Thoughts for April 25, 2017
Popular historian David McCullough has recently published a book titled The American Spirit, which is a collection of his speeches over the past years, many of them commencement addresses. I have nothing against such publications; they give a more permanent form to essays that would otherwise disappear from public view and some of them may well make interesting points. What I don’t like, though, are grandiose attempts to make such collections into celebrations of glory. They can’t be that, and when they’re presented in that mode they inevitably take on a tincture of cheapness.
The dust jacket for this book proclaims it is about “core American values to which we all subscribe.” How can anyone write such guff without becoming nauseous? There are no values to which we all subscribe. The state of the nation right now makes that obvious. And if there were, the leading candidates wouldn’t be anything we ought to be celebrating. The value which would come closest to qualifying at the moment (but still, thank goodness, not universal) would be devotion to the glorification of greed. That’s what America stands for in the eyes of the world more than anything else.
It would be impossible, in fact, for any value to be distinctively American and one which it would be a fine thing for us all to support. The values which we all ought to cherish, such as kindness, generosity, mercy, and honesty, are not particularly American. They are spread across the world and operate as forcefully in many countries as they do in the United States.
The promotional material for a book like this collection is yet one more tired and foolish attempt to insinuate that Americans are naturally better than other people. There’s no evidence for this assertion, and the attempt to promote it leads to the writing of a lot of bad history. I’m not charging Mr. McCullough with writing bad history. I have no right to because I haven’t read any of his books, and probably won’t.
How ignorant does one have to be to fail to recognize that there are no adequate measures which can accurately set one national group above or below others? What factors would have to be taken into account? What weight would each of them be given? The whole enterprise, if seriously pursued, would rapidly become farcical. And yet here in the United States we are constantly assaulted by bombasts of self-congratulation. And now we have, as our most prominent American, a man whose self-congratulation has reached levels of absurdity we heretofore could scarcely have imagined. Are we feeling good about that?
I guess some of us are, but that’s a reason to weep for our country rather than cheering it.
Thoughts for April 24, 2017
All the right-thinking people appear to be elated that Emmanuel Macron will almost certainly become the next president of France. Given his opponent in the runoff, I’m glad that he will. But that doesn’t mean I’m ecstatic about his ascent.
The choice we are increasingly being offered around the globe is between police-state fascism, on the one hand, and some globular thing called globalism, on the other. When I think of these choices in their basic meaning they come across either as hideously overt mistreatment of certain ethnic groups or the somewhat more cosmetic mistreatment of everybody except the richest one percent of the population. The thought that we could have a political, social system that doesn’t mistreat anyone in a basic way is regularly dismissed by establishment thinkers as childishly unrealistic. They don’t offer evidence for why that’s so; they just present it as self-evident.
Self-evident social or economic truths as I have experienced them are always veiled attempts to screw somebody.
Globalism as the only alternative to pure political evil of the Hitlerian sort demonstrates how that process works. First there’s the name itself, which implies something sweet and cooperative. But who exactly is cooperating in this globalist empire? It’s certainly not somebody like me working together with some guy from France, or Hungary, Cambodia. No, it’s gigantic corporations making deals to divide up control of the entire world. Globalism is nothing more than corporatism with a sweeter name.
Before we dive wholeheartedly into this system of globalism, we need to remind ourselves what corporations are. They are gigantic organizations which exist for only one purpose, to pile up profits. They don’t care what their ancillary effects are. If they can make profits by spreading poisons all across the land which will cause uncountable fatal diseases, that’s what they will do. The evidence for this is manifest. We have seen it over and over again. Have we really forgotten the tobacco company executives who testified repeatedly before Congress that their product caused no cancers, when they had evidence in their own corporate files that it did? They are the quintessential examples of corporate leaders. They are what we in America have been taught to regard as highly successful men.
Putting our affairs into the hands of such people is like rushing to embrace our executioners.
Emmanuel Macron has given signals that he recognizes this danger. He has said that his government will enact regulations to ensure that the people of France are not harmed by the limitless greed of corporate culture. But many politicians have said this, and then, when they came up against the power of unregulated money, found themselves caving in, over and over again. I hope that doesn’t happen with him, but I’m not confident that it won’t.
