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Triumph of Meanness
     

Triumph of Meanness

by Nicolaus Mills
 

Editorial Reviews

Chris Lehmann

As I lugged my galley copy of The Triumph of Meanness through lower Manhattan recently, a prepossessing young man standing on a street corner -- he appeared to be selling clothing -- demanded a closer look. "The Triumph of Meanness"? he called out and smiled. "That's right," he added more quietly and nodded his head.

It's not a focus group sample, to be sure, but this incident suggests that Nicolaus Mills -- an American studies professor at Sarah Lawrence College and a contributing editor of Dissent -- has gotten hold of a provocative idea. Meanness does define a popular culture and political climate in which the vulnerable are sacrificed and opponents are shredded with indiscriminate glee. Mills begins to plumb the new meanness, moreover, with a refreshing view from the top, by recounting the swashbuckling, downsizing initiatives of American CEOs in recent years. Few observers have bothered to make the elementary connection between our increasingly brutal style of public discourse and an economy in which workers are cavalierly thrown upon their own resources after years of corporate service -- and then described condescendingly by their barons as "self-employed vendors."

However, Mills' subsequent forays into the familiar turf of cultural confrontation -- racial rancor, immigration hysteria, gender-role retrenchment and scorched-earth political campaigns -- don't connect as strongly with his class-inflected opening arguments. He's still too attached to the mythology of the left to follow through on the considerable class blind spots on the "progressive" front of the Kulturkampf. Via the self-dramatizing excesses of identity politics, moreover, the left contributed its share to the climate of meanness. Mills, however, goes out of his way to portray liberals and the left as forever demonized, never the demonizer.

Mills ruefully notes that "in contrast to the sixties counterculture with its emphasis on dropping out of the mainstream lifestyle," contemporary lifestyle rebels -- notably the fringe members of the anti-government militia movement -- have embraced "the notion of an eye for an eye." One needn't belabor the famed Weatherman "Days of Rage" or the left's witless romanticization of Third World military thugs to note that this opposition is a tad oversimplified. And militias hardly qualify as a countercultural vanguard.

In particular, what passes for counterculture in the 1990s is less noteworthy for its retributive flourishes than for its rampant corporatization. What may prove the nastiest legacy of alternative culture in our day may be the boorish leer of Jenny McCarthy or the smarmy directorial nudgework of loutish films such as Chasing Amy and She's the One. The meanness in such spectacles is less lurid, to be sure, than Quentin Tarantino and Marilyn Manson, but it's arguably all the more odious for its canny narrowcasting. If Mills had kept more closely to his opening argument, he might have put together a more astringent and nuanced view of the triumph of meanness. Then I could nod my head along with my sage interlocutor on Canal Street and say, "That's right." -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his trenchant analysis, Mills, professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence and co-editor of Dissent, indicts American culture for its vindictiveness in both the cultural and the political arenas. He cites many examples of "meanness without guilt" including the barrage of racist, sexist and homophobic language indulged in by radio talk-show hosts, retaliatory attacks on the poor by conservative politicians, large-scale layoffs of workers by corporations interested only in maximizing profits and journalistic "attitude" as practiced by columnists who, the author argues, rely on personal attacks on political figures rather than on objective investigation of their public policies. The author also detects a new resentment toward feminists by men in such writings as Iron John by the poet Robert Bly and Oleanna by playwright David Mamet. Although Mills's views may engender controversy, his analysis of contemporary culture is worth pondering. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Humiliating talk shows. Serial-killer trading cards. Vicious politics. Mills, a coeditor of Dissent, here argues that Americans have become too damn mean for their own good.
Booknews
Mills (American studies, Sarah Lawrence College) asserts that during the 1990s, American society has become significantly more mean- spirited and uncivil. He explains the ways in which this culture of meanness has been shaped by such influences as the end of the Cold War and the civil rights movement, the loss of post-World War II prosperity, and fears about the US economy. He also discusses implications for life in the country in the next millennium. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
By introducing left-wing backlash into the right-wing's culture wars, Mills further sharpens this acrimonious debate.

