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    National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement.
        -Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country

In a series of essays originally presented as the 1997 William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization, Richard Rorty undertakes the much needed task of rescuing the American Left from the anti-Americanism and theoretical navel-gazing in which it has become trapped and redirecting it towards a legislative agenda of progressive reform.  He hopes to refocus the Left on the goal of perfecting America, of achieving the kind of America envisioned by Walt Whitman and John Dewey.  Unfortunately, the book is marred by the general weaknesses of the Leftist critique of society and by the particular weakness of Rorty's (and Dewey's) philosophy : pragmatism.  The result is a book which offers American liberalism a much needed kick in the pants, but which is spectacularly wrong headed on virtually every one of its historical assessments and its positive proposals for the future.

In his useful but overly boosterish book, The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand describes how a group of intellectuals including Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and Jane Addams developed the concept of pragmatism, which the Encyclopaedia Britannica defines as follows :

    PRAGMATISM :
    school of philosophy, dominant in the United States during the first quarter of the 20th century,
    based on the principle that the usefulness, workability, and practicality of ideas, policies, and
    proposals are the criteria of their merit. It stresses the priority of action over doctrine, of
    experience over fixed principles, and it holds that ideas borrow their meanings from their
    consequences and their truths from their verification. Thus, ideas are essentially instruments and
    plans of action.

Menand argued that they adopted this belief, that the truthfulness or value of an idea resides in its social utility, in response to a desire to drain political disagreements of their ideological passion, passions which they blamed for the defining moment of their generation, the bloody Civil War.    No longer would humankind come into conflict merely because different peoples believed in different truths, instead the sole test of the truth of an idea would be whether it worked in practice.

I've discussed some of the internal inconsistencies of pragmatism in that earlier review, but Mr. Rorty's continued adherence to these notions combined with his demand for progressive government highlight a particularly absurd aspect of his philosophy.  Because if we accept, for the sake of argument, that ideas should be judged solely by their effectiveness, then it is necessary to judge nearly all of the agenda that progressives foisted upon us in the 20th Century to have been a failure, and, therefore, the idea that progressive politic solutions can improve society must be false.   From socialism to communism to fascism to the New Deal to the Great Society, from nationalizing industries to redistribution of wealth to wage and price controls to centralized economic planning to welfare, the Left's experiments with using government to ameliorate social problems has been a complete disaster.  By the 1990s such extravagant utopian versions of Leftish ideology as the Soviet Union and the Swedish model of socialism had collapsed; even the United States, which among the industrialized nations had adopted the most minimal reforms, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy; and a liberal president, who just a few years earlier had tried installing a socialized health care system, was forced to acknowledge that "the era of big government is over."  It escaped no one's notice--except apparently for Mr. Rorty's and that of some others on the Left--that the United States, with the least government, lowest taxes, and most economic freedom of any nation, also had the most vibrant and productive economy and the highest standard of living.  This realization has led much of the rest of the world to try emulating the American system, a process which has come to be called globalization and which is introducing freedom to societies where it had previously been unknown--Russia, China, etc.--and expanding freedom in countries which had unfortunately flirted with statism--from New Zealand to Chile to Israel to Mexico.  The few regions and nations which so far refuse to go along with the wave of globalization--the Islamic World, most of Africa, North Korea, and Cuba--find themselves falling further and further behind the rest of the world in terms of economic development.  Yet, Mr. Rorty continues to believe in the efficacy of big government?  What a strange brand of pragmatism he practices.

So before the reader can continue, he must dismiss Mr. Rorty's avowal of pragmatism, and consider him just as a leftist critiquing what has become of the Left.  Here he is, of course, on safer ground, for if the Left has been proven disastrously wrong in its general approach, it stands to reason that you can pick them apart on discrete issues.  So Mr. Rorty traces the decline of the Left first to the split between the Old Left, or as he calls them the "reformist Left" :

    ...all those Americans who struggled within the framework  of constitutional democracy to protect the weak from the strong.  This includes
    lots of people who called themselves 'communists' and 'socialist'...

and the New Left :

    ...people--mostly students--who decided, around 1964, that it was no longer possible to work for social justice within the system.

