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Author Topic: an apology, with flags
catishmael
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posted 22 September 2001 02:38 AM      Profile for catishmael     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
An Apology, With Flags

Four days have passed since the World Trade Center disaster, and American flags are sprouting everywhere. Flags hang from freeway overpasses and festoon the front porches and lawns of suburbia. You can’t drive for more than five minutes without passing cars with little baby flags flapping on their radio antennas. My students are wearing flag T-shirts with slogans like “America United” and “America Attacked.” Employees in the newly reopened airports are wearing flag ribbons in their lapels, and the checkers in the supermarket I visited last night had fashioned red white and blue ribbons into headbands, worn high on their foreheads and trailing behind. There were more flags along Ventura’s Main Street today than there were on Memorial Day. Major league players will have flags embroidered on their baseball caps for the rest of the season, and this morning I heard on the radio that inmates in several prisons have even attached little handmade flags to their prison uniforms.

Like many folks, I’ve watched a lot of television news in the last few days, and I’ve felt very sad for all those people who died, and for the city of New York. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and wondering about what has happened. The whole sequence of events still seems unbelievable in a way. I think nothing good is going to come of this. I wonder what it must have been like to be in one of those buildings, on one of those planes. I am amazed by the brave and generous things some people did before they died. I think a lot of people are realizing that this whole idea of “closure” you hear so much about nowadays is bullshit. And I’m sorry, but I’m not inspired or stirred by all these flags. I just think they’re sad, and kind of scary.

I understand that people’s intentions are basically good. I know everyone talks about the flag phenomenon in terms of unity and respect, and that it’s a small thing to worry about in the middle of everything else; nevertheless, something about it disturbs me. A scant four days after such a horrible tragedy, shouldn’t we be wearing black armbands; shouldn’t the bridges be draped in black crepe instead of bunting? Admittedly the proliferation of flags is at least in part an expression of grief and survivorship, and that cannot be gainsaid. I suspect, however, that it is playing a more complex role as well, and this suspicion is confirmed when I see videos of young people carrying flags and chanting “Yoo Ess Ay! Yoo Ess Ay!” like they were at a hockey game, and when the radio reports that a mosque in Chicago had to be saved by a SWAT team from just such a crowd of flag-waving, chanting demonstrators.

“Never again,” I hear people vow, referring to the World Trade Center (that’s all you have to say from now on, the Word Trade Center, and everyone will know what you’re talking about). I’m afraid, however, that “never again” is just wishful thinking, and I am afraid that, even in our grief, we are sowing the seeds of future tragedies, just as people have done for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. That is why I feel I have to try to explain why flags and nationalism frighten me, and why seeing so many flags this week makes me sad, because I am afraid that things like the World Trade Center will happen again, and again and again and again. I don’t think anything I or anyone else could say will make a difference, but I have to try.

I should begin by admitting that, ever since I can remember, flags have attracted and fascinated me. I love the way they move, like sails, in the wind, and the way a flagpole clanks like the mast of a sailing ship. I love the way that flags announce themselves from on high, so their very existence seems like some sort of noble gesture. These feelings have never disappeared, but as I grew older I began to pay more attention to the fact that different flags mean radically different things to different people – the Hammer and Sickle, the Union Jack, the Swastika, the Stars and Bars, the Maple Leaf, the Rising Sun -- it really depends on who you are. I realized that a flag can mean anything to anybody, and flags began to make me nervous.

Even today, though, flags don’t always bother me. I am not discomfited, for example, by the flag flying at half-mast, as a sign of mourning. That flag seems to say to me, and democratically to anyone with a line of sight, that a nation or a people can bow its collective head, and be vulnerable. Also, a flag draped upon a casket strikes me as a tender and beautiful emblem. It mediates between a disturbing physical actuality: a decomposing, perhaps mutilated corpse, and a crucial spiritual one: our memory of a slippery, maddening, obnoxious, adorable human being. Flags clothe the dead in the colors of long history, of the stories that inform us that we are not just isolated animals, and that we can embody a cause, an idea, or a dream. Flags can us even make us believe that the dead, once fallible creatures who shat and peed and were unfair to the people they loved, have become whatever it is that made the rest of us, a long time ago, invent the idea of angels.

