Loose Ends

1. I generally agree with Elizabeth Warren and like the idea of her being the nominee, but I don’t agree with her claim that the biggest problem in Washington is corruption. It’s a problem for sure, but the biggest of our problems at this moment is Trump, Trump, and more Trump. We can’t get to the former if we don’t defeat the latter.

2. Medicare for All and to a lesser degree a Green New Deal were front and center in the Democratic Party presidential debate. But I couldn’t help but think that I’m glad the election is more than a year out. Why? Because there’s still much “splaining” to do before the general public embraces either demand at a gut level or the candidates who espouse them. Clever slogans and the enthusiasm aren’t enough in the present political circumstances, to make them a reality or to win next year, especially when Trump and his acolytes in Congress and the media have turned lying and demagogy into an art form and congenital habit.

3. It is easy to feel despair and anger at the daily torrent of racism coming from Trump. But despair and anger, while understandable, have to be turned into active resistance. And one thing each of us — and especially those of us who are white —- can do is engage other white people, strangers as well as friends, in conversation over Trump’s racism.

 4. The conflation of Medicare for All with socialism is problematic. A socialist society would surely provide such heath care, but it isn’t peculiar to socialism. Such care, each with its own particular wrinkles, is provided in several major capitalist countries now. I have some tactical worries about Medicare for All in this election cycle, but I don’t agree with some of its critics who in a maneuver to shut down discussion of it (and other progressive measures for that matter) paint them as socialist and thus preemptively beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse. I can only think that in their minds a robust public sector and the universal provision of public goods, which, ipso facto, entails some restrictions on capitalist profit making, constitutes socialism and they don’t like it. Again a socialist society, which turns on substantive democracy and fulsome equality, would enact in short order such measures, but such measures aren’t necessarily peculiar to socialism.
5. I’m reading a history of the U.S. spanning from the War of 1812 to the end of war with Mexico in 1848. The author, Daniel Howe, quotes another historian, John Murrin, who writes that white yeoman farmers who acquired land by dispossession and force during this time were the “beneficiaries of catastrophe.” That this social process and social class were considered the backbone of Jeffersonian democracy tells us much about the limitations, contradictions and racialized nature of that vision and practice. Murrin’s observation also reminds me that Marx’s “primitive accumulation of capital” was much more than a moment at the dawn of capitalism’s pre-history. Instead, it stretched out over decades, even centuries, and was in its many iterations catastrophic for Native and enslaved peoples. Some writers, David Harvey for one, in fact, see it as a contemporaneous process, especially in the Global South.
6. I wonder if historical memory has drained the abolitionist movement (or should I say movements) of their strategic depth and tactical flexibility. I sometimes get the impression that the movement in memory is nothing more than the practice of moral suasion and electoral abstentionism. But that is hardly the case. The movement had many tendencies and wings, many of which embraced strategic and tactical understandings that were far more complex and nuanced, including the necessity of electoral participation and broadly constructed alliances. Many Black abolitionists were in this camp. I mention this not only to complicate a little bit the abolitionist movement(s), but also because it has some contemporary relevance.

What a week it was

1. I’ve seen a lot of ugly moments in our country’s politics in my lifetime, but what Trump did last night in demonizing and endangering Congresswoman IIhan Omar at a rally in North Caroline, ranks up their with the worst. What makes it more frightening is the thousands of white people at the rally, seething with resentment, reveling in the moment, and chanting “Send her back.”

2. When Trump’s vile racist rhetoric mixes with the perception of many white people that their white skin privileges and social order are under a fierce and inexorable assault from a rising multi-racial, multi-cultural movement insisting on equality, justice, and popular democracy, it can make for an exceedingly toxic and dangerous brew as we saw last week at Trump’s rally in North Carolina.

What adds to the toxicity is that Trump’s supporters believe that whatever advantages they enjoy, they earned them through their hard work and intellectual acuity. Conversely, the inferior and unequal conditions in which people of color are assigned, through the force of law, politics, institutional design, the “normal” workings of the economy, and, not infrequently, violence are the result of their own doing, inferiority and indolence. In this rendering, white people get their just due as do people of color. And any attempt to reorder these relations, that is, to create a multi-racial society resting on full equality and robust democracy, is considered unjust in their eyes and should be fiercely resisted.

