A little misanthropy can be a healthy thing

August 4, 2019

 

This is from a letter Sigmund Freud wrote to his pastor friend Oskar Pfister:

 

I do not break my head very much about good and evil, but I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all. That is something that you cannot say aloud, or perhaps even think, though your experiences of life can hardly have been different from mine. If we are to talk of ethics, I subscribe to a high ideal from which most of the human beings I have come across depart most lamentably.

 

He expressed the thought more concisely in another letter: “In the depths of my heart I can’t help being convinced that my dear fellow-men, with a few exceptions, are worthless.”

 

Misanthropy has tempted "great thinkers" from Heraclitus to Nietzsche and beyond, and I suspect it tempts most people in general, at least sometimes. All they have to do is look at how cruel, stupid, inconsiderate, selfish, greedy, vulgar, and so on their fellow humans are! The irony is that most people who periodically feel this revulsion are themselves more than capable of being cruel, stupid, inconsiderate, etc. Freud, for example, was very far from a model human being

 

Personally, I'm not above the occasional misanthropic mood. There have been times I've identified so little with the nasty, stupid species called Homo sapiens that I've whimsically speculated I must come from another planet. I remember fantasizing at 12 or 13 that I was an alien who had been dropped on Earth to live among humans for a while, write a long report on what he saw, give it to the human species for its benefit (so it would have the opinion of a third party), and then return to Mars or wherever it was I was from. What has kept me from actually being a "misanthrope," I think, is that I was lucky enough to be born with a cheerful nature and a sense of humor. Observing how ridiculous people are, in the ironical mode of a George Carlin, can be a diverting pastime. 

 

"When you're born, you get a ticket to the freak show," Carlin remarked. "When you're born in America, you get a front row seat."

 

In a post several years ago called "Subversive common sense" I gave a few examples of the absurdity of our usual ways of thinking and acting, but I'm in that impish mood again and think I'll continue the list here. Sorry if it offends or upsets anyone. It's mostly just meant in jest (I think). Life, after all, would be hard if we didn't have a sense of humor. We shouldn't take ourselves so seriously!

 

Where to begin? How about with that old Freudian chestnut, sex? Freud's fetishizing of sex was a little extreme, but the sex instinct certainly does take up a lot of space in the mind. And a good deal of behavior that seems more or less innocent is shot through with a not-very-high-minded significance. To take an obvious example: feminine clothing. Imagine what an outside observer, like a Martian, would think if he were to investigate our species. He would see the females dressing skimpily and seductively, baring their skin and breasts, as the males frequently stared or tried to avert their gaze; and he would likely be puzzled as to why the males didn't simply grab one of these tempting females whenever they wanted. "What's holding them back?" he'd wonder. "What a strange species! The males have an irrational amount of self-restraint. From their behavior it's clear they're very frustrated, and it seems the females like to taunt them. Perhaps in this species the females are dominant?" 

 

He'd watch men and women sit in public settings and would see men spreading their legs and women closing theirs. "The males' pose is sexually inviting, but the females invariably either cross their legs or simply keep them closed, obviously to cover their vaginas. This custom, at least, makes biological sense." Suppose he observed gymnastics, figure skating, or ballroom dancing. "It's all very beautiful and impressive, but certainly one of the meanings of these rituals is sexual. Why else would the females wear such revealing clothing, showing even their buttocks and breasts, when the males don't? Why else would they keep spreading their legs wide open, twirling them around the males, who are touching them and grabbing them in the most private areas? The crowd seems mesmerized by these sexual displays." If he happened to see the Rockettes perform, the significance of the high kick routine would be evident: "The point, obviously, is that the females are giving everyone a series of momentary views of their genital area. It's a sexually suggestive, flirtatious performance."

 

What he probably wouldn't know, from his external perspective, is that a vast conspiracy of silence among humans systematically pushes such "naughty" interpretations as his off to the margins of consciousness. Or maybe after lengthy observation he'd have an epiphany: "My god, is it possible they're actually just living in denial? They keep sexuality repressed -- so repressed they might even be outraged if someone pointed out these obvious truths! Are they perhaps ashamed of sex?"

