What Is Democracy?

Thinking For A Living: A Philosopher’s Notebook 11

“Diogenes Sheltering in His Barrel,” by John William Waterhouse

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#10: Fear, loathing, and Pascal in Las Vegas.

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#6: Faces, masks, personal identity, and Teshigahara.

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#4: Realistic idealism: ten theses about mind-dependence.

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#1: Introductory; The rise and fall of Analytic philosophy; Cosmopolitanism and the real philosophy of the future; How to socialize the philosophy of mind.

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226. What is democracy? As everyone knows, the US Midterm elections were held a week ago Tuesday, on 6 November; and as everyone also knows, even though the process of validating and counting votes for all elections appears to be a lovely real-world example of Zeno’s Paradox, the Republicans not only held but also increased their majority in the Senate–whereas the Democrats “flipped” the House of Representatives by gaining a majority there.

So the US Congress is now effectively legislatively deadlocked as between the Senate and the House, although the Republicans, with their majority in the Senate, retain their all-important power to confirm Supreme Court Justices, especially after recently rigging the rules by which it is managed, so that a bare majority now suffices; and all this despite the hard-to-explain-foreigners fact that 10 million more people voted for Senate Democrats than for Senate Republicans; and so-called President Trump, a neo-fascist who was elected by the Electoral College, but not by the popular vote, remains in power for another two years.

Quite apart from the self-evidently depressing facts of current politics, however, note also some of the basic elements of this information:

(i) biannual majority elections across the entire country, although in fact the precise procedures for registering voters and regulating the act of voting itself vary widely across the states–and people in prison, former convicts who cannot pay their prison-debts, permanent residents, legal immigrants without citizenship or permanent residency, and so-called “illegal aliens,” all of whom actually live in the USA and are fully subject to its coercive authoritarian laws, are not even permitted to vote;

(ii) de facto, two political parties only;

(iii) a bicameral Congress, organized so that gerrymandered voting districts are arranged by the party in power in the House, and every state elects two Senators, even though different states vary hugely in total population;

(iv) a nominally “independent” Judiciary consisting of nine already-quite-old people appointed for life, with tremendous authoritarian power to determine the interpretation and application of coercive laws everywhere in the USA, the gateway to which is in fact politically controlled by the Senate and sitting President;

(v) a President elected independently of the Congress, supposedly by the popular vote, but actually by a minority Electoral College; and

(vi) supposedly majoritarian representation across the board–except, of course, where the minority actually rules, namely, the wholly appointed Supreme Court and Electoral College.

That’s good old US democracy, right?

And did you notice any prima facie inconsistencies in its overall logical, moral, and political structure?

–In fact, even assuming that that’s all “democracy” means in the Land O’ Liberty, it’s obviously a logical, moral, and political dog’s breakfast.

Hence it seems like a good time to think philosophically about the nature of contemporary US democracy in particular and the nature of democracy in general.

227. In a very interesting, fairly recent (7 July 2018) piece in the socialist journal Jacobin, “Democratic Socialism Is About Democracy,” Shawn Gude writes this:

There are lots of ways to talk about democratic socialism. Some focus on fairness and equality. Others stress the need to fix the “irrationalities” of capitalism. Still others speak of “convert[ing] hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.”

The democratic socialist du jour, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, recently gave her own definition on Stephen Colbert’s show:

I believe that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live. So what that means is health care as a human right. It means that every child, no matter where you are born, should have access to a college or trade school education if they so choose it. And, you know, I think that no person should be homeless if we can have public structures and public policies to allow for people to have homes and food and lead a dignified life in the United States.

Not bad at all.

But here’s what I’d emphasize: democratic socialism, at its core, is about deepening democracy where it exists and introducing democracy where it is absent. In countries like the US, that means increasing the scope of popular control in the political arena and broadening it out to include the social and economic spheres.

This may sound fairly innocuous — who isn’t for democracy these days? But democratic socialists have something more far-reaching in mind. To us, democracy is not simply a banal amalgamation of procedures, an uncontroversial set of norms and rules that everyone can get behind. It is the quite radical idea that ordinary people — not experts, not elites, not their “betters” — can rule themselves. It is the word we use to describe the flattening of steep hierarchies, the shattering of structures that confer undue wealth and power and privilege.