In Trump, this substantial grouping of white people can count on a white nationalist authoritarian leader who will give voice to their (and his) resentments and rage and in the Republican Party, they have a reliable political vehicle that, with Trump, will prosecute their case.

By the same token, Trump can count on a broad swath of white supporters that will unflaggingly defend him as well rally around his authoritarian and plutocratic policies, enforce discipline in the Republican Party, and eagerly vote for him and other Republicans next year. In short, the connection of one to the other is symbiotic and co-dependent.

3. It’s almost absurd to hear media commentators discussing whether Trump is a racist or not? It should be a settled question by now. Trump by his words and actions over a lifetime has already given us an affirmative answer to that question. No further discussion in warranted.

4. Trump’s racist rhetoric and attacks are hateful, divisive, demeaning, demonizing, and, let’s not forget, endangering to people of color. Anybody who isn’t worried about the physical safety of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan is ignoring history, very recent as well as past.

5. Check out Dan Le Batard on ESPN. He mentions former African American sport’s host Jemelle Hill, who got sacked for her refusal to “stick to sports.” And her firing sent a signal across ESPN’s many platforms to stay clear of politics and controversy. To his great credit, Le Batard refuses. He’s good and gutsy here.

6. I watched the redoubtable Karen Bass (CA37) on MSNBC defending the “Squad” and it reminded me of the many women of color who play a prominent and leading role in the House Democratic Party caucus. Even though they aren’t in the cross hairs of Trump’s vile racist attacks right now, they aren’t that far removed and deserve our solidarity.

7. Trump’s rallies, it is commonly said, are designed to energize and incite his base. And they obviously do that. But they have other purposes as well, which often go unmentioned — to demoralize the far flung movement opposing him, while giving his reelection next year, notwithstanding much evidence to the contrary, a sense of inevitability.

8. In googling more information on the ill advised and groundless attack last week on Sharice Davids, one of only two Native Americans in Congress, at the twitter hands of AOC’s chief of staff, I couldn’t help but notice that every right and alt right media site were all over this story. No doubt nothing triggers their animal spirits and provides them with juicy copy quite like real, invented, or exaggerated tensions and disunity within the Democratic Party. In their calculus (and Trump’s as well), the stoking of such differences is the only ticket they possess to return their guy to the White House for four more years.

9. Last week I came across a comment on facebook, claiming that centrists in the Democratic Party consistently align themselves with the far right on a range of issues. But this is sheer invention even if it is dressed up in the language of radicalism. Where is the evidence? How have the centrists allied themselves with Trump and against Pelosi? What is more, this assertion ignores the fact that right wing authoritarian rule hanging over Washington and the country would be worse, far worse were it not for the Democratic Party majority in the House, centrists and progressives alike, who are resisting Trump and Trumpism.

If this weren’t bad enough, it got worse when the writer doubled down on his claim by bringing Lenin into the argument. He argued that today’s centrists in the Democratic Party are much like the “bourgeois democrats” of early 20th century Russia, who, according to Lenin, were “untrustworthy, backstabbing, vacillating, unreliable allies.”

In painting with such a broad brush, without so much as a single word of qualification or any mention of the context, dynamics and challenges of this political moment, the writer’s analysis is not only mistaken, but also un-Lenin like, that is, it was ungrounded, uncomplicated, one sided, and abstract. Luckily, most Democrats and activists aren’t of this mind. Whatever the differences are over policy and approach (and there are some substantive differences) within the Democratic Party and the broader coalition opposing Trump, they are being discussed and debated in a spirit free of accusation and vitriol in most instances. And that is how it should be.

10. A strategic approach to next’s year’s election has to consider the requirements of retaining control of House seats in purple/swing districts as well as regaining Senate seats in states that aren’t necessarily progressive friendly. And then there is the challenge of winning the electoral college as well as the popular vote in order to oust Trump. This is what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi grapples with every day, understanding that simply tacking to the left in these circumstances, as some think she should, is neither smart nor strategic politics.