In his view, the reformist Left, which combined intellectuals and the labor and civil rights movements, had been able to achieve many good things by pushing to reform the system and make it more progressive.  But the more radical New Left was so disdainful of the system that they stopped trying to squeeze what they could out of it.  He compares their ideology to a religious theology, obviously anathema to a pragmatist, in the way that they perceived the system as contaminated by sin and holds that their desire to keep themselves pure, unsullied by stooping to function within the system, cost them the opportunity to continue the work of reform.

In more recent times, as the students of the New Left have moved on to pursue careers in journalism, the arts, and most importantly academia, as they have become, in Roger Kimball's felicitous phrase, "tenured radicals", Mr. Rorty says that they have largely forsaken the pursuit of economic equality in favor of an attempt to eradicate what he calls "sadism."  By sadism he really means various forms of prejudice, or animus directed towards groups because of their ethnicity, race, sex, physical status, or sexual orientation.  He notes that the Old Left had assumed that such feelings of animosity would automatically disappear with the coming of economic equality and the end of insecurity and selfishness, but the new "Cultural Left" assumes that American culture and the democratic capitalist system are beyond redemption, so they wait in their ivory towers for the collapse of so called "late capitalism."  When they stopped believing that the system could be improved, they stopped believing in America.  They are now merely spectators, rather than the agents of change that Mr. Rorty wants them to be.

If this was all that Mr. Rorty had to say about the Left it would be possible to agree with him, but throughout his discussion of the problems of the New Left and the Cultural Left he also gives them great credit for the "good" things that they accomplished.  For the New Left this chiefly consists of getting America to quit Vietnam, for the Cultural Left it is the imposition of standards of political correctness on campus and their gradual encroachment upon much of society.   At this point it is fair to ask what remains of the author's earlier claims of pragmatism.  By what conceivable measure can it be said that the consequences of the North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam and of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia were desirable?  What useful results flowed from the way in which student radicals and their intellectual fellow travelers tore apart American society in the late 60s and early 70s?  Who has benefited from the identity politics that the Cultural Left espouses?  Is America a less hateful society today, when blacks, women, gays, etc. are taught that they are oppressed by straight white Christian males, or is it not the case that these groups are being inculcated with hate?  Are affirmative action quotas that deny jobs to certain qualified candidates on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, or whatever other reasons any less repulsive when they are applied to groups which have historically succeeded in American society than they were when applied to those who were less successful?  Is it really acceptable to discriminate against someone because their grandfathers and great grandfathers succeeded?  And more importantly from a pragmatist's standpoint, does this kind of discrimination work?  That is, does it lessen the tension between the races and the sexes and does it give us higher quality students and employees?  Well, the answers to all those questions seem fairly obvious, don't they?

There's another more curious way in which Mr. Rorty's supposed pragmatism deserts him; that's in his complete disdain for conservatism.  Despite his earlier disavowals of the possibility of arriving at any objective truth, there's one thing he knows : conservative beliefs are false.  Thus, although he does differentiate between the various strains of Leftism, bending over backwards to include them all in "the Left" generally and to give them credit for being at least a part of the progressive reform movement, he makes no similar allowances for the Right, leading him to the following unintentionally hilarious comparison :

    A hundred years from now, [Irving] Howe and [John Kenneth] Galbraith, [Michael] Harrington and [Arthur] Schlesinger , [Woodrow]
    Wilson and [Eugene V.] Debs, Jane Addams and Angela Davis, Felix Frankfurter and John L. Lewis, W. E. B. DuBois and Eleanor
    Roosevelt, Robert Reich and Jesse Jackson, will all be remembered for having advanced the cause of social justice.  They will be seen as
    having been 'on the Left.' The difference between these people and men like Calvin Coolidge, Irving Babbitt, T. S. Eliot, Robert Taft, and
    William Buckley will be far clearer than any of the quarrels which once divided them among themselves.  Whatever mistakes they made,
    these people will deserve, as Coolidge and Buckley never will, the praise with which Jonathan Swift ended his own epitaph: 'imitate him if
    you can; he served human liberty.'

