We Can’t Shut People Up to Keep Them From Lying

I voted for Obama. Mainly because I like the way he’s run his campaign better than the way Clinton has run hers. So, I was a bit disturbed to find the following email from the Obama campaign urging me to donate to it. It began this way:

“News broke yesterday that a few wealthy Clinton supporters are gearing up for a massive spending campaign to boost her chances in the big upcoming contests in Texas and Ohio on March 4th. The so-called “American Leadership Project” will take unlimited contributions from individuals and is organized the same way as the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.”

What does “organized the same way as the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” mean? Isn’t it a little misleading to imply an equivalence between the two groups based solely on organizational similarity?

The Swift Boat Veterans campaign was a smear campaign based on lies. That was its problem. Whether 527s should be free to engage in candidate advocacy is really a secondary issue. Frankly, I am not even sure that issue advocacy groups should be prohibited from candidate advocacy. We might not want them to do it with tax-exempt dollars, but we can prevent that without stifling their free speech. For example, every dollar spent on election-related programs could be made subject to taxes (even if the organization as a whole is an exempt entity). But keeping them from vocally supporting or opposing candidates for office raises serious First Amendment concerns for me.

I care as much as the next guy about the equality of access to the public megaphone. There are other ways to address that: like requiring the broadcast networks (licensees of our public airwaves) to give free and equal time to all candidates. I’m sure there are better approaches still. In any case, I think that access is becoming much less of a problem with so much proliferation of new media.

Whatever else we do though, a restraint on political advocacy can’t be the way we safeguard truth and fairness in politics. And government can’t be the arbiter of that. That’s exactly the point of the first Amendment.

Let’s Hope the Premium Caps Stay in Place

The idea of government mandated health insurance makes me uneasy.

I’m willing to be taxed to support public health insurance (like public schools) or insurance assistance (like food stamps). But I don’t want to be forced to buy a service.

Hillary Clinton is the only candidate still really in the race whose plan includes a universal mandate. But it does have one saving grace, which I don’t think was in the first publicly available draft: premium caps (at least relative caps proportional to income).

Phew! Otherwise, it would really feel like we were being made to subsidize a cartel.

But one bit of caution: I know a thing or two about legislation… “minor” details are easy to change. A few years ago, I worked with a piece of legislation authorizing a New York State public authority to extend the life of its debt. When it was first enacted, this entity was to expire within a certain period (I will spare you the complicated conditions for determining the date). But all of that notwithstanding, there was a final date, a drop-deadline (“date certain” as politicians like to say) by which the entity absolutely had to pay off its debt and dissolve itself.

The language was “in any case no later than the earlier of” the drop deadline date OR the period determined by complicated calculations.

The legislature quietly changed the word “earlier” to “later.” Keep in mind, thirty years earlier, when the statute was first enacted, there was more than a little controversy about whether it was a worthwhile project AND about whether it was sufficiently sunset-ed (new verb alert). But the “revision” caused little public outcry. Very few even heard about it. As I recall, the new formulation ultimately didn’t work out because of unrelated political reasons (but the debt still got refinanced a different way).

When the dust finally settles on the health care debate, if we go the mandate route, let’s remember to watch carefully so that insurance companies’ quasi-mandate to keep rates down don’t quietly disappear from the books one fine session in Congress.

Tread Lightly, Hillary and Barack

With Mitt Romney out of the way, there are some interesting and frightening possibilities for Democrats.

McCain, who I think we all knew was going to win anyway, has time now to start looking presidential and appealing to those segments of his party that doubt his credentials as a Reagan-channeler (you are all thinking it, I’m just sayin’). He is strong with Independents and moderates already, and is widely perceived (wrongly, I believe) to be a person of enormous character. He could be very compelling for those who want to see Republicans hold on to the White House, even if that means making some allowances on certain strains of conservatism.

This will be no cake walk for Democrats. If anything — anything at all — happens to energize an anti-liberal sentiment, it will bring voters out in droves to vote AGAINST the progressive Democrat (and they’re both pretty progressive). As strong as these candidates look to us Democrats, their credibility with the general electorate is a lot more tenuous.

