All Culture, All the Time

It's easier than ever to make and buy culture. No wonder some people are so upset.

Whatever happened to the television test pattern? No more than 20 years ago, most TV stations routinely signed off the air for at least a few hours a day. At the end of their broadcast period, stations would slap a test pattern up on the screen until the next morning’s programming began. The test pattern—occasionally an absurd drawing of a Native American but more often a simple geometric shape adorned with call letters—was a great symbol of cultural dead space, of a moment when nothing was happening, when nothing was being transmitted, save perhaps for a monotonous electronic hum.

While some stations still do sign off, they are increasingly rare in a hyperkinetic, always-open America that has shifted fully into 24-7 mode (indeed, one promise of much-hyped digital TV is that it will allow an individual channel to subdivide itself four or more times). If the test pattern symbolized a moment of silence in the cultural process, then it’s only fitting that its long run has effectively been canceled.

Similar developments range far beyond the small screen. During the past few decades, we have been experiencing what can aptly be called a “culture boom”: a massive and prolonged increase in art, music, literature, video, and other forms of creative expression. Everywhere we look, the cultural marketplace is open and ready for business: The number of places where you can buy books has more than doubled during the past 20 years, while the number of libraries has increased by about 17 percent (to a total of almost 37,000). More than 25,000 video rental stores are scattered across the United States, effectively functioning as second-run theaters and art houses even in the most remote backwaters (a few years back, I was able to rent the 1930 Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel while visiting friends who lived five miles outside a town of 3,000 people in rural Ohio).

More than 110 symphony orchestras have been founded since 1980, reports The Wall Street Journal, which also notes that the national 1997–98 theatrical season “raked in a record $1.3 billion in ticket sales.” About 3,500 commercial radio stations and 670 commercial television stations have come on the air since 1970; during the same period, cable viewership has quadrupled, while niche channels such as American Movie Classics and the Independent Film Channel have become more and more common.

The increasingly important World Wide Web has provided space for all sorts of commercial and noncommercial culture, ranging from authorized sites for the Louvre (featuring a virtual tour) to a reader-compiled database of more than 180,000 movies to translations of Dante’s sonnets to fan-generated art about the cartoon Josie and the Pussycats. Especially in video and music production, where equipment costs were once prohibitive enough to seriously limit access, there is a flourishing, self-conscious “do-it-yourself” movement that has taken great advantage of cheaper technology and distribution methods.

In an important sense, such cultural proliferation is nothing new. It’s part of a broad-based, centuries-old trend that also includes generally longer lives, increased wealth, and the greater personal autonomy that accompanies such developments. But there’s also a sense that we’ve reached a tipping point, or at least turned a corner, in the past few years. More and more, people are not merely consuming culture but creating it as well.

In fact, in a world of $100 VCRs, bargain-basement PCs, CD- rewritable drives, and other technologies that allow users to copy and manipulate images, words, and sound in ever-new and seamless ways, even the sharp distinction between producer and consumer seems increasingly blurred. In economic terms, the opportunity costs of both making and enjoying culture have dropped through the floor; it keeps getting cheaper and cheaper both to produce and to consume culture under increasingly diverse circumstances. One predictable—and positive—result: more and more of everything.

Here’s another: Gone for good are the days when serious cultural critics, whether on the right or the left (and whether rightly or wrongly), could nod toward Tocqueville and Mrs. Trollope and bemoan a scarcity of “culture” in America. Instead, the contemporary descendants of such folks are more likely to make the sort of claim Slate’s Jacob Weisberg did recently in a review of economist Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture. After granting that the United States does in fact offer a dizzying array of cultural opportunities, Weisberg complains: “What we lack is a flourishing common, or national, culture. Contemporary classical music goes unperformed, foreign films have no audience, and hardly anyone reads contemporary poetry. Meanwhile, pap abounds.”

Though such an argument is not particularly convincing—there are, in fact, healthy, if small, markets for the fare Weisberg prefers—the shift in emphasis is noteworthy. It underscores a recognition that the problem isn’t a lack of choice in cultural matters: You want Mozart, Mingus, and Marilyn Manson? No problem—they’re all available (and probably at a discount). Rather, the issue is precisely a profusion of choice in cultural matters: You want Mozart, Mingus—and Marilyn Manson?

