Dominion Over the World: The Elites Who Rule Us

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In Part II
of this series,”Why
the Stories We Tell Matter So Much
,” I quoted Philip Pullman
(author of the genuinely wondrous, His
Dark Materials
) on the critical importance of stories, and
of time for reading and reflection. At the conclusion of his remarks,
Pullman said:

don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’ts:
we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten,
but Once upon a time lasts forever.

It was because
of the immense significance of the stories we tell, of the narratives
that compel our attention and that very frequently move us to action,
and with Pullman’s comments in mind, that I titled this blog, “Once
Upon a Time.”

Earlier in
that same essay, I wrote:
concisely stated by Philip Pullman at the beginning of this essay,
we cannot live without stories. It is therefore of vital importance
whether the stories we choose to tell are creative or destructive
with regard to their deepest meanings and implications, whether
they encourage a reverence for life in general and for the sanctity
of each particular life, or lead to a casual dismissal of the value
of others’ lives if those others are “different” or obstruct our
own desires, and – if our stories purport to capture actual
events, past or present – whether they are accurate and solidly
grounded in demonstrable fact, or misleading and distorted. As I
have discussed in many essays and will analyze further, most of
the stories that permeate our national discussion today are grossly
wrong, and most often dangerously wrong.

The major narrative
to which I have devoted a number of essays – a narrative which
is profoundly false both in its general outlines and in every detail,
and one which has been and continues to be literally lethal in its
effects – is the tale of “American exceptionalism.” Assuming
that one knows even a minimal amount of history (which, I grant, is
far too often a completely unjustified assumption today, even and
especially with regard to the “best educated” Americans and the members
of our ruling class), and if one considers this mythology with any
degree of honesty, its inconsistencies, outright contradictions, and
numerous points of incoherence quickly become apparent. Yet the overwhelming
majority of Americans continue to believe this fable, and the regular
invocation of America’s “unique” characteristics, which make us “better”
than any other people who have ever lived and which, for reasons that
are never explained, entitle us to direct events across the globe,
is nothing less than a religious ritual.

At the opening
of the
last installment
, I summarized certain common errors regarding
American history committed by many liberals and conservatives. In
large part, those errors arise and continue to find new life because
of many people’s adherence to this American mythology. People with
views across the political spectrum are unable to recognize the
realities of American political and social history because those
realities would fundamentally challenge the fable to which they
are so devoted: conservatives cling to the notion that American
progress and superiority are the result of free and unfettered capitalism,
that is, the result of the operations of private business in an
essentially laissez-faire environment, while liberals see the steady
advance of America as due in significant part to the growing influence
of the interests and wisdom of “the common people.” As one result,
both groups have the identical blind spot: both appear unable to
fully appreciate the joining together of government power with certain
influential (and usually exceedingly wealthy) private citizens and
businesses. This combination, which began in the late nineteenth
century, gathered force in the two decades following 1900, and was
firmly cemented in place by World War I and then the New Deal, resulted
in the creation of a class made up of the American elites. It is
in these elites that almost all power is concentrated, both the
power of the state and the power of the dominant private interests.

For most Americans,
full recognition of this reality is impossible, for it renders maintenance
of the American fable of “responsive democracy” all but impossible.
All our politicians appeal with thought-deadening monotony to the
“will of the people.” The fiction that the actions of the state
and of the elites embody that “will” is the unappealable justification
for whatever the ruling class might do, whether or not it is true
(which it frequently is not). If public opinion on a particular
question reaches a pitch and intensity that cannot be ignored, the
ruling class might make temporary concessions to the public’s demands.
This is why I suggested a
series of actions to focus public protest
about what still seems
to be the inevitability of an attack on Iran, under either the current
administration or a future
Democratic one
. The program I put forth doesn’t contradict these
points about the power of the ruling elites; in extraordinary circumstances
and on a particular issue, the elites will heed “the people’s voice,”
if it becomes so insistent and is offered on a large enough scale
that continuing to ignore it might threaten the elites’ hold on
power. But such occasions are extraordinary; for the most
part, politicians and other members of the elites couldn’t care
less about what “the people” want. Yet the fable must be maintained,
and “the people” need to be reassured that the state acts in accordance
with their desires. We still have what, for the elites, must be
an increasingly annoying formality, regular elections – even
though elections are now almost entirely an empty charade drained
of all substance and meaning.

