Central Myths of Eurocentric History

[bit.do/azmeh] One of the deepest poisons that we absorb in our Western education is the Eurocentric WorldView. This is even more deadly because it is a sub-text, not explicitly mentioned, but concealed in the background and foundational assumptions. It is taken for granted without discussion, which makes it difficult to understand and counter. Among the most important needs of the Ummah at this time is the development of an alternative “An Islamic WorldView“.

In a previous post on “Development: Myths & Truths: Materialism vs Idealism” {shortlink: bit.do/azdmt}, we discussed the first three myths about development which we learn via a Western education. The first myth is that materials are powerful and important while ideas and visions are not. The truth is that the reverse is true. The second myth is that our history and our future prospects depend on our material circumstances, whereas the truth is that it depends on our courage, vision, and spiritual strength. The third myth is that our past history is objective, etched in stone, and this history limits our future possibilities. The truth is that our past is a rich collection of millions of good and bad events, and we can select the best of these to create a bright past for ourselves, which will give us hope and energy to create a better future. In this post, we continue our discussion of the myths that we learn as part of our Western education. This set of three myths is about the rise of European power, and the conquest of the globe by Europe. Later posts discus Myth 7: Racial Superiority of Whites and Myth 8: Oriental Despotism.

The video lecture, and the detailed post below, discuss three of central myths of Eurocentric history, which seeks to place Europe at the center of human history as the most advanced civilization on the planet, compared to which all others are not even fully human. Debunking this myth is essential to freeing ourselves from the chains of colonization which bind our thoughts. This 68m video lecture is in urdu, while the detailed outline of the lecture given below is in English.

The lecture covers myths 4,5,6 of the dozen myths about development discussed in detail in my paper: “Is Development the Accumulation of Wealth? Islamic Views“. The first three myths are discussed in a previous post on “Development: Myths and Truths – Materialism vs Idealism”

Myth 4: The central assertion of Eurocentric history is the idea that history began in 16th Century Europe. Before that, all mankind was living in the darkness of ignorance and superstition. In the 16th Century, the sun of reason first rose in Europe, ending the dark ages of mankind. In the light of reason, the Europeans made tremendous progress in all fields of human endeavor, inventing science, technology, democracy, human rights, and every good thing known to man today.

This myth of the “spontaneous” Enlightenment of Europe needs to be countered by the truth about how the European Enlightenment took place, and exactly what this was.

Truth 4: All Humans Participated in Creation of History
Many historians have pointed out the biases in this Eurocentric view which puts Europeans at the center of World history and excludes all other great civilizations from the picture. Immanuel Wallerstein and others have developed the World Systems point of view which stresses the linkages between all the human beings living on the planet, and the collective participation of all civilizations in weaving the fabric human history. In Theft of History, Jack Goody (2012) documents how Europeans borrowed and adopted inventions of other civilizations, and claimed them as their own. The Incas were master botanists and created maize by cultivating and cross breeding inedible and poisonous plants. Their inventions continue to feed the planet. Four great Chinese inventions of compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing have had a lasting impact on human history. Indian contributions in arithmetic, philosophy, manufacture of sugar, have been largely forgotten. Muslim discoveries in cartography, heliocentric astronomy, physics, optics, pharmacopeia and surgery have been largely suppressed, and European imitators have been put forth as originators of these ideas in current histories.
In How Islam Created the Modern World, Graham (2006) writes that while Europe was in the dark ages, Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world, and described the tremendous contributions of the Islamic Civilization to the creation of the modern world. Of greatest importance is the advanced civilization of Al-Andalus, or Islamic Spain. Over a period of more than six centuries, this civilization followed the cycle of vigorous youth, maturity, and decay into luxury. Following the patterns first described by Ibn-e-Khaldun, decaying civilizations in old age are conquered by young, energetic, barbarians to start the cycle once again.  Youthful and vigorous, but uncivilized Spaniards completed the re-conquest of Islamic Spain in 1492, acquiring a vast treasure of millions of books in the libraries of Islamic Spain. It was this treasure of knowledge gathered from around the world that ended the dark ages of Europe and led to the Enlightenment. As shown in The Enlightenment Quran by  Ziad El-Marsafy (2009) Enlightenment thinkers were profoundly influenced by the ideas of the Quran. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders by Denise Spielberg documents the effect of the Quran on Jefferson’s thought and on the shaping of the liberal and enlightened values embedded in the US Constitution. Counter to the myth of spontaneous emergence of Enlightenment in Europe, we learn that it was the light of the Quran that ended that dark ages of Europe.

