Monday, 27 September 2010

Tea Time

US Americans are fond of thinking that their country is special. In one sense, of course, they’re right, but only that in which every country is special, every country is different. No, with Americans it’s a bit different. The very fact that they appropriate the general term of description for all residents of North, Central and South America, “American”, to describe themselves is perhaps a little indicative of this; I know that if I were a Canadian, an Argentinean or a Mexican it would annoy me. But it goes farther than this; they have a real sense that their country is more than just one nation among others on the earth. To quote the journalist, publicist and educator, Max Lerner (1902-1992), “America is a passionate idea or it is nothing” (Actions and Passions). And indeed, historically, there is a lot of truth in this. The Revolution of twelve British colonies in 1776 was something special, something new in world history, a revolution based on ideas of the Enlightenment such as equality, like the Rights of Man to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (although, come to think of it, there might be one or another citizen of the Helvetic Confederation who would also stake certain claims in this area). Moreover, certainly for most of the 19th Century, the USA served as a dream, an ideal for millions of the huddled massesin the “old world” yearning to breathe free, a dream capable of inspiring its own citizens to grow beyond themselves, in dealing with their own problems to go beyond themselves, to form out of their country an ever more perfect union.

Yes, it’s a great story, an inspiring story, a continuing story, apparently a never-ending story. Something its citizens can justly feel proud of. But what makes it unique is its particularity and it is only this which makes it different from the particularity of the stories of other countries; the French particularity of challenging with their Revolution the anciennes regimes in the rest of Europe, the Indian particularity of Gandhi’s way of non-violent resistance, the particularity of the South African way of truth and reconciliation, to mention just a few.

And now a group of US Americans once again appeal to their uniqueness, the holy precepts of their ancient constitutional expression of liberty to protest against … against what? Against big government which they see as threatening their freedom. Against federal government which they see as imposing too much taxation, supporting unnecessary social programmes. Against – above all – a political elite which has lost touch with their needs and their realities, which claims to represent them without listening to them, without caring for them, interested only in preserving their cosy world of power, privilege and prosperity, obtained and sustained at the expense of ordinary little people. Appealing to one of the early symbolic gestures at the genesis of their Revolution in Boston, they call themselves the Tea Party.

What, I believe, would surprise most of those who identify with the Tea Party is that they are really not that original at all and can instead be considered as the US American expression of a movement which has been gaining strength throughout what we may call the western democracies in the past decade or so. Perhaps movement is too strong a word; what I am referring to is a general feeling of alienation from the political process as represented and controlled by the established political parties which has given rise to divergent groups and parties in different countries, all feeding off the same inchoate feelings of resentment and practical powerlessness. Despite different national characteristics, they all offer quite similar platforms; the National Front in France, the UK Independence Party, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands and the Sweden Democrats being some European examples.

A look at the – for want of a better word – policies formulated by these parties and movements serves to give a clearer view of what the issues are which concern their supporters, what the needs, desires and longings are of those who throng to their rallies, what fuels the anger which leads them to elect these parties and movements or candidates endorsed by them. They can be conveniently be clarified under a few basic headings.

1) We are being ripped off. We are ordinary people who have to make ends meet. We work hard to earn our livings and have to cut our cloth to suit. We are the ones whose taxes are paying for everything and we are not getting value for our hard-earned dollars, euros, pounds. Instead, those in power pay themselves handsomely with our money to preserve their power and privilege, at the same time using much more of this money to support those too lazy and indigent to go out and work themselves. At the same time, the provision of those services we have a right to is becoming ever worse, things like roads, protection (policing), emergency services, etc.

2) Professional politicians are not representing us. Those “up there” don’t care about us anyway. They present themselves ritually every couple of years for election or re-election but when the elections are over they don’t give a damn about us. They pay themselves so well that they have no idea what it feels like to have to worry about how to pay next month’s bills, that the car needs expensive repair or, worse, replacement, they know nothing about bad schooling and the struggle to stay healthy and cope with illness. They live in fancy neighbourhoods, can pay for private schooling and universities for their kids, have adequate private health insurance. They have no experience of the fears that their children will stray from the straight and narrow, will be pregnant or addicted by the age of sixteen, won’t get decent training, won’t find jobs. Inside a cocoon of privilege and wealth, their children will make the right friends, get the best education and then inherit the political positions held by their parents. And it doesn’t matter what party you vote for, because – in terms of those in power and influence – there’s very little difference between them. They all sit in Washington, in London, in Brussels, jetting around and our costs and passing off all the real work to faceless bureaucrats who live in their own artificial worlds and are, practically seen, responsible to nobody.

