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January 07, 2010

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I wish Obama had done everything you listed but something tells me he knew how far he could take this country. Given the corporate media monopoly and financing of our elections, it was never far. And even that meager distance was whipped into a meringue of "socialism" and other related outrages by the nihilists.

The sorry truth is that liberalism is now the Unitarian church in a village of rednecks. There's no movement here because liberalism solved most of the problems that made it a galvanizing force: from women's suffrage to civil rights to fair labor practices to environmental policy. What's left over is health care and the arcane theory of climate change. The rednecks don't see any upside for themselves, especially since the Republican church cossets them with a lovely conspiracy theory about liberals and blacks.

I long suspected David Brooks was a plant, someone who is meant to make modern conservatism look tweedy instead of freaky. He'll bob his head and laugh nervously so we'll know he's one of us. He's sane! But as much as we want him to draw some final line he won't cross, he knows the mirage isn't fixed. It recedes unnoticed over his brow to some nebulous point in a dark and dangerous future.

For the longest time, our country has arrived at various crossroads and our leaders, at the time, have taken the wrong turn. It has happened so often and with such consistency, that a person has to wonder if a devine power is steering the course. I have a brother in law who sees conspiracies around every corner. I'm not there YET. However, after a while you have to wonder what is going on. Maybe the Mayans have it right and it all ends in 2012. Maybe Biblical prophecy has it right that the US will become a non-player in the world until the big battle takes place at Meggido. Maybe the shadow elite are in the final stages of turning the whole world into one great big slavery camp. At least those ideas make sense and definitely make good movies. If, however, this is all the result fo basic human failings; greed, shortsightedness, dishonesty; then that would be sad. It would mean that you can take the caveman out of the cave, but you can't take the cave out of the caveman.

The Obama administration simply pulled the rug out from under itself by alienating its most ardent, devoted, and articulate supporters: left-liberals. What remains? Stale gas at the bottom of a barrel. A fog of vague policy positions from which the President forever retreats in search of a mythical consensus. Party leadership who are bought and paid for by the corporate status quo.

Obama's popularity in his election campaign was the result of a vigorously progressive vision. That is what set him apart, that is what gave the country another option. If he had run then as what he is now -- a vacillating conciliatory figure, soaking in a tepid mud bath of hazy, undeveloped strategies -- he would have lost.

Conservatives have a definite narrative, one which is easy to understand and which they persistently repeat, always using it as the yardstick by which their opponents must be measured. In doing so, they have to some extent managed to objectify these standards. The only way to undermine them is the fight back on similar terms, but using progressive values.

Obama has taken a passive, reactive position, refused to assert himself or any definite ideas, and allowed the conservative Democratic Party leadership to operate on cruise control. The result is a vacuum of leadership into which conservatives are -- as always -- ready to step.

Newton's first law states that objects will continue their current state of motion unless acted upon by an external force, and then only for as long as that force acts. Obama has instead become a pickled president, lounging in the shadowy dill-waters of his own undistiguished rhetoric.

One thing here needs to be distinguished. Liberalism as a movement cannot be the responsibility of one person, even a president. Either the passion and convictions exert their own force, or they are too weak to stand by themselves. This is why we are spiritually depleted at this moment. We believed a fairy tale, one in which a valiant symbol of "hope" would galvanize a nation with "change". But all the vague fuzzy-wuzzies of 2008 make a bad army. Where's our media? Where's our networks of committed volunteers? Where's the broad consensus of middle-class opinion?

This problem is not Obama's fault. Clinton found himself in the same situation. There's a huge and noisy Right in this country and a milquetoast Left. The Right's narrative is not dependent on any one politician or personality because its grievances are so deeply felt. Those grievances are fundamentally irrational and nostalgic. They are powerful not because they are coherent but because they tell a heartrending story of loss. The Left's story, by contrast, can be summed up as making a bad situation better with a few reforms. As a movie, it's like Armageddon vs Bicycling to Work. Which one grabs your attention?

Narratives are never static, of course, so the Left might eventually find its voice if only because the Right became so obnoxious and and arrogant. Ameliorative liberalism is not compelling as a story but it is compelling as an antidote to the ugliness of oversimplifiers. Doomsday politics, from Jim Kunstler to Sarah Palin, provides immense emotional satisfaction. What we need to provide is a refuge from its ultimate logic. Sometimes boring is better. Maybe that is Obama's message.