11. I will be curious to see to what extent the testimony of Robert Mueller moves public opinion on impeachment. Right now only a minority support it, and if recent polling is accurate, a shrinking minority. I don’t consider the impeachment of Trump a moral and political imperative. For me, it a tactical question that is subordinate to the overarching imperative of defeating Trump and the GOP at the ballot box next year. In other words, will an impeachment fight assist in achieving that objective or is it a diversion?

Winner, losers, and more

1. Biggest winners in last week’s debate: Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris; biggest loser: Joe Biden. And polls this week confirm this fact.  To enlarge the frame, the other winner was the American people who were able to listen to a lively, contested, and substantive debate.

2. Unite the left and defeat the right — a slogan that I see now and then — should be no more than a subset of the left’s strategic approach to the elections. The main strategic task — and it cannot be said enough — is to extend as well as unite the existing, diverse, and multi-class coalition whose overarching task is to elect a Democratic Party president and Congress in next year’s election.

3. Identity politics is Trump’s bread and butter; he employs it daily, hourly, almost minute by minute. Why wouldn’t he? It’s the glue that binds together the white, cross class, mainly male, Christian-Evangelical coalition that elected him and, he hopes, will reelect him next year. Contesting it, as we are learning, isn’t easy. Indeed, it seems resistant to morality, political appeals, and reality. And to no small degree it is.

Not only does this form of politics deny uncomfortable and obvious truths, It also constructs its own “reality” and “truths” out of a long list of invented grievances, resentments, and nostalgia for a world in which white and male privilege, heterosexual identity, a Christian and White Nation, and U.S. global supremacy were considered natural and the bedrock of the country’s greatness.

It is this worldview embraced by millions that gives Trump such a stable following. His demagogic skills are impressive at times, but then again he speaks to a friendly audience that never tires of hearing their beloved leader in the White House affirming and stoking their sense of grievance, resentment, and loss — in short, their worldview.

Tomorrow’s spectacle and vanity project on the National Mall may rub most of Americans the wrong way, but it will titillate many — not all, I suspect — of Trump’s die hard supporters.

4. When Putin says western style liberalism is “obsolete,” beware. If his track record as Russia’s imperial and imperious president gives us any clue as to what he means, and usually deeds do speak louder than words, he surely considers “obsolete” an independent press and judiciary, regular and fair elections, representative and constitutional government, restraints on presidential-executive power, and a robust civil society and citizenry. That Trump wouldn’t offer, even a mild criticism of his best bud’s comment when asked in Japan last week, comes as no surprise. He and Putin are one of a kind.

5. And to think that what is happening to babies, children, and their parents is a deliberate and calculated policy and done in our name.

6. To suggest, as Tim Ryan and Bill DeBlasio did in the Democratic Party presidential debate, that workers gravitated to Trump because they were abandoned by the Democratic Party and “coastal elites” is one sided and therefore misleading. First, it wasn’t the working class as a whole that bailed. It was, more precisely, a section of white workers, and not all of them at that.

Second, it wasn’t only economic grievance, as both Ryan and DeBlasio imply, that accounts for their decision to jump ship and embrace Trump, first as candidate and now as president. Misogyny, xenophobia, and racism and white skin privilege have to figure large in any explanation for their behavior, but neither Ryan or DeBlasio make any mention of this.

Finally, their invocation of “coastal elites” to explain the rightward shift of white workers conceals more than it reveals. Are there no elites between the coasts? I believe Walmart is headquartered in Arkansas and GM in Detroit to name only two examples of elite power located in the heartland. But more germane, the immediate danger that working people face in the Midwest and other regions of the country isn’t any kind of elite power, but elite power in its right wing extremist form.

It is this fraction of elite power, controlling as it does the White House, the Senate, much of the administrative machinery of the federal government, and a majority of state governments, that has to be squarely confronted and defeated in next year’s election. In a moment of peril, we should expect clarity, not ambiguity, not cheap bids for popularity from Democrats seeking the party’s presidential nomination.