1. There is unfortunate lingering suspicion about race and gender.

2. Fiscal conservatives may not love McCain’s waffling on tax cuts, but they HATE socialized medicine.

3. Two kinds of Republican sentiments on globalization will work against the Dems. On the one hand, Republicans with protectionist and anti-immigration (an issue that is unfortunately conflated in the minds of many voters with outsourcing) tendencies will attack a democrat who seems to favor globalization, such as Obama. On the other hand, any misgivings about free trade agreements (like the ones Clinton has sometimes expressed) will be roundly condemned by pro-business, pro-Wall Street fiscal conservatives. Not that free trade AGREEMENTS are necessarily good for free trade… but that’s a different discussion.

McCain is vulnerable on some of these points too, but he seems to have mastered the ability to get away with that. Pro choice people support him, even though he is staunchly anti choice. Anti-war people support him. Though he wants to “Bomb Iran.” He’s been running as an “outsider” alternative to all the corruption in Washington, yet, he is a veteran Washington insider who was one of the “Keating Five” during the Savings and Loan scandal in 1989.

4. A Clinton-headed ticket might mobilize masses of otherwise disaffected right wingers who seem to harbor a deep and frequently irrational personal animosity toward her.

For all the dramatic rhetoric coming out of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, McCain is hugely popular among Republicans (check the election results) and, more importantly, he is palatable enough to a broad and seemingly unlikely cross section of the general electorate (for an old man he enjoys enormous support from young people, for instance) that the Democrats need to walk a VERY fine line and TREAD LIGHTLY ON EACH OTHER so as not to make DEMOCRATS (women, African Americans, Latinos, blue collar workers, liberal intellectuals, young idealists….) decide to stay home on November 4.

The Ebb and Crest of Who You Are

When we speak of someone’s “personality” or “character” we tend to treat it as something more or less static. If we allow for change or growth, we think they are relatively extraordinary events that “transform” the personality into a new static thing.

But really, isn’t a personality more of a range? Maybe a wave, with an amplitude, period, and frequency?

Even the most gregarious person becomes withdrawn at some point (and in a sort of predictable – if highly complex – pattern). The most effervescent person has ebb time. The most cynical or confrontational person has high tides of warmth and kindness. It seems banal to note this, but what I’m asking is: do you ever notice there’s a rhythmic quality to this?

When we make a new friend, we form an impression. In time, we find discrepancies, surprises, maybe even a u-turn in their general disposition. We might think we had made a “mistake” in our original impression. We might think our friend has “changed,” or worse, we may think the “original” impression was a deception or a deliberate projection of a manufactured persona (assuming our discoveries about the friend are of an “unpleasant” sort).

Most often we are generous enough to think that we are getting to know our friend – and his/her complexities – more “fully” but do we ever really think that perhaps there is a temporal element to “who” our friend is? That what we are witnessing at various moments are simply snapshots of particular phases of a “personality cycle” (if you will)? Each snapshot may be rich and complex in its own right, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a periodic feature of a more fluid system.

I suppose we come to internalize this if we’ve known someone for a very long time. Most people know, without thinking too much about it, the patterns of their parents’ personalities or those of very old friends. Maybe that’s why the longer we know people the less judgmental we are of them… unless of course their entire _cycle_ is annoying!

Shelby Steele Posits a Bogus World Where Obama Is “A Bound Man”

Shelby Steele contends that Obama is in a bind. The same bind every (liberal) black person must tackle because the liberal options are limited to wearing one of two masks: a “bargainer” or a “challenger.”

A “bargainer” is one who makes a tacit agreement to “give whites the benefit of doubt” that they are racially innocent if they “don’t hold [the bargainer’s] race against him.”

I’m not sure why this has to be a strategically donned “mask.” If you don’t hold my race against me, you aren’t being racist. So, why shouldn’t I treat you as though you’re not? It just seems fair.

In other contexts, Steele has said “this idea that we live in a hostile society that is determined to keep us down… is not true.” So, he seems to accept that racial hostility is no longer a factor in American life (but unlike those he criticizes, he seems willing to assume innocence even against all evidence to the contrary: according to him, during segregation, when there was “no white guilt,” everyone was expected to perform. He mentions that he had white teachers who expected him to do “what everyone was expected to do.” Interesting. Was he expected to sit in the same section of the bus, drink from the same fountain, and go to the same good schools with the better teachers, as “everybody else”? But… I digress.)