I agree that we're pretty well screwed, and that the American empire has been living on borrowed time already. It's posible that when the current period of permanent war for permanent peace collapses that we and the world will both be better off. We could rebound quite quickly with a dramatic shift of resources away from foreign wars.

Two other things strike me. First, as to the tea-partiers, they are right to be angry, and at some point they may well figure out who the real targets of their anger should be. There are at least some initial signs that the tea-partiers recongize that the establishment GOP is not the solution to their anger at government waste and corporate welfare. Perhaps that will hold.

Second, there is no doubt that Obama has produced very disappointing results and in the process angered the base. It was always the case that, whatever the content of the policies he proposed, they would be labelled socialism by the right. The desultory state of his policy outcomes and his status with those who elected him is either inadverent or intentional. Most people seem to think that Obama inadverently bumbled into the present situation by being insufficiently aggresive, being caught off guard by the intensity of the opposition, etc.

I think it's equally plausible that, as a smart person, he's exactly where he wants to be: continuing the long DLC project to convert the old Democratic Party into a non-insane version of the Republican Party. It would be nice to have a non-insane version of the GOP, but it's too bad it has to be made out of the Democratic one.

"Soleri" wrote:

"Where's our media? Where's our networks of committed volunteers? Where's the broad consensus of middle-class opinion?"

Where's the President? Where's his leadership?

Where's his insistence on a public option?

Where's his use of Executive Branch authority to get us out of Afghanistan, now?

Why did he waste a trillion dollars worth of "stimulus" on tax cuts and slow-pitch softball instead of public works of lasting value, or even direct redistribution of income (which at least would have produced a lasting increase in consumer spending and put the economy back on a solid footing)?

Where's his use of the bully pulpit AND executive authority to reform the banking system in a meaningful way?

Why does he craft "voluntary" agreements which timidly ask the corporate status quo (from financiers to housing lenders to Big Pharma) to "do the right thing" even though everyone of any sophistication knows that their "right thing" is to serve the interests of their shareholders by maximizing profits; instead, reserving the use his full power of office to undermine legislators who want to make enforceable laws rather than cheerleading and voluntary agreements with profiteers?

Why did he nominate the usual suspects to his cabinet and advisory posts, instead of using the power of his office, like Ronald Reagan, to extend the influence of his political movement, first through the Executive branch and its regulatory agencies, then through the federal judiciary, and all the while supporting ideologically dedicated legislators, instead of undermining them in their races in favor of so-called moderates?

Obama HAD networks of committed followers, both inside and outside the media. Instead of inspiring them and building upon them, increasing their scope and depth, he squandered them.

Furthermore, egalitarianism doesn't apply when one party is an undistinguished member of the public, and another is the President of the United States. Where is the leadership? Where is the left's Ronald Reagan? Not in office, that's for sure...

Wishy-washy, uncommitted, and increasingly reactionary: that's how I'd describe Obama today. I see no reason to apologize for him: I had high hopes and they've been dashed. He doesn't even have Bill Clinton's fiscal virtue...

You would want Bill Clinton's "fiscal virtue"? Really? The man who signed the bill revoking Glass-Steagall?

Let's all take a deep breath before joining hands with tea baggers and Republican cynics. While I wish Obama had taken a few pages from Paul Krugman and a few more from Robert Reich, political reality forced a middle course in a nation this deeply divided. Yes, if there was a Left, one with teeth, street demonstrators, powerful unions, and general strikes, this nation would be markedly different. Unfortunately, it's not 1938. It's not even 1966. This country drifted rightward because the Left gave this country a middle class. Memories being short, citizens decided they were always "haves" in a country where "have nots" were depicted as drug-crazed barbarians. If Obama could heal this toxic lie, he would have performed a political miracle. It hasn't happened yet but it could still come to pass.

Indeed, we're halfway there, at least demographically. But make no mistake: there's no Left capable of mobilizing this nation. Untold millions are reactionaries because they see their economic status slipping. It would be another story altogether if they understood how the Right has been systematically undermining them. That's why the corporate media are so necessary to the Right's project. Few know this story.