Now, you can see that the rather motley crew of characters he's cited on the Left would appeal to someone who thinks that government should pervade our lives, but to cast them as servants of liberty is downright delusional.  On the other hand, the men of the Right whom he chooses are each of them heroes to anyone who believes in a limited role for government.  In fact, Mr. Rorty himself, perhaps unintentionally, acknowledges the difference when he later says that :

    Nobody has yet suggested a viable leftist alternative to the civic religion of which Whitman and Dewey were prophets.  That civic religion
    centered around taking advantage of traditional pride in American citizenship by substituting social justice for individual freedom as our
    country's principal goal.

If it is an honor to be able to say that you "served human liberty", as indeed I believe it is, then what honor accrues to those who renounce it?  If the extension of liberty is the yardstick by which the future will measure us, then the names of men like Coolidge and Buckley will be hallowed.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rorty is right that Leftism is, at its quintessence, the pursuit of radical egalitarianism, the attempt to use the machinery of government to redistribute wealth in order that all men end up with an equal share of the economic pie.   This is a vision which has appealed to many men in many places and in many times, but it has generally, with the brief exception of the Depression and post-Depression years, not found much favor here in America, because it represents the considered repudiation of individual freedom in favor of societal equality.  But it should be maintained as a political ideal and a party ideology, for mankind has always been powerfully conflicted over which we desire more, freedom or security.  It is incumbent on the Left to continue to offer a clear alternative, even if its ideas are in decline.  But it is terribly dishonest for the Left to continue to use the language of liberty even as they pursue policies and programs that are antithetical to freedom.

Richard Rorty has performed a real service in these pages, in summoning all of the factions of the Left back to their first principles, the achievement of a utopian America in which all men are not merely created equal but in which government guarantees that they end up equal.  However, it would have been a more helpful book, and more intellectually honest, if he had acknowledged more forthrightly that the Left chooses equality rather than freedom, and that when measured by his own pragmatic standards Leftism and egalitarianism have proven, to say the least, disappointing, particularly when compared to conservatism and the individual freedoms that the Right espouses.  The inescapable comparison is of America in the 60s & 70s to America in the 80s & 90s--who would choose the former?  Instead, the book seems intended to speak only to fellow Leftists and even then only to those who have become spectators; who are equally dismissive of the ideal of freedom; who think that Angela Davis and Robert Reich will be remembered (let alone remembered favorably) a century from now; who believe that globalization is evil; who too believe that it is possible (and desirable) to purge Man's soul of all forms of prejudice; who believe, in effect, that Man is self-created.  One hopes and prays that's a limited audience.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (D+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Politics
Richard Rorty Links:

