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Friday, January 25, 2008

Religious advice for coping with jealousy

In reading evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss, I didn't expect to find anything about religion, but, on p. 188 of his book, The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex, I found this tidbit:
Sanctioned methods of coping [with jealousy and infidelity], codified in law, sometimes claim the Bible or other religious documents as their sources. According to one passage, for example, the Lord dictated to Moses to enjoin the people of Israel to bring women suspected of infidelity to the priest, who would then make them drink "water of bitterness." If the woman was innocent, the bitter water would have no ill effect. But if the woman was guilty of infidelity, she would absorb the water, which would make her body swell with pain.
Questioning how much Buss (or his intermediate source) might have slanted this for his own purposes, I looked up the passage, which happens to be Verses 11-34 of Chapter 5 of The Fourth Book of Moses, Called Numbers [if you get bogged down in this wondrous text, please do me the kindness of skipping to the bottom to see my parting comment]:
11 ¶ And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
12 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man's wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him,
13 and a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner;
14 and the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled; or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled:
15 then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.
16 ¶ And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD:
17 and the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water:
18 and the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman's head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse:
19 and the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse:
20 but if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee besides thine husband:
21 then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell;
22 and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot. And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.
23 ¶ And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water:
24 and he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter.
25 Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman's hand, and shall wave the offering before the LORD, and offer it upon the altar:
26 and the priest shall take a handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water.
27 And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people.
28 And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.
29 ¶ This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled;
30 or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law.
31 Then shall the man be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear her iniquity. [from the King James Version]
Indeed, I'm sure that the jealous husband could be wonderfully mollified if his wife's belly swelled and her thigh rotted, just as the Puritans of Old Salem could be greatly relieved when the person accused of witchcraft failed to float and in drowning proved the charge.


  1. No one ever seems to suggest that men be examined for fidelity. Hrumph.

  2. Religion, like politics, is a power game, the rules being made and enforced by the ones with the power, whether they be Jews, Christians, or Muslims (or Mormons or whatever).

    "God," of course, has nothing to do with it, except in terms of who it is defining what "God" (or "Yahweh" or "Jehovah" or "Allah" or whatever) is.

  3. A friend commented privately:

    I have no idea what evolutionary psychology is, but I only need to read something like this to realize how amazingly similar in thinking [the Bible] is to the stuff for which the Muslims are (rightly) reviled in the popular press. How well we see the mote (superstition) in the other man's eye, but cannot see it in our own.

    I replied:

    After reading two books by Buss and now starting to read his compendium, The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology [2005], with a very enlightening foreword by the psychologist Stephen Pinker, I'm getting the gist of it. I highly recommend Pinker's foreword as a place to start.

    I've come to the conclusion that "all religion" sucks. The only problem I'm having, intellectually and morally, is how to account for and respect the humane, truly moral use of religion that good people make of it. That is, I don't want to write them off unfairly. But I think that, in truth, what they achieve by "using religion" could be achieved without any adversion whatsoever to religion (since, in my view, there is no god there to help—or hinder—them).

    To which I now add:

    Islam is really very similar to Judaism and Christianity, on whose "revelations" it is based, so the difference between us and them is not so big as one might think. They share the same core superstitions.

  4. Yes, it is a strange passage, alright, no question about it.

    But I'm suspicious when I see it on sites devoted to atheism. What conclusions do the posters reach? Do they suppose that the atheists or irreligious back then were pillars of refinement, culture, tolerance and virtue, head and shoulders above their pigheaded religious counterparts.

    Much of ancient history strikes us as incomprehensible and/or barberous, whether religious or not.

    These days our people like to emphasis Jesus' words, which, in any event, supercede those of OT times. Accordingly, we recognise infidelity as the one grounds on which a person might file for divorce.

    In general, I don't think it's a bad thing to encourage families to remain intact via the marriage model, even when strictures are employed to that end.

  5. Private comment from another friend:

    "women suspected of infidelity" - Whole damn passage addresses only a woman's "iniquity," when typically women did not stray—men did. "the man be guiltless from iniquity"—how wonderfully fortunate for him, that no one even bothered to ask or question whether he slept with someone other than his wife. If you read the entire passage, taking the woman's side & automatically assuming she is guiltless, this is a most horrible offense against her because it automatically assumes she strayed & must be punished. After all, whatever the hell they make her drink would likely cause anyone's stomach to swell & "thigh to rot" (whatever the hell that means)...no matter that they inflict this only on the woman to prove (without cause) her guilt.