We on the Left tend to be professionals, not manual laborers or trade unionists. We prefer irony to sloganeering, art galleries to saloons. The angriest among us might occasionally write a letter to the editor. We are not a sea of angry voices. We're sedate, comfortable and mildly worried.

We poured our hopes into the modest vessel named Barack Obama. Somehow, his person was supposed to substitute for the Left's lack of muscle. Surprise, surprise! We're not there yet because history is not there yet. Whether we ever get there remains to be seen but let's not preen our despair. It wastes too much time.

Being pretty much a political agnostic, I'm more interested in a discussion of the Independents and their influence. We tend to dwell on the eternal theme of liberals vs. conservatives but the indys constitute up to 1/3 of the electorate in many parts of the country. What about them?

Soleri makes some good points. Note, however, that a financial industry deregulatory bill (however ill-considered) does not constitute federal fiscal policy. The fact remains that, for all of the moaning by Republicans about the deficit, the only president in recent history to actually balance the federal budget was Democrat Clinton.

Obviously, there is a time to worry about deficits and a time to worry about the economy and apply Keynesian principles, and the Great Recession was the time for the latter. That said, I think that Obama wasted a golden opportunity by pissing all that money away on the tax cuts demanded by Republicans and on a substantial portion of the "stimulus" projects.

Obviously -- something that isn't always acknowledged in the center-right media -- a lot of the remaining stimulus funds went to extend unemployment benefits (something Congress would surely have voted anyway) and to offset state revenue shortfalls (without which, instead of treading water, the drowning states would have pulled the rest of the country down with them and postponed economic recovery by many years).

So, credit where credit is due. Does that mean, however, that I have to give Obama a pass, or that he shouldn't be prodded, vigorously, by the honest if stinging criticism of loyal but disillusioned partisans?

CDT, I think you have a good point. There is, however, a third, and even more cynical viewpoint, one developed by writer Bertram Gross in Friendly Fascism (1980):

"...A major difference is that under friendly fascism Big Government would do less pillaging of, and more pillaging for, Big Business. With much more integration than ever before among transnational corporations, Big Business would run less risk of control by any one state and enjoy more subservience by many states.

"A friendly fascist power structure in the I United States, Canada, Western Europe, or today's Japan would be far more sophisticated than the "caesarism" of fascist Germany, Italy, and Japan. It would need no charismatic dictator nor even a titular head... it would require no one-party rule, no mass fascist party, no glorification of the State, no dissolution of legislatures, no denial of reason. Rather, it would come slowly as an outgrowth of present trends in the Establishment.

"...Under the full-fledged oligarchy of friendly fascism, the Chief Executive network would become much more powerful than ever before. And the top executive -- in America, the president -- would in a certain sense become more important than before. But not in the sense of a personal despotism like Hitler's. Indeed, the president under friendly fascism would be as far from personal caesarism as from being a Hirohito-type figurehead. Nor would a president and his political associates extort as much "protection money" from big-business interests as was extracted under Mussolini and Hilter. The Chief Executive would neither ride the tiger nor try to steal its food; rather, he would be part of the tiger from the outset. The White House and the entire Chief Executive network would become the heart (and one of the brain centers) of the new business-government symbiosis."

Is Obama trying to steal the tiger's food, or ride it; or was he part of it from the outset?

Jim Hamblin makes an excellent point as well. I think that some of the policy positions taken by Obama during his campaign (since abandoned) appeal to independents of various stripes, whether liberal or libertarian. One such position was ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another (also since abandoned, except cosmetically) was his proposed dismantling of police-state structures in the intelligence and military, the ending of the use of torture, secret rendition, secret prisons, indefinite imprisonment without trial, excessive secrecy and its use to hide illegal and unconstitutional acts, etc.; also, his promise (also abandoned) of increased transparency in the government's general dealings with citizens and journalists (instead largely continuing Bush's policies, recalcitrance and assertion of the supremacy of the Executive Branch).

This is the Great Liberal? We couldn't even get a Church Committee to investigate the CIA's abuses. People who wanted to know anything from who visited the White House to where the bailout money went and what it was spent on, soon found that getting the information was like pulling teeth. Business as usual.