The difference in inflection is no small matter. In an increasingly wealthy and educated society where the overwhelming majority of people have concerns about food, clothing, and shelter pretty well covered, culture takes on more and more meaning as the medium through which we articulate our identities, dreams, fears, aspirations, and values. Little wonder, then, that stories about the “culture wars” have been burning up the pages of newspapers, magazines, and intellectual journals for the past few years: There’s so much more to fight about these days.

While such battles are typically waged in apocalyptic—and apoplectic—terms, we should be clear about one thing: The very fact that there are culture wars is cause for celebration. They’re a flashing neon sign that more and more people are able to express and enjoy themselves on something like their own terms: One man’s “pap,” after all, is another man’s Proust—and we’ve entered a phase where people are increasingly willing to argue the point. Proclamations of artistic or social value can no longer be issued ex cathedra but must now be submitted before a skeptical audience.

The same decentralization of the cultural process that lets more and more people participate also allows them to opt out of someone else’s cultural value system, whether they prefer Ally McBeal or À la recherche du temps perdu. In essence, the culture boom grants individuals what economists Albert O. Hirschman and Nobel laureate James Buchanan would recognize as a right of “exit” from a given cultural system: People are freer now to look elsewhere, to pursue their own interests to their own ends. Such a development hardly means that cultural standards have been obliterated, any more than freedom of religion means that theological standards have disappeared. Rather, in both instances, standards have been vastly multiplied and, as a result, are more likely to clash. In this sense, the culture wars, like competition in economics or politics, are a marker of a healthy, diverse, engaged society.

To be sure, the culture boom is bad news for a “common” or “national” culture, if one conceives of such a thing as a set of relatively fixed artifacts and received interpretations that should not change over time; it certainly spells trouble for commissars, whether conservative or progressive, who argue that culture should be didactic and instructive toward a single set of desired ends, and it similarly makes things more competitive for producers and aesthetic movements alike, who must work harder than ever to gain and hold an audience.

But the effective deregulation of cultural markets is very good news for both individuals and the society comprising them. The most vibrant cultures, like the most vibrant economies and political systems, are ones in which people are as free as possible to define and choose what is valuable and meaningful to them. Ironically, such a viewpoint is hardly controversial when applied to most aspects of American life. Indeed, it is even seen as the embodiment of America’s mythic national identity, which is paradoxically predicated upon the pursuit and fulfillment of individual desire. If we recognize heated political debates and loud marketplace haggling as quintessentially American, then we should do the same for cultural proliferation—and the contentious culture wars it inspires.

Cultural abundance

By virtually any measure, cultural activity has been enjoying an expansion that stacks up to Wall Street’s long-running bull market. Far more books and records are being sold these days (see chart 1 and table 1). In 1985, according the National Endowment for the Arts, 3 percent of adults reported seeing an opera within the previous year, 22 percent reported going to an art museum, and 56 percent reported reading literature. In 1997, those figures had risen to 5 percent for operas, 35 percent for art museums, and 63 percent for literature. Nineteen ninety-seven also saw record levels reported on the activity side, with 16 percent of adults drawing, 17 percent taking art photos, 35 percent buying art work, and 12 percent doing creative writing.

Interestingly, the culture boom has, for the most part, seen older art forms supplemented and preserved, rather than paved over, as might happen in a building boom. Hence, even as classical music sales as a percentage of all prerecorded music sales have been sloping downward in the 1990s (2.8 percent in 1997, down from 3.1 percent in 1990), it has nonetheless remained easy to find an ever-wider variety of classical music recordings. It’s also become easier to see an orchestra perform: The total number of concerts increased by about 50 percent between 1990 and 1996, to a total of roughly 29,000 (combined private and public funding for orchestras is also way up in recent years).

To get a firmer grip on the magnitude of change that has been occurring, consider in greater detail two representative areas: TV-related culture and publishing. By 1970, television had saturated U.S. households: 95 percent had at least one set, compared to 98 percent in 1997. The past 30 years, however, have seen a number of developments that have greatly increased the amount and variety of TV-related culture available. The average home now has 2.3 sets, compared to 1.4 sets in 1970. Beyond growth in the number of individual stations, there are now four full-fledged networks and two “mini-networks” (WB and UPN).

