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E.J. Dionne on Souled Out, Pt. 4

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HH: I’m glad to welcome back E.J. Dionne. He is, of course, the Washington Post columnist, the author of the brand new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith And Politics After The Religious Right. We’re spending an hour a week for eight weeks going through E.J.’s book, trying to get some common ground, or at least deciding what we’re going to fight over as religious right talks to religious left. E.J., how was the trip to UCLA and USC? Did it go well?

EJD: It’s been great. I had a good audience, people were very warm, they asked a lot of good questions. I mean, as you know, the fun thing about discussing this subject is that a lot of people from very different points of view have very strong views about it. So you can have a very good dialogue.

HH: All right. Now where are you this week? Are you back in D.C.?

EJD: I am in L.A. at the moment. I was up in Seattle this week, and gave some talks up there. I did some fun radio shows. I like doing radio. And I’m heading up to San Francisco toward the…I’m heading up to San Francisco. I’m going to be at the Commonwealth Club on Thursday.

HH: All right, to those people who want to get to the Commonwealth Club in the old city, by all means do. E.J., before we plunge into Chapter Three, What Are The Values Issues, I want to ask you about a controversy that we talked about at length yesterday. Notre Dame, a university which I’m sure you, as I, love very, very much.

EJD: That’s true.

HH: …has decided to welcome back the Vagina Monologues, and there’s quite a lot of controversy about that now, Father Jenkins announcing that the play could return this year. And of course, it sparked the old controversy. What’s your assessment of that?

EJD: Oh, I don’t know. My general view is that universities should be welcoming of controversy, and that I don’t like it when liberals at campuses try to shut down conservatives and vice versa. I understand why traditionalists are upset about this. But you know, I guess my inclination is to be open rather than not.

HH: And can a Catholic university really purport to teach Catholic moral values when they allow their university be a platform for plays which I think we would agree are not embracing of Catholic moral teaching?

EJD: Well, I think there is a great challenge to Catholic education that honestly, I don’t think presents easy questions or answers, which is that these institutions do reflect a tradition that they’re upholding, and they want to preserve their Catholic identity. At the same time, they are universities. And universities are places where people of very diverse views have the freedom, and should have the freedom, to have a platform. And so I think…I don’t think anybody doubts Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. I don’t think anybody doubts that there are a lot of very orthodox folks teaching there. So I’m not sure that allowing this to happen really dilutes that.

HH: All right. Now I want to start with a parable, or at least a parable and a question, E.J. A judge walks into his chamber, and he has ten matters on his desk. He’s got a border dispute between neighbors, he’s got a divorce matter pending between husband and wife, he’s got a child custody matter, he’s got a couple of petty larcenies, he’s got a fairly serious armed robbery, and then he’s got a capital case, an appeal from a death row conviction, someone’s going to die unless he stops it. What should he turn to first?

EJD: I think I see where you’re getting, Hugh.

HH: (laughing)

EJD: I think what you’re trying to do here is to say that when you go to religion and politics, your priorities have to be in order, and so we’re going to have a fight over that. You know, on balance, I would think that he should settle the capital case, if you want an answer to the question. I like to answer questions directly.

HH: And so having done that, why did you start in Chapter Three with economics and social justice rather than with the right to life issue, the issue of life and death for the unborn?

EJD: Precisely because I believe that the Catholic tradition, as I understand it, teaches us to worry about the organization of society as a whole, and that it matters a lot whether you have justice, including economic justice, in the society, if you are also going to have what we would think of as strong values prosper in that society. It’s no accident, for example, that the abortion rate is much, much higher among poor women than it is among better off women. It is no accident that family break up can be caused not only be personal morality, but also by economic stress and difficulties people have in organizing their family life, so that I look at the Catholic social tradition, and I see a tradition that looks at life whole, and that sees the impact of society as well…the impact of society on individual decisions as well as our responsibility to make good, moral individual decisions.

HH: Well, I can agree with all that, but if you’ve got between forty and fifty million people who aren’t here because of abortion in America since 1973, and they just aren’t, they’re not here, they’re not living, we have to talk about economics. Obviously, there’s a moral dimension to economics. But why would you, in a book about religion and American politics, not start with what must be the most pressing issue, which presents life or not life for so many souls?

