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Taking Culture Seriously

Russell Arben Fox drags the "Democrats and Hollywood" stuff out of the gutter of political strategy and in to the loftier realms of political theory, putting some meat on the bones of Noam Scheiber's sketch of communitarian/liberal conflict within the left-of-center domain. Russell and I have some serious disagreements that will neither be bridged nor resolved in a blog exchange, but some enlightenment may still be found. Russell puts up a good argument for his side but, I think, erects a bit of a straw liberal in explaining my counterproposal:

And Matt, who--like so many of us--enjoys music and movies and art which includes content which in the real world many might well find highly distasteful, doesn't want to get into that fight. Do progressives, Matt asks, want to engage in a "values debates" with social or religious conservatives who find "pop cultural products which indicate that gay people are okay" to be distasteful? Of course not, he concludes. QED.
This -- that the cultural elite should rest on our laurels rather than engaging with the unappetizing views of the grubby masses -- is actually not my primary concern. Such engagement is necessary and important. I have, rather, two different kinds of concerns which, I think, are partially separable. One has to do with the autonomy of the aesthetic and one has to do with the proper role of the political. The question is not, "to engage or not to engage," rather the question is "who engages?" and "on what terms?"

Now of course it would be a shame if something I liked but that most people don't like got stifled because it was unpopular with the majority. Probably everyone could agree with that. But I'm not a hysteric, and I don't think the Index of Prohibited Books is just around the corner. Here's a worry that I voiced before, but perhaps downplayed too much. Not only is there music I like which includes content that "many might well find highly distasteful," there's music I like which I find distasteful in some respects. Immortal Technique's "Bin Laden" is a great tune. It's also a politically charged song. And it's politics are largely indefensible:

Bin Laden didn't blow up the projects
It was you, nigga
Tell the truth, nigga
(Bush knocked down the towers)--[Jadakiss]
Tell the truth, nigga
(Bush knocked down the towers)--[Jadakiss]
Tell the truth, nigga
If asked to defend that in political terms, I neither can nor will. But there it is in my iPod. I played it at a party we hosted. I tell my friends about it. I think it's a good song. Which is to say that I don't think I should have to defend the song in political terms. Not because I could defend it, but don't want to, either because I don't feel like it or because I'm afraid I would lose. But precisely because I can't defend it and still think it's a good song anyway. I liked The Passion of The Christ. I also thought it was somewhat anti-semitic. Black Hawk Down is a good movie whose war-mongering politics I abhor. Many of Shakespeare's plays are thinly-veiled apologias for the currently-on-top dynasty in the England of his time. But they're not just thinly-veiled apologias. Noting that they do (or at least did) have political meaning is an important part of writing or talking about these plays. But to make that the primary concern, the main lense through which you view them, would be absurd. People see that with works from the past, usually at least. Observers of the contemporary scene do a much worse job. Passion became a political football rather than a cinematic one.

This is unfortunate, not because it ends with the Federal Censorship Commission and book-burning (though I suppose it's possible it might lead to that), but because long before you got there you would just have created a small-minded and philistine public culture. Politics is important, but it's not everything. Insisting on the autonomy and integrity of the cultural sphere is important. One of the things that I really appreciated about Passion was specifically that it did this. It's no secret that traditionalists and religiously-minded folks of various sorts feel themselves to be marginalized in the cultural mainstream. All-too-often they seek to use their greater power in the political domain to try and win their cultural battles for them. This is bad. What's needed is less whining and more filmmaking. Movies, music, and television shows that contest the cultural mainstream in the cultural domain.

As a transition from "engage on what terms?" to "who engages?", note that there is a role for politics and policy here. Decisions made in congress effect the feasibility of bringing new voices to bear on the cultural dialogue. I've brought up à la carte cable in this regard before. The anti-trust laws are also relevant. So are the copyright laws. It's important for politicians to enact a policy environment that allows people of different views to contest values -- moral values, political values, and aesthetic values -- inside the cultural realm.

