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From the Evil Empire to the Empire for Liberty
The New Criterion Vol. 21, No. 10 ^ | June 2003 | Paul Johnson

Posted on 06/14/2003 9:26:14 PM PDT by beckett

From the evil empire
to the empire for liberty

by Paul Johnson

Is the United States imperialist? Has it created, or is it creating, an empire? If so, should we regard this process as desirable, even inevitable? These questions are raised by the American conquest of Iraq which, together with the prolegomenon of September 11, constitutes the first key event of the twenty-first century, foreshadowing a new world order.

First, it is important to understand what we mean by the word “empire.” Its core meaning is “rule,” with the implication “unqualified rule.” A country designated as an empire is one which possesses numerous territories but, more important, absolute sovereignty over itself. This usage came into English in the sixteenth century to designate the unlimited legal power of the Crown in parliament, and the impotence of papal writs. All the major Reformation statutes which repudiated Roman claims contained the word. Thus the statute 24 Henry VII of 1532–1533, Chapter 12, begins: “This realm of England is an empire.” The Crown in parliament could thus make and unmake bishops, revise doctrine and liturgy, and dispose at will of Church lands, then 20 percent of the total, without reference to Rome. This marked the point at which England withdrew from the medieval entity called Christendom in which kings and popes agreed to share sovereignty, after many disputes, not on an ideological but on an ad hoc basis, later formalized in treaties known as Concordats. Under the old medieval system, indeed, popes claimed the right, in extremis, to depose wicked territorial disputes. The last major pre-Reformation exercise of this power came in 1493 when Pope Alexander VI published the Bull Inter cetera, dividing the New World between Spain and Portugal: the two powers accepted the arbitration the following year in the Treaty of Tordesillas, whereby Portugal was to have all land in the Western hemisphere east of the north-south line drawn 370 leagues from Cape Verde, Spain taking the rest. This proved one of the most important rulings in history, since it gave Portugal Brazil, which remains Portuguese-speaking to this day, and left the rest of the Americas to Spain.

However, the fact that England had declared itself an empire invalidated the papal award in official English eyes, a judgment made formal by Queen Elizabeth I’s chief minister, Sir William Cecil, who told the Spanish Ambassador that English settlers were free to claim for the Crown any territory in the Americas not yet settled. The term “the British Empire” came into use at about the same time. It was given a religious underpinning by the widespread belief in England, made explicit in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the most popular book in Elizabethan and Jacobean England after the Bible, that for historical reasons the English had succeeded the discredited Jews as the Elect Nation, had vindicated their claim by the Reformation, and had a global mission to carry thus-purified Christianity throughout the world. This was the confident belief of the earliest English settlers in Virginia, still more so of the Pilgrim Fathers, and it was epitomized in the statement of John Winthrop who encapsulated America’s global mission: “We must consider that we shall be a city on a hill, the eyes of all people are on us.”

Colonial America was thus a venture in imperialism under divine sanction. The settlers exercised from the start a degree of self-government incompatible with long-term submission to the mother country. But it is important to grasp that the issue of taxation was not the only one in the American Revolution of the 1770s. Still more important to Virginians like George Washington was the Crown’s ban on further settlement west of the Appalachian watershed. The truth is, the Americans were more imperialist than the English. All the states south of New England saw their western frontiers as undefined, and their east-west lines of demarcation stretching across the entire continent to the Pacific. Once the United States came into being and the immensity of the land became apparent, the practicalities of administration dictated the creation of new states. But it is clear that the idea of Manifest Destiny—that is, the quasi-religious right of the English-speaking settlers to occupy the whole of the continent—existed in embryo a century before the phrase was coined. Indeed, it was a long time before all Americans admitted the right of Canada and Mexico to co-exist with their Union, seemingly sanctified by history, politics, economics, religion, and geography.

