Two Conceptions of Society

I usually think of myself as a night owl. For example, I usually write this blog after midnight. Right now it’s just after midnight.

But in recent times I’ve been finding myself waking up in the morning with an idea about something, very often something to do with smoking bans. And a couple of days back I woke up with an idea which I’d like to reconstruct before I forget it:

I’m very much an individualist. I see the world as made up of individual people. And I see ‘society’ as being all the connections between those people, like a big web, almost like an internet. Society, in my view, is made up of people. They’re the bricks, and they’re bound together by the mortar of friendship, family, creed, nationality, and so on.

But the tobacco controllers (and all the other controllers) seem to see things a bit differently. They seem to see ‘society’ as a kind of separate entity, like a house or something. And they see people as primarily members of society, like people who live in houses. So ‘society’ is like a huge building that everyone lives inside.

For them this ‘society’ is the primary entity, and it is from this society that individuals learn everything they ever know, like their names and the language they speak and pretty much everything else they know about anything. The individual is the creation of society. And so the individual is secondary.

And just like engineers engage in large scale engineering projects, like building houses and cities and roads and railways and dams, the controllers see themselves as engineers engaged in another kind of large scale engineering project: they’re trying to re-engineer ‘society’. They’re engaged in a social engineering project just like other engineers are engaged in civil engineering projects. And specifically, they’re trying to make society ‘smoke-free’, and also ‘carbon-neutral’, and in Europe they’re trying to construct a European Union that is a new superstate. There are a whole bunch of social engineering projects under way at the moment. And the goal is to make the huge building called ‘society’ smoke-free and carbon-neutral and have a little circlet of stars as the flag on top of it.

I can sort of see what they’re trying to do. There’s this thing called ‘society’ and they’re trying to re-organise and re-engineer it just like civil engineers drive tunnels and canals through hills as they reshape geography. And just like civil engineers with mountains, they see society as something that can be chopped up and moved around and reshaped. So they bring in smoking bans and all sorts of other rules and regulations to bulldoze people into conformity with their plans, just like civil engineers blast and bulldoze the surface of the earth.

Underlying it all is the idea that ‘society’ exists unconditionally as a monolithic entity, however much it gets chopped up and bulldozed, just like the material world that the civil engineers are chopping up and bulldozing exists as part of a monolithic entity called the Earth, which is a 6000 km radius sphere of solid matter. More or less whatever you do to the Earth,  it will remain. And society is the same. However much you chop it up and bulldoze it, there always be a society, just like there’ll always be an Earth.

Anyway, that’s how they seem to think. They see themselves as social engineers no different from civil engineers or mechanical or electrical engineers. And they see themselves as just as well-meaning and progressive and as scientific as any of those sorts of engineers. It’s just that they’re re-wiring and rebuilding ‘society’ rather than a city or a house or a ship.

But I don’t think the way they think. For while I think that there is such a thing as society, I don’t think it’s an indestructible monolithic entity-in-itself. That’s because I see society as made of bonds of one sort or other tying people together. And, the way I see it, when the ties binding people together are broken, society disintegrates. Because society is nothing but the ties binding people together.

If they’re right about the monolithic nature of society, it will endure more or less whatever is done to it. It can be chopped up and bulldozed and relocated and buried as much as the social engineers like, and there will still be the thing called ‘society’ at the end of it. People may not like the re-engineering work while it’s being done, just like they don’t like a new road or railway or canal being built a few hundred yards away. But they’ll get used to it in the end,  And they’ll come to love the new smoke-free and carbon-neutral society with the EU  flag fluttering over it, just like they soon get to like the new roads and railways even if they protested against them at first.

But if I’m right, all these utopian social engineering schemes are not ‘improving’ society at all: they are instead destroying society. It is, after all, my own experience of the social engineering project that is the smoking ban: it shattered the communities of which I was a member. In fact, I regard myself as having been expelled from society. And the same process is at work in all the other social engineering projects. The EU social engineering project is shattering the ties that bind nations and peoples together. And the dystopian future that beckons would seem to be one in which ‘society’, as a network of ties between individuals, has ceased to exist.

