We’re So Not Through Here

This is emptywheel, where we have frequently posted work contrary to conventional wisdom, or dissented from political leadership with indifference to party.

Each contributor here has their own voice though we’re sometimes confused for each other.

Today is one of those days when you will see a wide gap between emptywheel contributors.

Specifically, I do not personally subscribe at all to Quinn Norton’s belief that the Union is done.

I have written before, however, on numerous occasions, that the United States has not lived up to its ideals.

The concept of this union was flawed from the beginning, having launched as it did with a concession to slaveowners. That original sin dogs this nation to this day; slavery still exists in the form of a carceral state which is heavily weighted against minorities.

The concept of this union was also predicated upon the occupation of lands belonging to pre-existing nations. I’m a product of one of those occupied nations, whose people were nearly wiped out by disease and greed white American occupiers brought to their land.

But I am also an example of what happens when disparate people come together under a singular proposition: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.”

I am the product of people from Nordic and middle European countries, the product of trips around the Pacific and East Asia. All my forebears came here because they perceived a freedom to pursue lives and opportunity they did not have in their home nation-states.

They found an appeal in this premise worth risking their persons as well as their fortune, meager as it was: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

My forebears stayed in spite of being erased in a number of ways — like the records of my French-Canadian family members’ existence in Michigan being repeatedly obscured or deleted by majority English- and German-speaking occupants, or my Asian family losing its true name when recorded by customs, and then stranded by the Chinese Exclusion Act. Or my Hawaiian family losing the right to its own land because whites deposed its monarchy and seized the islands, in addition to spreading deadly disease.

In spite of being marginalized then and now, my forebears and family made a comfortable life and felt it was their honor, privilege, and duty to contribute to these United States. Among my family members is a Medal of Honor winner — a second generation American who served in the Navy until he retired. My father and brother both served in the armed forces as well.

This isn’t an easy country. If you don’t speak English and especially if you’re not white, it can really demand a steep price. Try taking the citizenship test.

Witness the harassment Ilhan Omar has faced for her race, ethnic heritage, and religion, in spite of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, yet she continues to serve her constituents as their representatives in our democratic republic system of government.

It’s because of the price many Americans have faced to become and remain Americans that I’m put out at Norton’s “the Union is done” essay.

I don’t think she truly has a clue what it’s taken for a sizable percentage of this country to hold this union together, such as it is. She may have faced misogyny but really, in which countries does misogyny not exist?

She can play with sentiment and co-opt others’ pain in her argument that the Union is done, but she hasn’t faced the existential threat one’s skin can pose in a land founded by slaveowners and their sympathizers.

She has the unacknowledged privilege of associating with people who’d rather see people like my family dead, and yet she thinks she can declare “the Union is done.”

Take a hard look at what the Black Americans of this country have been doing since voting began last month as a commitment to form a more perfect Union. Ask them if the Union is done.

Take a hard look at what Native Americans have had to do — forced to change their lifestyle, assigning addresses to places which to them are simply Home — in order to vote, otherwise invalidated and erased if they don’t. Ask them, too, if the Union is done.

And take note of the naturalized immigrants who are worried they and their kin will be harassed by ICE and potentially incarcerated or deported while trying to vote simply because they aren’t white and have come to this country too recently. Ask them if the Union to which they emigrated, many as refugees, is done.

My Chinese family members weren’t permitted to emigrate here or own land until 1943, when it suddenly became convenient to have China side with the U.S. against Japan. I tell you this Union is not done, from the house I own under a hyphenated Chinese name.

I’ve pointed to the words of former escaped slave Frederick Douglass before, with regard to the shortcomings of this nation:

… Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. …

The work is slow, so often grinding. It is like farming on a’a and pahoehoe lava, which my family knows well. The biases which are foundational to the problems this country faces are older than this country. We are kidding ourselves if they won’t take at least a half-life to fully end, during which time the demographics of this country will force change. Look at what has transpired, the push and pull in the dozen-plus years this site has tackled the nature of security in an open society.

But this union is by no means done and over. It’s there in the lines we have seen in the streets for weeks, snaking out the doors of polling places across this country. It’s in the cars lined up in a drive-through campaign rally, queued hopefully, trustingly in a drive-through foodbank.