If Canada and Mexico escaped the net of destiny, the imperium of America consolidated itself by two stupendous bargains. The Louisiana Purchase whereby Bonaparte yielded to the United States an immense territory of 828,000 square miles for what, even then, seemed the derisory sum of $15 million, or four cents an acre, was an imperial transfer without precedent or successor, “a princely bargain” as Talleyrand sorrowfully put it—unlike Bonaparte, he did not share the blindness of Old Europe to the potential of the New World. The land thus cheaply acquired subsequently became thirteen new states and made the pursuit of Manifest Destiny to the Pacific infinitely easier. Andrew Johnson’s administration capped this deal by buying from Russia, for a mere $7,200,000, Alaska, over twice the size of Texas, which became the forty-ninth state in 1959. This large-scale acquisitive imperialism was conducted, it must be said, within the ideology of the Privileged Hemisphere, made specific in the Monroe Doctrine, in which established settler regimes were entitled to consolidate their position in the hemisphere while Old Europe was forbidden any further incursion.

Hence there is no denying that the United States was the beneficiary of imperialism from the start. Though self-liberating, it was an imperialist creation, and remained one, enlarging its borders as and when it needed space and opportunity offered. Unlike Britain and France it did not export its surplus population and land hunger overseas but overland, and it did not call itself an empire but a Union: its expansion took place within a democratic context and its acquisitions quickly acceded to statehood.

Yet there were exceptions even to this. The twenty islands known as Hawaii became part of the United States by a gradual process of commercial and missionary penetrations familiar in the British Empire, in the years after 1820. Despite the fact that Hawaii was 2090 miles west of San Francisco, and its population overwhelmingly of non-European origin, the islands were constituted a US territory in 1900 and became a state in 1959. By contrast, the Philippines, ceded to the United States by Spain in 1898 as spoils of the Spanish-American War, were treated as a temporary colony. Washington was initially unsure what to do about them and resolved its doubts in a characteristically American way. President McKinley told a delegation to the White House: “I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance that one night. And one night later it came this way … there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filippinos and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.” The Organic Act of 1902 made the islands an unincorporated territory of the United States and the process towards independence began immediately, continuing until 1946 when the new Republic was established.

The Philippines, then, were a US exercise in shouldering what Kipling termed “the white man’s burden,” that is, duties undertaken by the advanced nations not for power or profit but under moral and religious impulses to bring “the lesser breeds” (Kipling’s term) into the enlightened circle of civilization. Moral imperialism has deep religious roots, for the Spanish and Portuguese empires, though undertaken primarily for profit, had conversion of the indigenous inhabitants to Christianity as their secondary and justificatory purpose. Indeed, colonial America itself was to some extent a moral, religious, and missionary creation. What gave moral imperialism its force, however, were early nineteenth-century efforts to suppress the slave trade. Britain outlawed it in 1807 and the British navy was given the job of putting the law into force. This was far from easy: countries like Spain, Portugal, and even France had to be bribed into cooperating, and initially the United States was an obstacle to enforcement. It is worth recalling that in the period 1815–1860, the Southern states actively promoted the spread of slavery not only in the continental United States but also in neighboring states. Had the South prevailed, or the Civil War ended in stalemate, it is likely that a white-dominated empire, based on slavery, would have emerged far south of the Mason-Dixon Line, embracing much of Central America. As it was, the victory of the North gave Washington an added reason for joining the Royal Navy in putting down the slave trade. In one area, the United States had led the way. Between 1801 and 1815, America not only refused to pay tribute to the pirates of the Barbary States (Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli) but was the first to take punitive action against them to release US nationals held as slaves. Stephen Decatur’s successful campaign against Tripoli, 1804–1805, was the earliest American contribution to moral imperialism. After the Civil War, the US Navy and its civil and missionary adjuncts were active alongside the British, especially in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, in ensuring freedom of the seas, putting down piracy and hostage-taking, opening up territories which forbade Western commerce, and carrying out punitive actions against states, large and small, which offended Western notions of international law and morality.