An addendum: The term “coastal elites” or even “elites” is not only fuzzy, imprecise, and misleading, but it also can easily become freighted with anti-semitism and racism in the minds of many people. The term should be retired.

7. On Morning Joe, the hosts and guests were puzzled by the complicity of Christian Evangelicals in their support of Trump’s misogynist behavior. At quick glance, the support of Evangelicals for Trump’s amoral and misogynist behavior may seem perplexing. But on deeper look, this religious current, whose rise coincides with the rise of right wing extremism forty years ago, was never on the side of democracy and freedom in general nor women’s equality in particular.

Indeed, patriarchy, and a very traditional and backward version of it at that, was always a cornerstone belief of Evangelicals, finding justification in their reading of Scripture. Thus their support for Trump isn’t a case of turning a blind eye to Trump’s brutish and violent behavior. Nor is it even a case of compromising their faith. In their view, Trump might be a bad boy at times, but in the larger scheme of things, he is their prodigal son and faithful minister in a secular world that is at war with their religious (and political) worldview and values. And if he puts women in “their place” from time to time, even physical violates and assaults them, well, maybe “these women,” deserve it.

8. When I was chair of the Communist Party, I used the term “labor led people movement” to capture what I thought was one of the main political dynamics of that time. But reflecting on it later, I came to the conclusion that the term was aspirational at best and misleading and unnecessarily exclusive at worst. For the fact of the matter was that labor wasn’t the leader of the broader democratic movement either then or over the previous half century. The dynamics of struggle are and were far more complicated than my rendering at that time. And that will likely be the case in the future. All of which nudged me to acknowledge that abstract class theory and wishful thinking are never a good substitute for a concrete analysis of real on-the-ground political processes.

9. Any prescriptive advice for the upcoming elections has to take into account the multiplicity of terrains — state to state. urban, suburban, and rural, congressional district to congressional district, etc. — on which the struggle to defeat Trump and his Republican congressional acolytes will be fought out. One size won’t fit all. More to the point, the variation in political, organizational, and social mapping from place to place has to be fully taken into account in the elaboration of any election plans.

10. When I hear someone say that a livable, egalitarian, and sustainable future for humanity will take more than just mobilizing for the 2020 elections, I cringe. While the statement is true, it misses this crucial point. Defeating Trump and his right wing acolytes in Congress next year is the key, strategic task — the key link — in moving the whole chain of struggle forward at this moment.

Thus everything that we do, I would argue, should be framed within that strategic understanding. That doesn’t mean  that everything else should grind to a halt until November of 2020. But it does mean that every democratic movement and struggle should mesh with campaign to defeat Trump and all at the ballot box next year.

11. For some time I have felt, and even more so today, that it is imperative to complicate the concepts of class, class struggle, and class approach. And my reasoning for doing so comes not from some Marxist text — although it can be found there along with deterministic and rigid interpretations of the aforementioned — but from my reading of the process of social change over the past century and more.

12. My blood boils when I hear someone with progressive or left politics roll out a “plague on both houses” explanation for our present and past difficulties as a country. After all, that trope has had no analytical or political value other than to strategically and tactically confuse and mislead for, at least, the past half century. Nixon’s southern strategy, Reagan’s ascendancy to the presidency, Gingrich’s Contract with (on) America, and many other markers of an ascendant right during this time should have triggered a critical rethink in the progressive and left community of this fraudulent concept. But old tropes die hard, especially when they become a showpiece of one’s radical political identity.

Bernie, Mueller, and more

1. Keeanga-Yamahtta Tayler writes in Jacobin:

“Last Wednesday, Bernie Sanders passionately argued for a “democratic socialist” United States. Sanders’s clear arguments for a complete transformation of the country showed why the mainstream media and the leadership of the Democratic Party have tried to marginalize his electrifying presidential campaign.

In the course of a single speech, Sanders demonstrated the existential threat he poses to the political status quo in the United States by exposing the roots of the hardship and deprivation that roil wide swaths of the country. He named capitalism as the culprit and democratic socialism as a solution. What a breathtaking turn of events.”

