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E.J. Dionne, Part 5

Thursday, March 20, 2008
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HH: It’s the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, it’s also the fifth week I’ve been discussing with E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post his brand new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith And Politics After The Religious Right. Many of you are very, very fond of this series of conversations, and we’ll keep them up for the next three or four weeks. First question for you, E.J., on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, is the world better off today that we did that?

EJD: I think not, alas. You know, if you want to make a case that the world is always better without a given dictator in power, and especially one as brutal as Saddam Hussein, that’s the best case you have. But I think if you ask the question, is the world better when the United States is strong, the answer is yes. And I don’t think we’re stronger as a nation because we invaded Iraq. I think our position is less strong. Our military is strapped, we have increased the influence of the Iranians in the region, which was not the goal of this invasion, although it was a predictable outcome. So I think very sadly, this has left us worse off rather than better off.

HH: You know, it’s interesting, it ties into Chapter Four in Souled Out, Selling Religion Short, the first part of which is about the promises made by George W. Bush and promises kept. It seems to me that the assessments underway about Iraq, E.J., often neglect side effects like the decision of Libya to give up its nuclear program, its chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, the decision of Syria to get out of Lebanon in the face of the Cedar Revolution in 2005.

EJD: Can I stop you there?

HH: Please, please.

EJD: …because Lebanon, unfortunately, I agree, you know, the Libyan outcome is a good outcome. Syria’s troops may be out, but they are deeply enmeshed in Lebanese politics, and really, through proxies, preventing Lebanon from electing a president. And so I think unfortunately, again, the Syrians are very influential, and Lebanon is not what we had hoped it would become a year or so ago.

HH: But you know, I talked to your colleague, Robin Wright, for the entire program yesterday about her brand-new, wonderful book, Dreams And Shadows. And while she’ll agree with you that it’s not what we hoped it would be, it’s still better off than it was on 2003, five years ago. Lebanon is at least got a democratic opposition, a paralysis over the presidency. It seems to me that we’re making the good the enemy of the perfect, E.J. That’s where I was going with this, is that yeah, things aren’t perfect anywhere, but they’re a lot better than they were five years ago, even though the expense of the war is extraordinary, especially in human lives, especially in American military lives. But I mean, stepping back, aren’t we better off as a world, as a globe, that these various things have happened?

EJD: Well, we’re better off that some of these things happened, but I’m not at all sure, in fact, I’m pretty sure the other way, that if you ask…and also, by the way, look at the situation…this war, some hoped would put Israel in a more secure place. And Israel is not in a more secure place right now as a result of this war. I look at what influences the United States have, and what alternative courses might we have taken, and that a containment approach to Saddam, when it turns out he did not have weapons of mass destruction, I think would have left the United States stronger. I also think that for a great power, it’s always better to have you military power in reserve when people are worried you might you use it, than to get yourself bogged down for five years in a war, when people look at you and say well, gee, maybe they’re not as powerful as we thought they were, because otherwise they wouldn’t have made such a hash of Iraq. And I don’t say this happily, by the way. I wish even though I didn’t think the war was a good idea, I wish the supporters of the war had been right in all their optimistic assumptions. But I think history suggests that they weren’t.

HH: Well, let me ask you specifically about four results. Do you think if we had not invaded Iraq, would Saddam still be in power? Would Libya still have its nukes and biological agents? Would Syria still have its soldiers in Iraq? And would the jihadist network be stronger today than it is?

EJD: Well first of all, on the last point, our own government has suggested that al Qaeda is stronger now than it’s been at any point since 9/11. So I think, I don’t think this war has really done any real damage to the jihadist.

HH: Let me pause, though, E.J.

EJD: Now Libya…maybe Libya’s the one case you can point to where the war had an effect. And then what was the other one on your list? I’m sorry.

HH: Would Saddam still be in power if we had not invaded?

EJD: He might be, but I’m not sure he would be, and I’m not sure he would be any threat to us, and that I think that in the…you know, we can look at this, and I’m not going to assert this as a certainty, because we’re talking here all in hypotheticals.

HH: Sure.