The contrast between the two ideas of society, mine and theirs, crystallised into the idea of a sculptor. The social engineers see themselves as being like sculptors who set  out to give shape and form and meaning to a block of marble (i.e. unreconstructed ‘society’), and create something new and beautiful. But I think that, as they rain down their blows on society, chiselling holes in it, they’re just going shatter the whole block, and end up with a pile of rubble. Because societies are not like marble. If anything, they’re more like sand or water. Or flesh and blood. And so all their social engineering projects will end in disaster, because they are based upon radical misconceptions about the nature and durability of the thing called ‘society’.

Such was the thought I woke up with a day or so back,

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The First Principle of Self

One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that when public figures reveal themselves to be antismokers, any good opinion I might have had for them evaporates in about two seconds flat.

Conversely, when I learn that some public figure or other is a smoker, I feel a distinct glow of warmth for them, even if they have a few other undesirable characteristics – like being serial killers.

I can’t say that I ever had a particularly high opinion of Will Self. His chief claim to fame seems to have been that he (allegedly) snorted coke on a Prime Ministerial jet. As a writer I always found him a bit pompous, and seemingly forever in search of edgy and novel ways of stating the obvious, as if simple English was too tedious to use.

Anyway, he appeared on Question Time back in 2006 or 2007, back when I still had a TV set, to tell smokers that “The game’s up,”and how they’d have to pack in their habit and clean up their act. It was sneering, jeering little lecture he delivered. I could feel my hackles rise, and whatever good opinion I might have had for him draining away, never to revive.

Somebody bought me one of his books a few years ago, but I never managed to even open it. I seldom throw books away, but this is one that I’d happily drop into a street trash can, to end its life buried in a pile of empty cigarette packs and  soggy cigarette butts.

This weekend, Dick Puddlecote’s link tank featured an article by him in Esquire. It seemed he’d become an avid vaper, and was now singing the praises of vaping, and explaining how much better it was than smoking:

I realised what successful vaping required was a suspension of disbelief: it was important not to think of it as a substitute for smoking at all, because there were so many fundamental differences.

The taste of the e-liquid was cleaner and more wholesome than tobacco; the throat hit was more accurately targeted and so less harsh; and the vapour cloud wasn’t like the smoke one at all. At a subconscious level, the tobacco-smoker registers his smoke: the bluey shreds and curlicues pluming from the lit tip; the brownish puffs and mini-cumuli expelled from the damp lungs; all are combined into a miniature atmosphere that enshrouds Planet Me.

It is this profound sense of autonomy gifted by his personal thunderhead that makes it possible for the smoker to ignore the reality: he’s just one more of the myriad drones whose behaviour is severely restricted – and whose lifespan is severely curtailed – by this picayune addiction.

But vaping produces only water vapour, and whether inhaled or not, the vape cloud has the same hue and dynamic: a steamy, greyish-white plume that rapidly disperses into the kind of sfumato Renaissance painters delighted in creating, a tawny-golden haze, softening the Apennine peaks ahead and filling in the Umbrian valleys behind.

As ever, he can’t just say “insignificant” or “petty”, but has to dig out “picayune”. And he can’t just say “hazy”, but must employ “sfumato” instead. He knows, of course, that most people probably won’t know what either word means. But that’s the whole point. It’s a way of trampling upon his readers, rubbing their noses in their ignorance, and reminding them that Will Self knows a lot more words than they ever will.

And of course he takes a sneering swipe at smokers, whose “brownish puffs enshroud Planet Me” and “make it possible for them to ignore the reality” that they are “myriad drones”. By contrast vapour is “cleaner and more wholesome” and the throat hit “more accurately targeted and so less harsh” and “not like smoke at all”.

But what emerges in this over-long article is that he was a smoker himself for over 25 years, on occasion hitting 100 a day. He seems to have given up, or cut down, some time around 2000. So when he he was lecturing Question Time’s smokers, he’d only recently become the worst sort of antismoking ex-smoker. Unless of course he was into his pipe craze phase by then.

What emerges is someone who can never do things by halves. He has to throw himself headlong into the deep end.  First with cigarettes. Then pipes. Now vaping.  And at each step his former enthusiams must be derided and belittled, and his latest flame lauded to the skies – like girlfriends who are sublimely beautiful while they’re with him, but who becomes fat slags the moment they leave.