    -OBIT: Richard Rorty, Philosopher, Dies at 75 (PATRICIA COHEN, June 11, 2007, NY Times)
    -OBIT: Richard Rorty, American Philosopher, 75 (GARY SHAPIRO, June 11, 2007, NY Sun)
    -OBIT: Richard Rorty, Popular Philosopher and Champion of Pragmatism, Is Dead at 75 (Chronicle of Higher Education)
    -OBIT: Richard Rorty's Legacy: The American philosopher typified and even perfected a form of exclusionary postmodern argument that depended on burying truth (Roger Scruton, 6/12/07, Open Democracy)
    -TRIBUTE: End Point: Richard Rorty's blasé liberalism. (Damon Linker, 6/12/07, New Republic)
    -TRIBUTE: The patriot: Richard Rorty was a philosopher who hated philosophy -- and a lefty who loved his country (Todd Gitlin, June 17, 2007, Boston Globe)
    -TRIBUTE: Richard Rorty: What made him a crucial American philosopher? (Stephen Metcalf, June 15, 2007, Slate)
    -OBIT: Philosopher, poet and friend (Jurgen Habermas, Sight and Sound)
    -OBIT: Richard Rorty, R.I.P. (Joseph Bottum, June 11, 2007, , First Things)
    -OBIT: Richard Rorty, 1931-2007 (Todd Gitlin, 6/10/07, TPM Cafe)
            -Richard Rorty's Homepage (Stanford)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "richard rorty"
    -Richard Rorty (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
    -Richard Rorty (American Philosophy Resources)
    -Richard Rorty (Postmodern Thought)
    -Theorists and Critics : Richard Rorty (PopCultures.com)
    -Richard Rorty (Knowledge Base)
    -Richard Rorty (20th Century Philosophy)
    -Richard Rorty (EpistemeLinks.com)
    -EXCERPT : Introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism by Richard Rorty (1982)
    -ESSAY :  Our Increasing Willingness To Let The Rich Take More And More From The Poor (Richard Rorty, March 6, 2000, The New York Times )
    -ESSAY : First Projects, Then Principles (Richard Rorty, December 1997, The Nation)
    -ESSAY : Back to Class Politics (Richard Rorty, Winter 1997, Dissent)
    -ESSAY : Moral Universalism and Economic Triage (Richard Rorty, Unesco Forum 1996)
    -ESSAY : Feminism, Ideology, and Deconstruction: a Pragmatist View. (Richard Rorty, Hypatia v8, n2, Spring, 1993)
    -ESSAY : The Humanistic Intellectual: Eleven Theses (Richard Rorty, University of Virginia, American Council of Learned Societies)
    -ESSAY : Unger, Castoriadis, and the Romance of a National Future (Richard Rorty,  Northwestern University Law Review, Winter, 1988)
    -REVIEW: of The Education of John Dewey by Jay Martin (RICHARD RORTY, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil by Rüdiger Safranski (Richard Rorty, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of HAPPINESS, DEATH, AND THE REMAINDER OF LIFE By Jonathan Lear  (Richard Rorty, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  PAPAL SIN : Structures of Deceit. By Garry Wills  (Richard Rorty, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE REAL AMERICAN DREAM : A Meditation on Hope. By Andrew Delbanco   (Richard Rorty, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of WITTGENSTEIN READS FREUD The Myth of the Unconscious. By Jacques Bouveresse (Richard Rorty, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Social Construction of What? by Ian Hacking (Richard Rorty, The Atlantic)
    -INTERVIEW : with Richard Rorty (Christopher Moore, The Dartmouth Contemporary, Winter 2000)
    -INTERVIEW : The Next Left : A conversation with Richard Rorty (Scott Stossel, April 23, 1998, Atlantic Monthly)
    -INTERVIEW : A Talent for Bricolage : An Interview with Richard Rorty (Joshua Knobe, January 1995, The Dualist)
    -PROFILE : The Quest for Uncertainty : Richard Rorty's pragmatic pilgrimage (James Ryerson, January 2001, Lingua Franca)
    -ESSAY: THE COMING ONLY IS SACRED: Self-Creation and Social Solidarity in Richard Rorty’s Secular Eschatology (Scott Holland, Winter 2004, CrossCurrents)
    -PROFILE : Agent Provocateur (Matthew Halteman and Andrew Chignell, Books & Culture, Jul/Aug 2000)
    -ESSAY : Richard Rorty and the Postmodern Rejection of Absolute Truth (Dean Geuras, Professor of Philosophy, Southwest Texas State University. Leadership U)
    -ESSAY : How Not To Read Rorty (Dave LeBoeuf )
    -ESSAY : Losing One's Cherry: Reactions to Rorty's Contingency, irony, and solidarity (Ian C. Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC)
    -ESSAY : Orwell's Answer to Rorty  (Ron Capshaw, City University of New York)
    -ESSAY : Postmodern Ethics:  Richard Rorty & Michael Polanyi (John Rothfork)
    -ESSAY : A Perennial Philosophy Perspective on Richard Rorty's Neo-Pragmatism (Sheldon R. Isenberg and Gene R. Thursby)
    -ESSAY : Liberal Ironists and the 'Gaudily Painted Savage':  On Richard Rorty's Reading of Vladimir Nabokov (Leona Toker, Zembla)
    -ESSAY : A Critique of Rorty's analysis of Modern Epistemology (Teed Rockwell, Cognitive Questions)
