AN OPEN HAND, A CLOSED FIST

A rare moment of unanimity in the presidential debates came when the candidates were asked about Darfur, the western region of Sudan. As the ruling government has pursued a ruthless policy of ethnic cleansing designed to destroy the village structure there, more than a million people have fled their homes. Women have been systematically raped, children have been kidnapped and turned into slaves and an estimated 70,000 people have died because of the conflict. Both President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry used the same word to describe the situation, a word that in semantic currency carries a heavy weight. "It is a genocide," the senator said. "I agree," said the president, "it's genocide."Then they went on to tussle over Iraq.Reasonable people can disagree about exactly what the United States ought to do as one group of Sudanese is being intentionally slaughtered by another. Kerry argued that more needed to be done but that the president had overcommitted American troops in Iraq...

FREEDOM'S JUST ANOTHER WORD

We introduced the Australian exchange students to Honey Nut Cheerios. They introduced us to compulsory voting. In class, they'd heard about the woeful turnout in American elections. "But aren't people concerned about paying the fine?" one of them asked.It turns out that the laid-back country in which our two curious, self-possessed and intelligent houseguests live requires its citizens to vote. Really requires it. If you don't show up at your polling place on Election Day, you are asked to provide an excuse in writing afterward. "The dingo ate my ballot" will not do. Unless you have a good explanation--a heart attack that morning, say--you are fined. The result is that Australia has one of the highest voter-turnout rates in the world, around 90 percent.Lest we forget, only 51 percent of all voting-age Americans bothered to show up in the last presidential election, which means that while Australia may be a forcible democracy, we are barely a participatory one. (Unless you count...

MORTAL KOMBAT, ELECTION LEVEL

When I was a kid, the games people played could be divided into those of the body and those of the brain. Stickball and bocce, poker and chess. I had kids of my own by the time the dominant form became that hypnotic hybrid, the videogame. Hand on the joystick, mouth ajar, moving warriors and wizards around the screen. Some had two versions, designed for the comfort level of parents: blood or no blood. To win, someone had to die.The political game today parallels that change in the form. In 1992 the media agonized about the character issue, about whether the fact that Gennifer Flowers said she'd been Bill Clinton's mistress meant he was somehow unfit for the highest office. In only a dozen years the bar has been lowered, from the character issue to the character-assassination issue. Mortal Kombat, the election version: the more you shoot, the more you score.Too much of the national dialogue has stuttered and stopped at what might be called "bad people" issues. Those who oppose legal...

THE WAR WE HAVEN'T WON

In 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson made history during his first State of the Union speech with this sentence: "This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America."From that declaration a host of government initiatives sprang, including Head Start, an expanded food-stamp program, and sweeping reforms in health care for the needy. It worked. The poverty rates fell and living standards for many in poor communities rose. And all because the president had had the political will to say that having one in five Americans living in the kind of abject conditions their fellow citizens associated with Third World countries and the novels of Dickens was as dangerous as any battlefield enemy.The problem with declaring war, of course, is that sooner or later people believe the conflict will end and peace will break out. But 40 years after Johnson led the charge, the battle against poverty still rages. The biggest difference today is that there is no call to arms by...

LEAVING ON A JET PLANE

Most politicians think it's so radioactive, they won't go near it, and government officials keep insisting it's not going to happen any time soon. But the military draft is a subject that just won't go away, particularly for young Americans and the adults who love them.A round-robin letter has been circulating furiously among mothers on the Internet, expressing concern that two bills parked in committee may prefigure the resurrection of conscription, this time without the old protections of gender or student status. "Please send this on to all the parents and teachers you know," the message reads, "and all the aunts and uncles, grandparents, godparents." A newly released poll by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation found 58 percent of the respondents concerned that the draft could be revived in the near future, and 55 percent of the high-school students surveyed by the Horatio Alger Association said they believe there will be a draft in their lifetime.As the conflict in Iraq...

