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Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom

Written by Jedediah PurdyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jedediah Purdy

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On Sale: March 03, 2009
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27143-3
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Synopsis

In A Tolerable Anarchy, Jedediah Purdy traces the history of the American understanding of freedom, an ideal that has inspired the country’s best—and worst—moments, from independence and emancipation to war and economic uncertainty. Working from portraits of famous American lives, like Frederick Douglas and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Purdy asks crucial questions about our relationship to liberty: Does capitalism perfect or destroy freedom? Does freedom mean following tradition, God’s word, or one’s own heart? Can a nation of individuals also be a community of citizens? This is history that speaks plainly to our lives today, urging readers to explore our understanding of our country and ourselves, and a provocative look at one of America’s cherished principles.

Excerpt

c h a p t e r 3

War and Its Equivalents

One of the best pieces ever in The Onion, the satirical newspaper whose articles make up a parallel history of the last two decades, appeared just after September 11, 2001. It opened, “Feeling helpless in the wake of the horrible September 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands, Christine Pearson baked a cake and decorated it like an American flag Monday.” True to form, the article is lightly ironic as it traces the fictional Topeka legal secretary's rummage through her kitchen cabinets in a frenzy of distress and media saturation. It concludes, though, with a middle- American version of the “Yes” at the end of James Joyce's Ulysses as Pearson presents the confection to her neighbors:


“I baked a cake,” said Pearson, shrugging her shoulders and forcing a smile as she unveiled the dessert in the Overstreet household later that evening. “I made it into a flag.”

Pearson and the Overstreets stared at the cake in silence for nearly a minute, until Cassie hugged Pearson.

“It's beautiful,” Cassie said. “The cake is beautiful.”

That Onion piece better captures the mood of those weeks than the soaring and belligerent speeches of politicians. It spoke to a basic and powerful wish to be connected to others, to help heal rather than injure, to be on the side of good rather than let isolation make you neutral. And it recognized that the ways we try to do these things are often stumbling, awkward, easy to make fun of-even though making fun of them is not just cruel but also shoddy and trite, much more jejune than the attempts to do something good. This scrap of satire acknowledged all of this and, in a paper that specializes in relentless fun making, gently refrained from attacking it.

The appetites for connection, membership, and righteousness (which is not the same as self-righteousness) that this sketch almost shyly honored are a reminder of Americans' persistent desire for a sense of national community and the common good. More vivid reminders include the nomination in 2008 of two presidential candidates who believe in citizenship and political service and, in particular, the enormous enthusiasm for Barack Obama's conviction-driven primary campaign. Self-concern, self-regard, even a certain amount of self-involvement, are all resting places for human feelings. Selfishness and isolation are not. That is why political language remains essentially engaged in trying to find a language of common good that feels alive, contemporary, genuine, and American. The search often feels as futile as the fictional Christine Pearson's search through her kitchen cabinets and, like hers, ends in the personal orbit of friends and neighbors.

What might such language sound like today? Part of the answer comes from the themes of the previous chapter. For one thing, it would have to take seriously what Ronald Reagan saw when he triumphantly dispatched Jimmy Carter: there is no American appetite for diminution and bad conscience in political life. We listen to be affirmed and celebrated. We are mostly not interested in being called to serve, let alone to sacrifice, for a promise of sterner limits. In this respect we are the spiritual descendants of Walt Whitman,
who announced that he celebrated himself and, in that act, celebrated every American and the country as a whole. Reagan's inaugurals were tableaux of American dreaming and striving, full of a heroic ordinariness that had more of Whitman in them than any previous president's.

For another thing, a renewed language of common good would have to accept some of the personal-virtue consensus that united Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Americans do experience freedom, purpose, and satisfaction most strongly in family and individual life. These are, by and large, our archetypes for understanding what it means to be connected with others and have commitments beyond ourselves. We have fewer “mystic chords of memory” than felt, inhabited bonds with others whom we have seen healthy and sick, elated and sad, and at all hours of day and night. It is not just that these are what we live for, although that is true: they are also how we know what it means to live for something, rather than just to exist. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush went there because they understood
that family and community held undeniable shared values, based in the concrete reality of interdependence. Their difficulty-more frustrating, probably, to Clinton than to Bush-was that they had nowhere to go from there.