 

"In general," he would conclude, "this species shows dazzling ingenuity, really inexhaustible imaginativeness, in both its expressions and its concealments of the sexual impulse. Wherever humans go and whatever they do -- whether watching images on their electronic devices or walking in the streets or sitting on the underground trains -- they're viewing females flaunting their sexuality, or else trying to conceal it. In this sense, the male sex is clearly dominant and determines social behavior. And yet most males are terribly frustrated, it seems. Fascinating!"

 

Sometimes you get a truer perspective, or at least a more interesting one, if you imagine how a Martian would interpret humans. This is why Noam Chomsky likes to use this conceptual device. To paraphrase him: "A Martian would see us exacerbating global warming, i.e., racing to destroy ourselves, and would conclude humans are an evolutionary error. Self-destruction must be programmed into them somehow. That would be a rational [though not necessarily a correct] conclusion."

 

On the whole, people are much too prone to self-deception. They tell themselves pretty stories to think well of themselves and to hide the real significance of their behavior. Suppose a woman falls in love with a man. "He's so kind and smart, caring and funny. He's my soulmate." Okay, but what if he were three or four inches shorter? Or, God forbid, several inches shorter than you? Would he still be your "soulmate"? Not likely. What if he had a lazy eye? Or an unsightly mole on his face? Would his kindness and intelligence mean so much to you then? Doubtful. You would have rejected him in favor of some taller or better-looking guy, just as men are apt to reject women for not being pretty or thin enough or subservient enough or giggly enough. 

 

"Affairs of the heart" are largely accidental. Like most things in life. They're not so meaningful. If the guy had chosen a different bar for the first date, a noisier or seedier bar, the dynamics of the conversation would have been different and the girl might well have decided, for whatever reason, not to see him again -- and so their marriage, their children, their grandchildren, none of it would have happened. All because of taking her to the wrong bar. Or to a place with bad lighting or a rude bartender or some other little thing that could muck up the "chemistry." Or if he had worn an outfit she didn't like; or maybe he wasn't muscular enough, or he had a bad haircut, whatever. It's all bullshit. Life is a series of stupidities and accidents.

 

All this is obvious, but people seem to forget it. Understandably, I suppose. But it's salutary to keep it in mind, so we don't take ourselves too seriously.

 

And we definitely shouldn't take seriously collective or institutional phenomena like culture or politics or individuals' status. The tendency is that high social, professional, economic, or cultural status indicates moral and intellectual mediocrity (though there are exceptions). "In an amoral world, the amoral man is best qualified to succeed." But not only the amoral man: also the obedient, cowardly, groupthinking, and incurious man. It always strikes me as pathetic and immoral that some people, such as celebrities, billionaires, and successful intellectuals, are treated as superior to everyone else. It's a farce: they're just people, after all. Except that in most cases they're more unpleasant and morally compromised than others.

 

Sometimes an article published in a mainstream newspaper or magazine will cause a big splash and the author will get a lot of attention, will be interviewed a bunch of times, and will perhaps have changed how hundreds of people think about the world. It's a joke. Any number of articles published on left-wing sites like Counterpunch, Current AffairsIn These TimesJacobinInternational Socialist Review, and dozens of others would have had a much bigger impact if only the editors and publishers of liberal outlets weren't too cowardly to print anything really challenging. I can't help being disgusted by the whole show, in fact by many things that have a collective dimension. In the "collective" is not only stupidity but also fakeness, pretentiousness, amorality, and cowardice.

 

I sometimes even find it hard to reconcile the desire to be influential with the knowledge that most "influential" people are pretty contemptible. Or that influential books and articles are often terrible. Think of the writings of "libertarians" like Ayn Rand, op-ed columnists like Thomas Friedman, or intellectual hucksters like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson. If that is what it means to be influential, well then screw it, who cares! Of what value is "recognition" if such pathetic people as this have so much of it? Why do I care about influencing or being "recognized" by the sorts of uncritical fools who are capable of worshiping low-caliber "public intellectuals"? I should care about that desire not much more than I care about influencing other apes in the human family tree -- chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans. In the end, are most people really so far removed from Homo neanderthalensis? (Just think of most white supremacists, ICE agents, fascists, reactionaries, inhumane bureaucrats, politicians, "bro"-y corporate types, money-grubbers of all stripes, empathy-deficient egotists, uncritical dogmatists anywhere on the political spectrum, and so on.)[1]

