I Know You Are But What Am I?! – the Snarky State of Discourse In Modern Society

Churlish is a word one rarely gets to use in normal conversation. “Stop being such a…churlish fellow!” does not readily roll off the tongue in modern repartee. But lately I find myself thinking it, often in response to one thing or another I’m reading; usually comments, Facebook contributions; even a hatchet job written on a recent Huffington Post piece I published. We’ve become a churlish, snarling society, ready to snap at the drop of a hat, quick with the snarky rejoinder, poised for the jugular as a default position. We seem incapable of intellectual debate, conversational exchange or even simple discussion without the attempt to draw blood.

Why so cranky? Why can’t we share our ideas – different, opposing or even mildly alternative – without turning on each other like a pack of cur dogs? Foot-stomping, whining toddlers? Finger pointing, snotty grade-schoolers? We’ve gone from the repressive culture of the Victorian era, through the enforced civility of the 40’s and 50’s, past the wild rebellion of the 60’s and 70’s, right up to the Pit Bull Throat-Ripping Mentality of the 2000’s. It ain’t pretty and I, for one, don’t like it much.

cartoon

It all started with the damn Internet (oooh, you….damn Internet!). Suddenly we were no longer limited to shaking our fist at the TV, arguing with our booth mate at a diner, or sending those oft-ignored Letters to the Editor when we had something to say. Now there’s no obligation to attend a rally, get our ass to a meeting, lick a stamp or even sign our name. No, in this new era of instant, anonymous communication, we can freely spew all manner of hate-speak, below-the-belt criticism, vitriol, bile, venom, or any other kind of yellow-hued toxicity without ever identifying ourselves or leaving the comfort of our ergonomic at the computer table.

Internet as the White Hood of cultural communication.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Internet. Seriously, if I could marry it I would. It has given me the tools to create, write, disseminate, telecommute and do my art in ways that were unimaginable just a few short years ago. It is brilliance in the tangible and I am its biggest fan. But as with any innovation, with the good comes the bad. And what this heady freedom has wrought is the ready availability of anonymity…which has allowed the worst of us to regress to a certain and deeply unfortunate state of grunting Neanderthalism.

On any given day, if for some inexplicable reason you want to induce nausea or just masochistically muse on the dubious state of mankind, scroll through a comment thread under pretty much any article on the Internet. It is a study in the basest of human nature. It doesn’t matter what topic. An article on Obama will, of course, bring out the literal White Hoods, along with the so-called “economists” or “small government” contingent who somehow find any piece on Obama to be a sponge for bile so deep you could swim through it. But even an interview with an artist of some kind – male/female, attractive/not so, popular/waning – will induce a bevy of bottom-feeder comments about big boobs and fat asses and how “he’s a douche” or “she’s a pig anyway.” Political essay? Picture a piranha tank…now throw in some fresh meat. I swear, you could write an article about “the cutest little kitty that ever lived on the fluffy face of the earth” and the comments below would be “cats suck, dogs rule!” or “let’s throw that ugly little shit in a blender..hahah!” or even “I hope that faggot cat dies!” They’re a cesspool, Internet comment threads.

It’s as if by removing the responsibility of identity we have removed all manner of decorum, sensibility, respect or just common decency. A person goes from being nice guy, good neighbor Bob Jones to Snarling Tea Party Member Who Wants to Lynch that Muslim Obama and Take Back the Country For Real Americans. Mary Smith morphs from sweet PTA President and loving mother to Christian Who Thinks Homos Should Never Be Allowed Near Children and They’re All Going to Hell Anyway. Put a computer in your tree-hugging, pot-smoking, hemp-wearing cousin Horizon Flower’s hands and she signs in as Militant Uber-Environmental Queen Who Thinks Anyone Questioning Industrial Wind Turbines Is a NIMBY Asshole (never mind that the growers supplying her weed are busy destroying the natural forest as she types!). It’s all about positioning, ego, arrogance, narcissism, shoving shoulders and bullying tactics. It’s about the sucker punch, the shot in the back, the darkest recesses being given the light. It’s cowardice and weakness and a lack of integrity. It sucks.

But it goes beyond that. The toxicity of anonymity has become so pervasive, so widely dispersed and subliminally accepted that it has infected even those who are willing to put a name to their snark. I always find it amazing that one can post something inspirational or meaningful on Facebook and there will always be SOMEONE in the network of “friends” who feels it’s their job to run in with the kidney punch, as if we cannot, for one moment, reflect on the meaning of what’s posted without having the contrary agenda jammed into the dialogue. Wearisome. The smarter, more gracious, person knows when it’s best to keep one’s negativity and cynicism to oneself.

