Sinclair bastards. I also talked to a friend at the school paper who seemed only slightly enthused.

Basically, my points is that if we can't mobilize students (especially on the liberal and relatively politically conscious UW campus), then the progressive movement is in big trouble.

Posted by: Yair | Oct 14, 2004 1:27:51 PM

I'd agree with and extend the last comment. As a highly motivated Democrat, it took me literlly months to find a place to volunteer. And then, when I finally did get the opportunity, I was astounded at the amateur, disfunctional, and poorly organized folks that were in charge. As a party, we need to be much more disciplined. The DNC needs to make it a priority to develop strong local chapters with training and leadership. If we win in November, it won't be because the party was effective - it will be because the citizens were motivated.

Posted by: Kathy | Oct 14, 2004 1:40:05 PM

If the Democrats win in November it will be because people voted against Bush, not because anybody voted FOR anything. The perceived lesser evil.

Posted by: Kevin | Oct 14, 2004 1:48:34 PM

The comment by Kevin that Kerry will win because people voted against Bush will certainly be true for a segment of the population. But this "Anybody But Bush" backer has been converted to also being a Kerry supporter.

I've listened to every word of all three debates and am now convinced that John Kerry shares many of my own values. Certainly more than Bush. His views on liberty in America, on the importance of alliances, on abortion, on health care, on the separation of church and state, and on the war on terrorism all align nicely with my own views.

I'll be voting FOR John Kerry on November 2nd and not solely against President Bush. Judging by the response to the debates in the polls I'd say it's pretty clear I am not alone in feeling that way.

Posted by: Curt Matlock | Oct 14, 2004 2:34:02 PM

I think that this analysis is interesting, and perhaps reflects reality in portions of the coasts, but otherwise misses the boat a bit.

Democratic candidates have always had more volunteers and more people on the ground that Republican candidates. Republicans rely on paid staffers when Democrats use volunteers. Republicans use paid GOTV callers where Democrats use volunteers. Republicans buy media where Democrats invest in ground organizations.

The difference is outside groups. Republicans look like they have a more activist base because the peripheral conservative groups are so good at getting out and getting noticed. Labor organizes itself and its members, environmental groups try to focus on their own members, women's groups focus on their own members - none of the progressive activist groups are focused on building a movement.

Posted by: Dave M | Oct 14, 2004 2:59:47 PM

The Democratic Party is mostly an empty shell. And as many above have pointed out, Americans in general and progressives specifically don't engage in collective work and essentially have no political community. I believe Kerry (like FDR) could make a good even great president but, as under the New Deal, everything depends on a popular movement emerging that sets and moves the agenda. We are in the midst of a slow motion train wreck--global warming, the end of cheap oil, a fading middle class, worldwide habitat destruction, poisoning of oceans and freshwater, overpopulation, dwindling arable land, widening gap of rich and poor, AIDS (and possibly other epidemics). (Sorry, if I've left anything out) We CAN address these problems if we work collectively on solutions, but the engine will have to be people power. The most likely vehicle is a national and international crash program to create alternative energy sources and wean ourselves from oil, pesticides, and plastics. We can finance such a movement by taxing international capital flows for starters and by creating huge savings (energy and money) with conservation and the creation of a sustainable human society (such as building things to last rather than to throw away, such as a vastly improved and used mass transit system--alternative fuel powered). And finally, the words "human" and "humus" (the living, organic component of the soil) come from the same Indo-European mother tongue. Humankind realized then thousands of years before the Greeks that we ARE the soil and vice versa. Back to our most ancient roots. Let Mother Nature be the organizing principle around which we create a sustainable and just society.

Posted by: George Rauh | Oct 14, 2004 3:23:40 PM

holy shit --

did Kos just hijack Matt's blog?