3) We are being forced to pay for mistakes our leaders have made in the past and our children will have to pay even more. Already billions of the taxes we pay are being spent to service debts accrued in the past and the politicians are still borrowing more, paying more and more of our good money to the banks every year. We know from bitter experience where that leads, what happens when you can’t pay the mortgage on your house, the loan for your car. That’s why the city can’t afford to repair the roads, police the playground, etc., because it’s in hock up to the eyeballs. Debts made by politicians on our behalf, which we have the privilege of paying back. And if we can’t, hell, they’ll just borrow more to pay the interest and our children can pay for it.

4) The money we worked so hard to earn, which we pay in taxes, is given to people too lazy to work. Now we know that anyone can hit a bad-luck patch and that’s what social services and unemployment benefits are for. But there are thousands and thousands who have no interest in doing anything for themselves and, worse, there’re more and more of them coming every year. Because in poor countries all over the world, the word has spread that if you can get in here you get money for nothing and, if you set about it right, you can even bring your whole family too – and your in-laws and their families as well. And, if they do work, then they’ll work for less than we can live on and take away jobs, of which there aren’t enough anyway, from our children. And they don’t make any effort to fit in, to learn our language, to dress the way we do. Often, they seem to even look down on us and have the cheek to demand all sorts of extra rights for themselves and accuse us of discrimination if they don’t get them. And the politicians do nothing to stop this. Why should they, they don’t have nests of them living in their neighbourhoods, they are more inclined to find their presence useful, as household-helps or gardeners.

5) Things are not as good as they used to be and we’re afraid they are going to get worse. We can remember times when things were simpler and more understandable. Our countries have proud histories of struggles to establish the values we hold dear and those values used to be taken seriously and respected by everyone. Today everything seems so complex and no-one seems to take these values – like hard work, honesty, fairness – seriously any more. The future seems ever more uncertain and threatening and we don’t know which of the experts to believe or whether they’re all just following vested agendas anyway. We yearn for straight, simple answers, for strategies which we can understand and which make sense to us. We need clear and credible leadership, leaders who name things by name and tell it like it is. We’re not getting it.

The impressions that I have sketched here are real for millions of people in our societies, they are the result of their concrete experiences. The problem is that these experiences are the result of complex processes in complex societies, societies which are interconnected and networked in ever more complex ways. Furthermore, we process everything we experience through our individual and common perceptions and it is mostly the fact that what we perceive has happened is far more important for us than any so-called objective explanation of what has actually been going on.

And here is where my problems with the Tea Party movement and all the other parties and movements like them begin. They are an expression of a longing for simple answers to complicated questions, a desire for certainty in an uncertain world. They quickly reduce difficult issues to appeals based on simple slogans, slogans which every individual can then interpret for him or herself.

Let us take one concrete example. A popular theme in the Tea Party movement is the call for less Government. The question begs itself as to what people mean by this. When you start to reduce it to the thousands of individual questions involved then you start to hear all sorts of different opinions. What does less government mean in the realm of education? Should we reduce communal funding for schools, reduce the length of free, compulsory schooling? That would save money. What about policing, law-enforcement, crime and punishment? What about consumer protection, the setting, implementation and control of standards for food and drugs? The basis of an awful lot of what we call government is the establishment of standards in all sorts of areas of life, standards which are necessary to secure our basic wish for equality, justice and fairness in all sorts of situations. Most of the laws we have (and laws and their implementation are the basis of government) are the result of concretely perceived needs and desires for regulation in communal life, the necessity of regulating conflicting interests. And it goes without saying that we all tend to regard our own interests as legitimate and necessary.