So the American
mythology continues intact, untarnished and unthreatened by unpleasant
facts. I had numerous reasons for referring to us as “A
Nation of Stupid Children, Who Refuse to Give Up the Lies
Even intelligent and sometimes admirable prominent public voices
give new life to the fable that sustains us. Bob Herbert is one
of only a handful of commentators for whom I have significant respect;
Herbert writes with great power and eloquence about the
profound evil of torture
, and he is often passionate in his
defense of the powerless who are frequently treated with unimaginable
cruelty. But our central myth is so pervasive that even Herbert
absorbs it, and increases its reach. For example, in a column titled,
System’s Broken
,” from October 30, 2006, Herbert wrote:
system is broken. Most politicians would rather sacrifice their
first born than tell voters the honest truth about tough issues.
Big money and gerrymandering have placed government out of the reach
of most Americans. While some changes in the House are expected
this year, the Brookings Institution and the Cato Institute tell
us (in a joint report) that since 1998, House incumbents have won
more than 98 percent of their re-election races.

of thoughtful Americans have become so estranged from the political
process that they’ve tuned out entirely. Voters hungry for a serious
discussion of complex issues are fed a steady diet of ideological
talking heads hurling insults in one- or two-minute television

DePauw University
held a two-day conference last week on issues confronting the
U.S. I was struck by the extent to which the people who attended
the forums were interested in seeking out practical, nonpartisan,
nonideological solutions to the wide range of problems discussed.

The frustration
with the current state of government and politics was palpable.
One man, Ned Lamkin, asked me if it wouldn’t be a good idea to
create some sort of national forum for a serious extended discussion
of ways to fix, or at least improve, the system. He’s on to something.

Among other
things, I’d love to see a nonpartisan series of high-profile, nationally
televised town hall meetings that would explore ways of making government
and politics fairer, more open and more responsive to the will of
the people.

democracy needs to be energized, revitalized. The people currently
in charge are not up to the task. It’s time to bring the intelligence,
creativity and energy of the broader population into the quest
for constructive change.

While I’m somewhat
sympathetic to the perspective Herbert expresses here, to say that
his proposed solution is naive is to be exceedingly and foolishly
kind. A “series of high-profile, nationally televised town hall
meetings” – as against a vast and intricate system of power
that has become deeply entrenched in every aspect of our nation’s
life and activities over more than one hundred years?

Herbert regularly
returns to his praise for the great wisdom embodied in “the will
of the people,” as in a column dated January 29, 2007, “More
than Antiwar
can say what you want about the people opposed to this wretched
war in Iraq, try to stereotype them any way you can. But you couldn’t
walk among them for more than a few minutes on Saturday without
realizing that they love their country as much as anyone ever has.
They love it enough to try to save it.

The goal
of the crowd was to get the attention of Congress and persuade
it to move vigorously to reverse the Bush war policies. But the
thought that kept returning as I watched the earnestly smiling
faces, so many of them no longer young, was the way these protesters
had somehow managed to keep the faith. They still believed, after
all the years and all the lies, that they could make a difference.
They still believed their government would listen to them and
respond. [It
will not listen to them, and it will not respond

The public
is way out in front of the politicians on this issue. But the
importance of Saturday’s march does not lie primarily in whether
it hastens a turnaround of U.S. policy on the war. The fact that
so many Americans were willing to travel from every region of
the country to march against the war was a reaffirmation of the
public’s commitment to our peaceful democratic processes.

It is
in that unique and unflagging commitment, not in our terrifying
military power, that the continued promise and greatness of America
are to be found.

This belief in
the “promise and greatness” of “the American people” drenches our
political debates, and makes serious, adult discussion a goal
that is all but unattainable. You find it on the right, as in these
from Romney
at the first Republican debate in early May:
VANDEHEI: Governor Romney, Daniel Dukovnic (sp) from Walnut Creek,
California, wants to know: What do you dislike most about America?

