Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Constantinople falls to Ottoman Ruler Mehmet II, 1453

Constantinople falls to Ottoman Ruler Mehmet II, 1453

For hundreds of years alum was mined in Smyrna, in Asia Minor, which back then went by the name of Anatolia. Anatolia was the breadbasket of Constantinople, the Queen of Cities, and was under the control of the Byzantine Emperors for nearly a millennium.

Alum was an essential commodity for the makers of fabrics and tapestries in Flanders and other cloth-making centers in northwest Europe. They used it to set the colors and make sure they did not run or fade too quickly. (The saying “These colors don’t run” might have been coined back then.)

In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. Then in 1455 the Ottomans occupied Smyrna and took control of its alum mines. Needless to say, this put quite a strain on the tapestry industries, cloth makers and dyers of Western Europe, who now had to pay through the nose to obtain this irreplaceable substance.

We in the contemporary United States get rather frosted when we consider that we have to buy petroleum from some countries who absolutely hate us, and who undoubtedly use some of that money to finance overseas terrorism in the West. We may question whether we’re financing a war against ourselves.

Western Europe had a similar problem. Having to pay the Ottomans for alum was particularly galling because there was a continuing low-intensity war between Christendom in the West and the Ottoman Empire in the East. The Ottomans continually probed into the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Think of Malta around 1565 or the gates of Vienna in the 1680’s. (Vienna had (and may still have) a residential district called the Turkenschanze, or Turkish Redoubt, which was where part of the old city’s walls faced the Turkish armies. It was Sigmund Freud’s neighborhood, until he left.) So, after the fall of Constantinople, Western Europe was in effect financing the war against itself.

Then, in the 1480s alum deposits were discovered in one of the Papal States in Italy. The Pope moved quickly to establish a monopoly on the alum trade. A papal bull (which doesn’t mean what you think it means) was issued prohibiting the purchase or importation of any Turkish alum under pain of excommunication and eternal damnation. In fact, the written text of the indulgences that were being sold to finance the Vatican’s wars (mostly against other Italian city-states like Florence) and its construction of St. Peter’s was revised to carve out the purchase of Turkish alum and make it a mortal sin that could not be absolved by any indulgence. These were the same indulgences which, a few decades later, really upset an Augustinian friar named Martin Luther.

Try to imagine what it must have been like for some cardinal or canon lawyer laboring in the bowels of the Vatican to come up with the theological underpinning for making the purchase of Turkish alum (but not the Pope’s alum) an unforgivable mortal sin.

Nowadays, there are threats to slap 35% or 50% tariffs on some goods manufactured overseas. Could we try a threat of eternal damnation for buying a Ford Escort assembled in Ciudad Juarez? The more things change….


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"Morning Joe" Scarborough

“Morning Joe” Scarborough

As far as TV talking heads go, Joe Scarborough is not the best, but he’s far from the worst. Still, every once in a while Joe makes a comment, apparently off-the-cuff, that makes no sense at all, as he did during his discussion of the Devolution of the GOP in his August 29, 2016 broadcast.

Scarborough’s jumping off point was a comparison between the demeanor of Bush the Elder (a/k/a, Bush 41, a/k/a George H.W.) and that of the GOP’s current presidential nominee, Prima Donald Trump.

Scarborough discussed his visit to the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, which retains its beauty as a quaint New England coastal town, so long as you can forget who the current Maine governor is. Of Bush 41 Scarborough said:

They make others around them feel special despite the fact that they have lived the most remarkable of lives, serving in Congress, running the Republican National Committee, heading up the CIA, being the U.N. Ambassador as well as the U.S. Ambassador to China, serving as Ronald Reagan’s vice president and then leading America as the 41st president of the United States.

But good luck getting George or Barbara Bush talking about themselves. They just don’t do it and they never will. First of all, their parents didn’t allow it. And besides, that kind of thing wasn’t done in the world from which they came. It is just one small way that the ethos of Walker’s Point is so radically different from the mindset that infects Donald Trump’s garish corner office high above 5th Avenue in Trump Towers.