EJD: Well, I think the issue here is the words…are the words most pressing. In the book, I do talk about abortion. And precisely because there have been so many abortions, I suggest that instead of going through the same argument that we’ve had for thirty years, we might consider what steps we could take to sharply reduce the number of abortions in the country. If I could ask you a question, do you expect anytime soon, even if Roe V. Wade fell, do you expect the day when abortion will be widely illegal in the United States?

HH: No.

EJD: No. And neither to I, and I think it’s highly…if Roe falls, most states will keep abortion legal, probably for the first trimester at least, which is when most abortions are performed. So we’re having this big argument about whether abortion should be legal or not, when we know pretty well on both sides what the outcome is going to be. So why don’t we instead focus on saving as many of the unborn as we can.

HH: For the same reason that the judge who enters into his crowded docket, goes to the most important first, because even though it is highly unlikely that someone would end up about to be executed absent guilt and certain numbers of review in plenty of time, that one thing is far more important than the other things, and that therefore, the most important thing ought to deserve our attention, and that we ought to spend more time in every book and every setting speaking directly not to politicians and judges, but to women who are pregnant about maintaining the viability of that baby right through birth, and urging them so that anytime you divert attention from that into secondary issues, you’re really not conducting the conversation the way the Catholic Church would rather you conduct the conversation. It doesn’t have to be about politics, but it should always begin with an affirmation of the life of the unborn.

EJD: Well, but isn’t that a little bit like saying that because only a certain percentage of your radio shows are about abortion that therefore, you are not fulfilling your responsibility? The suggestion there is that if we’re not focused on abortion all the time, we’re doing something wrong. And the fact of the matter is even the most pro-life politicians in the country, even the most pro-life clerics in the country do not spend all or even most of their time talking about abortion.

HH: Well, I agree. That’s a good retort, except that if I had set up my show today as being today’s show is going to be about the most important issues at the intersection of faith and politics, let’s start with the estate tax, that would not work for me. But your book has promised, and it’s delivering on the promise. Let’s talk about reclaiming faith and politics after the religious right, but it’s punting the abortion issue to the back.

EJD: No, it’s not punting the abortion issue to the back. I believe that because of this emphasis on abortion in a kind of exclusivist way, we are losing this very, very broad and rich tradition of Catholic social through that goes back to Pope Leo and Rerum Novarum, has had been developed in very interesting ways. And by the way, it’s not…there have been sort of interesting intellectual twists and turns in this, that we are sort of walking away from that tradition, because we are so focuses on abortion, that we’re not talking about larger picture, which does impact all kinds of moral decisions people make. I won’t go on about this, but I talk about, at the end of the book, which we’ll get to, the movie It’s A Wonderful Life, because I think that movie shows us the link between how a society behaves morally, and how it’s organized economically.

HH: And I agree with all that, but again, there’s this Greek chorus of 40-50 million Americans who can’t read your book, because they didn’t have a chance at life. And I just think any book about faith and politics has to start there, not with capital punishment or graduated interest tax rates, but there, because that’s really the divide…isn’t that really the divide between left and right in American religious politics, E.J., the question of life?

EJD: No, I think that the divide is how much, how you look at the Scriptures, and how much Jesus said about what. And you know, Jim Wallis, as I’m sure you heard him say at some point or other, author of a number of important books, always says that if you cut what Jesus said about poverty, about the least among us, out of the New Testament, you have an awful lot of holes in the New Testament. And I think Christians, and we can argue, you and I, about what it takes to help the poor, and whether certain things government does are helpful or not, but if you’re not talking about our obligations to the least among us, I think you are not being true to the Gospel.

– – – –

HH: E.J., this Chapter Three, What Are The Values Issues, is primarily about economics. But I like when you quote Alan Wolfe, and I want to quote him, he’s a Brookings scholar. “At earlier periods in American history, people have argued over which Bible should be read in schools, and how it should be interpreted. Those were debates that put theology first. The people who fight today’s culture wars, by contrast, put politics first.” You know, I read that a few times, and I thought to myself that’s really not fair, because nowadays, no one gets to read any Bible in school, and that’s why the American political divide is the way that it is, not because theology doesn’t matter, but because all the people who take theology seriously are on the same side.

