Word and Image of Vermont

Comparison
June 27, 2008

Yesterday, I was bemused to find that my local paper chose for its editorial a subject I've been running over in my mind: a comparison of the deaths of Tim Russert and George Carlin. I thought, perhaps, on first seeing the piece that the editors may have been interested in weighing the relative public response to each of the two events.

But upon reading, I found that the writer for the Times-Argus was laying out his thoughts about alternative forms of public service -- one, by participating in the establishment, and, second, by stepping outside and offering an antiestablishment perspective. The conclusion was that both forms are helpful, and that neither rises above the other. That, of course, made it a consummate establishment judgment.

The curious feature of the editorial was the proposition that Russert, supposedly by carefully examining all political positions, lost the ability to know what he thought. In other words, it made sense that the the more one knows, the less he is able to form a judgment. That was establishmentarian nonsense, and it was particularly foolish with respect to Russert's work. By all accounts he was an affable man but I never saw clear evidence that he was an incisive analyst of public policy. That he held that reputation simply shows how pallid the mainstream news reporting systems are.


Carlin, by contrast, actually did try to dig into the manipulative aspects of public language. He pushed us to see how fatuous our common discourse is. So, in my estimation there's no question about which man's career held the greater significance for public health. That one received far more notice in death than the other was solid evidence about which mattered more. In a system of maudlin sentimentality, lesser things always get the stronger notice.

I would guess that if Carlin was able to know how things went after his departure, he was pleased by what happened.


Belief
June 24, 2008

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has released a big new study which tells us that 92% of Americans believe in God, but that only 60% think God is a person whereas 25% think God is an impersonal force. What the unaccounted for 7% think, God only knows.

If God is a person, then he's a downright peculiar one. In fact, he's so different from the other persons we encounter it's hard not to wonder if he deserves the category. But, then, what is a person, anyway? If you asked the average member of the 60% what a person is, you'd be likely to get no more than a hostile stare.

When I'm asked if I believe in God, it leaves me perfectly perplexed. I have no idea what the person who's asking means by God. Am I supposed to answer in line with what I think he means? Or, in line with what I might mean at any particular moment? Or in line with something I heard on TV the previous day? Or what?

For pollsters, this is a yes or no question, just like almost all the other questions they ask. They don't give a damn that there are few yes or no answers which make any sense. They just want to report their tallies. What people might be able to make of them is, presumably none of their business and, therefore, none of their concern.

When the Pew Forum, or any other pollster, releases results on subjects like belief, they give me no sense that I know anything I didn't know before. Their results are nothingness, perhaps the most pure nothingness we can encounter in this world. Still, we all like to talk about them, and, even, to cite them to bolster our arguments.


Ave atque Vale
June 24, 2008

I admired George Carlin. He was one of the few people I've observed in public life who wouldn't give in, who wouldn't bow down. While the great majority of public voices succumbed to the self-congratulatory, sentimental pap that is the standard fare of the airwaves, Carlin refused. He insisted that words be examined. He crammed in people's faces the way words are used to manipulate and exploit.

Was he crude, vulgar? Yes. Are crudity and vulgarity generally positive qualities? No. Are they sometimes necessary? Yes.

George Carlin could be as quietly reasonable as anyone I've heard. But he understood that in many instances quiet reason doesn't get through. So in his comedy routines he pushed beyond the limits of polite courtesy. He did it on purpose. He did it knowing exactly what he was doing. He did it out of reason. And he did get through.

I'm sorry that he won't be able to puncture hypocrisy anymore. And I hope that over time he will be increasingly remembered as one of the most healthy public voices of his era.


Easy Comprehension
June 24, 2008

In a column praising George Bush and the surge, David Brooks says life and politics are complicated, and nobody is right all the time. One thing's for sure: they're a hell of a lot more complicated than David Brooks is ever going to understand.

The punditry is now awash in the sentiment that the surge worked. The evidence? There's not as much killing going on in Iraq as there was in 2007. That there could be a hundred reasons why violence has subsided other than the surge is not a concept the Brookses of the world are capable of grasping.

The most simple and obvious explanation is exhaustion. It takes a lot of energy and fortitude to launch violent attacks so, consequently, they can't continue at a elevated level forever.  But people are still killing one another in Iraq to the degree that healthy social life is being thwarted. And we have no assurance that violence at that level won't continue for a long time. So before we jump on the George Bush bandwagon and start congratulating ourselves -- which is our overweening vice -- we need to look at the whole of what we call Iraq, try to get an accurate picture of what's going on there, and come up with a plan for stopping our own killing, a plan that takes some account of what the Iraqis themselves think and want, and isn't based solely on our desire to dominate the world and make sure we can get as much oil as we want to guzzle.

I don't see much evidence that George Bush is up for that kind of survey, and so I'm not ready to fall in lockstep behind him.


A Deep Service
June 21, 2008

"I have faith only in God and the lofty destiny of our adored monarch," says Anna Pavlovna Scherer to Prince Vasili Kuragin in the early pages of War and Peace. She is a silly, though agreeable, woman and in expressing her sentiment she is mimicking the thoughts and feelings of foolish people down the ages. It has been the force behind more death and destruction than has been brought forth by any other emotion.

I'm not so innocent as to think the American people can be cured of it any time soon but it may be that lately its grip on us has been diminished, somewhat. And if that's the case we owe it mostly to George W. Bush. He seems to have taught considerable stretches of the American populace that a president of the United States can be a farce, both as a political leader and as a man. And if he has, that's a very fine thing. In fact, I can think of no political lesson with greater potency for national health.

The lofty destiny of men at the head of affairs is a faith of sycophants everywhere. Simply to be in the presence of these paragons of power is viewed as a near-divine dispensation. Bowing down to them is, among many, considered to be an unparalleled privilege. And it is thus that they catch us up and use us as they will.

Maybe, just maybe, after George W. Bush, the American people will be a little less willing to be used. It takes a faith firmer than that of a saint to believe in his lofty destiny.

Think of a time when people could speak to the president as they would to any other person. I know, it's an impossible dream. Still, it gives me a happy feeling as I write these words here in the midst of a dark night, and almost makes me have warm feelings towards George W. Bush. It would mark him as one of the greatest teachers of history.


Divine Mechanisms
June 20, 2008

Gus Booth, a clergyman from Minnesota, has told his congregation that God wants them to vote for Republicans, and that God has told him it is his duty to proclaim the divine preference for Republicans from the pulpit.

I find this fascinating, mainly with respect to the processes of communication. I wonder how God came to Gus. Was it a still, soft voice in the night? Was it a booming directive while Gus was driving to his church? Was it a mental incursion while Gus was reading the Bible (which as far as I can recall has nothing about Republicans or Democrats)?

Somehow Gus is in touch with the Deity, and the Deity is, more or less, a right-wing freak.

Gus's practical aim in these proclamations is to challenge the law which forbids direct support for candidates from representatives of tax exempt institutions. That, says Gus, is interference with his freedom of speech and not only that, but interference with God's commands. And we surely can't have the latter.

I confess that how to separate tax-exempt institutions from those who have to pay to support the government is a vexatious problem. My inclination is to let Gus say whatever he wishes, wherever and whenever he wishes, and to let him be defined by his own words. I suspect that people who are going to vote for Republicans are going to do it whether God or Gus tells them to or not. So, I'm not much worried about God's monkeying around in American politics.

It's the tax business that bothers me. I suppose if you're going to make any type of institution exempt from taxation, you're bound to get institutions falsely claiming to be that type. Gus, for example, is claiming to be an official of a Christian church. But who can and who can't rightly claim that status is not at all clear -- and perhaps never was.

So, here we are -- up in the air.


Past Time to Switch
June 19, 2008

In his introduction to Nietzsche's The Antichrist -- still one of the most virulent and funniest diatribes of American literature -- H. L. Mencken says that the combat between the plutocrats and the proletariat is, in actuality, a civil war: "two inferiorities struggle for the privilege of polluting the world."

Though Mencken found both contenders disgusting, he tended to come down on the side of the plutocrats as the lesser of two evils. Had he lived on till now, he might have altered his view. Though the overall contest remains somewhat as it was, the moguls of the new wealth have dug beneath any bottom populist demagogues can reach. They make Lou Dobbs of CNN look like a Galahad.

If you don't believe that's the case, you should check up on hedge fund magnates like Bruce Kovner, head of Caxton Associates, or John Paulson of Paulson and Company. To these guys, ten million dollars is chump change. Yet they hire security guards to protect their precious persons at $12.50 an hour and get highly indignant if anyone should suggest that maybe -- just maybe -- they ought to include health insurance as a part of a pay package (which, of course, they seldom do).

Their economic thuggery is the current supreme vulgarity of American life. I doubt that even Mencken could have laughed it off. Yet, there they are, the modern captains of America assuming their right to rule all things and to wall themselves off from the ugly sight of people starving to death -- the walls built, no doubt, by those who manage to stay slightly above the starvation line, so long as they keep on serving.

The new barbarians, of course, like things are they are. John Paulson, who made $3.7 billion last year, said about the situation in which 2.2 million households were forced into foreclosure, "I've never been involved in a trade with such unlimited upside." Whoopee!

This is what I call pollution on a cosmic scale. But, now, who do we have to sketch it? Little Billy Kristol of the New York Times? We seldom have a Mencken when we really need one.


The Big Why
June 17, 2008

When Mormon boys come to visit me for the sake of proselytization, I always ask them why we should worship God? It appears to be a question they have not before entertained. So I continue and inquire whether it's because God is, by definition, all powerful and all knowing, in other words, a strong, smart entity. Are those reasons to bow down before him? If we do, isn't it done mainly out of fear? And is bowing down before what you fear really a noble act?

They don't have strong answers, although they generally try to say something to the effect that God is more than power and knowledge, that he's the source of good. So, then I ask if good is simply that which comes from God, or does it have an independent status?

Then they say everything comes from God and therefore everything is good. And, I ask, even cancer of the rectum and genocide? Then they circle back and say all bad things come from human choice. And then I say, "So, everything doesn't come from God?"  And so it goes.

You might say it's mean to bedevil these boys in that way. But, I disagree. I don't really care if they're Mormons. To me, they're young human creatures, and it's healthy for them to begin to think. That's because, if they don't think, they can't move towards their better selves.

In America, the idea that the purpose of living is to work towards a better self seems almost to have been forgotten. When people talk about the American dream, they never include in it the making of a better self. They just talk about getting stuff.

That, for me, is the big why of America. Why has the idea of a better self been lost? It seems that for many Americans, the idea that they're not already perfect, or, at least, already all they can conceive of being, is fantastic. That's a notion so bizarre, we need to inquire where it came from.


Constitutional Confusion
June 14, 2008

The most surprising -- and dismaying -- feature of the debate about the Supreme Court's ruling on habeas corpus for persons imprisoned at Guantanamo is its demonstration that many Americans don't understand what this basic legal privilege is. They seem to think habeas corpus can be maintained for some persons and denied to others. But that's a logical impossibility.

Once the government has the right to seize someone and then to refuse to offer any explanation about the seizure -- which is what the Bush administration has claimed -- then no one is safe from seizure. If the government can put someone in prison and give that person no opportunity to defend himself, then everyone is in danger. You can say all you wish that the government can do this to aliens but not to citizens, but how is the seized citizen to demonstrate his citizenship if he has no recourse to the courts? A man locked deep in a prison can't say anything to anyone who counts unless he is brought into the light of day and given a chance to defend himself. His jailers can simply laugh at any assertion he makes.

When habeas corpus is suspended, it is not suspended just for some people; it is suspended period.

Right now, the public takes comfort in the presumed low numbers who have been denied access to the courts. But how do we know what the number is? With habeas corpus shoved aside, the government doesn't have to release information about how many people it has rounded up. I guess you could say that if prominent people were disappearing by this means their friends and family would bring the power of public opinion to bear on the government. Consequently, the government can't be using the suspension of the writ to silence its political opponents, as has happened in many tyrannies. But the only point you would be making is that the government hasn't yet chosen to use the device of silently removing everyone of whom it disapproves. Besides, the Constitution is not supposed to apply only to people with influential associates. It's supposed to apply to everyone.

Actually the only argument being made by people who attack the court's decision is that the president can be trusted not to do anything bad. That argument has been refuted over and again by the current occupant of the White House. Anyone who believes it is extremely naive and no friend to constitutional government.


Shadow Over Success
June 13, 2008

The victory for the writ of habeas corpus at the Supreme Court yesterday is being widely celebrated across the land. And, it's right that it should be. There is nothing more fundamental to liberty and to the Constitution than denying government the power simply to bury someone in prison and never be required to show why. That such a case had to be brought to the court shows the extraordinary circumstances we've been living under during the Bush administration.