Yet he can see what’s coming:

Take my word on it: within five years, vaping will be under strict controls of one sort or another; either medical ones, so that you have to get a prescription for e-liquid, or commercial ones that make it prohibitively expensive (and stop the market diversifying).

Either way, THEY will do all they can to stop the fun. So, take my advice, and get steaming while you can, because only that way will you have the opportunity to find out what it feels like not just to be an ex-smoker, but a former vaper as well.

Because don’t you just know that, in five years time, Will Self will be an ex-vaper, and will be telling another Question Time audience that “The game’s up” for vapers. Because by then he will have been there and done that too, and will be poised ready to scoff and sneer at vapers like he already does at smokers.

And one thing you’ll never find him doing is offering any resistance to the tidal wave of rules and regulations that is overwhelming everybody. Because he surfs that tsunami, and his principal goal is to ride it ahead of everybody else as it sweeps through the streets. For the first principle of Self is self. So by the time smoking bans arrived, he’d given up smoking. And when vaping bans are enacted, he will have given up vaping. And when writers start being persecuted and imprisoned, he will of course have given up writing as well, and will be the first to deride writers and their compulsion to write – and particularly to write emptily and pretentiously, as he did all his life.

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Perfect Circle

At last, an opportunity to use my Putin cartoon.

It’s just a rumour, but I’ve been expecting that something like this will happen.

According to Spiegel, citing a senior figure in the ruling Syriza party, Greece is poised to sign a gas deal with Russia as early as Tuesday which could bring up to €5 billion into the depleted Greek coffers….

…the Russian leader is not acting out of the kindness of his heart, but merely engaging in another calculated move, one which kills two birds with one stone:

Following the death of the South Stream, whereby the EU pressured Bulgaria to refuse passage of the Russian gas pipeline to Europe, Russia needed an alternative route of bypassing Ukraine (and Bulgaria) entirely, something which according to Kremlin’s plan should happen over the next 3 years. And with Hungary and Serbia all eager to transit Russian gas to the Austrian central european gas hub, Greece was the missing link for a landline transit. With this agreement, Russia gets the green light to extend the Blue Stream all the way to Austria and preserve its dominance over the European energy market while leaving Ukraine in a complete bargaining vacuum.

Perhaps just as importantly, suddenly Russia will emerge as the generous benefactor riding to Greece’s salvation, in turn even further antagonizing the Eurozone and further cementing favorable public opinion. As a reminder, several weeks ago we showed that Russia already has a higher approval rating among the Greek population than the Eurozone. In this way, Russia has just won a critical ally for the very low price of just €5 billion, without even having to restructure the entire Greek balance sheet should Greece have exited the euro and been attracted to the Eurasian Economic Union. Which also means that all future attempts to impose further sanctions on Russia by Europe will fail thanks to the Greek veto vote. (slightly edited for readability)


Finally, for those confused about the flow of funds, here it is:

Russia (Gazprom) gives Greece money, which Greece uses to repay the IMF, which uses the Greek money to fund a loan to Kiev, which uses the IMF loan to pay Russia (Gazprom).

A perfect circle.

Given this perfect circle, I don’t see what’s to stop Russia simply paying Greece’s debts, especially if it’s going to get the money back via Ukraine.

putin-tracePutin would seem to be holding all the cards. By paying Greece’s debts, it would make Greece dependent on Russia, and keep it exercising its European veto on Russia’s behalf. Also, by paying Greece’s debts, it would be preventing a Greek default which could bring down the European banking system, with the implicit threat that it could precipitate such a crisis any time it liked. And in the process it would be able in a few years to export gas to Europe via Turkey and Greece, and be able apply pressure on Ukraine (by turning off gas supplies completely).

Greece offers Russia a back door into the EU, and they’ll want to keep Greece in the EU, acting as a Russian proxy. It might be Tsipras who attends EU conferences, but it may as well be Putin.

I’ve been expecting a Greek default almost any day. But now I wonder whether Greece will now “unexpectedly” manage to keep paying its debts, stave off bankruptcy, and remain in the EU.

All thanks to Uncle Vlad. Who, despite being an antismoker, may yet turn out to be the man to bring down the EU, and with it the EU smoking ban.

