Social Sciences / Education

From Plymouth Rock to Plato's Retreat

Last week, Intellectual Affairs gave the recent cable TV miniseries “Sex: The Revolution” a nod of recognition, however qualified, for its possible educational value. The idea that sex has a history is not, as such, self-evident. The series covers the changes in attitudes and norms between roughly 1950 and 1990 through interviews and archival footage. Most of this flies past at a breakneck speed, alas. The past becomes a hostage of the audience’s presumably diminished attention span.

Then again, why be ungrateful? Watching the series, I kept thinking of a friend who teaches history at Sisyphus University, a not-very-distinguished institution in the American heartland. For every student in his classroom who seems promising, there are dozens who barely qualify as sentient. (It sounds like Professor X, whose article “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” appears in the latest issue of The Atlantic, teaches in the English department there.) Anything, absolutely anything, that might help stimulate curiosity about the past would be a godsend for the history faculty at Sisyphus U.

With that consideration in mind, you tend to watch “Sex: The Revolution” with a certain indulgence -- as entertainment with benefits, so to speak. Unfortunately, the makers stopped short. They neglected to interview scholars who might have provided more insight than a viewer might glean from soundbites by demi-celebrities. And so we end up with a version of history not too different from the one presented by Philip Larkin in the poem “Annus Mirabilis” --

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(Which was rather late for me) -

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles' first LP.

-- except without the irony. A belief that people in the old days must have been repressed is taken for granted. Was this a good thing or not? Phyllis Schlafly and reasonable people may disagree; but the idea itself is common coin of public discourse.

But suppose a television network made a different sort of program -- one incorporating parts of what one might learn from reading the scholarship on the history of sex. What sense of the past might then emerge?

We might as well start with the Puritans. Everybody knows how up-tight they were -- hostile to sex, scared of it, prone to thinking of it as one of the Devil’s wiles. The very word “Puritan” now suggests an inability to regard pleasure as a good thing.

A case in point being Michael Wigglesworth -- early Harvard graduate, Puritan cleric, and author of the first American best-seller, The Day of Doom (1642), an exciting poem about the apocalypse. Reverend Wigglesworth found the laughter of children to be unbearable. He said it made him think of the agonies of the damned in hell.You can just imagine how he would respond to the sound of moaning. Somehow it is not altogether surprising to learn that the Rev’s journal contains encrypted entries mentioning the “filthy lust” he felt while tutoring male students.

In short, a typical Puritan -- right? Well, not according to Edmund Morgan, the prominent early-Americanist, whose many contributions to scholarship over the years included cracking the Wigglesworth code. (He is now professor emeritus of history at Yale.)

Far from being typical, Wigglesworth, it seems, was pretty high-strung even by the standards of the day. In a classic paper called “The Puritans and Sex,” published in 1942, Morgan assessed the evidence about how ordinary believers regarded the libido in early New England. He found that, clichés notwithstanding, the Puritans tended to be rather matter-of-fact about it.

Sermons and casual references in letters and diaries reveal that the Puritans took sexual pleasure for granted and even celebrated it -- so long, at least, as it was enjoyed within holy wedlock. Of course, the early colonies attracted many people of both sexes who were either too young to marry or in such tight economic circumstances that it was not practical. This naturally meant a fair bit of random carrying on, even in those un-Craigslist-ed days. All such activity was displeasing unto the Lord, not to mention His earthly enforcers; but the court records show none of the squeamishness about that one might expect, given the Puritans’ reputation. Transgressions were punished, but the hungers of the flesh were taken for granted.

And Puritan enthusiasm for pleasures of the marriage bed was not quite so phallocentric as you might suppose. As a more recent study notes, New Englanders believed that both partners had to reach orgasm in order for conception to occur. Many Puritan women must have had their doubts on that score. Still, the currency of that particular bit of misinformation would tend to undermine the assumption that everybody was a walking bundle of dammed-up desire -- finding satisfaction only vicariously, through witch trials and the like.

Our imagined revisionist documentary would be full of such surprises. Recent scholarship suggests that American mores were pretty wild long before Alfred Kinsey quantified things in his famous reports.