Myth 5: The White Man’s Burden & the Civilizing Mission

By the late nineteenth century, people of European origins had control of about 90% of the planet Earth. Why and how did this happen? The answer to this question is crucial to understanding the world we live in today.  The standard story, which is widely believed, ties in to the Enlightenment myth. After having been given the gifts of reason, science, technology, democracy, and other treasures, the Europeans looked around them and saw that the entire world was in darkness. Ignorance, cruelty, superstition, despotism, and all kinds of evil were spread throughout the world. The Europeans had grown up, while all other human beings were in the stage of infancy. Like Prometheus, they felt burdened by the responsibility of taking these gifts of the Gods to the entire mankind. Out of this sense of responsibility, they sacrificed the comforts and luxuries of their homes, and undertook the hardships of strenuous journeys to all corners of the globe in a noble effort to spread these benefits to all of mankind. Ignorant barbarians who resisted these advances were eliminated in the “savage wars” to bring peace and enlightenment to the planet. As Edward Said has argued in his landmark book Orientalism, this cover story which provides a noble justification for European conquest of the globe is reflected in a superiority complex which permeates all European literature about the “under-developed” East. Of course, this is also absorbed by the colonized countries in the form of an inferiority complex.

Truth 5: Loot and Pillage of the World

To see through mythical cover story which creates a noble purpose and a higher sense of mission for the brutal and savage global conquest, it is useful to see how the process works in contemporary history. The announced purposes of the US Invasion of Iraq were to free the populace from the clutches of an evil dictator, to bring them democracy and good governance, as well as to protect the world from Weapons of Mass Destruction in the hands of a madman. The truth is that Senior White House officials like Henry Kissinger, Paul O’Neill and Alan Greenspan have stated that Iraq war was planned for the control of the vast oil reserves of Iraq. The tremendous gap between the cover story of liberating the civilians, and the reality of killing of millions, and the destruction of all infrastructure – schools, hospitals, factories, power grids, etc.  is a reflection of the tremendous gap between the cover story of the civilizing mission, and the savage and barbaric loot and pillage of the world that took place in the process of global conquest by the Europeans.

To be able to see through the myths, we need to compare the cover stories with the realities. For instance the cover story of Columbus, the heroic explorer who discovered America, need to be replaced by the ruthless cruelty with which he destroyed and enslaved friendly and hospitable Indian tribes (see: Re-Learning History, and The Myth of White Man’s Burden). Whereas in India, we are familiar with the cover story of the British bringing railroads, education, good governance, democracy and civilization to India, the true story of ruthless exploitation is only now coming out – see Shashi Tharoor: An Era of Darkness. Similarly, King Leopold’s Ghost documents how Belgian King Leopold civilized the Congolese Western and taught them work ethics: the Belgians took wives and children hostage and kept them in subhuman conditions until their African husbands fulfilled their quotas harvesting rubber. Soldiers would torture, chop off hands, or kill the inhabitants if they faltered in their work. This resulted in the deaths of 4 to 8 million Africans in the Belgian Congo. This dirty work was advertised as a Christian charity for the benefit of the Congolese natives by the Belgians. See Colonial Atrocities for a few more examples. In fact, the whole history of the incredibly barbaric process of colonization is so horrendous, that it has been systematically erased and covered up. Occasionally the mask of civilization slips, as for example when Madelene Albright said on public TV that the lives of a million Iraqi children was an acceptable price to pay for achievement of US Political goals in the middle East.