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NOLA Update

New Orleans’ smoking ban comes into force next week:

…though progressive lawmakers are excited about the new regulations, bar owners in the French Quarter and other parts of town are not too happy about being told what they can and cannot do at their private business.

In an article by the Gambit this week, bar owners from Pat O’Brien’s, Cosimo’s Bar and Buffa’s Lounge and Restaurant all spoke about their distaste for the city’s decision to pile on more business regulations and limiting business with what they can allow.

  In January, Cosimo’s owner Ray Hummel pleaded with Mayor Mitch Landrieu to veto the smoke-free measure, which had passed the New Orleans City Council. Hummel estimates 80 to 90 percent of his customers are smokers, and if Cosimo’s loses 20 percent in sales, he’ll be out of business. His plea, posted on Facebook, went viral.

“This is not a matter of smoking or non-smoking,” Hummel wrote. “This is a matter of CHOICE. Adult civil liberties CHOICE.”

A few blocks from Cosimo’s is Buffa’s Lounge & Restaurant, which allows smoking in its front bar but prohibits smoking in a back bar where there are tables, chairs and a stage that often hosts live music. Owner Chuck Rogers made the change to the back bar so Buffa’s would be able to accommodate smokers and nonsmokers — but on April 22, both rooms will have to be smoke-free.

“It’s something every bar in New Orleans is going to have to do,” Rogers said. “We’re in the same boat as any other bar. It was easy enough before the smoking ban. … We have the best of both worlds. We have that unique ability to do that. A lot of places don’t. Now that the city is making it mandatory… well, people will have to step out.”

“This shouldn’t be forced down our throat,” Pat O’Brien’s owner Shelly Waguespack told Gambit. “I appreciate the councilwoman’s energy and passion for this, but as businesspeople we have many other pressing things to worry about.”

Dick Puddlecote sent me a link a couple of days ago, asking:

Haven’t the local authority been saying that smoking bans won’t hurt the casino businesses? In which case, why are they delaying declaring what they will be able to fund with gambling money if they’re so confident?

And here’s Firebug in New Orleans, with Juliette Tworsey on vocals. Her blog will no doubt have news:


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Handy UK Politics Advice

Chris Snowdon has a resumé of the main UK parties manifestos with respect to lifestyle. Here’s UKIP’s entry:


UKIP explicitly opposes minimum pricing and will “reverse plain packaging legislation for tobacco.” They will also amend the smoking ban “to give pubs and clubs the choice to open smoking rooms provided they are properly ventilated and physically separated from non-smoking areas”.

As a bonus, they plan to save half a billion pounds a year by “Clamping down on so-called ‘fake charities,’ or state-funded political activism.” Excellent and very relevant since the nanny state enterprise is led by state-funded ‘charities’.

These sensible policies are slightly offset by a promise to “update licensing laws” by limiting the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals from £100 to £2.

As they intend to hold an EU referendum, the awful e-cigarette regulations in the Tobacco Products Directive won’t apply if the public votes to leave (this also applies to the Tories if Cameron keeps his promise).

No mention of food or soft drinks, presumably because they plan to leave them alone.

Verdict: Liberal in the uncorrupted sense of the word.

UKIP has its own larger summary of the UKIP manifesto.

Simon Clark is doing a useful series of posts on marginal constituencies where smokers can vote for their political friends, or against their political enemies. The first entry is Nigel Farage:

#1 – Thanet South
Whatever you think of Ukip in general (and I have my reservations), party leader Nigel Farage has been a consistent and outspoken opponent of comprehensive smoking bans and other tobacco control policies. Ukip’s manifesto commitment to amending the smoking ban in pubs and repealing the plain packaging legislation bears Farage’s personal stamp so he deserves support for sticking to his convictions in a hostile environment. If elected Farage will be the first unapologetic smoker in the House of Commons since Ken Clarke, a sad reflection of our PC age. (One MP admitted to me that he smokes but never in his constituency for fear his constituents will see him.) If Farage falls short (comedian Al Murray is also standing in Thanet South) Ukip will lose its leader and smokers will be denied a potentially influential voice in parliament.