It was there in the streets after George Floyd was murdered.

From goose quill pen’s first ink on parchment 244 years ago, this union has always been aspirational, a nation in a state of becoming, a people who must occasionally check themselves and listen to their better angels.

From the speech before a battlefield of nearly 50,000 American dead 157 years ago, we re-consecrated ourselves,

that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The union is not over. The dream still lives, its work goes on; we will not yield.

It’s simply time once again to rededicate ourselves to forming a more perfect union.

We can begin this day of all days by exercising and protecting our right to vote.

73 replies
  1. Rayne says:

    One more thing I chose not to add to my post: the language in Norton’s piece walks a line very close to the demoralizing effort invested in separatist movements intended to undermine national and international security.

    It likely wasn’t intended that way but it could easily be misused by hostile entities.

    • Savage Librarian says:

      “It likely wasn’t intended that way but it could easily be misused by hostile entities.”

      Yes, and the timing is so inappropriate. What a drag. I’ll wait to see if she rethinks some things.

    • Chris says:

      There is a story I heard once about an engineer who set out to build the most durable car he could. Each time a component would fail, he would replace it with something stronger, until finally he thought he had it right. Then one day as he was driving, every component of car suddenly broke all at once, and he was left with a worthless wreck. The lesson for me, as an engineering student, was that stress in a design has to go *somewhere,* and so it is often better to have forewarning of a problem—so that it can be safely corrected—than to “solve” the underlying issue and not have any forewarning when a failure occurs. Now, obviously the Constitution is not a machine, but its problems are often useful just for the fact that we know about them, even if fixing them is hard. These are the cracks that have allowed us to maintain this system for so long.

    • d4v1d says:

      Some of us with none of these handicaps might feel something much like Quinn has voiced, which I take to be an acknowledgement of our (or at least my) shame and embarrassment at not having been able to move the needle at all in the direction of equity. Instead, my kind sold out and gave us Trump. We created the internet as a corrective, utopian ideal, and instead got dystopia. The entropic principle is correct in that eggs do not unscramble themselves, so we need a new normal, we cannot recover the old one. I am ashamed and embarrassed, and though now exhausted, ready to roll up my sleeves and start again. Please accept my apology.

  2. Gerard Plourde says:

    Well stated, Rayne. The ideal is worth striving for. And the work, however hard, is undertaken by each generation.

  3. ThreeDayCondor says:

    I’ve been reading here since 2002 or so… back to the FireDogLake days — following emptywheel.

    I love what Rayne has written — it rings true to the America I’ve raised my family in.

    I disagree vehemently with Quinn’s take — and the timing of it particularly — but I absolutely love that Marcy lets “the marketplace of ideas” decide.

    I too was every bit as offended as bmaz was, when Quinn first voiced it. [It certainly could have waited a day. But it will gt sorted out, in time.] We are not done — as an idea, or as a nation. Not by any stretch.

    And I know we, as a community inside the US and outside of it, as Marcy now is — will manage through these disagreements. Even the very fiercest of dialogues are… healthy.

    They are… America. They are the idea of it.

    And with Trump soon gone — we will begin to stitch this quilt back together.

    Of many… one.

    My thanks go to everyone, for making this place what it is — and being, bar none, the best set of eyeballs on governmental excesses… I’ve ever seen.

    Namaste, and be excellent to each other — for we are all we… have: each other.

    — The Condor

  4. this_is_peak_karen says:

    “She can play with sentiment and co-opt others’ pain in her argument that the Union is done, but she hasn’t faced the existential threat one’s skin can pose in a land founded by slaveowners and their sympathizers.”

    You’ve articulated so well what infuriated me about Norton’s post. Again, thank you for this response.

  5. Spencer Dawkins says:

    Thank you for this post. I read it immediately following “the Union is done”, and am glad I kept reading instead of yielding to temptation and hanging myself.

    I am 66 years old, and have marched in the streets from time to time since 1969, but have never been as politically active or vocal as I am today. I hope that trend continues, for myself and for other people who would be delighted to see America live up to its promise, or even to move in the direction of its promises.