Mills (American Studies/Sarah Lawrence Coll.; ed., Legacy of Dissent, 1994) begins with the premise that enemies can serve a function in politics. When the end of the Cold War left America enemyless, some people turned inward to identify new pariahs. Despite the implausibility of the notion that the weakest or most marginal elements of American society—e.g., welfare recipients and the poor, recent immigrants, homosexuals—pose a vital threat to the country, these and other groups have been targeted in vitriolic attacks spearheading a turn toward mean-spiritedness. It's as if the stakes, emotions, and rhetoric of the Cold War, characterized by a threat to national survival and easily couched in terms of good versus evil, have been imported directly into domestic politics. In this context, conservatives do not just find liberals confused, they are a fundamental threat to civilization that must be extirpated from society, if not humanity. Paranoia and prejudice are not new phenomena in American politics, of course. But Mills argues that the current incarnation is more virulent and widespread, and completely unapologetic. In surveying the business world, race and gender relations, immigration policy, the press, and politics as characterized by the Republican Contract with America of 1996, he finds that the kings and queens of mean proudly embrace the characterizations of their critics; they revel in their nastiness. The most interesting thing about this book by a leftist (Mills is a coeditor of Dissent), however, is the odd way it parallels its right-wing targets. Both sides overgeneralize from observations that do deserve serious consideration, and rather than complaining about popular culture from the right and nostalgically embracing an idealized version of the 1950s, Mills complains about popular culture from the left and nostalgically embraces an idealized version of the 1960s.

A provocative counterattack.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780395822968
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
Publication date:
07/01/1997
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
5.79(w) x 8.59(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Mean Times

As the 1990s draw to a close, it is clear that we are not the same country we were when the decade began. There is a meanness in our public and private lives that has changed the way we see ourselves and the future. Like the bumper stickers that ask "Where is Lee Harvey Oswald when his country needs him?" we have crossed a line that not long ago seemed to mark the outer bounds of decency.

Meanness--as a politics of spite and cruelty that targets the vulnerable--is not new in American life. In the past it has been used to defend everything from Indian removal to immigration quotas. More recently it has been the basis of whole political careers. During the Great Depression Father Charles E. Coughlin gained national prominence when he combined his criticism of the Roosevelt administration with attacks on Jewish international bankers. In the 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy achieved even greater power by creating a red scare that panicked the country and cost thousands of innocent people their jobs, and in the 1960s Governor George Wallace became a national figure when, in a dramatic showdown with the Kennedy administration, he challenged the right of blacks to enroll in the University of Alabama.

In the long run Coughlin, McCarthy, and Wallace could not withstand the test of public scrutiny; decency triumphed over the political meanness they embodied. But the meanness of the 1990s, which is as much cultural as political, is an altogether different matter. Like the old meanness, it surfaces in the savaging of an opponent or in an appeal to hidden fears that makes it easy to scapegoat a person or group. The vindictiveness of the new meanness was impossible to miss in the first weeks of the 104th Congress, when the openly gay Democrat Barney Frank was called "Barney Fag" by Dick Armey, the Republican House majority leader, and more recently the new meanness has surfaced in the South, where a wave of black church burnings has revived memories of the Jim Crow past. But in contrast to the old meanness, which tended to be directed at distinct and limited targets, what characterizes the new meanness is that its spite and cruelty have become pervasive. They are part of our everyday world in ways that we now take for granted.

The new meanness is not just reflected in a political shift to the right that sends welfare back to the states for the first time since the New Deal and says we should cut Head Start while adding billions more to the defense budget than the military requested. The new meanness is also style and attitude, meanness without guilt, as one critic of it observed. We see the new meanness in a combativeness in which the president's opponents insist that he is "the enemy of normal Americans" and a senator warns him that he "better have a bodyguard" if he enters the senator's state. We hear it on talk radio when G. Gordon Liddy advises his listeners on the best way to shoot a federal agent. We read about it after law enforcement officials raid a California sweatshop in which foreign workers were kept under guard around the clock and paid fifty cents an hour for the sewing they did. We observe it in professional sports, where veteran basketball coach Pat Riley fines his players for helping an opponent up from the court.