    -ESSAY : TRUTH AS A COMMUNICATIVE VIRTUE IN A POSTMODERN AGE: FROM DEWEY TO RORTY (Clinton Collins, University of Kentucky, PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION   1993)
    -ESSAY : The Paradoxes of Education in Rorty's Liberal Utopia (Rob Reich, Stanford University, Philosophy of Education 1996)
    -ESSAY : Utopia Flawed? :  A Response to Reich on Rorty (Shirley Pendlebury, University of the Witwatersrand, Philosophy of Education 1996)
    -ESSAY : Richard Rorty on the Power of Philosophical Reflection and the  Pragmatist Conception of Critical Thinking: A Redescription (Walter Okshevsky, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Philosophy of Education 1997)
    -ESSAY : Rorty, Critical Thought, and Philosophy of Education (Jerrold R. Coombs, University of British Columbia, Philosophy of Education 1997)
    -ESSAY : The Politics of Hope and Optimism: Rorty, Havel, and the Democratic Faith of John Dewey (Social Research, September 05 2000 by Patrick J. Deneen)
    -ESSAY : Political Liberalism and Universalism: Problems in the Theories of David Gauthier and Richard Rorty
    -ESSAY : Richard Rorty on Feminism (John Haber)
    -ESSAY : The Pragmatism of Richard Rorty (Samuel Abraham, Eurozine)
    -ESSAY :  Richard Rorty's "Private irony and liberal hope" (Robby Barringer)
    -ESSAY : Richard Rorty and Postmodern Theory (Steven Best and Douglas Kellner)
    -ESSAY : Notes on Richard Rorty and Habermas (C.E.) (Robert Cavalier, Carnegie Mellon and Charles Ess, Drury College )
    -ESSAY :  Richard Rorty: Philosophy beyond Argument and Truth? (Wolfgang Welsch)
    -ESSAY : Dirty Windows (Robert Kuttner, April 10 2000, American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : Richard Rorty and Brian Eno (Gregory Taylor)
    -ESSAY : Richard Rorty and Internet
    -ESSAY : Wisdom's Children : Richard Rorty, Thomas Nagel, and the Platonic Myth  (Bill Ramey)
    -ESSAY : Richard Rorty for the Silver Screen : Waking Ned Devine as apologetic for postmodernism. (Crystal Downing,  Books & Culture, Sep/Oct 1999)
    -LECTURE : "Conversational Constraints: Richard Rorty and Contemporary Critical Theory" : Prepared for the Midwinter Meeting of the English and American Literature Section, ACRL, January 1996 (Richard Fyffe, Humanities Bibliographer, University of Connecticut Libraries, Storrs)
    -Yahoo! Directory : Home > Arts > Humanities > Philosophy > Philosophers > Rorty, Richard
    -ARCHIVES : The New York Review of Books: Richard Rorty
    -ARCHIVES : "richard rorty" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty (Damon Linker, Policy Review)
    -REVIEW : of Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty (Charles Marsh, Books & Culture)
    -REVIEW : of Philosophy and Social Hope (David Gordon, The Mises Review)
    -REVIEW : of Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3.  By Richard Rorty (Jenny Teichman , New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of Truth and Progress (Cross Currents, Rikard Donovan)
    -REVIEW : of Truth and Progress  (Carlin Romano, The Nation)
    -REVIEW : of Truth and Progress (Michael Albert, Zmag)
    -REVIEW : of  Truth & Progress: Philosophical Papers  by Richard Rorty and Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought In Twentieth-Century America  by Richard Rorty (Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, Lingua Franca)
    -REVIEW : of Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in 20th-Century America by Richard Rorty and Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Vol. III  by Richard Rorty (Jonathan Rée, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Achieving Our Country : Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Achieving Our Country  (Alan Ryan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of ACHIEVING OUR COUNTRY: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, by Richard Rorty (Jean Bethke Elshtain, Wilson Quarterly)
    -REVIEW : of Achieving Our Country.(Cross Currents, James E. Giles)
    -REVIEW : of Achieving Our Country : Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty (David Horowitz, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Achieving Our Country (Willem Maas, Yale University, 49th Parallel)
    -REVIEW : of Achieving our Country  (Marc Bernstein, Ethical Culture)
    -REVIEW : of Achieving our Country (Tikkun, Michael Berube)
    -REVIEW : of Achieving our Country  (Jack Nichols , Gay Today)
    -REVIEW : of Achieving Our Country (Kevin Mattson, DataWranglers)
    -REVIEW: of Achieving our Country by Richard Rorty (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW: of Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW : of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (David Heinimann, Surfaces)
    -REVIEW : of Pragmatism: A Reader, edited by Louis Menand (Susan Haack, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of Rorty and His Critics edited by Robert B. Brandom (Simon Blackburn, The New Republic)