    Bless you, Rayne.

  6. Rugger9 says:

    I notice Judge Sullivan put the hammer on the USPS management for delaying ballots, but am curious about what remedies he can put on Louis DeJoy, et al for fiddling with the deliveries.

  7. Skilly says:

    This is the thread I prefer to inhabit. I see the U.S. constitution holding many roles. One thinks it may be seen by all as an aspirational road map to compromise for the larger community. It necessitates parties are willing and able to compromise. When we are in trouble as a nation, compromise is one of the first things to go from the discussion. It seems like fund raising is prioritized over solutions. Until fund raising takes a back seat, compromise will not likely be had.

  8. Valley girl says:

    Thank you Rayne. Eloquently spoken.

    One of my dearest friends is from China. In 1989 he was in Tiananmen Square protesting, when a demonstrator next to him was shot dead. His father, a minor provincial official. managed to get in touch with him in Beijing, saying– “Jay you have to get out of the country NOW. You were seen on TV and the authorities are looking for you.” He managed to get on the next available plane out to the US.

    Fast forward: Jay became a US citizen as soon as he could. When I phoned on Sunday he was on his way to drop off his ballot in LA county.

    The details I’ve left out are many. I love him and admire him enormously. His is saga of resilience. courage and plain hard work.

    And he never whines!!!!

    • Valley girl says:

      Hope what I wrote doesn’t seem OT. I was infuriated by QN’s post and was reflecting on someone who is glad to be here, as a US citizen, whatever our failings are, instead of somewhere else.

    • Rayne says:

      And he’s still in danger, too. They are still looking for diaspora who left in the last fifty years. I worry for him and Chinese friends I met working for a Fortune 100 company.

  9. Barkley says:

    One of the things that I value about this site is the more elevated tone of the debate, compared to the rest of the fare on offer across the internet. Precious little of the twit-length invective and incessant stream of ad hominem attacks. This morning’s exchange has been disappointing in that regard.

    I come down mostly on Rayne’s side, but Quinn Norton raised serious issues that need to be addressed. Any architecture that could produce Trump is deeply, deeply flawed.

    Yes, there are no easy alternatives. Lordy, what would the world look like if this Union did disintegrate? Where is the ready substitute that we could just plug in — on the nearly pointless thought experiment of “let’s just call a Constitutional Convention and redraw the whole thing”? Canada? Germany?

    Sure, we as Americans need to show some collective humility over our failure both as a polity and a system. We’ll find out in a few hours if the foundation is as resilient as the founders intended.

    Let’s take stock tomorrow.

  10. Quinn Norton says:

    Medal of honor is pretty cool. My father got thrown out ot the Army with a DD after getting addicted to drugs in Vietnam, served time in San Quentin and eventually died because he didn’t have health insurance. My mother currently drives for Uber eats because she can’t live on her SS. And yeah, the rest of my family is basically white trash, as am I. I might have been the first to graduate college if this were a heartwarming story but it’s not, I got thrown out of high school for being raped and ended up homeless about two years after that instead. Ok now that we’ve both told are heartwarming true American story:

    My point isn’t that America is complicated and great and there isn’t a mixed and rich history and culture, it’s that exactly all those things are true, but the legal basis of the Union is failing. And if nothing happens to change that, we won’t be able to deal with the series of crises coming our way and it will be beyond terrible. So either we change the nature of our union, or the planet changes it for us.

    • bmaz says:

      “America is complicated and great and there isn’t a mixed and rich history and culture,”

      Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with you? If there is not a mixed and rich culture here, where exactly do you propose it is? Do tell.

      Where is your ideal? If you are going to roll out such bullshit, back it up. What you are doing today is a stain on this blog.

  11. d4v1d says:

    Though I agree in the main with Quinn Norton, I think the better – more aspirational? – view is that the idea of American exceptionalism has finally been exposed as completely hollow. This I regard as a good thing, because it creates an opportunity to effect actual, meaningful change. Perhaps the American experiment in this next go around will prove itself to be more than an ephemeral idea, and something fundamentally solid.

