Lost World

by Mark English

My old high-school Latin teacher had a very short temper. He exploded on a regular basis. More than once he became so agitated in class that he knocked off his own spectacles, sending them skidding across the floor.

Corporal punishment was part of the culture at this strange institution, which seemed to have been trapped in a Victorian time warp. Such punishment was not restricted to rule breaches or misbehavior. Fail to adequately prepare for certain classes (Latin was one of them), and you were in trouble. But any violence against individuals was strangely clinical, and not in any way anger-based. Nothing personal. No hard feelings.

“Bill” – nickname from his surname (Williams) – was reaching the end of a distinguished career in education. He was past the normal retirement age. What’s more, it was well-known that he had a serious heart condition. We always half-expected one of these anger episodes to escalate into a fatal heart attack, which only added to the pressure to learn what we were supposed to learn. None of us wanted him to die and certainly not to be personally responsible for his death. He was much loved, actually.

He had no family and was resigned to living out his final years in an alien country. In a way, we boys were “family”. He was famous for his touchingly weak and relentlessly repeated jokes. “Time to get out your breakfast cereal,” he used to say in an earlier year, referring to an unbelievably boring Latin reader called Vercobrix: puer fortissimus. (Weetabix was the product being alluded to.) Occasionally he would tease us. He remarked on one boy’s fine golden hair, noting that he would soon lose much of it (as indeed he did). Or, pleading ignorance of these matters, he used to cajole another boy, who was strikingly handsome in a blond-Slavic sort of way, to give a commentary on the romantic themes of Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid (which we were at the time dutifully ploughing through). Book IV is centered around the story of the ill-fated love affair between Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas for whom the call of duty – he was destined to found Rome – eventually trumps his feelings for his girl. Dido’s response was to have herself incinerated on a funeral pyre while calling down curses on her faithless lover. An avenger would arise from her ashes. (Hannibal… but that is another story.)

Significantly, “Bill” never teased the shy boys, his empathy in this regard reflecting, no doubt, his own experiences as a shy and naïve and (by all accounts) brilliant student.

Very occasionally he would reminisce about his home country, painting an idyllic picture of rural Ireland, fallow deer grazing in the morning mist. I don’t fully recall how we reacted at the time but, looking back, it all seems heartbreakingly sad. Not only was he cut off from his personal roots, it was increasingly clear that the scholarly and educational causes to which he had devoted his life, the teaching of Latin and the promotion of the classical curriculum, were basically lost.

I recount this story (and the anecdotes that follow) to flesh out some of the background to my views on certain themes which recently have been a focus of debate on this site: patriotism, nationalism and empire. The discussions were prompted by an essay in which I elaborated my not altogether positive take on the impact of certain kinds of myth, particularly national myths, on politics and policy-making. [1]

E. John Winner subsequently wrote a piece in praise of Irish nationalism. [2] His approach was quite partisan. According to Winner, the British were engaged in a form of attempted genocide, and violent rebellion and exiting the Empire was the only real solution for the Irish. Imperialism was presented as being virtually synonymous with cruelty and oppression.

I am not denying that the Irish had real and justified grievances. But I felt that Winner’s account glossed over the political complexities involved, including the wide spectrum of political opinion and allegiance amongst the Irish themselves. There is also the issue of ethnic continuities between the Irish and other inhabitants of the British Isles. Likewise, ethnic differences amongst the Irish – stemming from the Norman invasions of the late 12th century, for example – were downplayed.

In due course (in a future piece) I may elaborate my point of view in explicit terms and argue directly against views such as Winner’s. I would emphasize the necessarily simplistic and distorting nature of political myth, and make a case for preferring organic to invented and imposed myths. (I recognize that invented myths often incorporate preexisting organic elements, so the categories are not always clear-cut.)

Political myths are all about coordinating mass action; mind manipulation as a means to an end. National myths, in particular, often necessitate the imposition of a certain homogeneity of belief on a population, something I am uneasy about. It can sometimes be an insidious, even proto-totalitarian, process that works against basic liberal principles. Even the Romans did not seek to impose conformity or uniformity of belief on the peoples they ruled.