Gosh. I love America. I’m afraid I’m going to be at a loss for words,
because America for me is not just our rolling mountains and hills
and streams and great cities, it’s the American people. And the
American people are the greatest people in the world. What makes
America the greatest nation in the world is the heart of the American
people – hard-working, innovative, risk-taking, God- loving,
family-oriented American people.

that optimism we thank Ronald Reagan for. Thank you, Mrs. Reagan,
for opening up this place in his memory for us. It is that optimism
about this great people that makes us the greatest nation on Earth.

With regard to
the noxious idea that “the American people are the greatest people
in the world,” I am compelled to repeat some earlier remarks, from
Part VII of this series, “The
Mythology of the ‘Good Guy’ American”
see our success, and our power on the world stage, as inherently
tied to superior moral virtue. We are so successful because
we are uniquely virtuous, and our national power confirms our morality,
in relation to which all other peoples and all other countries can
only suffer in comparison. One of the many dangerous and inevitable
consequences of this view is an often virulent racism that has been
reflected in our treatment of many very numerous groups of people:
the Native Americans, the slaves who were brought here and were
an integral part of the new country’s economy, Germans
in World War I (German-Americans were the “scum of the melting pot,”
who now needed to be gotten “rid of”), the
in World War II (the “yellow Japs,” who were “regularly
compared” to “monkeys, baboons, and gorillas”), and a number of
other foreigners and immigrants. Very recently, we witnessed the
sickening spectacle of this atavistic racism unleashed in the wake
of Hurricane Katrina

One point
is crucial: a critical part of our national mythology is the insistence
on viewing our nation and ourselves as Americans in comparative
terms. When we insist that we are uniquely “good” and “virtuous,”
this logically necessitates a further conclusion: we are better
than everyone else. We are “the Good Guys.” The emphasis is not
only on “Good,” but on “the”: we are the Good Guys
in a way that no one else is, or can ever be. (On this issue,
also see this
from yesterday, in response to

And the paeans
to “the will of the people” come from the left and from progressives,
as in this entry
from Matt Stoller
, which is almost stupendously wonderful in its
mind-destroying inanity:
going to follow on Chris’s posts on diversity by explaining why
I blog. I have a certain set of values, and I want to see the political
system adopt those values, including transparency, honesty, and
civic democracy. My hypothesis is that these values are shared by
a wide group, and that organizing through the blogs is one route
to pressuring for social change. In other words, blogging is just
a means to power for a progressive movement that I want to see succeed.

And surprisingly,
it’s not actually easy to have an impact on the political system.
As weird as it sounds, a link from Atrios or Firedoglake, or a
mention in the New York Times, does not change the political system.
[Who woulda thunk?!] It is in fact a lot of work to get a change
to happen.

The balance of
Stoller’s post, which identifies strategies that are not effective
and those that might be, leads one to conclude that a rather unsophisticated
irony might be the sought-after tone in remarks such as, “it’s not
actually easy to have an impact on the political system.” It might
be observed that for a political operative, for whom effective and
clear communication is essential, the intended message and tone could
be conveyed with just a bit more precision. And Stoller seems to genuinely
believe that he is identifying an unappreciated fact that escapes
most people when he remarks, “It is in fact a lot of work to get a
change to happen.” What can one say? Perhaps: D’oh! So let us be fair:
let no one accuse certain progressive operatives of intellectual brilliance
or original insight.

True, Stoller
acknowledges that, “There’s a small group of people who make policy
in politics,” but his overall argument (and his writing more generally)
makes clear that the full reality of the complex mechanisms through
which power is achieved, maintained, expanded and directed is entirely
beyond his grasp. (It is possible that Stoller understands all of
this, and also knows the vacuous phrases that he needs to throw
up and out periodically, to assuage certain of his less than bright
followers. If he does understand it, that, of course, would be unspeakably
worse. But I seriously doubt he’s that bright.) And then, of course,
there is the unstated but clearly implied self-congratulation at
the end: “There are big opportunities here. Seize them. No one is
stopping you but you.” You can be assured that Stoller is not stopping
Stoller. His post is entirely appropriately titled, “Building Power.”
I note, without further explication, that you should read Stoller’s
post in conjunction with a genuinely awful
entry from Chris Bowers
, and you will then understand why I
now think of them as the Evil Twins of Progressive Politics. The
lust for power consumes them – and I implore you to remember
that power always must mean power over other people. As those
who seek power always do, they regularly camouflage their lust with
sentimental tripe about “transparency, honesty and civic democracy.”
If people studied and remembered history, they would realize that
every leader, including the most brutally vicious and murderous,
has always appealed to “the will of the people.” It is on the basis
of such platitudinous, vapid twaddle that crimes of immense scale
and horror are committed.