 

I'm reminded, again, of what Chomsky said once. When his assistant asked him, "How do you keep from getting angry at all the nasty emails you get from enraged people?," he simply said, "Do you get angry with a hurricane? [No, she replied.] Well, people are hurricanes." I'm not sure what he meant by that, but, in certain less-than-sympathetic moods, I've assumed he meant people tend to have little control over themselves, they're guided more by emotions than reason, don't have a lot of free will in some respects, are so immature they're scarcely even responsible for their actions. They're like forces of nature, not rational moral agents.

 

But this type of thinking is too one-sided and misanthropic to be the whole truth. And even if frauds, idiots, and assholes are frequently respected or even revered (in fact, it's safe to say that nearly all people who are widely respected -- including Mohandas Gandhi, by the way -- are frauds, idiots, and/or assholes), that doesn't mean you shouldn't keep trying to make the world a better place and appreciate whatever recognition you get for doing so. And if you get none, so be it. In such an unjust world as ours, that's really what you should expect: either no recognition at all, or active punishment of various sorts. What matters is that you respect yourself. Take it as a badge of honor that you're not celebrated -- you're not low enough for that.

 

But however important it is to do all you can to help people, don't make the mistake of taking them (or 90% of them) seriously.[2] They're not Chomskys; they're wrong about most things, and deeply flawed. The most passionately believing people are liable to be the most wrong. Even well-intentioned liberals and leftists almost always have gaping blind spots they plug up with all manner of delusions. Take anti-nuclear environmental activists, people like Helen Caldicott. Since the 1970s, thousands of activists have devoted much of their lives to fighting against nuclear energy, which they consider polluting and dangerous. Some have achieved great fame, and are utterly convinced they've made the world a better place. Turns out they've not only wasted their lives but have actually made the world worse. I've written elsewhere about how the conventional wisdom on nuclear power is dead wrong. By advocating the closure of nuclear power plants and making it more costly to build new ones, these people have helped cause the deaths of thousands from coal plant emissions (which have replaced nuclear plants) and have exacerbated global warming. Future generations can thank environmentalists for helping to wreck the environment.

 

The same is true of most anti-GMO activists. While there are plenty of reasons to fight against Monsanto and other such corporations, the war against GMOs as such has only harmed people across the developing world. Activists who pride themselves on their morality and humanitarianism are devoting their lives to keeping millions hungry and poor.

 

These are the ironies human life is full of, the ironies you can avoid only by educating yourself dispassionately, observing the world objectively, and thinking critically about everything you do and believe. Don't get too attached to particular beliefs; always be willing to rethink everything. 

 

One significant irony is that intellectuals, or in general highly educated people, are usually more deluded about themselves and the world than the less educated are. They've been more indoctrinated, so their beliefs are less sensible. Certain aspects of feminism are a good example. Many feminists are certain that physical and biological facts about men and women have no causal relation to gender identities -- everything is socially constructed -- but in fact this belief, far from being correct, is hardly even coherent. After all, gender identity incorporates beliefs about and attitudes toward one's body, and toward the biological processes that occur in one's body. Processes like, in men, the pubescent growth of the penis and testes, ejaculation, increasing muscle mass, and greater size and height than women; and in women, processes like menstruation, the growth of breasts, pregnancy, and nursing. If norms of femininity include norms about nursing children, or even staying at home during pregnancy and motherhood as your partner provides for you, evidently this is (in part) because it's women, not men, who get pregnant, give birth, and nurse children. So, lo and behold, it appears that biological facts do partly determine gender, and "social construction" is only one piece of the puzzle.

 

Why is masculinity associated with physical activity, athletic prowess, and muscular strength? You don't have to be a genius to see it's partly because men tend to be faster, stronger, and have more endurance than women. (This isn't a value-judgment! It's just a fact! Hopefully you understand the difference.) And so, given that the sexes naturally define themselves in relation to each other, masculinity ends up being defined as more athletic than femininity. Whoops: it seems, again, that biology semi-determines gender norms. And the whole vast feminist literature arguing against this idea is refuted, by a couple of sentences.