I am not saying that the myths associated with imperialism are necessarily more benign than national myths. In fact, my main concern at the moment relates to the dangers posed by neoconservatives whose outlook – based on the notion of American exceptionalism – is thoroughly imperialistic. The ideological roots of the founders of this movement were in Trotskyism. I confess to having a strong natural aversion to such manufactured ideologies – and especially to those which promote revolutionary violence (or any kind of violence other than that involved in basic self-defense or clear-cut humanitarian interventions).

Sometimes violent action is called for, and sometimes it needs to be coordinated on a large scale. I am willing to concede that, in some such cases, the use of myths may be necessary to coordinate effective action. But myths are also used to justify violence, and this is more problematic.

The truth is that individuals have – and will always have – different political beliefs and views deriving from divergences in inherited psychological tendencies and upbringing. The best we can do as individuals is to coordinate our political opinions with our most basic instincts and values.

My Irish Latin teacher was quite apolitical and would not have related at all to the concept of Ireland (or Irish nationalism) which Winner was describing and promoting. He was simply not living in Winner’s universe – or anything like it. And Winner is not living in his. As I was saying, each of us lives in his or her own unique universe, and this is not something we can change. Fortunately, there is usually sufficient overlap between these personal universes to make social life possible, even if there are also sufficient divergences to ensure that argument and misunderstanding will remain staples of social existence.

I see a parallel here with language. In a practical sense, linguistic communication works. But what people think they are communicating is always at least subtly different from what they actually are communicating. Crucially, there is no “message” which is sent and received. Nor, for that matter, is there such a thing as a language. English and French and German, etc. are abstract constructs. Really, there are just overlapping and non-overlapping idiolects. Where idiolects overlap (to a greater or lesser extent) linguistic communication is possible.

In the essay that sparked the debate, I referred to the 16th-century humanist and Latinist, Joachim du Bellay whose patriotic attachments (like my teacher’s) were to his native region – Anjou in his case – and were not in any obvious way political. It was only in subsequent centuries that the modern idea of the nation state (an essentially political notion) came to prominence. In earlier times, Europe was a patchwork of regions sharing a broadly similar ethnic, linguistic (Indo-European and, more specifically, Latin) and religious heritage. Educated people identified with this broader culture, as well as with their own native regions and vernaculars.

My high school (as I have noted) and undergraduate education exposed me to people who exemplified this old tradition. In my freshman year I continued with Latin, which I had studied continuously from the age of twelve. The advanced first-year class was very small (less than a dozen). Fewer and fewer high school students were taking Latin through to matriculation level. It had very limited appeal as a high school option, and less as a university minor or major. Not only was it quite demanding, it had no vocational relevance. The only half-plausible practical justification for the learning of Latin which I recall hearing was that learning Latin improves one’s English writing style. And well it may. But – for better or for worse – such matters are not exactly front and center in terms of educational priorities. (And, if they were, a more direct approach would likely prove far more effective.)

There were three girls in that first-year university class, one of whom I had a crush on. Her marvelously Latinate name was Perpetua Grave (a daughter of the head of the philosophy department).

Another student was a recently retired businessman whom we knew only as Mr. Freeman. He subsequently completed a classics PhD, producing a new edition of Juvenal. He used to talk about his literary-oriented youth in Germany and France. There was also a younger man from central Europe who couldn’t speak English at all but who turned out to be fluent in Latin which, until that time, I had taken to be a long-dead language (except in certain ecclesiastical contexts). There is a piece of doggerel which every schoolboy once knew: “Latin is a dead language, as dead as dead can be. It killed the ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me.” Well, it wasn’t dead in parts of central and eastern Europe apparently, at least until the latter part of the 20th century.

Sometime later I met another Latin speaker: an old, surly, atheistic Czech with a doctorate in political science,who was a Wagner fanatic and made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth every year. He talked fondly of his younger days when he and his friends would hike all over central Europe, casually crossing borders and receiving hospitality from parish priests. As Latin speakers they were granted the status of fellow scholars and were welcomed in to share dinner and given a bed for the night.