A LEAP INTO THE POSSIBLE

At the end of Barack Obama's keynote speech to the Democratic convention, I stood up and cheered at the TV. I was alone in the den with two dogs, a piece of needlepoint and a cup of Sleepytime tea. I must have looked like a solitary lunatic, but I'm certain I wasn't alone in my reaction.As much of the country knows by now, the Senate candidate from Illinois is a born orator, passionate yet reasonable in a venue that seems to bring out the inner screamer in even the most seasoned politician. He galvanized a gathering long on orchestration and short on surprises. And one more thing: he revived the power and the glory of American liberalism just by showing up.We liberals have fallen on hard times in recent elections. At the very least, like feminists, we are not supposed to say our name. Certainly none of the sanctioned speakers were supposed to describe either John Kerry or John Edwards using the L word. That will be left to the Republicans, who will use the description as a...

WHAT IF THEY GAVE A PARTY

Maybe it's hearing the Bostonians I know talk about finding refuge elsewhere at the end of the month, or my fellow New Yorkers strategizing about how to skip Penn Station in their daily commute. Or maybe it's because as a reporter I covered these non-events and combed my notebooks for some color to arrange artfully around the emptiness like journalistic landscape architecture. But every time I consider the upcoming political conventions, a single word comes to mind: why?It was hard enough four years ago to discern the point of these empty exercises in film-clip hagiography and ideological self-congratulation. The networks had rightly given up full-scale coverage because the conventions had become, as one exec complained, "an endless sea of blah." The nominees already signed, sealed and delivered, the platforms set to music in private meetings and focus-group reports, the Republican and Democratic conventions seemed to be of interest to no one but placard manufacturers, local...

A FOUL MOUTH AND MANHOOD

In 1962, when the New York Times quoted President John F. Kennedy during a dispute with the steel industry as saying, "My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it till now," the White House went ballistic. The press office complained, the publisher of the Times apologized and the AP noted that other newspapers had found the quote unfit to print.That was then. This is @#*!%.Or the F word. Or expletive deleted. Or what have you: the powers of expurgated invention fail me. What does it mean that today it means nothing when the vice president unrepentantly uses a word in public that this magazine won't use in print? It means that standards have changed since 1962. Not just standards of obscenity--standards of masculinity.Dick Cheney's decision to advise Sen. Patrick Leahy to perform an anatomically impossible sex act (thereby creating a journalistically impossible quotation situation) has been discussed in terms of the rise of the potty...

TO HELL WITH WELL BEHAVED

Recently a young mother asked for advice. What, she wanted to know, was she to do with a 7-year-old who was obstreperous, outspoken and inconveniently willful?"Keep her," I replied.Not helpful, but heartfelt. I have never been a fan of tractable women, having mostly experienced self-loathing when I tried to masquerade as one. Yet despite progress and change, liberation and self-examination, she has a way of resurrecting herself, the girl who sits with her hands folded, the woman who keeps her mouth shut.WELL-BEHAVED WOMEN DON'T MAKE HISTORY, says the T shirt a college student sent me. It's been worn and washed so often, it's the texture of tissue.Here she comes again, the fantasy and the reality. Hollywood has showcased her in a remake of "The Stepford Wives," in which judges, doctors and executives are remade by their husbands into Stay-at-Home Barbies, and apparently the most shocking thing a woman can admit is that she's more accomplished than her spouse. As punishment for this...

PERSONALITY, NOT POLICY

When the rumor began floating around Washington that John McCain might be prevailed on to take the second spot on the Democratic presidential ticket, you could almost hear the sibilant sound of political operatives gleefully rubbing their hands together. A war hero! A former POW! Even when McCain demurred, the buzz continued. A straight shooter! A plain talker! A Republican!How confusing this was to those who understood that the poor cannot eat plain talk and that many a straight shooter is antagonistic to gun control. Senator McCain has opposed so many positions that Sen. John Kerry supports that the notion of the two running together was the ultimate Jekyll-Hyde ticket. Women who care about abortion rights knew that McCain had a zero rating from pro-choice groups; African-Americans knew he had been hostile to affirmative action. But none of that mattered as the dream (or, if you care about issues, nightmare) ticket was hashed over publicly. McCain the stand-up guy utterly trumped...