 

It's easy to go on in this vein, refuting postmodern idealism about gender.

 

Feminist academic writings also provide illustrations of intellectuals' extreme pretentiousness. Even Wikipedia articles, hardly as pretentious as most "theoretical" writings, can verge on self-parody. Here's a random example:

 

Gender, according to West and Zimmerman, is not simply what one is, but what one does -- it is actively produced within social interactions. Gender is an accomplishment: "the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one's sex category." People do not have to be in mixed gender groups or in groups at all for the performance of gender to occur; the production of gender occurs with others and is even performed alone, in the imagined presence of others. "Doing" gender is not just about conforming to stereotypical gender roles -- it is the active engagement in any behavior that is gendered, or behavior that may be evaluated as gendered.

 

The performance of gender varies given the context: time, space, social interaction, etc. The enactment of gender roles is context dependent -- roles are "situated identities" instead of "master identities."

 

So one's actions are relevant to one's gender. "Gender isn't only what one is but what one does." What a profound insight. It never would have occurred to me that gender has to do with behavior. Or that gender roles vary with context and are "situated" in given contexts or circumstances. I'm in awe of such intellectual acuity.

 

And then there's the great Judith Butler. Here she is on the distinction between performance and performativity:

 

When we say gender is performed, we usually mean that we've taken on a role, we're acting in some way, and that our acting or our role-playing is crucial to the gender that we are and the gender that we present to the world. [So far, so obvious. Behavior is crucial to gender. Got it.] To say that gender is performative is a little different, because for something to be performative means that it produces a series of effects. We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman… [Again: yes. I'd have to agree with that.] We act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or something that is simply true about us, a fact about us. Actually, it's a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time. So to say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start. 

 

I have to admit I don't see what's so earth-shaking or original about these ideas. Of course she dresses them up in much more jargonized prose in her writings, but here she explains them fairly lucidly. The point is that there is no "internal reality," that a person is not a gender but acts out a gender. Through repetition of acts, a gendered reality is created. You see it's the old idealism, the old denial of objectivity or truth or "essence," which I've written about elsewhere.[3] In the fragmented, alienated, hyper-commodified, nihilistic social conditions of postmodernity, it's been fashionable to deny the existence of the self, and of objective truths in general. (The spectacular successes of natural science constitute a rather embarrassing problem for this anti-realist, relativistic ideology.) But, well, I don't really see why it's necessary to deny that there is a "masculine" or "feminine" self, an "internal reality" of some sort that may well be (in fact certainly is) influenced by the kinds of objective biological facts scientists study, having to do with hormonal and many other physiological differences between the sexes. Feminist theorists like to disregard or explain away this whole realm of natural science, since they're constrained to respect disciplinary boundaries -- their field is culture/literature, not biology, so they'll leave the biology to the biologists and pretend it has no bearing on their subject (or, alternatively, is irredeemably sexist, patriarchal, whatever) -- but that theoretical stance shows no intellectual integrity. 

 

And sure, gender is "a phenomenon that's being produced and reproduced all the time," in part through one's acts (and internal thoughts, which Butler characteristically doesn't mention because internal = bad) and also one's "situatedness" in institutional, political, cultural, etc. contexts, and yes we're all heavily influenced by the social world and various "discourses" (or rather practices) we've been socialized into, and the specific expressions of gender obviously differ between societies (although certain cross-cultural commonalities are striking), etc. But Christ, what a mountain of pretentious ideological crap is produced by these hordes of self-serious academics!

 

Sorry to go on at such length. I only wanted to give an example that ties into my general theme of "Humans are ridiculous and take themselves too seriously." It would be easy to give other examples of pretentious and pointless intellectualizing, for instance among Marxists. Actually, it's too easy. So let's move on.

 

Incidentally, the really striking and ironic thing about most intellectualizing isn't its pretentiousness but the combination of its pretentiousness and its stupidity. I confess I've never been able to understand why most intellectuals are so stupid (though I've speculated about it here). They're frequently quite skilled at talking, writing, reading, footnoting, even teaching, but beneath all the fireworks I often perceive a lack of critical intelligence, of analytic sense, of a sturdy realistic mind.

