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2004 Idiot's Box Awards: Evil Angels Edition.

Welcome to the 2004 Idiot's Box Awards. If there was one program that summed up a turbulent year, it was the adaptation of Tony Kushner's remarkable Angels in America. Audiences were presented with a God-forsaken world overseen by crusading forces and prejudicial messengers. It was a place where the abandoned and the persecuted tried to escape reality by retreating into their own imagination.

When one person is touched

by someone who reaches out to him, he gratefully jokes 'I have always depended on the kindness of strangers'. (1) The kind stranger (Meryl Streep) cannot help but note 'Well, that's a stupid thing to do'. Streep obviously knew what she was talking about--she had previously played Lindy Chamberlain in Australia's Evil Angels (Fred Schepisi, 1988). It is in her honor that we bestow the 2004 'evil angels' award, which acknowledges our mutual 'friends' in high places and asks 'how low are we prepared to let each other go?' (2) Television provided an answer by offering an escape into the collective imagination--one where we can all pretend to be kind to one another.

The 'She Was Asking For It' Award

According to The Footy Show, there were a couple of 'ordinary' weeks for football in 2004. The main difficulty was a series of 'unfortunate allegations' relating to rape and sexual assault. Unfortunately, the independent allegations applied across leagues, suggesting a culture of misogyny that knows few bounds. Consequently, there was the need for an intervention program in the form of a televised forum.

The AFL Footy Show took time out from its regular programming to raise the bar of social discourse. The community service announcement bore the heading 'Footy, Sex and Society', and raised the question of whether 'the culture of football is (really) the problem, or is football merely the window on society?' It was, of course, a good question, if only because it implied the possibility of mutual awareness and responsibility. It's a shame, then, that the intervention seemed incapable of answering its own question and could only lead us all on. Host Eddie McGuire allowed the panelists to move the goal posts before our very eyes. The subject of sexual relations was transformed into the cult of celebrity. Perhaps that's because the allegations were just a media beat up to begin with and the chivalrous world of football is capable of policing itself. It was the (other) media who were the 'absolute disgrace', since for 'every bad story you hear, you hear thousands and thousands of times where players have pulled up other team mates.' (3) The Forum did, then, manage to achieve two goals in its bid to appease corporate sponsors and fend off negative publicity--it cast footballers in the role of victims and encouraged audiences to turn towards football for 'moral guidance'.

Notably absent from the male dominated discussion were legal and psychological perspectives: why bore audiences with the unfortunate reality of women's experiences not being taken seriously across society? We never got to hear about the culture of silence or acquiescence--not to mention the difficulty in prosecuting individual men when it 'his word against hers'. Apparent within the discussion, though, was what individual women were up against--a group dynamic where it's their word against hers. Or as fellow team member Rootman independently 'joked' on Big Brother 4, 'what the police don't know won't hurt them.' (4) And as Sam Newman reminded us on a subsequent occasion: all women are liars and schemers and certainly not the subjects of their own fears and desires. Indeed, we were given a public demonstration of how undesirable women really are. If they presume to share the same social space as men, they're 'predators' in a man's world. Assuming they're not trying to 'set you up' for (say) money or marriage, women are only good for one thing--the fucking whores. Whilst it was Newman who insisted on the predatory status of women within the context of rape investigations, it was McGuire who passed the testosterone ball to him through another footballer (Dermot Brereton) who was consulting prepared notes. Newman simply ran with the evening's catchphrase to reinforce the view that women are to be blamed for whatever happens to them when they're around men. Still, we have to give credit where it was due. The two female AFL representatives might have let the men get away with 'it', but audiences were left pondering the forum's unasked question: who did they have to sleep with to get on The Footy Show?