Book-related and General Links:

PRAGMATISM :
    -American pragmatists
    -ESSAY : What Pragmatism Ain't : Architectural theorists do a number on William James's all-American philosophy.  (PHILIP NOBEL | July 2001, Metropolis)
    -ESSAY : Can We Be Good Without God? : Kierkegaard and the Christian ethic of love. (C. Stephen Evans, July 2000, Books & Culture)
    -PROFILE : THE OUTRAGEOUS PRAGMATISM OF JUDGE RICHARD POSNER  (JAMES RYERSON, May 2000, Lingua Franca)
    -REVIEW : of The Revival Of Pragmatism New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture. Edited by Morris Dickstein (Alan Ryan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE PROMISE OF PRAGMATISM :  Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority By John Patrick Diggins (Scott London, Antioch Review)

GENERAL :
    -REVIEW : of "THAT'S NOT WHAT WE MEANT TO DO": Reform and Its  Unintended Consequences in Twentieth-Century America, by Steven M. Gillon (Marty Linsky, Wilson Quarterly)
    -REVIEW : of THE PASSING OF AN ILLUSION: The Idea of Communism in the  Twentieth Century, by François Furet. (Jacob Heilbrunn, Wilson Quarterly)
    -REVIEW : of THE RECKLESS MIND : Intellectuals in Politics.  By Mark Lilla (SUNIL KHILNANI, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of SHIFTING FORTUNES: The Rise and Decline of American  Labor, from the 1820s to the Present, by Daniel Nelson (Michael Kazin, Wilson Quarterly)
    -REVIEW : of  Three Strikes: Labor's Heartland Losses and What They Mean for  Working Americans By Stephen Franklin,  Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor's Last Century By Howard Zinn, Dana Frank, and Robin D.G.  Kelley and  From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated  History of Labor in the United States By Priscilla Murolo and A.B. Chitty (Jefferson Cowie, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW : of   Frances  Stonor Saunder's The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (Robert de Neufville, Washington Monthly)
    -ESSAY : CORNEL WEST: BETWEEN RORTYíS ROCK AND HAUERWAS'S HARD PLACE (William Hart, American Journal of Theology & Philosophy,  May 1998)

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