EJD: Well, no, I don’t think that’s true at all. By the way, in fairness to the great Catholic institution, Boston College, that’s where Alan Wolfe is.

HH: I’m sorry. I thought he was at Brookings. Okay.

EJD: We would be very happy to have him at the Brookings Institution. But I think that Alan’s making a very powerful point, and this is out of the kind of dialogue that we’ve had over the years, that we are not having, for the most part, a lot of theological arguments in public. It struck me in thinking about this that there was a time when the people who would appear on Time Magazine, and be discussed in a popular way, were people like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and John Courtney Murray, and very serious theologians of very points of view, who really were talking, they were talking about public issues, but they were also talking about God and the Scriptures and their implications. And what Alan is suggesting is, and if I can quote him again, “At some point, people who line up this way and begin to put their political convictions ahead of their theological beliefs will have to scratch their heads and ask is this what we are really about? We came to religion to express our spirituality, and find out about the nature of the Divinity. And yet, here we are being urged by our pastors to vote for tax cuts and the war in Iraq. Such a shift in priorities cannot be all that satisfying to a genuine religious believer.” And I think that’s a critique, in fairness, that can be directed at times against the religious left as well as the religious right.

HH: I like the fact that when you quoted him as saying it started out about religion, but now it’s about tax cuts and the war in Iraq, that you point out not many conservative preachers actually preach about tax cuts or the war in Iraq, and in fact, I thought Alan Wolfe set up a straw man there, that most people, most preachers who talk about politics generally, don’t talk specifically about candidates ever, the IRS assures that, but they also, more often than not, are talking about issues of sin as they understand sin in the public square, whether it’s…most often, it’s sexual sin, although it’s sometimes a question of whether or not prayer can be in Churches, et cetera. I never hear pastors talking about tax cuts, never, in, you know, I’m 52. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon about tax cuts, have you, E.J.?

EJD: I think I have…I must have heard a sermon about…certainly justice in taxes, and there are certain conservative writers, Christian writers who have talked about the dangers of big government, and therefore indirectly about tax cuts. No, you’re right, I had the…but what I think Alan was implying there, and I noted the same thing you just said in the book, but what Alan is implying there is that the sermons that are given end up putting Christianity on one particular side of the political debate. And I think there’s another good discussion to be had about individual sin and social sin. And I think conservatives tend to critique liberals for putting too much emphasis on social sins, and moving away from personal responsibility. Liberals tend to criticize conservatives for putting so much emphasis on personal sin that we forget the social sin. And Cardinal Ratzinger and now as Pope Benedict has had some interesting things to say about this. The truth is that we need an emphasis on both personal responsibility and social responsibility.

HH: And we’ll go there, but tell me a little bit about Alan Wolfe. Is he a man of the left, E.J.?

EJD: Alan is an interesting guy, because he was, he started out being farther left than he is now. He actually wrote a book of essays once called Marginalized In The Middle. And in many ways, he is a middle of the road progressive, if you will, so he is somewhat left of center. Like many of us, he’s probably moved, either moved left or been perceived as moving left in the Bush years, because many of us ended up being very critical of President Bush.

HH: Well, what other things…

EJD: But he’s an unpredictable writer at many times, and in a good way unpredictable, not inconsistent. And I cite him elsewhere in the book, because he’s done some of the best empirical work, just trying to figure out what is it that people actually believe, what is the nature of their faith. And he spent a lot of time listening to what people have to say.

HH: Well, one of the things I appreciate about Souled Out, that I did not see in those excerpts from Mr. Wolfe, or Professor Wolfe, is that you don’t indulge in the cartoon of the religious right. In fact, in this chapter, you point out again and again, as you grapple with Michael Novak and others, very serious economic scholars who understand the Catholic Gospel very, very well, and you wrestle with John Paul’s letter, and with the Bishop’s appalling 1986 letter…

EJD: Which of course I love.