Richard Godbeer’s Sexual Revolution in Early America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002) shows that abstinence education was not exactly the norm in the colonial period. Illegitimate births were commonplace; so was the arrival of children six or seven months after the wedding day. For that matter, cohabitation without benefit of clergy was the norm in some places. And while there were statutes on the books against sodomy -- understood as nonprocreative sexual activity in general -- it’s clear that many early Americans preferred to mind their own business.

Enforcing prohibitions on “unnatural acts” between members of the same sex was a remarkably low priority. “For the entire colonial period,” noted historians in a brief filed a few years ago when Lawrence v. Texas went to the U.S. Supreme Court, “we have reports of only two cases involving two women engaged in acts with one another.... The trial of Nicholas Sension, a married man living in Westhersfield, Connecticut, in 1677, revealed that he had been widely known for soliciting sexual contacts with the town’s men and youth for almost forty years but remained widely liked. Likewise, a Baptist minister in New London, Connecticut, was temporarily suspended from the pulpit in 1757 because of his repeatedly soliciting sex with men, but the congregation voted to restore him to the ministry after he publicly repented.”

History really comes alive, given details like that -- and we’ve barely reached the Continental Congress. The point is not that the country was engaged in one big orgy from Plymouth Rock onwards. But common attitudes and public policies were a lot more ambivalent and contradictory in the past than we’re usually prone to imagine.

There was certainly repression. In four or five cases from the colonial era, sodomy was punished by death. But in a society where things tend to be fluid -- where relocation is an option, and where money talks -- there will always be a significant share of the populace that lives and acts by its own lights, and places where the old rules don't much matter. And so every attempt to enforce inhibition is apt to seem like little, too late (especially to those making the effort).

You catch some of that frantic sense of moral breakdown in the literature of anti-Mormonism cited by Sarah Barringer Gordon in her study The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2002. Novels about polygamous life in Utah were full of dark fascination with the lascivious excess being practiced in the name of freedom of religion – combined with fear that the very social and political order of the United States was being undermined. It was all very worrying, but also titillating. (Funny how often those qualities go together.)

The makers of “Sex: The Revolution” enjoyed the advantage of telling stories from recent history, which meant an abundance of film and video footage to document the past. Telling a revisionist story of American sexual history would suffer by visual comparison, tending either toward History Channel-style historical reenactments or Ken Burns-ish readings of documents over sepia-toned imagery.

But now, thanks to the efforts of phonographic archivists, we can at least listen to one part of the sexual discourse of long ago. A set of wax recordings from the 1890s -- released last year on a CD called “Actionable Offenses” -- preserves the kind of lewd entertainment enjoyed by some of the less respectable Americans of the Victorian era. And by “lewd,” I do not mean “somewhat racy.” The storytelling in dialect tends to be far coarser than anything that can be paraphrased in a family publication such as Inside Higher Ed. A performance called “Learning a City Gal How to Milk” is by no means the most obscene.

Anthony Comstock -- whose life’s work it was to preserve virtue by suppressing vice -- made every effort to wipe out such filth. It’s a small miracle that these recordings survived. The fact that they did gives us a hint at just how much of a challenge Comstock and associates must have faced.

When a popular program such as “Sex: The Revolution” recalls the past, it is usually an account of the struggle to free desire from inhibition. Or you can tell the same tale in a conservative vein: the good old days of restraint, followed by a decline into contemporary decadence.

Both versions are sentimental; both condescend to the past.

In the documentary I’d like to see, the forces of repression would be neither villains nor heroes. They would be hapless, helpless, confused -- and sinking fast in quicksand, pretty much from the start. It would be an eye-opening film. Not to mention commercially viable. After all, there would be a lot of sex in it.

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Diamonds in the Rough

I can tell you stories. Teach on a regional campus of a public university where incoming students’ ACT scores range all the way down to 11 and all the way up to 32 (out of 36), and you would be left with plenty of tales, too.

Consider, for example, the students who receive their first disappointing college grade. Perhaps they turn surly, aggressive, and fire off angry e-mails. Or perhaps they sour class discussions. Or perhaps they give up, cease to attend altogether, and fail the course.

But I’d rather tell you about Lisa.