The dangerous thing about the Tea Party, and UKIP and the Sweden Democrats and all the others is that they offer a platform for various individuals to exploit the real fears and discontentment of ordinary people who have finally become fed up enough to start to articulate themselves or, more often, look for figures to articulate their worries and concerns. I don’t want to go into the individual motivations of those who emerge as leaders in such groups; many of them may well be sincere in their involvement and really believe in the simplistic slogans they offer as panaceas. But many of them are also following their own agendas, even if these be nothing more sinister than their desire for the personal rush supplied by the cheers and applause of the crowd, that craving for approval some seem to need on a larger scale than normal and whose rhetorical and communicative talents allow them to obtain this in such an arena. And I won’t even go into the possibilities such movements offer to all sorts of vested interests and groups with specific agendas to steer, influence and manipulate.

Of course, all this could not happen if a vacuum had not developed in the first place; a vacuum of trust, a fundamental disconnection between the “professional” political castes which exist in most of our societies and the people they purportedly represent. The perception most ordinary people have that politicians are not to be trusted, that they are lacking in understanding and empathy for our everyday problems and lives must be taken seriously by those involved in politics and those considering getting involved in politics. The very emergence of such groups is already an indictment of the political establishments. Unfortunately, the instinctive reaction of professional politicians in the established parties is one of hostility, ridicule and rejection. They should rather ask themselves where they have failed and what they could have done to prevent people being so disaffected as to feel they have to channel their needs and frustration in such directions. These are questions Democrat politicians at all levels in particular could profitably and honestly ask themselves in the USA at the moment. A look at Sweden or the Netherlands at the moment, where populist “right-wing” parties hold the balance of power following recent national elections should be warning enough.

The sad thing, in my view, is that such movements don’t really solve anything in the long term. Simplistic slogans and easy remedies may make people feel good but they don’t deal with complex problems just by being stated or chanted. Looking back in nostalgia to the good old days when everything was simpler and better is a universal human tendency but it is usually highly selective and involves strongly rose-coloured spectacles. We live in a complex, interconnected, networked global society and the future is not going to get simpler, particularly a future in which the world population will continue to grow, resources will become scarcer and a larger proportion of the global population will be demanding a fairer share of them.

And, perhaps, we need to demand more of our politicians. Not more work, for, in general, they work hard enough. The questions are at what, and for whom? No, what we must demand of them is more principle, more honesty, more moral courage. The courage to tell us the truth, even when the truth isn’t comfortable. The courage to say no more often. The courage, occasionally, to resign rather than compromise on basic principles. All of which is also, in the end, a challenge to us all to look at ourselves first. The conservative Savoyard diplomat, Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), a hero of the Counter-Enlightenment, has left little useful to our modern society, with one important exception; his comment, “every nation gets the government it deserves.” If there is any truth in this, then our politicians are, in some sense, a mirror-image of ourselves. And that, truly, can be a very worrying thought …

Friday, 24 September 2010


A few evenings ago, I had the apartment to myself and needed something new to read. This, in itself, is not so unusual; those who know me better know that I am incurably, deeply addicted to reading and that I always have a book going, frequently more than one, and it is completely unthinkable for me not to have something to read. Reading is as necessary for me as breathing and eating and has been since, at the age of five, I discovered the myriads of worlds contained inside book-covers.

A fortunate aspect of my particular form of this infinitely pleasant addiction is that I am well capable of rereading many books; in fact, one of my basic criteria for judging a book is the question as to whether I could imagine reading it again. So I perused my bookshelves and stopped at a large, handsome hardback volume, a special offer at Amazon for a pittance I happened to stumble across around a year ago, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Now that’s an idea, I thought, just the right evening for it. I made a choice of CDs (Händel’s Wassermusik being the first of the selection), a pot of roibusch tea, settled down into my armchair and returned happily to a world I first discovered over forty years ago.

When I was nine years old, we moved from the village of Tinahely to Wicklow town. I found the move very hard. Tinahely is a small village, beautifully situated in the Wicklow Mountains, and I had felt completely at home there. It was small enough for us as children to know practically everyone (or so we thought anyway) and, as a boy I had, with friends, explored large areas of the hilly countryside round about ( The move to the larger town of Wicklow left me feeling desperately homesick for many months, even if there were compensations, like a large public library. One cold and wet evening that winter, my father returned from a business trip to Dublin bringing three books by C.S. Lewis with him, The Magician’s Nephew, The Horse and His Boy and The Silver Chair. And so, for the first time I entered the world of Narnia.