HH: I know. And you quote Brian and all the other people…it’s not a cartoon on either side. But Alan Wolfe talking about conservative pastors preaching on the Iraq war and tax cuts, that’s a cartoon, E.J. That’s why so much of this conversation never gets out of first base, or past first base, because I listen to the left talking about the religious right, and it’s nothing I’ve ever experienced. In contrast, you point out the enormous generosity among conservative Christians as they confront the world. Now you might disagree with their economic theory, but you don’t deny their personal commitment. Is a problem with the left that they really, and by the way, I find this with Wallis as well, they really don’t understand, or they do not wish to admit into evidence the real three-dimensional, fulsome, Christ-filled love of the religious right?

EJD: You know, I think that Alan, and certain Jim, do accept that. And so I want to comment on that, but I just don’t want to sort of be complicit in an attack on them, because I don’t really feel that way about them. And you might…I mean, I corrected that one line that Alan did, but I think his work is quite respectful of believers, you know, conservative believers, and I think Jim is, too. But I think the facts are the facts, and that if you look at just about every study done, you know, conservative Christians are very generous. They do give, obviously, to their Churches, but also to the poor. And there’s no point in denying that. It’s a fact, and that the argument we’re having is not whether we see Jesus in the Scriptures telling us to be generous to the poor. The argument we’re having is what are the implications of that for public action, for government action. And that’s a legitimate argument to be had within the Christian tradition. And I am on one side on that. And in terms of Mike Novak, I’m glad you mentioned him. I really have been a close student of Novak over the years. And at the beginning of the book I note that when I was young, Mike was a liberal, even somewhat radical. And I said that Mike persuaded me to the many other views I now hold, which alas, are now views that he rejects. But he is still a fascinating figure, and I think no one, and this is not a political point at all, I think no one has sort of grappled with the issue of believing or not believing more powerfully than Mike Novak. He’s got a new book coming out, which is his reply to the neo-atheists, which I am looking forward to.

– – – –

HH: E.J., before we go on, I’ve just got to do a headline with you. Eliot Spitzer was Mr. Eliot Ness. He was the crusader against wealthy, terrible capitalists and businessmen, and it turns out deeply flawed, as we are all, but in a very hypocritical way. Are you shocked or are you not surprised?

EJD: I guess I’m pretty shocked, in all truth. I mean, it’s mystifying, this story. It’s mystifying on a number of levels. This is a guy who is a very tough prosecutor. He’s probably more aware than most of us of how investigators find out things, whether from tapping wires or from looking at bank records. So at that level, I just don’t understand it. And then obviously, there are many other levels at which this is very, very hard to understand. So I really was stunned by it.

HH: One of the reasons I bring it up is not to pile on Eliot Spitzer, but because you book is about, in this chapter, the divide between conservatives and liberals on faith and the government’s ability to deliver what it wants to deliver. And I see in the clay feet of Eliot Spitzer, and many other people left and right, we’ve got Larry Craig and Mark Foley on the Republican side, we’ve got a number on the Democratic side, that the people who have the greatest rhetoric and the high-flown hopes, et cetera, they’re just ordinary people, and they’re not very good at this, and they’re not very good often, period. And why should we ever believe, E.J., that the government is ever going to be able to end poverty? The poor are always going to be with us. They’re just not very good at this thing.

EJD: Well, I certainly agree with you about human imperfection. And you know, I think I may have quoted this in an earlier broadcast, Reinhold Niebuhr’s great line that original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian Church.

HH: Yes.

EJD: Is that true about flawed human nature? The democratic government is about more than…that’s small d, democratic government, is about more than a few flawed individuals. I mean, if we look at our history, and look what social security has done to alleviate poverty among the elderly, what Medicare has done to get health care to the elderly, what student loans have done, I’ll just pick a few so I don’t do you a long liberal laundry list, what student loans have done to create greater upward mobility, or the G.I. Bill, even on a bigger level, we know that government can take steps that promote upward mobility and actually give people more opportunities to be personally responsible. So I am not, by any means, a scandal like this does not make me doubt that we have the capacity to do things collectively. We don’t want to do everything collectively. I don’t want the government to nationalize the banks and steel factories, although most of them have moved abroad anyway. But I think there is an important role for government, and that role can be, it can promote justice, and it can promote upward mobility.

HH: You quote Barack Obama in this chapter, on Page 77, taking a swipe at those who would repeal the estate tax, and quote him as saying, “A trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don’t need, and weren’t even asking for it.” Is that a fair statement of what people believe about the estate tax, and what it would do, or is that the sort of polemic we associate with the Eliot Spitzers of the world, who always try and play the wealth and the class card in order to advance what are really basically, you know, confiscatory schemes?