This sort of thing -- making policy -- is what politicians are for. Who engages? In my view, ideally, not politicians. This isn't what they're for. If Dan Gerstein wants to write op-eds decrying Friends then let's have at it. Friends is not above criticism. But Joe Lieberman shouldn't be doing this. If he wants to be a movie critic, or a rabbi, or whatever he should leave the Senate and let someone else write the laws. This is the old Rawlsian saw about "background culture" versus "politics." The point isn't that liberals shouldn't have substantive views, or should be afraid of controversies about substantive views. It's that liberal are characterized by the belief that the state shouldn't have substantive views about these things. Now, of course, Joe Lieberman isn't the state, as such. And I'm not dogmatic about this. If someone says, "Senator -- do you think Ross and Rachel will end up together?" and Lieberman's honest (it's important that it be honest and not just posturing) response is "To tell the truth, I don't watch the program, I think it's approach to sexuality sends a very bad message and I don't enjoy participating in that kind of thing" (or whatever) then he should say so. But for politicians -- and I really do mean politicians -- to go out of their way to enter into these debates leads, implicitly if not (often, at least) in practice to the idea that the state must take a stand.

And it simply doesn't have to. Any worldview that can't stand up in the midst of a vibrant cultural ocean needs to rethink itself more than it needs to try and dragoon political forces into supporting it. I often feel that America's religious traditionalists ought to engage in more self-congratulation. Despite -- or, I would argue, because of -- its inability to entrench itself as a European-style official religion, certain strains of American Protestantism have established themselves as far and away the most robust and viable religious force in the developed world. Traditionalists are perfectly capable of doing as I suggest -- fighting the fight in the background society, contesting secular culture in the cultural domain. There's all this stuff out there. Let it fight, let's argue, write, sing, film, etc. But preserving that sort of vibrancy -- the integrity, one might say, of America's various communities -- requires us not to subordinate the value of everything to the values of politics, and not to try and turn everything into the subject of collective political decision-making.

April 13, 2005 | Permalink

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» The Passion of the Aesthete from Sick Transit
Capping off a recent exchange in the blogosphere over Democratic positioning in the culture wars, Matthew Yglesias shows clearly why the two sides keep talking past each other: Not only is there music I like which includes content that "many might ... [Read More]

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Always absent from most culture war politics discussions is an understanding of how technology necessarily develops its own economies out of our unconscious needs and desires. Arousing content, or what's known as 'Porn', but which other people call 'f... [Read More]

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Always absent from most culture war politics discussions is an understanding of how technology necessarily develops its own economies out of our unconscious needs and desires. Arousing content, or what's known as 'Porn', but which other people call 'f... [Read More]

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Comments

Effective means to allow parents to control television for their kids is a good idea. A comment someone made yesterday about using "open source" show annotations and control made sense. It would be a good addition to a Tivo box since Tivo already knows what the shows are. Different organizations could anotate and suggest filtering for different shows, and even episodes. The user could select any filtering and annotations that they desire. It is good to move control away from the state but allow NGO's to reduce the burden for parents.

Posted by: joe o | Apr 13, 2005 3:01:43 PM

Exaactly correct. One really bad thing about these debates is that they cause art to be reduced to a sum of its political messages. (And Medvidism of the left is just as useless as its conservative counterpart.)

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Apr 13, 2005 3:24:19 PM

Matt,
An eloquent and elegant disquisition on the high ends of politics. What it lacks is any effort to grapple with what democratic politics *is.* Like it or not, politics is cultural, and always has been. That is so for the simple reason that many of the anxieties of voters are cultural in nature, and it's through addressing voter anxieties that your idealized classical republican statesmen get elected to make their high policies and draw their neat boundaries. Moreover, those anxieties are messy, having as much to do with internal, psychic conflicts as with actual cultural divisions. Politicians thus have to translate these anxieties into policy options--and here's where it starts getting maddening. For what they usually do is displace those anxieties on some politically vulnerable group (or one that wouldn't vote for them in a month of Sundays)--immigrants, Catholics, blacks, fundamentalists, gays. We can decry this all we want to [at least as long as we're not doing the demonization--and there's plenty of *that* in these precincts], but the fact of the matter is that it works. Why? Because cultural anxieties are, perhaps most of time, more *real* to ordinary voters than the complex, abstract questions you'd like our natural aristocracy to confine its attention to. What to do about the crisis in health care? [my hypothetical voter might say] Damned if I know--but I'd sure like the guys I vote for to care about my efforts to raise my kid. Amy Sullivan, Ed Kilgore and Co. [who, I should point out, are veterans of the political trenches, and have breathed real, manured air and not just the virtual air of the seminar room or the blogosphere]are, to my reading, simply pointing out this basic fact. The Republicans know this, and exploit the hell out of it; Bill Clinton knew it, and did the best job of any Democrat in my lifetime of trying to address those anxieties without threatening the basic values of freedom of choice and freedom of expression. But you and the rest of the left blogosphere want to deny it, and in the process deny that politics should be about people's actual concerns--insisting that it should be about what *you* think their concerns should be. And this is where you people start sounding really snotty and insulting ["If they can't raise their children properly, why is that my concern?" etc.]. Sorry, but in a democracy "those people" constitute, if not the whole, at least a good chunk of "the sovereign"; and complaining about how disgusting it is to "pander" to them basically hands them over to the *real* panderers.