Although it frightens me to admit it, I can also admire the tattered flag, carried into battle by the remnants of a once proud army, or, conversely, raised defiantly by the last surviving defenders of besieged city, or falling fortress. What more valuable function could a symbol perform, after all, than make the meaninglessness of dying seem meaningful? In general, too, I cannot in my heart object to any flag flown peacefully by the subjugated or oppressed, or used to assuage grief, or which gives a sense of belonging, nobility, or purpose to those in danger of having none of these. But there are other flags: the festive confetti of the self-satisfied parade; the pennants of nationalistic pride and economic domination, streaming above gas stations and car dealerships, proclaiming how much shinier, better, richer we are than anyone else on the block; and the standards of conquest, borne triumphally past the homes of an alien and defeated people. These, I feel, are not so admirable.

The terrorists who destroyed the WTC must have seen American flags that latter way. When they commandeered airliners and flew them into office buildings filled with ordinary people with beating hearts and glistening eyes, their own vision must have been obscured by abstractions and symbols. And those hallucinations must have been very strong, so strong that the hijackers were willing to take the lives of thousands of strangers, and die themselves, in order to destroy some buildings that functioned as symbols of the might and majesty of the United States of America.

When I consider their acts in this light, I can’t help but wonder also, what is the United States, or any nation-state for that matter, but a kind of symbol itself -- an idea, an abstraction -- symbolizing an incredibly elaborate network of social compacts? In the end, I’m afraid, these foolish people killed, and died, to assault a symbol of a symbol. How, then, shall we respond to the absurdity of this absurd act? Shall we go along with the game; shall we accept the primacy of symbolism over human life? Shall we wave our flag in their dead faces and explain to everyone within earshot of our very loud voice how much bigger and stronger our symbol is than anyone else’s symbols, and besides that how it doesn’t symbolize what these evil terrorists along with a good chunk of the people around the world thought it symbolizes, but is in fact a symbol of honor and truth?

“Freedom has been attacked,” President George W. Bush says, “and freedom will be defended.” No; a building was attacked; people are dead, and for those people at least, it is too late for any defense. “America was targeted for attack,” Bush insists, because it is the “greatest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” But really, I sincerely doubt that either the people who planned these attacks or the people who carried them out ever sat down and said, yes, lets find the best, most noble thing around and try to destroy it because, you know, we the baddest! I’m sure, instead, that they saw American symbols quite differently than President Bush does.

This divergence of vision is easy to come by, because symbols don’t mean anything beyond what people invest in them. If the symbolic significance of a symbol is ultimately indeterminate and extrinsic however, it’s significance as part of the material world is intrinsic: fixed by the physical nature of the thing itself. Furthermore, although all symbols have a material reality, the material reality of some symbols signifies more than that of others. A flag, for example, is also a piece of cloth, but a person, whether a head of state or a starving child, is also a sentient thing, with feelings.

In deciding how to deal with a symbol, whether to revere it or attack it or something in between, it seems like we should take account of both its symbolic and its material realities. In fact, however, since we tend to see things holistically, and since there is very often a disconnect between the material reality of a symbol and its symbolic reality, we often settle on one type of reality to the exclusion of the other. The valorization of symbols like flags, whose inherent material reality is insignificant, is dangerous because it exacerbates this tendency. Even more dangerous, it can make us forget temporarily that symbols have a material reality. Unfortunately, our society exposes us constantly to just this kind of valorization, from the daily recitation of the pledge of allegiance in our elementary schools to the way our President talks about terrorism.