 

E.g., in the context of politics, why do leftists have to be so damned sectarian? Every little school of thought fights against every other, with the result that everyone loses and the reactionaries win. It's freaking stupid. Get over yourselves, people! Work together! Purity of doctrine matters less than changing the world. (Have you never heard the word "solidarity"?)

 

And why do leftists so often inveigh against "lesser evilism"? In some cases, it's very important to keep the worst candidate out of office! Again, doctrinal purity matters less than preventing the absolute worst things from happening! I agree with Chomsky that this principle is common sense.

 

How is it possible there are intellectuals who reject historical materialism? The materialist interpretation of society is so blindingly obvious it almost requires genius to be obtuse enough to reject it. Idealistic liberals like Paul Krugman, and to some extent even John Maynard Keynes, are not impressive critical thinkers.

 

In philosophy, why are confusion and superficiality so common? I recently read a book by Susan Blackmore called Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction. It's rife with confusions. I've written about the mind-body problem, but here I'll just say I find it odd that philosophers are so reluctant to accept the conclusion that the human mind isn't capable of understanding exactly how consciousness emerges from electrochemical processes in the brain. There seems to be an unbridgeable gap between private subjectivity -- intentions, feelings, phenomenal qualities like colors, sounds, and tastes -- and objective physical processes like electrochemical impulses traveling across millions of neurons. The mystery is a deep conceptual problem that thinkers have agonized over for centuries. Why not simply accept the natural conclusion that the human mind is limited, just as the mind of every other animal is limited, and there are certain problems it will never be able to solve? This position seems very obvious to me.

 

Why have so many philosophers and linguists resisted Chomsky's idea of a Universal Grammar that is genetically hardwired into humans? As he says, UG means nothing but the initial state of the language faculty. Humans surely have a language faculty, meaning an aspect of the cognitive architecture of their brain that predisposes them to "grow" a language in the first few years of life as they encounter verbal sounds produced by adults in their environment. No other animal grows a language in this way; only humans have such a capacity. And this capacity is precisely UG, which therefore must exist, since humans have language! Yet the Chomskian position is very controversial! I find it mystifying. Surely the burden of proof is on those who reject his perfectly natural, almost self-evident, theory.

 

I've already touched on the inadequacies of postmodernist thinking about sex and gender, and elsewhere on this website I've written about how postmodern thinkers are wrong (or superficial) about most other subjects as well. So I won't go into that here. The intellectual shallowness, in some respects even self-contradictoriness, of postmodernism is stunning.

 

Etc. In the humanities and social sciences, it isn't always easy to find sensible thinking. But these are ideological professions, after all, where the pressures of groupthink and subordination to power are extreme. So the lack of acuity and honesty isn't surprising.

 

Moreover, for academics the rule is "publish or perish." So they have to keep writing, keep publishing, keep thinking of new little arguments to make, however trivial or silly, in order to advance their careers. It's perfectly understandable. They have to "problematize" for the sake of problematizing, so to speak, since this is how you can keep having things to say (maybe not interesting things, but what matters is only that you say something). It's important to quibble and quarrel over every little point, because otherwise you'll be out of a job. Indeed, this is probably why philosophers are so reluctant to accept that the mind-body problem (among others) can't be resolved! If they were to accept this position, then there would be little else to say about the matter, and they wouldn't be able to publish anymore about a big subject that has advanced thousands of careers.

 

"Stupidity" is therefore -- actually in many ways -- built into the academic bureaucracy, and is inevitably and continuously produced by it. Not a surprise, because all bureaucracies, by their very nature, manufacture stupidity and inhumanity.

 

Speaking of Chomsky, I must say I even find it hard to understand that so many people who encounter his work, whether in philosophy and linguistics or in politics, think nothing of strenuously disagreeing with him. This strikes me as itself a form of stupidity (however understandable it might be in the context of their career, which may require that they disagree with him). All you have to do is read his writings or watch videos of him to see he's a uniquely acute, informed, and serious thinker. If you're going to disagree with him about something, well, you'd better think long and hard before doing so.