Posted by: David | Apr 13, 2005 3:24:31 PM

Nicely done. But shouldn't there be a cite to Habermas in there?

Posted by: lemuel pitkin | Apr 13, 2005 3:43:21 PM

David, it may be politically useful to address these concerns, but let's not pretend we are doing something valuable in a policy sense. It's saying things to get elected, and that's that.

Posted by: Carlos | Apr 13, 2005 3:48:18 PM

David is a smartypants.

Posted by: Robin the Hood | Apr 13, 2005 3:54:23 PM

"Insisting on the autonomy and integrity of the cultural sphere is important."

"One really bad thing about these debates is that they cause art to be reduced to a sum of its political messages."

Sounds like a false dilemma to me. We can deny the "autonomy of the aesthetic"--i.e. see cultural products as having political and moral components, antecedents, and consequences--without thereby saying that those are the *only* properties they have, i.e. "reducing them to the political".

Aesthetic products--whether a piece of rap music or The Merchant of Venice--have all kinds of complicated connections to politics and morals, and are legitimately judged along those axes, as well as others. Saying that the M. of V. is anti-semitic certainly does not *exhaust* what can be said about it, and it may not even say one of the top 50 most important things to be said. But to insist on the "autonomy of the aesthetic" is to deny it can be said at all. And that seems like a position you take only when you're in the grip of an ideology.

Furthermore, the cost of seriously advocating the "autonomy of the aesthetic" is that art can have no positive effects in moral improvement--it cannot make us wiser, kinder, better people. It's just entertainment. That may well be a good defensive posture for pop-culture mongers to take, but it is not a serious stance for people who take culture seriously.

I take culture seriously. I think that some elements of some art can be uplifting and ennobling. As a corollary of that belief, I think that some elements of some art can be degrading and brutalizing.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Apr 13, 2005 3:57:23 PM

Carlos, that's exactly the point. For many people, politics isn't about policy. It's about community, or perhaps you could even call it self-expression. You vote for a candidate because that's the person you want representing you, not because you want to enact policy options A, B, and C.

So yeah, let's pander. And if this means that politicians end up not sharing the values of us social libertarians, well, who the hell cares? We're the ones who only care about policies, so having representatives who denounce our cultural consumption patterns shouldn't bother us.

My only concern is that we could have real effects that don't result from government action per se. Such as even more corporate censorship by Wal-Mart et al. Then again, there's always Amazon.

Posted by: AlanC9 | Apr 13, 2005 4:05:06 PM

So yeah, let's pander. And if this means that politicians end up not sharing the values of us social libertarians, well, who the hell cares? We're the ones who only care about policies, so having representatives who denounce our cultural consumption patterns shouldn't bother us.

Very well put. I would put up with a million Joe Liebermans tut-tutting my taste in films if it got us a decent healthcare system.
I think that in this regard libertarians have us beat. You rarely ever hear libertarians decry the prudishness of the religious right.

What I still don't get is how feelings of anxiety about the state of our culture can be so pervasive while crass popular culture is so popular. I mean who's watching Desperate Housewives?

Posted by: WillieStyle | Apr 13, 2005 4:32:51 PM

Mr. David,

Bravo. You are entirely correct.