People have got to learn that capitalism and democracy are not natural allies. When one dominates, we get one sort of society, and an entirely different sort when the other has the upper hand.
The corporations don’t want you to know this, and they will be using all their public relations power to keep you ignorant of it, so they can go merrily along trying to acquire every bit of money in the world. That’s what they want, and most of their leaders are too stupid to know that would be a disaster for them as well as for everybody else.
Thoughts for April 8, 2017
In a state of near-frantic boredom about an hour ago, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote down the first ten things that came to my mind. I don’t think there’s anything to be made of them, but just in case I’m wrong, here they are.
The human race is a blight on the earth. I just heard that humans kill 73 million sharks each year. A lot are killed by cutting off their fins in order to make soup of them. It’s considered an Asian delicacy.
James Arness starred in Gunsmoke from 1955 until 1975.
I feel a bit like I’m going out of my mind this evening, April 8, 2017. Cabin fever, I guess.
I started rereading Middlemarch earlier this afternoon. I think that was a wise move.
Reading Dark Money earlier in the day discouraged the hell out of me.
There was a lot of commentary today about shakeups in the White House. I don’t give a damn about that.
We had coffee this morning at La Brioche, but then we came straight home and haven’t been out since.
There’s a guy named Russell Sobel, who now teaches at the Citadel, and earlier taught at the University of West Virginia. He’s a total schmuck.
I sent an e-mail to two of my friends asking what we can say about a country that allows the super rich to do to a nation what they’ve done over the past fifty years to the United States. I’ve got no answer so far.
I wish I could stand to watch more episodes of Iron Fist tonight, just to get through the evening. But I don’t think I can.
Thoughts for April 6, 2017
I notice that Justin Frank, a psychiatrist at George Washington University who studies the psychology of presidents, says that any idea makes Donald Trump nervous. His comment reminded me that I’ve often wondered just how ignorant Trump is. If you were to mention to him some ordinary fact you would expect any educated person to know, such as that George Eliot is the author of Middlemarch, would you draw a blank stare? I suspect you would. Is there a good reason for finding that as frightening as I do? But, then, I need to remember that the percentage of Americans who would know who wrote one of the greatest novels in English is remarkably small.
What percentage? Might it be ten percent? Probably not.
If it should somehow be raised to ten percent would that transform the nation? It probably wouldn’t be transformative, but I think it would make a significant difference. All I am saying is that education, if you define it reasonably, is important.
I don’t know, of course, exactly what the correlation between ignorance and cruelty is. Obviously, there are persons who have never had a chance for much formal education but still have kind hearts. I suspect that most of us have known such persons. Even so, I still think an absence of experience with ideas causes people to be thoughtless about the suffering of others. Ideas, after all, are avenues to empathy. And with low empathy, people gravitate naturally to cruelty. When you are dealing with someone who runs away from ideas, is averse to them, who actively dislikes them, it isn’t unreasonable to view that person as dangerous. You can’t be sure what he might do to others simply because he has never imagined the impact of vicious acts.
Dr. Frank says that Twitter is the perfect medium for Trump because it allows for outbursts, which presumably relieve pressure, without requiring -- or permitting -- any subtlety whatsoever. Subtlety is not one of Trump’s inclinations. It requires at least the semblance of an idea.
I have been thinking lately that if I could just become disinterested in the fate of the nation, this would be a fascinating time to be alive. To watch a major nation, with international responsibilities, fall into the hands of a man who is repeatedly called an imbecile presents us with a wide array of puzzles. What kind of intellect does a president require? How do the leaders of other nations think of him? What opportunities for exploitation does he offer? How much does his simpleness undercut governmental systems which have been constructed over generations? There’s no end to questions of this sort, and right now nobody knows for sure how to answer them.
It is interesting, though, to see how widely accepted Trump’s imbecility has become. Just a short while ago only the most radical journalists would make such a charge about the president of the United States. But now it has become quite common even in the mainstream media. Just this morning Charles Blow in the New York Times wrote that “Trump has exposed himself to the world as an imbecile” as though that were a simple truth which almost everyone recognizes. And perhaps that is indeed the case. It’s an assessment that doesn’t seem very radical any longer.
What mark the United States with an imbecile as president will make on history is the primary question beguiling the world at the moment. I don’t know the answer any better than anyone else, but I confess I’m anxious about what the answer will turn out to be.