Third, it would have to be a language of common good for a country that is much more diverse and, in some ways, equal than any previous America. The New Deal, the greatest American political experiment in social solidarity, addressed a national community with whitesupremacist struts. Roosevelt held his indispensable congressional majority only through concessions to Southern Democrats who refused to have their system of racial caste dismantled. He went as far as declining to support an antilynching law, a shameful capitulation to the ugliest and most lawless form of American violence. The part of the Great Society that we remember-the War on Poverty- had real failings, but it was also broken on racial resentment, precisely because Lyndon Johnson would not limit its reach along the racial lines that Roosevelt accepted. Decades of growing tolerance and openness have made the country a much better one but have also made us more nearly a country of strangers. The equality of tolerance is not that far
from indifference, and very far from the equality of opportunity that LBJ envisioned. As political scientist Robert Putnam has recently argued, there is no reason to deny in principle that diversity and solidarity can coexist; that said, we have not found a convincing register for their coexistence in American politics.

Finally, a language of common good would have to contend with the enrichment of private life. The search for a fuller life is under way everywhere but in government: it is the personal utopianism of yoga and Pilates studios, mega-churches and living rooms, pharmaceutical labs and psychotherapy clinics, and the editorial offices of Dwell and Saveur-the hundreds of thousands of places where billions of dollars and hours drive the unending search for meaning and satisfaction. Americans have always been amateur specialists in self-transformation, but the practice has never been more elaborate, mainstream, or sorted into lifestylecompatible market segments. If there was a hint of unique adventure and transformative possibility in the politics of past generations, it is harder to find now, partly by contrast with the multifarious growth of possibility elsewhere in life.

At least some of a language that worked might extend Roosevelt's and Johnson's images of citizens whose free personal activity is enabled by shared institutions. Such language might begin with the paradox of American individualism-a new version of what Progressive critics of free labor described a century ago. On one hand, we experience ourselves as vessels of infinite possibility, and we have more tools and techniques to make that possibility real than anyone else in history. We feel correspondingly entitled to make good on at least a generous portion of what we might become, and disappointed and wronged if we find we cannot. On the other hand, we are not much less buffeted by economic and institutional fate than earlier Americans. Tens of millions lack the basic security of health insurance. Globalization, the decline of private-sector unions, and new corporate models all make unemployment an ordinary interruption for the fortunate and a long-term threat for the unlucky. It is fashionable to praise the flexibility and selfrevision that these changes necessitate, and there is some basis for the praise; but “reinventing” yourself is much more fun when you choose the occasion than when circumstances pick you out for reinvention. The Progressive criticism of laissez-faire began in the clash between the ideal of selfmastery and the reality that people were vulnerable to impersonal forces whose dictates could feel as arbitrary as the Greek Fates and that, like those iconic powers, made a mockery of human will. The world has changed since 1905: we are much richer, and real deprivation is less likely. Nonetheless, the psychic whiplash that strikes when our vast sense of possibility meets unyielding constraint is as acute as ever. A competent, innovative government might pick up this problem-which it is fair to describe as the politics of the American dream-where Johnson set it down when the Great Society yielded to bureaucratic overreach, racial anger, and a war the country was coming to hate, which the president did not know how to end. There is more on this possibility in later chapters on the economy of freedom.