I think I would have loved the books anyway; my acquaintance with fantasy went right back to the first book I remember reading, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and I had already been enchanted by The Wind in the Willows. But I think my unhappiness at that time increased my wonder at the world Lewis had created – it was escapism, pure and simple, but such escapism need not always be bad, particularly for a child. And what an escape! Children having wonderful adventures with marvellous, fantastic creatures in a magical world, written in a beautiful language with a narrative surety which pulls you along effortlessly through the stories. Lewis once said somewhere that he wrote the stories he himself as a child would have liked to read and he knew how to put things into stories which are important for children, like describing good things to eat, and, more generally, taking the time to tell of nice and happy things which happen, as well as portraying the tension, fear, uncertainty and discomfort which are the motors which move an adventure along. He also had the talent of addressing his readers directly with little asides, as an oral storyteller will do, moving briefly with a sentence outside the story (reminding you, often at some of the most frightening parts, that it is just a story), something which generally appeals to younger readers. At any rate it appealed to me.

Lewis wrote the seven Narnia books between 1949 and 1955 (they were published annually from 1950 to 1956). Although their publishing order is somewhat different, they follow a clear chronology, portraying the world of Narnia from its creation in The Magician’s Nephew to its end in The Last Battle (although the first published and perhaps most famous is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). My father, I think, knew nothing of this when he brought those three books home to us in the winter of 1969-70, and the fact that I read them out of sequence didn’t particularly worry me at the time. Interestingly, in his choice of three out of seven he managed to select the only books in which none of the Pevensie children play a role. Be that as it may, having read those three, I was determined to read the others as quickly as possible and, in the next year or two I managed to get my hands on all of them (if, in some cases, only temporarily from the local library).

What happened to those original books I do not know. I have four younger brothers and sisters and our family moved house a couple of times after that, none of which facts are particularly conducive to the survival of individual paperback books. During my time as a novice in the Dominican Order, I rediscovered all seven of them in the novel library of the noviciate house in Cork. I reread them, of course, along with many other of the books there – that novel library played a not insignificant role in my surviving that pretty strict, austere year (and I was instinctively careful not to mention to my novice master just how frequently I used it to enliven what were frequently pretty monotonous afternoons and evenings we were supposed to spend “studying,” just one aspect of a fairly completely regulated daily timetable).

The Chronicles of Narnia, as they are generally known, have been read and loved by millions of children (and adults) since they were published over half a century ago. They have also been the subject of some (frequently fierce) criticism. Lewis’ friend, fellow academic and fellow Inkling (a member of their informal literary club in Oxford), J.R.R. Tolkien disliked what he saw as Lewis’ too pervasive use of allegory in the stories, even though Tolkien himself was a convinced Catholic and more than a little instrumental in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. And, indeed, the allusions to Christianity, particularly in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Last Battle, are laid on pretty thick; the former being – in its basic plot line – a retelling of the basic Christian theme of betrayal, execution and resurrection, with Aslan as a hardly-disguised god-man (or god-lion) Christ figure. The contemporary children’s fantasy author and hard-line atheist, Philip Pullman, has been particularly harsh, describing the Narnia cycle as “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I've ever read” ( Pullman, of course, as a member of the Richard Dawkin’s school of muscular atheism, finds Lewis’ Christian apologetics deeply repugnant and resents that innocent children, reading the Narnia stories for fun, are thus willy-nilly subjected to Christian propaganda. He goes on to lambast Lewis’ “supernaturalism … reactionary sneering … misogyny … racism … and sheer dishonesty of his narrative method.”