Swatches of dye and fabric possess a tenuous materiality, but those towers of steel and concrete and glass that fell last week possessed a more substantial one – they were inhabited, after all, and the people inhabiting those towers . . . surely they, with their beating hearts and glistening eyes, were not reducible to empty, all-purpose symbolic vessels – like flags. Nonetheless, we must understand that the terrorists who did this terrible thing did it not because they were insane, but at least in part because they were seduced by just such a mirage.

Now the leaders of our country have countered with our own mirages, which they hope will be the more powerful. And now there are flags hanging from the overpasses, flags on the antennas of cars and in the backs of pickups, flags on the front lawns and lampposts and telephone poles, and flags hanging in store windows. I can’t help but wonder as I look at them, are these the good flags or the bad flags, the flags of reverence, that lift us up and remind us we are part of something larger, or the flags of hubris, that drag us down into jingoism and vengeance? It makes a difference, and in fact I know the flags of September must partake of both natures. But there is something else going on here as well, because either way, we are being inundated with powerful and confusing symbols. And beneath all these symbols, behind all these images and mirages, the murky human truths are becoming ever harder to decipher.

I heard a woman on the radio yesterday talking about starting a group called Mothers Against Symbols. I was heartened, but she sounds like an idealist. I mean, you can’t really expect people to give up symbols entirely. Maybe, though, we could control ourselves a little bit when it comes to flags. Maybe if we reminded ourselves periodically that beyond being pretty scraps of cloth, flags are merely symbols, we would be less likely to let the symbolic character of buildings or people eclipse their more precious essences.

So, by all means, drape the caskets in red, white and blue, and hang a giant flag in the ragged hole in the Pentagon (yes, it’s the center of a war machine, but that’s merely its symbolic nature; it’s also an office building where a bunch of people who didn’t deserve to died before their time). Plant flags in the mounds of rubble that used to be a city within a city, and when you find the bodies of the firefighter, of the policeman, of the stockbroker and the office manager, wrap them in the deep, blood-rich colors of their ancestors.

For a few weeks at least, while we still wonder how those two gleaming improbable monuments could just all at once be gone, while we look around for the sky reflecting from acres of plate glass, and see only sky, hang the flags from overpasses and run them halfway up the poles in your front yards. I won’t participate, but I won’t object. When it’s over, though, when your grief begins to moderate, please please please, fold up your flags and put them away; they are more dangerous than you know. Finally, I don’t expect it will happen, but I wish the etiquette and protocols which govern the way flags are handled could be changed. I wish that, somehow, we could find ways to show more respect for the both the power and the danger that reside in these potent symbols. What follows is only an imagination, but it is the best I can offer:

In the future, someday, flags will still be flown at public buildings: post offices, courthouses, etc., but it will be considered unacceptable to fly one at a commercial establishment or residence. Flags will also be prohibited within 1,000 feet of any elementary school, because children are so impressionable. For the same reason, the pledge of allegiance will no longer be recited or taught at school; the only people who will recite it will be right-wing paramilitary groups and some pomp-and-circumstance hobbyists. Flags will be banned by custom from all celebrations, especially the Fourth of July. It will be considered the height of impropriety to wave a flag at a sporting event (where we will no longer sing the national anthem). The flag will still be flown by ships at sea, and painted on airliners. The flag will also still be flown at half-staff as a sign of mourning, and it will still have a place in military and state funerals.

Most importantly, however, some new traditions regarding the flag will be instituted.

Periodically, perhaps on Flag Day, all flags will be removed from storage and displayed. People will be encouraged to contemplate the flag, and think about everything the flag means to them: all the blood, sweat and tears that have been shed to defend it, the freedoms it represents, all the love that has been poured into it. Then, ceremoniously and respectfully, every single flag will be publicly burned. The flags will be burned completely, until they are ashes, and their ashes will be scattered to the wind. And just as a cremation may serve to remind us that a dead body is not the person who died, but only a husk, the annual Burning Of the Flags will be a reminder: a reminder that in the final analysis, flags are what they are -- rectangles of colored cloth -- and that as symbols they, like all symbols, are infinitely mutable, and that symbols should never, ever, be allowed to displace the palpable realities underneath.