Fed up with the political meanness he saw dominating Congress, Maine's moderate Republican senator, William Cohen, announced in early 1996 that he would not run for a fourth term, and two weeks later, in a Washington Post op ed, he explained that what bothered him most was the worsening partisan atmosphere in Congress, with debate overshadowed by "an increase in personal hostilities" that allowed "rhetorical finger-pointing" to replace civility. The other side of the coin is, however, that rather than let meanness get to us, as Cohen, currently secretary of defense did, we have over the course of the nineties come to accept it, even enjoy it. On television the success of a prime-time series like Melrose Place, where the key to high ratings is a predatory sexual war among the young and the beautiful, is no isolated case. Meanness has also become central on the afternoon talk shows, where a middlebrow host like Phil Donahue can no longer make it; the field has been flooded with shows like those of Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones, in which the formula for success is to turn the guests against each other in humiliating tell-all battles. Even the news-format programs have not been immune from using meanness to win a following. CNN's Crossfire pits panelists against each other in a war of political putdowns, and The McLaughlin Group and Capital Gang follow a similar pattern. Most significant, what works for the mass audience of television works in other areas as well. Rap has cultivated a huge audience with music in which women are regularly described as "hos" and "bitches," and in sports, taunting an opponent and showing him up after a score has become a routine strategy for heightening tension and involving fans in the game.

The pervasiveness of the new meanness is reflected in the Lexis-Nexis database system. In 1980 the system had only 115 entries on the subject of meanness. By 1985 the number of entries was 171. But by 1990 the number had more than doubled to 498, and by 1995 the number had more than tripled to 1,883. What makes our current culture of meanness so dangerous, however, is that it represents more than a spontaneous souring of our national disposition or a renewal of what historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics. These days the new meanness has, as sociologist Murray Hausknecht notes, reached the point where it is institutionalized. We find it easier and easier to think the worst of each other and, as the assault on the safety-net programs of the 1930s and 1960s shows, to live in a society that has little room for generosity or empathy.

Central to the new meanness, as well as distinguishing it from the confident Reaganism of the 1980s, is our feeling that we are no longer a coherent nation bound together by our past. In the espionage films of the 1990s, such as Under Siege and Broken Arrow, the enemy is not the agent of a foreign country but an American, a former CIA or military man now willing to sell to the highest bidder the very weapons he once guarded. He has no qualms about being loyal to his own interests above all others, and neither do we. The security that in the past we derived from a Cold War that defined our enemies, an economy that offered each generation a brighter future, and a civil rights movement that gave us moral purpose, is gone, replaced by the belief that it no longer makes sense to act as if we shared the same fate or could find common cause. Our best option, we now imagine, is to save ourselves and those like us on the basis of a lifeboat ethics that rewards ruthlessness.

* * *

At the core of the new meanness lies the vacuum created by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the first time since the start of the Cold War, we are without a superpower that threatens our survival or an ideological rival whose social system requires constant comparison with ours. The result has been an opportunity, seemingly boundless in its possibilities, for turning inward. But what has happened instead is that in turning inward we have for a variety of reasons come to apply the language and thinking we once used on our Cold War enemies to ourselves. For the right, the new enemy has become the inner city and liberalism. For the left, burdened in the past with the charge of being soft on communism, the new liability has become being soft on crime and welfare.

That the nineties would be a decade in which domestic concerns replaced foreign concerns was signaled by George Bush in his 1992 State of the Union Address, when he declared that, with the Cold War over, America could at last begin to act in ways that were impossible when its avowed enemy was a superpower. "Now we can look homeward even more, and move to set right what needs to be set right," Bush announced in a speech that called for lower withholding taxes, economic deregulation, and an attack on a welfare dependence that was "passed from generation to generation like a legacy."

It was not, however, George Bush, but Pat Buchanan at the Republican National Convention of 1992 who defined the harshness with which the inner Cold War of the 1990s would be waged. In a speech entitled "The Election Is about Who We Are: Taking Back the Country," Buchanan argued that a religious war was being waged for the soul of the country. "It is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself," he explained. This cultural war was being fought, he said, between those who play by the rules and those who don't, and he brought his speech to its conclusion and his audience to its feet by asserting that the Los Angeles riots of 1992 epitomized the new cultural battlefield and its winnability for conservatives. For Buchanan the heroes of Los Angeles were the troops "who had come to save the city," and in his closing paragraph he paralleled their actions with those America needed to take to restore its cultural greatness. "As those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block," Buchanan told the convention, "we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country."