Posted by: right | Oct 14, 2004 3:27:28 PM

Curt Matlock-

I am glad that you are voting for something and not against something. Maybe I am expecting too much. While I agree with many of the things Kerry says need to be fixed, I don't trust that his "Plans" are viable. Many rely on making things work that have been tried and failed, such as bringing in a broader coalition to Iraq. He calls for training the Iraqis faster, that is not possible. So I look at things he has to say very skeptically. I doubt very much his ability to implement many of the programs, “PLANS” he has. But they sound good. His health care plan seems very much like smoke and mirrors, it brings back visions of the first term Hillary Clinton, who was going to fix health care for us. I am very opposed to abortion, but would leave that choice to the mother, IN THE FIRST TRIMESTER. After that children have been able to survive.

But the greater point is that the grass roots of political activism have been lost. Candidates from both sides are more held to those who can fund their campaign than to the voter. Those who can fund them will create what they need in a candidate, or in the opposition. All the special interests create an image, and you vote for the image. Polls were taken on who LOOKS more presidential, who has the best hair, who looks more at ease. Who gives a crap. Michael Moore did a great disservice not only to the image of the Democratic Party, but to American politics on the whole. The Swift boat vets, the 60 Minutes II report on Bush, all aimed to create a vision in voters minds. The Democratic primaries set the stage for hate and discontent, and it hasn’t slowed yet. Both parties are deep into special interests, and they pay the media to tell us what the important issues are. Some smart guy goes on CNN and says – these will be the issues, and those are pushed as issues.

The apathy of Americans in the political system has allowed the system to drive the voter, not the voters driving the system. So you have found qualities in the image of a candidate you can support. That is good, because you will vote. But how did we get to a point where these two are the best choices in America to be president?

I had hoped that the controversy over the election outcome last time would wake people up, and not only bring them to the polls, but get them to break free of the sell job being conducted. It seems to have made it worse. People seem very interested in voting, but all too many are buying whole heartedly into the image being presented to them.

Posted by: Kevin | Oct 14, 2004 3:44:09 PM

My very boring midwest unpolitical Mom got me involved with MoveOn. I mention this because she told me it made her feel connected to others--I eventually joined. And then I felt connected, too.

Lo many years ago, I tried to volunteer for the Dems but quit because it was so weird--they weren't doing things that really mattered to me as a person and I felt no sense of community. Those people were nameless and faceless. How did boring phonebanking help anybody? It felt odd and pointless.

I think what was so wonderful about the Dean campaign was how simple they made everything and how sincere they seemed about individual contributions adding up--it wasn't a bunch of thousand dollar donations, but bits of 15, 20, 32 dollars. I don't know, but I think Democracy For America and MoveOn have given people a group they can join that is more grouplike than the Democratic party. Sure has been for me.

Posted by: ElizabethVomMarlowe | Oct 14, 2004 3:51:39 PM

This thread kinda shows that this election is about saving the status quo from the Bush trainwreck. Not too hard to see why Greens and drug law reformers aren't swearing undying fealty to the return of Clintonism. Apparently it's as true as ever that if you can afford a computer and have the time to play with it, you're probably not lower class.

Along the way a number of straw-men have received the ritual buffeting. I've had a number of union jobs and the union was never anything other than a blessing, but maybe I feel that way because I've also had non-union jobs that gave me a good idea of what kind of help my union dues were buying.

Another straw-man is the takeover of the Dems by hippies in the 60s. Vas you dar, Charlie? Well, I was, and I can tell you Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnuson were no hippies. Mayor Daley was no hippy.

So you better darn well hope there's a magic transformative power in the internet, because there's none at all in the fable of how the hippies blew it in the 60s, or the fairy tale about how the big bad unions ruined the happy laborer's life of the 20s. MY had a shrewd idea in his post, but it's obviously going to be a while before it gets any substantive discussion.

Posted by: serial catowner | Oct 14, 2004 6:14:06 PM

I agreed with the previous poster. Very few of the comments address Matt's sober conclusion:

"The number of people involved (as the Dean campaign also showed) isn't a majority, isn't big enough to dominate the country, but it is enough people to combine with other progressive constituencies to form a majority. And it should get bigger over time."

I think this is a reasonable assessment. Me, I'll keep doing what we've been doing over the past year and see how it goes. No grand plans here.

Posted by: fnook | Oct 14, 2004 6:43:11 PM

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