EJD: But I think it’s perfectly possible that Saddam could have been weakened over time. We did have inspectors in the country. The threat that we might go to war actually got our allies to do things that they might not have done if we hadn’t threatened war. And all along, I had hoped, remember the Richard Nixon madman theory, that if people are really afraid that you’re going to do something slightly crazy, they sometimes react to that in ways you want? Well, I was kind of hoping that in this case, the threat that we might start a war in Iraq would have encouraged our European allies to be tough on Iraq. So I don’t think we can know for sure if Saddam would have been in power. I do think he would have been well contained, and not a threat to us.

HH: You see, and I think moral judgments on the war have to look at probabilities. And given that he had never been dislodged through inspections, and even Operation Desert Fox, which Clinton led at him, and [Cohen] led at him as Secretary of Defense, he’d still be there and his mad as hatter sons would still be there, and that the Oil For Food program would still continue to be spreading its pernicious corruption around the globe, and that he’d still be paying the families of suicide murder bombers in Israel a payment to do so, and that we wouldn’t have the world coalescing around Iran. And I go back to the al Qaeda, and I’m now going to transition to Souled Out.

EJD: Ah.

HH: It seems to me that when moral calculations are made, people have to have their imagination open to that which could have gone much, much worse. Al Qaeda may be stronger today than it was in 2001, but for the invasion of Iraq, they might be much, much, much, much stronger. Instead of X squared, it might be X cubed had they not brought all their front line troops to Iraq where they’ve been mowed down and stacked up like cordwood, again, at an enormous cost. And so it seems to me that when we calculate consequences, like you talk about the consequences of gay marriage in this chapter, and the consequences of abortion, that we have to be open to the possibility, even the probability, that the moral consequences we’re tallying up are not just those that we can see and assess against the action taken, but those of a far greater evil prevented, E.J. I wonder if the left really ever looks at that calculation seriously.

EJD: Well, I’m not sure how seriously they take it for the following reason, which is you’re trying to, in good faith, justify a decision that did not in any way turn out the way those who said this war would be a good idea, would turn out. All the predictions were wrong. All the predictions that backers of this war made were wrong. We are in a mess that opponents of the war, some opponents of the war, predicted. And so what you’re trying to do is shift the argument away from the decision made, and the negative consequences that it created, to a set of hypotheticals that say we would have been much worse off if we hadn’t fought this war. And obviously, you’re free to make that, and it’s conceivable that you’re right, but I don’t think you’re right. And I think that the issue we have to confront is, is the United States really in a stronger position in the world to achieve its ends because it fought this war? And I really don’t think we are, and I think the bottom line on a foreign policy decision has to be, did it put us in a better or worse position to achieve decent ends that we want to achieve around the world.

HH: And I agree with your analysis completely, and I just come to a different conclusion, and I say absolutely yes. And I do have to go back and challenge one of your assumptions, which although things have been harder and tougher than expected, they have not turned out the wrong way. There’s now at least a representative democracy that is at least allied with the United States, and is working to bring regional stability. And again, I go to Robin Wright’s book. It’s the only place in the Middle East, the only place outside of Israel, of course, where there’s a hope of an evolution towards a stable, representative government that’s a strong ally for the long haul. I mean, we’ve got allies in Qatar and Kuwait and places like that, but only because of this invasion do we have a prayer of a major player becoming even a quasi-democracy, E.J.

EJD: Well, you know, I was very happy when they voted, and I actually wrote a column saying I, as a liberal, I always approve the spread of electoral democracy anywhere it can begin to take root. The problem with this particular electoral democracy, as many have said, I’m not the first to say this, is that that election ended up being much more of a census of religious sects, if you will, than it was a free election in any other sense, and I think that because of the great damage that Saddam did to that country, many of the institutions, and just the basic elements of civil society that are essential building blocks of a thriving democracy, just weren’t there. And again, yes, there is something of a deadlocked democracy there right now, which is better than a dictatorship. But its chances of taking deep root? Its chances of surviving? I’m somewhat skeptical. And again, I hope I’m wrong about that, too.

HH: I hope you are, too.

– – – –

HH: Next week, if you’re reading along, you have to do two chapters, because I, E.J, I find it hard to split Chapter Five: John Paul Benedict and the Catholic Future from Chapter Six: What Happened To the Seamless Garment. So I want our audience to…

EJD: That makes a lot of sense.