As Romney’s
remarks make clear, the belief that the “heart of the American people”
makes America “the greatest nation in the world” is one regularly
trotted out by Republicans. However, I note again that these hackneyed
phrases are primarily a public relations ploy, designed to drug
unthinking Americans into apathy, secure in the conviction that
the state is following their “will.” On the right side of the spectrum,
especially among many neoconservatives, the deep contempt for “ordinary”
Americans is now occasionally acknowledged explicitly, together
with the belief that these citizen-dolts must be told
“noble” Straussian lies
to get them to behave properly.

But among
progressives, the appeals to the wisdom and infinite goodness of
“the American people” are unending. So exactly which Americans are
they talking about? We can safely assume they probably don’t mean
the 62 million people who voted for Bush in 2004, long after the
criminally murderous nature of his policies had been made unequivocally
clear, or the millions of Americans who still support Bush even
today. They probably don’t mean those Americans who enjoy hearty
laughs watching repeated
acts of torture on 24
, and who wish only that their government
used similar methods still more systematically (as if we don’t use
them systematically
enough already
). But here is where the genuinely religious nature
of this belief in the innate goodness of “the people” becomes clearer.
We should first note that, whenever political leaders or would-be
wielders of power appeal to “civic democracy” or “the will of the
people,” they operate on a crucial but unspoken assumption: that
the people they invoke just happen to agree with them. When these
seekers after power use the state to force people to act in certain
ways, they will only be doing what the people themselves want, for
the beliefs of “the people” coincidentally overlap with their own
at every important point. I repeat that every bloodthirsty dictator
has said the same.

But note a
further religious element involved. Every fervent “believer” thinks
that if only others saw the truth as he does, if they only had all
the “facts,” they would be overwhelmed by his particular vision,
and come to see its indisputable veracity. In exactly the same way,
all these seekers of political power think that if only “the people”
had all the “facts” (which are the ones they view as important,
and no others), they would embrace every significant part of their
political program. This avoids one obvious and fundamental aspect
of human nature, and human behavior: people can have precisely the
same information – yet they will reach vastly different conclusions
because they operate on the basis of different moral premises
and values. People make different choices; as we all know, those
choices are often entirely unlike ours, and not infrequently directly
opposed to ours. Keep in mind that the state is a
system of obedience
: the essence of the state is force
and compulsion. If you violate the state’s requirements,
you will pay a penalty. But this reality is washed away with appeals
to “the will of the people”: the power-seekers convince themselves
that you are only being forced to act in ways that you would choose
yourself. This is only a very brief beginning on what is an inordinately
complex subject; I will return to these issues in much more detail
in an upcoming series about the primitive tribalism that has overwhelmed
our politics today.

Let’s return
to the mythical “good American.” In a very valuable article from
the indispensable Robert Higgs, “How
Does the War Party Get Away With It?
” (published in September
2003), Higgs eloquently makes a number of the same points I refer
to above:
decide to go to war in the context of a favorably disposed mass
culture. Painful as it is for members of the Peace Party to admit,
many Americans take pleasure in “kicking ass,” and they do not much
care whose ass is being kicked or why. So long as Americans are
dishing out death and destruction to a plausible foreign enemy,
the red-white-and-blue jingos are happy. If you think I'm engaging
in hyperbole, you need to get out more. Visit a barbershop, stand
in line at the post office, or have a drink at your neighborhood
tavern and listen to the conversations going on around you. The
sheer bellicosity of many ordinary people’s views is as undeniable
as it is shocking. Something in their diet seems to be causing a
remarkable volume of murderous, barely suppressed rage.