From: Ventura California | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged
machiavellian
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posted 22 September 2001 04:41 AM      Profile for machiavellian   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I think you are right to be concerned. According to Northrop Frye in his essay "The Symbol as a Medium of Exchange":

quote:
When such symbols are simply visible or audible stimuli, like a flag or a slogan, they possess a tremendous condensing power. Their focusing of relationships can act as a burning glass, kindling a flame of response from the heat of a myriad of social concerns that they draw together into a single impact. At the same time they are displacements of those concerns:they are not the concerns themselves, with all our conflicting and critical feelings about them. The words condense and displace remind us of Freud's conception of the dream symbol. And certainly there is something dreamlike about a social symbol of this kind. Like the dream image, it is a mirror of our own identity: it looms up out of a mass of vanished or submerged impressions, and speaks to us from a context of silence. Like the dream image, again, it bypasses all mental conflict. Once seen, it is to be accepted (or rejected, if it is a symbol of something hostile to our concerns) and accepted at a deep emotional and uncritical level. Such symbols may be essential to social unity, especially in a crisis, where their function is to stop debate and initiate action. But because of the uncritical response to them, there are lurking dangers in their use. Such words as flag-waving express our awareness of these dangers.

I think you have accurately sensed the uncritical response that is going on with the appearance of the flags everywhere - they do symbolize unity in a time of crisis, but a unity which may stifle the critical feelings which could otherwise help prevent the collective action which is being taken - that is, military action, or war.


From: Peace River (no, not actually in the river, silly) | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged
Pankaj
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posted 22 September 2001 01:37 PM      Profile for Pankaj   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
If, as people like Joseph Campbell say, individuals, nations and cultures play out myth, I wonder what mythological motifs or stories are unfolding right now? Any thoughts?
From: London, ON | Registered: Jul 2001  |  IP: Logged
machiavellian
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posted 22 September 2001 05:08 PM      Profile for machiavellian   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
In the Power of Myth , the PBS special he did with Bill Moyers, I remember Campbell talkng about something like this.

Here's the quote from the book:

quote:

CAMPBELL:..my notion of the real horror today is what you see in Beirut. There you have the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - and because the three of them have threee different names for the same biblical god, they can't get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don't realize its reference. They haven't allowed the circle that surrounds them to open. It is a closed circle. Each group says, "We are the chosen group, and we have God".
Look at Ireland. A group of Protestants was moved to Ireland in the seventeenth century by Cromwell, and it has never opened up to the Catholic majority there. The Catholics and the Protestants represent two totally different social systems, two different ideals.
MOYERS:Each needs a new myth.
CAMPBELL:Each needs its own myth, all the way. Love thine enemy. Open up. Don't judge. All things are Buddha things. It is there in the myth. It is already there.

And this is very relevant too:

quote:
The only mythology that is relevant today is the mythology of the planet - and we don't have such a mythology. The closest thing I know to a planetary mythology is Buddhism, which sees all beings as Buddha beings. The only problem is to come to the recognition of that. There is nothing to do. The task is only to know what it, and then to act in relation to the brotherhood of all these beings.
MOYERS: Brotherhood?
CAMPBELL:Yes. Now brothrehood in most of the myths I know of is confined to a bounded community. In bounded communities, aggression is projected outward.
For example, the Ten Commandments say,"Thou shalt not kill." Then in the next chapter it says, "Go into Canaan and kill everybody in it." That is the bounded field. The myths of participation and love pertain only to the in-group, and the out-group is totally other. This is the sense of the word "gentile"-the person is not of the same order.

And finally (although it's from Campbell's comments about how tolerant and great America is):

quote:
And of course what destroys reason is passion. The principal passion in politics is greed.