    My comment:

    I felt similar outrage (if not so strong) in watching the 2005 movie "North Country," about the cruel way the female employees of a mining company were treated by some of the men there. And to know that real women were so treated, for the movie "was inspired by a true story" and the DVD bonus material includes inverviews with a number of them.

    Of course, the Bible too was inspired by a number of true stories, however fabulous much of the Bible is....

  6. Tom Sheepandgoats commented:

    But I'm suspicious when I see [such strange passages from the Bible] on sites devoted to atheism. What conclusions do the posters reach? Do they suppose that the atheists or irreligious back then were pillars of refinement, culture, tolerance and iesvirtue, head and shoulders above their pigheaded religious counterparts[?]

    I reply:

    Not quite, Tom. But there surely were then, as there are now, people who somehow managed to see through and reject the current superstitions, even though they chose to keep quiet about it (rather than raise their heads and be ostracized, bullied, or worse).

    Whether these people (the men, that is) treated their wives any better than the religious, we'll never know. But the ways we men have now of dealing with jealousy or infidelity had already evolved by the times covered by the Bible, so the non-believers had ample coping strategies alternative to going to a priest to have the bitter water rite administered.

    By the way, Moristotle isn't "devoted" to atheism. While it does make a point of celebrating our constitutional freedom from religion (while we still have it), it by no means excludes a number of other salutary activities.

  7. Moristotle:

    I chose my words wrong. I withdraw "devoted" & intended no offense.

    Yet, this part in your answer caught my eye:

    surely were then, as there are now, people who somehow managed to see through and reject the current superstitions, even though they chose to keep quiet about it

    Are you sure that statement's not just a matter of faith?

  8. No offense taken, Tom. I was just "correcting the record."

    The statement that caught your eye is a matter of probability, not of faith.

  9. How much probability? After all, faith could be described as a matter of probability, if only a .0000001% chance.

  10. Okay, let's assume (for the sake of argument) that the "probability of faith" is the chance you give, or 1 in 1,000,000,000 (did I convert that correctly?).

    Then, off the top of my head, I'd say that the probability that there "were then, as there are now, people who somehow managed to see through and reject the current superstitions" is from 800,000,000 to 999,000,000 times as much.

    Off the top of my head. <wink>

  11. Faith, by the way, is more accurately characterized as "a matter of improbability."

  12. On what do you base those estimates of probability?

  13. Obviously, there's no basis for any particular probability estimate, at least no basis of which I'm aware.

    What about your estimate of 1 in 1,000,000,000?

    The point is that only a few thousand years ago humans were essentially as biologically evolved as they are now, which includes their brains. While some people, perhaps most, were using their brains to approve stupid superstitions, others were using theirs for something more akin to rational observation and thought.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. I might have added (if I'd thought to not just leave it implicit) that it's much the same today. Most people don't use their brains very critically, especially when it comes to religion, with its familial indoctrination and church community pressure. The people who do think critically, even to the point of being what we might term "free thinkers" with respect to dogma and other received opinion, are collectively a small proportion of the population.

    The "90-10" rule is a case in point, with about 90% of the general population professing to believe in god, but only about 10% of "leading scientists" (very critically thinking people) doing so.

    One thing that strikes me about the Greeks of 500-300 B.C.E, of whose thought I'm currently being reminded as I read Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, is how free-thinking a number of them were. It's even possible that that Greek culture was more supportive of "free thought" than contemporary American culture is. Russell may even say as much, at least with respect to the Periclean "Golden Age" in Athens. (However, note that that society accepted slavery as "natural." Of course, without the use of slaves the aristocrats wouldn't have had as much time to do philosophy.)

    And wasn't slavery common among the people who figure heavily in the Bible? It seems reasonable to suppose that not all of the "aristocrats" who thrived on the backs of slaves used their freedom to practice religion and, when they became jealous, to take their wives suspected of straying to a priest to drink bitter water.

    Ha! I just realized that the bitter water rite could have been intended mainly as a way to intimidate women from deceiving their husbands, in the same way that some men today beat their wives to the same end.

    And from that use of religion, it isn't a far step to the point that clerics have "designed" religions in ways to ensure their sway over the people. Behave or we'll excommunicate you, or behave or you'll burn in hell....

  16. A friend commented privately on my comment that "It's even possible that that Greek culture was more supportive of 'free thought' than contemporary American culture is":

    Yes, look to Maslow's hierarchy of needs re: aristocrats & philosophers vis à vis slavery. Good philosophers also abounded in Rome, along with despots (like Nero). I'd argue in support of your theory that humans & their brains are roughly the same now as they were then, except that now we have more humans yet fewer thinking brains. Somehow we seem now to tolerate more people who are too lazy to use those same brains & are what I term "sleepers"—people who move through life almost as though quite nearly somnambulistic, rarely thinking or watching or observing & postulating over anything or anyone around them nearly most of their lives. What a waste…

    And she sent along a link to a neat website that lists links to articles about a number of those Greek thinkers:


  17. While some people, perhaps most, were using their brains to approve stupid superstitions, others were using theirs for something more akin to rational observation and thought.