'Passing the Buck' Award

According to Mark Burnett, he came up with the idea of The Apprentice whilst filming Survivor: Amazon. '1 was sitting there in the jungle with every bug, snake and crocodile, thinking there had to be a better way to make a living. That's when I started thinking: urban jungle.' The idea of a jungle, of course, suggests wildlife and danger, and the law of the jungle underlines the predatory nature of such (urban) environments. Whilst it is often thought that 'jungle law' implies one unrestrained predator against another, the term--derived from Kipling in the second Jungle Book--originally referred to the way groups must derive their strength in order to survive and prosper. (5) Preying on the susceptible and weak is essentially a team endeavour between social beings. It is revealing, then, that The Apprentice took its code of conduct from a saga about sociopaths. Prior to each episode, the tagline quoted The Godfather's 'it's not personal, its business'. (6) And as The Corporation (Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar, 2004) asked: since corporations possess the legal status of personhood, what kind of person are they? Intriguingly, The Apprentice inadvertently provided a variant of The Corporation's own answer: they're psychotic or antisocial (self-absorbed, manipulative, deceptive, etc.). As if to prove the point, the show's self-serving approach extended to its own theme--a song lamenting the 'love of money as the root of all evil' was re-edited as a hymn to the 'Almighty dollar'. (7)

According to Donald Trump, it's a 'dog eat dog' world, and The Apprentice hit a social cord because audiences 'can recognize a reality show that is realistic'. The only problem is that dogs don't eat each other, and the original phrase was supposed to point out that such animals don't set out to devour their own kind. (8) But since we live in a consumer culture, we were all able to recognize ourselves anyway. Billing itself as a televised 'job interview', eighteen people were divided into two competing 'corporations'. Each was assigned the same goal--to make the most profit, and so, prove their worth to top dog, Trump. Despite the corporate identities, the corporations were really pitted against their own 'employees'. The makeshift organizations were comprised of people with diverse business backgrounds, and they were similarly organized around a willingness to turn on each other when push came to shove. Cast and edited for dramatic conflict, the real point of The Apprentice was to deliver the maximum advertising revenue to corporations owning television stations. Since everything is mediated through the dollar sign, it was a question of maintaining the balance sheet by trading mutual accountability for moral bankruptcy.

Instead of showing 'inspirational team leadership and building coherent cultures' (to quote Jeffery Sonnenfeld in The Wall Street Journal), the corporations were encouraged to cannibalize themselves for personal reasons. Particularly telling was the way the group (and show) singled out distinctive or assertive people. If you happened to possess any of the qualities that (say) distinguished Trump from the pack--well, you were vilified and sent packing. The Apprentice's social message can perhaps be best summed up thus. If we want to cut our losses we must work towards minimizing our culpability--in order to succeed as a group, find someone convenient to blame.

'God Works in Mysterious Ways' Award

'You pack of bastards!' Those were the words a journalist famously screamed at the jury who convicted Lindy Chamberlain for murder in 1982. To some extent, it was the pot calling the kettle black. She was judged by a jury of her own peers all too willing to devour one of their own. The pack mentality extended, of course, to the trial by media rushing to its own judgments in order to profit from human prejudice and bloodlust. 2004 underlined how relevant those words remained. It was the year in which an old man belatedly stepped up to the plate to claim that another pack of bastards allowed a stranger to be publicly drawn and quartered by an entire nation. Frank Cole, seventy-eight, claimed that a group of friends illegally shot a dingo with a dead baby in its mouth, and disposed of her body to conceal evidence of their own crime. Naturally the media are it all up--despite Lindy's own reservations and the possibility to finally clear her name. Some of us were incredulous for our own reasons and wondered if it was a bizarre publicity stunt. The claims were made as the Channel 7 miniseries Through My Eyes was in production. Poor Lindy--guilty of the crime of been seen through our own eyes. Perhaps the most revealing instance of Lindy's persecution was the widely disseminated claim that Azaria meant 'sacrifice in the wilderness'. Then again, these things are sent to try us by the leader of the pack.

God could have intervened to prevent a miscarriage of justice and witch hunt, but apparently the bastard preferred 'human intervention' to cast suspicion on a devout couple. Presumably the elderly Cole wanted to clear his conscience prior to meeting his Maker--he decided to break the vow of silence once his friends had crossed over to the other side and could no longer speak for each other. So he 'would just like to say I am terribly sorry if I have ruined their lives or because it broke up their marriage or going to jail but how can you undo something that is done.' If there is any justice in the world, Cole will get to see the rest of his pack dangling from the mouths of hell-hounds. Now that he's confessed his sins on national television he's probably earnt himself a pair of wings. At any rate, we would also like to set the record straight. The biblical name Azaria actually means 'God has helped'. So there we have it--a nine-week-old girl was sacrificed by God to test a woman's faith and to help a bastard into heaven.