One area where moral imperialism was active was the Persian Gulf. In Arabia, slavery and slaving were endemic, run by the fierce Wahhabi religious sect, whose leaders were the forebears of the Saudi ruling family. The Wahhabis also sponsored piracy in the Indian Ocean, threatening Britain’s trade with India. From the first decade of the nineteenth century, Britain made allies of the Gulf States, such as Bahrain, Qatar, and Muscat, which resisted Wahhabi encroachment, and these allies provided footholds for a local form of moral imperialism which lasted into the oil age. Operations were coordinated from Bushire on the Persian coast, and sons of the local rulers were sent to the School of Princes in India to be brought up in Western ways. The Americans eventually joined in this regional moral imperialism, though in what the British regarded as a perverse fashion. They chose as their chief local allies the Wahhabis who, in the convulsions following the First World War, became rulers of Saudi Arabia and owners of the world’s largest oil reserves. It is not surprising that the Saudis have directly financed and indirectly sponsored Moslem terrorism, just as their predecessors supported slave-trading and piracy.

The United States, as a Pacific power with a two-ocean navy, joined in various exercises of moral imperialism in the last part of the nineteenth century, notably the suppression of the Boxer Rising in China (1900), when it contributed troops to the expedition of the five imperialist powers (Russia, Britain, France, Germany, and Japan). President Wilson’s League of Nations proposal was, in part, a form of moral imperialism: it provided for Germany’s former colonies and the provinces of the Turkish Empire to be taken into trusteeship by the victorious Allies, on the model of the Philippines, and prepared for self-government. The Senate’s failure to ratify US membership of the League prevented America from participating in this experiment. The German Pacific colonies of the Caroline, Marshall, and Mariana Islands were entrusted to Japan, which used them as bases from which to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941. In 1945 the United Nations was given sovereignty, entrusted them to the United States, and thereafter they were run by the US Department of the Interior.

In retrospect the most important American acts of moral imperialism in the nineteenth century were the two expeditions by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, 1853–1854, to Japan, to persuade this hermit state to allow in Western commerce. America had already, in China, engaged in an effort to get the authorities to adopt an Open Door policy to all Western nations as the only alternative to piecemeal colonization. The same arguments applied to Japan, and were taken so seriously by the Japanese elite as to inspire a national effort to industrialize and to build powerful armed forces. The Perry episode can therefore be presented as a form of anti-imperialism. But it can also, and perhaps more accurately, be seen as a form of yet another kind of empire-building—commercial or cultural imperialism, what many would now term globalization.

This is the process, unconscious or deliberate, whereby a stronger power pulls a weaker one into its economic and cultural orbit. It is, but need not be, associated with the other more direct form of empire. As such, it is as old as humanity. Indeed, globalization is pre-human. Among flowers and trees, invertebrates and mammals, a continuous process of colonization takes place as successful species move into fresh territory, alongside existing organisms, which disappear if too weak to coexist. Homo sapiens, at the top of the evolutionary tree, was a globalizer ab initio, spreading into all the habitable portions of the earth’s surface. The more successful human communities spread their culture and their products—the two were usually inseparable and always remain close—from prehistoric times. The early empires saw their cultural matrix, identified with the objects they made and built, as the source of their existing power and the means to acquire more. In early dynastic times the ancient Egyptians, around 3,000 BC, developed a culture of extraordinary appeal and clarity which spread up the entire Nile Valley and remained virtually intact for three millennia. Their invention of the stone column was the foundation of all architecture, an early example of globalization; and Egyptian styles are still common in postmodern buildings today. When the multi-racial Empire of the Medes and Persians came into existence, the Archaemenian kings developed a cultural matrix which underpinned their rule. To build their immense palace-capital at Persepolis they imported craftsmen from all over the ancient Near East. But all were obliged to build and decorate within the norms of the matrix.

The Greeks used commercial and cultural imperialism as a substitute for direct rule. A collection of city-states, often at odds with each other, they exported their surplus population in the form of colonies, closely modelled on the mother city, each with a harbor and warehouses, a quarter for merchants and artisans, a stadium, an odeon, a gymnasium, and a theater, all of them big enough to accommodate the entire free population of the city, for political and cultural purposes. These outposts often grew wealthier than the mother-cities and formed a rich powerful archipelago throughout the central and eastern Mediterranean. The Greeks called it oikumene, an area of civilization where Greek norms were paramount, and this ecumenical empire was contrasted with what they called “chaos”—the surrounding barbarism and savagery. The Greek oikumene was inherited by the Romans and became the basis of their enormous Empire, though the Romans, with their passion for uniform law, insisted on transforming the colonia into provinces and thus put together an old-style territorial empire, with all its strengths and weaknesses.