And in an equally interesting article in Pacific Standard in 2017, Tom Jacobs asks the question, “Are People Losing Faith in Democracy?”

This is because recent world-wide opinion surveys show that

“[l]evels of support for democracy are high and stable across most parts of the world,” South African political scientists Cindy Steenekamp and Pierre du Toit write in the Journal of Public Affairs. “However, support for various authoritarian regime types is steadily increasing.”

Nevertheless, although both articles are very interesting, in my opinion, they’re also very conceptually confused.

The questions “is democratic socialism really all about deepening democracy?” and “are people losing faith in democracy?” are shining examples of what are called, in the terminology of philosophical logic, complex questions.

A complex question is a question that cannot be intelligibly answered until the positive answer to a logically and semantically prior question is established — a positive answer that constitutes its presupposition — for example, the cop who asks a motorist: “Have you had enough to drink yet?”

Obviously, the presupposition of the question is that you’ve been drinking alcohol.

But we need to know whether you’ve actually been drinking alcohol or not, before we can intelligibly ask whether you’ve had either enough to drink yet, or not enough to drink yet, where “enough to drink yet” means: “a quantity of alcohol in your bloodstream that’s currently at or over the legal limit.”

Correspondingly, before the “is democratic socialism really all about deepening democracy?” and “are people losing faith in democracy?” questions can be intelligibly answered, we need to know the answer to this prior question: “Do people actually know what democracy is?”

228. From here on in, I’m going to argue that most people, including the self-described experts, i.e., political scientists, don’t actually know what democracy is, and also that this has extremely important logical and moral implications for how we should be thinking about politics in The Age of Trump-POTUS.

229. In classical logic, reductio ad absurdum (in English: “reduction to absurdity”) is the Latin term for a formally legitimate and non-fallacious argument-strategy that starts with a given set of premises and then proceeds to derive a contradiction from those premises.

Now if a given set of premises really does lead to a contradiction, then since, formally speaking, an argument cannot be valid (truth-preserving) or sound (truth-producing) unless it cannot lead from true premises to a false conclusion, and since a contradiction is necessarily false, then it follows by reductio that at least one of the premises is also false.

230. My next claim is that Trump’s Presidency clearly demonstrates the following contradiction:

(i) US democracy is morally and politically acceptable, and

(ii) US democracy is not morally and politically acceptable.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s assume that US democracy is morally and politically acceptable.

Then it could never lead to a US President and an administration as bad as Trump and his administration.

But actually, US democracy did lead directly to Trump and his administration, both of which are extremely bad.

Therefore US democracy is also morally and politically unacceptable, i.e., it is not morally and politically acceptable.

Therefore, given Trump’s Presidency, US democracy is both morally and politically acceptable and also not morally and politically acceptable.

Contradiction!

Therefore, by reductio, at least one of the basic premises of US democracy is false.

This in turn raises again the very hard question with which I began this series of thoughts: what is democracy?

231. In fact, and very confusingly for most people, including the self-described experts, i.e., political scientists, who can’t even come to an agreement on the definition of democracy, there are at least three substantively different concepts of democracy at play in contemporary politics, not just in the USA but also worldwide:

(i) democracy as the rule of the majority of all the people qualified to vote, who then hand over the control of coercive power to an elected or appointed minority, aka majoritarian-representative democracy,

(ii) democracy as the open process of critical discussion and critical examination of opinions and social institutions, and, simultaneously, the unfettered expression of different opinions and lifestyles, aka libertarian democracy, and

(iii) democracy as the unwavering commitments to universal respect for human dignity and autonomy, and universal resistance to human oppression, aka ethical-emancipatory democracy.

232. Notoriously, however, the three concepts of democracy are mutually logically independent, in that they do not necessarily lead to or follow from one another.