I’m pondering the idea of writing a book called the The Audaciously Holistic Human and in it I plan to analyze this phenomenon and offer, in greater depth than I can do here, my prescription for remedy. It starts with this list:

1. Always use your real name when you sign in to leave a comment. If you aren’t comfortable enough with your perspective or proud enough of your comment to take responsibility for it, don’t write it. If your grandmother couldn’t read it and say (whether she agrees with the thesis or not), “that’s my boy/girl,” you’re on the wrong track. If you get a little queasy when you imagine your friends knowing it was you who wrote it, step away from the comment box. Rule of thumb: Don’t write it if you can’t put your name to it. (see addendum below.)

2. Control the snark. The “I know you are but what am I??!” kind of baiting and bullying online has become so de rigueur that the impulse to respond in kind is tempting. Don’t. Don’t take the bait. Snark begets snark and like that alien weed that’s taking over indigenous habitats, nip it at the root or it will overcome the very nature of elegant human discourse.

3. Write any comment as if the recipient was sitting across the table from you planning to pick up the check. If you wouldn’t say it that way in person, don’t say it that way online.

4. Understand that despite your conviction, there are others who simply do not and will not ever agree with you. Stop trying to convince them. Especially when you’re insulting them while you’re trying to convince them. Counterproductive and pointless. Most of us are preaching to the choir. We’re not expecting to change any minds. We’re just putting forth our ideas to the village in which we live. If you don’t agree, either keep it to yourself or, if you have some compelling reason to express it other than the aforementioned Facebook Kidney Punch, write with respect and the full understanding that you’re the odd man out. Wit and decorum win more debates than snark, guaranteed.

5. And since it’s been mentioned, understand that snark is not wit. It is snark, similar to wit only as Arby’s resembles roast beef.

5. Learn how to converse…and debate. I swear, if I were running schools my curriculum would include such mandatory subjects as “How to Become a Good Conversationalist” (hint: listen and be sincerely interested in others), “How to Intelligently and Respectfully Debate,” “The Value of Communicating with Dignity and Integrity,” and “Learn How and When To Shut Your Pie-Hole.” I’m working on the rest of the list.

6. Seriously and authentically open your mind. And by that I don’t mean pretend you have an open mind while you denigrate and stereotype the people you’re accusing of denigrating and stereotyping you or those on your side of the aisle, I mean REALLY open your mind. So that you can look at a member of an opposing political party, philosophical group, religion, or football team and realize that, despite opposing views, the humans involved also have some good and admirable traits. Other than Fred Phelps and family, certain religious zealots who hate in the name of God, and anyone who sends me spam about Miracle Whip, that’s likely true for most. Even John Boehner.

The list goes on but you’ll have to wait for the book (wow…should I really write it??). The moral of the story is this: Have the courage not only of your convictions, but the courage to plainly, respectfully and intelligently express them, openly and with your byline. If you’re going to comment on an article, join a Facebook thread, tweet, email, or make a point on a blog, do so with that mandate in mind.

I don’t mind disagreement, but disagreeable is a losing proposition.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

P.S. And while you’re at it, you might want to reread this post: What the World Needs Now Is Empathy. I daresay, the lack of empathy has a whole helluva lot to do with the proliferation of snark.

Addendum:  A commenter just brought a very specific situation to the table which required some rethinking of  #1 above.  Let me offer these exceptions to the “sign your own name” rule: Given our unfortunately pugilistic society when it comes to public discourse (aka., rancorous, spittle-flying debate) and the sometimes very irrational reactions to those debates, there ARE some valid times and reasons to use a pseudonym. Whistle-blowing is certainly one. Self-protection in the kind of heated scenarios that come with real life threats or personal attacks is another. There is often good reason to use a sign-in disguise when one is leaving a pertinent and thoughtful response to a particularly explosive piece in a community where everyone knows each other and big ideas are sometimes followed by small minds who foment neighborhood in-fighting, loss of friends, and a form of community shunning. The necessary shield of anonymity is not only allowed in those very unique and specific circumstances, but probably wise. I maintain that the courage of one’s convictions still suggests standing behind what you have to say, but when life, limb, profession, home, peace and quietude are at tangible risk, “Mad But Smart” can take the floor!