Myth 6: Secrets of European Conquest.

Granted that global conquest was not achieved via surgical strikes which precisely and accurately eliminated evil, without affecting the good.  Admittedly, there was a lot of collateral damage; millions of innocents lost their lives in the “savage wars of peace” meant to bring enlightenment to the planet. Nonetheless, we must admit that the Europeans did conquer the world. This is not a small feat. They must be superior in many ways in order to achieve it.

Many have searched for reasons and explanations for this European superiority. To the early writers, it was obvious that the White race was superior to others, and this was the reason why they conquered the world. Blaut (2000) has listed thirty Eurocentric explanations for the rise of Europe to global dominance. Even though he has debunked them all, these explanations are offered by very respectable and influential academics, whose views continue to be cited and to shape mainstream views of history. As an illustration, we list five of these thirty reasons below, many of which have popular books devoted to amplification and justification.

  1. People of the white race have an inherited superiority over the people of other races.
  2. Europeans were uniquely rational, innovative and progressive.
  3. Europeans were uniquely capable of creative and scientific thought.
  4. Europeans uniquely, in ancient and/or medieval times, developed the concept and institution of private property and/or that of markets.
  5. Europeans were uniquely venturesome, uniquely given to exploration and overseas expansion.

Several authors have debunked these myths, showing that Europeans were not unique in the ways imagined above. That still leaves us a puzzle: how to explain the rise of the West? We offer a simple alternative to the dominant theories listed above. Throughout history, advanced civilizations become decadent, and are defeated and destroyed by youthful, energetic barbarian tribes. Ibn-e-Khaldun (2004) noted this as a regular cycle in his history. The defeat of Muslims at the hand of Europeans has striking similarities to the earlier destruction of the Muslim civilization by the Mongols. More specific evidence is provided below.

Truth 6: A Comparative Advantage in Violence

An amazingly large number of different ideas have been presented as causes of the Rise of Europe, and new theories continue to come up. The vast majority of these are materialistic explanations, based superiority of European lands, or resources, or humans. We would like to propose an idealistic explanation. Certain unique European ideas, different from those prevailing among the rest of humanity, led to the global conquest. We list three European inventions which eventually led to the conquest of the globe by Europe.

6.1: Glorification of War

Unlike all other world civilizations, which preferred peace to wars, Europeans actually glorified war over peace. In Europe, the kings and princes had been raised to fight one another, with toy soldiers, pikes, and firearms as children and actual training in their youth. Advisor to princes, Machiavelli taught that princes “ought to have no object, thought, or profession but war.” Nearly three centuries of continuous warfare in Europe gave them a “comparative advantage in violence” In contrast, the vast majority of the rest of humanity enjoyed and preferred peace to war. For example, Hoffman (2012) writes that the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who died in Peking in 1610 after spending 28 years in China– noted that although the China could easily conquer neighboring states neither the emperors nor Chinese officials had any interest in doing so. “Certainly, this is very different from our own countries [in Europe],” he noted, for European kings are “driven by the insatiable desire to extend their dominions.”

Children learn from the popular computer game “Civilization” that the goal is to achieve global dominance by destroying other civilizations. Among societies which have experienced it, civilization has an entirely different meaning. As Gandhi put it: “Western civilization? I think it would be a good idea.”

6.2:  Hatred, Nationality, Racism, and Perpetual Warfare

For reasons too complex to describe here, Europeans never managed to develop the cosmopolitan culture of the Ottomans or of Islamic Spain. The history of Europe is built around the hatreds of German, French, English, Russians, etc. for each other.  It is hard to tell if the perpetual warfare in Europe was a cause or an effect mutual hatred; it seems likely that there was mutual reinforcement of inherent tendencies. One of the driving forces behind the development of the European Union was the hope that tying the countries into interlocking economic relationships would be a way to prevent the warfare which has characterized European history.