First, it is really possible that what is decreed by the majority of all the people qualified to vote is in fact morally evil and wrong, aka the problem of the tyranny of the majority — and that is exactly what happened when the Nazis were elected by a majority of German voters in 1932–1933.[i]

Second, it is also really possible that what is decreed by the majority of the people qualified to vote is a system in which an elected or appointed powerful minority of those people can actually override the majority, aka the problem of the tyranny of the minority — and that is exactly what happens whenever the US Electoral College votes to elect someone, like Trump in 2016, who did not actually win the popular vote.

Third and finally, it is also really possible that there could be an open process of critical discussion and critical examination of opinions and social institutions, and simultaneously the unfettered expression of different lifestyles and opinions, which nevertheless leads to a situation in which universal respect for human dignity and autonomy, and universal resistance against human oppression, are in fact undermined and weakened, aka the problem of an unconstrained, value-neutral process — and that is exactly what happened in the case of Trump’s election, via the multiple-Party system, the Primaries, and psychologically-manipulative uses of social media and the internet.[ii]

232. In my opinion, the only independently morally and politically acceptable concept of democracy is the third concept, ethical-emancipatory democracy: democracy as the unwavering commitments to universal respect for human dignity and autonomy, and universal resistance to human oppression.

Nevertheless, if we conjoined the second and third concepts, then we could also derive a compound morally and politically acceptable concept of democracy that is driven by the demands of the third concept.

233. In any case, given the contradictions in US democracy that constitute Trump’s Presidency, which basic premises of US democracy should we reject?

Here’s my four-part proposal.

First, everyone needs to recognize that there are three logically distinct concepts of democracy and that only either the third concept of democracy alone, or the conjunction of the second and third concepts, is morally and politically acceptable.

Second, we need to get rid of the Electoral College, altogether.

Third, we need to get rid of the de facto two Party system, the Primaries, and psychologically-manipulative uses of social media and the internet, altogether, by starting with a list of self-declared candidates, all of them independents, who meet the basic Presidential eligibility requirements, and then elect presidents directly and exclusively on the basis of

(i) each candidate’s life-history up to the election, as presented in a publicly-accessible and independently fact-checked and confirmed Curriculum Vitae (CV) document, with only one small, passport-style, head-shot picture of the candidate allowed, of no more than 10 pages (of single space 12 pt text) in length, of which that candidate is, certifiably, the sole author, and

(ii) each candidate’s ethical commitments and proposed policies, and her/his reasons for holding them, as presented in a publicly-accessible and independently fact-checked and confirmed commitments-and-policies document, of no more than 20 pages (of single-spaced 12 pt text) in length, of which that candidate is, certifiably, the sole author, and

(iii) an election run-up period lasting exactly one month from the time the candidates’ CV and commitments-and-policies documents have been independently fact-checked, confirmed, and certified, and then made generally available to all the eligible voters via official hard-copy mailing and also on a single, official US Presidential Election Website, to the election day itself, in order to give all the eligible voters just enough time to read, think about, and discuss the candidates’ CVs and commitments-and-policies documents, but little or no time for psychological manipulation via social media and the internet.

Fourth, finally, and most radically, we need to get rid of the coercive majoritarian representative rule of all the people qualified to vote, altogether, and replace it by truly democratic decision procedures, by which I mean participatory decision-making, aka collective principled negotiation.

Truly democratic–that is, according to the principles of ethical-emancipatory democracy–decision procedures systematically rule out both the tyranny of the majority and also the tyranny of the minority.

How can that be?

In order to show how, I’m going to spell out, briefly, the social dynamics of post-majoritarian-representative, ethical-emancipatory democracy.

235. Let us first consider the classical majoritarian representative democratic two-valued voting system:

Yes (or Yea)

No (or Nay)

and also the classical Robert’s Rules of Order-style[iii] three-valued voting system:

Yes

Abstain

No

In most versions of the classical majoritarian representative democratic two-valued voting system, full participation of all eligible voters is not required.

So deciding not to vote, for any reason whatsoever, is functionally equivalent to abstention in that system.

But in Robert’s Rules-of-Order-style three-valued systems — with numerical ranking of candidates or candidate-options, and iterated rounds of re-shuffled rankings in which the least favored candidate or candidate-option is dropped in each round, until a victor is determined — the “abstain” vote is used for any one of three reasons:

(i) genuine neutrality or unconcern about a proposal, either way (relatively rare),

(ii) as a polite way of saying “a plague on both their houses,” or

(iii) as a way of quasi-nay-voting, without incurring any social consequences or repercussions (or social stigmata, in voting without secret ballot) that might be attached to actual disagreement.