The cultural continuities of which I speak here are now irredeemably broken. I have no illusions about this.

It is, however, important to see – at least in general terms – what it is that we have lost. Only then, I suggest, can we fully understand the radically provisional and unstable nature of the political and cultural status quo in Western countries; and even perhaps – who knows? – be motivated to envisage a wider range of political, social and cultural possibilities than conventional wisdom currently allows.

REFERENCES

  1. https://theelectricagora.com/2017/02/22/nationalism-and-mythical-thinking/
  2. https://theelectricagora.com/2017/03/03/politics-and-song/

Categories: Essay, Essays

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83 Comments »

  1. Hi EJ,
    I’m beginning to realize that Mark and I are from such different backgrounds (“universes,” as Mark puts it),

    Yes, that is the problem. I of course inhabit another universe that overlaps Mark’s universe sufficiently that I recognise and am responsive to, that I can sympathise with his point of view.

    I hope we can find some way to reach an understanding so that we can express ourselves differently, or allow different expressions from each other.

    Eric(this is another Eric, very insightful), over at HowToBeAStoic, memorably said we ought to enter imaginatively into each other’s world-views. I found that so striking that I have repeatedly quoted him. This then is the answer – to cultivate a sincere desire to enter imaginatively another person’s world-view. Every time someone writes something we are given a glimpse of his world-view. And as we read more of that person’s writing we assemble a more complete picture of their world-view.

    It is in our literature, especially fiction, poetry and history that we enter most fully into other world-views. This is a vital process. Without it we become solipsistic. And as we enter into other world-views we are enabled to knit them together into a composite world-view where we see our place in it and a larger, grander world-view. This creates a mutual understanding that engenders trust, the most vital ingredient of a cooperative society.

    I want to emphasise this point about the importance of trust. When Mark wrote his retrospective piece and exposed something of himself, it was an act of trust. He hoped and trusted that others would read his words with sympathetic understanding. This does not mean we must agree but only that we should be charitable in our assessment, with a sincere desire to understand. Every act that damages trust is like a dagger to the heart of society. It is that important.

    So what has gone wrong. This is my diagnosis. As part of the trend towards scientism we have become fixated on the idea of truth. Science seeks the truth. And in science, for a given problem there is only one truth. This kind of thinking has been absorbed by society in general and is now applied by us all. But society cannot be usefully understood through the prism of single truths. The complex kaleidoscope of society defies reduction to the simplistic categories of truth and falsehood.

    But the enormous success of science has made this view irresistible. This creates severe problems, chief of which is that we feel the obligation to detect and correct lack of truth. This is an emotion that is viscerally felt and is powerful. This is, I believe, at the heart of our dispute. It is also I believe, the root cause of the culture wars. Thus Dan-K and EJ reacted strongly to statements they saw as contradictions of the received view of the truth, setting out to correct this and restore what they believed was a true view of the world.

    But whose view of the truth should prevail? Is there only one truth? Can a single person possess the truth? Is it useful to insist on only one truth? Or should we not rather leave our own truths behind and give ourselves the space to examine other people’s truths? This is what I am urging. And if in reply you raise an et tu quoque argument I will plead guilty. I am weak but desire to be stronger.

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  2. ejwinner

    [I had drafted this before I saw labnut’s “diagnosis”. But I will post this as it stands even though I suspect parts of it will annoy him. Labnut: Nice comment. I’ll come in later on it.]

    “Thinking about this, I’m beginning to realize that Mark and I are from such different backgrounds (“universes,” as Mark puts it), that we just tend to push each others’ buttons without realizing it. I hope we can find some way to reach an understanding… Mark, I hope that you see that this wish is sincere.”

    I don’t doubt your sincerity.

    I’m not suggesting that I always express myself perfectly or even appropriately but I am pretty scrupulously courteous, and only used some slightly strong language here in reaction to what I saw as your mocking tone and cumulative misreadings of what I was trying to say.