HH: Yeah.

EJD: I think that’s…they should be read together. I split them in the book, because I wanted to have a specific chapter that focused on the two papacies. But they are logical twins.

HH: Yes, so we’re going to take two chapters next week. But let’s get into Chapter Four. I think you make four propositions here, A) an argument about what people should say in public life about their faith, second, a critique of the gap between what Bush said about faith and what he delivered to faith-based organizations, three, your section on abortion, and four, your section on same sex marriage. Let’s start with the first question. What do you think, E.J., people ought to say when they’re asked what do you believe about God?

EJD: Well, I think that people for whom their relationship, their faith, and their relationship to God has very little direct bearing on any of the decisions they make in public life. I find it hard to see how that happens, but it can happen, are under no obligation to talk about it, and are perfectly free to talk about it if they wish. I think for any candidate whose views on a public policy matter are connected to their faith, they ought to explain that to people, and they should not be criticized if they bring their faith into the public square in that way. I think this is the chapter in which I refer to that famous moment when George W. Bush in that debate in Iowa, I guess at the end of 1999, said Jesus was his favorite political philosopher. Now a skeptic might well look at that and say he was pandering for the Christian conservative vote, and maybe he was. But if Jesus really is important to the way George Bush thinks about public policy, that’s useful information to voters, and there’s nothing wrong with his saying that. Parenthetically, the guy who gave the best answer in that debate was Gary Bauer, who started reciting I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, and showed directly how his reading of the Bible affected his view of public policy. What I objected to in what the President said then was when he was pressed on this, and asked what do you mean when you say Jesus is your favorite political philosopher, he said well, you know, if you haven’t had…Jesus changed my life. If you hadn’t had this experience, you don’t know what it is. Now Evangelical friends tell me that I’m too hard on him on this, because that is an Evangelical way of speaking. And I’ll take their point. But I think in public life, you really do have to explain to people who may not be Christian, or may not be Evangelical, just what that link it.

HH: Now when you quote Father Bryan Hehir in here…

EJD: Right.

HH: You say his critique of George Bush is that it’s about an intellectual structure of belief, and a candidate needs to explain what that intellectual structure is about. And that was totally missing from Bush’s answer. Now I read that four, five, six times. And I said to myself, that is a non-critique critique, because he doesn’t tell us what he means by intellectual structure. What do you think he means by intellectual structure? What should a person of faith be obliged to answer, not obliged, but what ought they to consider answering about intellectual structure, belief? It seemed to me that Father Bryan was just slamming Bush’s intelligence very unfairly.

EJD: No, no, I don’t think that’s what he was doing. In fact, I could have quoted him at greater length. What I think what he was saying in terms of intellectual structure is what is the connection of this belief in Jesus to how you would handle public policy? And there are many Christian for whom their Christian faith might lead them to oppose abortion, or oppose the death penalty, or favor a certain way of helping the poor, just to pick three, you know, fairly common examples. And I think that’s what was missing. He couldn’t just say this is a personal experience, I can’t explain it. If you’re going to bring faith into the public square, then I think you do have an obligation to tell people who may share your faith or may not share your faith how this affects what you’re going to do as president or senator or member of Congress, or a member of the city council.

HH: I think we could agree, though, Bush was very explicit that A) he’s against abortion, B) he is for the death penalty, and he doesn’t find that to be contrary to his faith, and C) he believes in tax cuts to stimulate the economy so that poor people have opportunities and jobs and a growing productivity. And since we knew all those answers, is it Bryan Hehir’s objection that he simply didn’t put them all into the same paragraph, because I am a Christian, I am against abortion, because I’m a Christian, I’m against…

EJD: No, Bryan’s objection, and my own, is that he explicitly refused to answer the question, and said you’ll never get this. And so it left hanging the question of how do these things link together. I mean, you’re right. He could have, you and I could construct a series of answers for him, and he gave a great speech on faith-based organizations in Indianapolis, which I rather liked, and as I say in the book, I think…and I’m not alone in this. My friend, David Kuo also felt this way. He is the guy who sent me back, reread this great Indianapolis speech, that he didn’t live up to all the commitments he made in that speech. So he certainly could have done it. I thought his refusal on the spot was really problematic, because you can’t just toss out Jesus like that, and then not explain it to anybody.