Although my world-view is much closer to that of Pullman than of Lewis (my own faith-journey having taken the opposite direction to that of Lewis), I think he goes much too far here. Yes, Lewis is pushing Christianity, but I don’t think that really influences his young readers all that much. Children aren't bad at filtering out superfluous stuff and in Lewis' books the story is the important thing, because it's being told so well. And yes, he is (for all that he was Irish born) an English gentleman academic, born at the end of the 19th Century, with all the residual misogyny, snobbery and racism such a background brings with it. Much the same can be said for Tolkien (although Tolkien had no interest in expounding Christian theology in Lord of the Rings and didn’t). In the end, it doesn’t really matter, because the Narnia books are rattling good stories, exquisitely written. And, if I dare say it, much better than Pullman’s Dark Material trilogy, fine though this undoubtedly is. Pullman writes good fantasy, Lewis wrote classics.

One thing does unite Pullman and Lewis and contrasts them with Tolkien – the film versions of their works (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and Pullman’s The Golden Compass) are weak. It took the genius of Peter Jackson to tackle the most complicated and difficult project and produce a worthy cinematographic version of The Lord of the Rings (even if not as good as the literary original, but then, films never are really, are they?).

So, I’ve got to go now. You see, I have an appointment in Narnia (more correctly in Calormen, that threatening empire across the Great Desert to the south) with the Horse and his Boy …Narnia and the North!

Sixpence None the Richer are were a professed Christian group, who gave C.S. Lewis as one of their major influences. "Kiss me" was their biggest hit.

Monday, 20 September 2010

And now for something completely different ...

When life is hard and the going gets tough, there's one recipe which I can guarantee will make almost anyone feel better and even get you chuckling – anything by the Monty Pythons. This was something the British geniuses of comedy were themselves well aware of and, in fact, lampooned in the legendary end of The Life of Brian where a large number of people being crucified happily sing Always look on the Bright Side of Life, pointed by Eric Idle's legendary comment, “Cheer up Brian, worse things happen at sea ...”

The Monty Pythons, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Michael Palin, first appeared as a group with Monty Python's Flying Circus on the BBC in 1969 and their final major common project was their third film, The Meaning of Life, released in 1983. During this time they produced a body of work which must rank as the highest quality comedy produced during the 20th Century and setting a standard for all who have come after them, a standard which may often have been momentarily reached, but never with the consistent surety of touch achieved by the British troupe.

The British have always had a particular sense for comedy, especially a particular kind of clever, anarchistic, surreal, intelligent mayhem, which no other nation has quite managed to reach; one of the first major proponents being a certain Mr. Shakespeare from Stratford-on-Avon. The Pythons understood themselves as being part of a longer tradition, taking inspiration from the Goons (a group which contained Peter Sellers and Harry Seacombe), and particularly their artistic motor, the Irish comedy genius, Spike Milligan – John Cleese once said that “Milligan is the Great God to all of us.” During their time with the Pythons, and subsequently, all the members (with the exception of Chapman, who died in 1989) have had successful individual careers, variously in comedy, acting and film direction and production – Cleese's TV series Fawlty Towers is one of my personal favourites and a true comedy gem.

Good comedy always pushes at the boundaries and the Pythons were certainly no exception. The Life of Brian, a hilarious lampooning of all sorts of issues, using the New Testament as its template, was banned in my own country, Ireland, as blasphemous for many years; although this sobriquet was always rejected by the Pythons, who made it very clear that it was the story of the guy “born in the stable next door,” and the two brief appearances by Jesus in the film (at his birth and with the Sermon on the Mount) make this quite clear. In my own biography, my enthusiasm for the film led an older Dominican confrère to initiate an attempt to have me expelled from the Order during my student days in the early 80s – an attempt quashed by my wiser and more understanding religious superiors. Their irreverence led to some problems getting funding for some of their film projects, problems thankfully overcome with the help of rich rock musicians; Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin backing The Holy Grail and George Harrison putting up the production money for The Life of Brian.