This warfare eventually led to the development of “nationalism,” perhaps the deadliest philosophy invented by man. Millions died for their countries in the two conflagrations named as world wars in the twentieth century. The idea that perpetual warfare is the natural state of being between different nations has become deeply ingrained in the European psyche. Countless fictional works (like the War of the Worlds) as well as academics assume that encounter between different nations must necessarily be on hostile terms. The most recent example is the “Clash of Civilizations” by Samuel P. Huntington (2011). The idea that two civilisations can meet, learn from each other, trade, enjoy benefits of mutual friendship simply does not occur to Huntington and similar scholars in the European tradition. It is assumed that war, conflict and attempts by one to dominate the other must inevitably result from contact as this is the lesson of European history.

Racism was rampant, and there was near consensus that non-white races were not fully human. Thus Europeans had no compunctions in hunting Australian aborigines like animals, and in shooting and killing the inferior races. The US Supreme Court Dred Scott decision declared negroes to be “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  Lord Cecil Rhodes (1902) declared that “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. …(Other races are) … most despicable specimens of human beings.

6.3: All is Fair in Love and War

Since warfare in Europe was often justified on religious grounds, European intellectuals sought a secular political philosophy as an alternative to religion. The “social contract” became the secular basis of morality. Hegel noted that the social contract was by consensus within a nation-state. If the state lost a war, then the conquerors would re-write the social contract and thereby re-write morality. To defend themselves, states could act in ways that went beyond any moral codes – states create morality and therefore are not bound by it. This creates a justification for any atrocity “for reasons of the state.” Glover (2012) has noted the dark record of the many atrocities committed in the twentieth century. For example, continuation of British blockade of food to Germans after the surrender of Germany, led to death by starvation of about 800,000 Germans. Bauman (1989) has analyzed the Holocaust, in which million of civilian Jews – men, women and children – were scientifically exterminated in specially designed ovens. Baumann argues that the rational philosophy that ends justify means, which continues to be taught at leading universities, was, in the final analysis the cause of the holocaust. That is, lack of absolute moral codes have caused, and will continue to cause human disasters.

Another unique European invention is the philosophy of social Darwinism. The advent of British colonization of Africa coincided with the era of scientific racism as represented by social Darwinism (survival of the fittest). The British believed that because they had superior weaponry and were therefore more technologically advanced than the Africans, that they had a right to colonize and exploit the resources of the Africans in the name of promoting civilization. It is, of course, inherently contradictory for an invading force to usher in “civilization.”

Similarly, no other civilization can offer a parallel to Machiavelli, whose wisdom continues to guide Western leaders. He advised princes to be cunning and duplicitous, to command by fear, rather than love, to deceive by making and breaking promises, and to be ruthless in treatment of enemies. This was taken to heart and made the base of western politics; political scientist Ludlow (2005) has documented how faithfully US Politicians follow Machiavellian prescriptions. The western conquest of the globe was accompanied by unmatched ruthlessness and treachery, as has been documented in numerous “subaltern” accounts that have emerged – for a moving example of the native American perspective on the English-American conquest of the continent, see Brown (1991). As Machiavelli had correctly foreseen, the vast majority of people are simple and honest, and hence easily deceived.

Lesson 6: Finding Other Pathways

The primary lesson of “modernization theories” is that Europeans have reached the apex of civilization, and we must imitate them to achieve their success.  There are two fundamental difficulties with this idea. Firstly, it is not possible for us to conquer the globe and the loot the wealth of other civilizations, in order to imitate the European formula for success. Secondly, even if it was possible, it would not be desirable for us, as human beings, to achieve the comparative advantage in violence, ruthlessness, and treachery that led to the European conquest of the globe. Simplicity and honesty are precious human qualities, to be prized over cunning and ruthlessness.