Western society is the product of the marriage of the Christian religion to Greek and Latin culture. We thus have imperial impulses, in various models, at our very roots, the Americans no less than the Old Europeans. There is an important difference here between the West and Islam. Though Islam is imperialist by nature, it is essentially religious imperialism, ruling through the Islamic state. The West, unlike Islam, underwent both the Renaissance and the Reformation, thereby acquiring strong secular characteristics and refreshing its roots in Greco-Roman civilization, with its respect for impartial and universal law and competing modes of government including democracy.

Hence in the twentieth and still more the twenty-first centuries, the forms of moral, commercial, and cultural imperialism emanating from the West are essentially secular. We no longer speak of “Christianizing the world,” a phrase in wide use up to 1914. But “democratizing the world,” whether spoken or not, is our aim. Behind this lies the belief that when functioning democracies become the norm, international law is more likely to be observed, free trade to spread, real incomes to increase, and the world to become a freer, healthier, more secure, and contented place. In the creation of this oikumene, or ecumenical world of Western-style civilization, America is allotted the prime role by geography and history, economics and demography, culture and philosophy.

For America, September 11 was a new Great Awakening. It realized, for the first time, that it was a globalized entity itself. It no longer had frontiers. Its boundaries were the world, for from whatever part of the world harbored its enemies, it could be attacked, and if such enemies possessed weapons of mass destruction, mortally attacked. For this reason America was obliged to construct a new strategic doctrine, replacing totally that of National Security Council paper 68 of 1950, which laid down the doctrine of containment. In a globalized world the United States now has to anticipate its enemies, search out and destroy their bases, and disarm states likely to aid them. I call this defensive imperialism. It is a novel kind, but embraces elements of all the old. Significantly, NSC 68 of 1950 specifically repudiates imperialism. Its replacement will necessarily embrace it in its new form. There are compelling reasons why the United States is uniquely endowed to exercise this kind of global authority.

First, America has the language of the twenty-first century. English is already the first world language in many respects, and this century will see its rapid extension and consolidation. As first the Greeks, then the Romans discovered, possession of a common language is the first vital and energizing step towards embracing common norms of law, behavior, and culture. A more secure world will be legislated for, policed, and adjudicated in English. Second, America has, and will continue to acquire, the technology of the twenty-first century, its lead being widened by its success in providing the clearest climate of freedom in which inventors, pioneers, and entrepreneurs of all kinds can operate. In the nineteenth century, the great age of the formal empires, the imperialist thrust was backed by the industrial revolution, producing manufactured goods much cheaper and in far greater quantity than ever before. In 1800 it was Asia which produced the majority (57 percent) of world manufactured output, the West only 29 percent; by 1900 the West was producing 86 percent, Asia only 10 percent. Today, America’s production of world wealth, both absolutely and relatively, is accelerating. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, it added $5 trillion to its annual GDP. By 2050 the US share of global output will constitute over a quarter of the world total and will be as much as three times as big as, for instance, the European Union.

Traditionally, successful imperialism has reflected high birth-rates and the ability to export large surplus populations. The climax of European imperialism in the nineteenth century coincided with the European population explosion. America has never exported people overseas. On the contrary, its growing power and wealth has reflected its ability to attract and absorb them. That continues. American now accepts more immigrants than the rest of the world put together. The amazing ability of groups like the Cubans, the Hong Kong Chinese, the Vietnamese, and other new arrivals to strike roots and create wealth is a key part of America’s continuing success story. But America also has a high birth rate. Its population is now coming up to the 300 million mark. By 2050 it will be over 400 million. By contrast, Europe’s population will shrink and the percentage of working age will fall rapidly. Population forecasts are notoriously unreliable and some predictions of what is likely to happen in Europe (and Japan) in this century are so alarming as to be discounted. But clearly there is a marked and growing contrast between Old Europe and Young America. And the combination of an accelerating technology and an expanding world-force will be irresistible in terms of economic and military power.