    • Rayne says:

      I want you to think very carefully on who it is that promotes American exceptionalism and why. If you think hard about it there’s more than one version of American exceptionalism — there’s at least one which is deluded and one that is wholly clear eyed.

      • d4v1d says:

        I’m not sure what you’re referring to. Revise America and get it right? God, I hope so. But I tend to view exceptionalism the way a physicist would explain a singularity: it doesn’t, can’t exist – it’s where the theory and its math breaks down. We are all of the same DNA and share a planet – exceptionalism would be a singularity where the rules don’t apply to you. That doesn’t, can’t exist. What we *can* be is extraordinary. My 2c.

        • Rayne says:

          Ask all those subject to DACA what they think of America. That’s an example of a different perception of American exceptionalism which will differ greatly from someone whose ancestors may have immigrated here 150-200 years ago.

          You want to whip out physics? This is the observer effect or observation bias. The state of the observer matters. Think about it.

        • d5v1d says:

          We’re talking past each other a little here* – this is more an Ed Walker motif given the philosophical, rather than sociological, perspective I’m invoking. Comparatively is the US a better place than Honduras? Yes, America is (or has been) a better place than where they come from. But I’m not approaching this from a comparative perspective – I’m considering it from a planetary one. After all, though with complicated histories, Norway, Canada, and Finland are better, happier places than here and make no claim to being exceptional. (They are extraordinary, as we also have been if you don’t count the drones.) Entropy is the arrow of time, permanence and organized stability are ephemeral. Though entropy unwinds slowly, as in the rest of the universe there are no exceptions, no singularities. The unthinkable can happen here – and eventually will. It’s trying to happen now.

          *given that i agree with everyvword you’ve ever written.

      • Worried says:

        Thank you for your comments, Rayne.

        I really agree with your point on American exceptionalism. Those who say we are the greatest now, or greatest ever, then stop believing that improvement is possible, or needed. Then we stagnate and possibly fail.

        But those people are hopefully in the minority. I always appreciated the Avis Car Co commercial where they said they were second best, but trying to improve to be the best.

        I don’t know where we are, but if we take the attitude that we are not the best; but can do some hard work to improve, and consistently try to learn from our mistakes and strive to be the best, then the Union will have staying power.

    • mospeck says:

      Old Patti, whatta truck! She brings it. I finally see the two seven zero for old joe, thank God, Thank God, Thank Gawd. Expect it’s similar for a lot of us sleepless ones, me and my kids didn’t sleep at all last night. what crazy times.

  12. hideousnora says:

    Thank you for sharing your views on that post. I sometimes have a hard time dealing with my conflicting emotions about America, since I am half European and half Ojibwe myself. I don’t have the luxury of entertaining any ideas about giving up on the American union. I have to do what I can to help make this country work. I have family still living on a reservation, and some received life-saving healthcare from a BIA hospital. In my heart this land is still their land, but America is a nation that must not fail.
    Love and appreciation for you, Marcy, bmaz, and all the regular commenters here.

    • Rayne says:

      It’s so complicated being hapa, as Hawaiians call the half-idigenous or mixed race state, isn’t it? I’ve been on the fence about registering as a Hawaiian with the equivalent of the Hawaiian nation; doing so feels like failing to acknowledge the reality of my hapa identity and hapa family.

      And yes, it cannot fail — we’re invested in this in part non-consensually, and in part by choice. Give the climate crisis we are well and truly all in this together. We can work together or fragment and our losses will deepen.

      Aw cripes, just realized that’s a Hawaiian proverb: E lauhoe mai na wa’a; i ke ka, i ka hoe; i ka hoe, i ke ka; pae aku i ka ‘aina. All paddle the canoe together, bail and paddle, paddle and bail, and all will make land.

      Nice to hear from you. Stop in again soon.

      • hideousnora says:

        That is a beautiful expression, Rayne.
        It was a tough decision to make, to enroll in my tribe. I felt like an imposter for not growing up on the rez. But I was encouraged by my mother to apply, and the acceptance somehow made me feel even more devoted to making sense of my feelings for and my place in America. I wish you the best, whatever you decide.