I think Afghanistan could esily be substituted for Beirut in the first quote. And what Campbell describes about in-groups and out-groups is definitely going on - that's why it's OK for America to bomb Afghanistan or kill the many other civilians that it has, but as soon as AMericans are killed, well, that's evil.


From: Peace River (no, not actually in the river, silly) | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged
nonsuch
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posted 23 September 2001 03:41 AM      Profile for nonsuch     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
A wonderful essay!
I move it be put on the curriculum of every secondary school and college in the world - open discussion to follow.

From: coming and going | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged
skdadl
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posted 23 September 2001 08:53 AM      Profile for skdadl     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I'll second that -- a wonderful essay, and wonderful reflections all. I'd been thinking a lot about Frye lately too, but machiavellian, you've got me reading him over now as well. Thanks.
From: gone | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
DrConway
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posted 23 September 2001 11:29 AM      Profile for DrConway     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I agree. Essay I like
From: You shall not side with the great against the powerless. | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
Pankaj
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posted 23 September 2001 01:20 PM      Profile for Pankaj   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I have emailed this essay to many of my friends. You have managed to so eloquently put into words a very complex state of affairs with great art and honesty. Thank You.
From: London, ON | Registered: Jul 2001  |  IP: Logged
Zatamon
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posted 23 September 2001 01:41 PM      Profile for Zatamon     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
catishmael,

I thank you for the essay. It touched my soul, enriched me as a human being, helped me to understand on a deeper level. I will email it to all my contacts, because it is written in a such a beautiful, clear language that no one can fail to understand and only those beyond hope can ignore.

Zatamon


From: where hope for 'hope' is contemplated | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged
Pankaj
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posted 23 September 2001 03:01 PM      Profile for Pankaj   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
In terms of mythology: How about this?

The U.S. as a naive hero who does not see its own shadow. In its adolescence, it feeds itself on self-aggrandizing hyperbole rather than depth, wisdom, humility and compassion; feeds and blinds itself further. It is unable to integrate its shadow and thus can only project it outwards. It is unable to see why anyone would not see it as the perfect hero. Tragedy befalls, forcing it to seek self-knowledge. Will it integrate its shadow and become whole? Time will tell.


From: London, ON | Registered: Jul 2001  |  IP: Logged
machiavellian
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posted 24 September 2001 03:25 AM      Profile for machiavellian   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Interesting thoughts, Pankaj. In some ways these events and your comments kind of remind me of the hero story of Buddha. He started out as a young prince in a protected palace where he had never seen age, death, sickness, etc. He had everything he could ever want - three palaces and forty thousand dancing girls. THey gave him this stuff to keep him concerned with the world and distracted from becoming a monk, because of a prophecy which said that he would become either a great world leader or a Buddha. But he went out on chariot rides and saw an old man, a sick man, etc. Every time he saw these things he became agitated, but the king tried to distract him from them with entertainment. Eventually, of course, after seeing all these things (the last being a monk) he goes out on his quest, faces trials, etc., and eventually achieves enlightenment.

The States seems like this - with all the talk of fortress America and the like. It used to be a "safe" place, a kingdom where you could have whatever you want, but suddenly death has been introduced into everybody's consciousness. And it's troubling. So I guess that's like the call to begin the quest, which may eventually reconcile the shadow with consciousness.

To do this the States will have to go through trials etc. that lead to knowledge through which a new national/cultural mythology can be founded which represents a union of good and evil (or more precisely, an acknowledgement of the shadow and an incorporation of it into the national self). I wonder if this mythology will be founded by an individual, kind of a messiah or a buddha or a spiritual leader who reconciles things within his or herself first and then leads the way for others..possibly an artist of some kind...or do you think it will occur as more of a group effort? The lines are kind of blurry anyway I guess because a number of enlightened individuals can spread their knowledge until it becomes group knowledge...I'm thinking in terms of the individual consciousness as a reflection of and an agent in the collective unconscious..It may be quite possible that if a new mythology doesn't arise, ie the quest for enlightenment ends in failure, then the States could self-destruct - the culture could, in essence, die. Perhaps this has already been happening through what some (incl, I think Campbell) have described as the loss of the mythological consciousness and the rise of secular and scientific thought, which has tended to regard mythology as primitive and ignorant. If the dominant national mythology isn't working, or is fading completely, then definitely something new will have to arise for the culture to survive. New symbols and metaphors are needed.