Thoughts for April 4, 2017
Here in the age of Trumpism and alternative facts it’s clear to me that a fresh response to such behavior is needed. Most of us were taught when we were young that frankness needs to be tempered in the interest of good manners and pleasant relations. It’s a lesson I still respect, but I can no longer acquiesce to it as fully as I once did. Honesty is a more important virtue than amiability. Those who surrender its use neuter themselves as citizens and social reformers.
Consequently, I think we would do well to adopt a revived practice of unapologetic truthfulness. There’s no reason to be ashamed of saying what you know is so.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Last night at supper, the following thought hit me so strongly I had to abandon my attention to toast and blueberries for a few minutes in order to jot the following thought into my pocket notebook. Here I am, quoting myself: “An interesting fact about modern-day America is that the Republican Party, which exists solely to perpetrate cruelty, is made up mainly of professed Christians. This may be the strongest example of hypocrisy in the history of the world. Certainly, it would be impossible to argue conclusively that it’s not.”
You know, and I know, that if I were to say this in company it would be regarded as extreme. But more often than not, fear of being thought extreme is what holds us back from telling the truth. Such fear works so powerfully that it causes truth-telling to be considered weird. But so long as the truth is weird, a society is susceptible to manipulation by its most vicious elements. That’s obviously what has happened to us, the people of the United States. The most cruel, vengeful, and punitive-minded forces in America have seized control of the government of the nation. There’s no doubt about that. Why hesitate to say it?
Until a significant portion of those who unthinkingly cast votes for Republican candidates, out of a kind of vague traditionalism, or family influence, recognize what they’re doing, and what they’re actually supporting, we’re going to continue to have a very nasty government. Why is it, for example, that we throw more people in jail than any other nation on earth? How many Republicans have ever asked themselves that question seriously? But what’s more to the point, how many will ever ask themselves as long as those who recognize what the Republican Party has been doing for the last four decades remain mute out of some cloudy sense of propriety?
I don’t want to be naive. I’m aware that a majority of Republicans relish seeing people incarcerated. That portion of our population we will have to deal with as long as any of us are alive. They will not go away soon. Still, a notable portion who those who support the Republican Party would not like it if they ever brought themselves to think about it. And if they did, we could have a far more humane country. But we have to recognize that the price of that better country will be trading in some of our greeting card sweetness for a frank and refreshed loyalty to the simple truth.
Thoughts for March 24, 2017
I’ve taken yet one more break from posting here because I’ve been preparing for a book discussion that I will host for the Samuel Johnson Society next Tuesday. I think I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve been slowly working my way through Anthony Kronman’s Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan. I haven’t quite completed the reading yet because not only is the book 1076 pages long, it’s also quite dense in most of its parts. I am, though, getting close to the end, close enough to make me feel that this volume will have a strong influence on my thinking for some time to come.
The announced topic for our discussion is theses from Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan. I’ve written down a few of the theses I’ll introduce next week, and I’ve decided to share them with you so you can get some sense of how our conversation might proceed. Here are the first five I’ll offer our group:
- If the world -- or the “universe” as we tend to speak of it now -- was created by something that exists outside the world, that something, which has most often been called God, would be owed a crushing debt of gratitude, which humans must remain so far from being able to pay they would always feel hideously insufficient and therefore wretched.
- The thought that nothing lasts, that everything is eventually swallowed up by time, and lost and forgotten, is an unbearable and, indeed, unintelligible idea.
- We will discover in a born-again paganism, that restores eternity to time, while preserving the value of individuality in every domain, a way to be at home in the world again.
- Understanding that modern science is a theology is a principal feature of born-again paganism. Modern science does not cut us off from the eternal and the divine. The belief that it does is nihilism, or the disenchantment of the world, as laid out by Max Weber. But that belief has been seriously challenged by Baruch Spinoza and Friederich Nietzsche, who Kronman identifies as models for the new philosophy.
- One must attempt to hold onto the following two ideas: first that the world is eternal and pointless, and second, that everything that happens in it, however purposeful it seems from a finite point of view, is endowed with the same eternality as the world as a whole, which has no purpose at all (this is a teaching from Nietzsche which Kronman implies must become a feature of the coming born-again paganism).