Casting The First Stone

It was nearly 25 years ago that Robert Drinan, a member of Congress and an outspoken Jesuit (a redundancy if there ever was one), so enraged the Vatican with his defense of abortion rights that an order came down from Rome demanding priests withdraw from politics.It appears that someone has had a change of heart.Or at least that's how it seems now that certain segments of the Roman Catholic hierarchy are behaving like wholly owned subsidiaries of the Republican Party, hellbent on a course that will weaken the church's moral authority and eventually deplete its membership. And all because of abortion, the issue the celibate male leadership is least equipped to personally understand.To paraphrase a Gospel passage, my Father's house is a house of prayer, but they have made it a den of partisanship. The archbishop of St. Louis announced that if John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, showed up for mass he would be denied communion. After threats from clerics in New Jersey, the pro-choice...

An Apology To The Graduates

Members of the class of 2004: I'm so sorry. I look at all of you and realize that, for many, life has been a relentless treadmill since you entered preschool at the age of 2. Sometimes, as though I am narrating a fairy story, I tell my children of a time when the SAT was taken only once and a tutor was a character in an English novel, when I could manage to pay my own college tuition with summer wages and find both a good job and a decent apartment when I graduated.Now cottage industries have grown up around the impossibility of any of that: specialized learning centers to supplement schools, special loan programs at usurious rates to supplement college grants, companies that will throw up instant walls to turn a one-bedroom apartment into a place where three people can coexist.There's an honorable tradition of starving students; it's just that, between the outsourcing of jobs and a boom market in real estate, your generation envisions becoming starving adults. Caught in our...

Uncle Sam Wants You?

Some news events have a way of concentrating the mind. There's reading about three sisters serving in Iraq, about the death of one and the agony of the surviving two, who must decide whether to return home for good. There's seeing photographs of flag-draped coffins loaded onto military transport planes, images the administration wanted to keep from public view. And there's talking about the draft, which may eventually make manifest the fact that support for military action is a mile wide and an inch deep.Sen. Chuck Hagel, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, raised the conscription issue most recently, discussing how strapped the regular Army is. Though Hagel stopped short of calling for a reinstitution of the draft, he did talk about the inequities of the current system, in which so many of America's soldiers are poor kids trying to move up a rung on the ladder of employment. Or, as a group called the Radical Teen Cheerleaders, political Bettys who combine splits and social...

THE GREAT OBLIGATION

In 1981 I interviewed a couple named Stanley and Julie Patz. Perhaps the last name rings a bell. Twenty-five years ago, their 6-year-old son, Etan, left his family's lower Manhattan loft for the schoolbus stop two blocks away and vanished. This was before pictures on milk cartons, or Amber Alerts, or even the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which Etan's disappearance helped create. Stan Patz is a photographer, and a picture he had taken of his son, bright eyes, long bangs, became iconic overnight. Etan Patz: the most famous missing child since the Lindbergh baby."We're not interested in publicity anymore," Stan Patz said when I called.He didn't remember the story I had done; I've never forgotten it. The couple's loss, their need, their grief, made me feel that I had to lift the level of my game to meet the level of their bereavement. This was impossible, but I was moved to try.I have often thought about the effect the Patzes had on me as some reporters have...

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Sometimes the big jets fly so low over the Hudson that you'd swear if you squinted hard you could see the profiles of the passengers sitting in the window seats. I'm not the only one who follows their path across the sky, who turns at the sound of fire engines, who sniffs when smoke is in the air.Some memories get written deep into your DNA, so that responding to them is an inescapable physical act. The plane flies on without the sound of an explosion. The fire engines are only going to a car fire on Eleventh Avenue. The smoke is only from the engine burning. It is a spring day in 2004, not September 11, 2001.But the mind does not forget.Except, of course, in our nation's capital, where the aftermath of that time--the united purpose, the patriotism, the thirst for solace and for truth--evaporated quicker than you can say "two-party system." For two days last week in Washington, the nation revisited the terrorist attacks, and for a short time, within one hearing room, the smoke of...

HOWARD DEAN: THE UNNADER?