As [Jon] Meacham and I walked down the driveway after saying goodbye to the Bushes, Jon lamented the fact that the same Republican Party that nominated a man like Bush, who rarely spoke about himself, would a quarter century later select a reality TV showman who obsessively talked about little else. Meacham paraphrased Henry Adams in saying that the historical devolvement from Bush to Trump proves that Darwin’s theory of evolution was less compelling when applied to American politics.

Bush the Elder has a lot to be proud of. He served his country both in uniform and in government. He was a fighter pilot in WWII and was shot down in combat with Japanese forces. (As Trump might say,  he only likes fighter pilots who weren’t shot down, he’s gotta tellya.). I don’t take any of that away from Bush 41.

But Scarborough’s notion that not talking about yourself, or not tooting your own horn to say it more directly, is a virtue in and of itself that we all should strive for is absolute nonsense.

Of course Bush 41 never talked about himself. He never had to. He is a walking, breathing pillar of the Republican Establishment, and when the word “establishment” is used in connection with anyone in Clan Bush it is always spelled with a capital “E.”

Bush 41’s father was Prescott S. Bush, a former U.S. Senator for Connecticut, who was a Skull & Bones guy at Yale undergrad (as were Bush 41 and Bush 43), the secret frat where the scions of the Elite of the most elite Elites quaff alcoholic beverages prior to attaining a legal, if not responsible, drinking age and perform pranks that would look very different in 2016 than when they were supposedly performed (e.g., in 1918, when Prescott Bush allegedly led a nocturnal mission to exhume Geronimo’s skull).

(Oh, those kids!)

H.W.’s Wikipedia entry states that he started his business career as a sales clerk with Dresser Industries. Sounds like a humble beginning. But the entry goes on to state that Dresser was a subsidiary of Brown Brothers Harriman, where his father, Prescott Bush, had served as a director for 22 years.

So, Joe Scarborough, please think about that for a minute. I’ll bet H.W. didn’t need to talk much about himself when he got that sales clerk job at Dresser. Suppose, Joe, that you were the supervisor of this new young sales clerk from the Northeast who likes to go by his dual middle initials “H.W.” What are the odds that you’d treat him a bit differently than some other poor schmoe sales clerk? Would you give H.W. a bad performance review, even if he deserved it?

Not if you wanted to keep your job.

Mind, I’m not saying H.W. didn’t do a terrific job as sales clerk. But when your pop sits on the Board of Directors of your employer’s corporate parent,  the reality of who’s the boss and who’s the new hire undergoes a fundamental alteration.

Prescott Bush, Bush 41 and Bush 43 all lived in a rarefied world of great oil wealth and Republican Establishment connections. Bush 43 is a case history all by himself, so I’ll leave that alone, but it’s obvious that, political campaigns aside, not one of them ever had to sell his abilities or his name to anyone to land a job.

I agree that Prima Donald Trump never stops running his mouth, and that’s bad for him and for anyone who’s forced to listen. But for ordinary mortals who have to hustle their butts to make a living, you’d better toot your own horn if you want to eat and keep a roof over your head.


Samuel Prescott Bush (1863-1948), grandfather of Bush 41

So Joe, before you go off on another tilt about praising modesty and silence as saintly virtues, maybe you should look into Samuel Prescott Bush’s life. He’s the guy who started the Bush family bankroll rolling. I’ll bet old Samuel P. Bush had substantial “book smarts” (he had an engineering degree from Stevens Institute) as well as “street smarts,” some business acumen (given where he started and where he wound up), plus a bit of luck.

I’m sure old Sam P. Bush had to brag a little bit about himself to get hired for his first job, and maybe for a few others.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey

In order to subvert Turkey’s supposedly democratic system, it appears that Sultan Erdogan has staged (as in theatrically staged) a coup. After the coup was defeated he rounded up the most guilty culprits: the judiciary and the prosecutors. Like Hitler, Erdogan uses the excuse of an emergency situation to arrogate extraordinary powers to himself and eliminate political opposition.