I’m not sure how the conversation will go. It might just turn into a mishmash. I devoutly hope we can keep Donald Trump out of it.
What I would like would be to persuade each of our members to tell the rest of us what he, or she, thinks are the underlying ideas of our society, which operate so stealthily we seldom think of them consciously but which, more than anything else determine our behavior and, particularly how we treat one another. I’m convinced that there are such ideas, and that we can test their worth by setting them alongside fresh thinking of the sort Kronman has tried to incorporate into this book.
We’ll see how it goes.
Thoughts for March 14, 2017
I finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus this afternoon. I was on the verge of saying it’s a book I would recommend to anyone, until a second thought reminded me that the concepts it treats might be displeasing to some. It’s a very readable book but it speculates about future developments that might get some people out of sorts. If a text is not going to do anything but cause a person to become disgruntled, if there’s no chance of his learning anything from it, what’s the use of his taking it up?
As science solves ever more complicated problems we recognize that the process it employs is called an algorithm, which means simply a step by step problem-solving procedure. There is no limit to the number of algorithms that can be linked together, and therefore no limit to the complexity of problems they can address. As we face that truth, we also come to see that human beings are mainly algorithms which involve a great many steps in trying to solve the problems of life. Humans differ from computers not in their use of intelligence but in their possession of a mental construct we call consciousness. That means humans think about themselves in addition to the external problems they try to solve. Consciousness is said to provide the unique value of human life. It’s what makes humans more important than anything else. But who says so? Just humans. It’s unlikely that a non-conscious algorithm would independently arrive at such a conclusion.
It’s this non-caring of most algorithms that fuels Harari’s questions about what’s likely to happen in the remainder of the 21st century. Where are humans going to be after another eighty years have passed? It seems pretty clear we can’t stay where we are now.
Harari warns us that, “Since intelligence is decoupling from consciousness and since non-conscious intelligence is developing at breakneck speed, humans must actively upgrade their minds if they want to stay in the game.”
In other words, we’ve got to get smarter faster than we ever have before in history. But what if in this attempt to get smarter we modify ourselves so radically that we would no longer be recognized as humans by people of the 20th century? This is the sort of question Harari forces us to think about. He doesn’t actually predict anything. He just lays out possibilities. And then he leaves us with three questions which, if one thinks about seriously, are likely to cause nervous tingles up and down the spine.
1. Are organisms just algorithms, and is life just data processing?
2. What is more valuable, intelligence or consciousness?
3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly
intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?
Thoughts for March 13, 2017
The timidity of the so-called mainstream media is a subject which frustrates growing numbers of readers who wish to see the public awakened to the reality of our national political situation. Most people will admit that outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, PBS, CNN, and CBS provide some journalistic service. They make an effort to report accurately and to cover the stories that leading political figures are discussing. But their analysis of the consequences flowing from standard operating procedures is decidedly tepid. The Pentagon and the C.I.A., for example, may be behaving murderously in Syria. But you will not see the New York Times using that adverb. That would be, according to the leading media, non-objective. Yet there is nothing non-objective about the numbers of bodies piling up in the street of Aleppo. Somebody is responsible for them.
I came on a term this morning from Henry Giroux, writing for CounterPunch, which may get at the problem. He speaks of “the disimagination machinery of the mainstream media.” It’s an interesting charge which doubtless does carry some probity. It would be hard to affirm that our largest news outlets employ a tone that insists on activating the imagination. Reading the Times is not going to help you sense the odors rising from the bodies lying in the streets of Aleppo. And until you do have some sense of that reality you’re not going to feel the actuality of the Syrian civil war.
Anybody who assisted in its origin, including leaders of the U.S. government, bears some responsibility for the horrors in the streets of major Middle Eastern cities. But the New York Times is not going to do much to push you towards seeing, or feeling, yourself in the midst of such business. And unless you can do that, can you honestly say you understand what’s going on? Is it the duty of journalism to enable you take in the actuality of the world?
No one who reads the Times honestly can testify that it steadily activates the imagination. And unless the imagination is in play can there be much accurate perception? If you are told the number of violent deaths in Syria last month and respond with a “Ho Hum,” how much reality has pervaded your mind? Do the Times and like media have any responsibility for conveying it? And if they don’t what are they responsible for? That’s what Giroux’s “disimagination machinery of the mainstream media” addresses. I think it’s worth some of our attention.
