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Emptiness and consciousness: Still unseen limits of American politics

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“Conscious of his emptiness, a man tries to make a faith for himself in the political realm. In vain.”-Karl Jaspers, “Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time” (1952)

Nowadays, in the midst of near-perpetual scandal, both Democrats and Republicans are variously criticized for failing to fix a beleaguered country. But America’s core problems are not remediable in politics. By itself, no American government no president, no congress, no promised barrage of “transformative” legislation, no purported investigations can halt the corrosive withering of heart, body, mind and spirit that most deeply imperils these United States.

Indeed, no matter how well intentioned, informed, or generously bipartisan, no proposed rescue program can ever do more than tinker ineffectually at the outer margins of what really matters.

It is plausible, of course, to expect certain auspicious increments of progress from particular statutes and institutions, but nothing that could meaningfully drown out the lamentations of our lonely American “crowd.” Driven almost single-mindedly by considerations of taxation, commerce, and consumption, our system of governance has managed to produce a sorely bitter amalgam of plutocracy and mob rule. Unsurprisingly, our hoped-for national rescue must now lie elsewhere, that is, suitably far beyond the always-secondary spheres of government, law and economics.

“The crowd,” warned Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” Within our current American crowd (Freud would have called it a “horde,” Nietzsche a “herd,” and Jung, a “mass”), loudly proclaimed differences remain essentially beside the point. This is because no purposeful national renewal, let alone a renewed “greatness,” can ever originate from politics. Whether Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, political behavior is merely what the philosophers and the social scientists would both call a “reflection.”

Unwittingly, perhaps, every society ultimately mirrors the sum total of its constituent human “souls.” These individual souls, seeking some form or another of apt “redemption,” can never be healed by any postures of shallow imitativeness, mass taste, or empty slogans. Before there is any genuine mending of America, there must first take place a proper transformation of its citizenry.

Our pertinent problems here are patently stark, but they are not unfathomable. In fact, it’s not really all that complicated. Briefly put, we Americans timorously inhabit a society so numbingly craven and so openly false that even our visceral melancholy has become contrived.

There is no call here for prescriptions to be offered sotto voce. For societies huddling uneasily at the edges of history and America is quintessentially just such a society emptiness is not whispered or complicated. Always, it radiates in both directions, continuously, from individual to collective, and vice versa.

There is still more necessary detail. Wallowing in the dim twilight of a near-desperate conformance, we the people display infinite forbearance for surface thinking and demeaning amusements. With its so many misdirected resentments, our people still generally hide from the most basic and indispensable affirmations of personal intellect. Now, unambiguously, America actively cultivates a collective posture of anti-reason.

This is an unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing of any real importance, and much more ominously wants to know nothing of any significance.

In time, it becomes a profoundly lethal spirit.

Incontestably, it is today the principal animating ethos of American politics.

Who reads serious books these days? Let us be candid. Virtually none of our national leaders could answer “yes” to this question, and their acknowledged incapacity usually turns out to be a tangible political asset. In other words, most Americans generally loathe any hint or obligation of an intellectual life, and many prefer that their elected political representatives share openly in this conspicuous hatred.

There is more. Although many Americans remain seemingly content with  still-latent hopes or expectations for personal wealth, even the richest among us may actually be deprived. To be sure, while grimly resigned to a dreary future of suffocating banalities and unsatisfying work, even the most “well-off” Americans may lurch thoughtlessly from one personal forfeiture to the next, convinced that erudition creates a needless burden, and that cultivated rancor offers a commendable substitute.

Ironically, certain basic truths in America remain entirely unhidden. Expressed as genre, the “life of the mind” in our distracted country has become a discernibly thin text, one best categorized under a heading of “fiction.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s earlier advice that we Americans should seek “plain living and high thinking” has already been fully reversed, or “turned on its head.” Unassailably, even our best universities are quickly becoming little more than expensive training schools, starkly (and sometimes proudly) bereft of any tangible “higher learning.”

Significantly, the so-called “Trump University” was never an entirely unique or singularly egregious manipulation of traditional intellectual standards. Rather, its plainly grotesque model of “education” was presaged by some of our long-standing and more genuinely authentic universities. In fact, it is not uncommon today for even the most elite educational institutions to cheerfully exchange academic legitimacy for promises of cash on the barrelhead.

Despite increasingly widespread calls for “diversity,” our national landscape is largely homogeneous on certain core matters of a deeper significance. Wherever one looks, we the people are no longer motivated by much of any enduring human value. Generally, for example, we don’t look for equanimity or balance as a healing counterpoint to distressingly frenetic lives. Instead, we search constantly and vainly for expanding opportunities to buy into an unsatisfying life of narrow imitation, one dedicated to assorted empty pleasures and easily-available chemical diversions.