236. But by sharp contrast to all of the above, consider now the following scheme:

(i) that group decision-making should not be a discrete, individual act (like a vote) that is carried out at a particular moment by a group of people, but instead should be a temporally extended social-dynamic process containing a medley or symphony of mutually-coordinated individual acts, that is engaged in and performed by a group of people,

(ii) that every such process of group decision-making should be a dialogue with people collectively discussing various proposals for institutional group action guided by principles of ethical-emancipatory democracy,

(iii) that every process of group decision-making should feature a five-valued array of options for taking a position on any given proposal, including two degrees of agreement, one neutral or as-yet-uncommitted value, and two degrees of disagreement, namely —

Strongly Agree

Mildly Agree

Abstain

Mildly Disagree

Block or Walk

— any of which is registered by each member of a group at any point in a given dialogue about a given proposal being considered by that group,

(iv) that every registration of a position carries with it the option to change or update your position at any time in the dialogue,

(v) that every registration of a position is aimed at a principled, negotiated decision collectively made by that group as whole, and

(vi) that therefore every process of group decision-making ideally involves full participation by all members of the relevant group.

237. Following the facilitation and principled negotiation traditions in non-mainstream social and political theory since the 1980s, let us call this system participatory decision-making.

It could also be called direct democracy, although this label is somewhat problematic in view of the fact that the term “democracy” is systematically ambiguous and widely misused, especially in self-congratulatorily self-labeled “democratic” States like the USA.

So to avoid confusion, I will stick to the term “participatory decision-making.”

But I must also add eight crucial further points by way of unpacking the specifically ethical-emancipatory democratic interpretation of participatory decision-making.

First, there is a basic principle governing the system of participatory decision-making:

No one is ever coerced in any particular sub-cycle or overall process of participatory decision-making, either with respect to their own position or with respect to their other contributions to the dialogue-towards-deciding, and more specifically, no one is ever forced to walk, or punished for blocking or walking.

Second, blocking means not merely a strong disagreement with a given proposal, but also that one block is enough to defeat a given proposal in any given sub-cycle of a particular process of participatory decision-making.

Third, every blocker must also offer, or support, or at least refrain from blocking, an alternative proposal in the next sub-cycle of the same decision-making process.

Fourth, every participant is permitted only a limited number of blocks (say, three or four, or whatever) in a particular decision-making process, but if s/he uses up all his or her blocks, s/he must then also walk away from that decision-making process and thereby exit it.

Fifth, walking away from/exiting a particular decision-making process can be done at any point in the process, not only after the permitted maximum number of blocks; and it will always carry some natural consequences, whether good or bad; but these consequences are always freely chosen by the walker/exiter, not coerced, since

(i) according to the basic principle, no one is ever coerced for walking/exiting, hence no one is ever forced to do so or punished for doing so, and

(ii) everyone involved in a particular decision-making process always has the option of staying in that process under one or another of the five positions — except after using up all his or her permitted blocks, which entails walking away from/exiting the process, but this is part of the rules, hence agreed-to from the start, and not coerced.

Sixth, mild disagreement always entails going forward with the current proposal if there is sufficiently strong support for it.

Seventh, sufficiently strong support means that there is close to or more than 50% strong or mild agreement with the proposal, and no blocks.

Eighth and finally, not participating in the process — yet, or perhaps ever — for any reason whatsoever, is functionally and normatively equivalent to abstention or walking/exiting, hence it is never coerced, and more specifically, no one is ever forced to participate, punished for not participating, or prevented from participating.

238. The dynamic registration of positions in participatory decision-making according to the scheme I just laid out essentially tells us how a person is rationally feeling about any proposal put forward for group decision-making.

Therefore the dynamic registration of positions in participatory decision-making in this sense is not majoritarian representative democratic voting: on the contrary, it is dynamically tracking the levels of what Brazilians call concordar — literally, “shared heart,” that is, solidarity, onboardness, or team-spirit — about any given proposal for ethical-emancipatory social action, for the sake of which those people are having a dialogue-towards-deciding.