EJD: I think we should have a rule here which is I promise I won’t associate all Republicans with Mark Foley if you don’t associate all Democrats with Eliot Spitzer. How’s that?

HH: (laughing) Fair enough.

EJD: But you know, the estate tax is a good example of a justice issue. And I feel very strongly that the estate tax was pushed originally by a good Republican, or at least I would say a good Republican, John McCain would say a good Republican, Teddy Roosevelt. And the idea of the estate tax is essentially that you know, we are all very lucky to live in the United States of America. We didn’t choose the country in which we were born. And we do owe, there is, as the Catholic Church has taught, a social mortgage on our wealth. And the notion that at the end of someone’s life, some…would be taken…is not a terrible idea. It was also designed to inhibit the growth of…hello?

HH: Yeah, you’re still there, E.J. Someone must be trying to call you. I don’t know what that is, either, but it’s not me.

EJD: But to inhibit…

HH: We’re going to come right back after break, E.J. We’ll figure out what that beep is as well, because I’m not going to let you go on the estate tax. That’s too easy.

– – – –

HH: E.J., I’ve got to do justice to this chapter, so I’m going to jump ahead to Page 83. “In fact,” you write, “the bishops 1986 pastoral letter,” that’s on economics, “was a high point of progressive Catholicism in the United States. One reason why conservatives were so critical of it was it placed the Church squarely on the side of the staunchest advocates of social justice, and in opposition of many of the policies of the Reagan administration.” I was in Washington at that time, attending Blessed Sacrament Church up there on Massachusetts Avenue.

EJD: That’s my parish.

HH: And it basically drove me out of the Church for a time, E.J., because I was so angry with the bishops spouting nonsense on economics, and before that, nuclear weapons that they didn’t know about. At what point, and I’m very serious about this, does the accumulation of modern economic knowledge, for example, in Walter Russell Mead’s God And Gold, that point to the Kennedy, the Reagan and the Bush tax cuts, and the dynamic, transformative power of unfettered capitalism, when does it become a sin for clergy, ignorant of economics, to continue to expound society-destroying, confiscatory tax rates, and regulatory schemes that increase dependence and level economies far and wide? That’s a fair question, isn’t it (laughing)?

EJD: (laughing) It’s totally unbiased, and carefully framed question. I’m very glad, by the way, to hear…Blessed Sacrament is my parish in Washington, D.C.

HH: Wonderful place.

EJD: The question here is about supply side economics. And it seems to me that the record is not very strong on behalf of supply side economics. All of you supply side economists, and I’ll get to the bishops in a second, but all of you supply side economist types predicted, when Bill Clinton raised the top rate, the very rate that you find so sacred, in the 1993 budget deal, the economy would collapse. And lo and behold, we had an economy that not only was strong, added over 20 million jobs, but it turned out that the fruits of that economy were distributed, especially at the end of the 90’s, across the board. The rich got richer, the middle class got richer, and finally, the poor started gaining some ground. And so I think that supply side economics as a theory has just not stood up very well. If you’re going to tell me that in a downturn it may be a good idea to cut taxes, I might agree with that. But that’s Keynesianism, not supply side economics. And in terms of the bishops, I think the bishops were saying that when we look at an economy, we’ve got to look at it whole. If you read that ’86 letter, they’re not condemning capitalism altogether. There are a lot of things in that letter, and I think I quote some of them in the book, that acknowledge the creativity of the free market, acknowledge what free market capitalism can produce. But we have seen over the years, as a practical matter, what happens when capitalism goes off the rails, and we have also seen that the market does not always produce outcomes that by other measures, we would see as just. It needs adjustments. And so that’s what the bishops were calling for. They weren’t calling for state socialism.

HH: But you know, E.J., I come back to this. Bishop Malone was the chair of the American Catholic Bishops at that time, the Bishop of Youngstown, the man that confirmed me, slapped me in the face, wonderful guy.

EJD: Yes.