Lisa didn’t do so great on the first assignment in my early American history survey this fall. For an assigned three-to-five page critical essay on a book about Pocahontas, she turned in barely more than one page, with minimal substance. I awarded it a D+. On the day I handed the papers back, she came up to me after class. She was diminutive, her demeanor meek. She looked terribly young.

"I just want you to know," she told me, "this is not my best work."

Lisa’s next paper warranted a C+. Her final paper merited a B-. Because I allow students who write beyond the two mandatory papers to keep only their two highest grades, Lisa had permanently erased her D+. I realize that there are students for whom a B- would be a catastrophe, but I respect Lisa as much as any of them. Her improved score was a triumph of tenacity and determination.

I witnessed another kind of courage this autumn in another student, Suzanne.

At the beginning of every term, I hand out blank cards to students. I ask students to share something unique about themselves, so I can attach a personality to the name. Usually students tell me about their favorite video games or sports. Not Suzanne.

"After 28 years and 10 months of service," wrote Suzanne, “Wellness, Inc., closed down the factory. This only put 500 people out of a job.” After 28 years spent as a health-products factory worker, in other words, a job she expected to hold until retirement, Suzanne was back in college, sitting in a roomful of 19-year-old students.

The state initially wanted Suzanne to go to technical school with the transitional funds it provides to displaced workers, but she battled to make it possible for herself to be at the university. Higher education did test her limits. After class one day, talking in the parking lot as we frequently did after class, she waved her arm at the campus and said, "This is hard.” Often she came to class late, her bags rustling. She teasingly labeled me "Mr. On-Time."

But Suzanne had a pride that made history real to her, and an admirable fearlessness. In the middle of a lecture on American slavery, when I was talking about differences in work conditions for field hands and domestics, she raised her hand: "Can I just say something? The house slaves didn’t look like me. They were lighter-skinned."

Put on the spot, I had to say that I didn’t think that was necessarily true, that darker-skinned African Americans were often assigned to tasks like raising children, cleaning, and cooking. I told her that my impression was that later, during Jim Crow, sharp internal differentiation emerged among blacks based on shades of pigmentation.

Fortunately, Suzanne wouldn’t take my no for an answer. The next session, she remained after class. "Can we agree to disagree?" she asked. She told me that she had discussed the issue with a 90-year-old man in the community who swore that the former house slaves he had known were lighter-skinned. I promised I would look into it more.

I rooted around in some textbooks and found images of house slaves confirming my view. But when I e-mailed Ira Berlin, the distinguished historian of slavery, he reported that slave-owners who had relations with their slaves often did favor mulatto offspring with easier or privileged work, whether in the home or as artisans. To be sure, there were also owners who, out of racism, sometimes picked the darkest slaves to be subordinate to them in the home, but as a group lighter-skinned blacks were most likely to be freed by their masters and to occupy the most desirable slave positions.

I returned to class, humbled. I reported that I was wrong, that Suzanne was right, and that I was right (for all three things were true to one degree or another). I showed the photographs I had found and explained that some house slaves were definitely dark-skinned, but then I conveyed what Ira Berlin had told me, overwhelmingly in confirmation of Suzanne’s view.

Had Suzanne not been in my class, had she not had a tough confidence in herself honed by decades on the shopfloor and in the community, I would not have had that opportunity to model the way historians seek to resolve controversies and uncertainties. Students would not have had the chance to see how important it is to revise one’s understanding in light of new evidence. And the power of black folk memory was brought home to us all.

Lastly, let me tell you about Sonya. Her beginning-of-term response card informed me that she was 25, worked at Starbucks, was born on the Fourth of July, and had been homeless in three states, including California. Not your typical student.

Intrigued by her thoughtfulness and sparkle in class discussions, I found a private moment a few weeks later to ask her how in the world she had ever come to be homeless in three states.

"I'm a heroin addict," she responded. She became addicted at age 14, but having kicked the habit, she has arrived on campus in hopes of finishing a degree and starting a narcotics rehab clinic in an area that does not have one. Several times, when stopping by the library this fall, I saw Sonya studying intently, always at the same table. Her final exam was positively brilliant, the best one I read this term.