2010 Conservative majority: 7,617 (16.6%)
Estimated number of smokers in Thanet South: 14,068*
Principal opponent: Craig Mackinlay (Conservative)
Nigel Farage, friend or foe: Friend
Target rating: Too close to call

On comedian Al Murray:

It’s the moment voters have been waiting for: Al Murray’s Free United Kingdom Party (FUKP) has unveiled its ‘manifesto’ – on the back of a fag packet.

The Pub Landlord comedian is standing against Nigel Farage in South Thanet as a parody campaign.


This isn’t the first time UKIP have found themselves up against a party with similar name. How many people are going to tick FUKP instead of UKIP?

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The Injustice of the Smoking Ban

Jax left a great comment late last night, so I’m going to reproduce it here:

I certainly object to the smoking ban for much more than just because of the negative effect it has had on me personally. In many ways, it is more concerning to me because this particular piece of legislation runs so contrary to so many of the basic principles for which the law should stand, and, legally speaking, it has had several pretty fundamental deleterious effects. For example:

1. No matter how it’s worded, in effect it’s the first piece of legislation which makes one adult (a pub landlord) more harshly punishable for an offence committed by another adult (a smoker lighting up in his pub) than the person actually committing the offence – to my mind, a dangerous deviation away from one of the most basic principles of British law that “if you do the crime, you do the time.”

2. It’s unfair, plain and simple. The wording of the Health Act makes it quite plain that it, as a law, is “against” one group and “for” another. For a piece of legislation to so blatantly favour one group of people over another, again, runs completely contrary to the whole purpose of having laws at all. Laws are, after all, supposed to ensure that – as far as is possible in a complex and imperfect world – everyone has a chance to be treated fairly. Isn’t that why it’s called the “justice” system? Where’s the justice in a law which only sets out to protect the interests of one group, at the direct expense of another?

3. It’s supplied a template law which can (and I have no doubt will) be used in any context, on the basis that “well, it was OK, and massively popular, and hugely successful, and saved countless lives, etc etc etc” for smoking, so why not apply it to [latest Proclaimed Evil]?” When the Public Drinking Ban, or the Town Driving Ban, or the Fried Foods Ban, or whatever else comes in, as it surely will, I’ll bet the wording of the actual legislation will be almost identical with just a bit of tweaking. So one bad law will form the foundation for a whole host of others.

4. It’s unreasonable, by very determinedly and deliberately giving no quarter to smokers at all. How on earth is a Man in a Van, alone, having a cigarette on his way home, hurting anyone else at all with his “passive smoke?” Why is it not permitted that a group of smokers start up a members-only pub or club of their own, with only smoker members permitted and only staffed by smokers? How would that hurt non-smokers? And isn’t the law supposed to be the very embodiment of “reasonable?” Reasonable force, punishment to fit the crime, mitigating/aggravating factors and all that. Isn’t that an attempt to keep things in perspective, i.e. “reasonable.” So, doesn’t an unreasonablelaw such as this show a worrying move away from reasonability and towards a dictatorial approach? Is that really what we want our laws to be – a bludgeon to force people to do as they are told?

5. It’s essentially protected the intolerant, the rude, the selfish, the demanding and the uncompromising in our society, i.e. the very people whom the law should be reining in rather than encouraging, and given them legitimacy. By enshrining in law the fact that it was OK for people to be prejudiced against smokers, it’s essentially approved prejudice per se. Prejudice, it has essentially said, is sometimes OK. And that is a terrible thing for any law to say. Ever. Intolerance and self-righteousness in this country has increased exponentially over the last decade, in no small part due to the subtle but nonetheless very easily-understood message given out by this wicked piece of legislation.

6. It’s given hope to a multitude of off-shoot groups who are against this, that or the other “pet peeve,” that they can “achieve the same success in respect of ….., as the anti-smoking movement has” It’s given countless busybody campaigners hope that they in turn will manage to “denormalise” whatever it is that they don’t like and has spurred them on to greater efforts in trying to become the “new ASH,” with the result that we now have Action on Sugar, the Alcohol Health Alliance, BRAKE, the National Obesity Forum and CASH snapping eagerly at our freedoms, too. If this law had been strangled at birth they’d all still be sitting in their little boxes, quiet as mice.