Democratic socialism did find its way into the speech for sure, but what also informed it as much or more was a robust and progressive interpretation of liberalism. It was the continuation of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the completion of its unfinished tasks that commanded center stage — not Debsian socialism, not the experience of Denmark or Sweden, not the writings of Norman Thomas or Michael Harrington.

Whatever the motivation for this emphasis, it makes good sense to me. Radical politics has to find inspiration, poetry, legitimacy, and insights in the common experience, past struggles, and popular traditions of the American people, as it gives voice to new popular desires, needs, and existential imperatives of the present moment. Sanders’ speech commendably did this.

2. If I were a Democratic Party leader, I would move heaven and earth if that is what it took for Robert Mueller to appear at the earliest possible date at a public congressional hearing. Such a hearing would give the American people in red and blue stakes alike a chance to hear straight from the horse’s mouth what he uncovered in the investigation of Trump’s wrongdoing in far more detail than his sparse statement of a month ago.

Most people haven’t and won’t read the Mueller report, but they will tune into his live testimony or see clips of it later as it makes its way through the news cycle. And it surely will. In so doing, the false narrative of Trump and Barr — No Collusion, No Obstruction — that has framed the conversation so far will be challenged and a compelling counter narrative will see the light of day, but this time in a form that millions can easily digest and from someone who is considered as close to an impartial and independent arbiter of the truth as there is. Right now public opinion polls tell us that a majority of people aren’t on the impeachment train. This can’t be ignored in the name of some higher moral or political principle. Public attitudes do matter. It is not enough to be right, especially at this moment when so much is at stake.

Moreover, the assumption that public opinion will seamlessly morph into a majority movement upon a formal declaration of impeachment is pure conjecture, if not wishful thinking. Why isn’t it as likely to think that such a declaration that has no chance of successfully making its way through the Senate could become Trump’s main talking point in next year’s election. After all, he does the politics of resentment and victimization pretty well. Actually, when you think about it, other than a buoyant economy which Trump had little to do with and which is showing some softening, he has little else to run on.

I’m not against impeachment proceedings, but before the battle is formally joined, the political conditions should be created so that our side comes out of what will be a fierce confrontation, if not a winner in a technical sense, because of Republican opposition in the Senate to impeachment, then, and more importantly, a winner in the court of public opinion and advantageously positioned to win in November of next year.  There is nothing opportunistic about making such a political calculation as to how things might play out. In fact, not to do so would be the height of irresponsibility. Too much is at stake now and next year to be guided by only righteous indignation.

What is more, the only reliable check on Trump and his authoritarian behavior is at the ballot box next year. House Speaker Pelosi understands this well. And we should too.

3. Any understanding of the rise and spread of right wing extremism that doesn’t situate it as a extreme, if not predictable, reaction to the Civil Rights Revolution of the sixties and the explosion of other democratic aspirations, demands and movements that followed is not only analytically wrong, but also will find itself badly wanting strategically and tactically. And at this moment when right wing extremism has morphed into its authoritarian, Trumpist, and unapolegetic and unrelenting anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian form, it is all the more true. The lens of class, class interests, and class struggle is indispensable in understanding the rise of the right and the trajectory of politics over the past half century for sure. But only if it is employed flexibly and dialectically. When it crowds out (or subordinates) other democratic desires and movements of struggle, they need a tune up at least, probably a major retooling.

4. As I have grown older, I have realized more and more that class and class struggle don’t explain everything (even in the last instance). Moreover, they reveal and exert their influence in many instances in unanticipated and roundabout ways. I would argue that democratic discontents and desires left a larger imprint on the canvas of struggle over the past half century than economic (class) grievance, even though the U.S. and global economy was changing in deep going ways and labor, organized and unorganized, was the target of a many sided assault. Actually, for much of this period, labor was on its heels and unable to organize a broad  counteroffensive.

5. The experience of last half century suggests that the assigning of vanguard or leading role to the working class because of its place in a system of social production is a fool’s errand. History and human desire give rise to variegated social movements that seldom cooperate with the predictions of narrowly constructed class theory and politics. Working people do and will leave their imprint on the political process, no doubt about that. But in most instances, they will do so in ways that we didn’t imagine nor conform to abstract theory. Moreover, if we don’t allow space for such, we will lag behind unfolding political reality.