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Richard II, King of England

Richard II, King of England

Ah yes, back to those elites. They cannot stop calling the Brexit vote stupid. The contempt of the elites, both U.S. and English, for the voters of England knows no bounds. Like Andrew Sullivan on this side of The Pond, they think that England, like America with Trump, is suffering from too much democracy. Sullivan, and those of the punditocracy who condemn the Brexit vote and the Rise of the Trump Reich (as bad as that is) have it exactly backwards. Brexit and Trump are similar not because they reflect too much democracy, but because they reflect too little democracy.

In the EU, and at its center in Brussels, the heart of the issue is that there is a complete lack of democratic control. Edicts flow from a faceless, nameless bureaucracy in Brussels, and regardless of how well-intentioned any of its officials may be the fact remains that the ordinary people of England no longer have any voice in controlling their own lives. Here in America, we know the feeling when we have to press 1 for English, 2 for Spanish, 3 if we’d like to pay our bill, and so on. There’s never an option for the problem you’re calling about.

If you’re an Englishman (or -woman) trading equities or bonds in the City of London and making GBP750,000 gross per year, you may find many features of the EU annoying, but all-in-all it’s manageable and you’re making a good living, so your take is to keep calm and carry on.

But if you’re running a bed-and-breakfast in the Cotswolds and have to make sure that your guests’ sheets have a certain number of threads per square inch, well, your perspective is likely to be rather different.

The liberals and the Left in the U.S. (of which I consider myself a member) and Europe do themselves no favors by trying to characterize the Brexit and the Rise of the Trump Reich as some sort of contemporary Peasant Revolt. The more they do this, the more they fail to acknowledge the very legitimate concerns of the people over their disempowerment, and the more they encourage the very type of populism they profess to condemn. By persisting in this fundamental disrespect of the people and their votes, the elites confirm not only that they live in a bubble, but that that bubble is impenetrable.

Take the headline from today’s Huff Post: “Hate Crimes Skyrocket in UK”, posted above above a picture of some graffiti to the effect of “F#@k off Polish Scum.” Sorry Arianna, you’re way off the mark on this. Are there those among the Brexit voters who are xenophobic and racist, or worse? Sure. Likewise, there are some number of Trump supporters who would readily identify with these types. But does that mean that all of them are racist, or that the popular vote in favor of leaving the EU is some sort of collective racist or xenophobic act? Not at all. Arianna has committed the same sin for which she (and many others on the Left) correctly condemn Trump and others on the Right: she has characterized an entire group (Brexit “Leave” voters) as racists based on the graffiti painted on some wall by one or more of them. Yes, the graffiti is awful. But conceptually Huffington’s reaction to it is identical to Trump’s alleging that all Muslims know about terror plots of their co-religionists simply because they are co-religionists. Whether coming from Trump or Huffington, this type of idiocy rightfully deserves our rejection.

Peasant Revolt? Not really, but there are, nonetheless, a few parallels with 1381 worth noting.

Just as the U.S. (and to a lesser extent Britain) have waged a decade-plus long war in Iraq and Afghanistan at a cost of thousands of U.S. and British lives (not to mention the locals) and trillions of dollars flushed into the latrine, Richard II through his uncle, John of Gaunt, led an equally catastrophic and prodigiously wasteful campaign in France to reassert Plantagenet control over Bordeaux and the Aquitaine. The peasants, naturally, had to pay for that disaster, just as we modern taxpayers have had to pay for our elites’ fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan and the bailout of the banksters and their equally catastrophic gambling debts (a/k/a collateralized debt obligations, etc.).

Among other things, the peasants back in 1381 were very unhappy with villeinage, their status as serfs tied to the land and owned (that’s right, owned) by their landlords. Here in the modern U.S. (and likely in Britain, as well), our answer to villeinage is the mountain of debt, whether mortgage, educational, credit card, medical or other, that enables us peasants to fulfill our roles in the modern consumer economy. Feudalism 2.0.

Like the noblemen who accompanied Richard II to Mile End and Smithfield, our modern elites now stand aghast at the brazen insolence of the peasants, voting against what they’ve been told is in their best interest. Back in 1381, Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the Peasant Revolt, raised the tensions quite a bit when he and his rebels met with Richard II.

Like some medieval Rodney Dangerfield, Richard II did not get any respect.