Thoughts for March 10, 2017
The dominant political struggle in the world now -- though you wouldn’t know it from reading the mainstream media in the United States -- is between two sets of oligarchs. The Western set is composed of U.S. and European based global corporations allied with the “Deep State” in America, which means the leaders of the Department of Defense, the State Department, the National Intelligence Agencies, the defense industry, and the energy consortium. The Russian set is headed by Vladimir Putin and an assortment of extremely wealthy Russian criminals who pretty much do Putin’s bidding.
If you want to know which of these associations is morally superior, you are asking a question which can’t be answered. Neither of them is going to much good for the people who live on Liberty Street in Montpelier, or on the thousands of other American avenues that pretty much resemble Liberty Street.
You might say that the Western set will employ rhetoric more agreeable to the folks on Liberty Street. But that rhetoric will matter little to the health and well-being of the Liberty Streeters or of 95% of other Americans.
The rich and powerful people are trying to carve up the world among themselves and to remain indifferent to the needs of everybody else. I suppose you could argue that things are no different now than they have ever been. It’s just that we’re now nearing the end of a period when the headlines bloviated that democratic progress was our most intense political concern. Now that it’s very hard to escape the truth that our political leaders in the United States and Russia -- and probably almost everywhere else -- care almost nothing about democratic process and have stopped believing in its possibility, the realization is especially disheartening.
We ask ourselves who we can trust, and the answer seems to be, nobody.
We have been in the habit of thinking that our government is on our side, protecting us against other, hostile governments. That is doubtless the result of a relentless propaganda campaign to keep us in line. But the idea of our government existing primarily to protect us has become an exceedingly naive concept. If our government cares virtually nothing about protecting us from cancer, what evidence is there for thinking it really is dedicated to protecting us against other mortal dangers? After all, if we look at what really hurts us, the things we spend comparatively little money preventing loom far more threateningly than the dangers we are presumably holding off with our enormous Pentagon expenditures. Think about it. Is there any danger you genuinely fear that could actually be thwarted by a gigantic airplane loaded with nuclear bombs? And yet the taxes you pay to keep such planes armed and flying are gigantic.
The efforts our government makes in the name of defense provide little that staves off dangers that are real. And the curious thing is that almost everybody knows it. But these activities have become a habit that few actually analyze. We cheer when war planes fly over football games, and that’s about it. In fact, the function they provide at football games is probably the most significant thing they do.
So here we are, living with enormous power clots we pay for, which are directly engaged in providing their high-ranking officials with extremely cushy lives. We complain all the time that we are being cheated while we continue to support “our” oligarchs against “their” oligarchs. And this we generally call patriotism, and cheer as it devours our sustenance.
Thoughts for March 9, 2017
Yale history professor Timothy Snyder has been gaining quite a bit of attention for his recently published book, Tyranny. Its basic thesis is that post-truth is very likely to be pre-fascist. He warns that conditions can change very fast when a population comes to accept falsehood as ordinary political strategy. In a recent interview with Steven Rosenfeld of Alternet, Snyder said that we are facing a real crisis in the United States, and a very real moment of choice. He also warned that the possibilities are much darker than Americans are used to considering.
This suggests to me that we need to stop taking Donald Trump’s falsehoods as mere political comedy or buffoonery. Rather, we have to get clear in our minds what kind of liars Trump and some of the figures in his inner circle are. It is not just that they are opportunists who are willing to lie whenever they think it will serve their interests. That would be bad enough. But what we are faced with now is a president who cannot stop lying. His entire life has programmed him to lie whenever he opens his mouth. It is as Trump biographer David Cay Johnson says: Trump lies as easily as you and I breathe.
So, unless we are faced with unusual evidence to the contrary we should assume that whatever Trump tells us is not true. We should understand that whenever we lean towards believing what he says we are on the verge of being duped.
People, in their discouragement, often ask, what can we do? This is what we can do. We can try in every way we can think of to make sure that greater and greater portions of the U.S. population greet anything Trump utters with pure skepticism. It should become as hard for us to believe Trump as it is to believe someone who calls us on the phone to tell us we have just inherited a million dollars in Nigeria. The chances of one being true are about the same as the other.