 

If I were really going to be serious about arguing that human life consists largely of illusions and self-deceptions, I'd go deep, all the way down to what it means to be a self in the first place. While we certainly do have an internal sense of self, we do not exist in the way we think we do, as some sort of ego-substance named "Chris Wright" or "John Smith" or whatnot, a Person or a Soul or a Self with a Will and an Identity, etc. What "I" am, in effect, is just a body infused with consciousness, self-consciousness specifically, consciousness of being conscious. There is no Ego in the grand, substantival sense we like to think. Again, I've written about this subject elsewhere. We're just conscious bodies running around fighting and playing, mating and talking, bodies with advanced brains that can construct the sense of an integral self based on things that have happened and are happening to the body -- sensations, perceptions, memories, and responses to other bodies (or rather to embodied selves, for that's how each human body perceives itself and other bodies). There is no "John Smith": the entity denoted by a name is an illusory construct.

 

To get a better idea, an intuitive idea, of the magnitude of the illusion, I can only suggest you go to a mirror and look at the pupils in your eyes very closely. Ordinarily we "see" pupils as some kind of substance, like a direct expression of, or a gateway to, the self that we are. But of course the pupil is a hole -- an absence, not a presence. When I glance at the bathroom light in the mirror and then look back at my pupils, I find it pretty disconcerting to see them dilate. I can then vividly see they're merely deep black holes, vacant, nothing, and it's as if right at the center of my self is an emptiness, a soullessness. I see myself as just a biological robot or a zombie. But then when I back away the impression dissipates and everything is back to normal, I'm back to being a substantive self/soul named "Chris Wright."

 

Anyway, the broader point is that we're not categorically different from other animals, as we like to think; we're merely stupid, self-deceiving, "soul-less" animals genetically not far removed from Neanderthals, mammals like any dolphin or elephant, mammals among whom the females lactate -- feeding their baby with their body! -- and the males clumsily, gruntingly ejaculate fluids into the female or onto their own hand as they stare at moving images of naked females mating with other males. That's our essence -- grossly corporeal, instinctual, comical, in most cases not especially rational or intelligent.

 

But ultimately, if you scratch the surface a little, even the evident differences between individuals -- differences in intelligence, kindness, compassion, courage, honesty -- start to disappear and it becomes clear we're all pretty much the same. The same in that we perceive (our brains synthesize) the same physical world, we have the same kinds of bodies, the same desires and fears, we suffer and yearn, regret mistakes we made or things we said, we change and evolve between moments and years, we live on the same planet floating in a vast impersonal universe. It isn't hard to dislike or have contempt for each other, but at bottom we're all flawed, we're all mere variations on the same genetic code. We might as well try to overcome, to the extent we can, our frequent mutual antipathy.

 

Sure, indulge in "misanthropy" from time to time, but, as a good Stoic and Skeptic, don't take even that too seriously. Understand that the world is absurd, our very existence is absurd, and have a sense of humor about it all even as you do what you can to lighten the burden for others. But don't expect to be rewarded for that, or for anything good you do. Rewards are accidental and indicate nothing anyway: the most highly rewarded people have often done the most harm. Rewards aren't the point.

 

The point is to make the world a less insane place.[4]

 

 

 

[1] Needless to say, scientifically speaking, the comparison between humans and Neanderthals is surely unfair to both. Who's to say Neanderthals weren't gentle, peaceable creatures? And humans are, after all, more intelligent than Neanderthals, even if it often seems they aren't. At least humans have language, which Neanderthals probably didn't.

 

[2] More accurately, help them, improve them, listen to them, reason with them, but don't get frustrated by them. Expect them to disappoint you -- and then you won't really be disappointed. You might even be pleasantly surprised, if they defy your expectations.

 

[3] Among postmodernist leftists it's considered very enlightened to reject "essentialism" about any given thing. In some contexts, maybe this rejection is progressive. But not always: the essence of capitalism, for example, is unjust in the ways Marxists have described. "Essences" are all over the place. Homo sapiens itself has a biological "essence," a "nature," like every other organism. Science deals with essences. So does philosophy.

 

[4] I suppose I've managed to offend nearly everyone with this blog post. Sorry about that. That's what happens when one doesn't think within an ideological box. But maybe we should all try to be less eager to take offense at every little thought we don't like? Maybe we should open our minds a little? It might do the world good.

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NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright