November 30, 2010
Yesterday a friend sent me Joe McCain's much discussed essay from several years ago about Israel. I can't be sure but I suspect he found it to be a bracing piece of writing. Joe McCain, by the way, is Senator McCain's brother
McCain's basic point was that current Israelis are so acutely aware of the horrors done to the Jewish people over the past two millennia that they will never, under any circumstances, allow themselves to be mistreated again. You certainly can't blame any people for protecting themselves against mistreatment. So, in that respect, I agree with McCain's sentiments. If he had left it at that, I would have no quarrel with his analysis or his emotions. But he didn't.
He announced -- rather pridefully I thought -- that if Arab nations did anything to threaten Israeli security, then millions of Arabs would die. He didn't say how many millions but he gave the impression that it didn't matter, either to him or to the Israelis. If it was ten, so be it; if it was a hundred, so be that also.
He then went on to expound on a lesson he learned from visiting the site of the Dachau prison in Germany about fifteen years ago. He couldn't comprehend the cruelty of what had happened there. In that respect, I think he was like most of us. But, then, he began to draw a lesson from the horror. Though he was ostensibly projecting an attitude onto the Israelis -- which doubtless some of them share -- he was also expressing his own thoughts about what ought to be done in certain situations.
I'm not going to get into a parlor game about whether it would be okay to kill a hundred million in order to protect five million, provided the five million were your own guys. I find that kind of hypothesis childish. But when one writes, with a tone of celebratory vigor, about the willingness of any group to kill millions of people outside their group, he's wandering into dangerous territory.
McCain offered no analysis about what sort of situation might justify the killing of these millions. In that area his writing remained highly abstract. There would be a threat. The Israelis would respond more vigorously than the world could easily imagine. Millions of people would die. They weren't of course, ever spoken of as people but rather always as Arabs.
The import of the message was: "You fool around with us, by God" -- clearly Joe was identifying with the Israelis -- "and you'll get something you can't even begin to grasp."
So, he's really a tough guy and that's supposed to be impressive, and influential. The problem with the exhilaration of toughness is that it leaves little room for perceiving what's likely to happen after you've been tough, after you've shown them. You wake up into a world where you've killed thirty million people and, consequently, maimed at least three times that number -- even if they are only Arabs -- and what have you got? I can't say for sure but I can tell you what you don't have: security.
I devoutly hope the Israelis are not as juvenile as Joe McCain. Doubtless, some are and some are not. So I shift my hope to those who aren't and pray that they prevail.
The problem returns to the lesson of Dachau. You stand there, either in reality or imagination, and are sickened. What is the human race, you ask yourself, that it can do things of the kind that happened here? Then conflicting answers pour into your brain. It's intrinsically evil; it's pathetically confused; it's dogmatically ignorant; it's so fearful there's no limit to what it might do; it's designed for extinction, and the sooner the better. Perhaps there's a tinge of truth in every answer that comes. But asking yourself about the nature of your fellow humans is unlikely to tell you how to behave. Your actions have to come from who you are, what you care about, what kind of world you want to inhabit.
I would think, and hope, that at least one of the responses could be a determination to struggle with all one's might against vicious persecution and murderous behavior.
Let's think about a two year old child -- even if he is an Arab -- sitting at a table in a kitchen, munching raisins and banging his cup on the surface while his mother scrapes on something at the sink. Then there comes a big flash. The kitchen is turned to a chaotic jumble. He feels like his face is on fire. He crawls to his mother who lying in a corner and discovers that her head is halfway severed from her body and that one of her arms is gone Then he howls for a half hour, or so, before he can't catch his breath anymore, can't howl anymore. So he dies.
Ah! Here's toughness.
Is creating such scenes a million times over the right answer to Dachau? Or might we search for other options? Might we say, we will not do this because it's not who we are? Joe McCain wouldn't say that. But, then, he's just one guy: a tough guy.
November 28, 2010
Lately I have become more and more aware of how terribly long its has taken me to escape pieties which emasculated my thought. The truth is I may not have escaped them all yet.
Pieties are comfort ideas. They are mental constructs you can snuggle up to. They tend to make you feel happy with yourself, and nothing that works in that manner has much to do with the truth. Truth, for the most part, is not comforting. It can be bracing and afford a certain vigor, but it almost never pats you on the head.
Most people care far more for pieties than they do for the truth, just as most people would rather be praised for getting it wrong than ignored for getting it right. I guess you could say that's just human nature, assuming humanity has a nature, which, actually, I don't think it does. What humanity does have, however, are current habits. At the moment those habits are so swathed in piety it's very hard for intelligent social thought to emerge. That probably has always been the case yet current piety may be doing more harm in America than piety in the past managed to do.
Most piety is related to groups. People love to believe the groups they are part of are superior to groups inhabited by other people. For the most part they don't bother to explain their definition of superiority. They just take it for granted. Thus we are told, from time to time, that Christians are superior to Muslims, that Jews are superior to Christians, that white people are superior to persons of darker hue, that English speakers are superior to Spanish speakers, that the inhabitants of one section of the country are superior to inhabitants of another, that those who live in the Heartland are superior to those who live ... God knows where, the Headland? Most of all, and more insistently, you might even say insanely, we are told that Americans are superior to any other nationality on the face of the earth.
It may be true that at a certain point in history one of these groups was slightly more intelligent than another, but to say that any one of them is "superior" to any other of them is just sentimental crap.
Sentiment about groups morphs into sentiment about persons. Most people's heroes come from the same groups they do. That's only one of the reasons the concept of heroes is fatuous. For some reason it pleases us to think that there are individuals who rise above humanity. Clearly, there are some who, with respect to certain skills, are better than the average. Derek Jeter can hit a baseball better than I can. But does that make him a hero? We can admire him as a good baseball player, maybe as the possessor of a pleasant personality, maybe even as generous in some respects. But to make him into a hero, in the way the word is currently used, is nonsense. And what we can say of Derek Jeter we can say of anybody else, now or from the past.
Probably the strongest impediment to clear thought is reverence for political figures, and, particularly for politicians who happened to head nations when they drifted into war. I know that for many years Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt were heroes of mine. I confess there are characteristics about each I still respect, but each also had features that turn my stomach. The notion that unique men arise to meet the challenge of the times is by itself enough to transform a person into an abominable historian. There are no political heroes, just guys who by luck or chance happened to get a lot of headlines. Some of them may have been better than others -- in accordance with a certain set of standards. But heroes? No. We would do ourselves a large favor if we retired the word.
We certainly don't have to give up liking some things better than others to escape the trammels of piety. But we do -- if we want to have good sense -- have to recognize that anything and anyone can be seen from a variety of perspectives, and that nobody anywhere, at any time, can justifiably set one perspective ineluctably above all the others.
Piety is a machine for narrowing perspective, to reduce the view of things to such a tiny beam you can't see, or even be aware of, most of what's going on. In its narrowness piety is powerful and that’s exactly why it will gut your mind if you let it.
The Real Motive
November 27, 2010
Every time I go into the Montpelier Post Office building, which also houses other federal agencies, I see two somewhat portly, generally jolly men, in uniforms, sitting behind a desk doing nothing. And, then, the question comes to me whether it's beyond reason to suspect that some of the enemies of the United States are sophisticated enough to be concentrated on deflating the vitality of this country. They don't have to blow anything up, or kill anybody to do that. They just have to work on the anxiety of the American psyche. After all, what is their genuine motive? Is it not to weaken the American nation, to reduce its power and influence? And if all it takes to do that is, every now and then, to get some dweebish kid to put a little dab of plastic explosives in his drawers and try to get on an airplane, then why bother to do anything more complicated?
As far as I know, nobody has calculated the increase in "security" expenditures over the past ten years. It's probably not possible to do it, given the mania about secrecy and so forth. But we can be sure of one thing: if it were possible to calculate that number, it would be astronomical. All indications are it's going to keep going up, up, up.
The amount of energy and concentrated attention in a country is finite. The more they are given to security, the less they are given to anything else. The guys in the Montpelier Post Office are nice enough people and I don't mind their getting a government sinecure. I suppose their salaries boost the economy a bit. But multiply them by a million, or more, and the energy they drain from the nation for nothing in return becomes significant. They may not add any more to the national well-being than Wall Street does.
If we divide the work in the United States into two groups, the productive and the nonproductive, there's no doubt that the percentage of the latter is skyrocketing. And if a few hundred guys, hiding out in ratty apartments and caves around the world, can keep it soaring, the effect over the next few decades will be monumental.
There are a number of reasons why we are unlikely to turn around from the course we are on. The first, probably, is the media. They love sad sack kids with something suspicious in their underwear. It all seems so dramatic: a vast conspiracy to blow up America and a moral people, with gritted teeth, under attack and fighting back. Why not milk a story like that for weeks? It makes people think they are a part of something really, really big.
Every threat, or reputed threat, no matter how pathetic, is an occasion for rampant political opportunism. In the climate we now have, where there is no expectation of consistency, politicians can jump back and forth, week after week, denouncing indignities to the American people one day, and the next, frothing at the mouth about the government's not doing enough to protect the sacred homeland (the introduction of that term, by the way, was the most definite signal of the decline of the republic).
The determination of most citizens to know what's actually happening is disappearing. They have little impulse to discover whether a hyped-up threat is serious or not. They listen, instead, to porcine propaganda from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and then circulate their falsehoods through the inane chatter that passes among many for conversation.
The greater the number of people who pull in money from "security," the more powerful the security industry becomes. You'll notice there's never any serious demand that it put forth evidence of effectiveness. That would place secrecy in jeopardy, and, as we know, secrecy is the mantra of the whole operation.
There are few signs the American people have either the will or the intelligence to pull away from becoming a national security state, where the primary purpose of existence is to thwart attacks, whether real or imaginary. Meanwhile, the streets crumble, scientific research lags behind other countries, the schools lose any sense of genuine education, and new modes of energy production are neglected. What more could Osama bin Laden wish for?
Meanwhile, America's enemies can be patient. Who knows? They may well have photos of the guys in the Montpelier Post Office to remind them of their goals and to amuse them over their coffee.
Civil Liberties and Air Travel
November 26, 2010
I doubt that the furor over airport screenings and body searches will go away. There will be many who will argue that it should, that the public ought to come to understand that increased security is well worth a few inconveniences. But such voices are not taking into account the full array of what's going on.
The basic problem is that the government is incapable of hiring only people who can conduct the screenings in a way to make them tolerable. Doing the job as it ought to be done requires courtesy and tact, and the government is incapable of teaching courtesy and tact. Furthermore, the government is incapable of screening out applicants who didn't acquire those virtues as part of their growing up.
Let's face it. Checking passengers at airports is not work most people would enjoy, and it's particularly not work most courteous people would enjoy. Courteous people are not usually seeking the kind of encounters that take place in airport screening lines. That's not to say that most airport screeners are rude or unreasonable. They are generally just people who need a job but have neither the education nor training that would get them into more creative endeavors. There are, however, a certain percentage of them -- maybe not even five percent but, still, a considerable number -- who are ignorant thugs. Give ignorant thugs authority and layer it over with the notion that they are engaged in super important morality and you have a formula for bad behavior. Add to that the government's seeming incapacity to accept responsibility for bad behavior and its instinctive impulse to blame it on somebody else and we are confronted with a fairly serious assault on civil liberty.
My concern is that these assaults will not be limited to airports but that once established there they will creep out into other aspects of domestic life. Let somebody put a big firecracker into a Wheaties box on a supermarket shelf, and there will be screening lines to get in to buy food. Guess who's likely to be doing that work.
I've had the thought that all this may be simply an unconscious attempt to solve the employment problem. As machines and computers take over more of the processes necessary to supply the goods and services of ordinary life, greater numbers will be free -- I use the word ironically -- to go into security. We may reach the condition where half the population is employed frisking people, including itself. Maybe some will find that all right, even comforting, but it's not where I would enjoy living.
Before we get there, though, we may well have a revolt. I can't say what form it will take. But I know it would be proceeded by a flood of filmed incidents where TSA employees batter citizens for no discernible reason. These snippets might well come to form the staple of every TV news show. The media could not resist them. The Tea Party might even get enraged, which could counteract my conviction that it is a completely useless movement.
Roger Cohen had a fine essay this morning in the New York Times, where he asked, "What form of group madness is it that forsakes judgment and discernment for processes run amok?"
Here's the answer: a political climate in which groups are willing to slam the government for any reason they can find or make up, and a general population unwilling to face reality. If there continue to be great numbers of people around the world who really wish to damage American commercial airplanes, sooner or later one of them will succeed. And if, as a result, the American people go berserk, as they are very likely to do, then it will become farcical to imagine that we can have a republic of reason and civil liberties.
In the meantime, however, expect to see more and more stories of TSA thuggery, either accurate or concocted for political advantage.
The Romance of the Regular Guy
November 25, 2010
Last night on Hardball Chris Matthews went back to blathering about the "regular guy." It's perhaps his favorite conceit. The trouble is that he's listed so many attributes and habits that exclude one from being a regular guy that not even five percent of the population can qualify.
You can't be a regular guy if you have ever been to college, read a book, drunk a cup of Starbuck's coffee, darkened the door of a Brooks Brothers store, known what a biscotti is, ridden in a Volvo, slugged down wine that doesn't come in a gallon jug, worn shoes without steel toes, taken your car to a garage to have the oil changed rather than doing it yourself, used an I-phone, or heard the name of Arthur Schopenhauer.
Regular guys drink beer, incessantly, spend their weekends at NASCAR races or football games, and are no-nonsense about everything.
Though the pure breed is obviously diminishing, they are supposed, still, to constitute the core of the nation. They are the people who tell us what we would believe and care about if we weren't caught up in effete fantasies. They are the bedrock basis of all morality. If you aren't a regular guy you can't even pretend to be moral because you don't know what morality is.
Any politician who would pitch his message straight to the regular guy would win in a landslide.
It's said that regular guys are to women as sticky buns are to flies, but I doubt that's true. You'll notice in the movies that when somebody like Brad Pitt plays a regular guy he'll, sooner or later, reveal a divergence. He'll pull a Montblanc out of his pocket or be caught reading the poems of Arthur Rimbaud. Regular guys probably do get women but that may be because women don't have all that many choices.
I wonder what it is that causes us to continue putting this mythical creature at the center of our less than coherent national culture. What would you do if you had to spend your life in the company of regular guys? You could drink a lot of beer, go to some ball games, listen to dozens of vulgar jokes tinged with misogyny and racism, and hope some day to buy a pickup truck. All these things have their charms, I guess, but do they make up the whole of life?
One thing's for sure. There's no mystery about why media figures like Chris Matthews keep playing up to the regular guy image. Just imagine what would happen if Chris had a flat tire when he wasn't being driven by a chauffeur and was in a cell phone dead zone. Can't you just see him trying to shove the jack in the right place under the car, that is if he had been able to find the jack. Chris makes five million dollars a year and lives in house on Long Island. That's not what regular guys do. He knows he is so far from the gritty aspects of life that he would be terrified if he had to confront them. So he pretends he knows about these things to beef up his masculine image. It's pathetic that he wants to beef it up, but, then, you know, he is an American.
The virtue of the common man is a fanciful tale that got dyed into the American fabric almost from the start of our national existence. It has always been there, serving to extenuate the crummy things we do to people -- Native Americans, blacks, Mexicans, Vietnamese, Iraqis and so on. I don't know how long it will take to wash it out. The cloth might unravel before the stain fades away.
It will still be there, vividly, long after Chris Matthews has gone back to his maker or wherever it is he's going to go after he stops pontificating at us.
November 24, 2010
Robert Wright in his recent essay about the disaster that is the Afghanistan invasion says the United States has to learn not to overreact. The statement might make sense if he had said, "needs to learn." But to say that the United States "has" to learn something that its very composition won't allow it to learn is, more or less, to say nothing. It's like saying that cats must learn not to stalk birds. How are they going to do that?
When the attacks on September 11, 2001 occurred virtually everyone thought we had to do something dramatic. Given the American psyche, not to do something big would have been intolerable. To anyone who thought about it, it was obvious that anything done under those circumstances was very likely to be foolish. But Americans don't think, they act. Or, rather, they react.
The reaction in that case was exactly what the attackers wanted. Knowing the American mind, they had planned the reaction in advance.
The government of the United States launched two wars, neither of which made sense. But they were big. And bigness was what was called for. Lots of money had to be spent; lots of buildings had to be blown up; lots of people had to be killed. Anything else would have been un-American.
Late in 2008, the American financial structure began to collapse. People had made vast amounts of money packaging mysterious overpriced financial instruments and selling then downstream. When it became obvious that huge financial organizations had debts they couldn't pay because they had invested in this inflated financial paper everything began to go to smash. The people were outraged and they elected someone to fix things up overnight. But he didn't fix them up overnight. So the people got outraged again.
They elected numerous people who said they were going to smack the fixer in the face. We'll show him, the people said. They put back into office the influences that had caused the financial crisis in the first place, even though those figures announced they were going to do exactly the same things they had done before. The people didn't care. They were determined to teach a lesson by acting.
The problem with automatic reaction is that when shrewd people figure out in advance what it's going to be they can rig the game. Groups in the Middle East, resentful of American financial and cultural incursions into their countries, figured that if they could make just one big strike, they could then sit back and watch the American compulsion to react undercut the nation. And they were right. Their goal was to make the United States weaker, and now the United States is weaker.
The big financial interests in America, owners of the Republican Party, figured out that if they could slow down reform the people, in their impatience, would reject the reformers. So they directed their political minions to sabotage every sensible effort that was being made. They too were right. The people were too impatient to give sensible measures a chance to take hold.
Compulsions are very hard to get under control, whether they infect an individual or a nation. When they pervade the world's formerly most powerful nation, there are vast advantages to be had by playing on them. You might say the whole world is playing that game now, including internal elements within the United States.
It would be wonderful if the American people could learn what's being done to them. It would be wonderful if all addictions could be cured by thought. But experience teaches us that both those occurrences are unlikely. That's not to say we should stop trying to bring them about. But, on the other hand, we shouldn't be severely disappointed when miracles don't happen.
November 21, 2010
I've been thinking about David Frum's judgment that populist rage is aimed not at the rich but at the educated. How symptomatic of our time is this?
There is, of course, a distinction to be made between educated persons -- defined as they are now as the holders of academic degrees -- and persons of intelligence. But it's not a distinction that most so-called populists have in mind. If you were to pluck out at random a member of the populist population and ask him to explain what education means to him, it's unlikely he would have anything intelligible to say. I have heard answers to that question which run something like, "Oh just those people who think they're so smart."
The issue I have in mind is whether we are facing a revolt of resentment against intelligence itself. I suspect we are.
If my suspicion is correct, then what's to be done?
If you read the mainstream media with care, you'll discover that many advise going with the current. If careful examination of though and language is not popular then maybe we should forget about them. They're not the prime way to make money or get elected. So why go to the trouble and labor they require? After all, isn't John Boehner going to be Speaker of the House? Isn't Roger Ailes making lots of money? Aren't the patterns of success really all that count?
If you can be satisfied with the company of John Boehner and Roger Ailes then maybe giving up on intelligence is the answer. But if you reflect that life is time spent with your own thoughts and interaction with other people, perhaps the Boehner/Ailes model isn't the path to paradise, or even to modest, sane comfort.
Would you rather sit in a thousand dollar a night suite drinking scotch with Boehner or take a chilly walk alongside a lake with Paul Krugman, or Glenn Greenwald, or Jane Mayer? Answering a question of that character may be the most important thing you can ever do.
There is an organization called the American Family Association and one of its officials is Bryan Fischer. Mr. Fischer has been in the news lately for protesting the tendency to award the Medal of Honor only to soldiers who save the lives of other soldiers. He wants it to go, primarily, to soldiers who kill people. Fischer is serving right now for me as a symbol of stupidity. Maybe that's not fair to him but being fair to Bryan is not at the moment one of my concerns. I don't want anything bad to happen to him and that, in his case, is as much largeness of heart as I can summon. He's only one among many of the persons who have reminded me lately that though the fabled war between the haves and the have-nots is perennial and vicious, it is still less basic than the struggle between the thoroughly stupid and those somewhat less so (within those poles exist the entire human race). It's more basic because when the haves triumph over the have-nots, as they do frequently, there still remain within society pockets of civility and gracefulness. But when stupidity is strongly ascendant everything fine is crushed or shoved underground.
I know; there are problems of definition here. Haves? Have-nots? The stupid? The not so stupid? Still, as categories for shaping our actions, these serve us in a rough way. They let us know that if we acquiesce to certain attitudes and behaviors, if we grow disheartened and accept society as constructed by the trio I've mentioned here and those in their camp, then we become no more healthy than they. Sickness prevails.
There's a strain of thinking which holds that just as no person is perfectly evil no one is perfectly stupid. As a precept it is probably correct. But there do exist people doltish enough to muck up social intercourse in serious ways. We have seen it happen before in history and numerous patterns of oafishness which in the past have created horrors are gaining a footing in the United States now. There's no sense in pretending they aren't what they are.
It's not easy to know how best to resist them but there's no doubt they should be resisted. I have gradually -- and reluctantly -- come to see that courteously pretending they don't exist will not make them go away. We don't have to be grossly hortatory but we should be clear. There are attitudes which repress imagination and inventiveness and liveliness of mind. More often than not, they present themselves as morality. But regardless of their posturing, they grind us toward dullness. I don't think the struggle against them can be laid aside. There is no option but to persist.
Bowing and Scraping
November 20, 2010
There are rumors abroad that President Obama is trying to make a deal with the Chamber of Commerce in order to win favor with John Boehner. I hope that's not the case.
We have reason to fear that Mr. Obama's desire to work cooperatively with the Republicans has become maniacal. It's hard to understand what's going on in the president's mind. And he has not been good at explaining himself on this issue. He makes heartening speeches about not giving the keys back to the people who drove us into the ditch. But then he holds out the keys to them. It's as though he lacks the imagination to discern who they are. Might that be true?
There are also rumors about the advice he is getting from his inner circle. It seems almost impossible to believe that it is as bad as we hear it is. They don't explain themselves very well either.
A couple days ago the New York Times published an interesting collection of letters pleading with the president to fight for the things he says he believes in. Carl Schiffman from Queens argued that the president doesn't view himself as a political leader but as a kind of prophet with a divine mission to bring people together. Could Mr. Schiffman be right?
The American people elected Mr. Obama to fight for them against a minority of greedy plutocrats who have attempted -- and continue to attempt -- to buy the government. Why doesn't Obama simply tell them that the government is not for sale? It would be an easy message to put across. He could start by refusing to approve continued tax cuts for people making more than a quarter million dollars a year. All he would have to say is that he won't do it under any circumstances. Millions would rally to him. Instead we keep getting mealy-mouthed blather about waiting to hear what the Republicans have to say. We don't need to wait. We know what they're going to say.
I sometimes wonder if Obama grasps the level of comfort which can be had with $250,00 a year. Nobody with a greater income than that is hurting financially. But the nation is suffering grievously from the foolish tax cuts pushed through by the Bush administration. The Republican arguments for continuing them are absurd. It is not legitimate compromise to give in on an issue as clear as this. It would be like okaying a little bit of legal racism in return for approving a minor detail of a trade bill. That way lies loss of soul.
Increasing numbers of voices say they have lost all hope in Obama. He has been craven too consistently and too long. But I suspect that most of the people who voted for him continue to hope. I know I do. Somewhere in him there has to be a point where he will say, "This has gone on long enough." But if he doesn't reach it soon, conditions in the nation are going to become genuinely dismal.
A Danger, a Farce, or Both?
November 19, 2010
Democratic politicians are frustrated and bewildered because they face opponents who possess a base of voters who care nothing for the truth. Being able to lie with impunity is a big advantage in politics and Republicans have been avid to seize it.
It's commonly thought that every society contains a Yahoo element and that nothing can be done about it. But I wonder if that sort of resignation makes sense.
In America the average white man -- and by average I mean made up of about two-thirds -- has grown up dominated by a society, and an economy, designed to produce empty lives. He has been told that life's only purpose if to get rich and, for the most part he has believed it. The problem is that most can't get rich, and those who don't, but think they should, turn bitter and sour. Actually, it doesn't matter much if one does get rich because the dominant message has been that you are never rich enough.
Such persons are prime material for manipulation and the lie is the principal tool for working on them.
Polls tell us regularly that when Republicans win the key element in their victory is overwhelming support among middle-aged white men who claim to be angry about the social situation. But they are not angry because the poor are oppressed; they are not angry because health care has been denied to millions of their fellow citizens; they are not angry because the country's infrastructure is in disrepair; they are not angry because their nation is engaging in futile wars; they are not angry because educational attainment among America's youth is declining compared to other nations. No, they are angry because they don't have as much money as they want and they have been told that's because they are taxed heavily in order to give money to those who don't deserve it.
In Florida recently I was told, with pure conviction, that the federal government is operating an interest-free loan program open only to illegal aliens so they can take over all the small corner grocery stores and filling stations in America. It does little good to point out that this is not true. The people who believe it aren't interested in the truth.
I have become more and more convinced that problems need to be addressed at their core. Pruning the periphery, though it may do some slight good, leaves the core able to continue sending out toxic branches. We cannot have a just and sensible political order as long as a major portion of the population believes that personal material wealth is the only thing worth striving for, the only thing worth having, the source of all other goods in life. Teaching people to take a balanced view of wealth is difficult because it's true that a certain level of material comfort is needed to live a satisfying life. No one can argue, with much chance of being heard, that voluntary poverty is the avenue to happiness. It's not easy to know how much is enough. But when personal wealth is the overweening goal then social comity is wrecked.
The Republican Party exists to preach personal wealth and nothing else. Even when national dominance is promoted, the underlying purpose is to insure that Americans will possess more personal material wealth than anyone else. To the degree that the populace sets personal wealth as its god, the Republican Party will prevail. The result will be widespread social misery. And the answer to social misery, the Republicans will say, is more personal wealth. It's an ancient formula and history has shown it working its destruction many times over.
At the center of the personal wealth philosophy is the Yahoo mentality. Unless it can be dissolved, or mitigated to some extent, a mean-spirited politics will drive our social affairs. But what can open the Yahoo soul?
We like Yahoos in a way because they're comic. They entertain us. Think of the pleasure Michelle Bachman has provided. Remember our fondness for Archie Bunker. Where would John Stewart be without them? And yet, when they take over the House of Representatives, as they're going to do in less than two months, the comedy may wither.
Even I don't want the Yahoos to go away completely. I just don't want them to win elections. If they're to be prevented from winning, we need a stronger cultural thrust to paint the personal wealth philosophy for what it is -- a declaration of war against social well-being.
The best way to do this is to start questioning the pieties of the Yahoo soul. When someone goes gooney over the "American Dream," ask him what the American Dream is, and if he answers as expected, then ask him why that's what people should be dreaming about.
When America is extolled as a place where people can get ahead, ask who they're going to get a ahead of, and why they should be ahead of them. Should the guy who concocts financial instruments to befuddle people really be ahead of a teacher who tries to help high school students understand the truth?
When someone glories over the new ten thousand square foot house he has just built, ask him what would happen if everyone in the world owned a ten thousand square foot house.
When someone with no need to haul anything around buys a Ford F-250 pickup truck because those other trucks just don't seem big enough, wonder out loud where our notions of appropriate bigness come from.
We don't have to be overly aggressive, but we do have to prick holes for thought to flow through. The Yahoos aren't made happy by thought -- at least not initially --and they'll erect whatever the walls they can to keep it out. But thought is like light; it'll sneak through when there's even the tiniest aperture.
The Widening Gap
November 18, 2010
Roger Ailes has told us that the leaders of National Public Radio are Nazis, that Jon Stewart is crazy, and, most bizarre of all, that Bill O'Reilly is moving to the left. Bill O'Reilly, that pinko! Okay, so it's Roger Ailes, and mentally healthy people understand we can't expect anything balanced from him. Still, he does show us something.
Opinions in the United States are diverging from one another faster than the universe is expanding. The hard thing to figure out is whether that's a good thing or bad. Or, maybe, it just doesn't make any difference.
There's much sentimental expression about how we all need to come together. But why? Who wants to come together with Roger Ailes?
We have, for example, a major political party which is based, in part, on rejecting the findings of scientific research. Science means nothing to most of its members. They know what they know on the basis of a vague and unexplainable impulse they call religion. Obviously, they can claim that if they wish but it's very hard to know how, if you want to rely on evidence, you can come together with them. What might coming together with them mean? Would you be required, for example, to grant some validity to assertions you know have no basis in fact? If you start down that road, where do you end? Do you just forget about the scientific findings that temperatures all around the world are increasing, that major blocks of ice are melting, that the oceans are rising?
Some people want to repeal recent health legislation because they say it calls for death panels. It doesn't call for death panels. If you think the health bill, weak as it is, still helps thousands of people, should you be willing to see it rescinded just so people who believe in nonexistent death panels can feel happier? Is that what compromise means?
Evidently, there are millions of American citizens who are convinced that the president is a Muslim. What would coming together with them mean? There are probably just as many millions who want the government to ban the building of mosques. How do I talk to them?
I could continue with dozens of other beliefs and assertions which strike me as absurd. But I hope I've made my point. We are a nation divided by tastes, moral prescriptions, belief systems, and economic desires. Why deny that simple fact when it is blatantly demonstrated to us every day?
I don't know what to do about Roger Ailes except to try to ignore him most of the time, and when he tells lies I can't ignore to point out that he is a man who has built his life on falsehood. We are not going to become buddies, Roger and I. Might there be something on which he and I would agree? I don't know. But if there were, I doubt it could offset my disdain for the views he expresses volubly every chance he gets. The fact that we happen to be citizens of the same country doesn't make much of a bond between us.
I hope diverging opinion in the United States doesn't lead to internal violence. At the moment I'm not much afraid about that, though I suppose it could happen. But even if it did, it wouldn't make me want to cozy up to Roger Ailes.
The United States is not an extended version of a happy neighborhood where everyone lives in the same sort of house, reads the same newspaper, goes to the same church, watches the same movies, eats the same food, and teaches his or her children the same lessons about the meaning of life. I wouldn't want it to be, myself, but my wants are immaterial on this issue. It's not and that's it.
We are living, and are going to continue to live for a long time, in a country where many of our fellow citizens strike us as having despicable views. Learning to deal with that situation is what we have to do, and dreaming about a sweetie-pie coming together is of little use.
November 17, 2010
Only over the past five or six years have I come to see how badly misled I was during most of my life by the American political establishment and the mainstream media. What's even more galling is to recognize how I allowed myself to be duped.
I fell for the oldest scam going, the tribal notion that our guys are the good guys. I knew that most wars throughout history had been little more than us against them, millions of lives flushed off the earth for no reason other than the propensity to suspect and hate difference. Yet, knowing that, I didn't apply it to the actions of the power structure of my own nation. I don't know if that constituted idiocy or not. But it's as close as I want to get.
I was reminded of this today reading Chris Hedge's account of an interview he had recently with Chandler Davis, a teacher of mathematics at the University of Michigan, who was sent to prison for six months for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Then, after he got out of prison he couldn't get his job back, and he had to move to Canada to return to teaching. He has lived there ever since, more than forty years. He hadn't done anything most of us would consider a crime. He just wouldn't go along with the most notorious element the U.S. Congress has ever brought forth, a passel of nasty blowhards masquerading as patriots.
The Un-American Activities Committee quietly passed away in 1975, after thirty-seven years of disgusting behavior. But its effects are with us still. Why didn't it occur to me while it was still in existence that a nation that would sponsor such a vile engine of oppression could scarcely be the shining beacon of liberty it regularly professed itself to be? Why didn't I see that the American nation is the American people taken collectively? I went out every day amongst the American people. I knew, from personal experience, that great numbers of them were ignorant jerks. So why didn't that translate into a more accurate assessment of the nation itself? Why is it that I and most of my fellow citizens believed that the whole was not only grander than the parts but essentially different from the parts?
Nationalism is the great sorcerer of our time.
I guess I have said here before that it's one thing to love your country and entirely another to worship it. Sorcery demands worship and it's not averse to oppression, torture, and murder when it doesn't get it.
I wonder how often in the classrooms of America students are presented with the question of what a nation is? Are they ever asked to examine the contents of the nation, in its elemental identity, and then to speculate on what it is given what makes it up? I never saw that done when I was in school. Why not? Isn't it one of the basic questions of history?
A nation, any nation, is an unwitting beast. Maybe it's a beast that at this juncture of history we require. But that doesn't mean we have to delude ourselves about its fundamental nature. It can be kind at times, and helpful, and yet, at a moment's notice it can turn to ripping and tearing. It's like a pet tiger.
These things all seem perfectly obvious, and yet they weren't obvious to me for many decades of my life. The purring of the beast, in the form of politicians' assurances and journalistic posturing, lulled me. And I was really dumb to be lulled.
November 12, 2010
At the Old Infirmary on Jekyll Island, I bought off the sale table for two dollars, a copy of H.L. Mencken's The American Language. It's the sort of book I would normally have owned for at least thirty years but somehow it had slipped through my book-buying net. Being on the road back to Vermont, I haven't yet had a chance to read deeply into it but even the first few pages have proved diverting. They also reveal a good deal about the continuing habits of Americans.
Mencken starts with American attitudes towards English just after the Revolution and establishes that already the citizens of the United States were avid to assert their superiority to everyone else. A common assumption was that the practices Americans employed in writing and speaking would become standard for all English speakers as the Mother Country descended to little more than a backwater.
John Adams wished to set up an academy of English in America which would work to "perfect" the language. An anonymous contributor to the Royal Magazine in America (who may have been Adams himself) suggested that a American Academy would persist "until perfection stops their progress and ends their labor." What a perfect language might consist of seems to have been considered self-evident, as long as it was American.
A curious aspect of late 18th Century thought was the belief that distance would continue to be as isolating as it had always been. No one seemed to anticipate more rapid modes of communication. Benjamin Rush, for example, declared that "our intercourse must soon cease with the bar, the stage and the pulpit of Great Britain." He predicted that American English would soon diverge as far from the language spoken in England as Swedish had moved away German. Mr. Rush proved not to be a skilled prognosticator.
As continues to be the case, the power of American nationalism was viewed then as being more important than the attraction of a language-based culture. Speech was to be the servant of the nation and therefore needed to be shaped to national purposes. The idea that something might be greater than the glory of the nation didn't appear to have much currency.
I'm not sure when national membership became the principal feature of personal identity but, clearly, it had occurred by the time the United States came into being. In fact, the birth of the nation and the peak of nationalistic fervor may have coincided. In any case, the strength of national feeling has been the dominant influence on the American people ever since.
Language though has its own ways and doesn't always bow down to political passion. In my opinion, that's a good thing. I'm glad we don't really have the kind of American language envisioned by John Adams and Noah Webster, and to a certain extent, by H.L. Mencken. I'm happy people don't care all that much about the citizenship of authors, and song writers, and playwrights, and movie directors. We would have a more impoverished society in America if they did. And I doubt that even the Tea Party is going to prevail over international communication.
I like to think that Mencken, if he were still alive, would agree. I suspect he would. But the opinion of the dead is not always easy to fathom.
November 6, 2010
I've been reading Arthur Schopenhauer's Counsels and Maxims in which he argues in no uncertain terms that the best thing to do with respect to most people is to stay completely away from them. It seems like dyspeptic advice but that doesn't necessarily make it invalid.
I'll admit that one of the surprises of my life has been learning how few people one meets who repay any sort of extended interaction. It's easy enough to have moderately pleasant exchanges with clerks in stores, waiters in restaurants and so forth. But with them, the business is well defined, and clearly limited.
When you move beyond five minute communications, things quickly get less sprightly. First, you have to find something to say and with most people that's not an easy discovery. People converse generally about the weather, about food, about relatives and their eccentricities. I can discuss the trio without a great deal of pain. But I must admit, I seldom do it with relish.
Most of the people I meet care nothing for subjects which intrigue me. Schopenhauer, for example. Who can you get to talk about Schopenhauer? Where do you find people who have even heard of him?
My friend Dan Noel used to say you should measure people by the length of automobile trip you would be willing to take with them. The great majority fall into the category of down to the corner for a bottle of wine. There are a few more who might remain entertaining for fifty miles. Yet over a lifetime you're lucky if there are a half-dozen with whom you could go coast to coast. Dan and I drove across the country together a couple times and had fine times. But now he's dead and won't do that with me any more.
These thoughts occupy me on the eve of a family reunion where I will not know most of the people I meet. I will try to be pleasant and "nice," as they say, but chances are I will fail.
I recollect that when I was employed, I often attended presentations in which speakers described themselves as “people persons.” I never felt drawn to such people or wished to share any time with them.
The prime function of alcoholic beverages is to transform into companions persons who would otherwise disgust one another. I've noticed that people who are drunk talk in a manner that would be ghastly and tedious were one not drunk himself. Alcohol has the magic property of making wits of bores and, therefore, deserves the reputation of being mankind's greatest benefactor.
Though I don't find myself attracted to most people, I don't suppose I would wish to be a complete hermit. On those occasions when I'm alone, I like it well enough for two or three days, but then I began to long for some kind of company. Sometimes a TV show will cure my craving but at other times, not.