A president who is believed by no more than a quarter of the adult population will find it hard to take us down a primrose path in order to swell his already bloated ego.
What we have to fear from Donald Trump are his basic motives. And his basic motives are addressed solely to himself. They have virtually nothing to do with either the government or the people of the United States. He wants only to pile up money for himself and to be worshipped by cheering crowds. He has shown that repeatedly since he began to talk about entering politics. I doubt you could find one person out of a randomly selected million who could approach Trump in his egomaniacal impulses.
We all need to learn that if we fall to thinking Trump is doing anything for our benefit we are engaged in self-delusion. He can’t imagine doing such a thing. What we ought to remember first about Trump is the fantastically narrow scope of his imagination.
I suppose you could say that in some sense anybody who manages to put himself in the White House is bound to be peculiar. And peculiarity is not necessarily a bad thing. But we have never before had a president as peculiar as Trump. And when you turn your affairs over to someone as eerie as he is, there’s no rational excuse for thinking you’re going to benefit from it.
We are in the habit of talking about good men and bad men. But those are not terms pertinent to Trump. I doubt we have every had anyone in public life with less free will than he possesses. He can’t select a course to follow from the normal possibilities of political life. All he is capable of doing is trying to inflate himself. We shouldn’t wish to punish him. We just have to find ways to protect ourselves against him.
Thoughts for March 5, 2017
We see considerable commentary lately informing us that the dupes of America are also its heart, and soul, and backbone. Why this is -- or should be -- the case is hard to fathom.
Roger Cohen had a column in the Times yesterday which verged in that direction while not actually taking it up. It concentrated on Scott County, Indiana, which Cohen presents as a kind of foreign territory for those who live in the Northeast, or California, or anywhere so non-heartlandish as to have voted for Hillary Clinton in the past election. Cohen advises that what we need is a national service program, so the Trump people and the Clinton people can get to know one another better, and the country can be unified again.
Has the country ever been unified, except perhaps during a major war? Would it be a good thing if it were? Why?
If we snobs of the Northeast were ever really to listen to men like Sheriff Dan McClain of Scott County, or Mayor Bill Graham of Scottsburg, would we come to realize how wrong we have been about some things, or how right Bill Graham is to announce, “I like Donald Trump, he’s a brilliant man”?
Roger Cohen is mistaken in assuming that people from one section are missing the substance of what people from another section are saying. I don’t think we’re missing much at all. I’ve talked to dozens of men like Bill Graham. I’ve listened to them for hours. I’ve sat round dinner tables with them. They seldom make any sense where politics or social policy is concerned. Bill Graham can like anyone he wishes, of course, but Donald Trump is not a brilliant man. Neither can Donald Trump do things Bill Graham says he can do. He can’t, for example, assist in making sure that God is not run out of the country. If God is who Bill Graham thinks he is, he can’t be run out of anywhere he wishes to stay. If you’re voting for somebody who you think can help God do what he can’t do by himself, both your politics and your theology are terribly confused.
Donald Trump is not going to do anything for the people of Scott County. Their lives are not going to get better because he’s the president. In truth, they’re going to get worse. I don’t guess that matters though, so far as voting is concerned. Scott County voted not out of a desire to make things better. They voted to express their resentment. They voted as they did because they dislike people like me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that. Should I go immolate myself?
Our problem in America is not that we don’t understand one another. Our problem is that we don’t understand what’s going on in the world. And we’re not trying very hard to find out. We have lost the conviction that knowledge is a means for making our lives more healthy and meaningful. Most of us don’t work very hard to acquire it. Most of us go for years without reading a serious book. And if we live in Scott County or in one of the hundreds of counties resembling it spread all across the land we are less likely to read one than if we lived in a town or city with at least one bookstore.
Donald Trump lies more incessantly than any other man who has occupied the White House. The people who support him care little for truthful behavior. To see them as the heart and soul of America is not an exercise of unity. It’s an exercise of national degradation. I am not saying that the people of all the Scott counties across the land lack all virtue. They don’t. But they are not good at recognizing social health. So idolizing them is not likely to lead us to a finer nation.
©John R. Turner
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