Grading finals can be discouraging. Students confuse Andrew Jackson with Andrew Johnson, or Nathaniel Bacon with Nat Turner. Less excusably, they think the Erie Canal ran from New York to Florida, or from New York to Mississippi. They write essays on the American Revolution as a conflict between North and South. Those are the tests that try men’s souls. They make you realize that reading, concentration, listening, comprehension, and retention of information are tenuous, possibly even endangered, skills.

But in other students, it is possible to discern heroism. They persevere and question. They take defeat as a chance for redemption. They struggle and strive, informed by a profound sense of personal responsibility. They view the university as more than a credential mill or a ticket to the middle class. They are primed for education as a process of self-transformation, as a source not only of knowledge but wisdom.

Thoreau requires an asterisk. Some of us lead lives of quiet inspiration.

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Christopher Phelps teaches American history at the Ohio State University at Mansfield. He changed the names of each of the three students here to protect their privacy, but all are actual students who were enrolled in his fall 2007 classes.

Man Bites Dog

A newspaper published in a midsized city in Red State America has started running a regular column about books from academic publishers.

This development sounds so improbable that at least a few of you may reasonably suspect that I am trying to perpetrate a hoax. But no, it is true – and it suggests an interesting (and otherwise unimaginable) possibility: a few people in the newspaper world are perhaps starting to realize that they need to foster reading, as such.

Roger Gathman’s “The Academic Presses” debuted on Sunday in The Austin American-Statesman with a discussion of Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton University Press) and James Simpson’s Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents (Harvard University Press). Gathman has contributed to The American Scholar, The New York Observer, and Salon, among other publications. He has lived in Austin since doing graduate work in the philosophy department at the University of Texas in the 1980s; since then, aside from writing, he’s worked as a freelance editor and translator.

His inaugural piece was striking, not just for the kinds of books it covered, but for how it handled them. Academic publishing now includes a wide range of more or less popular nonfiction – not to mention cookbooks, or guides to state bicycle trails, or whatever else must be done to pay the bills. But Gathman took on two specialized (if controversial and widely discussed) works of scholarship; and he engaged with their arguments in as much depth as one humanly can, given the length restrictions of any newspaper other than the New York Review of Books.

Austin is a university town, of course. Still, such a venture as this is simply not supposed to happen nowadays. As everyone knows, book sections are shrinking, when not disappearing entirely. But even pointing out that obvious trend hardly begins to account for what is happening.

A recent commentary by Doug McLellan (founder of Arts Journal and head of the National Arts Journalism Program) stresses a point that has largely been forgotten. The people running newspapers once understood that it was a good thing to serve niches of readers who don’t find their interests met elsewhere. And so it made sense to have a bridge column for people who love bridge, for example, and the comic strip “Nancy” for whoever the hell it is that enjoys that enjoys “Nancy.”

Attract enough such niches, and give them a reason to be loyal to your publication, and you might build up an audience. But start jettisoning “niche content” -- and just about any cultural coverage not involving the mental health issues of Hollywood celebrities is going to count as “niche content” -- and something bad starts to happen. The audience has ever less reason to remain loyal. Why would anyone go to a newspaper to learn about the meltdowns of the stars? Who would want to read about it, anyway? That’s why YouTube was invented, after all.

This paraphrase of McLennan has been very loose indeed. For his ongoing discussion of mass media and the audience for cultural coverage, check out his blog Diacritical. One implication that may follow from McLennan's analysis seems counterintuitive: Regular attention to academic titles might make a newspaper far more appealing than reviews of the latest legal thriller or movie novelization -- in some markets, anyway.

I wondered how it came to pass that the experiment was tried in Austin. During all my years of residence there, the American-Statesman never seemed like anything but a very stolid and conventional newspaper. Whenever the Butthole Surfers, a local punk band, was listed in an advertisement, they became the B Surfers. Going against the current did not seem in its nature. How did it come to pass that the paper had made such an unexpected departure? It made sense to call Roger Gathman and ask.

He had done a lot of freelance reviewing for the Statesman, Gathman said, but the idea to launch a column on university-press titles had not been his. It came instead from Jeff Salamon, the books editor. “He thought it was a way to liven the section up,” Gathman said, “to give it more of a distinctive identity.” (I later tried to contact Salamon, but he is on leave until mid-December.)