War and Its Equivalents

Maybe, though, there needs to be more. In an 1895 Harvard commencement address, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the Civil War veteran and future Supreme Court justice, attacked the Progressive concern with personal security and comfort as spiritually insufficient. Holmes and some of his contemporaries might have predicted the developments described in the previous chapter: the failure of Progressive politics to sustain an idea of common good and the retreat of public values into personal virtue. For them, the lives that Progressives tried to make possible for all citizens could not sustain the idea of citizenship itself. Citizenship, as a status and source of dignity, relied on an idea of civic honor. Honor was a quality of soldiers, not homemakers, and there was no way to save it in a world of safe private lives. “War is out of fashion,” Holmes complained to the listening Harvard graduates, and he derided the “society for which many philanthropists, labor reformers, and men of fashion unite in longing . . . one in which they may be comfortable and may shine without much trouble or any danger.” Progressives wanted less pain, less suffering, less failure, and, at the end of history, a world “cut up into five-acre lots, and having no man upon it who [is] not well fed and well housed.” But such a world, Holmes complained, would be intolerable, because it would contain no honor, that is, no earned dignity. All previous ideas of honor, he insisted, had been based on the virtues of war: the willingness to die for something greater than oneself. If Progressives wanted civic dignity, they were trying to have it both ways, to “steal the good will without the responsibilities of the place.”

Holmes did not argue that a country needed soldiers to protect its home fires and permit its citizens their innocent, decadent pleasures. His was not a practical argument but a spiritual one. He argued that a man needed to be a soldier to be a man. A citizen needed to be a soldier to have honor. And being a soldier was as personal a spiritual posture as being an Emersonian individual, except that, for Emerson's resolute openness and self-trust, Holmes substituted a selfsacrificing dedication to struggle as such, which approached impassioned nihilism. He said,


I do not know what is true. I do not know the meaning of the universe. But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt, that no man who lives in the same world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.


It was a Romantic idea, far from the practical concerns of the founding generation. Jefferson had described a continent of homesteads as an empire of liberty, full of clearheaded and self-reliant citizens. Holmes answered that a nation of prosperous house lots was a kind of spiritual prison. He portrayed human life as shadowed by ignorance and confusion but pierced and illuminated by pure commitment,
regardless of its object, with self-sacrifice as its defining emblem. The idea that materialistic, democratic modernity had eroded heroism, and sacrifice could restore it, would later become a Fascist theme. Holmes's call for blind collectivism, however, was thoroughly and paradoxically individualist at its core. The point of unreflecting duty in battle was to experience one's own “heroism.” A man had to do this to confront his own soul, “to know that one's final judge and only rival is oneself.”

Holmes had seen nightmarish battles. Teddy Roosevelt, who had seen only the quick and victorious kind, was so impressed by Holmes's address that he selected the Massachusetts judge for the Supreme Court. (Holmes was a major jurist and scholar, so it was not an eccentric choice; but the Harvard address helped to persuade the young president that he had found his justice.) In an 1899 speech in Chicago, Roosevelt sounded like Holmes as he poured scorn on “the men who fear the strenuous life, who fear the only kind of national life which is really worth leading.” He celebrated the search for new challenges, the vitality of “men with empire in their brains,” and denounced “the timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the over civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues.” In one way, Roosevelt's address was less militarist than Holmes's, for although he praised the moral greatness of war, he did not embrace blind sacrifice, and he imagined the fighting spirit of great souls expressed in writing, politics, commerce, any field where ability was pressed to its limit.

Unlike Holmes, however, Roosevelt had in mind an actual and ongoing military campaign: the reconstruction of the Philippines, recently taken from Spain, where United States forces were locked in bloody combat with guerrillas. The “empires” he praised were literal, and he offered them as a national purpose greater than mere wealth and comfort. He proposed as a model British imperial rule in Egypt and India, which, he said, had educated imperial officials in public-spiritedness while preparing the colonized peoples for self-government. War, conquest, and self-overcoming in all forms were his exemplars of greatness. The industrial magnates who had built the country's factories and railroads might be great souls, but neither their clerks nor their workers found much honor in Roosevelt's picture. Those who were concerned “only with the wants of our bodies for the day” would consign America to “the part of China, and be content to rot by inches in ignoble ease within our borders, taking no interest in what goes on beyond them, sunk in a scrambling commercialism; heedless of the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk.” Like Holmes, he implied that the modern world provided a spiritually intolerable life to most of its inhabitants. Progressive policy makers might describe modern life accurately, but their managerial solutions did not address its essential depravity.