Everyone else? All you other commenters? You potty-mouthed kitty killers? Put your name to it or shut the pie hole. Actually, name or no name, just shut the pie hole!

Cartoon by Lorraine Devon Wilke 

LDW w glasses


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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38 thoughts on “I Know You Are But What Am I?! – the Snarky State of Discourse In Modern Society

  1. Lane Aldridge

    Lorraine, BRAVA!!!!

    I must share this–and especially with Tucsonans for Civility. The group was formed following the 1/8/11 massacre here. They are on the web and on Facebook by that name. What is on their info page (copied here below) echoes what you are saying:

    A Call to America for Civility from the Community of Tucson. Take our pledge at http://tucsonansforcivility.com/

    From those of us in Tucson who have lost so much and who will never forget the tragedy we have just endured, we call upon all people in America regardless of political persuasion, religious affiliation, race, sexual orientation or national origin to:

    Unify around our common history and values;

    Treat our neighbors and fellow Americans with civility and decency;

    Refrain from personally attacking or demonizing those with whom we disagree, and in the words written by Congresswoman Giffords the night before the tragic events in Tucson “tone our rhetoric and partisanship down”; and

    Urge those who serve us in public office or the media to do likewise.

    A Call to America for Civility from the Community of Tucson.
    Mission:
    We commit ourselves to listen to our neighbors, to appreciate and value our differences, to work together in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect to build a better community, and in the words of President Obama at the Memorial Service in Tucson “to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

    http://tucsonansforcivility.com/
    http://twitter.com/tucsonans/

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    1. LDW

      Beautiful and essential mission statement, Lane; particularly after the debacle in Tucson. It has to start somewhere and like any slow, incremental societal change, it happens person to person, bit by bit. If we each take a personal pledge to allow wit, humor, intelligent debate and respectful opinion to rule the day, we might get somewhere. I don’t mind dark humor, sharp satire or biting, intellectual commentary; what doesn’t is the drive-by ambush, the mean idiocy of a bully, the embodiment of snark in every line of an argument. So I support your pledge, you Tucsons For Civility…it’s a noble and worthy one. Little by little, bit by bit. Thanks, Lane! LDW

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  2. Absolutely, yes !! You hit the nail direct on the head with wit and humor … I live in a town with no history of blocking projects recently (as you reported) faced with massive changes proposed by a wind energy company. As soon as the media started covering our issue, we got branded NIMBYs and worse by people who didn’t even bother to read the article! One of our local bloggers was so jealous of your writings on our town that he threw mud and of course some bottom dwellers came out to wallow and the whole thing has become quite polarized with threats of boycotts on our local businesses by a few sillies from other towns.

    I would say though there are times when being able to post without leaving one’s name is needed and I hope that is never entirely shut off. Whistleblowers and folks seeing wrong who have no power and fear retribution need at least the cover of a screen name. I agree that “anonymous” the amoeba with the keyboard sucking on the haterade is annoying, but also “consider the source” and can be ignored.

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    1. LDW

      Hello, Ellin, and thanks so much for weighing in. Frankly, the “leave your name” mandate should probably be slightly amended to accommodate exactly the circumstances you elucidate. Sometimes a whistle-blower DOES need the protection of anonymity. That is certainly a valid (if one of the few!) reason to keep your name out of the discussion. Perhaps I’ll add that as a worthy addendum to the piece.

      But yes, it’s incredibly unfortunate the way too many in society fight their battles. Someone once told me a wise warrior always knows which weapon to use in a fight – sometimes a bludgeon, sometimes a ballpean hammer, sometimes a gentle nudge, even sometimes the well-articulated word. We do not have enough “wise warriors” in our midst. Instead we are overrun by those who have no sense of scale or proportion, no concept of compromise or collaboration, and see no longterm value in decorum, respect and empathy. The bludgeon is too frequently wielded and that’s leaving too many unnecessarily wounded.

      Unfortunately, as I mentioned in the article, we’re usually preaching to the choir! The ones who most need to read and act on this kind of perspective either won’t, or wouldn’t recognize themselves in the paragraphs! But if it compels a few to think more clearly before they click their comment forever into cyberspace, some good has been done.