Buchanan's speech, filled with references to the Democrats as pro-gay and pro-lesbian, was immediately attacked by the media for its sexual bigotry, and his broader cultural critique got lost in the controversy. But by 1993 the ideas that Buchanan had voiced at the Republican National Convention had achieved mainstream respectability. In his 1993 essay "My Cold War," the conservative critic Irving Kristol gave them intellectual foundation. "Now that the other 'Cold War' is over, the real cold war has begun," Kristol wrote. "It is a far more interesting cold war--intellectually interesting, spiritually interesting--than the war we have recently won," he declared, "and I rather envy those young enough for the opportunities they will have to participate in it." Kristol considered it crucial that those who believed in the old Cold War should volunteer for the inner Cold War that lay ahead.

The new alien philosophy, as dangerous to our way of life as Communism had once been, was, as far as Kristol and an increasingly conservative segment of the electorate were concerned, now identified as liberalism. And the new enemy, as dangerous as the old Soviet Union, was now seen as those people living within our midst--most often in big-city slums--whose values and lifestyles made them the equivalent of an alien nation. "We have to cut off the head of the enemy, and the enemy is the homeless," the New York City police captain charged with rousting the homeless from Central Park in the summer of 1994 told reporters shortly after beginning his task. In liberal New York the captain's remarks brought intense criticism, but in the country as a whole, the mood was very different. Years earlier, in an article entitled "The Liberals' Legacy of Failure," Newt Gingrich had argued, "There are a hundred potential Beiruts in America today, and we are in danger of losing control of entire neighborhoods." By the 1994 congressional campaign Gingrich could expand his Beirut analogy into a far broader coded message about the inner Cold War the country needed to wage. In speech after speech Gingrich won over audiences and helped produce a Republican majority in the House and Senate for the first time in forty years by insisting "It is impossible to maintain civilization with twelve-year-olds having babies, fifteen-year-olds killing each other, seventeen-year-olds dying of AIDS, and eighteen-year-olds receiving diplomas they cannot read." Gingrich could count on a middle-class electorate that was sympathetic to his message and prepared to believe the worst of people they saw as "others." He could also count on that electorate having heard much rougher political language on talk radio. For the nationally syndicated talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, welfare recipients were the "dependency class," and for New York's Bob Grant the city's black mayor, David Dinkins, was "the men's room attendant."

What has made this middle-class electorate so willing, as Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham put it, to blur the distinctions between race and politics and moral behavior is its own bitter experience of downward mobility. In contrast to the years from 1947 to 1973, when average weekly earnings grew by 60 percent, recent decades have been hard on most families. Since 1989 the typical American household has seen its annual income fall by 7 percent, and among white-collar workers the shock has been particularly great. In 1993 for the first time in history, white-collar unemployment was higher than blue-collar unemployment. Workers who earn $50,000 or more a year now account for twice as many lost jobs as they did in the 1980s. As the Economic Policy Institute observed, "Having a college degree no longer affords protection against falling wage trends."

To make matters worse, the usual cures for job loss and falling wages have not worked in the 1990s. Although corporate profitability is at a thirty-year high and productivity has risen by 24 percent since 1979, companies continue to downsize by shedding workers who are close to retirement, slashing benefits, and cutting wages. The result has been the kind of jobless prosperity that reverses the philosophy of "Engine Charlie" Wilson, head of General Motors in the 1950s, who in the company's heyday popularized the slogan "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." In the 1990s the use of cheap foreign labor and the elimination of managerial jobs through computerization have made American companies more competitive but have also severed the links between profit, productivity, and middle-class security. Charlie Wilson's General Motors, now a much smaller company than it was in the 1950s, has been doing its best to outsource jobs and bypass its well-paid workforce. The business stars of the nineties are represented by CEOs like "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap, who during his two-year tenure at Scott Paper earned his reputation and nickname by firing 11,000 workers in the belief that the "responsibility of the CEO is to deliver shareholder value. Period."