To wit, tens of millions of our more-or-less exhausted citizens now consume enough alcohol and drugs to suffocate any still-lingering wisdom and to drown out whole oceans of sacred poetry.

Still, not everything is obvious. There are some distinctly consequential intellectual nuances to our dilemma. Accordingly, it is possible for we the people to be lonely in the world, or lonely for the world. Somehow, however, our leveling mass culture has managed to produce both kinds of loneliness.

Looking ahead, before a more noble and generous America can be born from any such bifurcated loneliness, we will first have to learn to look diligently beneath the news.

For the moment, whatever is being decided in politics, we Americans will be carried forth not by any identifiable nobility of “high thinking and plain living,” but instead by sorrowful eruptions of private fear and collective agitation. At times, we the people may wish to slow down a bit and smell the roses, but our increasingly battered and battering country will likely still impose upon us the hideously merciless rhythms of a grinding and unstoppable machine. Among other things, the expected end of all this breathless delirium could keep us from remembering who we once were, and, even more importantly, who we once might have become.

If politics can never save us, where then shall we turn? What, if anything, can be done to escape the pendulum of our own mad national clockwork? We routinely pay lip service to the high ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution, but almost no one truly cares about these musty old documents. Invoked only for effect or ostentation, the legal and philosophical foundations of the United States have already become the insignificant province of a tiny and grievously irrelevant minority.

It didn’t always have to be this way. In fact, we Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, we possessed a commendably unique potential to nurture individuals to become more than just cogs in a compliant machine. Emerson, after all, had described us optimistically as a people guided  by industry and “self-reliance.”

Now, however, our true motivators lie more obviously in “fitting in,” in anger, in greed, in fear, and in a perpetual trembling.

In spite of an insistently proud claim to “rugged individualism,” we Americans are shaped most decisively by the mass. As visible manifestations, our fragmented and inelegant society positively bristles with annoying jingles, coarse hucksterism, infantile allusions, and telltale equivocations. Surely, we must soon inquire: Isn’t there anything more to this noisy and suffocating country than an illiterate politics, raw commerce and hideously cheap entertainments?

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” said the poet Walt Whitman, but today the American Self is under steady assault by a vast and rancorous mediocrity, and also by a literally epidemic gluttony.

In the end, credulity remains America’s worst enemy. Our still willing inclination to believe that personal and societal redemption can somehow lie in politics describes a potentially fatal disorder. To be sure, many critical social and economic issues do need to be addressed further by our government, but so too must our deeper problems be solved at the “molecular” or exquisitely personal human level.

In the end, this is the only level of any real change and transformation, a level that is not a mere reflection.

Always, in such matters, history deserves a cherished pride of place. A threatened civilization too often compromises with its underlying afflictions. To restore us, as a nation, to long-term health and real potential, we the people must first learn to look usefully beyond a perpetually futile faith in politics.

It is only when such a gainful swerve of consciousness can become a fully irreversible gesture only when we finally choose to acknowledge the critically vital correlations between individual human growth, intellectual examination and societal harmony that we Americans can reasonably hope to mend an otherwise “empty” nation.

Author’s note: This essay first appeared in The Daily Princetonian, Princeton University, where the author was educated. Republished under his permission.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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The mistakes of U.S. foreign policy

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A few days ago, in a conversation with one of the former protagonists of U.S. foreign policy, in response to my questions and considerations he replied that the second Iraq-U.S. war was an unnecessary disaster, partly balanced by improved relations with Israel and special attention paid to the petromonarchies of the Gulf. He admitted that he had not managed relations with Egypt in the best way, as the United States could have done after the so-called Arab springs, and that it was arguable that the United States never had a kind of relationship with Iran that was discreet enough to be sustainable.

In fact, the White House’s mistakes and desire to dominate, without regard to the other Parties is a traditional characteristic of U.S. foreign policy. Michael Mandelbaum, Professor at John Hopkins University, had already stated that the United States had lost in the world – a total failure since the end of the Cold War. The history of U.S. foreign policy can be roughly divided into four periods.

1) From the Presidency of George Washington (1789-1797) to the Spanish-American War (1898), U.S. foreign policy was still in its infancy, and the focus remained on the territory.

2) From 1898 to the end of World War II (1945), the United States began to move internationally, playing the role of a major power on the stage of World War I and World War II.

3) From 1945 to the end of the Soviet Union (1991), the United States became one of the two poles of the world, the helmsman of Western order and guardians of world scenario trends.