It's hard to find anything more unambiguous in the Constitution than its stance on the right of habeas corpus, that is, the right of anyone imprisoned by the government to appear in court, to demand to know the charges against him, and to be allowed to refute them if he can.

Yet, we all need to be aware that four members of the Supreme Court, including the Chief Justice, voted against that right. I use the word "voted" advisedly. These four men were not ruling on the constitutionality of the government's behavior. They were voting for the kind of government they wish to see imposed upon the people of the United States. The idea that they are "strict constructionists" is so ludicrous I don't know how anyone can get the argument out of his mouth without gagging.

One more court appointee by George Bush and habeas corpus would simply have been dumped.

Remember back when John Roberts had been nominated? Recall all the talk about how, though he was somewhat "conservative," he could be counted on to preserve the basic rights of the people no matter what the government tried to do? As far as I can tell, he has been almost perfectly political since his appointment. And his politics are almost perfectly in line with the politics of George W. Bush and the gaggle of extreme ideologues around him.

There's not much doubt about the kind of politicians John McCain would put on the court. And he would have only to select one in order to flush dozens of what we used to think of as civil rights down the drain. Maybe you should get that straight in your head if you're a little worried about Barack Obama's funny name.


The Difficulty With Bush
June 12, 2008

Roger Cohen has an intelligent column in the New York Times today in which he says the president's problem is not his intelligence as much as it is his temperament. Cohen is explicit. Mr. Bush, he says, is "mean, vindictive, surly, controlling and impatient."

I think Cohen's right. Bush is, technically, intelligent enough to do his job. It's his nastiness that has led to one dopey decision after another.

When I think back over the past seven and a half years, I realize that my main complaint against the president is that he has tried to steal my country. He has tried to take it over for the purpose of making it into something I never imagined it could be -- an image of himself.

I grew up thinking that America might not be the most sophisticated place in the world, but that it was essentially generous and goodhearted. Now, generosity and kindness of heart are the last things most people around the world associate with the United States. We can't say the shift is entirely the result of Bush and the pack of intellectual freaks with whom he has associated. But they have certainly been a major force in shoving us away from who we thought we were. They have taken the country I thought we had and tried to dump it down a drain hole.

There's much scorn being directed now at Dennis Kucinich for introducing articles of impeachment into the House. They will go nowhere, people say, so what's the use of them? The use is to establish an American expression of who George Bush is. It's important to have that recorded officially somewhere.

If we want to get our country back, then we need to know what it was that has been trying to take it away from us. I think we owe Mr. Kucinich a debt of gratitude for performing a task that won't win him anything most people regard as practical. It remains true that often the impractical is, over the long run, the most practical thing of all.


Single Policy Party
June 11, 2008

The Republicans have decided to launch an attack on Michelle Obama as a way to bring Barack down. The National Review recently ran a cover picturing her with the caption, "Mrs. Grievance." Big surprise. What else can they do but adhere to their ongoing stance? And what is that? Racism, pure and simple.

The Republicans have no other policy and haven't had another for at least the past thirty years. Every position they take can be traced back in one way or another to an underlying racism.

They are fond of using the term "un-American" as staple of their attack mode. Anyone who uses that term as a criticism of someone is racist to the core.

The political difficulty in confronting this nauseous behavior is that Barack Obama can't address it head on. His campaign is based on a pledge to diminish racial animosity. So, he can scarcely point out that the character of those opposing him has been raised up out of racial prejudice. It doesn't matter how true it is. He just can't mention it.

So, who can? Obviously, people like me, who have no political ambitions. But our weakness is that we barely have a voice. Still, small statements can creep into public consciousness if they are repeated often enough. So, at the least, we need to keep on saying what we know.

In the end, we have to face the truth that presidential politics will be determined by whether or not a majority of the American people are in the grip of racial bigotry. And we also have to admit that at the moment we don't know.

Still, win or lose, it's healthy to get clear in our minds who the Republicans are.