The 'Ingrate' Award

There is no helping some people. We 'went there to help the jackasses and they started blowing us up ... A lot of people here think they ought to just blow up the whole of Iraq'. Perhaps we could be more democratic and just elect to eradicate the Iraqis. We'll still need the land to transfer the military bases from Saudi Arabia, and there's the price of petrol to take into account. The quoted sentiments were obviously not publicly expressed by leaders of the free world. They come from Lynndie England's hometown in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal and resulting kangaroo court martial. Our elected representatives clearly have a nobler goal in mind--sacrificing the lower ranks for the greater good. God help them all, except the ingrates think God's helping them to expel and murder the crusaders. And who better to do the Lord's work than packs of bastards lining up to behead individuals pleading an unwilling coalition to 'help me'. It is ironic, then, that the man who sued God prayed for the religious fundamentalists to 'just get on with it'. Billy Connolly's joke may have been in bad taste, but it does give an indication of our increasing bemusement at recent developments. Whilst we were also 'desperately saddened' by Bigley's beheading, we have similarly become ungrateful at the constant reminder of our failure to bring peace to the region--just put us out of our misery already. Many of us, of course, could not accept the idea of exporting peace through war. We're supposed to lead by example, and unfortunately freedom fighters have followed our lead by declaring war on their liberators. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan summed up the concern best. 'Those who seek to bestow legitimacy must themselves embody it, and those who invoke international law must themselves submit to it'. Annan was not the first to declare the coalition's invasion and occupation 'illegal'. A year earlier, Pentagon policy advisor Richard Perle claimed that '1 think in this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing'. Well, that's an impractical way of looking at things--doing the right thing through faulty reasoning and bad intelligence. No wonder the occupiers have hastened the illusion of 'sovereignty' once the going got tough. The initial head of the liberation (Paul Bremer) decided to leave behind a Big Brother-style parting message as the country moved towards civil war. 'I leave Iraq gladdened by what has been accomplished and confident that your future is full of hope. A piece of my heart will always remain here in the beautiful land between the two rivers, with its fertile valleys, its majestic mountains, and its wonderful people' ... killing each other. Television will, of course, remain a collaborator by viewing the turn of events through self-serving eyes--after bearing false witness, we would now rather it turned a blind eye. We originally tried to convince ourselves with a slippery slope argument--a fallacy that attempted to fly 'freedom' in on a wing and a prayer. We slipped on the oil-slicked slope because we somehow assumed that democracy or peace would follow an invasion and occupation. Without any corroborating argument--let alone an understanding of the powder keg being 'liberated'--the country has blown up in our faces of its own accord. The important thing, though, is that the liberators can cut their losses by minimizing their liability: we've set in place a system where we can at least blame the Iraqis for what they're doing to each other. And for that we can all be grateful.

'Injurious to the Public Good' Award

Towards the end of 2003, New Zealand banned the videogame Manhunt on the grounds that it was 'objectionable'. In late 2004, Manhunt was belatedly pulled off Australian shelves for 'declassification'. Between both decisions (July), the videogame was implicated in a British murder. The assailant murdered a young friend, and he was said to be so obsessed with the game that he wanted to act out one of its more gruesome murders. Despite being a drug addict intent on robbing his friend for money, it was the media's obsession with videogame violence that made international headlines. Manhunt proved to be such a convenient scapegoat that our sense of outrage neglected to widely report two things--the adult-rated game was found in the possession of a minor, and it was the young victim who owned it. But let's return to the New Zealand decision, which is particularly acute in its objections. Around the same time that Peter Jackson's The Return of the King sanctified war and television helped to lead the war on terror by celebrating the hunting down of men like Saddam and sons, it was observed:

A player's power both to initiate violence and to control the level of violence is part of the process by which this accommodation is made. To succeed in this game, a player, regardless of age or maturity, must learn over an extended period of time to acquiesce in, tolerate, or even enjoy, the violence he or she inflicts. Learning how to acquiesce in, tolerate, or take enjoyment from inflicting violence, cruelty and suffering over the length of time it takes to play this game requires an antisocial attitudinal shift, that is likely to be injurious to the public good.