4) The fourth period started after the victory in the Cold War. In that phase, the United States stood at the height of international power, ignored its peers and subjects of international law, behaving as an apparent hegemonic power in the world, but its foreign policy at that time was rarely successful.

The biggest problem of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War was national security. It was necessary, at all times, to protect itself from the USSR’s penetration and influence and to strive to improve its military strength in view of ensuring world leadership. This entailed large-scale war production and huge profits for military industries.

After the Cold War, the United States used multiple means such as foreign policy, economic policy and armed intervention as a deterrent (see the Balkan War of 1999) to coerce and attract the attention of China and Russia (its traditional competitors) and later intervene in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For example, in the 1992 Presidential election, Bill Clinton proposed linking the treatment of the most favoured nation to China with the human rights situation. After being elected, he subsequently added Tibet, hoping to improve local human rights and promote change in China (obtusely seen as bound to end up like the USSR), when in fact the destabilisation of that region would have caused a global nuclear upheaval.

The success of the Cold War against a country and a system of production that by then had been reduced to aflicker, to support a defence that was at least a deterrent but never superior to the White House, gave the United States the illusion that Western systems and the free market were superior and universal and could be transposed into foreign countries where any idea/ideology not conforming to the American Way of Life was considered barbaric, backward and uncivilised (European welfare, healthcare, Communism, Socialism, Islam, traditional cultures, the Catholic religion, etc.).

In its own ‘manifest destiny’, the United States supported and provided for missionaries and needed to proactively spread the seeds of civilisation and promote reform in the so-called ‘backward’ and non-allied societies.

The United States overestimated the feasibility of replicating in other countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, what it had done by means of nuclear and non-nuclear bombs in Hitler’s Germany and in Imperial Japan, which are currently ‘Western’ models of liberalism.

Although they try successfully and not (see the coloured revolutions), through intelligence, to overthrow the dictator of the day – until yesterday a friend – the U.S. foreign policy think tanks lack knowledge of the social conditions persisting in a given country, not understanding that their own views are insufficient to impose a modern Western-style system, such as the social structure and the concept of the rule of law. When political wisdom is not mature, and ignorance prevails, obviously you go towards failure and peoples’ hatred.

Although the United States is among the best countries in terms of national strength, with its military and soft power, it is inevitably unable to fight multilaterally and at the same time transform a society- it deems backward – thousands of kilometres away.

In a place where the U.S. concepts of democracy and free market have never been known, let alone accepted, wanting to establish a system in their own image is virtually impossible.

And while U.S. military missions are successful (not forgetting, however, the bitter defeats in Korea and Vietnam), at the same time, in political terms, they have reassessed the strength of China and Russia in expanding their presence in certain geopolitical areas.

For example, the war in Syria – fomented to sabotage the Chinese “Silk Road” and damage Russian oil supplies to Europe – has strengthened Russia’s presence in the Mediterranean, and raised before Peoples the China’s traditional principles of anti-colonialism and political non-interference, which are gaining support from South America to Africa, from Europe to Asia.

Not for nothing, Prof. Mandelbaum himself said that rather than adopting violent means to promote the construction of a “Western-style” system in a distant country, it would be better for the United States to adopt cultural systems, values and further soft power to influence, provide assistance and create conditions for the transformation and attraction of Western models into other places for economic, practical and peaceful purposes aiming at peoples’ welfare, and not at establishing a “democratic” dictatorship disliked and hated by ordinary people.

According to the distinguished academic, the United States should act as guardians of international peace and ensure world order, by also ultimately resorting to the international courts of justice, rather than subverting the internal structure of individual countries it wants to change for its own interest relating to the last resources of the planet.

As long as there are advantages and not destruction for the peoples, they will not hesitate to be involved in the phases of change. The game of politics is that of great power, which regains hegemony through consensus and not through the imposition of bombers, the massacres of civilians, and Hollywood-style postcards.

Hence, with a view to avoiding further fiascos, U.S. foreign policy must shift to another phase. It must finally launch a fifth phase, but a peaceful one.

The U.S. website of “Foreign Policy” has recently published the article The United States Needs a New Strategic Mindset. The article criticises the United States for having formulated strategies based only on short-term interests in recent decades. This has resulted in many U.S. mistakes, including the post-9/11 war on terrorism.

According to its author, because the United States lacked a coherent and comprehensive strategic vision for a generation, it took countless short-sighted actions and faced many challenges to its national security and economic prosperity.

The author thinks that, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has paid dearly for its wrong strategy. After the implosion of the USSR, the United States desperately squandered enormous wealth and the lives of a large numbers of soldiers, using paranoia as the response to the terrorist threat.