I have to add - the state is not just a policy engine. It has a symbolic and ritual role. The president is a tribal chieftain as much as anything else, he has immense if indirect influence. Much as a lot of people may want it to be so the personal and the political cannot easily be separated. And the Republicans understand this too, much better than the Democrats, or most of them.

Posted by: luisalegria | Apr 13, 2005 4:41:08 PM

Mr. Williestyle,

"What I still don't get is how feelings of anxiety about the state of our culture can be so pervasive while crass popular culture is so popular. I mean who's watching Desperate Housewives?"

This is not strange at all. People are complex, they usually know the good, while lacking the strength to implement it. How many alcoholics are truly happy being alcoholics ?

Posted by: luisalegria | Apr 13, 2005 4:44:46 PM

"It's important for politicians to enact a policy environment that allows people of different views to contest values -- moral values, political values, and aesthetic values -- inside the cultural realm."

Yes, although with respect to my own church I'm not sure how many people would tune into the Anglican channel. While I am probably dorky enough to tune into eleven hours a day of the Archbishop of Canterbury issuing various pronouncements and vacuuming the rectory of St. Paul's Cathedral (because we're Anglicans, and housework is a man's work too you know), and the bishop of Gloucester reading "the Four Quartets" to schoolchildren, I'm really not sure this would be of much interest to the public at large.

Posted by: Robin the Hood | Apr 13, 2005 4:50:26 PM

Robin the Hood -- don't forget the 6-part miniseries based on the life of Orlando Gibbons. Also, wasn't it a little arriviste for Jesus to change the wine at Cana to better wine than that served by the host (John 2:10)? It seems very un-Episcopalian.

To the point, though, I have always felt that marriage, family life, ethics, etc. were strong in themselves and therefore did not need nearly as much defending from the state as many seemed to think. Unless they are, in fact, helpless before capitalism -- all that is solid melts into air, etc. In fact, you could read Desperate Housewives (which admittedly I've only seen twice) as a comment on the pretty pass our consumerismo way of life leads us to.

It seems like you could make an argument here for massive arts subsidies in order to provide a bulwark against the soulless products of the market.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Apr 13, 2005 5:32:02 PM

Mr. Williestyle,

"What I still don't get is how feelings of anxiety about the state of our culture can be so pervasive while crass popular culture is so popular. I mean who's watching Desperate Housewives?"

This is not strange at all. People are complex, they usually know the good, while lacking the strength to implement it. How many alcoholics are truly happy being alcoholics ?


I suppose the era of small goverment really is over, if so many people want such a paternal role for the government.
Still, I'm not sure how right you are Mr. Alegria.
How popular would a politician be if he succeeded in banning Desperate Housewives or Brittany Spears videos. Seems to me the culture warriors are at their strongest when they campaign against stuff the average person has no use for like buggery. Ban Playboy and I have a feeling there'd be hell to pay at the polls.

I suppose what voters want is not a leader who will get rid of these vices, merely one who feels as guilty about them as they do. Or something. People are strange.

Posted by: WillieStyle | Apr 13, 2005 5:57:12 PM

Mr. Williestyle,

How right you are. People are strange. The public does desire incompatible things.

And then there is the matter of government vs community. Mrs. Clinton was right, it does take a village. Unfortunately for the Democrats it isn't really their sort of village - the important village is not really a formal structure but an informal and tacit one; nor are the important matters regarding the nature of the village something that formal laws can affect very much. But paradoxically a democratic politician is still a leader of both the formal and informal village.

A political leader is not just someone who is the formal locus of legal power, but he is also an informal "chieftain" of that village. I think this idea is pretty hard-coded in humanity. People look up to leaders in both a formal and informal sense.

Posted by: luisalegria | Apr 13, 2005 6:19:35 PM

"If Dan Gerstein wants to write op-eds decrying Friends then let's have at it. Friends is not above criticism. But Joe Lieberman shouldn't be doing this. If he wants to be a movie critic, or a rabbi, or whatever he should leave the Senate and let someone else write the laws."

Dead wrong, I think.

As long as Holy Joe isn't trying to actually censor Friends, let him demagogue all he likes. It's worth walking this thing back to the actual Sister Souljah moment. What was Clinton doing other than voicing music criticism?