HH: Oh, I think you can. It’s interesting, have you been watching the John Adams HBO series, E.J?

EJD: I have not.

HH: Oh, it’s magnificent, and there’s a lot about faith and politics in here. And there’s a lot of unstated faith assumptions that go into the founding, that go into every presidency, because I think the framers wanted it that way. They knew people of faith would be around the table making decisions, but they didn’t want a lot of…you know, I’ve been reading Leviticus, and therefore, I’m against this, or I’ve been reading the Gospel of Matthew, and therefore I’m for this, because that makes it faith-based as opposed to rationality-based.

EJD: Right, but I think that was the…and I think that was the problem people had with that answer, is that if once you’re…you know, I don’t think that John Adams would have said Jesus is my favorite philosopher. He might have said I love God, and that I’m a Christian. He probably would have said Montesquieu or somebody like that. But I think once you open the conversation, you really have to finish it. And I think in terms of the founding, Steve Waldman has a new book out, which I think you, it actually would probably be a good Hugh Hewitt book, where the founders’ attitudes toward religion were very complicated and diverse. You know, some were much more Deist, some were openly Christian, some believed faith was profoundly important, yet every way, some thought faith might be socially useful, but had more complicated feelings toward it.

HH: Thomas Paine’s an atheist.

EJD: So I think the founders were influenced by the enlightenment as well as faith.

HH: Yeah, but that’s what…I think they wanted to seal off the wall that you and Bryan are suggesting needed to have been breached by Bush at that moment. And I am always against opening the door on that wall, because it leads us to sectarian division as opposed to political division. We’ve got 30 seconds to break, I’ll give you the last word on that one.

EJD: Well, I mean, it’s interesting. I’d like to explore that, because the wall of separation is a liberal idea. I do think that keeping the state independent of religion is one reason why religion has thrived in the United States in the way it hasn’t in many other industrial democracies.

– – – –

HH: E.J, as we went to break, we were talking about separation of Church and state. This has been an unusual week for that. We’re recording this on the week that Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor, is on the front page of every newspaper, his recordings are all over the internet, and on cable television, you’ve heard him, I’ve heard him. Religion is very much not being separated from politics this week. Good thing or bad thing, appropriate thing or inappropriate thing?

EJD: You know, I think it’s part of someone’s life, and it’s reasonable to bring it up. I think that there is, there are people using Jeremiah Wright’s, some very offensive statements, one not repeatable on your show about America, to just bash Obama, and would like to have the whole election, as Obama said in his speech, to be one loop of Wright’s more offensive statements. But I think it’s reasonable to ask a candidate, and in this case, Obama, to explain his relationship to his pastor, and I thought it was a good idea for him to give that big speech.

HH: Do you think it’s plausible that he was unaware of Pastor Wright’s more radical positions?

EJD: I think it’s plausible that he was unaware of some of the most offensive things he said. Obama was very explicit in saying that there were sermons he disagreed with, that he openly argued with Wright about whether the United States is ready to elect an African-American president. Obviously, Obama has made a different bet on that. He has not followed his pastor on that one. You know, but is it possible that he didn’t know that Wright said some of the most offensive things he said? Yeah, I believe that’s plausible. I think it’d be interesting to know exactly what did or what Obama did or did not hear from Wright, but I think some of that is just unprovable.

HH: Well, let me ask you, you and I have attended the same Church. You’re at Blessed Sacrment, I was when I lived in Washington, D.C., and Father Donald Warch was my pastor there at the time. And if Father Warch got up and made a series of sermons that included 9/11 as chickens coming home to roost, and G.D. America, and all that other stuff, I would have heard about it, even if I’d been out of town for a few weeks. Don’t you think you would have heard about it if the current pastor at Blessed Sacrament in D.C. had made a series of extraordinary statement like this?

EJD: I think one of the speeches was not given, the one with an awful lot of the most offensive language was not actually given in the Church, in Trinity in Chicago. He, I think that Obama in trying to explain this was saying that when you go into, that there is a lot of anger expressed in African-American Churches, that white people basically don’t hear, because typically, we don’t attend services in African-American Churches, and that Wright expressed some of that anger. But I think it’s possible that Obama was surprised by some of the more extreme stuff. I would be very surprised if he knew about the G.D. America statement, if only because as a political matter, I think he would have acted sooner to separate himself from it.