The article reads as follows: “More recently, it has spent exorbitant sums on what it construes as “great-power competition”, but is really just the defense industrial complex’s same old graft with a different guise – all while its public institutions rot”.

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The 4 groups of Senate Republicans that will decide Trump’s impeachment trial

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With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pushing back the Trump impeachment trial to mid-February to make sure things cool down, Senate Republicans’ positions on the vote are far from crystallized yet. Here are the four groups of Senate Republicans, according to views and likely vote. The numbers and composition of these four groups will decide Trump’s future political faith. Which group Mitch McConnell chooses to position himself in will also be a deciding factor in the unusual and curious impeachment trial of a former US president no longer sitting in office.

Group 1: The Willing Executioners

There surely are those in the Republican Party such as Senator Mitt Romney and Senator Ben Sasse who cannot wait to give that Yea and the final boot to disgraced former President Trump, and will do that with joy and relief. Both the Utah Senator and the Nebraska Senator may be vying for the leadership spot in the Republican Party themselves but that is not the whole story. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska openly said “I want him out.” This group is unlikely to reach as many as 17 Senators, however, needed for the two thirds Senate majority to convict Trump.

Group 2: The Never Give up on Trumpers

There are also those Republican Senators who will stick with Trump through thick and thin until the end – some out of conviction, but most as someone who cannot afford to alienate the Trump supporter base in their state – a supporter base which is still as strong. 

At least 21 Republican Senators are strongly opposed to voting to convict former President Trump, as reported by Newsweek. They realize that doing so would be a political suicide. Republican voters, on the whole, are unified in their belief that the presidential elections were not fair and Joe Biden did not win legitimately, with 68% of Republican voters holding the belief that the elections were “rigged”. The majority of the Republican Party constituents are Never Give up on Trumpers themselves.

Among them are Senators Cruz and Hawley. Both will fight at all cost a vote which certifies as incitement to violence and insurrection the same rhetoric they both themselves used to incite the Trump crowd. Cruz and Hawley will try to avoid at all cost the legal certification of the same rhetoric as criminal in order to avoid their own removal under the 14th Amendment, as argued already by Senator Manchin and many others.

Senator Ron Johnson even called upon Biden and Pelosi to choose between the Trump impeachment trial and the Biden new cabinet confirmation. Group 2 will fight fierce over the next weeks and you will recognize them by the public rhetoric.

Group 3: I’d really like to but I can’t be on the record for convincing a President of my own party

Then there is a large group of Republican Senators – maybe the largest – who would really like to give that Yea vote and leave Trump behind but they do not wish to go on the record as having voted to convict a US President from their own party. Some of these Senators will share their intention to vote Yea in private or off the record with the media, but when push comes to shove and the final vote, they will be hesitant and in the end will vote Nay. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida falls under Group 3.

Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is also the illustration of the average Republican Senator right now – someone who said that Trump committed “impeachable offenses” but who is not sure about convicting him through trial, so that probably means a Nay. 

The BBC quoted a New York Time’s estimate from mid-January that as many as 20 Republican Senators are open to voting to convict Trump, but it should be recalled that in the first Trump impeachment trial in 2020, several Republican Senators also shared in private and off the record that they would be willing to convict. After so much discussion, calculations and prognosis, in the end, it was only Senator Mitt Romney who broke ranks on only one of the two impeachment articles, and voted to convict.

The Capitol events, of course, are incomparable to the Ukraine impeachment saga, but it should be accounted for that the trial vote will likely take place sometime in March 2021, or two months after the Capitol events, when most of the tension and high emotion would have subsided and much of American society will be oriented towards “moving forward”. Group 3 will host the majority of Senate Republicans who in the end will decide to let it go. Most of the 21 Republican Senators who already expressed their opposition to convicting Trump actually belong to Group 3 and not Group 2 Never Give up on Trumpers.

Group 4: I am a Never Give up on Trumper but I really want to look like Group 3

And finally, there is the most interesting group of Republican Senators who are secretly a Never Give up on Trumpers but would like to be perceived as belonging to the hesitant and deliberative Group 3 – willing and outraged but unwilling to go all the way on the record to eliminate a former Republican President.

Senator Ted Cruz might move into Group 4 in terms of rhetoric. Never Give up on Trumpers will vote Nay willingly but will try to present themselves as conflicted Group 3 politicians doing it for different reasons.

Which group Mitch McConnel chooses will be the decisive factor in aligning the Senate Republican votes. McConnel himself seems to be a Group 3 Senator who, in the end, is unlikely to rally the rest of the Senators to convict Trump even though McConnel would really like Trump out of the Republican Party, once and for all. The very fact that McConnel is not in a hurry and is in fact extending the cool-off period places him in Group 3. 