    Let me give one example. I conceded earlier in the comment thread that I had used your essay for my own purposes and had not given a full and fair account of it. But in subsequent comments you wrote as if I had made no such concession. Thus the frustration when you accused me of trying to avoid the topic of political songs. (I responded: “It’s not my frigging topic!”).

    Sure I “press your buttons”. But this is no surprise. I reject large parts of the general view of the world which you have articulated from time to time.

    “I know that I’m to the left and you’re to the right, but I don’t think that’s the problem here. Rather, our differing experiences have generated a slippery overlap of our idiolects (which point you made in the article I largely agree with, although I recognize the view is controversial).”

    Yes, it’s not just politics. I think we have radically opposed views of the world, including on the role and status of various kinds of knowledge. I think your views – not all of them by any means, but some of the central ones – are both mistaken and socially deleterious. This is my honest opinion. I may be wrong on both counts. But it’s no wonder that you will react against me when I touch on these matters.

    “On many issues we’re actually closer than either of us recognize, we just express it differently.”

    On some issues we are close.

    “I think we share a similar pessimism concerning the present state of the world, but clearly disagree as to its origins or how to respond to it. Hopefully, in this disagreement we can generate a space for creative response.”

    You can do the creative response. I’m more of a quietist. Stuff happens. As I see it, the real creative response is broad-based and organic and pretty much out of individual control. It’s decidedly *not* a Romantic thing. I’ll content myself with trying to see the world more clearly – and not doing gratuitous harm.

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  3. ejwinner

    “Resistance is sometimes politically necessary – even Mark doesn’t degree with that… He just doesn’t think the myths (or their musical expressions) are necessary (or particularly useful). I do.”

    I accept that myths are built into how we think. So certainly I accept that they are necessary in a general sense. And useful. All too useful!

    What I have been criticizing are particular kinds of myth and the way they may be used. Political myths are necessary. But they also distort and simplify reality, and so can be dangerous. It’s largely by virtue of the fact that they simplify (and so distort) reality that they are useful in facilitating and encouraging political action. Think of a bunch of boys marching to war and singing stirring songs. They are being manipulated by a myth. In the vast majority of cases, they – and their families – will suffer for it. The nation or whatever the driving myth – goddess Liberty, say – is a cruel master/mistress. It is heartless. It doesn’t care. And all too often such myths are consciously exploited by cynical (political or military) leaders who likewise don’t care about the individuals whose lives they are destroying or poisoning.

    (Sometimes you need to fight. I am not denying this.)

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  4. This was a fascinating essay. Sidestepping the issues talked about the comment section it evokes such a clear picture of a world long gone. It also touched me emotionally since it shows how the world we grow up can change even before we die to something unrecognizable. This is surprising since I am a young American growing up in the Midwestern suburbs. This so far from my experience and my only exposure to this world is from satires from Monty Python which I hardly consider a reliable guide. Hopefully more essays like this will be written.

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  5. Alan

    Regarding your comment of the 23rd: I have just seen it. I think it must have been delayed for some reason, and has only just been posted.

    The point I would want to emphasize is that Latin will never be mainstream again. It played a significant role in European and anglophone culture – and it no longer does, and never will again. And, in a way, the article you linked to only serves to underscore this point.

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  6. Dan

    No it hasn’t! The sentence I wanted in bold was: “It’s largely by virtue of the fact that they simplify (and so distort) reality that they are useful in facilitating and encouraging political action.”

    Next time I’ll take more care. Or maybe forgo the HTML! Who needs bold anyway?

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  7. There is one more point I would like to make in relation to the discussion with ejwinner, specifically about Irish nationalism. In his essay on politics and song, he referred briefly to a different kind of song…

    “One might object that I haven’t remarked on “the Troubles” in Northern Island, so I will. There have been political songs on both sides of that conflict, as well as, in recent decades, admonitions to peace. [6] They are all Irish.” (He goes on to say that the Unionists may see themselves as British but nobody else does. In his view, one can’t be both Irish and British.)

    I don’t want to mount an argument here, but I just want to point out that there are less nationalistic and less parochial ways of being Irish, and a song can illustrate this.