      I really appreciate your thoughts on this, Ellin. I’m gonna go and write that addendum right now! Keep up the good fight, my friend….LDW

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  3. tony warinskoff

    Hilarious. And right on. I think you speak for a lot of us out here who don’t even want to leave comments because when you do you’re shoved in between comments that you don’t even want to be associated with! I tell my kids to never leave a comment they wouldn’t want me to read and hopefully they’re abiding by that. But it’s got to change. This habit on the internet is seriously sick and it truly makes me wonder about the people we share space with on this green earth. But one person told me he believes most of the crap in comments is just idiots puffing themselves up to come off as so tough and aggressive, but in real life they’re passive, mild mannered and nothing like that sign-in person they’ve created. In one way, I hope so, in another, it’s still so sad that anyone could get any kind of pleasure out of creating even a fake online bully. But you made me laugh too. Best way to make a point! Thanks.

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    1. LDW

      Tony: I share your dismay and well as your incredulousness at the insanity behind how people communicate publicly. It actually never ceases to amaze me! But I figure if one keeps shining a light on the topic, as well as sets as good an example as possible in their own online communication, the drip-drip-drip of growing civility and lack of acceptance of snark may just have an effect over time. One can hope! Thanks for your very civil comment! 🙂 LDW

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  4. roma

    Interesting read!!! Your website is fantastic with informative content which i’d like to add to my favorites. Really enjoy the variety of subject matter. This one was funny but really had a point. Excellent.

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    1. LDW

      Thanks, Roma. I figure if we can’t find a laugh in the midst of taking on the world, we’re poorer for it! Appreciate the comment. LDW

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    1. LDW

      Thanks, Jennifer. It’s so damn true, isn’t it? I think so many of us are so weary of the tone and petulance of those who feel compelled to snark away…I can’t tell you how much it annoys me. To whatever degree it affects anyone who’s been on the fence of this issue, great; I fear the people who should really heed it’s call would never bother to read such a piece! But for what it’s worth in drawing the line in the cybersand either way! Thanks for you comment, JCK! LDW

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  5. Body S.

    Really enjoyed this! Needed to be said. Probably won’t change anything but for those of us reading, it provided a worthwhile laugh! Thanks.

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    1. LDW

      Thanks, Body. Hey, if it provided a laugh for someone who appreciated the sentiment, then it served a good purpose! Thanks for your comment. LDW

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  6. helen danske

    I hope you write that book. It’s definitely needed in today’s world. I laughed as I read your very astute analysis of this ridiculous problem that exists in most public discourse but truly the problem itself is not that funny. I fear we’re raising a generation or two of mannerless, thoughtless, entitled, very rude human beings. I pray that it’s just the mob mentality of online bullies but too often it seems to run over into real life (I’ve seen that kind of bad behavior in stores, at restaurants, in movie theaters). Keep writing. If nothing else it makes many of us out here know we’re not the only ones who see the problem.

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    1. LDW

      Helen – I will keep writing (can’t seem to keep my own mouth shut! 🙂 and I’ve gotten enough encouragement on my book idea that I just might put it words! Thank you for your own encouragement. I know it sometimes feels overwhelming and so out of our control, but I do believe that each of us has the power to at least affect our own circle, our own little village. Teaching our children how to communicate and be decorous, being an example of that kind of behavior in the way we conduct ourselves in life; stepping up and stopping bad behavior when we see it rather than allowing our silence to tacitly give it permission to exist and continue, all lead toward a slow but, I believe, sure way to set the bar at a different place. I had a person once ask me how I could be so patient with surly commenters on my Facebook threads and I replied that I had to talk the talk if I was going to be a champion of civil discourse. It ain’t always easy to do (I can access a quick, unruly temper when pushed too far! :), but it’s incumbent upon those of us who care about such things and are aware of the social erosion it causes to change the tide in whatever small ways we can. Keep the faith! And thank you for sharing your thoughts! LDW

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  7. Marly T.

    I have subscribed to your rss so I could continue to get you wonderful articles! This one takes the cake – I swear I was just talking to someone about how horrible so many comments are on online articles that it makes you wonder if we live in a country full of madmen! I’m sure they’re mostly just pounding their chests, easy to do when you don’t use your own name like you say. But still, it makes you wonder if these people have jobs and families and how they talk to them! Weird. But thanks for the piece. Really hit it on the head.

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    1. LDW

      I’m with you, Marly. I wonder some of those same things….how do you write some of the junk we see online and then go be civil with co-workers, your boss, your mate, your kids?? Hard to understand the way people choose to communicate. I agree that it’s likely they’re big tough brawlers while they’re hiding behind a fake name; probably not so surly in real life. One can hope! Now one can hope they either rein it in or just shut the pie hole as advised! Thanks for subscribing and taking the time to leave a comment! LDW

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  8. Billi Rinck

    You’re a very entertaining writer. I’ve read some of your stuff on the Huffington Post and enjoy your style, serious at times but always sort of funny. This is makes some very real points but I got a kick of the kitty killer bit! SOOOOO true! Thanks and keep up the great work.