    If by "stupid superstitions,” you mean belief in God (and I think you do from your application of the 90-10 rule) I heartily disagree that the brilliant persons of olden times rejected that belief.

    Disbelief in god or gods is not really possible until you get around the seemingly self-evident notion that things showing evidence of design must have a designer. Of course, I’m aware that modern people have learned to do it handily, but it is a relatively recent ability. At the vanguard of scientific thought 300 years ago was Isaac Newton. He was not able to do it. You likely know that he wrote more about religion than math and science combined. Far from seeing any contradiction between those fields, he pursued his scientific discoveries with the aim of explaining how God operates….exactly how did he design this or that. To greater or lesser extent, scientists of that era had, if not a personal god like Newton, at least a "creator" or "first cause" mentality.

    Now, if the brilliant 10% of just 300 years ago were not able to shed the idea of a first cause, do you really think it likely that their more ancient counterparts did? Surely primitive peoples would have been even more impressed with the "complicated things requires a designer" argument.

    If, on the other hand, by "stupid superstitions,” you are referring to the various rituals/doctrines/customs inherent in religion then (and now), well, I take no exception to that. They are the very factors that made evolution so wildly popular among the free-thinkers once Darwin presented it in a fresh new way. Finally, a plausible way to pull the rug out from under those abusive, self-righteous sellers of religion, who had for so long self-assumed first place in humanity’s hierarchy!

  18. I wasn't referring to belief in god as such, actually. In fact, as I said this morning to my friend who left us the link to a website that lists links to ancient Greek philosophers:

    "[A] number of those Greek philosophers listed on the website whose link you sent me (thanks!) also believed that god or gods existed. Some of them even believed this in a religious way (that is, they engaged in various rituals or whatever to involve the god(s) propitiously in their lives). Others just believed philosophically, using 'god' as an explanation for certain things."

    But, Tom, it manifestly was possible to disbelieve in gods in those days. It isn't convenient to quote Russell's history (since I'm listening to it on tape), but I can conveniently copy and paste the following from Wikipedia:

    "The 5th-century BCE Greek philosopher Diagoras is known as the 'first atheist,' and strongly criticized religion and mysticism. Critias viewed religion as a human invention used to frighten people into following moral order. Atomists such as Democritus attempted to explain the world in a purely materialistic way, without reference to the spiritual or mystical. Other pre-Socratic philosophers who probably had atheistic views included Prodicus, Protagoras, and Theodorus.

    "Another atomic materialist, Epicurus, disputed many religious doctrines, including the existence of an afterlife or a personal deity; he considered the soul purely material and mortal. While Epicureanism did not rule out the existence of gods, he believed that if they did exist, they were unconcerned with humanity.

    "The Roman poet Lucretius agreed that, if there were gods, they were unconcerned with humanity and unable to affect the natural world. For this reason, he believed humanity should have no fear of the supernatural. In De rerum natura (On the nature of things), he expounds his Epicurean views of the cosmos, atoms, the soul, mortality, and religion."

    In your use of the term "brilliant 10%" I detect an apparent confusion. The 10% figure I cited was the percent of "leading scientists" who say they "believe in god." I'm sure that to you those indeed are the brilliant ones among the group <smile>. To my own way of thinking, the whole group are pretty brilliant; they'd have to be to become leading scientists. And those ancient Greek philosophers, whether they believed in god or not, the same.

  19. I may back down, but it’s not going to be by much. I did not extensively research the Greeks you mentioned, but I did run them all through Wikipedia. The results are unimpressive.

    On Diagoras, the "first atheist," I find this: “He became an atheist after an incident that happened against him went unpunished by the gods.“ And that’s all on what formulated his point of view. It seems from this entry that Diagoras never did solve the “complicated things require a designer” dilemma; he just ignored it. And he did so because he suffered disappointment in his life, apparently imagining that God should be like Santa Claus, making sure that nothing bad happens to anyone. Moristotle, you’ll forgive me if I observe that this is thinking neither original nor profound.