Cable, the growth of which was long hampered by the Federal Communications Commission’s restrictive, broadcast network–influenced definition of the “public interest,” is now in 65.3 percent of all households with TVs (compared to 6.7 percent in 1970). The average subscriber receives 30 to 60 channels, typically including several devoted not merely to shopping but to new and old feature films, reruns of old shows, documentaries, and other sorts of specialized programming (a predictable response to increased competition in any area is, after all, product differentiation and specialization).

Television remains a favorite punching bag of moral crusaders and cultural critics, who tend to view an increase in channels or programs simply as proof of the multiplicative identity of zero: Any number times zero is still zero. But most informed analysts who actually watch TV would almost certainly agree with David Bianculli’s assessment in Teleliteracy (1991) that “TV is better now than it was in the ‘Golden Age’ of TV, and the best of television compares favorably with the best Hollywood films, and TV deserves more respect than it’s getting.” Viewers have responded to more varied fare by increasing the amount of time they watch television. During the past decade or so, the average viewer increased his TV consumption by a half an hour, up to a total of 4.5 hours a day.

The variety available on TV is multiplied exponentially when one throws VCRs into the equation. Following one of the quickest possible adoptions of a new technology, about 80 percent of all  households with TVs have at least one VCR (see chart 2). In 1990, the average viewer rented the equivalent of about 19 movies a year, a figure that is projected by Communications Industry Report to climb to 30 by 2001. Omnipresent video rental stores give virtually everyone access to a film library that a few decades ago even a millionaire wouldn’t have been able to afford.

One gets a sense of this by considering the offerings of the typical Blockbuster store. Not only is Blockbuster the country’s biggest chain (with about 4,500 stores nationwide), it’s arguably one of the blandest and most restrictive in terms of aesthetic judgment. Blockbuster leans heavily toward the highly commercial fare alluded to in its name. And yet it’s still got a huge and generally impressive selection of films—the typical franchise rents between 7,000 and 10,000 titles—even as its family-oriented policy creates a niche for stores that carry edgier fare, including pornography. According to The New York Times, most Blockbuster franchises have at least two competitors within a couple of miles, suggesting that cultural markets are often not zero-sum games, in which growth for one vendor is loss for another—or, more important, for the consumer.

But VCRs do more than simply allow viewers to watch more TV or film. They profoundly alter the terms of production and consumption. On the production side, movie studios now make roughly as much money from video sales as they do from box office receipts. By providing an after-market, VCRs allow producers—whether large or small, major-studio or independent—to take more risks by giving them a second chance to recoup their investment (that’s one reason why there were 139 U.S.-produced independent films released in 1997, 100 more than a decade ago). Additionally, there’s a robust market for old TV shows, documentaries, and the like, as well as for direct-to-video materials, ranging from porn to children’s series starring the Olsen twins (themselves perhaps a form of porn).

On the consumption side, VCRs allow viewers to watch programs at their leisure, or to effectively watch several shows at once. That inverts what George Gilder has called the “totalitarian” framework of traditional broadcasting, in which the producer of a central signal set the times and terms of reception. Taping further allows individuals to more completely edit what they watch—skipping commercials, fast-forwarding through material they find uninteresting—as well as to “repurpose” material to suit their own desires.

Read all about it

The culture boom is similarly reshaping book publishing. While an enormous amount of ink has been spilled over the demise of print culture, the death of so-called mid-list authors, and the threat to diversity posed by mega-mergers among publishers, actual book sales and related figures suggest a very different picture. Between 1975 and 1996, the number of books sold increased by 817 million units annually. Fifty years ago, Tyler Cowen points out in In Praise of Commercial Culture, there were only 85,000 titles in print in the United States. Today, that figure stands at about 1.3 million.