Thank you, Howard Dean. You were the right guy at the right time running for the wrong office. It wasn't just those ill-conceived comments that did you in, or even the parade-of-states scream in Iowa, that overplayed sound bite of a man who clearly had been running on adrenaline for far too long. It was more that there was about you the aura of a man who had wandered onstage at a play without knowing his part. The least surprising postmortem comment I read about your candidacy was in a Washington Post story. You were quoted as telling a colleague early on, "The problem is, I'm now afraid I might win."As befits a physician, you brought this race to life. You galvanized the most disengaged group of voters in the country. Since 1972, when the voting age was lowered to 18, the rate of participation among the young has dropped steadily. The interesting thing is that this is the same generation that has so surpassed its elders in volunteer work. Only four in 10 bothered to vote in 2000, a...

THE GHOSTS OF ELECTIONS PAST

On New Year's Eve we have long played a parlor game called Desert Island: Which book would you take if you could take only one? Which movie, which CD? In a self-serving move--because you never know what al dente idea will stick to the wall of columnizing--I asked our guests this year which Democratic presidential candidate they would take with them. I won't be specific about the outcome, but I can say the response to the current field was so unenthusiastic that two people plumped for a Clinton draft--one Hillary, one Bill.These were not apathetic voters; we were on the West Side of Manhattan, where people look at politics the way a python looks at mice. And many were members of a hard-core group I think of as the ABBAs; their mantra is "anyone but Bush again." But even they were finding the race so far dispiriting, a diffuse collection of possibles who were not quite coming into focus as definites, or even probables.The good news, for those currently so dissatisfied, is that this is...

FLOWN AWAY, LEFT BEHIND

I was something of an accidental mother. I don't mean that in the old traditional whoops! way; it's just that while I barreled through my 20s convinced that having a baby would be like carrying a really large and inconvenient tote bag that I could never put down, I awoke one day at 30 and, in what now seems an astonishingly glib leap of faith, decided I wanted that tote bag in the very worst way. It was as though my ovaries had taken possession of my brain. Less than a year later an infant had taken possession of everything else. My brain no longer worked terribly well, especially when I added to that baby another less than two years later, and a third fairly soon after that.That was 20 years ago. You do the math. The first one went to China to polish his Mandarin. The second left for college in the fall. I still have a chick in the nest, and what a chick she is, but increasingly it feels like an aerie too large for its occupants. Recently I told her we were going to be doing...

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

One of the more harrowing moments in the movie version of "Angels in America" comes when an ill Roy Cohn is disputing his doctor's diagnosis. Cohn was a right-wing Republican wheeler-dealer, former Joe McCarthy henchman and, in Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, so damned for his part in the anti-communist excesses of half a century ago that he is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. He was also a closeted gay man who died of AIDS.But when his doctor tells him that's what's making him sick, he refutes him with a soliloquy about the nature of influence. AIDS, he says, is an illness of homosexuals, and homosexuals are powerless. He, on the other hand, can get the president on the phone whenever he wants. Ipso facto, he does not have AIDS. With a maniacal glint in his eyes he concludes, "I have liver cancer!"Shading or trading the true facts of your life in exchange for power and influence is a recurring leitmotif in the relentless self-invention of America. It even has...

Peace On Earth Good Will.Com

One of the biggest growth industries in America appears to be the storage facility. We've all seen them sprawling along the overpass or tucked into the back of an industrial park, long, low buildings divided within into locked cubicles. Hollywood suggests that these are being used by serial killers to store their homicidal trophies away from prying eyes, but in real life they are just places to put stuff. Stuff that's gone out of style, stuff that's outgrown the garage, stuff you don't want anymore but that your kids might want later. Instead of the catchy hyphenated names that most of these places have, they should all have a single phrase over the entrance: TOO MUCH STUFF.Or, as a so-called clutter consultant once said, "Our homes have become landfills."I've become a bit of a crank about the hyperconsumerism of the American holiday season, and I get into high gear as soon as December looms. (In late November I am hopelessly focused on the belief that any nation that builds its...

A New Kind Of Poverty

Winter flits in and out of New York City in the late fall, hitching a ride on the wind that whips the Hudson River. One cold morning not long ago, just as day was breaking, six men began to shift beneath their blankets under a stone arch up a rise from the water. In the shadow of the newest castle-in-the-air skyscraper midwifed by the Baron Trump, they gathered their possessions. An hour later they had vanished, an urban mirage.There's a new kind of homelessness in the city, and a new kind of hunger, and a new kind of need and humiliation, but it has managed to stay as invisible as those sleepers were by sunup. "What we're seeing are many more working families on the brink of eviction," says Mary Brosnahan, who runs the Coalition for the Homeless. "They fall behind on the rent, and that's it, they're on the street." Adds Julia Erickson, the executive director of City Harvest, which distributes food to soup kitchens and food pantries, "Look at the Rescue Mission on Lafayette Street....