Emil, it is business as usual, by and large. Obama may perhaps be best viewed as the second term of George H.W. Bush. What I find odd as a political tactic is his decision to essentially govern as a conservative after running and winning as an agent of change, and a partly liberal one at that. Paranoid conservatives typically claim that moderate-sounding Democrats will veer to the right and govern as liberals once elected. Never have I seen somebody run as something of a liberal, get elected, and careen to the right. It's an odd choice. I remain convinced that Obama would be happy to see the House revert to the GOP, so he'll have a ready excuse for continuing to move right.

Emil:

"Is Obama trying to steal the tiger's food, or ride it; or was he part of it from the outset?"

That's a great question, and I think it cuts to the heart of the matter.

I, for one, was hoping that he was pretending to be friends with the tiger, ride it, AND steal its food.

There is a despicable vetting process in our system that ensures that only "acceptable" candidates for President will be taken seriously by the media (Kucinich is shamefully marginalized even as he is often the sanest man in the room). The interests of big money is the "tiger" and, with the help of its lobbying and flat-out ownership of all relevant media, I felt that our man was exactly the sort of position that your question frames.

After following and reviewing his actions, both domestic and foreign, it seems clear to me that he is one with the tiger.

(Oh, and props for the front post on our border dilemma. I learned some stuff, so thanks, too.)

"CDT" wrote:

"Paranoid conservatives typically claim that moderate-sounding Democrats will veer to the left and govern as liberals once elected. Never have I seen somebody run as something of a liberal, get elected, and careen to the right. It's an odd choice."

It certainly is, especially considering how "pink" Obama was portrayed as being, again chiefly by conservatives who wanted to portray him as a closet Marxist. Of course, that was merely the usual right-wing propaganda (e.g., in attempting to link Obama's political agenda to the Weathermen); yet there undoubtedly HAS been a tremendous rightward shift since his election (though truthfully, it began during the latter stages of his campaign).

Avoiding conspiracy theories and even more outre speculation, the only thing I can suggest is that Obama never possessed a concrete and detailed progressive agenda; that he is somewhat suggestible to the influences of his immediate coterie; that his immersion in the circles of power in Washington, D.C., excluded his customary influences and substituted instead a more conservative group of informal advisors; that as a relatively young and somewhat inexperienced individual, who was both eager to forge alliances and who understood the importance of securing the approval of the leadership of his own party, that he has fallen increasingly under the influence of the fairly conservative Democratic Party Leadership and moved away from the influence of the progressive wing of his party; and that underneath his apparent idealism he has always been driven by a strong sense of personal ambition.

That is actually, despite my earlier comment, something of an apology for Obama. It's the best, and most sanguine theory I have available. I won't say that I put a great deal of stock in it, because that would be misleading, but I think that it does possess a certain specious plausibility...

"Petro" wrote:

"I, for one, was hoping that he was pretending to be friends with the tiger, ride it, AND steal its food."

Me too. And yet, there comes a stage, as you acknowledge, when the point of diminishing returns has been reached and it becomes increasingly difficult to realistically support such hopes.

For example, with respect to pending health-care legislation, which seems to insure, by means of mandatory enrollment, the revenues of the private insurance industry (even as it faced severe trials, with the American populace aging and increasingly large sections of it shortly due to move into Medicare), the most progressive portions of the legislation take effect much later; and in the meantime a Republican surge in Congress renders the possibility of amendments and follow-up legislation a distinct possibility.

The idea that the legislation's provisions will subtly undermine the medical status quo and lead, eventually, to a single-payer system or even a robust public option, is tempting to those nurturing hope for progressive reform. If it turns out to be the case, then Obama may end up being canonized for a specious of marvelously far-sighted realism seldom seen in practical politics. Yet, the totality of the other evidence suggests that this may be a vain hope, not merely with respect to health-care reform but also with respect to Obama's true agenda.

P.S. Thank you, Petro, for your kind remark. I hope my essay constructively contributes to the ongoing immigration debate.

Emil:

Onn the subject of immigration, I would be interested if you have looked at this slightly different twist: whether periods of mass immigration have had the effect of improving America's political governnance by diluting the power of insular and entrenched nativists -- as Jon would say, kooks. Here's what I mean. Here in the southwest, we've read any number of stories about how Hispanic immigration is going to change the face of politics, presumably by weakening the hold of the very conservative political status quo in places like Arizona. That strikes me as a very good thing. The very right wing obviously disagrees.

