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The Naked Anthropologist · Knights in Shining Armour: Men who Rescue Sex Workers and Slaves | The Naked Anthropologist

Knights in Shining Armour: Men who Rescue Sex Workers and Slaves

Men at the higher end of the evolutionary scale: That is how one man has described men who want to save sex slaves, seeking to differentiate themselves from less civilised, bad men – the ones that buy sex. In this idea, being a Good Man is achieved not by concern for world peace, equal opportunity, racism, the end of poverty or war but rather by concern for sex slaves.

Recently I published a sober academic review of a book that is not academic at all, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. Afterwards, I republished the review in Counterpunch, with a snappy introduction for the occasion:

FEBRUARY 27, 2012

Not Inside the Business of Modern Slavery
Sex Trafficking

by LAURA AGUSTÍN

It is good luck for Good Men that sex slavery has been identified as a terrible new phenomenon requiring extraordinary actions. In the chivalric tradition, to rescue a damsel in distress ranked high as a way knights errant could prove themselves, along with slaying dragons and giants. Nowadays, Nicholas Kristof is only one of a growing number of men seeking attention and praise through the rescue of a new kind of distressed damsel – poorer women called sex slaves. In this noble quest, women who prefer to sell sex to their other limited options are not consulted but must be saved, and human rights are the new grail. The association with Christianity is not casual. Siddharth Kara, another man seeking saintliness, uses lite economics – another trendy way to get noticed these days.

The original review follows. The publisher of Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn, has forwarded me a letter from the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation objecting to the piece, calling me a journalist, which I am not. He also doesn’t seem to have read past that introductory paragraph to the review of the book, where he might have found real issues to think about.

In Laura Agustin’s cynical worldview, men who hold the opinion that prostituting women is wrong and endeavor to do something about it are, in fact, misguided crusaders in the tradition of Don Quixote lost in chivalric fantasy on a mortal quest to feed their own egos by saving damsels in distress. In her article, Not Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, Sex Trafficking, Agustin specifically targets two men amongst what she portrays as a growing parade of attention-seeking phony heroes (cue the paparazzi) – Nicholas Kristof and Siddharth Kara.

Unsettling as it is for Agustin to accept the presence of men at the higher end of the evolutionary scale, Kristof and Kara are helping to shed light on a culture of gender exploitation that has survived only because of spin and lies. Where the rest of us see two men of intelligence and compassion, Agustin sees ulterior motive. In my experience, ones own ill intent makes one suspicious of ill intent in others. What is Agustin’s motive in attacking those working hard to end the exploitation of women? More spin and lies I suspect.

Robert J. Benz
Founder & Executive Vice President
Frederick Douglass Family Foundation

A culture of gender exploitation has only survived because of spin and lies? What? No interest in poverty or cultures of gender inequality from this crusader! Cynicism is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Note that Benz clearly places his kind of man on the high end of evolution, in that overtly colonialistic move in which white men save brown women from brown men. I don’t even understand the last sentence: how can a motive be spin? The guy should have looked me up first and come up with a better attack. And got a copyeditor.

But there is something else interesting here: the notion that Kara has been insulted by being placed in the chivalric tradition, which is generally assumed to represent something noble. Benz’s reference to Don Quixote shows he probably never studied chivalry himself. On the contrary, I imagine both Kara and Kristof would be chuffed to be associated with it. To critique knights in shining armour, as I do, you need to be not only interested in solving social problems but also interested in ending patriarchy, and knighthood is an elitist, male, hierarchical tradition in which white European men proved themselves to other men through treating women as objects, and women were supposed to be grateful, because they couldn’t possibly have gotten themselves out of their predicament unassisted, or figured out how to deal with life themselves in the first place. Note also my reference to human rights as the new grail.

In the contemporary example, men proving themselves through virtuous acts are using police and paternalism to rescue damsels – acts more than legitimate to criticise.

If you got this far and you tweet or post anywhere else, I’d appreciate this getting around. Maybe even Benz will see it!