    Note 6 references three songs, only one of which I know: Zombie, by the Cranberries. The YouTube video has had nearly 500 million views.

    The song is Irish: the accent certainly is. And (controversially) there is a reference to the 1916 rebellion – which is seen in terms of violence rather than liberation. But my main point is this: what sparked the writing of this song was a bomb attack by the Provisional IRA or a related group *in England* which killed two children. Such “admonitions to peace” transcend the nationalist narrative. That is their whole point.

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  8. Mark,
    “The song is Irish: the accent certainly is. And (controversially) there is a reference to the 1916 rebellion – which is seen in terms of violence rather than liberation. But my main point is this: what sparked the writing of this song was a bomb attack by the Provisional IRA or a related group *in England* which killed two children. Such “admonitions to peace” transcend the nationalist narrative. That is their whole point.”

    And that was my whole point in including reference to the song, and I think the Cranberries’ negatively remarking “the same old dream/ since 1916” is spot on and one of the reasons I think that an important song.. And I noted in the comment thread,

    “I “scoff” (your word) at the North Irish who maintain they are British for two reasons; the first I remark explicitly, that at this point no one else thinks of them as such. Implicitly, what this means is that in the transition from colony to nation, if it is to continue to progress toward union, Ireland now has to assume a state responsibility to consider its population as no longer homogeneous ethnically (or religiously). It has been quite successful in recent in years in recognizing this and moving beyond old modes of thinking. Ulster too needs to move in this direction if it is ever to have a government of its own (and I believe that politically and economically, it is strategically in its interests to unite with the south, since England is a falling star, and I still think the future belongs to the EU).

    I’m perfectly aware of the differences between nationalist myths and political realities, and that progress in politics means resolving older and useless myths into more useful, beneficial beliefs (although these may prove myth themselves in time). I still maintain that you’ve misread my essay, at least in part, and assume views that aren’t mine.

    But I don’t think we can freeze time and pretend politics doesn’t happen. Which politics we follow is a matter of contingent interests shaped by history, and ethical choices. But song very much has its place in such discussions. The only point of my essay.

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  9. It is time to move beyond the narrow preoccupation with the Irish and presumptive wrongs of the British. The essay had a larger and more important theme so it is time to think beyond ancient sensitivities.

    Just what is this lost world? Why is it lost and what is replacing it?

    I suggest that this lost world was a shared set of values that knit together the larger pan-European Latinate world. These values were strands of thought woven together to produce the whole cloth of ancient and medieval Europe. These strands of thought were Hebraic, Grecian, Roman and Christian, each contributing a vital element. They produced the unique mode of thinking that enabled the appearance in Europe of universities, the sciences, the industrial revolution, free market economies, democracy, schooling, medical care, liberal humanism, consumerism and the flowering of the arts.

    This world was always in tension with the local forces of ethnicity and language that defined individual countries. Gradually the tension was resolved in favour of the individual countries, leading eventually to the birth of nation-states, Values were bent to serve the interests of the nation and the values of the pan-European Latinate world began to recede. Mark’s essay is a nostalgic look back at the remnants of that world.

    But what replaced those values? The pan-European Latinate world became the nation-state world and finally this became the individual world, one where the individual’s needs and wants began to trump all other considerations. Values were now bent to serve the appetite of the individual and the appetite of the individual fuelled the growth of the corporatist world. As a result the corporatist world has expanded, knitting together countries that were once knit together by the Latinate values.

    The Latinate world has been replaced by the corporatist world. The first was held together by the Latin language and the second is held together by the English language. But there is a key difference. The corporatist world nakedly celebrates greed, nakedly exploiting both its customers and its workers in the pursuit of returns. The success of this strategy is shown by the growing wealth inequality.

    The corporatist world may fall sooner than the Latinate world because it contains more powerful contradictions. Every worker is also a customer. When one exploits a worker one is also damaging one’s customer. Lower wages or fewer workers inevitably means lower demand for products and services. This effect is being multiplied by the automation, the ageing of the population and falling birth rates, making the customer base even smaller. The corporatist world has not yet found out how to resolve this contradiction. The state was meant to balance these needs more equitably but the corporatist world has infiltrated the state by co-opting the legislative and executive bodies.