A “challenger” is a black person who openly criticizes racial animus or the history of racial oppression. Not sure what’s the problem with this, either, but then, I’m a liberal. I’m sure Steele would say that challengers cry “racism” whenever faced with any adversity instead of taking “responsibility” individually. (He says: “We are now 90% responsible for keeping ourselves down.”) I think there is some truth in the idea that a victim mentality in identity politics can harm the very people it purports to represent. My problem is with Steele’s extreme position on “responsibility” in terms of self-reliance alone and his philosophical willingness to absolve people of “responsibility” for actions that have damaging consequences for other people. (Reminds me of a doctor I briefly dated who expressed a general outrage against the whole idea of medical malpractice suits, declaring that patients should learn to “take responsibility” for their own injuries. The fact that he did things to them for which they paid him large sums of money apparently placed no responsibility on him.) But, again, I digress.

Steele’s Obama thesis, put in the most reasonable light, is something along the following lines:

Black politicians (in the liberal “white-guilt” based tradition) can’t have a nuanced and authentic point of view because they are expected to fit one of the two roles (bargainer or challenger). Blacks can succeed in niche demographics where those masks have appeal but they lose in broader fields. For example, bargainers frustrate blacks but do well enough with liberal whites. Challengers alienate whites but win in majority-minority constituencies. Anyone not strictly conforming to the accepted roles fail because they stir suspicions among both groups and are left wondering which is the “authentic” person. Something as vast as the general American electorate, therefore, can’t be won over because there simply aren’t enough of either black voters or the liberal white “civil rights” niche voters to carry a bargainer or a challenger, respectively. And, presumably, never the ’twain shall meet.

Of course, that conversation took place long before the South Carolina Primary.

I think one Mr. Barack Obama is proving you wrong, Dr. Steele.

In interviews with Brian Lehrer of WNYC and Harry Smith of CBS (see links below) Steele has explained the surge of black support for Obama, the bargainer, as really triggered by his success with white voters. In other words blacks will support him only if they think he can win with whites. Doesn’t this completely undercut the idea of a fissure between the “bargainer” and “challenger” roles?

Also, if liberal whites like bargainers because they assuage white guilt, why don’t they like guys like Shelby Steele who absolves them of even the “original” guilt? Interestingly, while Steele doesn’t seem to blame segregation or racial discrimination for anything, he did say to Bill Moyers (see link below) that whites (meaning LIBERAL whites) “use us, buy their innocence with us” but “nobody helps us.” I’m confused. I thought you didn’t want any help?

At any rate, it seems that Steele is the one trying to bind Obama by refusing to accept anything the Senator does at face value. He said to Bill Moyers he wanted to ask Obama “well, which is it? Is it your mama or is it Black Nationalism who’s responsible for you being here?” First of all it’s not clear what connection Obama has to black nationalism (does Steele mean race-sensitive liberal politics generally?) But either way, why does it have to be one or the other? Can’t it be that his mother brought him up to be capable but the politics shaped some of his core views (or helped shape a cultural context that allows black people to be taken seriously?)

A black liberal can do nothing right by Steele. Unless you share Steele’s conservative views you can’t even be genuine. He bills Clarence Thomas (an affirmative action hire who denounces affirmative action) as the Freest Black Man in America but told Brian Lehrer in an interview (see link below) that the “problem with bargainers” like Obama is that “they can never tell you what they really think… what their deep convictions are. When they do that they lose that special magic, they break that reciprocity with white Americans and become simply an individual.”

And your point is what?

*That if you were really an “individual” you would invariably turn up like Shelby Steele or Clarence Thomas and therefore the liberals wouldn’t like you?

*That the “real” views of a black Democrat must necessarily be odious to white people and make them feel the “guilt”? (if so, are you tacitly buying into the “challenger” worldview?)

*That liberals can’t possibly like real individuals because all their views are based on inauthentic stereotypes?