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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  1. hehe, love the illustrations too! in both of them our chivalric savior is higher in the frame than that lowly fallen woman and will lift her up.

    i was thinking recently that this trafficking panic is part of an even greater phenomenon. in our modern world the only ethically permissible method of forcing another to do your will is by casting coercion as assistance and repurposing the victim of your coercion as the victim of another shadowy figure, who is usually just outside the frame…

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    1. yes, you can understand those pictures with no words at all. interesting other point: for how long has the forcing of other people to do one’s will been unacceptable? in the 80s in the west, and still in some cultures, it was assumed that men slapping wives around was their private right. and spanking children is still around lots of places. what else were you thinking about?

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    2. Really good article Laura, we see this so often. It’s a fact that marital rape was only made illegal in the UK in 1991! not that that made much difference mind….

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      1. do you mean you see knights in shining armour a lot?!

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      2. could you not allow for the possibility that he is insulted because he shares your view of chivalry?

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        1. possible but unlikely, is my reading. particularly given his claim that commercial sex exists only because of ‘spin and lies’ – as though there were no structural reasons, as though this were an easy, open-and-shut situation where good guys are needed to pluck up entrapped women. if you are interested in why that is an oversimplification, stick around and read more.

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          1. These always rely on the same mystical, individual non-explanation for why the world is how it is: there are a handful of people who for some reason are really cruel and they’re causing all of these problems.

            “If only those bankers would stop being so greedy, there would be no crisis!”

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            1. i get your point, but in this case they pretend there are vast numbers of these evil individuals, justifying immense amounts of money for interventions. it’s really a whole class of people they want to erase, men who don’t act like them.

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            2. Wonderful column, Laura! Reading your work often inspires me, and this one was no exception; I read it in Counterpunch and took off in a similar direction, albeit using Don Quixote instead of “real” knights. ;-)

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              1. thanks, maggie. what i meant about quixote is, without really knowing what is in benz’s head, that benz seemed to be referring to the tilting at windmills, the absence of problems, the will o’ the wisp quality of the quixote story. there is no such irony about slaying dragons or finding the grail in tales of medieval chivalry.

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                1. Oh yes, I understand though Benz clearly didn’t! In your essay you gave Kristof & Kara the benefit of the doubt that their quest was sincere. I, on the other hand, am inclined to give the real knights a bit more slack than you do and modern “rescuers” a bit less, and so I presented them as Don Quixote types chasing an illusion. It’s almost as if he read my (yet-unpublished) essay and represented yours as saying the same thing!

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                  1. funny, i see myself just describing the chivalric tradition, not being hard on individual knights or maidens. inside the logic of that semi-mythical semi-real culture, obviously patriarchal, men had to look for women to save and women had to need to be saved. and apart from dragons and giants, i don’t disbelieve in the existence then and now of nasty men who take advantage of weaker women. i wish women wouldn’t feel so weak, and don’t believe as many are as think they are.

                    maybe benz and you are on the same cultural wave-length about what chivalry is or reminds you of. i didn’t think of quixote at all.

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                    1. I was a voracious reader of fairy tales, adventure stories and such as a child, and I’m sure it’s colored my thinking so that I tend to think of knights-errant as saving damsels from actual distress rather than voluntary situations they defined as distress for their own purposes. I fully realize that such situations were as rare then as they are now, but suspect that there were very few actual knights-errant in any time period, and more stories about fictional ones.

                      I’ve also written at length about my favorite cousin Jeff, who certainly thought of himself as a knight; unlike Kristof and Kara, however, he fully understood the difference between women who wanted (and asked for) help and those who did not, and even lectured me more than once about interfering in the lives of people who didn’t want my “help”. So I think my perception of “real” knighthood was influenced by him as well, and he became the standard to which I have compared all other men to this very day.

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                    2. there was certainly an actual culture (as opposed to literary tradition) of courtly love in medieval europe, amongst nobles, who were fans of legends and myths involving knights errant. how many people participated full-time in courtly love rituals isn’t known, but knights existed, created because of their feats. as they still do in some european monarchies.

                      perhaps most significant is the way these ideas will have trickled down to non-noble folk, in the form of concepts of manliness. so without being a knight or meeting any dragons a man concerned to prove himself to be good would welcome situations where virtuous women needed to be rescued.

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                    3. I assume when Benz talks about ‘exploitation’ he really means ‘prostitution’, which shows that he himself is spinning. Kara & Kristoff are faces of an ‘anti-trafficking’ movement that is nothing more than an anti-prostitution movement in disguise. Because of this fundamental disconnect, they are stuck deceiving, spinning and distorting.