The plan for now is to run “The Academic Presses” every couple of months, focusing on two or three new books that Gathman will choose. “The ones I wrote about for this first column weren’t really related,” he said, “but in the future I’m going to try to make selections that seem more connected.”

When asked if there were any discipline he would rule out as a possible focus, he thought for a moment and said, “Well, I don’t think I would cover ... accounting.” Other than that, the door seems wide open.

His next column, running in late December, will cover two volumes on the history of science. I’ve agreed not to mention the titles, but the odds of another newspaper assigning them for review are roughly equal to those of an asteroid hitting the city in the meantime.

It turned out he has not been following Doug McLennan’s reflections on newspaperdom and niche audiences, but some of Gathman’s remarks during our chat sounded broadly similar in their logic.

“Running articles about books,” he said, “is never going to make money. It’s a loss leader. But it gets people to pay attention. You have to give them something they can’t find on television.”

For newspapers to survive, he said, “the people making decisions have to realize that it is in their interest to encourage reading. They have to start thinking about the need to generate an audience. At that level, it makes no sense for all of your cultural coverage to point to activities that don’t involve reading.”

So, indeed, have I thought as well, from time to time -- usually in the spirit of Sisyphus trying to give himself a pep talk.

Gathman’s points would make perfect sense to anyone who gave the matter two minutes of serious consideration. That implies a very big "if," however. Two minutes of thought seems hard to come by when the sky is falling, which is how it seems around most newspapers lately.

Whether or not anybody else ever imitates the American-Statesman in this, it is entirely to the paper’s credit that it is willing to take such a chance. But if far-sighted people did follow its example, the pool of possible contributors might be substantial. “There are a lot of people like me,” as Gathman put it, “with loads of cultural capital and no money.” You don't say!

Torture and Social Scientists

Anthropologists, furious that research may have inspired some Abu Ghraib tactics, vow not to assist in torture.

Not Just For Java

Magazines devoted to the finer points of lifestyle have developed a whole vocabulary for suggesting the atmosphere of refinement found in some homes. There are decors bearing names like Country House, for example, or Late Victorian. For a long time (well into our late 30s) my wife and I lived amid surroundings that one visitor dubbed “Late Graduate Student.” Ours was an apartment where old furniture went to die.

At some point, of course, we parted with the last of the cinder blocks and boards, investing in a set of very sturdy modular bookshelves that had the words “Made in Romania” stenciled on the back. It was the early 1990s, so you had this overwhelming sense that they had been manufactured (strictly for export) beneath a giant portrait of Ceausescu. But they were well-made, or so it seemed until late in the second Clinton administration, when they began to sag, a little, under the weight of the books.

Imagine shabby gentility -- then subtract the gentility. I flashed back to that ambience recently while looking over some new volumes from university presses that could be identified as “coffee table books.” Back then, I would have used that term derisively, in the spirit of sour grapes. In the meantime, our fortunes have improved moderately. The furniture matches. Our bookshelves are a marvel of engineering science. Now we even have a coffee table, proper, instead of a wicker chest full of old clothes with a piece of wood on top of it.

And yet years have passed without a coffee table book ever gracing it. This probably reflects a deep prejudice against the merely decorative – a feeling that books are for reading, not for use as objets d’art. (Some elements of the Late Graduate Student sensibility die hard.) But three new academic titles combine impressive graphic design with solid cultural value, and have earned their momentary place on top of the pile of magazines.

You have to wonder what went through the minds of the investors who funded Documents when the first issues of that now-legendary French cultural journal came back from the printers in the late 1920s. It was a deluxe publication, reproducing paintings by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, and it included photographs of artwork from Africa and the Caribbean. So far so good: The painters were already famous, and “primitive” cultural forms were becoming very fashionable.

But a photograph of a big toe, blown up to gigantic size? Accompanied by a philosophical essay on the significance of that part of the body? This was not a normal art magazine, even by avant garde standards. Copies are now rare. But thanks to Dawn Ades and Simon Baker’s Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and “Documents,” published by the MIT Press, it’s possible to get a feel for the journal in all its undiminished originality.