I have nothing against Democratic politicians using cultural strawmen to voice solidarity with the voters out there who feel overwhelmed by degenerate art, even if I don't agree with them on the merits of their artistic criticism.

And a much more important point than worrying about artistic criticism from the Senate floor is trying to get across a pro-active liberal response to those who do feel overwhelmed by degenerate art. The conservative response is based censorship. The liberal response should be proudly and loudly based on choice and freedom.

And what are the policy contours of this liberal response?

V-Chips, ala carte cable pricing, pressure on the film and video game industries to enforce their ratings systems, strict over-the-air broadcast indecency standards, consumer oriented protection from spam, etc...

The organizing philosophy should always be to give consumers and parents more choice and freedom in what art they want themselves and their family to come in contact with. There has to be a third way between censorship and telling people "Boobies won't hurt you, morons!"

Smut for those who want smut. Protection from smut for those who want protection from smut.

The Democratic Party should be about empowering families to make choices. The only alternatives are censorship or handing the GOP a potent values issue.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 13, 2005 6:28:36 PM

Thanks for the link, Matt. Lots of good comments here, and I think many of them overlap on the basic related points I want to make. First, that it is both important (because it will connect progressives to worried parents and moderate religious voters) and good (because, as Tad puts it "some art can be uplifting and ennobling" and "some elements of some art can be degrading and brutalizing") for political leaders to engage in cultural affirmation and condemnation on occasion. Second, that doing so has both substantive and symbolic value. And third, as Petey says, pointing back to Sister Souljah, Clinton showed us that serious moral affirmation without censorship can nonetheless still work.

"I have always felt that marriage, family life, ethics, etc. were strong in themselves and therefore did not need nearly as much defending from the state as many seemed to think. Unless they are, in fact, helpless before capitalism--all that is solid melts into air, etc. In fact, you could read Desperate Housewives...as a comment on the pretty pass our consumerismo way of life leads us to."

Careful Delicious Pundit--you'll end up making us left traditionalists' point for us. Generally speaking, do I think the family is helpless before capitalism? No. But, as Ed Kilgore wrote in his original comment on this piece, consumer capitalism today makes its effects known through technology which is enormously invasive--electronic media, the internet, the union between popular entertainment and fashion, etc.--and it is reasonable to argue that families today need a more "affirmative" state to support their efforts to carve out an equally affirmative space within the relentless creative destruction of capitalism.

Lastly, I don't think art should be reduced to politics. But I don't see why political leaders--who are, after all, supposedly our representatives--should, therefore, be restricted from reflecting popular concerns about art either.

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox | Apr 13, 2005 10:27:42 PM

"Robin the Hood -- don't forget the 6-part miniseries based on the life of Orlando Gibbons. Also, wasn't it a little arriviste for Jesus to change the wine at Cana to better wine than that served by the host (John 2:10)? It seems very un-Episcopalian."

Yes, although the Episcopal priest who was the chaplain at my high school, and one of my English teachers, occasionally showed up to class with the faint whiff of something special on his breath. And since he habitually insisted that we should have good taste - in hot dogs ("if you're going to eat a hot dog, have the best hot dog") restaurants, cigarettes (apparently one should smoke American or British cigarettes, not French, in case anyone is wondering), and probably quite a few other things I just can't remember right now - I'm assuming this dictum applied to liquor as well.

Posted by: Robin the Hood | Apr 13, 2005 11:03:02 PM

But I don't see why political leaders--who are, after all, supposedly our representatives--should, therefore, be restricted from reflecting popular concerns about art either.

The concern from my side of this debate (and you might call it an example of a slippery-slope fallacy) is that it's a pretty natural progression from talk to action. It's not a big stretch for the public, hearing their politicians agree with them about the culture, to move to "then why don't you do something about it!"

If we can limit the actual policies that are enacted to the sort of things Petey is advocating, as well as Matt when he said "public action aimed at facilitating private action seems to me to be the appropriate response" in a previous post, great! I've got no objections to v-chips and a-la-carte cable pricing. But there is a legitimate concern that things won't stop there.

(I also happen to think that we're quibbling over a small minority of people anyway... There's far more people happlily watching this stuff than complaning about it, remember how one conservative group was responsible for almost all the FCC complaints? I suspect that perhaps this loud minority gets more attention that it deserves, but that's an argument for another day.)