    • harpie says:

      JOHN LEWIS: My message will be very simple. We have a choice. You must decide. Get out there and vote like we’ve never, ever voted before.
      I will say to young people, the college students, high school students that are old enough to vote that you must vote; that people died for the right to vote.
      I would tell young people the story of Selma, and Montgomery and Mississippi; that if we fail to vote we don’t count; that the vote is the most powerful non-violent instrument or tool that we have in a democratic society, and we must use it.

  13. SVFranklinS says:

    Rayne – Thank you for your comments. Quinn’s post really startled me, especially on a day like today.

    I recall long ago, when I was an exchange student in Germany (West, at the time), they gave us all a tour of the Bundesrat and we had lectures about Germany’s government structure and the need for “Koalition” – a structure whereby competing political parties are kept in a conscious balance. We asked why such an elaborate mechanism, and they said “We’ve had some experience without it we would not like to repeat”.

    I also recall reading about how almost every other government copied after the US constitution almost inevitably fell into dictatorship, if not in name then in practice. Perhaps the absence of the ability to manage political parties is part of the problem, and parlimentary systems have a better track record for that.

    That said, what is the option? Any diverse nation needs some kind of “United States” structure, to allow for variation, diversity, local control for local situations, etc. The bigger the country, the bigger the need for local governments to have local authority.

    A thin Constitution that outlines only the basics (human rights, freedom of speech, internal/foreign responsibilities, division of state/federal authority, etc.) therefore makes sense, anything more detailed will fail when applied over too large an area over too long a time.
    FWIW, I think what we have hasn’t done too badly overall. Fixing it up (and making some accounting for party dynamics) will be a lot easier than scrapping it.

  14. ducktree says:

    Aaaand the DOJ has just told Judge Sullivan to take his order and stuff it … that the USPS must sweep its facilities for errant mail-in ballots by 3:00 p.m.

    The DOJ’s response is that such sweeps will be conducted later than Sullivan ordered, in some cases after those ballots can be counted.

  15. Earthworm says:

    Mushy comment but here goes:
    I read both Quinn and Rayne’s pieces, plus comments. I suppose I am just a wuss, but I was touched by the passion and sincerity of much of this opinion and comment, pro and con.
    Sometimes one must know people very well to be aware of their personal traumas, and what they have surmounted without having become twisted human beings. Being judgemental is an American trait, but many Americans who seemingly “have it made” actually come from appalling backgrounds.
    Despite the pathology evident in the twitterverse, social justice is the leveling quality and goal: we don’t have perfection here, but we know what it is.

  16. Seouljer says:

    I am a frequent reader but rarely post. Was feeling very depressed today before I read Quinn’s post, which only made it worse. Your follow up made me believe we can fix things no matter how bad it can seem. Other’s hope inspires others. Thanks for bringing me back, today. We can do this, together.

  17. Gwen says:

    Unfortunately, it is done. Hope is a delusion. There doesn’t exist the intelligence to rectify this country. The time it may take to fix will be longer than the time life has left on Earth which is about 50 years.

    • coriolis says:

      I can understand why you might feel that way. You may benefit from reading “When hope is subversive” by Henry A. Giroux. I know very little about him, but I found merit and inspiration in that piece, which has kept me going in the U.K.
      Hope may seem pointless right now, but apathy and acceptance have even less to offer.

  18. OldTulsaDude says:

    Although I applaud your optimism, what this country needed tonight was a thorough repudiation of Trump and all for which he stands. That did not happen. Worse, yet, he may still be re-elected. It really doesn’t matter which at this point. Although this country is not yet dead, there is nothing left worth saving.

    • Rayne says:

      There are roughly a million and a half votes yet to be counted in PA. There are two other states in similar condition, counting limited by GOP state legislatures. I’m not going to throw in the towel yet even if you’re resolved to fall on your knees already.

      And as far as a repudiation of Trump not happening? Start asking white people why they voted for the racist again, and why maintaining white supremacy is more important than hundreds of thousands or even millions of American lives we’ll lose before we get a safe and effective COVID vaccine.

      Now take your defeatism elsewhere.

  19. What Constitution? says:

    I read both Rayne’s and QN’s posts and the optimist/Believer in the Ideals of the Constitution in me readily roots for Rayne’s take.