Whether you agree or disagree, however, it raises some interesting questions, such as: 1. Are there periods in the past where immigrants essentially shifted the political balance of power? 2. Are there periods where the shift in the balance of power dispruted an insular and ossified political elite that otherwise might have remained in place indefinitely?

There is always commentary to the effect that the benefits of immigration include a boost in vitality and economic productivity. I suspect, but cannot prove, that the benefits of large-scale immigration might also include a shaking up of the political status quo.

That's your assignment for this week. :)

Since we've done a segue back to immigration, I offer what sounds like a dangerous generalization. In Arizona the waves of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America have destabilized entire neighborhoods and flooded the economy with relatively uneducated and unskilled folks. It is difficult for this fair-minded Independent to find anything very noble about all this because it will be very difficult to assimilate these downtrodden individuals . . and maybe their kids as well.

CDT, I think the answer to your question depends on the concrete circumstances. In the present instance, the Democratic Party of Arizona has an excellent opportunity to position themselves as benefactors to a new class of citizen immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

If they would only work for progressive legislation on immigration reform, diligently work to register the new immigrants as voters, and position themselves, consistently, in well-targeted Spanish-language public relations campaigns as THE party of Hispanics in Arizona, they might very well be able to take over the state legislature within a decade.

This may in fact be part of the reason, at least behind the scenes, for the resistance of some Republicans to immigration reform in general and to "amnesty" in particular.

Unfortunately, the Arizona Democratic Party is too busy reacting to the Republicans and trying not to look soft on immigration; and in addition, seems entirely oblivious of such elementary tactics as systematic yet targeted voter registration drives, even of existing citizen Hispanics. They could do this on the cheap by organizing on university campuses (especially community college campuses) where young, idealistic, and connected Hispanic students are present in great numbers, simply waiting for someone to discover their importance and value them.

Meanwhile, the Republicans, having seen which way the wind is blowing, are hunkering down. Not only will they attempt to appeal to Hispanics on social issues such as religion, abortion and birth control, but already, the tea-partiers and other nativists have been busy infiltrating the state Republican party at the precinct committee level with the idea of steering the party even further to the right. It's an idea which better funded Republican moderates must imitate if they are to move the party away from a kookocracy and into something approaching civilized political discourse.

Precinct committeemen elect district, county and state party officers, delegates to the presidential convention and Republican National Committee members. Those sent to the presidential convention vote on what policies the party platform will be advocated in the next two years. Through a monthly meeting, they interact with their elected party officials to influence legislation.

Two thirds of the six thousand Republican Party precinct committeeman slots in Maricopa County currently are
unfilled. It takes just 10 registered Republican or independent voter signatures to get your name placed on the ballot as a precinct committeeman candidate. Most run unopposed.

You can get an idea of what conservative Republican activists are up to in this regard, here:

http://theprecinctproject.wordpress.com/

This and similar sites are also where I obtained some of the information about party organization and functions quoted or paraphrased above. The following words from a reader comment are also intriguing:

"Not only do we need good Precinct chairs, but we need good delegates, who have worked for the Conservative Movement. The Chair only opens the Precinct convention. The delegates nominate a Convention Chair and other officers. In the past, the most I have seen at my Precinct meetings was 9 out of 1300...The Precinct Chair is in the position to both nominate and select future candidates...Tonight, I will learn if any one else is running for my Chair. I will also sign the papers for me to run. This has been a rubber stamp affair for the last few years. Since 2002, I have only seen one contested chair."

Emil and Jim:

Thanks. I think that captures Arizona pretty well. My other question is one of U.S. history, and namely whether waves of immigration follow (and partly cure) bouts of insular nativist behavor, or cause them. Obviously the common wisdom is that excessive immigration causes an anti-immigrant backlash after the fact. Query whether immigrantion is a solution to, rather than a cause, of such insular and narrow behavior. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but the question is whether relatively more liberal immigration cures political inbreeding. The wave of German immigrants early in the 20th Century caused many local school districts to adopt bilignual German-English education, which sounds remarkably progressive today. It was only WWII that prompted the backlash against immigrants from Germany.