Tell us, Dr. Steele, if there is no general racial hostility in our society except, ostensibly, in the liberal construction of the world, then where are all these free, authentic, responsible, black leaders in your putatively non-hostile conservative America? Where is the viable conservative black candidate for president?

If Obama’s race poses a threat to his chances it will be because conservatives can’t get past his perceived strangeness. One comment to a review of Steele’s book on FreeRepublic.com crystallized this perfectly: “By the way, if Hussein fails to be elected, it will be because he’s a Marxist, not because he’s black.”

Nice! I’m going to talk about rejecting his ideas rather than his ethnicity, but oh, yeah, I’ll call him by a name that draws attention to why his ethnicity should trouble us.

For reference:
Here are three of the many media appearances in which I heard Steele talk about his new book and Obama.

Bill Moyers interview

Brian Lehrer in an interview

Harry Smith guest appearance

Martin Luther King and My America

In the American imagination it has almost become trite to say that one admires Martin Luther King Jr. – it’s like loving Mozart or Shakespeare (or, if you share my Bengali-Indian heritage, Rabindranath Tagore) – it goes without saying and is almost second-nature and ceases to feel significant or impressive.

But listen again, and you’ll remember why.

I read Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail when I was a kid. I think it was an anniversary of his assassination. I read it in a book of his writings my Dad gave me. At the time, I had been reading the history of the American Revolution and the Constitution, so, unsurprisingly, one of the themes that stuck with me was King’s characterization of the civil rights movement and its aim, as not so much a revolution as the fulfillment of the American promise.

On the one hand he pointed out that “abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation, and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop.”

Yet he also wrote, “when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were …bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

The destinies are “tied up” together with America, not just because of historical circumstance, but because it had been the American values — and mechanism for implementing those values, set up in its founding documents by people who took freedom and equality seriously in principle, however imperfectly they practiced it — that presented the greatest chance of overcoming the original wrongs. Overcoming, it’s important to note, is not the same as avenging.

As a kid I was enthralled by the American promise, while acutely aware that many Americans – perhaps most – didn’t even consider me a “real” American, what with my brown skin and my accented parents. I was the kid whom everyone asked “where are you from?” even though I was born five miles away in the George Washington University Hospital in the nation’s capital. I was the kid who was assumed, whenever I had an unusual idea (and I had plenty), to be speaking, not from my own individual imagination, but from an alien cultural source. I was the kid whose teacher responded, when I told her how moved I was with Dr. King’s writing, “yes, he’s very much like Mahatma Gandhi in your country. In fact, did you know he was inspired by Gandhi? I can give you a bibliography of his writings about Gandhi if you want.”

I know lots of people who responded that way to me, usually without consciously thinking about it. I’ve met people like that all my life. Yet, I loved America. I love it still. I love being an American and what that means at its core. Whatever others may think, I know “America” is mine. Because I know history is not inherited piecemeal by genetic lineage. I know that I am heir to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Walt Whitman and Emma Lazarus and Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King. Their legacy is mine because I have chosen it.

And that’s what America is. It is a choice. It is a legacy of choice. America is the one place in the world where it is taken for granted that you can belong here by choice, not just birth. At least this is the one place where the opposite proposition is the controversial one.

Martin Luther King reminded me that there are those who have a heritage of things much, much worse than my mild cultural identity crisis. People who have strong and righteous historical reasons to reject America, or even hate it. But even they love the promise of America. In fact, they root their struggle in that promise. They embrace the “America” we set out to become and are always in the process of becoming.

When people flex their muscles in a show of “American” patriotism that reduces us to parochial idiosyncrasies and perhaps narrow religious or social preferences, I remind myself, that’s not “America” any more than my elbow (or the callus on my heel) is “Koli Mitra.”

For all the grievous wrongs we may be guilty of as a nation, we are also the nation founded in the purest of struggles to overcome those elements in our nature that commit those wrongs.

Martin Luther King taught me that.

Why Do YOU Love McCain?

McCain is the most dangerous of the Republican candidates. Precisely because there’s this perception of him as safe. As someone sane, and kind, and of good character. He’s the media’s golden boy (no, I’m not talking about his age).