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                      1. He certainly means the Wrong Kind of Sex. He strikes me as really ignorant of what he’s gotten himself into, like Ashton. If you’ve never had to really try to understand gender issues and get plunged into rescue and sex work, it is awfully easy to slip up.

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                      2. Excellent piece! You really nailed is here!

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                      3. Excellent piece! You really nailed it here!

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                      4. great article Laura

                        When men refer to themselves as “higher end of the evolutionary scale” you just know that patronising and insults will follow, directed at those they deem to be less evolved.
                        I’m always doubtful of the motivations of men who want to ‘save’ sex workers, and their wilful ignorance of the actual facts. In my experiance this type of man never lets the truth get in the way of intimidating others into believing their lies. They have a burning desire to be seen as a saviour, their accomplishments envied by other men while they are surrounded by a harem of saved women.

                        There is a church group here whose main goal is to rid the world of the evils of sex, they run courses for youth wanting to become missionaries. They had a group of 5 girls and one guy – all late teens early 20′s – who did a prayer walk every friday night for about 6 weeks.
                        This involved them walking along the roads that street workers work from, praying and stopping to talk to the poor fallen women they encountered. The first 2 fridays it was just the girls, but after a few punters had pulled up because they thought they were workers the male started coming out.
                        The outrage when they were mistaken for sex workers was hilarious, and when it was pointed out that we don’t have a big sign over our heads saying hooker, and that they themselves made assumptions on who we were based on us being on a certain road they stuck to their outrage because surely these disgusting men could tell the difference.
                        When the male came with them he took leadership of the group and glared at every car that drove past. He was incredibly rude to us, and when they stood a couple of feet away from a worker to pray for her soul if the worker walked away he would instruct one of the girls to ‘tell her to come back and stop being so ungrateful for what we are doing for her’ – which to me nicely sums up the attitude of a lot of the men doing this.
                        THEY have decided that we need saving, THEY know better than us, THEY believe that we should show proper gratitude for their intrusion into our lives and the insult to our intelligence.
                        No one supports trafficking, but these men do nothing to combat it when they target sex workers who haven’t been trafficked.
                        The industry with the most trafficked workers is agriculture, so why not target that industry?
                        They also completely ignore male sex workers

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                        1. Benz gets worked up because in his mind there are only two choices: do nothing or ‘save’ women. Even a minimal study of the field shows there are lots more choices, all harder than sending in the cavalry. The evolution line is a complete giveaway and means he believes in hierarchies, which means he believes in better and worse women, too – and we know where that is going: passive, grateful, quiet women are good and women like me are bad, or filled with ‘ill intent’, as he put it. It’s all very caveman.

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                        2. I once met a customer with the white-knight-syndrome. Under the guise of “saving” me from the oh-so-miserable life of earning money with something I enjoy, because I’m “so much better than this”, he wanted to possess and control me. From what I hear, it’s not even that uncommon.
                          Of course there are some men who want to help women who actually want and need it. There’s nothing wrong with that. But one has to have a minimum of empathy and LISTEN, else one may end up as a nuisance or worse, a stalker who makes life a living hell for the woman he claims to “save”.

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                          1. Yes, there is a client type prone to this attitude, again judging between Good and Bad women, on a hierarchical scale. YOU are better than this, meaning some are not better.

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                            1. I used to rather enjoy provoking that sort. If I described myself as a “whore” this sort of man would angrily say “you’re not a whore!” and I would calmly ask “what am I, then? I take money for sex, which is the definition of a whore.” The usual reply was, “you’re better than that!” What I think they meant was, that I was “better” than the silly hooker stereotype they had fixed in their heads, and instead of recognizing that their stereotype was wrong they instead assumed I was some sort of exception to their imaginary “rule”. Neofeminist prohibitionists do exactly the same thing when they brand women like me as “unrepresentative”…a word they apply to the 98.5% of all who sell sex that don’t conform to their pathetic propaganda figure.

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                              1. You Are Better Than That is a straightforward example of whore stigma, which extends way beyond women who sell sex. recently i was told a certain written proposal i’d made was disgusting, in bad tase or the wrong taste and that, in fact, You Are Better Than That. clear ideas here about what we are supposed to be doing with ourselves within a good-bad hierarchy.