No one
should be surprised by the cultural proclivity for violence, of
course, because Americans have always been a violent people in
a violent land. Once the Europeans had committed themselves to
reside on this continent, they undertook to slaughter the Indians
and steal their land, and to bullwhip African slaves into submission
and live off their laboru2014endeavors they pursued with considerable
success over the next two and a half centuries. Absent other convenient
victims, they have battered and killed one another on the slightest
pretext, or for the simple pleasure of doing so, with guns, knives,
and bare hands. If you take them to be a u201Cpeace-loving people,u201D
you haven't been paying attention. Such violent people are easily
led to war.

ignorance compounds the inclinations fostered by the mass culture.
Study after study and poll after poll have confirmed that most
Americans know next to nothing about public affairs. Of course,
the intricacies of foreign policy are as alien to them as the
dark side of the moon, but their ignorance runs much deeper. They
can't explain the simplest elements of the political system; they
don't know what the Constitution says or means; and they can't
identify their political representatives or what those persons
ostensibly stand for. They know scarcely anything about history,
and what they think they know is usually incorrect. People so
densely ignorant that they have no inkling of how their forebears
were bamboozled and sacrificed on the altar of Mars the last time
around are easily bamboozled and readily sacrificed the next time

Earlier in the
same article, Higgs is similarly eloquent and perceptive on the major
theme of this essay:
view of the evident futility, and worse, of nearly every war the
United States has fought during the past century, how does the War
Party manage to propel this nation into one catastrophe after another,
each of them clearly foreseen by at least a substantial minority
who failed to dissuade their fellow citizens from still another
march into calamity?

An adequate
answer might fill a volume, but some elements of that answer can
be sketched briefly. The essential components are autocratic government,
favorably disposed mass culture, public ignorance and misplaced
trust, cooperative mass media, and political exploitation for
personal and institutional advantage.

By “autocratic
government,” I refer to the reality of how foreign policy is actually
made in the United States. Notwithstanding the trappings of our
political system's democratic procedures, checks and balances,
elections, and so forth, the making of foreign policy involves
only a handful of people decisively. When the president and his
coterie of top advisers decide to go to war, they just go, and
nobody can stop them. The “intelligence” agencies, the diplomatic
corps, and the armed forces do as they are told. Members of Congress
cower and speak in mealy-mouthed phrases framed to ensure that
no matter how the war turns out, they can share any credit and
deny any blame. No one has effective capacity to block the president,
and few officials care to do so in any event, even if they object.
Rarely does anyone display the minimal decency of resigning his
military commission or his appointment in the bureaucracy. In
short, in our system the president has come to hold the power
of war and peace exclusively in his hands, notwithstanding anything
to the contrary written in the Constitution or the laws. He might
as well be Caesar.

(In the
late 1930s, Congress considered the Ludlow Resolution, which would
have amended the Constitution to require approval in a national
referendum before Congress could declare war, unless U.S. territory
had been invaded. Franklin D. Roosevelt vigorously opposed such
an amendment, writing to the Speaker of the House on January 6,
1938, that its adoption “would cripple any President in his conduct
of our foreign relations,” and the resolution was narrowly voted
down [209 to 188] in the House soon afterward. Can't let the inmates
run the asylum, now can we?)

Higgs has more,
and I encourage you to
read it

To fill in
these identifications with some further detail, I turn once again
to Christopher Layne, whose very valuable book, The
Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy From 1940 to the Present
I excerpted in Part III, “The
Open Door to Worldwide Hegemony
.” In his concluding chapter
(at pp. 200-201), Layne writes (the highlights are mine, and I’ve
omitted the footnotes, with the exception of one indicated by an
abandoning hegemony in favor of offshore balancing, could the United
States have maintained its security at a lower price? If the United
States, at an earlier stage, could have extricated itself from the
hegemonic dimension of its cold war strategy, and its concomitant
burdens, it would have been in its interest to do so. This, of course,
raises another important question: Why has the United States stuck
so long with its hegemonic strategy? Were U.S. policymakers foolish,
or were they willfully indifferent to the burdens placed on the
United States by its grand strategy?

The answer
is both complex (a topic worthy of a book in its own right) and
yet simple. In his book Myths of Empire, Jack Snyder talks
about elites “hijacking” the state. This fails to make the point
quite strongly enough. Dominant elites do not hijack the state;
they are the state. The United States pursued hegemony
because that grand strategy has served the interests of the dominant
elites that have formed the core of the U.S. foreign policy establishment
since at least the late 1930s, when the New Deal resulted in the
domestic political triumph of what Thomas Ferguson calls “multinational
liberalism.” At the core of the multinational liberal coalition
were large capital-intensive corporations that looked to overseas
markets and outward-looking investment banks. This coalition displaced
the so-called system of 1896, which was organized around labor-intensive
industries that favored economic nationalism and opposed strategic
internationalism. [That last sentence is not entirely correct
in my view, as I will explain when I return to the actual history
of the Progressive movement, as opposed to the widely accepted
mythology about its achievements.]