I think you're right about the fact that we have to basically wait and see. After all, hero quests are essentially the working out of unconscious processes...which means we can't predict what symbols etc. will arise to help create something new. ANd I guess it depends on what kind of trials the States will face in the coming years and how the society as a whole reacts to them. I believe that Jung and some of his followers thought that the only way to reconcile the split of good and evil in today's culture (which they regarded as the problem of the present day) would be through the incorporation of the feminine principle. But I am a lackluster Jungian lay-analyst at best so I couldn't really tell you how this is happening or even how it could happen in these events.

I think Campbell talked about how any new mythology, if it was to work, would have to be one which recognized the common humanity of us all, rather than being confined to national interests. He described it as a cosmic mythology, akin to seeing the world from outer space, from which prespective there are no national lines - just a unified whole.

I am heartened that peace movements are beginning, as people speak out against more innocent people dying - these people are definitely recognizing the humanity of the people in Afghanistan.

Just some brainstorming. This is by no means a carefully reasoned nor even a well-supported argument.

Any thoughts?


From: Peace River (no, not actually in the river, silly) | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged
Pankaj
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posted 24 September 2001 02:18 PM      Profile for Pankaj   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
There are things I like about the U.S.: Plularism, however imperfect it is better than most places in the world. The notion that anyone can theoretically aspire to become anything, again better than most places in the world. Democracy, again better than most places in the world. I am however, much more partial to the Canadian approach to these things. Anyway, I would'nt mind these things to be more present in the world. What the U.S. lacks is a real solid spiritual base, it is rather jingoistic in this sense. However, there are vibrant spiritual communities there. I think of Yoga and Buddhism which currently is finding a foothold. I wonder what all this mixture will bring?
From: London, ON | Registered: Jul 2001  |  IP: Logged
machiavellian
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posted 24 September 2001 04:44 PM      Profile for machiavellian   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Buddhism does have a lot of potential since it recognizes all beings as Buddha beings. I think the problem with the States' spiritual base is a problem with the dominant religions in general - they don't necessarily address the problems of today. People seem to be searching for spirituality - the rise of the "New Age" as it's called is evidence. But I wonder how many people are seriously committed to a true spiritual quest, which isn't easy, and can't just be accomplished through immediate gratification. It's more tempting to pursue the material things of the world, through which you CAN get immed. gratification. Isn't that religion that John Travolta belongs to even based on the fact that if you're rich it means that you're a person who is very advanced spiritually? Cuz that's why all this wealth has come to you?
And then there's Oprah, of course - all this talk about the "spirit" in the midst of amassing(sp?) wealth. Sad. Too much of the AMerican Dream is about anybody being able to get rich, not anybody being able to aspire to their highest personal achievement. Much like the emptiness of the American Dream as pictured in "The Great Gatsby".

I too personally prefer the Canadian way of doing things (multiculturalism as opposed to melting pot, more than 2 political parties). And I'm still not so high on American democracy, whether or not it's better than some alternatives. SOme of the Scandinavian countries are much more progressive and socialist, and I almost prefer that. Finland, for example, gave women the vote before any other country in the world, well in advance of them getting it over here. It's quite possible that the States will eventually be eclipsed by another culture's advances... perhaps the new symbols and metaphors will not come from the States at all. Nothing says that the States is even the hero who will eventually prevail. That might be what they like to think, but...


From: Peace River (no, not actually in the river, silly) | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged

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