6. People ask: what will posterity think if we don’t attempt to impeach Trump? Fair question. But we could also ask: what judgement will posterity render if we don’t defeat Trump at the ballot box next year? I can’t understand the thinking of those who ask the first question, but fail to consider the second. And for me, the latter is primary and overarching.

7. Finished watching the series “Chernobyl” last week. It is a powerful dramatization of the nuclear power disaster there, but a bit depressing to watch. It reminded me once again that socialist ownership and control of the nuclear power industry is no guarantee of the safety of nuclear power use. But this was almost an article of faith in the communist movement back in the day. Chernobyl challenged, if not shredded, that faith — a faith grounded in a downplaying of scientific evidence, a mistaken confidence in the Soviet Union, and a failure to distinguish between formal/legal and actual relations of social ownership and control in the nuclear power industry and industry generally. In other words, what’s on paper and codified into law isn’t necessarily what exists on the ground. Neither safety nor worker empowerment necessarily come first in real life.

No profile in courage

1. A day after Mueller’s first public statement on his report, I conclude, first, that he didn’t punt. His remarks challenged the narrative of Trump and Barr. But he didn’t forcefully advance the ball either. His language was too oblique, lawyerly, neutral, and sparse to do that.

He didn’t have to call for impeachment nor spit fire, but he could have taken advantage of the platform afforded him to elaborate on his team’s investigative findings in a way that would have brought clarity to tens of millions as well as better position Congressional Democrats and a few courageous Republicans to carry out their political and constitutional duties. Had his words been forceful and pointed, they could have also cut deep holes in the false narrative tapestry of Trump, Barr, Fox News, and others to defend Trump’s indefensible actions.

Whatever held him back — his class upbringing and training, his understanding of public service, his lifetime affiliation to the Republican Party, his reservations about the resistance movement and the Democratic Party, his lack of backbone in the face of a vindictive Trump attack machine, his desire to quietly retire, etc. — Mueller didn’t meet the moment, even if he didn’t, to use another sport’s analogy, strike out. A profile in courage he wasn’t.

2. Mueller opened and closed his statement by calling attention to the fact of massive and coordinated Russian interference in our elections. Fair enough; it should be addressed. But that isn’t the main problem facing our democratic and constitutional system. Trump and his gang are. This fact should have figured far more explicitly in Mueller’s statement yesterday.

3. I still like Pelosi’s approach to impeachment. I find that many of the Impeach Now advocates traffic in facile assumptions about the readiness of millions of Americans to jump on the impeachment bandwagon as well as the positive impact of an impeachment process on the elections. Pelosi is right that impeachment is, above all, a political process and thus the case for impeachment has to be built in Washington and around the country. But it isn’t built yet. Politics takes patience as well as boldness. This is a dynamic situation and it will be interesting to see what polls show next week.

4. Why isn’t a rebuke of Trump at the polls next year a powerful repudiation of Trump’s authoritarian mode of governing? Why isn’t it a deterrent to future presidents who might like to embrace his governing style? Does defeat of Trump at the ballot box really pale in impact to his impeachment, especially when the former is far more doable than the latter?

5. “The center cannot hold” has become the favored phrase of political commentators these days. And the results of the European Parliamentary elections have provided fresh meat for this argument as the left and, especially, the right gained ground at the expense of traditional parties.

That said, I would offer three thoughts on this matter. One is changes at the economic level alone don’t explain this phenomenon; two: the experience of each country requires close and concrete examination; and three: any idea that the center (which is a mass trend) is no longer of any political consequence is completely wrongheaded. Such a conclusion would doom our hope of defeating Trump next year. Unity — broad, diverse, and expansive — has to be the watchword in these perilous times.

By the way, here is William Butler Yeats’ poem from which the phrase is drawn. It was written in 1919 and reflects Yeats’ anguish and ambivalence about a world — not least his beloved Ireland — at war and in turmoil.

The Second Coming
William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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