@ Jim:

To the extent there is destabilization, I'm not sure we should blame it on the immigrants, legal or otherwise. I will concede that an economic model that relies on a) illegal and hence expolitable labor and b) weak public schools is a recipe for failure and, yes, destablization. I would gently suggest that the fault for that lies with intentional policy choices at the federal and state level, and not with the immigrants themselves. At least some of the destablization is attributable to collapse of the Arizona bubble economy and the subsequent departure of suddenly expendable immigrant labor. We have unofficially created a policy that's a bit like what France has -- imported labor from abroad with negligible rights. It's no surprise that this is not a sustainable path. I'm afraid the model is not a whole lot different with regard to U.S. labor -- as one can observe by the rising number of people who are intentionally relegated to part-time work in order to ensure they have no health care benefits. U.S. employers are racing to the bottom; immigrant labor, legal or otherwise, is only part of the dynamic.

CDT, when I said that I thought the general question depended on concrete circumstances, I meant that I don't think you can answer it with a simple yes or no. I think the answer depends on a number of factors. Off the top of my head these might include:

(a) The race (or perceived race) of immigrants relative to the majority in the community where they settle. Immigrants from races which the popular culture, in the land to which they immigrate, regards as inferior or possessed of negative or unwholesome qualities, have less chance to mitigate nativist fears.

(b) Perceived similarities (or lack therefore) in cultural values, whether a work ethic, religious background, manners and habits, and a variety of other factors, can influence the native population for or against immigrants in person (as opposed to in myth prior to their arrival and familiarization). For example, at some points in history, being Catholic was a big deal to a Protestant majority, or vice-versa.

(c) The time and place in history (as determining prevalent attitudes).

(d) The concentration of immigrant populations, not in the country as a whole, but in the communities where they settle and which react to them.

(e) The extent to which immigrant populations are able to establish quasi-independent enclaves to provide for their own material and social needs; also, the extent to which they keep to their own kind. Note the latter is highly subjective, again with respect to other factors: in some cultures and periods, immigrants who keep to themselves might be better tolerated; in others, this might be regarded as evidence of conceit and result in hostility toward them.

(Ironically, I suspect that both versions of this are sometimes present, as for example against Jews in certain parts of Poland or Germany in past centuries.)

(f) The extent to which immigrants are able to organize and take advantage of the legal framework and institutions of their adopted home.

Now, Germans in the interwar period (especially before the Nazi era) were advantaged in a number of these respects. They were White. They spoke a language from which English (Anglo Saxon) is actually derived. They were Protestants in a Protestant country, and practicing Lutherans tended to share a number of traits which, for good or ill, were brought to America with the Puritans; piety, a concern with formalism, a kind of moral severity; abnegation; and the kind of bourgeoise attitudes which fit in fairly well. The culture they came from was developed and cultured and cosmopolitan, and much like our own.

They tended to be well-organized, and large numbers of them (at one point in their immigration) were Social Democrats and strong union advocates, used to working as a group for the common benefit, and adept at using the existing legal framework to achieve their goals (or amending it to suit them, when possible). This also caused them some problems during the era of the Palmer Raids, circa 1920.

Finally, there was a good deal of pro-German sentiment in this country in the interwar period (provided they weren't too far to the left). In my immigration essay, I note that far more Germans (even than the British and Irish, the next two largest quotas) were allowed in by the Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act). Even during the early Nazi era (from 1933 for several years) there was a good deal of sympathy for Germans and even a degree of germanophilism in some quarters of the native U.S. population.

It may be that there are certain broad trends that answer your question generally, which I am not capturing here; but this is my present view, based on independent analysis. I don't pretend to be an academic or possess expertise on the subject.

P.S. One might contrast this with the easygoing, dark-skinned, pagan Hawaiians during the same period. Even though mainlanders were the guests at a time when Hawaii was just an annexed territory, the native culture and language was suppressed (sometimes brutally), first by White landowners of the provisional government after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy; and the U.S. Government itself continued this policy after annexation from 1898, probably until the Revolution of 1954. (I spoke with one native Hawaiian who, though friendly, told me how he had been spanked severely at public school for speaking Hawaiian, during the 1940s.)

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