When he came face to face with the King, Wat Tyler did not take off his hat. Then, instead of waiting for the King to extend a hand to him first, Wat took the King’s hand and shook it roughly, just as one peasant farmer might greet another. Then Wat upped the ante. The King demanded that Tyler dismiss his men. Tyler not only refused, but said he’d be back to London in two weeks with forty thousand more men. Then he took a swig of ale (from a flagon with a dragon, not the chalice from the palace or the vessel with the pestle) and started tossing his dagger from hand to hand in front of Richard.

All this was just a tad over the top for Richard II’s knights, one of whom galloped at Wat and ran him through with a sword. End of Wat.

In response, the yeomen that Tyler had brought with him nocked their arrows and drew their bows. Richard II and his knights saw that they were about to become a human version of swiss cheese courtesy of the English longbow. But like most of his Plantagenet forbears, Richard was nothing if not a quick thinker. He defused the situation by saying that he would lead the peasants and abolish villeinage. Hmmmm. (He went back on his word a few months later.)

Maybe the contemporary peasants are in revolt. One thing’s for sure, our present-day elites find them revolting.

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Goldman Sachs

Full disclosure: I am not a Trump supporter. I find his views on Mexicans, Muslims, women and others abhorrent. The Trump (and Rubio) organ size comparison during a nationally televised debate for our highest political office can only be described as an international and historical embarrassment for the United States. With that caveat in hand, let’s look at why the public still supports Trump despite his playing fast and loose the truth.

But first, an old joke or, rather, a little parable.

Two teenager fish are swimming along in the ocean. They pass by an elderly fish sitting on a fish-park bench.

The elderly fish says: “Morning boys. Enjoying the water today?”

The two teenager fish look at each other and quickly swim away without answering.

When they’re well away from the old fish, one of them says to the other: “Man, that old guy was frikkin’ weird.”

The other one replies: “Yeah, say that again. And what the f#$k is water?”

The sheer idiocy of pundits in the mainstream media (MSM), the Right Wing Entertainment Complex, and both Democratic and Republican political establishments has been on full display ever since The Donald announced his candidacy last summer. Now he’s Heir Apparent to the Republican Presidential Nomination. Yet the elites continually wonder why, even though Trump spews half-truths, misstatements and outright lies, his popularity increases rather than decreases.

Can’t the public tell Donald is full of it?

Well, the short answer is yes, they certainly can. And they do. But it doesn’t deter them from either supporting him or voting for him.

So why doesn’t it matter to them?

That is the question that neither the elites, nor the MSM, nor the Right-Wing Entertainment Complex, has been able to answer. The answer is right in their face, but, like the two teenager fish in our parable, they’ve been swimming in it, breathing it, eating it, excreting it and regurgitating it to audiences for so long that they’ve lost all ability to recognize it.

It is the Bull$hit Culture of America.

The American public has been subjected to a culture of pure, homogenized, unadulterated bull$hit for almost 60 years. That’s twice the practical equivalent of eternity. The American people have not had a straight, honest answer or statement from a politician on any important question or issue since Eisenhower gave his Military-Industrial Complex warning in January 1960.

Did anyone notice this trend? Consider NBC’s Meet the Press show back when Tim Russert was host. Russert was one of the very few media types who would press a politician to answer a question. More and more, though, they wouldn’t answer his questions at all. They would give whatever spiel they had in mind, regardless of how remote it was from Russert’s question. Tim Russert, like other media types, was constrained. He had to “make nice” with non-responsive politicians so that they would agree to come on the show again in a few months, or else risk angering his producer. After Russert’s death, David Gregory took over Meet the Press. He was not as talented as Russert, and Meet the Press market share declined. Gregory was replaced.

But the failure of Meet the Press as a meaningful broadcast on political matters is not entirely the fault of Russert, Gregory or others in their shoes. Rather, it’s a reflection of the unwillingness of politicians to say anything of substance at any time because they may want to move away from a particular position later. Or they may be worried about a gaffe that goes viral. In any case, the politician’s objective is to say something and make it sound intelligent; better yet, make it sound patriotic or tough-on-crime. But no matter what the politician says, it is almost always irrelevant to the question being asked as well as completely meaningless.