It is true that the so-called “underdeveloped” world is in very bad shape. We were living peacefully, when alien invaders came and destroyed local institutions and cultures. All natural resources were captured as raw material to feed capitalist production processes. All of the population was turned into cogs of a capitalist machine designed to maximize production and wealth at the center. Instead of developing human potential, an educational system was designed to teach students that the goal of life is to sell their labor for money. Those who did not cooperate were ruthlessly eliminated as being obstacles to progress. Our best minds have absorbed these lessons of a western education, and sell their services to the west for high salaries, depriving the Ummah of precious manpower.  The ideals that service to mankind and Ummah takes precedence over a life of personal luxury have been forgotten. It will be very difficult to recover from this damage. Creative strategies are required. The first step is to liberate ourselves from the narratives of Eurocentric history, which prevent us from looking in the directions required for progress. See “Divide and Rule” and “The British Educated and Civilized Us?” for some of the myths created by colonization and conquest which still rule our minds today.  This essay provides the foundations for alternative sketch of history.

Lesson 7: The Ethics of Imperialists

We have all absorbed the dominant myth, that we are now modern and “civilized” and far more advanced than any other civilizations of the past. It is time to take a deep breath and consider an alternative, frightening possibility. Temporarily forget current history and world situation and make your mind a blank slate. Consider for a moment, a situation where barbarians, like the Huns, and  Visigoths and Mongols, who razed cities and enjoyed building mountains of skulls of innocent victims, take over the world. What kind of ethics would they promote? What would be their philosophy of life? In other words, what is the opposite of civilization?

A key element in a barbarian philosophy would be the law of the jungle: might makes right. If we can get it by force, than it is rightfully ours. Another element would be lack of compassion and sympathy; we cannot afford to feel pity for the victims of our loot and pillage. Destroying cities and nations, and killing millions of innocents should not disturb our conscience or cause loss of sleep. Another element would be that life is about gathering wealth and enjoying the luxuries and privileges that it entails, without any regard for others. Similarly, the philosophies of cut-throat competition and let the best man win would be a good match for a barbarian life style. Betrayal of oaths of fidelity to intimate relations would be a joking matter, rather than a serious breach of integrity. Barbarian children would play games teaching them to shoot and kill and enjoy watching blood, gore and guts spill out of random strangers, or even friends. Movies and media would teach people to enjoy sadism and senseless violence, and to regard assassins, thieves, prostitutes and other highly immoral characters as normal human beings.

Now open your eyes and consider the world we live in. The world leader USA felt no compunction in launching the Iraq war under false pretenses which has resulted in the loss of more than a million civilian lives. Deliberate destruction of Iraqi infrastructure including hospitals, schools,  and water/sanitation works, ruining the lives of millions of Iraqis, was carried out to create profitable business opportunities for the “re-construction” of Iraq. US Secretary Madeleine Albright stated on public TV that death of half a million Iraqi children was a price worth paying for achievement of US policy objectives. In the first lecture on Justice to the future world leaders in a Harvard undergraduate course,  Professor Michael Sandel (2013) constructs complex artificial situations where it might be necessary to do murder or cannibalism for the greater good. He states that moral questions have been argued for thousands of years without reaching any resolution. The goal of the lecture is to show that there are no absolute standards for morality, and evil acts may be justified if they lead to larger benefits. This is essential training for future leaders who may have to condemn millions of innocents to violent deaths, in pursuit of higher goals like corporate profits. Dominant economic theories state that the object of life is to maximize consumption, without any regard for others. Thus we live in world where 25,000 people die every day from diseases related to malnutrition, when the money spent on fighting obesity and obesity related diseases would be enough to end hunger on the planet. Ph. D. economists learn to value academic careers, but do not learn anything about how to help improve the lives of the impoverished bottom billion. Leading textbooks in growth theory state that if we maximize the wealth for society as a whole, it will automatically trickle down to the poor – even though this has been repeatedly disproven empirically.  Dominant economic theories hold that the best way to organize business is via cut-throat competition, as this will lead to maximum efficiency. Ruthless exploitation of the world by multinationals unrestrained by ethical concerns has brought the world to the brink of environmental catastrophe.  These theories are currently being taught at leading universities throughout the world. The lessons thus absorbed create the world we see around us.