Even William James, a pacifist who hoped for a socialist future, accepted the power of this line of criticism. No “healthy-minded person,” he conceded, could deny that “[m]ilitarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible.” It seemed to James that pride in communities, movements, and, above all, nations, increased pride
in oneself. Those who believed in the essential connection between dignity and combat understood this: “No collectivity is like an army for nourishing such pride.” Those who opposed war in favor of Progressive utopias had no such vision of dignity: “[I]t has to be confessed that the only sentiment which the image of pacific cosmopolitan industrialism is capable of arousing in countless worthy breasts is shame at the idea of belonging to such a collectivity.” In the Progressive utopia, James asked, “Where is the sharpness
and precipitousness, the contempt for life, whether one's own or another's? Where is the savage 'yes' and 'no,' the unconditional duty? Where is the conscription? Where is the blood-tax? Where is anything that one feels honored by belonging to?” Without these qualities, James was prepared to admit, the greatest Progressive achievements could not create civic dignity.

James famously proposed a Progressive response: making service the “moral equivalent of war,” drafting the young and exhorting the rest to dedicate themselves to mastering nature and fate on behalf of the nation. This formulation defined a Progressive ambition that figured in much of the political language of the twentieth century: to answer attacks such as Holmes's with a domestic, political version of collective mobilization, to make politics or service the source of heroism that war had sometimes been (or been imagined to be).



History as Heroism

Holmes, whose praise of war showed at once the bloodiest mind and the clearest vision among the militarists, observed in his Harvard address that the glory of war tended to exist only in hindsight:


War, when you are at it, is horrible and dull. It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine. I hope it may be long before we are called again to sit at that master's feet. But some teacher of the kind we all need. In this snug, over-safe corner of the world we need it, that we may realize that our comfortable routine is no eternal necessity of things, but merely a little space of calm in the midst of the tempestuous untamed streaming of the world, and in order that we may be ready for danger.


Part of the gift of war, if it was a gift, was acute awareness of repose as a moment saved from a surrounding storm, justice as an exception carved from tyranny, and all such good things as products of human struggle. That awareness adjusted one's sense of human powers, making them seem paradoxically both smaller and larger than they might appear in a complacent mood. They were smaller and less permanent than “the tempestuous untamed streaming” of a world not made for human convenience or ideals. Human will was also, however, larger than fate or inheritance because it was the only power that could bend Holmes's “untamed streaming” toward comfort or justice. In this way, what Holmes called for was fearless knowledge of history as a thing made by often violent and desperate struggle, and always, in the end, temporary in achievement.

It is not only war that can give history this quality. Maybe our moral equivalent of war could be an attitude toward history itself, the history of our most basic principles, our sensations of freedom and community, and our place in that history. It is possible to think of a constitutional tradition in this way: as a set of achievements wrenched from injustice and chaos, which, when we remember it, makes our sense of the present more vivid and purposeful. Consider three attitudes toward American history, of which only one comes close to capturing the tragic, clarifying, and paradoxically empowering perspective that Holmes described.

One attitude glides over the failures of American history, its betrayals of freedom and equality, its deep connection with slavery and genocide. From this point of view, the essence of American freedom was an accomplished fact from the beginning. The problems along the way were failures in application, due to inconsistency or intermittent selfishness. Getting over those was a matter of setting right in detail what was always right at the core. This attitude toward American experience was central to the language of the New Right in the middle of the twentieth century. Barry Goldwater, denouncing the ambitions of the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's reforms, assured listeners in July of 1964, “[W]e Americans understand freedom. We have earned it: we have lived for it, and we have died for it. This nation and its people are freedom's models in a searching world. We can be freedom's missionaries in a doubting world.” He did not say that, along with these-true-historical achievements, Americans had gained insight into, let alone changed the meaning of freedom. That we already knew, from the time when “the Good Lord raised this mighty Republican Republic to be a home for the brave and to flourish as the land of the free.” Freedom could be defended and preserved; it could not, however, reveal itself in new qualities and forms through history's struggles. American freedom needed defenders and missionaries, not doubting but hopeful explorers. These were the same themes that Ronald Reagan would bring to his first inaugural address, fewer than twenty years later. He was already part of Goldwater's restorationist movement in 1964, assailing doubters with the assurance that “the martyrs of history were not fools.” Martyrs die to confirm eternal truths.