    This may only be resolved(temporarily) by the appearance of a new ideologue(Marx?) or new demagogue(Hitler?). Ideologues and demagogues are the symptoms of irresolvable contradictions in society.

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  10. John Gray, in the introduction to his book Straw Dogs made the point that for much of our history we did not seek progress but rather sought to reconcile ourselves to the world as we found it.

    For Plato contemplation was the highest form of human activity. A similar view existed in ancient India. The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly.

    When we cannot change the world in our favour we take refuge in seeing it rightly. And then we create belief systems that validate seeing the world rightly. Buddhism is one such outcome in the East and the Western reply was Stoicism.

    The corporatist world, with its growing stranglehold on jobs and wages, is presenting many people with a reality where progress is not possible. Wage stagnation and declining job opportunities are in our future.

    How will we react to the absence of progress with the severe stresses that will result? Drugs are one avenue and violence is another. We are already seeing these responses. Old value systems will be retreaded for modern consumption. Buddhism and Stoicism come to mind. After a long flirtation I reject Stoicism(for the reasons below) and I find Buddhism too alien.

    Specifically, I found that Stoicism:

    1) is a joyless philosophy;
    2) does not value beauty;
    3) is a passivist philosophy that has no concept of the luminous spirit;
    4) is a quietist philosophy that rests on the assumption that the aim of life is not to change the world but to see it rightly.
    5) is a loveless philosophy;
    6) lacks communal spirit;
    7) is a solipsistic philosophy.

    I know too little about Buddhism to make an informed judgement. But in any case we need a value system that is ‘other-directed’ rather that ‘self-directed’ to cope with the severe dislocations that will be the result of declining opportunity in a corporatist world. We need to be motivated by a deep desire to help others who suffer more than we do.

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    • Labnut, I am afraid that my own feelings about Stoicism have become quite negative, even the more so as I have heard more about it from my dear friend, Massimo. The final straw may have been when I went over to his “How to be a Stoic” blog and read what to me was a quite shocking response to a woman who was suffering over her inability to have children. Not only was I dismayed and chilled by Massimo’s reply to her, but I was appalled when he referred to his own daughter as a “preferred indifferent.” (No, I’m not making this up.)

      It shouldn’t surprise us though. Stoicism, like the other Hellenistic philosophies, are frameworks that only really make sense in a civilization that is far along into a period of decline and undergoing a process of disintegration. In such a world, they represent a noble effort to endure. In a world like ours, however, one in which we enjoy almost unimaginable prosperity and comfort, they make no sense whatsoever, and come across as self-absorbed, even narcissistic, and terribly cold-blooded.

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  11. Dan-K,
    Stoicism, like the other Hellenistic philosophies, are frameworks that only really make sense in a civilization that is far along into a period of decline and undergoing a process of disintegration. In such a world, they represent a noble effort to endure.

    Carlin Barton, in her book, Roman Honor, makes exactly this point(page 117). She describes the decline of the Roman Republic and its replacement by the Roman Empire, whose power rendered ordinary people impotent and subject to brutal injustice. To endure one must become like a stone(a common Stoic theme).

    We are passionate, caring people embedded in that most foundational unit of all, the family, and any belief system that discounts this will be marginal. The decline and obscurity of Stoicism is history’s judgement.

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  12. I agree with labnut and Dan that trying to revive Stoicism is a bad idea. I think I would want to defend a form of quietism, however. It may not be for everyone but it works for some people.

    I think labnut gave an accurate account of that pan-European culture we have lost. An earlier point he made about the importance of trust (and charitable interpretations) in the sharing of personal perspectives is a good one.

    Though it’s always important not to be locked into an ideology, I think I would place more emphasis than you do on seeing clearly and on the importance of “getting things right”. Where values are concerned – arguably at least – it is not a case of being correct or incorrect. But in respect of certain kinds of knowledge at least, you *can* make plausible claims of this kind.

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