I don’t get it. Does anyone remember his comments about Chelsea Clinton when she was just a kid? If you don’t, here’s a reminder.

Of course he apologized for this later…

He’s supposed to be one that liberals can live with…. um, why, exactly? He’s against reproductive choice. He stubbornly supports Bush’s Iraq war, although he does draw the line at torture, but this seems to me not so much a moral ceiling to which we aspire, but the moral floor below which we may not sink (to paraphrase the law professor who presented my property law bar review course). McCain also wants to “bomb Iran,” relishing the thought, it seems.

He supported South Carolina’s choice to fly the confederate flag on the state capitol as an expression of “heritage.”

Of course he apologized for this later…

When a campaign worker asked him how they would “beat the bitch” referring to Hillary Clinton, he laughed and said “that’s an excellent question.”

He didn’t apologize for that. Though he did add that he “respected” senator Clinton.

All this apologizing and double-posturing brings me to something else I don’t get about him: his reputation for “straight talk”; he may say things that are unpleasant and/or offensive (as in the examples above) but “straight”? I think he’s just as evasive and waffling as the next politician. I thought I was going to have to do some work and remember a bunch more things but someone has already done this (and made my job a hell of a lot easier).

McCain seems to be beyond the taint of anything. Bill Clinton is considered — even by many who thought he was a pretty good president — a slime ball because he cheated on his wife. McCain cheated on his first wife repeatedly, eventually leaving her for his much-younger current wife and being estranged from his children for some time. Yet, this is the man of “character.”

Why the media love affair with McCain? Because he was a POW and we don’t say bad things about our brave veterans? Far be it from me to decline to give a man his due for courage and resilience in war, but where was McCain when John Kerry was vilified — in connection with a service that earned Kerry a purple heart — by a guy who got Daddy to bail him out of the same war? Oh, yeah, he was standing next to and supporting the guy whose Daddy bailed him out.

So, again, why DOES McCain get a free pass — is it because he seems like the kind of guy you “want to have a beer with” like our current president? (McCain was quite a party boy in his youth, as turns out). People keep talking about “liking” him. Is that it? If so, then, judging by both men, callousness, lying, incompetence, and a spiteful sense of humor are the qualities we look for in a guy who we want to get drunk with and entrust our country to.

Welcome to the frat boy gold standard of the American presidency.

My Old Fears

Gloria Steinem wrote an interesting New York Times op-ed piece today. It rings true to me, sadly.

In an earlier post, I lamented that some are giving too much credence to old fears about race and sex in politics. But while I hold to my conclusion that our fears about the (real or imagined) prejudices of others shouldn’t intimidate us into choosing the most “electable” person, I do admit that an abiding sense of dejection takes me over now and again when the entrenched nature of some of those kinds of prejudices resurface.

I have to say, I have always thought that the sex barrier is in some ways much tougher to negotiate. I’m certainly suggesting that the legacy of sexism has been more harrowing than the legacy of slavery or Jim Crow, but it certainly has been more resistant. Possibly because it has been more diffuse, sexism is also much harder to shake than racism. Americans have historically not found gender inequality as morally problematic as race inequality.

In the 19th Century, the feminist movement put its agenda on hold to go all out in supporting the abolition movement. At the end of that road, we had a constitutional amendment that specifically prohibited race-based voting discrimination against “male” citizens. Women would have to wait another generation.

In more recent history, remember back in the fall when a McCain supporter asked him “how do we beat the bitch” and he — after laughing it off and before saying something generic about respecting Senator Clinton — actually said “that’s an excellent question”? Can you imagine if the supporter had said how do we beat the [racist expletive] referring to a black candidate? McCain would have expressed outrage and everyone in the media would be all over it.

In fact, remembering back to Don Imus — if a man in his position had called some athletes “scruffy little sluts” I doubt the national outcry would be as loud or last as long, particularly if their race had been the same as his. People seemed to care that these young women were targets of a racial slur and I’m glad they cared, but if the slur had been purely sexual, and coming from a man who shared their race, I think most people would shrug it off. And women who insisted on calling attention to it would be considered tiresome and polarizing.