The second attitude is the opposite of the first. It is an attitude of repudiation, holding that America has been not right but wrong all along. Addressing the sweeping language of the Declaration of Independence in 1844, William Lloyd Garrison announced, “[O]ur fathers were intent on securing liberty to themselves . . . and though in words they recognized occasionally the brotherhood of
the human race, in practice they continually denied it.” It was time to throw out the convenient lie that freedom and equality formed the heart of American constitutional tradition. In the name of honesty and principle, Garrison called on abolitionists to reject the Constitution, withdraw from a government corrupted by slavery, and hasten the conflict that would end that system and establish a new
order. This attitude had adherents in the Progressive Era, who saw the American emphasis on personal rights and limited government as one part philosophical mistake, one part the self-serving strategy of wealthy elites in the founding generation who schemed to preserve their property and privilege against a more robust democracy. In this view, as for some of the abolitionists, the way forward for Americans began with discarding the flawed legacy of hypocritical ancestors. Today this attitude appears in the tendency of some on the left to define American life by its worst aspects, insisting that progress has occurred despite, not through, the country's announced values and official milestones.

The third attitude toward history found a voice in Lyndon Johnson's 1965 address to Congress on the Voting Rights Act. Johnson proposed that the failures of American history should instruct and temper Americans' national identity. Johnson identified the moment as “a turning-point in man's unending search for freedom,” a search that Americans were part of but had not completed. The United States was “the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose,” making itself a vessel of that search, but the same ideal of freedom that anchored national purpose was also the measure of national failures. More than a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro . . . is not fully free tonight” and “emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact.” That situation presented the country with a question to “bare the secret heart of America,” the question of what it meant to belong-for blacks and whites-to a nation whose members often feared and hated one another. As a question of self-definition, it meant the country could “fail as a people and as a nation . . . gain[ing] the whole world, and los[ing its] own soul.” This was the language, too, of Martin Luther King Jr., who had called the broadest phrases of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution “a promissory note” for a later generation to make good when it would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” The principles were a challenge to the living, one lodged at the center of what it meant to be American.

Johnson proposed that Americans can become a better version of themselves only by repudiating something they have been. Setting ourselves free from a cramped vision of the country is the first step in entering a larger one. Identifying American life with fixed and perfect freedom is never enough. Instead, Americans should see the country as moved by an impulse to freedom that runs from the past and opens into the future. The meaning of American freedom is what we make of it, the dignity and mastery Americans are able to command together. We understand these principles partly because we have lived with, and sometimes struggled to overcome, their opposites. This approach takes the country's failings as real and basic but, instead of demanding guilt or diminution, treats failure as a starting point for appreciating what it would mean for the country to be greater. This is true to national history. It is also true to the
experience of any reflective person, who must know that life-for an individual as for a country-is a braid of aspiration, disappointment, and change that combines loss and progress, and that success is not a perfect resting point but a direction.

The tradition of Johnson and King acknowledges that the meaning of American freedom, and so the meanings of citizenship and patriotism, changes as its limits expand. A country that extends civic dignity to those who once formed a slave caste has changed the dignity of being American. Gone is the pride of racial supremacy, of belonging to a master caste and lording it over others with the humiliations that the powerful can exact. What takes its place is a new version of dignity drawn from a history of both freedom and
abjection. This is a familiar, now even commonplace, idea of what it means to be American. It is also a triumph of moral and political imagination, which required citizens to set themselves loose from an old idea of national identity and find their way into another. That kind of self-transforming consummation is the special power of this way of imagining, and speaking in public about, the country.