    Your second atheist fares even worse. On Critias, Wikipedia informs that he was “a leading member of the Thirty Tyrants, and one of the most violent…..Critias was a very dark person in Athenian history. After the fall of Athens to the Spartans, he blacklisted many of its citizens as a leading member of the Thirty Tyrants. Most of his prisoners were executed and their wealth was confiscated. He proved to be a tormented personality, displaying many complexes and much hatred”

    Not really the type of guy you want to put in the Atheist Hall of Fame. Who’s next, Hannibal Lector?

    The other people you mention cannot clearly be identified as atheists from their Wikipedia entries. One of them, Protagoras, specifically is said to be not atheist at all, but agnostic. Epicurius and Lucretius: also agnostics. Now, agnostics are a dime a dozen, then as well as now. And considering how life is, it’s easy to see how people come to think that way. Indeed, I suspect many of today’s atheists are former agnostics who found in Richard Dawkins an articulate leader, same as folks of conservative bent rallied around Rush Limbaugh.

    So actually I think I’m going back to my original position: the wise ones of the past could go so far as agnosticism but no further, since they were not able to reconcile “design in nature” with “no designer.” You’ve given me only two examples of people who clearly did that. The first person is crying over an personal injustice, as if no godly person ever had to work his way through that. The second is clearly a sicko.

  20. Very good, Tom. I guess I'm going to have to go to the library for Russell's History and try to find his references to atheists among the Greek philosophers and scientists.

    Though you were diligent in searching further in Wikipedia, I'm not going to check your statements or look further in that quarter. Unfortunately, most of these men's writings didn't survive and most of what is known about them comes from commentaries from people like Plato and Aristotle and Plutarch, who did read the writings.

    I'm wondering whether it's any evidence (that there were atheists in those times) for the Bible to contain the statement (and perhaps other similar statements) that "the fool says there is no god"? Weren't there such fools around, or does this statement (or do such statements) not imply that there were?

    I'm not sure your ad hominen argument is a wise move, however, given the "sicko" nature of so many believers. I mean, most people in history, certainly before Darwin's "way out," had to be believers, right (or so you seem to be contending)? So, who committed all of the atrocities for all those years?

    Not to mention the sicko nature of Yahweh Himself. No, I wouldn't go ad hominem on me, Tom. It's a two-edged sword, and the edge on your side is very, very sharp.

    I note in passing that you put great store (even to the tune of "all of your eggs"?) on the requirement that the "design problem" be solved in order to disbelieve in god. To that I have two objections (that I can think of at the moment):

    (1) I think that Russell spoke of some Greek scientist who actually anticipated Darwin, just as another Greek scientist anticipated Copernicus (who, I believe, was aware of that Greek's views on the matter of the solar system; I'll of course also have to look this up in Russell's book).

    (2) How does positing a "first cause" to explain the existence of apparently designed things actually explain anything? More fairly (and intelligently) a person trying to explain such things might say, "Hmm, something or some process brought this about; now, what could that be?" The supposed ancient Greek (along, later, with Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace) came up with an idea. And it wasn't "God."

  21. Oh, alright. Strictly speaking, my bringing in Hannibal Lector was not necessary. I couldn't resist. Besides, I meant it only as a reflection on Critias, not on you (other than your employing him as Exhibit B, behind Diagoras). Nor did I mean it to be any reflection upon atheists in general.

    You speak of the sicko nature of so many believers and the atrocities they’ve committed. When have I ever denied that? You are "preaching to the choir" in this instance.

    Ps 14:1 reads this way:
    The senseless one has said in his heart: “There is no God"
    Notice he doesn't say it verbally. He says it "in his heart." In other words, he acts as if there is no god.

    But many throughout the years worked toward the goal of explaining life in a manner that siminished God's role. Dig up examples if you want for your own satisfaction. But you needn't do it for me; I'll accept that they existed.

    Darwin was by no means the first person ever to propose evolution. His contribution was to suggest a plausible mechanism (natural selection) by which evolution could take place.

    Even he didn't pretend to solve the "first cause" issue. His book is "Origen of the Species," not "Origen of Life." That is, he deals with lifes organization, not its appearing in the first place.

  22. Tom, I keep forgetting that we agree on a great deal even though we have a few things on which we don't agree! I must remember that.

    Rather than provide here a comeback to your comments on "the first atheist" Diagoras (in an earlier comment in this thread), I refer you to today's post, where I also identify the Greek who was among those you refer to as having proposed evolution.

    In addition, I identify another Greek atheist, as well as say a bit more about the fools referred to in the Bible who said there was no god.

    I know you're right about the fool (or "senseless one"—what translation are you using?)'s having said that "in his heart." But I'm not sure I agree with your interpretation of the phrase's significance. It could simply (and more reasonably) mean that the person didn't speak up about it, but said it to himself. Remaining in the closet about such things would have been no less prudent then than it is now.