The consequence has been a growing disparity between the incomes of CEOs and everyone else's pay. In 1974 the typical American CEO made 35 times the average worker's pay. By the nineties it was 150 times, compared to a 16 to 1 ratio in Japan and a 21 to 1 ratio in Germany. And in big companies, often the ratio didn't tell the full story. In 1995, in seventy-six of the nation's one hundred and fifty largest companies, the median salary and cash bonus for chief executives topped $2 million.

Small wonder then that we have a nervous workplace, in which all employees, except top management, see themselves as disposable, even when they do everything that is asked of them. In a 1993 speech to the Council on Institutional Investors, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich described this change in terms of a broken contract. "There used to be an unwritten contract between top managers and workers. If you made a good effort to do your job, you could count on having that job as long as the firm stayed in business," Reich observed. "But that implicit contract is being abandoned at an ever faster pace. Even reasonably healthy companies are cutting their payroll." The old middle class, Reich contends, has become the new anxious class.

The anxiety of the workplace Reich describes is the basis of cartoonist Scott Adam's nationally syndicated comic strip Dilbert, which focuses on the trials of a computer operator trying to survive in a large office where firings and insecurity are part of the air he breathes. Dilbert, whose boss tells him that employees are our ninth most valuable asset (carbon paper is eighth), manages to get by through humor and indifference. He does not succumb to a world in which, as far as he is concerned, humiliation is a management tool.

But in political terms much more than quiet suffering defines the new anxious classes. In contrast to the workers of the 1930s, who believed that solidarity was in their interest, today's workers, especially those who regard themselves as middle class, have no such confidence. Aware of the ease with which they can be replaced, they simply try to get by on their own. The new anxious class has, as a consequence, also become the new angry class, venting its frustrations on those who seem to be getting a free ride on welfare or through affirmative action preferences. In the 1993 film Falling Down, Michael Douglas, playing a laidoff missile-plant worker known only by his vanity license plate, D-Fens, portrayed the politics of this anger in a long and bitter rampage in which D-Fens's first targets were a Korean store owner and a group of Latino gangbangers. Although angry with his employers, D-Fens's instinct is not to go after them. He has no belief that the corporate world he once depended on can be changed. Like the anxious class, he prefers to target the "outsiders" he sees spoiling a society he once felt comfortable in.

In any era the anger of a middle class worried over its declining fortunes would make for a politics of resentment. In the 1990s, however, middle-class and working-class anger has been pushed to new levels with the unprecedented rise of negative political campaigning. As Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar note in Going Negative, their 1995 study of political advertising, "A decade ago attack advertisements were just a small fraction of the messages aired by candidates. Now, politicians come out swinging. By the most comprehensive accountings, fully half of all political commercials emphasize the weaknesses of opposing candidates rather than the strengths of the sponsors."

Negative political campaigning is not, to be sure, new. The Federalist press insisted that Thomas Jefferson was having relations with his slave Sally Hemmings. Abraham Lincoln was called an ape, buffoo, coward, drunk, Negro, savage, robber, and traitor, and in the notorious election of 1888, President Cleveland was charged both with beating his wife and appointing brothelkeepers to office. But the modern negative campaign, which puts so much emphasis on savaging a candidate and what he stands for, is different in kind from those of the past.

Its incivility, although often shaped by the values of a candidate, is impersonal, arising from a television technology that has made the thirty-second sound bite the primary form of politicking and given media consultants enormous power. These days the most effective political ads, as demonstrated by the Willie Horton commercial of 1988, which linked Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis to the crimes of a black convict he furloughed while governor of Massachusetts, combine a suggestive visual with a brief negative message and, in the words of historian Wilson Carey McWilliams, make the innuendo concrete. It is virtually impossible to answer such negative ads with the brevity or effectiveness of the original ad.