Not A Womb In The House

Sometimes the pictures do tell the story. There was a raft of wire-service photographs of invited guests saluting the president as he signed a bill banning a late-abortion procedure. Scarcely a working uterus in sight, not a person who could become pregnant and be tortured and overwhelmed by the future. Orrin, Rick, Jerry, Tommy, John: the functional equivalent of signing a bill affecting black Americans amid self-congratulatory white guys. Did no one notice the essential disconnect of having a bunch of gray-haired men passing judgment on the bodily functions of a nation's young women? Or was it just too tough to get female leaders to show up for the celebration?I am so tired of abortion. Discussions of it are the most meretricious in modern public policy. Even as the president was vowing to sign a bill that would outlaw a procedure that accounts for a handful of the terminations in America, he was opining that the country was not yet ready to make abortion illegal. He was using one...

Don't Touch That Remote

I wouldn't say I watch a lot of television. I watch "Law & Order," natch, and "Law & Order: SVU" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," and "Law & Order: Trading Spaces" and "Law & Order With Brian Williams" and "Law & Order With Regis and Kelly." I watched "The Osbournes" until I realized that everyone else had stopped watching it, and why--if I want to see a dog have an accident, I can do it here at home, and with better-looking dogs--and I watched "Newlyweds" with Jessica (Mensa) Simpson until I realized that it was causing that really bad taste I had in my mouth each morning.But even I couldn't help noticing that some of the television running during the playoffs and the World Series was about as bad as television can be.I channel-surfed only when my husband went to the kitchen for snack foods or when Alfonso Soriano was at bat and we knew nothing was going to happen. But soon I didn't even bother. I watched insurance-company advertisements and really...

Still Needing The F Word

Let's use the f word here. People say it's inappropriate, offensive, that it puts people off. But it seems to me it's the best way to begin, when it's simultaneously devalued and invaluable.Feminist. Feminist, feminist, feminist.Conventional wisdom has it that we've moved on to a postfeminist era, which is meant to suggest that the issues have been settled, the inequities addressed, and all is right with the world. And then suddenly from out of the South like Hurricane Everywoman, a level '03 storm, comes something like the new study on the status of women at Duke University, and the notion that we're post-anything seems absurd. Time to use the F word again, no matter how uncomfortable people may find it.Fem-i-nism n. 1. Belief in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.That wasn't so hard, was it? Certainly not as hard as being a female undergraduate at Duke, where apparently the operative ruling principle is something described as "effortless perfection," in which...

Free Pass For The President

The most underplayed story of the past month was the one about the events of September 11 and Saddam Hussein. There is no direct link between the two. This despite the fact that George W. Bush and the members of his administration have labored tirelessly to suggest one ever since they decided to invade Iraq. This despite the fact that they've been spectacularly successful at convincing American citizens of this fiction: more than two out of three believe the Iraqi leader was personally responsible for the terrorist attacks. "No evidence," the president finally was forced to admit publicly, that this was so.The Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune ran this extraordinary exercise in backpedaling on page one, where it belonged, but most other major papers buried it inside. The New York Times gave the story barely 300 words on page A22. The New York Post didn't mention it at all, perhaps because it happened soon after it turned out the link between Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck...

We Are Here For Andrea

A motley collection of items have wound up on the bulletin board in the past year. There was a list of phone numbers for one kid's college, and now there is a list of phone numbers for another's. There are slips of paper with quotes from Margaret Mead and Hugo Black. There is the requisite fortune-cookie fortune: your words will have a hypnotic effect on others. There's a picture of the three kids together at Christmas and a postcard of a bulldog and an invitation to a book party I already attended and the instructions to the automatic outdoor light on the terrace and some business cards of people I will probably never call.And then there's Andrea Haberman. When I was a kid the nuns used to give us holy cards for special accomplishments, Saint Therese with her beauty-queen bunch of roses, Saint Andrew with his X-shaped cross. Andrea Haberman is my holy card now. Her face stares out into my office every day, a small laminated photograph that looks as if it was taken in a park, with...