The Bush administration is only beginning to grasp the implications of the course on which it has embarked. It still, albeit with growing difficulty, speaks the language of anti-imperialism. But that is the jargon of the twentieth century, or its second half; who says it will be the prevailing discourse of the twenty-first? As it happens, in America’s own parlance, imperialism became a derogatory term only during the Civil War, when the South accused the North of behaving like a European empire. It then became politically correct to speak only of “American exceptionalism.” But it is worth recalling that up to 1860 “empire” was not a term of abuse in the United States. George Washington himself spoke of “the rising American Empire.” Jefferson, aware of the dilemma, claimed that America was “an Empire for liberty.” That is what America is becoming again, in fact if not in name. America’s search for the security against terrorism and rogue states goes hand in hand with liberating their oppressed peoples. From the Evil Empire to an Empire for Liberty is a giant step, a contrast as great as the appalling images of the wasted twentieth century and the brightening dawn of the twenty-first. But America has the musculature and the will to take giant steps, as it has shown in the past.

One thing is clear: America is unlikely to cease to be an empire in the fundamental sense. It will not share its sovereignty with anyone. It will continue to promote international efforts of proven worth, like GATT, and to support military alliances like NATO where appropriate. But it will not allow the UN or any other organization to infringe on its natural right to defend itself as it sees fit. The new globalization of security will proceed with the UN if possible, without it if necessary. The empire for liberty is the dynamic of change.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Foreign Affairs; Miscellaneous; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: america; christianity; empire; europe; greece; history; newnwo; pauljohnson; rome; terrorism

1 posted on 06/14/2003 9:26:14 PM PDT by beckett
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To: beckett
The article is unfocused, and mixes in a lot that is not really germaine to the point, but in the end right up to a point. It will be about 2050 at least before China really challenges the US hegemon, if China does it right. That is simply due to the US's economic power and will to act due to its ideolgocial underpinings. Europe is inevitably a fading force in comparison, as is Japan. The US has a window of power to attempt to make this planet a beter place. May it use that power wisely.
2 posted on 06/14/2003 9:42:47 PM PDT by Torie
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To: Torie
I'm ambivalent about Johnson's thesis, as any good conservatuve should be, I suppose. Even Johnson.

But we're long passed the tipping point. Johnson is quite right to say "[America's] boundaries were the world, for from whatever part of the world harbored its enemies, it could be attacked." From this flows a dread logic that cannot be avoided, a dread reality that cannot be escaped.

3 posted on 06/14/2003 9:53:36 PM PDT by beckett
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To: beckett
bump for later
4 posted on 06/14/2003 10:07:22 PM PDT by Centurion2000 (We are crushing our enemies, seeing him driven before us and hearing the lamentations of the liberal)
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To: beckett


(pr@UlI"gQmIn@n)  Pl. -mena (-@).  [a. Gr. pqokec¾lemom, neut. of pres. pple. pass. of pqokŒceim to say beforehand, f. pq¾, pro-2 + kŒceim to say.] 

   A preliminary discourse prefixed to a literary work; esp. a learned preface or preamble; chiefly in pl. introductory or preliminary observations on the subject of a book.

   a1652 J. Smith Sel. Disc. i. i. (1821) 11 As a prolegomenon or preface to what we shall afterward discourse.  1659 Bp. Walton Consid. Considered 40 Not at all impeached by any thing maintained in the Prolegomena.  1697 Evelyn Numism. ii. 19 His Prolegomenon to the Polyglotte Bible.  1729 Pope (title) The Dunciad; with Notes Variorum and the Prolegomena of Scriblerus.  1818 Scott Hrt. Midl. To Rdr., Therefore have I chosen, in this prolegomenon, to unload my burden of thanks at thy feet.  1869 Kingsley Let. to F. D. Maurice 16 Jan., They are meant+as prolegomena to natural theology.  

   b. (pl.) Spoken preliminaries; prefatory remarks.