It's a coherent decision--a shame that it contributes to our injury. On one level, it's not without justification, and we would be amongst the first to defend the classification of violence according to its purported entertainment value. On another level, though, the rationale is part of the problem of social accommodation. Manhunt is so disturbing because it hits us where we live--in the vicinity of shifting attitudes. Indeed, Manhunt lays bare the way we choose to accommodate ourselves to levels of violence in society. It makes that choice a feature of the game, and plays to the very notion of 'violence as entertainment'. The player is trapped in a violent film production, where survival is the overriding moral imperative. Players are literally directed to commit gruesome murders for those watching at home (i.e. us) and must navigate their way through a hostile environment (our own sensibilities). Normally how we classify our experiences corresponds to the way we want to entertain a view of ourselves. Popular entertainment typically experiences violence as 'redeeming', where we choose to save the girl or day in a desired conflict between 'good' and 'evil'. The wonderfully entertaining thing about Manhunt is that it is so god damned awful--it reveals ourselves on a more fundamental level by not pretending to satisfy anything other than a desire to survive an inhospitable world of our own making.

'David Reimer Memorial' Award

On 4 May 2004, David Reimer killed himself. At thirty-eight-years-old, he decided that he couldn't keep up with the charade anymore. As a baby, his penis was burnt off during a botched circumcision, and everyone tried to solve the problem through an elaborate deception. The little boy underwent a sex change operation, and was raised as a little girl. Despite everyone's best efforts, the attempt to deceive the rest of the world proved to be difficult. Whilst family and friends tried to convince 'Brenda' that her gender confusion and medication were normal, strangers were less kind and preferred to call her 'caveman', 'freak' and 'it'. The adult attempt to regain her identity was similarly counterproductive--pretending to be happy and well adjusted eventually got the better of him. David's real problem, of course, was that he was born in the wrong era. Mass deception is the new reality, and TV could have been able to accommodate him. The whole world would have been a willing accomplice and personal benefactor--so long as someone else could be humiliated on television. The deceptions were hardly gender specific--men pretended to be rich in a bid to woo beautiful women (Joe Millionaire), women pretended to be marrying jerks in order to test family limits (My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancee), fe/male actors were employed to dupe a nice guy on a fake reality program (Joe Schmo Show), out of work actors were misled into thinking they had won major movie roles (Film Fakers, forthcoming) and even a whole town was punked when it thought it was starring in a movie (Invasion Iowa, also forthcoming). There's Something About Miriam was arguably the biggest revelation when it invariably summed up the deceptions in a nutshell. Audiences were entertained by the prospect of men making fools of themselves trying to win the heart of a woman with a penis. If the duplicitous Miriam proved anything, it was that Sam Newman was only half right--we're all as bad as each other.

'Cover Me' Award

We all know that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover. The reasoning behind such knowledge, of course, is that the value of something can't be determined by immediate appearances. We should therefore all take the time to delve more deeply. Given our busy schedules and attention spans, few of us really think that such advice can be practical. Nonetheless, there are parallel fantasies that we'd all like to believe, if only because it would be nice if others put in more effort than we're prepared to. These include the view that 'beauty is only skin deep' or 'truth is in the eye of the beholder'. Whilst the popularity of the Shrek films give expression to how we all need to believe such myths, it is worth remembering that Shrek was originally moved to say 'what a load of crap' as he sat reading on the toilet. Shrek 2 might have been the most popular film of the year, but it offered its own myth: love might be blind, but it can at least help us see each other through the crap. Thankfully, reality television continues to offer its own corrective--by showing us the ugliness within. It is important to stress that the 'beauty' myth isn't just skin deep, and reveals the way we generally behold another. Film and television continually remind us that character is itself a physical attribute or manifestation--witness how 'heroes' and 'villains' are typically cast according to appearance. Attributes like 'integrity', 'intelligence' or 'desirability' is apparently a distinct 'look', and can be related to the size of a nose or the colour of one's skin. Since designer babies won't be available on the market for some time, we're all going to have to content ourselves with makeovers in order to better sell ourselves. Personal insecurities clearly run deep within popular culture, and television shows like Extreme Makeover, The Swan and Body Workshop manage to tap into human anxieties and desires. Although television might contribute to collective anxieties when selling us unrealistic views of sexual identity, it can also offer us salvation in the form of cosmetic surgery and personal testimonials. Never mind that a false standard of self-worth is being promoted as a matter of course--these shows at least prevent us from having to look at ourselves.