But there was something completely authentic and honest about the Python's irreverence, something inevitable and absolutely necessary. Nowhere does this become clearer than after the death of Graham Chapman – perhaps the saddest of the Pythons, a man tortured by alcoholism and the strain of coming to terms and going public with his homosexuality, something much more difficult thirty years ago than it is in our more tolerant times, at least in this respect (Freddy Mercury is another example of this). The following account is taken from Wikipedia:

The five surviving Python members decided to stay away from his private funeral, to prevent it becoming a media circus and to give Chapman’s family some privacy. They sent a wreath in the shape of the famous Python foot with the message “To Graham from the other Pythons. Stop us if we’re getting too silly”. They held a private memorial service in St Bartholomew's Hospital in London on the evening of 6 December 1989, with a chorus of the Chinese version of the hymn "Jerusalem" ("… Bling me my speal, oh crowds unford, bling me my chaliot of file…"). Cleese delivered his eulogy, which began as follows:

Graham Chapman, co-author of the "Parrot Sketch”, is no more.
He has ceased to be. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. He's kicked the bucket,
hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet
the great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky. And I guess that we're all
thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, of such capability for kindness,
of such unusual intelligence, should now so suddenly be spirited away at the
age of only forty-eight, before he'd achieved many of the things of which he
was capable, and before he'd had enough fun.
Well, I feel that I should say: nonsense. Good riddance to him, the
 freeloading bastard, I hope he fries.
And the reason I feel I should say this is he would never forgive me
 if I didn't, if I threw — threw away this glorious opportunity to
shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him but mindless good taste. ...

Cleese continued after a break from laughter in the audience, claiming Chapman had whispered in his ear the night before, when he was writing the speech, saying:

All right Cleese. I know you are very proud of being the very first person
ever to say 'shit' on British television. If this service is really for me: Just
for starters, I want you to become the first person ever at a British memorial
service to say 'fuck'.

Palin also spoke, saying that he liked to think that Chapman was there with them all that day — "or rather, he will be in about 25 minutes," a reference to Chapman's habitual lateness when they were all working together. Idle, choking back tears, stated of Chapman that he had thought that Palin talked too much and had died rather than listen to him any more. He also led other surviving Python members along with Chapman's family and close friends in a rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from the film Monty Python's Life of Brian. Not to be outdone by Cleese, Idle was heard saying during the song's close: "I'd just like to be the last person at this meeting to say 'fuck'. Thank you very much, God bless you, Graham."

YouTube has loads of Python sketches and excerpts. After much deliberation, I've chosen one of the early classics – the “Dead Parrot” sketch John Cleese referred to in his eulogy for Graham Chapman.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Bloody Steel

I've just finished reading Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith; set in the USSR in 1953, the year of Stalin's death. The book is an excellent thriller, using as a factual inspiration the serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, also known as “the Rostov Ripper”, who was actually active during the 1980s.

What makes the book so good is the fact that it works on so many different levels. Behind the packing thriller/detective story, Smith explores and exposes the ghastly horror of life in the Soviet Union under Stalin and looks deeply at fundamental questions of individual morality and personal, existential redemption within such a gruesome, dehumanising system of terror.

Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, known publicly as “Stalin” [man of steel], (1878-1953) achieved supreme power in the Soviet Union in the years following Lenin's death in 1924; by 1928 he had pushed all his rivals (the most prominent being Leon Trotsky) aside and basically ruled the USSR alone for the next quarter of a century. It became a period in which the people of the USSR suffered and died on a scale unprecedented before and since, even when compared to the years of civil war and chaos following the October Revolution. Apart from the 35 million Soviet citizens killed during World War II (still preferably known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, which, incidentally did not begin until 1941), experts reckon that somewhere between 10 and 20 million more lost their lives as a result of famines, purges, forced labour and comprehensive mistreatment and torture in the Gulags (the widespread network of prisons and labour camps, mostly in Siberia), compulsory collectivisation and forced relocations of whole ethnic groups. How could such horrors happen (even leaving World War II aside) and how could a whole people accept it?