During the same time frame, the number of American publishers increased from only 357 to around 49,000. “Most of these presses are independent small presses or university presses, rather than corporate giants” and are often dedicated specifically to publishing arcane, non–market-driven products, writes Cowen, who chalks up the explosive growth to a “modern commercial world [that] decentralizes editorial decisions and financial support.” He also notes that “best-sellers account for no more than three percent of sales” in most big stores and provocatively argues that “the relevant question is not how many more copies Grisham sells than Faulkner, but whether notable works of high quality find their appropriate publishing outlets and readers.”

Industry figures suggest they do. During the 1990s, even as publishers ostensibly became obsessed with bottom lines, they responded by publishing and importing more titles. In 1996, for instance, publishers brought out 2,800 more new works of fiction than they did in 1990, 770 more art titles, and 690 more volumes of poetry and drama (see chart 4).

The increase in the number of books available has been matched by an increase in places to get books. Between 1985 and 1993, for instance, the number of “ultimate companies”—outlets selling books in some form or another—rose from 9,200 to almost 20,000. As important, the emergence of superstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble has redefined bookselling by putting a premium on vastness of selection. Both chains claim to stock around 150,000 book titles (and 50,000 music titles) at most stores.

Such staggering numbers have, of course, been eclipsed by Web sellers such as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble’s online outfit (barnesandnoble.com). Boasting sites that include several million titles, Amazon and Barnes & Noble have been joined in cyberspace by used-book sites such as Bibliofind.com and Abebooks.com that combine lists from hundreds of used-book stores nationwide. The Web retailers are also leading the way in increasing access to foreign titles that have traditionally been very difficult to find in the States: Amazon already has sites specifically for the United Kingdom and Germany; Barnes & Noble is working with European juggernaut Bertelsmann (which is merging with Random House) for a multi-language site.

Informal relations

While statistics about television, video, and publishing suggest the dimensions of the culture boom when it comes to relatively conventional forms of culture, the real hotbed of action may well be in what can be called “informal culture.” Reliable numbers on informal culture are hard to come by because much of it is either noncommercial or exists on a scale where there isn’t a strong need for such information.

Informal culture includes the thousands of zines that are published in any given year; self-produced and distributed music, movies, and books; “taper” culture, which trades in illegal or gray-market copies of copyrighted materials as well as in versions that are doctored for comedic or dramatic effect; micro-broadcasting; fan communities; and Internet-based culture ranging from informal discussion lists to Web sites featuring streaming audio and video outputs. Certainly, it is in informal culture that the empowering aspects of the culture boom are most clearly on display: Much of it is steeped in conscious reaction to or rejection of “mass culture.”

How does informal culture foster proliferation? Consider the Internet, which, because of its global reach and increasingly sophisticated and user-friendly multimedia capabilities, is particularly emblematic of cultural proliferation. Under­girding the Internet is the logic of the culture boom. Perhaps most important, it acts as what Wired’s Kevin Kelly has called a “supplemental” space. It generally adds to cultural options, rather than simply replacing existing ones—just as television in the end supplemented radio, rather than killing it. Relatively recent (read: already outdated) estimates say the typical Web page has about 500 words on it and put the total number of Web pages at somewhere between 200 million and 1 billion. Using the low estimate, that means the Web has put an extra 10 billion words in circulation, many of which are directed at commenting on and critiquing more-traditional cultural activities.

At the same time, the Web creates opportunities to circumvent traditional cultural gatekeepers by providing additional sites of production and consumption that are difficult, if not impossible, to police and regulate, whether one is talking about content restrictions, copyright infringement, or “responsible” interpretation of a novel. Cyber Rights author Mike Godwin has said that the Internet is “best understood…as a global collection of copying machines that allows people to duplicate and broadcast all sorts of information.” As cheap, movable printing presses did, such a technology empowers individuals precisely by undercutting centralized authorities of all kinds.

While such tendencies are most clearly visible when looking at the Internet, the same forces are at work in other areas of cultural proliferation. If, for instance, you don’t like what’s on TV, you can change channels (there are, of course, many more of those than before). If you find nothing of interest, you can rent a video. If you’re still dissatisfied, you can splice together found footage, perhaps dubbing your own sound. If that doesn’t work for you, then you can grab a camera and make your own program. While relatively few people follow such a progression all the way through, the number of options and escapes—and the sense they are worth pursuing—has certainly grown during the past few decades.