An essential element of the struggle for good today must be to replace these barbaric theories, which are directly responsible for the massive amount of completely unnecessary warfare taking place today — on humans, animals, fish, birds and the  environment – by more humane alternatives.

POSTSCRIPT: Colonization is, in the first place, a conquest of minds. Liberating our minds from the effects of centuries of defeat requires analyzing and removing poisons that we swallow as part of our Western education. The following sequence of posts provides some guidance on this issue:

Recovering from a Western Education: This post describes my experiences with bait-and-switch at MIT, where we were deceived into accepting a technical education as a substitute for an education which would teach us how to make the best use of our unique and precious lives. See also, urdu video talk on “Getting a Real Education”.

A Western education poisons our minds in many different ways. One of them is the complete neglect and disregard of the meaning and purpose of lives, which is the central question we all must answer, in order to learn what our lives are about, and how to make the best of our few precious moments on this planet. The strategy for doing this is to avoid discussion of purpose, and to avoid discussion of what is Useful Versus Useless Knowledge. When we cannot differentiate between them, it become possible to teach us a lot of useless garbage, without our realization.  Some other poisons are discussed in the posts linked below:

  • The First Poison: Eurocentric History: A Western education teaches us the history started in sixteenth century Europe, when mankind first learned to throw off chains of ignorance and superstitions, and learned to reason and develop science, technology, democracy, and all good things known to man. A counter-narrative is presented in “An Islamic WorldView: An essential part of an Islamic Education
  • The Second Poison: Secular Knowledge– The idea that there are two separate realms of knowledge, and worldly knowledge and religious knowledge are different and separable.
  • The Third Poison: Worship of Wealth– A Western education teaches us that development is acquistion of wealth, fame, power, popularity, pleasure. In fact, these worldly and materialistic goals are false gods, which do not have the power to satisfy us – as those people who achieve them learn from bitter personal experience.
  • The Fourth Poison: Homo Economicus– The idea that men have no hearts and souls is central to Western social science. This leads to a stupid definition of “rationality” as being short-sighted greed and the search for pleasure. This idea influences people and prevents them from achieving the spiritual development which is essential to developing our hidden capabilities and potentials for excellence. In this connection, see “Islam’s Gift; An Economy of Spiritual Development“.

In fact, there are many other poisons, too many to be listed. But after understanding some of the central wrong and harmful ideas, it becomes easier to pick out other problems and errors, and learn to see the brilliant light of Islam. See: Islamic Knowledge: Still Revolutionary after 1440 Years.

This entry was posted in Colonialism, Imperialism, Development Discourse, Eurocentric History by Asad Zaman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Asad Zaman

BS Math MIT (1974), Ph.D. Econ Stanford (1978)] has taught at leading universities like Columbia, U. Penn., Johns Hopkins and Cal. Tech. Currently he is Vice Chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. His textbook Statistical Foundations of Econometric Techniques (Academic Press, NY, 1996) is widely used in advanced graduate courses. His research on Islamic economics is widely cited, and has been highly influential in shaping the field. His publications in top ranked journals like Annals of Statistics, Journal of Econometrics, Econometric Theory, Journal of Labor Economics, etc. have more than a thousand citations as per Google Scholar.

20 thoughts on “Central Myths of Eurocentric History

  1. *Hafiz Abdur Rehman* Lecturer, School of Economics, IIIE International Islamic University Islamabad Phone.+92-51-9019450

    On Fri, May 3, 2019 at 11:03 PM An Islamic WorldView wrote:

    > Asad Zaman posted: “One of the deepest poisons that we absorb in our > Western education is the Eurocentric WorldView. This is even more deadly > because it is a sub-text, not explicitly mentioned, but concealed in the > background and foundational assumptions. It is taken for gra” >

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