The multinational
liberal coalition that cemented its hold on power during the New
Deal had its roots deep in the Eastern establishment: it also
included the national media, important foundations, the big Wall
Street law firms, and organizations such as the Council on Foreign
Relations.* This coalition favored economic and political Open
Doors and the strategic internationalism that accompanied them.
Although the bipartisan consensus among the U.S. foreign policy
establishment favoring strategic internationalism and U.S. hegemony
that was forged some six decades ago has occasionally been tested
– notably during the Vietnam War – it has proved remarkably
durable. Unless it undergoes a Damascene-like intellectual conversion,
as long as the present foreign policy elite remains in power the
United States will remain wedded to a hegemonic grand strategy.
It probably will take a major domestic political realignment –
perhaps triggered by setbacks abroad or a severe economic crisis
at home – to bring about a change in American grand strategy.

The asterisk following
the reference to the Council on Foreign Relations refers to a footnote
that is also worth reproducing:
terms “dominant elite” and “foreign policy establishment” as used
here carry no ideological connotations. It is well recognized that
a dominant elite and a foreign policy establishment do exist in
the United States. In their fascinating – and very mainstream
– portrait of Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen,
John McCloy, George Kennan, and Robert Lovett, Isaacson and Thomas
explain that they selected these six because

represent a cross section of the postwar policy Establishment.
The values they embodied were nurtured in prep schools, at college
clubs, in the boardrooms of Wall Street, and at dinner parties
in Washington. They shared a vision of public service as a lofty
calling and an aversion to partisan politics. They had a pragmatic
and businesslike preference for realpolitik over ideology. As
internationalists who respected the manners and traditions of
Europe, they waged a common struggle against the pervasive isolationism
of their time.
(Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise
Men: Six Friends and the World They Made [New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1986], 25)

The idea that
the United States operates or even could operate to any significant
degree like a vast town meeting of 300 million people is utter nonsense.
To think for even a moment that nationally televised town meetings
or a fictitious “responsive, civic democracy” could, at this late
date, seriously impact a complex, sprawling system of immense, almost
unimaginable power is absolutely fantastic. And even if such a “civic
democracy” were somehow made operational in some science fiction universe,
when one considers the actual nature and predilections of far too
many Americans, if their “will” were to be fully enacted, the results
might well horrify even those who regularly offer their sentimental,
empty, cloying appeals to Americans’ inherent “goodness.”

This is the
reality that the widely accepted mythology is designed to avoid,
a reality that rests upon an intricate series of connections among
government, corporations, national media, foundations, law firms,
and additional elements (including, very significantly, a massive
defense industry
). These are the elites who run our government,
and who direct our lives. These are the elites who continue the
slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people who never threatened
us and the destruction of entire countries that never attacked us,
and who ache for still another war. These are the elites who oversee
death and destruction on a vast scale, who seek to eliminate what
remains of our liberties
, and who are never satisfied. No matter
how much power they have, they always want more, unto the
end of time. You can comfort yourself with delusions about “civic
democracy” and “national town meetings,” but this reality is the
one that runs your life in countless ways, and that might end it

I suppose
I could briefly summarize the argument in the following manner:
Grow up. Be adults about this. And for God’s sake, be serious.

19, 2007

Silber’s [send him mail]
blog is Once Upon
a Time
, where he writes about political and cultural issues.
He has also written a number of essays based on the work of psychologist
and author Alice Miller, concerning the implications of her work
with regard to world events today. Descriptions of those articles
will be found at a companion blog, The
Sacred Moment
. Silber worked as an actor in the New York theater
many years ago. Upon relocating to Los Angeles in the late 1970s,
he worked in the film industry for several years. After pursuing
what ultimately proved to be an unsatisfying business career, he
decided to turn to writing full-time, a profession which he happily
pursues today.

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