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    1. LDW

      Really appreciate it, Billi. I’ve always believed even serious topics have room for some wit and humor so I’m glad you find my particular take on things worth a read! Thanks for stopping by both places and come back again. LDW

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  9. ella k

    Enjoy your blog. Liked this article particularly. Wit is always the best way to communicate annoyance and there’s nothing more annoying than the kind of people you’re writing about. Keep it up. I’d read that book.

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    1. LDW

      Thanks, Ella. I guess I’m going to have to very seriously consider actually writing that book now that I’ve opened my big mouth! 🙂 I appreciate your comments. LDW

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  10. nance

    Much appreciated the information and share! Don’t think enough can be said on this point. I swear if I read one more idiotic comment online I’m going to close my computer forever.

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    1. LDW

      Don’t do that, Nance! You sound like the exact kind of person we NEED to stay online! Don’t let ’em get you down….there’s more of us out here than them, we’re just a quieter bunch. I figure every time I leave a civil and sensible comment somewhere I’m contributing to the good side. You do the same. And thanks for your comment here. LDW

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  11. Monty Jackette

    Fantastic stuff from you. Ive read your stuff before and youre just as good on this one. I enjoy what youre stating and the way you say it. You make it entertaining and you even manage to help keep it wise. I look forward to more from you. That is really a great weblog. And see, I signed my name!

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    1. LDW

      I DID see that, Monty, and I’m downright impressed! 🙂 Thanks for your comments. I seem to find the humor in most things and figure it’s as good a way as any (maybe better!) to make my points. Always appreciate when people enjoy the style! Thanks for your comments and keep reading! LDW

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  12. Saturnina B

    I was reading through some of your content on your blog and I believe you have a very informative and entertaining style! It’s not easy to make good points and be funny at the same time so good for you. I’m sending this one around to some people. I’ve kinda had it with this kind of communication too. Keep posting.

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    1. LDW

      Appreciate your comment, Saturnina, and for sending around the article. Funny, it got posted on the Huffington Post too and, wouldn’t ya believe it…the comments that came in were as snarky as the points being made! I guess people just can’t help themselves; it’s too ingrained in our cultural communication at this point! But I still believe the drip by drip push against it will ultimately prove sway, at least in terms of finding a better balance. One can hope! Thanks. LDW

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  13. Praca A

    Hi there, just became aware to your blog through Google, and really enjoy it. As a person who hates “snark” I loved this article. I hope you’ll continue writing pieces like this. A lot of people seem to enjoy your writing. Cheers!

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    1. LDW

      I’m with you on the snark, Praca, obviously! Glad you found your way here and I hope you’ll come back from time to time. Thanks for leaving a comment. LDW

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  14. rj

    If only 90% of the idiots who comment online would actually read and apply this. But they won’t. Which sucks. But hey, it’s good to talk about it once in awhile. rj

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  15. D. Kapselständer

    I’m impressed, I have say. Rarely do I encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you will have hit the nail on the head with this one. You make some good points; the difficulty is that not enough people who could actually benefit from your perspective will read this. And if they do, they’d probably just be snarky about it! But I’m happy that I stumbled across this. Regards Daniel

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    1. LDW

      Thanks, Daniel. I think you’re probably right about who reads it and who gets it. But still…always seems worth it to at least make the points. You got it and that I appreciate! LDW

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  16. ozzie L.

    Great article! Laughing all the way to the comment column. Though I imagine the snarksters you’re writing about wouldn’t! Laugh, that is!

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  17. WOW! You are a talented writer, and this posting has hit home with me! I’ve had several people try to ‘bully’ me on my website blog because they don’t agree with my opinions. I really wish I could send this posting directly to them. It’s amazing how childish and immature people can get when sitting behind a computer screen. I really hope this posting gets read by everyone who uses the Internet.

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    1. Thank you, Whitney. I think anyone who has a blog or online site of any kind knows the scourge of snark! Personally, I think the viciousness and immaturity, as you put it, of so many commenters has made the online experience less vibrant and productive. Hopefully as more and more sites take steps to mitigate the ability of anonymous trollers to create problems, the intelligent people who actually want to discuss and debate issues will come back out to play! Let’s hope so. Again, thanks for your kind words! LDW

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