In fact, because the culture boom gluts people with choices and opportunities both to make and to consume, it pushes them toward active behavior. Simply to filter out noise from their cultural systems, they must become active agents. As the range of materials to choose from increases, even passive receivers must actively construct the cultural world around them.

Fueling the explosion

In a pair of articles last year, Reason Senior Editor Charles Paul Freund recalled a time in European history when culture was largely the preserve of aristocrats and the leisure class. (See “Who Killed Culture?,” March 1998, and “Buying Into Culture,” June 1998, both available at www.reason.com.) Understanding that background helps to explain why the culture boom is happening now—and why it will likely continue for a long time to come. Relatively speaking, we’re all aristocrats now.

The culture boom is in large part a function of general increases in wealth and related benefits, especially education and increased leisure time. While wealth, education, and leisure do not necessarily create a flourishing culture, they are almost certainly preconditions for a cultural proliferation. If nothing else, National Endowment for the Arts data show that increased wealth and education correlate strongly with increased interest in traditionally defined cultural activity (see chart 6).

Americans have in fact been getting substantially richer. Between 1953 and 1993, say W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm in Myths of Rich and Poor: Why We’re Better Off Than We Think (1999), inflation-adjusted per capita personal income—a comprehensive measure that includes wages and other compensation such as health insurance and retirement plans—rose by about 1.85 percent annually. The boost in income has been very broad-based and cuts across all economic strata.

For instance, an ongoing University of Michigan longitudinal study of several thousand representative individuals found that between 1975 and 1991, people starting in the lowest income bracket on average gained about $28,000 in real income. Such widespread class mobility helps to explain shifting and divergent tastes. Cox and Alm have also documented the ways in which the increase in income has been greatly magnified by a decrease in the real cost of many consumer goods. Calculating goods in terms of the hours an average industrial laborer would need to work to buy a given product, Cox and Alm find, for instance, that the work time required to purchase a movie ticket is only two-thirds of what it was in 1970; that VCRs today cost only 9 percent of what they did 20 years ago; and that camcorders cost only 28 percent of what they did 10 years ago.

Generally rising wealth has been matched by large-scale increases in education and leisure time. In 1970, for instance, only 52 percent of the population over 25 years of age had a high school diploma and only 11 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree or more. By 1995, those totals looked very different: 82 percent had graduated high school and 23 percent had graduated college. Like wealth, more education correlates with more interest in both producing and consuming culture. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, for instance, a college graduate is twice as likely as a high school graduate to read literature and three times as likely to attend a jazz concert or visit an art museum. Similarly, college graduates are four times as likely as high school graduates to play classical music, three times as likely to do creative writing, and twice as likely to take art photos.

Twenty-five years ago, Americans spent roughly 64 percent of what’s called “waking hours” at “leisure”—that is, not working for pay or doing chores at home. By 1990, that figure had climbed to 70 percent. Although the portrait of “overworked Americans” painted by researchers such as Juliet Schor has been widely embraced by the media, it relies heavily on impressionistic methods such as polls and recollections. In Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time (1997), John P. Robinson of the University of Maryland and Geoffrey Godbey of Penn State convincingly counter such claims through the use of detailed time diaries. They’ve found that Americans average about 40 hours of free time per week, a total that represents a gain of about an hour of leisure per day since 1965.

While wealth and related increases in education and leisure are doubtless central to the culture boom, we should not scant the contribution of technology, which economic historian Joel Mokyr dubbed the “lever of riches” in a 1990 book of that title. If Mokyr is correct that “technological creativity” has been one of the “key ingredient[s] of economic growth,” it has similarly been a major factor in cultural proliferation. There are obvious examples of this, such as printing processes that have not only enabled books and literature to flourish but have also allowed sheet music and reproductions of artwork to find huge audiences. There are not-so-obvious examples as well, such as how relatively inexpensive musical instruments allowed rock music to develop among lower-class youths and how low-cost stereo equipment essentially made rap music possible: Both are forms that gave voice to people shut out from dominant modes of expression.