There are many complex answers to these questions – the most hair-raising being the old saw that the Russian people (and the nations dominated by Russia up to the early 1990s) has always been one of ignorant, passive, lazy peasants who understand nothing but the whip and the cudgel. This is, of course, ridiculous, but one sometimes gets the feeling that even the present-day Russian elites still have this attitude. From an historical perspective, it can be argued that the former Soviet empire has little of a democratic tradition and that autocracy and rule by decree rather than law are deeply rooted in its tradition and history. This is true, as far as it goes, but the same could be said for a lot of European countries (including many Western European ones) as recently as a hundred years ago. No, I believe that the Stalinist system, building on the Leninist system, which is itself quite a particular perversion of Marxist themes, formed a diabolical structure within which terror was not only possible but predicated and which was so ideologically refined and practically organised that any dissent, or even the possibility of potential dissent was ruthlessly and effectively eradicated. In this sense, apart from all the millions of dead and the hundreds of millions condemned to living for decades in grey distrust, fear and deprivation, Marxism itself is a victim of its Stalinist perversion; enduringly discredited by the horrors carried out in its name.

Marx saw society as being in a state of evolution, a development in which structures arose and became more complex until they self-destructed under their own internal contradictions, the result being new societal structures in which the whole process began once more. This, admittedly drastically simplified, is what he called dialectics, or, more properly, dialectical materialism. Analysing society in the second half of the 19th Century, Marx posited that the most developed nations of Western Europe and North America – as a result, basically, of the Industrial Revolution – had entered the capitalist phase of societal development, following more primitive forms such as mercantile, feudal or slave-based structures. But capitalism itself was not and could not be the final, optimal form of society; in itself capitalism contained too many contradictions, contradictions which were growing and deepening. Capitalism had brought forth a new class of people, the workers, those who possess nothing other than their children – the proletariat.

As capitalism develops, the conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (the class of the capitalists) increases because their interests are ineluctably opposed. Eventually the tension becomes too great, the proletariat rises in rebellion, taking the means of production into common collective ownership, wiping out capitalism and inaugurating the perfect society, communism. Perfect, because there are no more contradictions to be overcome. It is the end of alienation and in this condition the state itself withers away because it has become superfluous.

The period of revolution and the eradication of capitalism is a transitional state, socialism, characterised by what Marx calls “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” a state in which hard measures and difficult positions must be taken to protect the revolution against the reactionary forces of bourgeois counter-revolution. The logic of Marx's thinking led him to expect that the revolution would begin in the most highly industrialised societies, where the tensions between capital and workers had reached their extremes – areas like Britain, Northern France, the Low Countries, Western Germany or the North Eastern United States. But it was obviously the duty of all enlightened people who had accepted the truth of his analysis to work to hasten the coming workers' revolution, which was historically inevitable.

This, in a vastly simplified summary, is the kernel of Marx's theory of society and the march of history. In its application to Russia, Lenin, the leader and chief ideologue of the Russian communists was faced with a major problem. Russian society, still dominated by agriculture and an aristocrat/peasant society, was – according to Marxist categories – still primitive, with capitalism still in its infancy there. Much would have to happen before it had developed enough to become an arena for a workers' revolution. Lenin and many other Marxists were, understandably, not prepared to wait. Lenin worked out a theory which would allow the revolution to take place in Russia; it would take an elite, a group of people who understood the processes of history and its inevitable development, who could – on the basis of this understanding – confidently decide which the next steps to be taken were and be sure that these decisions were always correct. A group which would form the “vanguard of the proletariat,” which could guide and lead the workers through the revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, through the transitional phase of socialism to true communism. The Party.

In Leninism the Party is infallible – even more so than the pope, for the Party is infallible in every area of life and society. Nothing is too unimportant or trivial to escape its scrutiny, for the project during the socialist phase and the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing less than the purification of society of all remains of bourgeois influence, the practical perfection of communist humanity. The wishes and rights of the individual are insignificant compared with the importance of this project; “the individual is nothing, the collective is all.”

Stalin succeeded in gaining total control of the Party and so attained an unparalleled position of infallibility and power within Soviet society. He did this by a combination of cunning political manoeuvring and absolute ruthlessness. Having achieved ultimate power, he kept it by a combination of the same political manoeuvring and ruthlessness, accompanied by an indomitable will and a terrifying unpredictability. Terrifying is the only applicable word, for terror was Stalin's basic tool and he used it with an unerring instinct, refined probably over years of criminal thuggery prior to the 1917 Revolution.