Literature is doubtless the greatest salve for loneliness. You can inject yourself into the society of a novel and feel quite at home there, even though you play no part in the plot. And if you've written the novel yourself, it's all the more soothing. My advice to all humanity is to write novels for oneself, regardless of their quality, in order to save yourself from reclusive despair.
Dan used to say that everyone should be required by law to write at least one country music lyric a year. It's a good idea, but I don't think it could take the place of novel-writing. Dan composed one spontaneously one day when we were stuck in a construction jam-up in upstate New York. The first line, in voice of a pickup truck driver ogling a lady traffic director, went, "You're sign says slow but my heart says go." It was a fine song but I didn't think it would keep me going if I was in a deeply murky mood.
If things get really bad I can go back to Schopenhauer. He's pessimistic, yes, but his jaundiced view of mankind makes me feel a bit more tolerant of the masses, not so tolerant that I want to seek them out but useful in the sense that they turn my small set of genuine companions into shining beacons.
November 5, 2010
The results of the election should have raised a question I have not seen discussed: what style of living do Republicans want to foist upon the country?
You can't start to answer until you acknowledge that Republicans fall into two distinct groups. There are the dupes. Then there are those who do the duping, that is persons who either benefit from or have been bought by (which is more or less the same thing) gigantic corporations. The lifestyle idolized by one is quite different from the one favored by the other. For ease of discussion we'll call the dupes the "Little Republicans", and the corporate moguls we'll name the "Big Republicans."
Both groups claim to promote the same lifestyle, which we can call the "Midwestern Doldrums" -- that is hardworking people who almost never think about anything other than working hard because they believe that hard work is the avenue to money, which in turn is the only way to security, which is the only purpose of life.
One of the groups, though, is lying (actually, both may be lying but one is lying egregiously). The Big Republicans have no intention of inhabiting the Midwestern Doldrums. They want enough money so they can build ten thousand square foot houses, with 54 inch television sets in almost every room and also out by the pool. They want to have six car garages, and cabinets filled with Scotch of at least Johnny Walker Black quality. They also want to spend a lot of time away from their ten thousand square foot houses in resorts, mainly in the Caribbean but, occasionally even in Europe. They don't give a damn if poor women abort their fetuses, nor do they care who marries whom. But since the dupes profess to be really riled up about these issues the Big Republicans have to say they're passionately involved with them also.
The Little Republicans live in the hope that after they retire they can spend three or four months every year in a trailer in Florida where they will have to do absolutely nothing, which is the appropriate reward for their hardworking lives.
Though these are distinctly different dreams -- American dreams they are normally called -- the Big Republicans and the Little Republicans do share hatreds. They hate, mainly two groups. They hate all poor people because they are shiftless scum always on the search for a handout and also because so many of them have failed to achieve white skin pigmentation. They hate even more people who value science, literature and art and who, in some cases, care about them enough that they have actually devoted a significant portion of their lives trying to develop skills and some knowledge in these areas. These are the despicable elitists who want to undermine the American way of life, that is the imagined earthly paradises of the Big Republican and the Little Republicans.
Most Republicans do want what they want but they want even more that the poor and the elitists will always fail to get what they want. Therefore, the primary Republican emotion is always more resentment than it is hope.
The Democrats have decided -- perhaps rightly -- that they can't use Republican desires as political issues. Using them would be considered un-American and supportive of class warfare. And, of course, we can't have that. These restraints, though, do put the Democrats at a disadvantage. The Republicans can vent their feelings about the Democrats fiercely, openly, blatantly. Therefore they can appear to be more committed to "values" than the Democrats are. By contrast, the Democrats have to be muted and to pretend they think the Republicans want the same things they do. Thus the Democrats come across as timid, hesitant, and mealy-mouthed, which, in fact, they often are.
The only advantage the Democrats have is that when Republicans are in charge of the government they foul things up royally, sometimes so badly that the people actually do get a hint of what's going on. Then, the people will briefly get behind a mild revolt, and let the Democrats institute diluted reforms before Republican resentment again seizes the lead.
It's hard to predict exactly what mode of life will emerge from these backs and forth. I suspect we will get to be an even more sharply variegated society than we are now, with the Midwestern Doldrums holding sway over a geographic majority of the country, but with pockets of gated communities for the Big Republicans, even more fetid ghettoes for the poor, and a few scattered cities with universities, bookstores and maybe even art galleries.
Some people will be able to make their way to the kind of living they prefer, but a lot more will simply be trapped. I suppose it's a matter of opinion whether this is sufficient to be designated the land of the free and home of the brave.
A Morning's Musing
November 4, 2010
I read Dennis Overbye's extensive article in the Times about the collider at CERN and the hopes for finding the Higgs boson, which is thought to imbue all the other elementary particles with mass, and the speculations about its mass which is suspected to be about 150 billion electron volts (in the units of mass/energy the physicists use). The fact that such tiny things make us up seems preposterous until you recollect that we've got to be made of something, and that that something has to be made of something else, and so on down the line of littleness to where? Might it just go on forever, and might we delude ourselves forever with the expectation that we're about to reach bottom?
Then in The Nation I finished David Wallace-Wells's assessment -- not a positive one at all -- of Lewis Hyde and his recent book Common As Air with its thesis that cultural property should be liberated from the financial markets, and assume its dignified position of something we all have the right to, regardless of our monetary resources. The ownership of thoughts and words, put together in a certain way, is such a mystifying topic I confess I don't know precisely how to think about it although I do sense that anyone who should wish to read a poem or a novel should be able to do it. How do we make that possible?
I turned then to John Palattella's succinct dismissal of Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom. If Franzen is as Palattella says an amateur ethnographer impersonating a fiction writer does that necessarily make him less worth reading than if he were a "real" novelist, whatever that is? What set of values can answer that question for us, and who has the power to make it coherent? Much as Palattella amused me with his slicing sentences, I doubt that he does.