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                                1. i’ve done a little research, many people link ‘you are better than that’ (a current cliche) to jesus’s sermon on the mount – the one that begins blessed are the poor in spirit, etc. the key text might be

                                  48 Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is
                                  perfect.

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                                2. The guy should have looked you up first? Laura, please get over yourself. I do not blame the guy if he was unable to get past your opening remarks. I too am continuously unable to stomach your constant, off-putting sarcasm and your blatant disdain for anyone who happens to hold views that differ from your own. Your writing is loaded with the same kind of ideological bias that you accuse others of engaging in. I am taking your book off from the “recommended reading list” on my blog, and I am going to discontinue reading anymore of your one-sided nonsense.

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                                  1. Christine, in order to try to understand your meanness here i looked you up! I am not aware this has anything to do with ego, since there is some sort of information to be found for most names one inserts in a search engine. Given your religious interest, I have to assume you are offended by even the slightest whiff of criticism of christian traditions, which is what chivalry was.

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                                  2. You tell Laura that you’re taking her book off your “recommended reading” list as though that’s a punishment, but you also tell her to “get over herself”? Oh, my. I can’t even call this a case of “pot calling kettle black” because in that metaphor both are indeed black, whereas in this case you’re the only one demonstrating egotism here.

                                    One other thing: Even if Laura were biased (which IMHO she is not), I would choose a “pro-individual choice and personal agency” bias over a victimological bias every time.

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                                    1. sometimes ideology comes down to: if you say anything i don’t like you belong to the ‘other side’ and are therefore biased and evil. some people call me wishy-washy in not being more overtly anti- the antis!

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                                    2. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it already, but you might like Corey Robin’s recent book The Reactionary Mind, as well as David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 years.

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                                      1. thanks, i don’t know robin’s book and see it could be illuminating. graeber on debt i know something about: http://www.lauraagustin.com/civilised-loans-versus-debt-bondage-and-slavery

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                                        1. Both have a lot to say about hierarchy, and their books strike me as interestingly complementary, with Graeber saying rather more about the mechanisms that maintain hierarchy, and the reasons behind the historical emergence of the patriarchy (here he is referring to a lot of feminist scholarship on bronze age mid-east, iirc). (I duno if this is redundant, because I can’t tell from your link whether you’ve actually read the book or just the review so far. if the former, i apologize.)

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                                          1. no, i haven’t read graeber’s book, just saying i am aware it is historical and anthropological examination of debt. i do know the bronze age feminist work you allude to.

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                                          2. This remind me from a case back in 2009, one year after Norway banned, by law, buying sex. The sexworkers was kicked out of their apartments of course, since renting a flat to sexworkers are illegal (pimp law, ie making money from someone who work as a sexworker).

                                            The police in the video says it all, as a shiny white knight he is (only in norwegian). And the sexworkers are angry cause they loose all their money. But, in the service of “the greater good” its not a problem. Strange that its not only private persons who use the rethoric of “good knight”, also the state use it.

                                            http://www.aftenposten.no/nyheter/iriks/article3359686.ece

                                            Back in the apartment in the center, we ask why the women want this job.

                                            - It is an easy job. Good money, nice customers. I have worked as a secretary and in sales earlier. But everyone wanted to exploit me. Therefore, I prefer this job.

                                            She says that they organize everything yourself, advertise on the internet and they are on the trip abroad once a month, but rarely more than eight to nine days at a time. That they usually are left with between 15,000 and 20,000 kroner each after expenses for travel, apartment, etc. are paid.

                                            - We can live well at home. Nice car, nice apartment, a good life.

                                            - How treats the customers you?

                                            - Nice. They are ordinary, normal people. As you.

                                            - Some believe that women who sell sex damaged emotionally and personally from selling sex?

                                            - It hurt us not. We do it when we want and stop whenever we want.

                                            - Where you going now?

                                            - Don`t know. Maybe Finland. Or Sweden.
                                            (Translation: google translate.)

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                                            1. thanks for sending me to that video, i missed it last year! good example of the fundamental disconnect between women who prefer to do this job and men who can’t believe it.