The Object Of The Outrage

In the ways that seem to matter to her, the world is remarkably unchanged since Kathy Boudin essentially left it in 1970. There is still a chasm between rich and poor, white and black. Environmental concerns have a habit of giving way to the profit motive. The state of California is in thrall to an actor of marginal talents, and a Republican administration in Washington is devoted to self-perpetuation. There is even a nasty little quagmire of a war, one that many believe was ill conceived from the very beginning. Once again the government of the United States is determined to destroy the village in order to save it, whether the villagers like it or not. Cue the echo chamber.But the world into which Boudin will emerge, after a decade underground and two more in prison, is changed in one important way, at least as far as her crimes are concerned. In the years she has been away the American people have been treated, over and over again, to political frustration expressed through...

A Shock To The System

Whenever you run into a bear out here in the country, someone will invariably ask if it was big. I never really know how to answer. All bears appear large to me, even the cubs. Something about the slope of the forehead, the glint of the eyes, the teeth and the claws. I don't take the time to assess relative size because I am so agog at the sheer bearness of the thing. Unlike Harrison Ford, a bear is not a creature you peer at in passing, thinking, 'Is that really ... ?' It has a certain unmistakability.The bears have become yet another species on the list of inconvenient animals in this part of America, right up there with the trash-picker possums and, of course, those loathsome shrubbery eaters, the deer. My favorite bear anecdote was the animal accused of getting physical after a man had proffered a bagel to get the bear to stick around for a photograph. The bear wanted more. What I want is an answer to this question: who gives a 250-pound wild animal baked goods?The way in which...

Outside The Bright Lines

The most dispiriting moment in Jenny Boylan's book is when she realizes that talking like a girl means sounding uncertain about your own name, like this: "Hello? I'm Jenny Boylan?"The funniest moment is when her doctor tells her that gay men and lesbians don't really have much in common with transsexuals. "Yeah," Boylan replies, "except for the fact that we get beaten up by the same people."And one of the most telling moments in the book is when she goes to the credit union to have the name on her account changed from James Finney Boylan to Jennifer Finney Boylan. "You were named James?" the manager asks."I used to be a boy. Now I'm female. I had my name changed," Boylan tells the manager."Huh," she replies. "Okay, well this is simple enough. We'll just change your name in the data field here."Boylan's new book, "She's Not There," is a very funny memoir of growing up confused and a very smart consideration of what it means to be a woman. (Yeah, hormones make a difference.) It's also...

Why Even Try The Imitation?

I'm inclined to like rich people who give their money away, who endow the wings of hospitals, keep museums afloat and make it possible for philharmonics to play on. So Anita and Sheldon Drobny are my kind of folks. They've written hefty checks to support programs for children, the arts and Jewish philanthropies. And they've also announced that they would provide a whopping $10 million for something else: an attempt to develop programming to counter the rightward tilt of talk radio.Mr. and Mrs. Drobny, I salute you, you're wonderful, save your money. And I say that from the bottom of my liberal little heart.In the internecine warfare between the poles of politics, poles that the vast majority of Americans eschew, the question of whether the media are dominated by left or right has become the reigning parlor game. The Drobnys, along with a lot of other well-connected liberals, have been appalled by the tsunami of high-profile conservative commentators out there. The obvious answer was...

Justice Rip Van Winkle

Bless the federal judiciary. Sure, its members are not perfect--way too many white guys to be truly representative, for one thing--but in this system we call checks and balances, appointed judges with life tenure seem to be all that stands between American citizens and sycophantic leadership. Sandwiched between the legislative, poised for the next election cycle and watching the voters the way a cat watches a mouse hole, and the executive, poised for the next election cycle and watching the voters the way a spider watches an ant, the members of the judicial branch have emerged as the last group watching the Constitution. Frequently right, often thoughtful, even apolitical.With some notable exceptions.As its last hurrah of this latest term, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that was hugely revolutionary when it ought to have been largely unremarkable. The majority of justices decided that private sexual conduct between consenting adults is not the business of the...

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