Otherwise put, the dynamic registration of positions in participatory decision-making is tracking the level of people’s rationally-guided but also inherently affective (i.e., felt, desiderative, or emotional) onboardness about any given proposal for ethical-emancipatory social action, in a way that is relevantly similar to monitoring the dynamics of team-spirit in team-sports or to monitoring the dynamics of mutual cohesion and harmonization in dancing or musical performances.

239. Let us call the classical majoritarian representative democratic two-valued voting system (yes/no, with or without full participation, and with or without a secret ballot), together with Robert’s Rules of Order-style three-valued systems (yes/abstain/no, with full participation, with or without a secret ballot, and numerical rankings of candidates or candidate-options), voting.

By contrast, let us call participatory decision-making deciding.

The fundamental difference between voting and deciding is essentially analogous and parallel to the fundamental difference between debate and dialogue. Here are some important conceptual contrasts between dialogue and debate.

  • Dialogue requires temporarily suspending one’s own beliefs, encourages critical reflection on them, listens in order to understand and find meaning, and opens the possibility of reaching a better solution than any of the original solutions. Dialogue discovers new common aims and thoughts. Debate dogmatically asserts one’s own beliefs, negatively criticizes by denying the validity of others’ beliefs, listens only in order to be able to refute, and presupposes that one’s own position is the only acceptable or possible solution to any problem. Debate digs in its heels and suppresses or even kills shared creative thinking.
  • Dialogue allows the expression of real feelings (in ourselves and others) for understanding and catharsis. Debate expresses feelings to manipulate others and denies others’ emotions and feelings as legitimate.
  • Dialogue respects the human dignity of all participants and seeks neither to alienate nor oppress. Debate rebuts contrary positions and typically belittles and depreciates all participants who disagree.
  • Dialogue is collaborative and all about exploring common ground towards a new understanding and a new synoptic vision of the conceptual and ideological landscape. Debate is combative and all about conversational conquest, closure, and closed minds.

Or to summarize all of this in a single statement:

Dialogue aims to elucidate ideas and enlighten — in the Kantian, heavy-duty sense of what I call radical enlightenment[iv] — all of its participants, but a debater aims only to defeat and silence his conversational opponents.

240. Classically, in the Platonic tradition, debaters were labelled Sophists; in the context of modern majoritarian representative democratic states, they’re demagogues.

By sharp contrast, but also in the Platonic tradition, people engaging in dialogue were labelled Socratic philosophers.

And well within that tradition of Socratic dialogue, but more specifically according to the theory of post-majoritarian-representative democratic social dynamics that I am briefly describing and defending here, people engaging in participatory decision-making in the sense I just spelled out, are ethical-emancipatory democrats.

241. Now debate is inherently aimed at voting.

In standard debating competitions, people in the audience vote at the end to determine who “won.”

And this perfectly parallels political campaigns in modern majoritarian representative democratic states, of which the 2016 US Presidential campaign is a paradigmatic example.

On the one hand, there are the debaters (namely, Sophists or demagogues), the politicians, and on the other hand there is the passive audience, We the People, that pretends it is authentically participating by voting at the end of all the debates, in order to determine who wins and who loses.

Voting, by its very nature and central role in the social and political mechanisms of modern majoritarian representative democratic states, institutionally polarizes and segregates people into with-me or against-me camps, and also into winners and losers camps; and ultimately it also coercively demands toe-the-line conformity and inauthentic consensus at the conclusion of the voting process, since the majority rules–except, of course, when they appoint a minority that actually rules.

Moreover, this inherently adversarial and contradictory situation is true whether people vote Yes or No, even if they antecedently possessed much more nuanced, subtle, non-bivalent views before they entered into the voting system.

So it is Yea or Nay, no matter what We the People say; and when they come out of voting, the system has institutionally polarized and segregated them, and yet also coercively demands their lock-step conformity and their phony consensus.

Three-valued Robert’s Rules of Order-style voting systems may seem to be an improvement on modern majoritarian representative democratic voting polarization; but actually they are not.