Yea voters don’t need time to think about it and look at things. It took House Democrats exactly three days to get it over and done with. McConnel is quoted as willing to give time to “both sides to properly prepare”, allowing former president Trump enjoy due process. But Trump’s legal team will notice quickly that there is not much to prepare for, as they won’t find plenty of legal precedent in the jurisprudence on American Presidents’ incitement to violent insurrection for stopping the democratic certification process on an opponent who is the democratically elected President.

McConnel himself has said that he is “undecided” and that speaks volumes. He is a Group 3 Senate Republican, and with that, Group 3 will describe the mainstream Senate Republicans’ position in the impeachment trial. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set 8 February as the start of the impeachment trial, pushing earlier McConnel’s time frame. This is when it all starts.

It is my prediction that when all is said and done, there won’t be as many as 17 Senate Republicans to vote to convict former President Trump. Trump will walk away, but not without the political damage he has incurred himself and has also left in American political life.

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Two Ways that Trump Spread Covid-19 in U.S.

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Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

1. Encouraging infected workers to continue working even if it infects others:

On 12 May 2020, two hundred and twenty five labor organizations signed a letter to Antonin Scalia’s son Eugene Scalia who was Donald Trump’s appointed Secretary of Labor, and it urged his Department to change its policies “that address the standards that apply under the federal U[nemployment] I[insurance] law to determine when workers remain eligible for regular state UI or P[andemic] U[nemployment] A[ssistance] if they leave work or refuse to work due to COVID-19 health and safety concerns.” In more-common language, an economist Jared Bernstein headlined in the Washington Post six days later on May 18th, “The Labor Department is forcing workers back to jobs that could make them sick” and he explained that Scalia’s Department “has issued guidance that virtually ignores health risks and encourages employers to report workers who refuse job offers [while unemployed] so their unemployment payments can be taken away. The agency is busy urging employers to snitch on ‘claimants that have turned down suitable work.’” Trump’s Labor Department ignored the labor-organizations’ letter. Then, a barista headlined at Huffpost on 22 January 2021, “I Work In A Coffee Shop In Montana. Anti-Maskers Have Made My Job Hell.” She complained that the many customers who refused to wear masks were causing her to fear working there — she was blaming those customers, but not Trump. However, Trump and his Labor Secretary were responsible and simply didn’t care about the safety of workers, such as her, and were instead encouraging employers to force these workers to stay on the job, though doing so endangered themselves and their co-workers. Millions of infected workers were infecting others because not to would cause them to become fired and could ultimately force them into homelessness. Maybe the billionaires who funded Trump’s political career profited from such exploitation of their employees, but nationally this policy helped to increase the spreading of Covid-19. Also: since so many of those bottom-of-the-totem-pole employees are Blacks and Hispanics, etc., this Trump policy helped to cause the drastically higher infection-rates that have been reported among such groups.

2. Refusing to deal with the pandemic on a national basis:

On 15 July 2020, the Washington Post headlined “As the coronavirus crisis spins out of control, Trump issues directives — but still no clear plan” and reported that, “health professionals have urged the White House to offer a disciplined and unified national message to help people who are fatigued more than five months into the crisis and resistant to changing social behaviors, such as wearing masks and keeping a distance from others. Trump, for instance, refused to be seen publicly wearing a mask until last weekend, when he sported one during a trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. ‘You can get a really strong and eloquent governor who can help at the state level, but it does seem like we need some more national messaging around the fact that for many people, this is the most adversity they’ve faced in their life,’ said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.” Every country (such as China, Vietnam, Venezuela, South Korea, Thailand, New Zealand, and Finland) that has been far more successful than America is at having a low number of Covid-19 cases (and deaths) per million residents has dealt with the pandemic on a national and not merely local basis, but all of the worst-performing countries (such as America, which now is at 76,407 “Tot Cases/1M pop”) have not.

It therefore also stands to reason that 

which ranks all 50 states according to how high is the number of Covid-19 infections per million inhabitants, shows (and links to the data proving) that “In 2016, the top 17 [most Covid-infected states] voted for Trump, and the bottom 5 voted for Clinton. All but 3 of the top 24 voted for Trump.” The correlation of high Covid-infection-rate with Trump-voting was astoundingly high. Trump, it seems, gave the high-infection-rate states what they had wanted. But what he gave to America is the highest Covid-19 infection-rate of any nation that has at least 11 million population. It is the 7th-highest Covid-19 infection-rate among all 219 reporting nations. Trump’s policies produced the type of results that had been expected by well-informed people around the world.

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