Head Is So Far Up Our Own Arses Its No Wonder It Pops Out Of Our Necks' Award

'That's the trouble with you people--every time you see a problem you turn it into a disease.' Tony Soprano's complaint does not come from the most recent season of The Sopranos--its from the 1999 episode 'Down Neck' where Anthony Jr is diagnosed with 'borderline' attention deficit disorder. Nonetheless, it was a remarkably prescient observation. By 2002, watching television had literally become an 'addiction', and part of the problem was the way it transfixed or hypnotized people in accordance with their 'orientation response' (a tendency to internalize distractions to order our environment). By 2004, there was another troubling development in the form of a reversal--television invariably 'rewired' people orientated towards their television sets and was responsible for the occurrence of attention deficit disorder. One year it was turning our children into couch potatoes, another year it was transforming them into whirling dervishes. At least the latest research manages to legitimate a progressive condition. We've quickly gone from television 'addicts' to addicting our kids to drugs, helping to prepare them for the adult world of quick fixes and deferred responsibility. Unfortunately, the widely disseminated claims merely proved the media's own hyperactivity and short attention spans--and a mutual tendency to use television as a convenient cover for our own shortcomings. If we chose to delve more deeply into the recent 'findings', it would have been observed that the researchers 'have not in fact studied or found an association between television viewing and clinically diagnosed ADD ... we relied on parental report of television viewed ... and we cannot draw causal inferences from these associations. It could be that attentional problems lead to television viewing rather than visa versa'. The study also neglected to pay attention to the most important thing of all--the turning of problems into diseases. The status of this widely spread epidemic remains controversial, and is itself symptomatic of bigger malaise--our willingness to pass the buck onto so called 'experts' willing to solve our problems with labeling and medication. Perhaps what is most troubling about the research is the selective attention it exhibits--it works from the assumption that ADD is an established disease, and then seeks to establish its possible 'cause' as such. Instead of questioning whether the concern might be with clinicians over-diagnosing a generation of children in the first place, it implicitly endorses the problem of prescribing a cure worse than the 'disease'. More troubling, then, is that it fails to take note of the culture it typifies. Attention deficit disorder is not a psychological ailment but a social prerequisite. We now live in a world where 'fast' and 'food' or 'reality' and 'TV' have somehow become synonymous, and hyperactivity the best way to adapt to social trends and marketing pitches. Without deficits in our attention, how else can the pack keep track of the latest miracle cures or moral panics? Even our sense of morality or belonging needs to be instantly gratifying and actively mobile. It obviously felt good to be morally outraged when Janet Jackson bared her breast at the Superbowl--and felt even better when we openly longed for Rebecca Twigley's wardrobe to malfunction at the Brownlow. To quote the same episode of The Sopranos: 'It's hard to raise kids in an information age.'

'Down To The Wire' Award

The night Angels in America swept the Emmy Awards, the best show on television began its third season in the United States. Although The Wire wasn't nominated for anything, Kushner used the media spotlight to draw the world's attention to it. Australians might not have noticed or cared--the first season had been unceremoniously dumped in the graveyard shift during the non-ratings period. Kushner has a theory as to why the show remains marginalized by Emmy voters and audiences alike. The Wire is 'frequently difficult to follow, and you have to work hard to keep up with it'. The series is that rarity--a crime show that requires a clue from audiences in the information age. It investigates crime as if it were a social phenomenon or problem rather than a cultural disease that can be treated by putting together a weekly jigsaw or crossword puzzle. Nonetheless, the crime genre itself proved to be a phenomenon in 2004. Everyday law and order was restored in one form or another, and one franchise bearing its name officially killed off the television institution of Sunday night movies. To meet popular demand, Foxtel announced a twenty-four-hour series of commitments to crime stopping in 2005--the Crime and Investigation Channel. So whilst Rome burns we can fiddle with our television knobs and follow a surplus of prepackaged clues signposted by attention deficit disorders. Kushner, however, wants to object: 'The TV cop show has a long, ignoble history of propagating reprehensible, simpleminded and dangerous fantasies about law and crime ... exploiting fear of urban public spaces, and offering ... cities as proving grounds for reactionary concepts of human nature and human society. There have been almost no exceptions. The Wire is not an exception, it's a complete subversion ... and extended meditation on the meanings of race, class and, most astonishingly, economics--that great unmentionable in contemporary culture.' Indeed, The Wire goes a long way to explain how original gangster and cop-killer Ice T can go on to play a police officer in the Law and Order franchise without the charge of hypocrisy or selling out. It's not personal, its business--popular culture can accommodate consumers by allowing them to experience crime through conflicting wish fulfillments and revenge fantasies. After all, we all live in a snoop dog eat dog world and feed off each other in the food chain.