Posted by: cwk | Apr 13, 2005 11:20:48 PM

These were brilliant observations by Matt, David, and Tad.

I would quibble with David's and Tad's implications (as I read them), though, in that taking people's concerns seriously need not, and often shouldn't, entail taking their particular ideas seriously. To address concern over the perceived difficulty of raising kids to be responsible, caring adults, one ought not entertain parental demands for legislation censoring broadcast media or school curricula, or restricting illegal aliens' children's access to public services. To be sure, we should provide constructive, inclusive proposals such as after-school programs and more family leave. But there's a difference between recognizing the needs that prompt voters' anxieties and pandering by legislative or pseudo-art-criticism so as to allegedly address that anxiety directly, an effort bound to fail in the short term.

Displaced rage has a peculiar, tenacious appeal that liberal wannabes can't satiate, as the enormous success of anti-intellectual and mostly conservative political talk radio attests (see the David Foster Wallace April 2005 Atlantic cover story "Host"). You can only compete with such anger by offering a calibrated mix of a taste of cultural freedom -- of the distinct emotional rewards of an artistic Weltanschauung (see, for instance, Danny Goldberg's stories in the American Prospect archives on the political impact of music and youth culture on young voters ... and of course, it's foolish to imply that there's only art in blue-state culture) and superior argumentation, with some punchy metaphors, concise formulations, and authentic (not the same as unrehearsed) speaking style to boot (on this last, I say again, Dem candidates have much to learn from President Clinton still).

In trying to imitate the arms-crossed anti-culture crowed, progressives respond too literally, rather than in the symbolic terms that befit what are after all mostly displaced and symbolic complaints, to anger over such phenomena as salacious TV. They not only cede the legitimate degree of autonomy culture possesses, as Matt rightly affirms, but err politically, viewed from the long term. Remember the old saying that politics is show business for ugly people? It says something real about a certain brand of politics that irritates people over time but generates guilt and a desire to appease in the short term. Cultural vibrancy as an orientation wins hearts and minds in the end, notwithstanding its chaotic profusion at any given time. (Freedom's untidy, as someone pithily said in a much less defensible cause.) I'm hardly the first to observe that pop music did an enormous amount to bring down the Berlin Wall and some of the more odious cultural prohibitions in modern Iran. Political theorizing, including its unsavory bipartisan populist cousin -- waxing frantic about family vulnerability -- did not do much for social or political liberation or for anyone's development that I can see.

The most important solutions to bad art are good art and good art criticism. And effective political leadership can import some ideas from these fields, one of which ideas is that inspiring and extending the public imagination and public sphere is more meaningful and effective, and more difficult, than the shallow but inexhaustible engagement achieved by catering to common fears, which diminishes the public imagination and thus recreates the conditions for further anti-cultural moralizing down the road in a vicious circle that narrows the public square toward a party line.

Posted by: inip | Apr 14, 2005 12:19:06 AM

My admittedly verbose point above becomes clearer if you add the following words to the last sentence of the first full paragraph: "and long term alike, for different reasons" (and in the same sentence, while I'm at it, I meant to write "legislative means").

Posted by: inip | Apr 14, 2005 12:37:57 AM

Matt: "...liberals are characterized by the belief that the state shouldn't have substantive views about these things."

I think you meant to say libertarians, Matt.

I don't believe in allowing predatory capitalist profiteers to pollute, for their own selfish and shortsighted greed, our rivers, lakes, or airwaves.

The idea that TV critics and op-ed columnists are going to somehow awaken us all and drive Friends off the air... that's beyond laughable. If you want something to happen, there has to be a mechanism to make it happen.

Posted by: herostratus | Apr 14, 2005 1:44:58 AM

The user could select any filtering and annotations that they desire.

I don't know about you, but I already have this with my cable system. I can filter by movie rating, TV rating, channel, or individual show, or any combination thereof. It's pretty easy to navigate, too.

Posted by: hamletta | Apr 14, 2005 2:42:21 AM

italics off.

Posted by: mk | Apr 14, 2005 10:28:17 AM

ooh, sneaky. We have to do it again.

Italics off

Posted by: mk | Apr 14, 2005 10:31:00 AM

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