This attitude approaches what William James said Progressives would need to find if they were to achieve civic dignity in a complex world: the moral equivalent of war. James was mistaken when he supposed that the moral equivalent of war would have to be an activity that resembled war, such as mass mobilization for national service. The same confusion sometimes affected Franklin Roosevelt's way of describing the New Deal, aligning it with a militarized image of the country. Those were not viable images of American life, and if they had been, they would not have been good. The historical attitude that Johnson and King expressed, however, was a “moral equivalent” of war in a different way. It showed how human goods, especially dignity, peace, and justice, are not natural gifts but achievements won from their opposites in a history of struggle.

This attitude also made American identity a source of duty: not strict rules but a moral orientation toward an ideal of equal freedom. The version of mobilization this attitude offered was the movement of struggle across generations, an inheritance of effort pressing forward and failure falling back, and successive efforts to adapt a broad ideal to each new time.

This attitude toward American history enables its members to reject and remake the world in which they are born, not in simple repudiation but in completion of a promise not yet kept. This attitude also makes possible a particular form of patriotism, which I would call constitutional patriotism. This is more than a rational appreciation of the benefits that orderly government power provides to citizens, but it is also something other than blind devotion to what is one's own. It is an emotional identification with the country that sweeps in how it came to be as it is and what it might become. A constitutional patriot's loyalty is not restricted to what exists. It is also loyalty to possibility. It may be that a patriot, like a lover or friend, often sees the country in the best light possible. This habit can obscure vision, politically as much as personally, if it means willfully overlooking problems. It can also train attention toward the possibility of change and show that change is sometimes not selfsurrender but movement toward a completeness that, by its nature, a country never reaches.

The country has recently seen too much war for too little purpose. Most of us nonetheless feel our first loyalty to the peaceful goals that Teddy Roosevelt and Holmes called sad and dishonorable: family life, personal development, comfort, pleasure, and security. And so we should. The American experience in Iraq has confirmed the obvious: we do not believe it is a high human good to lose one's life, for
purposes one does not understand, in a senseless strategy. Nonetheless, there is something to the idea that modern citizenship requires its own version of heroism. We might still hope to find that in our own brutal and hopeful history and the principles we take from it, which we can ever and again aim to make good this time.


From the Hardcover edition.
Jedediah Purdy

About Jedediah Purdy

Jedediah Purdy - A Tolerable Anarchy

Photo © Shoreline Studios

Jedediah Purdy teaches law at Duke University and has also taught at Yale and Harvard. Purdy is the author of For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today and Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World, and has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Democracy, and other publications.
Praise

Praise

“Erudite, topical, thought-provoking. . . . An important contribution to American intellectual history.”
The Christian Science Monitor
 
“Engaging, cogently argued. . . . A lively and astute exposition of America’s most cherished secular ideal.”
The American Prospect
 
“[A] philosophically cast meditation that . . . grapples with the paradox of American individualism . . . [Purdy] cautions that our idea of freedom is deceptively simple, requiring both restraint and engagement from government, and autonomy and interdependence in civic affairs.”
Los Angeles Times
 
“Provocative ideas for a democracy that is showing signs of wear and tear.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 
“America has always struggled to define freedom—a struggle that has involved everything from slavery in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to the cultural ferment of the 1960s, and the free-wheeling capitalism of the 1980s and 1990s. In this thoughtful and engaging history of ideas, Jedediah Purdy vividly recounts this multifaceted debate and illuminates how the idea of freedom is still evolving. Here is an essential book for understanding the idea of freedom in America and the role of government in our lives.”
—Robert B. Reich, author of Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life
 
“[A] page-turning history of American freedom.”
The Fayetteville Observer (North Caroline)
 
“Purdy has emerged as one of America’s most promising young public intellectuals. This beautifully written book confirms his place. Rich in the history he tells, and brilliant in its insight, the book will change how you think about America, and the challenge we face for its future.”
—Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons and author of Free Culture

  • A Tolerable Anarchy by Jedediah Purdy
  • March 09, 2010
  • History - North America
  • Vintage
  • $16.00
  • 9781400095841

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