Do You Care How We Get There?

I keep hearing that Obama is trying to have it both ways by playing the post-partisan unity theme while being pretty clearly progressive on policy. Well, I don’t know about Obama (I REALLY don’t) but I don’t like the question. I think it sets up a false dichotomy.

You can be pretty damn ideological and still promote “unity” – and not solely in that self-serving, cynical way that politicians routinely do. Surely, you can have passionate views while being genuinely committed to persuading rather than strong-arming others into supporting you? It is even possible that you don’t arrogate to your self the right to implement your plans even in the event that you don’t succeed in persuading others. You might even be open to persuasion yourself. No, really. You might.

Unlike a lot of people, I don’t mind political labels. I’m a feminist, for instance. (That’s right, I said it — you wanna piece of me? Go ahead, bring it on!) But labels are like any other word and it’s important to consider what they mean in each context. Labels like “progressive” and “conservative” too often conflate ideological impulses with policy platforms. That might work for wonks (at least the particular wonks whose agendas are served by the conflation), but most people don’t worry so much about process. People are attracted to ideologies because of the issues they purport to address and the outcomes they promise to deliver rather than the set of approaches that they advocate. This leads to ill considered faith in the approaches advocated by the candidate who is most passionate about the problem one cares about. This in turn creates the false impression that those approaches are part of what people care about.

But I think most people are actually pretty open to different ways of achieving their goals. As long as the goals themselves aren’t trivialized. For example, a lot of poor people – and those who care about them – might support less welfare and a freer market if someone made a persuasive case to them that this works to reduce their poverty (not just make their poverty look less dire by citing rises in “average” income courtesy of bigger Wall Street bonuses). I’m not taking a position on the degree to which free markets can cure poverty; that’s a separate – and far more complicated – discourse. I am saying that people whose main concern is poverty aren’t going to be “united” with the people whose main concern is commercial freedom by any argument that essentially prioritizes one of those concerns and gives lip service to the other as an after thought.

Too Much Information?

I have a phone interview coming up. I’ve never done one before. It makes me a little nervous trying to communicate without the benefit of face time.

How is my self-editing function supposed to react and adapt if it doesn’t have all those pieces of information – the blank expression, the hint of a derisive smile, the warm nod of agreement, the admiring surprise of the enlarged eye and raised brow, the shifting impatiently, the cozying into a chair as if you’re a favorite TV show, and heaven forbid, the openly contemptuous quizzically furrowed brow?

I got a really bad one of those once. When I was job hunting between college and law school. Even though the job I was up for was essentially clerical, the guy asked me about my legal interests – it came up in conversation. I said something about legislative policy and he told me that his department had a lobbying component (we were a few blocks from the hill). I jumped in with my not-yet-inappropriate youthful animation (I still have a lot of it, much to my own chagrin but that’s another story) and I told him about some back-end work I had done with student environmental groups to help the lobbying efforts of a grassroots clean air campaign.

He of course was running a business, not a non-profit but I hadn’t thought that mattered since the whole lobbying thing had nothing to do with what I was interviewing for. Mostly, I just lacked the savvy to anticipate that this _could_ be a problem. He furrowed his brow AND his lip and held it that way for almost five seconds before telling me: “well, what we do is industry driven.”

Shudder. Don’t wish it on your worst enemy.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s not so bad to be spared that kind of crap. Pilots have to learn when and how not to depend on their visuals but fly strictly on sensors. Even in a job interview there might be some benefit to shedding the distraction of processing all this extra “information” and focusing on what they are willing to actually say to you. That “industry driven” guy probably would never use words that were the equivalent of his scornful expression – that would be admitting he was a bit of a jerk.

But then, and this is the nagging question: what if something I say on the phone is greeted with a few seconds of dead silence on the other end? Isn’t that the aural equivalent of a blank expression and don’t we drive ourselves nuts trying to interpret what’s “behind” a blank expression?

Is there any way of getting around our inclination to “interpret” everything?

Susan Sontag thought that analysis creates a false description of “reality” by destroying the reality of the surface experience (or something like that). I wonder how much of that applies to hyper-deliberate interactions like job interviews?

Koli Mitra

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