Indeed, in a cultural context, the most important effect of cheap technology is that it fundamentally reconfigures what Marxists would term an individual’s relationship to the means of production. In a world of ubiquitous video and audio cassette recorders—and a world in which personal computer ownership grew by more than 50 percent during the past four years alone—we are well on our way to a society in which everyone, regardless of class, owns multiple means of cultural production. 

Exit strategies

Though today’s culture boom is brimming over with unparalleled opportunities, it’s hardly unprecedented. The situation is in some ways reminiscent of 17th-century Britain, where the Church of England lost its theological monopoly partly because of rising literacy rates and new printing techniques that allowed more voices to enter into religious debate. England was flooded both with competing translations of the Bible and with tracts written by dissenters arguing about everything from atheism to—even more scandalous—a return to Catholicism.

Religious practice, like cultural activity, is a mix of private belief and public display; both are ways in which individuals explore what they hold true and announce who they are; both often involve intensely held values and evangelical activity that causes conflict with nonbelievers. In England, the breakdown of a central religious authority led to a flourishing of different, competing sects that duked it out in the marketplace of ideas for adherents and status. That struggle had a happy ending: By the end of the 17th century, freedom of “conscience”—that is, of religion—had been recognized as a fundamental right of the individual. That didn’t mean, of course, that people believed all faiths to be equally valid or equally worthwhile, or that theological arguments no longer mattered. If anything, official recognition of a right of conscience enriched religious life by allowing people to argue their points more openly and to give fuller public voice to their individual and affiliative identities.

In our own time, the culture boom is similarly deregulating cultural markets by making it easier for people to walk away from offerings they find uninteresting, irrelevant, or objectionable. As James Buchanan has argued, when such an option is introduced in the political sphere, power devolves toward “competing units” of governance, right down to the individual. “Potential mobility among competing political units,” says Buchanan, “may offer protection against…exploita­tion in any of several dimensions, including attempts to impose community values. The potential for exit allows at least some matching of personal loyalties and politically promoted common values.”

Transposed into the cultural sphere, this suggests at least a couple of things. First, the potential for exit—to go elsewhere—heavily conditions the terms of exchange between producers and consumers; in effect, it forces the producer to provide better terms for the consumer and hence disperses power throughout a system. One reflection of this is the relatively recent and increasingly widespread practice of discounting books. Another is the way that producers must adapt to survive changing tastes. Consider a culture industry giant such as Disney, which rebounded from near-bankruptcy in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Disney had to start once again making films that audiences actually wanted to see (out with The Black Hole and Tron; in with The Little Mermaid and The Lion King). But it has also flourished by expanding the range of material it is willing to finance. Hence, through its subsidiary Miramax, it has seen fit to help produce and release such quintessentially non-Disney films as Priest, Kids, and Pulp Fiction.

Second, and more important, an increase in the possible sites for cultural production and consumption does allow people to go elsewhere. The effective breakdown of the state church in England did not cause the differences among sects, some of which were so deeply held that dissenters shipped out to the New World. Rather, it created a society in which differences could be given voice and debated. Today, it has become increasingly easy for individuals to “make” their own culture, either through actual production or increasingly differentiated patterns of consumption.

The upshot of such a situation is that it is and will continue to be increasingly difficult to enforce any single standard of cultural value or practice, whether the enforcer is a government seeking to regulate material its deems indecent, a corporation trying to protect its franchise, or a group of artists or critics interested in cornering the market with its own aesthetic ideology. In this sense, the increased contests for power, prominence, and prestige that are often lamented in discussions of the “culture wars” are simply signs that all is as it should be in a free society. Indeed, more-serious problems will only be beginning if, as some participants in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education symposium suggested, those wars are in fact over.

Nick Gillespie (gillespie@reason.com) is a Reason senior editor.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

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  • LifeStrategies||

    With a TV that doesn't adjust properly for some reason, the test pattern was very useful to correct its deficiencies. Big shame it's no longer used...

  • Almanian!||

    VCR's and Blockbuster. Good times, Nick - good times.

  • UnCivilServant||

    I'm still not convinced we have a culture. We have a bunch of Shrieking Eels aping human behaviours in attempt to be taken seriously.

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