And network honchos wonder why the audience is shrinking.

The MSM are no longer journalists, as that term was understood during the first half of the 20th century. They either can’t afford to hire, or aren’t interested in hiring, real live reporters to investigate things. The MSM’s idea of gathering the news is to wait around for public officials to make statements, or for lobbyists and political campaigns to send in press releases. Then they report that as “news.” The network’s pundits sit around an authentic Cronkite-looking conference table and interview…other pundits. The MSM functions as a giant copying machine for the American Culture of Bull$hit.

Let’s take a few examples of that culture:

Back when the economy tanked in 2008, and for nearly every recession before that, the government (either the Federal Reserve or the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or some other agency) would announce that we were not in a recession. Millions of people would lose their jobs, businesses and factories closed, but at every opportunity our government would remind us that (according to the GDP numbers, or the like) we were not in a recession. Then the GDP numbers would be revised (Hallelulia!), and government’s line would switch to: “Well, remember when we were telling you that we were not in a recession? Okay, we were wrong. It was a recession. But the good news is, it’s over now!”

The jobs, businesses and factories have never returned. But GDP is up, and that’s what counts in Washington and Wall Street.

They guy who used to earn $22/hour at a factory job, with benefits and a retirement plan, now works part-time at Wal-Mart’s for $7.25 an hour (unchanged since 2009), with no health insurance, no other benefits, and no pension plan. (Go get an IRA!) He probably works a second job at the same rate of pay, also without health insurance, benefits or a pension plan. “But we’re no longer in a recession!” says the Chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board. Why doesn’t that make this guy feel better?

Here’s another one. Inflation has been low for a decade or more, so that has not been too great an issue (except to the Fed, which still fears it even though deflation should be a bigger concern). But for those old enough to remember the heavy inflation days of the ‘70s and ‘80s, inflation was so punishing to everyday Americans that the government had to invent a new piece of Bull$hit Culture called called “core inflation.” In a nutshell, “core inflation” is the same thing as inflation but it excludes food and energy inflation from the index. This allowed the government to give the public a lower inflation number so that the news would not look as bad. And lets not forget that if incumbent politicians can report better economic news, they will have a marginally higher chance of being re-elected. “Core inflation” is a wonderful concept. As long as you don’t have to eat, fill your car’s tank with gasoline so that you can get to work every day (assuming you have a job, that is), or heat or cool your house, inflation was under control.

Here’s yet another example. Back during the Great Bank Bailout of 2008-09, AIG, which as an institution was one of the leading causes of the Great Recession, was bailed out by the Feds. Then, after a $170 Billion federal bailout saved them, the same cohort of AIG execs who had very nearly destroyed the world’s economy all got multi-million dollar bonuses … for their achievements in the preceding year, of course. The public was outraged.

The likes of Tim Geithner and Hank Paulson (himself a former CEO of (yikes!) Goldman Sachs) told the American people, with a straight face, that those AIG execs had to get bonuses to stay at their desks and handle the disaster they’d created. Really? If AIG execs didn’t get multi-million dollar bonuses in 2008-09, they’d leave? Where, exactly, would they have gone to? Lehman Brothers? Maybe Bear Stearns? Far from hiring new talent, at that point investment banks were telling their employees to gather their personal items and clear out. The government’s explanation and defense of these AIG bonuses was so stupid it was embarrassing. Far from deserving bonuses, AIG’s execs should have been grateful for their mere continued employment.

And who could forget Goldman Sachs? This institution, which bestrides the World of Free Market Capitalism like a Colossus (with colossus-sized cojones, in case Trump or Rubio want to compare the size of those things as well) ran into trouble, which it later denied. One Friday Lloyd Blankfein, taking a break from doing God’s work, ran crying to comrade Hank Paulson for a bailout. By Sunday morning Goldman Sachs was a bank holding company with access to the Federal Reserve window for cash in virtually unlimited supply. Presto change-o.

All of these instances can be multiplied, not quite to infinity, but close.

The Bull$hitters of our political elites tell the American people to beware of, and media elites wonder why the American people don’t recoil from, Trump’s Bull$hit. They have no idea how inadvertently hilarious they look and sound.