    Note that the Qur'an doesn't stipulate "in his heart," but I suspect that atheists in that crowd were even more careful not to speak their mind!

    Did you retract your comment about Hannibal Lecter in order to excuse yourself from commenting on the "sicko" aspersions I cast on Yahweh?

  23. No, and yet it is true that I deliberately sidestepped that question. My initial response was to issue a rebuke, but then I knew that you would come up with some passage (there are many to choose from) seemingly showing your point, and that the ensueing exchange would be long and time-consuming and, in the end, would not satisfy you anyway, since I've not been able to satisfy you on points that are far easier to explain.

    That doesn't mean I won't address it someday. Sometimes you plant ideas in my head (as I see I have in yours) and I post about them. I'm doing that right now about the 10,000 Earths article. You are right, it was interesting.

  24. Tom, sorry I didn't get back sooner. I logged on for the first time today only a little while ago.

    Even if you had acted on your initial impulse to rebuke me, I wouldn't (I promise) have adduced any passages to support that Yahweh was "sicko," for you seem adequately aware already of some of the substantial accounts by authors who've looked at the Old Testament without rose-tinted glasses. Plus, it would not have been a good use of time. I agree that little satisfaction could be derived by either of us from discussing this particular point. I admit I made the point somewhat defensively, to parry your ominous sword thrust.

    I owe you one item of ancient history, the Greek who anticipated Copernicus, Aristarchus of Samos [approximately 310 to 230 BCE], who "is," to quote Russell, "the most interesting of all ancient astronomers, because he advanced the complete Copernican hypothesis, that all the planets, including the earth, revolve in circles around the sun, and that the earth rotates on its axis once in twenty-four hours...." [p. 214] "The Greeks, in their search for hypotheses which would 'save the phenomena,' were in effect, though not altogether in intention, tackling the problem in the scientifically correct way." [p. 217]

  25. Good morning, Tom (and anyone else who's listening).

    In re-reading a recent one of your comments, I was struck anew by another aspect of something I've already commented on. You wrote, "He says [there is no god] 'in his heart.' In other words, he acts as if there is no god." [emphasis mine]

    My earlier comment was that "in his heart" could as well (or better) have been an indication that he didn't speak up about his belief but "stayed in the closet."

    But now I want to focus on your comment specifically. "He acts as if there is no god." That statement seems to have some ominous implications. Could you give examples that tend to support a general observation you might make about how people act who think there is no god? (I'm more interested in what YOU think about this than I am in literary interpretations of how King David [?] might have thought such people behave.)


  26. Tom, I look forward very much to seeing your post inspired by reading the "10,000 Earths" essay by Olivia Judson. Did you see comment number three posted beneath her article? When I read it, I fantasized that you might make a similar point, which also occurred to me. After all, for natural selection to begin, life itself (as Francis Crick titled one of his books) has to get started, and that is a long shot (as Dawkins gladly acknowledges). Here's the comment I referred to:

    January 30th, 2008; 2:36 am

    Because we evolved from a single ancestor a gene can be propagated from one origin in the evolutionary tree. An example is the Hox gene cluster involved in body plan organization from flies to mammals. Therefore it is reasonable to bet that manatees (mammals) have a Pixt1 gene homologous to Pixt1 in Stickleback fish. When evolution acts on homologs genetic convergence is likelier.

    Prediction: Planets with multiple origins of life will have more than one evolutionary tree and each tree will have different suites of genetic units (a generalization of DNA based genes). Therefore there will be less genetic convergence overall....

    — Posted by B de St Phalle

  27. "He acts as if there is no god."

    I guess I would liken it to the kid brought up in an ideal home, with therefore every expectation that he turn out well, but instead he becomes a philandering pirate.

    You are perhaps wondering if I will step into the "only believers can be moral, never atheists" dogpile. I will not. It's easy for me to avoid because I don't believe it. Some are quite upright, in a manner that would rival the believingest of believers.

  28. Uh, come again. What do you mean by "I guess I would liken it to the kid brought up in an ideal home, with therefore every expectation that he turn out well, but instead he becomes a philandering pirate"? I really, really don't begin to understand what you might mean by that (relative to answering the question I put).

    I am relieved (for your sake) that you refuse to step in the dog pile, but didn't you touch your toe to it the other day (in the comment in which you demeaned Critias and mentioned Hannibal Lecter)? (Of course, on that occasion you may only have been trying to coerce me psychologically to back off and leave you alone <wink>.)

  29. I touched my toe into it again with my present post.

  30. Yes, I've seen that you did <nostrils aquiver at the stench>. Born polemicist you seem to be!


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