HH: That’s interesting.

EJD: He’s a good politician.

HH: Let me ask you know to the abortion…you’ve got abortion and same sex marriage as the focus point of Selling Religion Short, the chapter in Souled Out. I had an e-mail that since the beginning of the Iraq war, about 6,600,000 abortions have occurred in the United States, and that the focus on the terrible toll of 4,000 Americans or 50,000 Iraqis, or the dislocation, neglects any kind of scale compared to this holocaust in the eyes of right to lifers. What’s your response to that, E.J? It’s not a holocaust, or that get over it?

EJD: No, well, what I argue in the book is that we have had the same basic abortion fight since Roe V. Wade happened. And I think I’ve said this before on your show.

HH: Right.

EJD: I think we would have been better off if Roe had not happened, and that we had settled this through the political process. And I think we would have reached an outcome that was more satisfactory to more people. I think broadly, abortion would be legal probably for the first period of pregnancy, but it would have been a conclusion come to after real debate and discussion. That’s what we were doing before Roe happened. But we’ve had the same debate for thirty years. The right to life side wants to outlaw abortion, and keeps fighting politically toward that end. The pro choice side obviously wants to keep it legal. And in the meantime, to accept your number, six million plus abortions have happened in the last five years. And my argument is, can’t we at least take meaningful steps to really reduce the number of abortions performed in the United States? Our abortion rate is higher than in other nations that have legal abortions. Other nations do a whole lot more to prevent, for example, repeat abortions.

HH: And we’ve got to go break. And when we come back, we’ll continue that conversation.

– – – –

HH: E.J, when we were going to break, you were condensing the argument in this chapter of your book that we really ought to be focusing on really reducing the number of abortions. And you quote approvingly my fellow John F. Kennedy High School, Warren, Ohio, graduate, Tim Ryan, who’s the Congressman from my home town now, about putting forward laws in the Congress to reduce the need for abortions, Supporting Parents Act. And I think that’s all right and good. I applaud all of that. But I always come back to this issue with my pro-choice friends that unless and until both sides agree that it’s a very bad thing for a woman to have an abortion, and that 6.6 million abortions since the start of the invasion of Iraq is an astonishing toll, a moral catastrophe, that if we can’t get the pro-choice people to say it’s a moral catastrophe, you’ll never reduce the number of abortions, because people won’t understand the need. Do you agree it’s a moral catastrophe that that’s happened?

EJD: Yes, I believe it’s a real moral problem, but one of the questions, I think, the Church, the Catholic Church likes the term prudential, there was a study done in 2007 by the World Health Organization, and the Guttmacher Institute, which I will say is a pro-choice organization, but I don’t think anybody’s challenged these figures. And what this study showed is that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal, and those where it is not, which raises the question, if you want to reduce the number of abortions, is making abortion illegal the way to go? Now there are many different reasons why abortion rates might be high or low in a given place. But for example, the rate did fall, for example, in Eastern Europe, where contraception became more widely available. So you can affect the abortion rate, but making it legal or illegal may have less effect on the rate than we presume that it would.

HH: Yeah, and I think actually, moral clarity has the greatest effect on the rate, and that the left never enters into that engagement, that they don’t speak with anywhere near the conviction about the moral catastrophe that they need to if they were serious about this. Tim Ryan, if he wants to avoid the big issue, Tim ought to be out there every single day, in every single speech, saying protecting the life of the unborn is crucial, and that that’s the most important thing I’ve got to tell women, have your babies, we’ll work on making it easy for you.

EJD: By the way, Tim Ryan is pro-life.

HH: Yeah, I know.

EJD: Tim Ryan is…so that he is not, I mean, one of the things, what could make this abortion reduction approach work is the fact that I think it is the one thing that a large number of pro-choice people, and all pro-life people could agree on.

HH: Agreed.

EJD: And you know, I disagree with those on the pro-choice side, and I’m not sure there are as many as you think, but I agree with you about who speaks with the greatest moral urgency on the question. But I think that we could make a lot of progress if we went down the road Ryan and his allies on this, it’s a broad group of pro-choice and pro-life folks, it’s mostly Democrats, although there is, they have one Republican ally on this. And maybe in a less polarized time, we could broaden out that coalition. That might have more effect on reducing the number of abortions than making it illegal.