Michael Dukakis would have had to answer the Horton ad by showing that his prison furlough program was similar to that of both the Republican governor before him and those of most states in the country. Then he would have had to argue that Horton's violation of his furlough was the exception in a program that was more than 95 percent effective. Dukakis was not unique in facing such an uphill battle, nor was the Bush campaign exceptional for taking advantage of his situation. As former Democratic congressional whip Tony Coelho observed during the 1994 midterm elections, "The only way you can win races today is with negative ads."

Coelho's cynicism is borne out by the response of voters to negative ads. As Ansolabehere and Iyengar show, the majority give greater weight to negative information than to positive information when forming their judgments of a candidate, and in general elections a negative ad will on average give its sponsor a boost of nearly ten points over a positive version of the same ad. What is more, a politician who on principle wants to run a wholly positive campaign puts himself at a disadvantage. Voters expect a candidate who is attacked to respond with a negative ad. If he refuses and responds only with a positive ad, they see him as flawed and unwilling to defend himself. The moral is very clear. Given the likelihood that any campaign will turn negative, the best strategy is to strike first and put your opponent on the defensive. For Republicans, moreover, there is a bonus; as the party opposed to big government, they are able to use attack ads far more successfully than Democrats in appealing to their supporters and to independents, since both groups are basically skeptical of government and politicians and thus find negative ads highly credible.

In terms of the politics of meanness, the result has been the blending of technology and social sensibility. Whether one wants to stigmatize a whole group (AFDC mothers as welfare queens) or trash an individual (civil rights attorney Lani Guinier as quota queen), it has become easier and easier to do so. There is, moreover, no end in sight for where negative campaigning will stop. The most vicious television ad in the 1996 congressional elections occurred in California, where Republican Tom LeFever morphed the face of Richard Allen Davis, the killer of Polly Klaas, into that of Democratic incumbent Vic Fazio, but for the most part, the new negative campaign has made far more sophisticated use of technology. Push polling--a process by which workers for a candidate call up voters and, in the guise of conducting a legitimate survey, spread rumors about their candidate's opponent--has become widespread in the nineties, and at the same time technology has also made negative campaigning cheaper. Opposition research on a rival's financial and personal life, once labor intensive and time consuming, has become comparatively inexpensive thanks to the computer, and so has negative-persuasion telephoning, which with computer-aided dialing allows a single operator to make eighty to one hundred calls an hour at a price of forty-five cents to a dollar thirty per call.

Standing for a very different kind of politics not too many years ago would have been a civil rights movement that by example showed it was possible for America to change moral course. But in the 1990s the civil rights movement has not simply disappeared from sight. It has been subsumed by the belief that in the wake of the Reaganism of the 1980s and the lost affirmative action battles that have followed, interracial alliances are out of the question and that it is futile to argue for social justice on the basis of a broad universalism.

How remote even the memory of the civil rights movement has become for a large segment of the black community was reflected in the summer of 1994 when Rosa Parks was mugged in the living room of her West Side home in Detroit by a young black man, who beat her and stole fifty-three dollars. Neither Mrs. Parks's age nor her status as the woman whose defiance of the Jim Crow laws of Alabama began the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 was enough to ensure her safety in her own neighborhood.

A year later in a very self-conscious way, the Million Man March of 1995 set out to invoke and then bury memory of both the March on Washington of 1963 and the civil rights movement. Superbly organized by the Nation of Islam and drawing heavily on working-class and middle-class blacks, the Million Man March made a point of not only excluding women and all whites but centering on Louis Farrakhan. "The attempt to separate the message from the messenger is not going to work," the Reverend Benjamin Chavis, the national director of the march, warned. The result was a march that, in contrast to the 1963 March on Washington, which helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, wound up, as Jesse Jackson later complained, "essentially disconnected" from national politics. But more than that, it was a march that, by virtue of Farrakhan's well-known anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories, made it easy for critics to dismiss black demands for social change as no longer part of an agenda that represented the moral high ground. Indeed, Farrakhan himself seemed to want to court hate, releasing on the Friday before the march an interview in which he again called Jews "bloodsuckers" and then compounded his attack with the assertion that in recent years Arabs, Koreans, and Vietnamese had been coming into the black community as merchants and also behaving like bloodsuckers.

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