   1892 Stevenson & L. Osbourne Wrecker xix, He, after some ambiguous prolegomena, roundly proposed I should go shares with him.  

   Hence prole"gomenal, prole"gomenary adjs., prefatory, introductory; prole"gomenist, one who writes prolegomena; prole"gomenous a., (a) = prolegomenary; (b) given to making tedious preliminary statements; long-winded.

   1897 Rhys Davids in Mind Apr. 249 To have collected and expanded these in one *prolegomenal essay.

  1846 Worcester, *Prolegomenary (citing Eclectic Rev.).  1907 Daily Chron. 30 Aug. 2/6 Mr. Parsons staggers us+by a prefatory sentence of five hundred words and a mass of prolegomenary notes.
  1731 Hist. Litteraria II. 583 There is also an Epistle from Joan. Gratian to the *Prolegomenist.
  1749 Fielding Tom Jones viii. i, It may not be amiss in the *prolegomenous or introductory chapter, to say something of that species of writing which is called the marvellous.  1822 Blackw. Mag. XI. 162 On the title-page ominous, And in prose prolegomenous.  1881 Stevenson Virg. Puerisque iv. 80 A wordy, prolegomenous babbler will often add three new offences in the process of excusing one.



prolegomenon, n.  Add: c. fig. Something that forms an introduction (to a subject, event, etc.); a preliminary.

   1964 I. L. Horowitz in I. L. Horowitz New Sociol. 43 Exhaustion of all relevant statistical+knowledge was a necessary prologemena [sic] to set forth key classifications.  1973 Times Lit. Suppl. 6 Apr. 401/5 The War of 1812, remembered, if at all, as a prolegomenon of the launching, as a national hero, of General Andrew Jackson.  1974 R. Quirk Linguist & Eng. Lang. iv. 70 The often unexciting data which must constitute a prolegomenon to full critical appraisal.  1984 A. Carter Nights at Circus i. v. 89 The clock coughed up the prolegomena to its chime.  

   d. The pl. form prolegomena used as the sing.

   1964 [see sense c above].   1972 L. S. Hearnshaw in Cox & Dyson 20th-Cent. Mind I. vii. 232 His book was a prolegomena to+social psychology.  1981 Ld. Annan Politics of Broadcasting Enquiry 3 This prolegomena is not, I hope, the product of old age and garrulous egotism.  

5 posted on 06/14/2003 10:11:10 PM PDT by boris
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To: beckett
Bumpity bump
6 posted on 06/14/2003 10:41:41 PM PDT by Constitutionalist Conservative (
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To: beckett
Paul Johnson bump
7 posted on 06/16/2003 6:52:31 AM PDT by beckett
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To: beckett
Superb peace! Puts imperialism in its uniquely American perspective, and provides context to our present travails. It shows the attempt from some quarters to malign imperialism as foreign to our history is misplaced. I do quibble with the assertion that we need an open borders immigration policy.
Mr. Johnson doesn't take the argument to its logical conclusion calling for American leadership and settlement in outer space in huge artificial colonies in near earth orbit as our next manifest destiny. I suspect that this will be The Story of our present century which I predict will look more like the 18th and 19th than the bloody twentieth century just passed.
8 posted on 06/16/2003 11:15:18 AM PDT by jehosophat
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To: beckett
Superb peace! Puts imperialism in its uniquely American perspective, and provides context to our present travails. It shows the attempt from some quarters to malign imperialism as foreign to our history is misplaced. I do quibble with the assertion that we need an open borders immigration policy.
Mr. Johnson doesn't take the argument to its logical conclusion calling for American leadership and settlement in outer space in huge artificial colonies in near earth orbit as our next manifest destiny. I suspect that this will be The Story of our present century which I predict will look more like the 18th and 19th than the bloody twentieth century just passed.
9 posted on 06/16/2003 11:17:34 AM PDT by jehosophat
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To: beckett
I haven't read it but it's Paul Johnson fer gosh sakes so I will later, bump.
10 posted on 07/01/2003 11:42:24 PM PDT by Stultis
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