Hearing “surrealism,” you might think you know what to expect. Certain things seem predictable. (Anyone who has seen a Dali print knows all about the transfiguration of flame-resistant giraffes sodomizing the ukelele, right?) But the editor of Documents, Georges Bataille, was not actually a member of the “official” surrealist movement – he was considered, basically, just too weird. He set the tone for the journal by using it to practice a kind of delirious scholarship that is much drier, but somehow more hallucinatory, than the usual dreamlike juxtapositions of surrealist art and poetry. The first issue contained an essay by Bataille called “The Academic Horse,” which (1) contains several learned footnotes and (2) has something or other to do with horses. It would require several years of study to say more than that about it.

The editors of Undercover Surrealism have included papers by experts on Bataille -– sometimes sharing the same page with translations from the original journal, along with paintings, drawings, ethnographic photos, and reproductions from pulp magazines or Aztec guides to human sacrifice. This is as absorbing and enigmatic a book as you are ever likely to find.

While the writers and artists around Documents were pushing the surrealist insurgency to new limits in Paris, it seems, the Bolsheviks were sketching caricatures of one another in the Kremlin. Piggy Foxy and the Sword of Revolution: Bolshevik Self-Portraits, from Yale University Press, may interest even people who don’t share my fascination with all things Soviet.

The title is awful and easy to forget. Nor is the subtitle accurate, since very few of the drawings are self-portraits. But the editors, Alexander Vatlin and Larisa Malashenko -- researchers working in Moscow -- have prepared excellent short surveys of the history behind these cartoons, which for the most part were sketched on scraps of paper during long Politburo meetings in the 1920s and '30s. They also provide photographs and short biographical accounts of the individuals so caricatured -- which is helpful, since all but a handful of them are now quite obscure.

It’s interesting to see that Nikolai Bukharin -- the original for the character of Rubashov in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and perhaps the single most talented (and humanly appealing) figure in the Bolshevik leadership -- was also a gifted and witty caricaturist. Some of his drawings shape-shift his colleagues into animals. In his own self-portrait, he has a fox’s tail, while fellow “Old Bolshevik” Lev Kamanev appears as an overweight dog, absent-mindedly pooping.

These images, most from the 1920s, are for the most part good-natured. But that changes within a few years. “The revolutionary camaraderie and tradition of collective leadership,” note the editors, “slowly succumbed to suffocating ideological intolerance and personal dictatorship.” The cartoons by one Valery Mezhlauk during the early 1930s tend to be a lot edgier -- and in some cases, they are grotesquely obscene. Very few of the Bolshevik leaders portrayed here survived the decade. Those not arrested in 1937 usually disappeared in 1938. This book is a glimpse inside the world that disappeared with them.

Somewhat more likely to generate a feeling of loss is the recent closing of CBGBs -- the rock club in New York that became the epicenter of the American punk scene. In fact, you can feel nostalgia for the place despite never having actually attended a show there, as a recent segment on the Onion Radio Network satirized very effectively.  

But loud and interesting guitar noises were just part of the do-it-yourself cultural revolution fostered by CBGBs. Up is Up, But So is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992 , edited by Brandon Stosuy and published by New York University Press, is a gigantic collection of texts and images from the days of punk, post-punk, and post-everything in the Lower East Side and Soho.

The anthology is a kind of time capsule drawn from fanzines, posters, and small-press books. (Quite a few were probably run off by people at their day jobs, while the boss wasn’t looking.)

The selection is uneven, of course. It would be hard to read around in Up is Up for very long without remembering the line from Truman Capote: “That’s not writing, that’s just typing.” But then that’s to be expected. The nature of cultural experimentation is that some experiments don’t work. What makes the collection work is the feeling you get of looking inside a really messy laboratory while everything is still in progress.

Most of the material is drawn from the holdings of the Downtown Collection at NYU’s Fales Library. The editor, who is a staff writer for Pitchfork, sketches an account of the cultural scenes documented here. But it’s clear that the archive still has plenty of stories to yield up to historians. In the meantime, Up is Up, But So is Down will doubtless be an inspiration to bohemians yet to come. I imagine them keeping it by their bedside, rather than on a coffee table. 

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