I should add, as a footnote, that for me seeing a person as a racist does not read him or her out of the human race. Racial prejudice is an ancient, deeply embedded sentiment that we can't expect to disappear overnight.  Many racists are decent people in other respects. But I do think the time has come for us to step beyond racism, to put it behind us. It should no longer play a part in our politics. Consequently, the people who hold onto it need to be neutralized as a political force. For us that means the Republican Party should be rejected by those who seek a new and better world.


Residing in Regularity
June 7, 2008

I read a long article by Jamison Foser on Media Matters about whether MSNBC has moved strongly to the left. He admits there may have been a slight tendency of that kind lately but, still, that the major MSNBC figures are more than happy to repeat false right-wing jibes about Democratic candidates. And they're especially happy to be snarky about Democrats whenever they stray out into the world of Mr. Average Guy. My favorite is Chris Matthews's mocking of Obama for ordering orange juice in a diner.

Matthews, of course, is the champion understander in all America of the regular guy.  Tuning into Hardball, I've tried to keep up with all the things the regular guy is not or that he doesn't do. It's an astounding array.

If you have graduated from college, or even have gone, you can't be a regular guy, of course. You can't have read a book, you can't have traveled outside the boundaries of the United States, you can't have any ethnic antecedents other than pure Caucasian, you can't drink wine, you can't ever have tuned into NPR, you can't own a car or truck that gets more than fifteen miles per gallon, you can't tie the laces on your boots, you can't have a waist that's less than forty-inches around, you can't know what arugala is. All this avoidance bespeaks one hundred percent patriotic chic.

It's fairly complicated list. I'd guess that Chris spends hours by his pool studying all the permutations of it. How else could he be such an expert?

Barack Obama, of course, has to get in touch with all this avoidance or else he's doomed. That's the principal wisdom gang-pundity purveys to us. Its practitioners are fully versed in American regularity, and they understand that it, more than anything else, certainly more than nonsense like constitutionalism, forms the backbone of America. It makes us great, and our own greatness is what we are commanded to worship more fervently than anything else.


Face Off
June 6, 2008

Fox News managed an interesting juxtaposition last night. They put Oliver North and Jerry Springer on the same program.

Ollie North is, perhaps, the most extreme proponent of American right-wing militarism. Jerry Springer is generally laughed at as the host of a TV show featuring absurd people trading insults. You might think a debate between the two of them would be a farce. But, actually, it revealed some significant features of American political discourse.

North, along with the show's host Sean Hannity, perhaps one of the few people in public life who can rival North in his nationalistic excess, were bent on painting Barack Obama as an "empty suit," based on his supposed friendship with people who have said and done controversial things. Springer was determined to point out that Obama's nomination signals an important development in American political life.

It was a case of an old mindset versus one that may be coming into being. The issue between them was whether the character of the American nation will be determined by imperialist leaders who play up American power as the essence of glory, or will come from thousands of new voices, expressing themselves in settings that formerly would not have achieved much notice.

Springer is convinced that Obama is a sign that the American mind is reformulating itself, that it is rising from the bottom -- as he put it -- rather than being handed down from the top. One might argue about what's really up and down in this case, but the substance of the debate was clear. North and Hannity disparage as emptiness the concerns of people who are dismayed by the recent behavior of the American government.

These two positions, couched, perhaps, in slightly more euphemistic language, will be the essence of the political campaign ahead of us. Can the new voices find a platform or will tribal calls for patriotism win the day?

I'm glad the two candidates are as they are. If the contest were only between the two positions I would be more fearful about the outcome than I am. But I don't think McCain can mount an effective response to Obama. When the two are seen side by side the latter will come across as smarter and more vigorous, and, consequently, will be perceived as the victor. It may not be the best was to choose a national political leader, but I'm happy it has worked out this way this time.


True Distinctiveness
June 5, 2008

Watching Adam Sandler last night promote his dopey new movie, Don't Mess With the Zohan, on the David Letterman show, the thought came to me that we have become almost entirely a promotional society.  Everyone seems to be promoting something all the time. But what is the point of all this promotion? Money? Fame? Influence? What we uncomprehendingly call success?

Are they life, or they not?

One can answer as he chooses. As far as I can tell there is no God-supplied definition of life. But since there's not, all of us have the right to conceive of genuine life as whatever existence we can create out of our personal intelligence and imagination. Making use of that right, I'm ready to say that fame, money and influence constitute a paltry vision of human potential. Not only paltry; it's vulgar.