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                                            2. I am not going to feign expertise in this field, however I do have a simple question. If I am not mistaken, you are generally advocating against this idea that people who live in the margins of society are devoid of agency. While I don’t disagree with this assessment at all, it does seem to trivialize the concept that there are people, perhaps a significant portion of people, who experience sex trafficking in its worst, made for a hollywood motion picture form.

                                              Am I to understand that you believe that morality or moral authority should be absent this discussion? Or do you make room for the possibility that there are people who believe that there is something morally* wrong with sex work, and can advocate for social changes that make it at the very least unnecessary, while still respecting the dignity of those involved?

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                                              1. Well, this is my field, and has been for nearly 20 years now. You’ve asked some huge questions, too many to answer properly here, and I can see why you’d have them, dropping in like this. In brief, first there is not evidence of very many of the extreme cases you have heard about. They exist but are not the norm (I’ve been researching and reading others’ research all these years.) On the other hand, there are vast numbers of people who are in less dramatic trouble, whose other kinds of situations should be brought out. It is far easier to whip up indignation about the extreme cases, however.

                                                On the contrary to what you say, I believe that there are a number of moral positions to be taken here. Not the ‘moral’ one that says selling sex is ‘immoral’ – no I don’t think anyone should be generalising about all the millions of people who sell sex, there is far too much variation around the world and according to class, gender, ethnicity, culture. The moral position I like is the one that values listening to what individuals (in the margins or not) say, themselves, about what they want. There are way too many cases of people who’ve been ‘rescued’ against their will.

                                                If you are interested, look around on the website – there are lots of resources here.

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                                                1. Thanks for the reply! You’re right, I did ask some huge questions. The only exposure I have to these issues are Paul Farmer’s “Infections and Inequalities,” and some travel experience in Uganda. I truly wasn’t asking questions out of a position of criticism, just curiosity. Sorry if it came across in a more aggressive way.

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                                                  1. not at all! there is such a monolithic message being broadcast to non-specialists, it’s no wonder they are startled to here anything different!

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                                                  2. I have not read Kara’s book but I may now.
                                                    However what I can say is that I appreciated the critical eye with which you read his book. I looked at the first two pages and I could already see what you meant– that it was a book with a lot of “spin” and fewer concrete details. I suppose it’s safe to assume that Kara is considered to be an expert on sex trafficking because spin wins accolades and, more importantly, is easier to read (and to write) than scholarly commentary on ambivalent fact.

                                                    That being said, (and you are free to take the following advice however you want) I didn’t think it was a “sober” academic review. I felt that whether or not you feel contempt for the guy, you should think about what you’re writing before you write it. Your presumptuous comments that he is narcissistic, unsophisticated, and seeking to “achieve saintliness” were unnecessary. I know that you think you’re keeping it real, but you’ve really got to get with the program and realize that trash-talk, even trash-talk written in a high-flown, pedantic tone, can deeply insult people, and that you’re embarrassing yourself to some extent by stooping to that level.

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                                                    1. One more thing (though I’m sure you will psychoanalyze me based upon it, rather than take it to heart, as you no doubt probably did for my previous comment)… you mention that you believe Benz did not read past the introduction. If you want to know why he may not have read past that introduction, it is because you assumed a caustic tone and made a sketchy analogy that is, to be perfectly frank, over-projecting critical-theory undergraduate nonsense.

                                                      Maybe the cultural residue of christian moral indoctrination (represented by knights) has something to do with Kara’s concern over sex-trafficking. But yeah PROBABLY NOT, okay? Don’t just assume that your glib analogies and assumptions are so unambiguously right (example: “The evolution line is a complete giveaway and means he believes in hierarchies” YOU DO NOT FRIGGEN KNOW THAT).

                                                      Benz might not have read the rest of your review because (reality check coming) you came off right off the bat as an over-projecting loony, in the tradition of Nietzsche. I think some of your ideas are pragmatic and realistic but I think some of them are pretty ridiculous and maybe it’s time someone told you so. Now I’m done. Feel free to judge me

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                                                      1. If you remain interested in the issues in this complex field, feel free to read around on this website where you will see things I have written in many different tones for different sorts of publications. I have no idea which ‘program’ you refer to, but my review of Kara’s book was peer-reviewed for an academic publication that did not request any changes in the original. The academy can be a jungle, of course. Apart from tone, yes indeed I am considered an authority in this field and my assessments respected by many.

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