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There are a few odd parallels between Donald Trump and the Roman Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, more commonly known as Caligula. Here’s a likeness (supposedly) of the late emperor:

Bust of the Roman Emperor Caligula. Note the grotesque hairpiece, antiquity's answer to a comb-over.

Bust of the Roman Emperor Caligula. Note the grotesque hairpiece, antiquity’s answer to a comb-over. Another funny hairpiece appears on his breastplate armor, and scholars believe this to be a depiction of Rosius O’Donellus, a comedienne of ancient Rome.

Just like the current Republican establishment and media punditocracy, all of whom predicted that Trump would never get the Republican nomination, Caligula’s immediate predecessor, Tiberius, had a soothsayer named Thrasyllus who said that Caligula had

“no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae [now known as the Gulf of Naples].”

So, in A.D. 39 Caligula ordered a temporary floating bridge of ships to be built across that bay. It stretched more than two miles from one side to the other.  Caligula then rode his favorite horse, Incitatus, across the pontoon bridge.

The Roman historian Suetonius wrote that after this exploit Caligula addressed the crowds that had assembled on the shore to watch the spectacle:

“That was YUUUUUUGGGE! Nobody builds a better pontoon bridge than I do, not even Xerxes crossing the Hellespont! In fact, if Xerxes were alive today I could teach him everything he needs to know about bridges, because I’m a builder. Builders, they build things, know what I mean? ‘Cause I’m a really smart guy! And I’m a really rich guy, too! And if you think this bridge was good, I’m going to build an even bigger bridge, right across the Mediterranean! And I’ll make the Carthaginians pay for it! After all, they’re not sending us their best. They’re thieves. They’re rapists. Though some, I assume, are good people. And those Carthaginians will still love me! I”m tellin’ ya! We’re going to win so much, Rome is going to get sick and tired of winning all the time!”

Caligula subsequently appointed his horse, Incitatus, as Consul of the Roman Empire.

And here we are in 2016, where the United States is damn close to electing a jackass President.

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September 11, 2001: Former Vice Pres. Dick Cheney Watches WTC Burn During the "We Kept You Safe" Period.

September 11, 2001: Former Vice Pres. Dick Cheney kicks back to watch the WTC burn during the period in which the Bush Administration “Kept Us Safe.”

Leave it to Dick Cheney to find a way to kill two birds with one stone. (That doesn’t mean you should go bird hunting with Cheney, though. Some people who have done that have literally lost face.)

During the Republican debate this past weekend, The Donald once again hit Dubbya  (and Jeb! too) (!) on the Right Wing’s bogus claim that Dubbya “kept us safe.” Trump correctly pointed out that the World Trade Center towers (as well as a few thousand people caught inside) were destroyed during W’s reign. That August 6, 2001 President’s Daily Briefing to Dubbya with the re line “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.” just won’t go away.

Here’s Cheney responding to Trump’s criticism of the Bush Administration:

The other areas, for example, if you look at what we did in the aftermath of 9/11, we did in fact keep the nation safe for seven and a half years. The president put in place important programs, terrorist surveillance program, enhanced interrogation techniques. All of those things gave us the information that we needed to act. And we had the tremendous support of the American military. They did a superb job. So for Mr. Trump to suggest that just, in my mind, is way off base. He clearly doesn’t understand or has not spent any time learning the facts about that period. 

See, when you talk about keeping the United States safe, you only count seven and a half years out of eight. The first six months don’t count in Cheneyland.

And here’s the second bird: Cheney’s logic also works when a right wing justice on the Supreme Court dies and you don’t want a Democratic president to name a successor. The first half year of a president’s term doesn’t count, even if our country experiences the worst terrorist attack in its history on our own home soil. And under the same Cheney logic, the last half year doesn’t count, so Obama shouldn’t get to nominate a Supreme Court justice.

See how evenly that works out? Better than a pair of bookends. Here’s a little jingle a la William Blake to help us keep this in mind:

Cheney, Cheney burning bright

In the Beltways of the night

Oh, what pundit’s hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?


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