Most Wanted

According to Deadwood creator David Milch, 'Law developed out of the social impulses to restrict the collateral consequences of the taking of revenge. I kill your dog. You come, you kill my dog. You kill me. You kill my sister. In evolutionary terms, we're not going to get very far'. Deadwood itself evolved out of a desire to investigate the development of law and the ordering of its illusions. Milch urges that Western progress has its basis in 'a kind of original sin: the appropriation of what belonged to one people by another people', be it the land or a soul. It should therefore come as little surprise that this remarkable Western converges around what natural history thinks is most appropriate--the law of supply and demand. Unfortunately, commercial television wasn't interested in buying Deadwood. It was populated with people saying 'fuck', 'cunt', and 'cocksucker' like there was no tomorrow. Australians had to seek it out on Pay TV, where they would have discovered something much more alarming than relentless swearing--a moral universe parallel to their own. Deadwood is a town where strangers come together to build a community, and depend upon a kind of original sin to get by. Indeed, Entrepreneur magazine went so far as to observe that we could all be kind to one another when eating from the tree of its knowledge. Specifically, 'Deadwood is the single best source of economic and business thinking that has ever hit popular media'. Presiding over the town is a 'cocksucker like no other'. The appropriately named Al Swearengen (Ian McShane in the year's best performance) is Deadwood's most acute businessman--we know he means business because the buck stops with him. Swearengen is capable of reading people like a book, and can determine their worth within the order of things. He plays one person against another in order to exploit fears and desires for mutual benefit. This pillar of the community understands that we all live in a world of appearances and that everyone has their price in a fluctuating and adaptable marketplace. Whilst it's true that his obligation is only to any given feeling or situation, Swearengen nonetheless appeals to contemporary times. As Entrepreneur says admiringly, 'trying to survive in a dog eat dog environment' means 'he doesn't [need to] get locked into anything. He's seeking new information and changing decisions as he goes.' It is for this reason that this cocksucker is our person of the year--he makes audiences wonder about the going price on their heads.

'Sanctimonious Prick' 2004

Hey don't look at me--all you'll see is someone holier than thou watching TV.

Endnotes

(1) Kushner is obviously quoting another play here--Tennesse William's A Streetcar Named Desire.

(2) See Ephesians 6:12 for a summary of this doctrine. Specifically, 'We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against wicked spirits in heavenly places.' For the record--I'm not religious. I do, however, reveal the bushel under which I hide my 'light' in an award below.

(3) We quote Sam Newman and Aaron Hamill respectively.

(4) Rootman was a character adopted by former footballer Ryan Fitzgerald, and he made the remark in Big Brother Up Late (live).

(5) Specifically, where the 'strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack'.

(6) The irony is that the Godfather films explored the dangerous world of the mafia to comment on the rise of corporate culture. And unlike The Godfather trilogy, The Apprentice neglected to ask the most personal of questions: what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?

(7) O' Jays 'For The Love of Money'. Presumably they were paid well to sell the soul of their song.

(8) The phrase dates back to 43 BC, and is attributed to Marcus Terentius Varro. He noted 'Canis caninam non est' ('Dog does not eat dog'), urging that even dogs have their moral limits.

Steven Aoun is a doctoral research student in Critical Theory at Monash University, and Metro's regular TV and DVD reviewer
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Title Annotation:Idiot's Box
Author:Aoun, Steven
Publication:Metro Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:5208
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