So, a bad law all round, for all number of reasons. And therefore one which, in a civilised country such as we like to think we are (although sometimes I do wonder whether we still are), should – and would – be watered down, relaxed or, better still, repealed altogether.

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The Long Retreat in the Culture War

Some of my commenters (e.g. Walt and Mikef) don’t think much of Pat Buchanan, but a recent piece by him seemed to get something right.

Politics follows culture. And the cultural revolution of the ’60s is triumphant. Traditional Christianity, driven out of schools and the public square, is being whipped back into the churches and told to stay there.

America has gone over to the revolution.

Looking back, the sweep of the capitulation becomes stark.

First came the plea of atheists not to have their children forced to participate in prayers at school. Fair enough. Americans do not believe in compelling people to do as they disbelieve.

Then followed the demand that no child be exposed to prayers or religious books, including the Bible, nor have any day or week set aside as a holiday if connected to Christianity.

Out went Christmas and Easter. In came winter break and spring break. Coaches of high school teams were ordered to dispense with prayers before games. The coaches complied.

First came the non-smokers who didn’t want to inhale secondhand smoke. Fair enough, they could have their own non-smoking areas. Then followed the demand that nobody (particularly chiiiildren) be exposed to secondhand smoke, and the non-smoking areas multiplied. And with public smoking bans pub landlords were required to eject anyone seen smoking.  The landlords complied.

…the process has been steadily proceeding for generations.

First comes a call for tolerance for those who believe and behave differently. Then comes a plea for acceptance.

Next comes a demand for codifying in law a right to engage in actions formerly regarded as debased or criminal. Finally comes a demand to punish any and all who persist in their public conduct or their private business in defying the new moral order.

And so it goes with revolutions. On the assumption of power, revolutionaries become more intolerant than those they dispossessed.

The French Revolution was many times more terrible than the Bourbon monarchy. The Russian Revolution made the Romanovs look benign. Fidel Castro’s criminality exceeded anything dreamt of by Fulgencio Batista.

Looking back, one appreciates why we hear so often, “This isn’t the country I grew up in.” For it isn’t.

He’s not writing about smoking bans, of course, but he may as well be. Because it’s the same process. It’s always the same process.

If there’s one thing I disagree with Buchanan about, it’s the idea that this is the triumph of “the cultural revolution of the ’60s”. I’m a child of the 60s, and smoking bans were no part of that time. The 60s were about permitting people to do things, not stopping them doing things. It’s why it was called “the permissive society”. What he’s talking about is stuff that came in the 70s and later: Women’s lib, gay rights, environmentalism, abortion on demand, smoking bans, and all the rest of it.

There was no women’s lib in the 1960s. And no gay rights. Precious little environmentalism. Only illegal abortions. And needless to say, no smoking bans. At least, not in the UK. The 60s, as far as I was concerned, was about lots of good electric music. Later on it also became long hair, marijuana, and radical student politics. Only a small minority of people got involved in the last, and I wasn’t one of them. If nothing else, they were no fun to be with. They were all bitter, angry people with lots of books on Marxism. (I remember in 1968, weeks before the university sit-in they were organising (protesting about access to a swimming pool, believe it or not), one of them rushing into a cafeteria I frequented with about 10 books under his arm. All of them about Marxism, as far as I could make out, craning my head round to read the titles).

In my experience, the 60s started out as bright and optimistic (e.g. early Beatles), and then went a bit crazy (e.g. late Beatles), and finally became a train wreck (Beatles 1970 break-up). If in 1965 I’d wanted in, by 1970 I wanted out. It had all gone mad. And the bright new electric music had been replaced with stuff that was very dark and gloomy.

I suppose there was a cultural revolution in the 60s, but it was one that was initially benign and well-meaning and liberal (in the true sense of the word). It was only in the 70s that it all got uglier, with minorities (women, gays, blacks) angrily demanding equal rights (and mostly getting them). And it’s only got uglier ever since. Because the bitter, angry, Marxist student politicians stayed in politics, and got themselves elected firstly as town councillors, and later as MPs. And they used the techniques they’d first employed in universities in the process.

Anyway, if this is a cultural revolution, this 60s’ child hates it. And would have hated it back then as well. And it also isn’t the country I grew up in.

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