Promotion is actually a form of begging. And successful beggary is not a thing which can stand careful examination.

I don't want you to think I'm saying we shouldn't offer things to one another. Offering is one of the finest things humans can do. But there is a boundary between offering and promoting, and it's one we crossed so long ago we have mostly forgot that it exists.

I'd like to see us go back to the other side (if, indeed, we were ever there).

We don't have to promote in order to exchange. A baker doesn't have to say, "My pie is better than anybody else's pie." He can simply place his pie where people can see it, and, if it's good, he has a decent chance of selling it. The value of dealing with pies that way is that the baker can use his energies to conceive and make better pies, rather than spending time and money exaggerating their glories.

It's true that he will not make a billion dollars concentrating on the quality of his pies. But why should anyone want a billion dollars? What does it say about a person that he does?

I realize I'm running counter to the American way of life in saying this. But that's okay. I never signed on to promote the American way of life. I'd rather suggest to the baker of good but non-hyped pies that his approach to life is as worthy as a billionaire's. He need not feel ashamed of himself for selling a hundred pies rather than a million. And, in taking his stance he's relieving the world of a tremendous lot of dreadful rhetoric and abuse of language.


Just One Reason
June 4, 2008

Now we'll be treated to torrents of analysis about why Obama won and Clinton lost. So I might as well add my drop to the current. It won't be original. In fact it's obvious.

In the fall of 2002, Hillary Clinton cast her vote about invading Iraq with her political future in mind. She believed that when time came for her to run for the presidency, her chief challenge would be to overcome the charge that a woman is not strong enough, or tough enough for the office. So, she sought to demonstrate her forcefulness by voting for war. She didn't want to hear right-wingers declaiming that she was neither resolute nor patriotic.

It was the biggest mistake she ever made and it cost her the presidency.

It's understandable why she thought as she did. Both she and her husband had been savaged for years by the right-wing. She was determined not to give them an opening. But she overestimated their strength and underestimated the revulsion the country was beginning to feel for lethal adventures overseas. She set her defenses against the right-wing when it was already beginning to crumble from its own stupidity and corruption. But she couldn't see that because she had been beat up too much and she was tired of it.

I sympathize with her. But she did make the wrong decision, and choices of that sort matter.

Now, she has to live with having made a great mistake, and with having lost a great prize. She needs to revert to the Protestant lesson I'm sure she was taught as a girl: count your blessings. Though she has lost much she still has much to build on. She can become one of the major political figures of her age. But to do it, she has to put her disappointments behind her and find positive ways to serve the nation.

Actually, her biggest decisions lie in front of her, not behind.


Names Beyond Number
June 3, 2008

I wonder if many people experience a difficulty that gets more acute all the time for me. I come across too many names to assimilate them, or make sense of them, or keep them adequately in my memory. The first take on the problem might be that I'm declining in mental power. But, I doubt that's it. With around the clock news, and incessant electronic communications, I simply get hit with a lot more names than I used to.

Maybe the answer is just not to worry about it. But that doesn't seem to work for me.

I read once that the average person in the Middle Ages didn't meet or hear about more than twenty five or thirty people in his whole life. That small number made up his entire human universe. He could think through who they were and what they meant to him. I don't know if that was better or worse, but it was doubtless easier.

Now, almost every day, I come on perhaps a dozen new names who are doing or saying things I would like to remember. But that would be 4,380 people every year I would have to add to my memory banks and be able to drag out on a moment's notice. Perhaps there are people who can do that. But I can't.

Some might say this isn't a thing of any significance. After all, we have Google, and using it, usually, in a moment or two, you can find a name you can't recall. That's true. For some reason, just a few minutes ago, I couldn't call to mind Alan Dershowitz's name. But all I had to do was type "Jimmy Carter critic" into Google, and there it was in less than five seconds.

It's not finding names that bothers me. It's that the number of names cascading down on me changes the way I feel about the human race. Each name points not to a genuine person but to just a phrase or a snippet. And being that, it doesn't seem to be worth very much. And, then, when I go out on the street, I begin to have the same feeling about all the people I see walking around. "Who are all these people?" I ask. "What do they mean?"

As the numbers increase, there's a kind of diminishing of humanity in my mind. I wish it weren't so. I don't think it's right. But, at the moment, I don't know what to do about it.

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