HH: Wonderful guy. Couldn’t do a crossword puzzle with a dictionary at his side. Honestly, the guy was just not bright. And a lot of bishops, and a lot of the staff, just don’t know economics. My question is, where do they get off? Isn’t it pride, isn’t this the sin of pride when non-economists…I don’t mind having lefties engage in this, but when bishops try and drape their political opinions, which are intuitive, not based on factual observation, in moral terms, isn’t that pride? Isn’t that what drives a lot of the debate between left and right, that the mitered, but economically ignorant attempt to dictate economic policy?

EJD: I want to just make an observation to answer your question. The observation is it always is remarkable to me that my conservative Catholic friends urge us to follow the bishops to the letter on any issue they agree with them on, and then go after the bishops when the bishops to say things they disagree with. The same is true, by the way, on the Iraq war, where the Catholic bishops and the Pope oppose the Iraq war. Some on the right criticized them and said they don’t know what they were talking about. And I think you can go back and look at what they said, and they actually did know what they were talking about. In terms of economics, there isn’t simply one view of economics. Arthur Laffer is not the only economist out there, and you know, there is Galbraith and Laffer, and there was, you know, there are progressive economists. Paul Krugman, I’m sure one of your favorite people…

HH: Oh, you bet (laughing).

EJD: …you know, who have different views of the economy than supply siders. So there is no one orthodox, absolutely established economic view that has been proven true. And so I think you know, our debates about a just economy, A) in a democracy, it’s not a debate that just happens among economists, thank God, and B) there are differing views on the economy. And the bishops took a side. I was largely sympathetic to them, and you weren’t.

HH: But do they have the ability, do they have the credentials, E.J., to opine on such things, especially…and I go back to my first question. At some point, and if you read Walter Russell Mead, or many people of the center, there grows an enormous appreciation for dynamic capitalism. Not marginal tax rates tweaked here or there, but an emphatic and absolute statement that the only thing that works in the long run is capitalism, not socialism, not communism, just capitalism. And I don’t think the bishops have ever gotten around to saying that.

EJD: Oh, I think they say it in their letter. I wish I had the page…it would take me too long to flip through that chapter, but they say it in that letter. And you know, in terms of intelligence, I would take Father Bryan Hehir, who was a principal, plaid a principal, major role in both those letters you didn’t like. And I would put him in a room with any intellectual of any stripe to defend either the Church’s theology or these letters on economics. You know, the conservatives act as if the bishops on these things, on these issues, were nincompoops. There are a lot of very smart bishops who cared about economics, and had a different view, much more shaped by an old, if you will, a New Deal tradition of the kind of capitalism we want.

HH: But it was Bryan Hehir, wasn’t it?

EJD: …the supply side traditions.

HH: It really was Bryan Hehir’s handiwork, both letters.

EJD: Right. And Bryan is as smart as anyone. I think even you might agree with me on that.

HH: But he captured the bishops. The bishops were wholly run by their staff in this exercise. They showed up, they talked a little bit, they had a good dinner, and they issued these letters.

EJD: No, I think…well, first of all, I think there is a range of knowledge among bishops, as there is a range of knowledge among all kinds of people, including journalists and radio talk show hosts.

HH: We’re on the far end of the spectrum of the low end.

– – – –

HH: I want to return and close our conversation this week on bishops, and what they know, and why Catholic bishops have gotten economics so wrong. E.J., who is the best bishop in America that you think, the smartest bishop on matters of economics?

EJD: Lord, you know, I don’t think I want to give you an answer, because I don’t know. I hate to sound like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, remember that terrible moment when Eisenhower was asked, you know, I could tell you something important Nixon did as vice president, but it would take me two weeks? That’s not what I’m saying here. The name doesn’t come to my head, and I’m sorry about that.

HH: That’s okay. What I’m trying to drive at is that religious people and moral philosophers are very good on issues such as marriage, the unborn, capital punishment, even the Iraq war. But on economics, it’s really quicksand for them, because while we all wish for the same result, I just got back from Brazil, and the grinding poverty down there, you wonder how can these people not get anything right, economically. And I’m afraid that the Church may be the last place in the world to look for economic guidance. Your response?

EJD: Well, first of all, I would look, let’s look back at what some of the Popes have said over the years. And you know, when I have the…we mentioned Mike Novak earlier.


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