    But then there’s that problem we’re all staring at right now: the Constitution emerged from the fundamental assumption of the Enlightenment that people are smart enough to be smart. Whether it’s Rousseau’s envisioning a “social contract” binding rational actors together, J.S. Mill identifying a definition of “freedom” which subsumes a recognition that “responsibility” is mixed in there too, or Jefferson writing down the proposition that all men are created equal, there is that underlying assumption of rationality and some degree of both individual and collective intelligence residing beneath the surface.

    Rayne just now added that gestalt to this morning’s reflections with the simple statement “Start asking white people why they voted for the racist again”. There’s more to that question, but the single most daunting question for our country’s survival seems to me to be squarely reflected by the astonishing reality that essentially half of the voters in this nation think it’s a worthy goal, right now, to reelect Donald Trump notwithstanding the readily obvious reality of his disdain for the fundamental principles of our form of government and his willingness and ability to gather a cadre of like-minded self-interested villains to execute the dismemberment and destruction of this form of government.

    What’s “smart” about that? Why would anyone think that’s worthy of rabid support? Assuming he even wins, as appears likely as of this writing, Biden’s got his work cut out for him, as do we all.

    • JamesJoyce says:

      “Start asking white people why they voted for the racist again.”

      No need too. The answer is simple.

      Learned behaviors reinforced by culture’s dependencies?

      Me Myself and I

      So much for enlightenment, Jefferson Davis.

      Entropy requires energy as does enlightenment.

      Lazy ?

      John Leland vomits at the American Unexceptional behavior of discrimination.

      That’s what this is all about.

      Control via discrimination no different than an intolerant mullah or a gold digging conquistador.

      America is a racist country as alcoholics who drink are in denial then die.

      “Always be Cognizant of the circumstances of other’s because by circumstance their circumstance, could becomes yours?”


      Thomas Jefferson, the slaveowner🧐?

      • darms says:

        “Start asking white people why they voted for the racist again.”

        I did not & neither did my partner. So Fucking What.

        • Rayne says:

          So Fucking What.

          That’s exactly why this country elected the likes of Trump, in addition to the self interest of whites who’ve clung to power since this country’s inception.

          Other whites don’t give a fuck because it doesn’t affect them.

        • darms says:

          we voted, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, & this year. And like always, we encouraged others to vote as well, embarrassed a few trumpies along the way. For the usual result, as always, the stupids win…

        • Barkley says:

          “White people are all racist assholes who suck” is not a constructive takeaway from this not-quite-concluded opera. Don’t let the Cuban- and Venezuelan-Americans in South Florida off the hook if you want to split this into a simple us vs. them.

          That’s a loser for Democrats. Trump put his finger on precisely the pain of the *billies left behind, and then validated and fanned their rage, hypnotizing them like a flock, resulting in one victory and one too close to call, still, two days into the counting.

          If the American experiment is going to recover from the four year nightmare stress test, we need to listen to our new leader and focus on reconciliation, not name-calling.

        • Rayne says:

          Oh honey…if English-only white people weren’t obsessively navel gazing, they’d have recognized the problem with disinformation in Cuban, Venezuelan, and other Latinx communities and developed better outreach. That’s a criticism for the Biden-Harris camp, by the way, because whoever is helping Team Trump took care of influence operation for them so they wouldn’t have to get too close to Latinx save for Bolsonaro (whole ‘nother language to boot).

          Thanks for making my point.

        • Barkley says:

          I happen to be bilingual, but I take your snarky self-satisfied point that because you’re everything not-old-white-male you feel entitled to lecture anyone who is.

          That’s not how you build winning coalitions.

          Have a nice day.

        • Rayne says:

          You know what? I’m not here to build a coalition. Neither are you.

          When you see me building a coalition you won’t find me online and you won’t even recognize me. But then that assumes you even allow yourself near anybody building a coalition which I suspect you don’t.


  20. Barkley says:

    Ah. You’re just one of those echo chamber radicals. Emptywheel’s very own Tucker Carlson. Didn’t know this site had one of those, given the mostly intelligent and well-informed posts here.

    You’re right about yourself and coalitions.


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