Something in Palattella's remarks called to mind T.S. Eliot, so I picked up my Kindle and opened a collection of Eliot's poems. I was drawn particularly this morning to "LA FIGLIA CHE PIANGE." I can't remember when I first read the line, "But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair," but I do recall that when I read it, it caught me powerfully, and I have called it to mind hundreds of times since in hundreds of scenes. No one asks me anymore who my favorite poet is. I am seldom with people who ask such questions. But if I were to be asked, I would have to admit that Eliot has supplanted Yeats at the top of my list. It took me quite a while to catch the music in Eliot's stanzas but once I did it became very addictive. Just listen to the final eight lines:
She turned away, but with the autumn weather Compelled my imagination many days, Many days and many hours: Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers. And I wonder how they should have been together! I should have lost a gesture and a pose. Sometimes these cogitations still amaze The troubled midnight and the noon's repose.
In Section 22 of Schopenhauer's Counsels and Maxims, I read about how similar natures will seek one another out in a group of different sorts. If two blockheads were to find themselves in a company of very intelligent and very clever people -- assuming such a thing to be possible -- they will "be sure to be drawn together by a feeling of sympathy, and each of them will very soon secretly rejoice at having found at least one intelligent person." Shopenhauer's comic talents are not often remarked but that doesn't make them any less potent.
After these desultory wanderings I came on a notice of John Boehner and involuntarily thought, "Oh my God!"
Guilt followed immediately, as it so often does when I wonder if I'm being unfair to persons who may be doing as well as they can, given their background. But since I happen also to be in the final pages of reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I recalled Lisbeth Salander's reaction to Mikael Blomkvist when he reminded her that the bad people they had confronted were themselves mistreated when they were children: "I'm not arguing. I just think it’s pathetic that creeps always have someone else to blame."
Then, I felt much relieved.
November 3, 2010
I see that Evan Bayh has held forth in the New York Times about why the Democrats lost the election and what they must now do to recover their position. His formula is brilliant in its simplicity. Just become Republicans and then everything will be okay.
I suspect we'll see reams of this sort of blather in the coming weeks. Timid Democrats will proclaim that they just weren't timid enough. Had they bowed down more, and sucked up more to the Republicans, then the America people in their wisdom would have been awed by the party of Obama.
Analysis of this kind is based on the fatuous notion that most people vote on the basis of coherent political principles. The average American wouldn't know a coherent principle if one walked up and smacked him in the mouth. Americans don't think about politics enough to know what's coherent and what's not.
What the American people vote for is winners. They want to be on the winning side. In 2008, Obama and Democratic candidates walked and talked like winners. And so they won.
Almost as soon as Obama and his cohorts took office they began to walk and talk like losers, and so they lost.
By contrast, from day one of the Obama presidency, the Republicans began to talk like winners, this despite their having sustained one of the most thorough defeats in recent history. They didn't care. Nor did they care that their program, such as it was, was both foolish and incoherent. They knew the voters wouldn't look at it carefully enough to grasp its character. The Republicans threw out blowzy abstractions like "return to American values" and brushed aside any questions about what those values were.
Operatives like Bayh, who enjoy being cowed, will point to figures like Alan Grayson and Russ Feingold as examples to what happens to Democrats who are assertive. But Grayson and Feingold didn't lose because they were forthright as much as they did because they stood out. They had no one to protect their flanks because too many other Democrats ran away. Besides, for every Feingold there's more than one Blanche Lincoln.
The big mystery in all this is Obama. Will he take the defeat as a reason to retreat to defense? Or will he seize the opportunity to show boldness in the face of difficulty? I wish I had confidence that he will take the latter course. But I suspect I'm in a similar position to most other Americans. We have watched Obama in office for almost two years and we still don't know who he is or, really, what he stands for. That leaves many with the queasy feeling that he doesn't stand for anything.
I remain hopeful about Obama. He has the chance to fight his way back, if there's fight in him. And if he does fight bravely he can revive his party. Whether he will is an issue we may well see resolved within a fairly short period.
November 2, 2010
We think of knowledge as light, mainly I guess in the sense of illumination but also, more subtly, as relief from gravity. Ignorance, by contrast, is very heavy. It mashes you into the ground.
I thought of those metaphors this morning as I read Bob Herbert's column, which discussed a new book by Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker titled Winner-Take-All Politics.
I had seen notice of the book earlier. By all accounts it's a thoughtful, knowledgeable account of how the monied elements of the American population have used politics to increase their already engorged share of American wealth. Just one statistic captures what has been going on in the United States. Over a single year from 2008 to 2009, people who had been garnering $50 million a year increased their take to an average of $250 million. It seems incredible, doesn't it, at a time when most of the population was suffering from a severe economic downturn?
You would think a revelation of that sort would have a dramatic influence on the political structure of the country. And it might, if most of the people knew of it. But not only do they not know, there seems to be no way to inform them.
In most sectors of American society there's little chance that anyone would read Pierson's and Hacker's book. But it's worse than that. The issue is not so much that people won't read it. It's rather that they won't hear of it, nor will they hear that any such book could be written. It will not come into their minds that well-informed investigators dig out what's happening in the American economy and then report the results of their investigations by publishing books and essays.
Information of that sort does not figure in what's thought of as regular life. For the most part, the American electorate doesn't perceive the accumulation of knowledge as a necessary feature of making intelligent political decisions. That's why American voters are being pressed down.
How do they decide for whom to vote? Generally, they are moved by a vague sense of community, expressed through cloudy abstractions, such as "I don't want those socialists taking over up there." Believe it or not, people say things like that.
One might argue -- in fact, it is argued frequently -- that such murky opinion actually does convey the democratic will. Maybe the people don't know, it is said, what's really occurring but they sense what they like and don't like and they use the ballot box to shift conditions toward the general direction they prefer.
If that were the case then our system, though marked by frustration, would still protect us against anything seriously harmful. That, however, is not what's going on.
The vacuous opinion voiced in barrooms and supermarkets doesn't arise from organic interaction of the people. It is manufactured by those who know exactly what they're making and why they're making it. And it is paid for by those who stand to profit from it, in our case right now by powerful corporations and extremely wealthy financiers. It is they who tell the people what and how to think. The wealthy even use resentment of themselves as a means to keep politics tilted in their favor. The Tea Party members trip happily to the polls thinking they're bringing down the big banks as they vote to empower politicians who will do exactly what the bankers direct.
The creation of opinion in the United States is not naive and, for the most part, it is completely ruthless.
How to move away from the heavy forces that appear to be burgeoning in America, and take a step or two toward the light, is the challenge facing the nation. The traditional promise of the Enlightenment was that when people know they will choose sensibly. But if they can be convinced they don't want to know, that's a dark matter indeed.
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