Numerical rankings of candidates or candidate-options only promotes systematic strategic partisan, polarized voting, and the systematic strategic partisan, polarized destruction of unwanted candidates or candidate-options.

And “abstain” in a Robert’s Rules of Order-style system merely means, in effect:

“for whatever reason, I am not saying which polarized group I belong to, and I also accept the coercive demand for obedient conformity and artificial consensus that voting imposes in modern majoritarian representative democratic states.”

By sharp contrast, participatory decision-making according to the ethical-emancipatory democratic interpretation does not institutionally polarize people, thereby segregating them into partisan factions, nor does it coercively demand conformity and consensus.

This is because participatory decision-making in the sense I spelled out is essentially dialogical; because it dynamically registers people’s levels of concordar about proposals for institutional action; because the process of creating concordar is a mutual coordination and harmonization of basic affects and moral-political values; and because people take individual and mutual responsibility for the institutional actions they perform at the end of the process.

242. In modern majoritarian representative democratic voting with the secret-ballot, it is true that people are, by virtue of secrecy, protected from the social consequences, repercussions, or stigmata attached to publicly being in this polarized, segregated partisan camp or that one.

But this in turn means that people take no mutual responsibility for their votes.

Moreover, in modern majoritarian representative democratic political debating, no one but the debaters actually gets to contribute to the formation of proposals or the discussion itself.

How people vote at a debate is wholly determined by how the debaters, that is, the politicians, whether Sophists or demagogues, verbally convince each atomic, isolated individual to belong to one polarized, segregated partisan camp or the other, always appealing to their rational self-interest only, hence inherently guided by ethical egoism.

And it coercively demands, and imposes, consensus and conformity at the end of the voting-mechanism’s functioning, by majority rule.

243. Thus, to summarize, the modern majoritarian representative democratic voting-debating system

(i) is inherently polarizing, and it segregates people into partisan factions,

(ii) in secret ballot versions, it is without mutual responsibility,

(iii) it is atomistic/solipsistic and driven by rational self-interest only, and

(iv) it is inherently coercive.

244. But by sharp contrast, participatory decision-making according to the ethical-emancipatory democratic interpretation is inherently an open, face-to-face group activity, everyone is responsible to everyone else, everyone is also individually responsible for their own contributions, and no one is ever coerced into anything: whether by the tyranny of the majority or by the tyranny of the minority.

On the contrary, when a group decides on institutional action by means of a process of participatory decision-making according to the ethical-emancipatory interpretation of democracy, via dialogue, it is because they have mutually coordinated and harmonized their rational affects, and created concordar or solidarity, according to shared non-egoistic and non-consequentialist moral and political principles, and have freely taken both individual and shared responsibility for their collective decision.

245. Someone once said to me, after I’d spelled out (roughly) the same picture of ethical-emancipatory democracy I just presented above:

“Wow, cool: that all sounds pretty interesting. But how are you going to compel people to participate and to be good?”

After a jaw-dropping double take, I replied:

“In the ethical-emancipatory democratic system I just spelled out, nobody ever compels or forces people to do anything! It’s totally anti-coercion! It’s rationally and freely chosen, and inherently respects human dignity! That’s the essence of participatory decision-making!”

NOTES

[i] See, e.g., Wikipedia, “German Federal Election, March 1933,” available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_federal_election,_March_1933>.

[ii] See, e.g., B. Schreckinger, “Inside Trump’s ‘Cyborg’ Twitter Army,” Politico (30 September 2016), available online at URL = < http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/donald-trump-twitter-army-228923>; and Y. Benkler et al., “Study: Breitbart-Led Right-Wing Media Ecosystem Altered Broader Media Agenda,” Columbia Journalism Review (3 March 2017), available online at URL = <http://www.cjr.org/analysis/breitbart-media-trump-harvard-study.php>.

[iii] See, for example, Robert’s Rules Online: Robert’s Rules of Order 4th Edition, available online at URL = <http://www.rulesonline.com/>.

[iv] See R. Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise (aka THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 4) (New York: Nova Science 2018), PREVIEW.

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AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 203

Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Friday 16 November 2018

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