HH: And I think if it was coupled with a reversal of Roe V. Wade, so that states could do what they thought was best, you’d find that that would really work. But unless and until that happens, it’s hard to do. E.J, I’ve got to get to same sex marriage, because of thus far in the book, which I’ve been enjoying quite a lot, Souled Out, it’s the only segment that offended me. And it offended me not because you’re an advocate for same sex marriage. Lots of people are. It’s because it did not put forward the biggest objection that conservatives have on this issue, which is that it’s being driven by court elites, not by popular election. Not one legislature in the history of the United States, state legislature has passed and governor signed, a same sex marriage bill. It’s a jam-down, E.J. It’s got very little to do, for many of us, with the final result, and a lot to do with elites dictating…and you don’t confront that argument. You let the courts off here. You treat it as though it’s an inevitability, because the courts will do it.

EJD: No, no, no. Actually, I don’t deal with the courts one way or the other, so you can be offended if you want that I don’t deal with that issue. But I don’t, I neither praise nor condemn it. I don’t like…on the whole, I don’t like judicial activism. And indeed, my worry right now, but we don’t need to go there for the purpose of this conversation, is that we’re going to see a lot of judicial activism on the right knocking down things that liberals are going to do, especially if indeed this is an era where liberals are going to start gaining majorities in elected bodies, as they did in the 2006 election. So as a general principle, I’d rather this not done through the courts. But what I say in this chapter is I changed my mind on this issue, and I was brought around mostly by the conservative arguments for gay marriage, by my friend, David Brooks, by Jonathan Rauch, by Andrew Sullivan, and that their core argument, which I found convincing, and obviously you didn’t, but that’s okay, their core argument is that if we really believe in fidelity and commitment in relationships, and we really want to encourage fidelity and commitment, why should we cut off one segment of our population that is actually seeking committed, faithful relationships? I have a cousin who has been with the same guy for 34 years, he’s gay, and they were finally able to marry. And I suspect that they were more faithful to each other, from everything I know about their relationship, than many people who are heterosexuals, and may even spout all sorts of moralistic things.

HH: And that may be the case. And in fact, if a majority of a legislature and a governor agree that they should be able to be married, I’m not going to complain at all. I’m going to counsel what my Catholic and Evangelical faith teaches me, which is it’s not a good choice for the long run, both on this and the next life, but that’s not what I’m getting at. I’m getting at that most of the anger that’s coming out what you identify is the Evangelical right is not so much anger at the conferral of various rights upon same sex couples as it is the imposition of those rights without any representative government doing it, that the courts are doing a jam-down, and that this threatens people of faith, because it rolls them, and they realize suddenly, they don’t really matter. If enough judges want anything: abortion, same sex marriage, those judges get what they want regardless of where the country is, and that we end up living in Copenhagen, even though we never moved to Europe, E.J.

EJD: (laughing) What is it, Peter Berger’s great line about the Swedes…

HH: You bet.

EJD: …are the most secular people in the world, and the Indians are the most religious, and we’re a country of Indians rules by Swedes, he says.

HH: One of my favorite quotes.

EJD: It’s not quite right, but it’s a fun way to put it.

HH: When we come back, a final word from E.J. Dionne on this subject. He’s absolutely right, the best Berger quote out there.

– – – –

HH: E.J…

EJD: Hugh, can I just say one more thing on the gay marriage chapter?

HH: Please, please.

EJD: …which is in many ways, it’s the quietest chapter in the book. I don’t really have, I don’t knock people around a lot in that chapter, except for one point, which I’ll make in a second. This has been an issue that I think a lot of people have thought about, as they have discovered that more and more people they know are gay or lesbian, and more and more people have come to the conclusion that on the whole, homosexuality is more part of people’s nature than it is an active choice, I’m going to be gay as opposed to being straight. The only thing I fault certain opponents of gay marriage for is that I utterly agree with them, and I think we covered this earlier, I utterly agree with them that the intact family is an important institution, and on the whole, the best way we have to raise children.

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