In much of this, Stalin appears as a mirror-image of his greatest adversary, Adolf Hitler. Perhaps the only real significant difference between them is that Stalin won. There were some who appeared to have realised his dangerous nature; in the last months of his life, Lenin tried to warn against him but by that stage Stalin had already established too much control within the Party and Lenin's misgivings went unheeded or, at least, not heeded enough – Trotsky seems to have recognised the danger, but Trotsky had already been outmanoeuvred by the Man of Steel. In the course of the Second World War, Churchill also seems to have realised it, but was basically powerless to do anything about it; exhausted by the war, the western allies had no stomach for an immediate continuation of the war and Roosevelt in particular, tired and ill, consistently underestimated the Soviet leader. And so, Eastern Europe was handed over to Stalinist domination and the people of the Soviet Union were left in their purgatory. The allies failed the nerve and the strength, the ruthlessness and the stomach for carrying on the war against a new enemy – and given the situation in May 1945 who can blame them? France was in ruins, Britain exhausted and US concentration was now focussed on the Pacific theatre. In practical terms, defeating the Stalinist USSR would probably have entailed the use of atomic weapons on a scale far beyond that used against Japan (and in May 1945, the US still hadn't perfected the bomb).

As far as we can tell, Stalin seems to have believed in the political ideology of the Party he so completely dominated. And it was indeed the widespread genuine belief in Marxist-Leninism within the Soviet system which made his tyranny so effective. Even many of those denounced as dissidents and enemies of the Revolution who were subjected to show-trials and subsequent execution during the thirties accepted their fates as being justified, since the judgement of the Party was the judgement of history and could not err. Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon is a wonderful depiction of this mindset. The personal journey of Leo Demidov, the hero of Smith's Child 44 also has much to do with this viewpoint and its results for those who hold it. Demidov is an officer of the NKVD (the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs), Stalin's public and secret police organisation. His position has involved him in the observation and prosecution of thousands of people suspected of subversion or anti-Soviet actions or opinions. At the beginning of the book, he has no problem with any of this; such actions are necessary to protect and advance the development of Soviet society toward true Communism. The Party and the Soviet state cannot err – those suspected of illicit thoughts and activities are probably guilty because otherwise there would be no reason to suspect them of illicit views and actions and are treated accordingly. His problems begin when he comes across evidence that a serial murderer may be at large. This puts him into an ideological quandary because the Party position does not allow for the existence of such a pathological criminal within socialist society; such deviants can only exist in the corrupt, decadent society of the bourgeois west.

It was this unquestioning belief in the rightness of the Party – and its great leader, Comrade Stalin – which gave his absolute power such a firm foundation. In this context, Stalin's cynical question about the number of battalions commanded by the pope becomes almost modest, for he might also have boasted that he himself commanded more unquestioning fanatical believers than the pope. But, having moved beyond automatic faith in the infallibility of the Party line as defined and determined by the all-wise Comrade Stalin, Demidov is faced with the deepest question of all; what are the options for any decent person who is willy-nilly part of an all-pervasive structure which is fundamentally evil and corrupt? When resistance or even the smallest acts of non-compliance – even the private, internal choice to doubt the system – almost inevitably means his own death and the destruction of the lives of all those he cares for?

This is the final, infernal subtlety of the Stalinist system; the victims themselves are co-opted as perpetrators, everyone becomes implicated and there are no innocents. But, lest we become too thankful for the fact that we do not have to live within such structures, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we would rather not know where the wonderfully cheap jeans, pair of shoes or laptop we bought recently were made and how much human suffering, misery and exploitation were involved in their manufacture? How much are we implicated in, perverted by the many-layered, complexly woven, corrupt systems in which we daily find ourselves? Is it possible for us to free ourselves from these structures at all, without becoming ascetic monks? And how much of the cogent criticism non-dogmatic Marxist-inspired thinking and critique might bring to such questions has been irrevocably sullied by by its deadly Stalinist parody?

Stalin's legacy lives on. Others learned from him, his use of terror, propaganda and the cult of personality; Mao, for example, Enver Hoxha in Albania, or the still-ruling Kim dynasty in North Korea. And even today in Russia, Stalin still enjoys considerable popularity, the darker basic truth airbrushed away in favour of the man whose indomitable will pushed through industrialisation and modernisation in the Soviet Union and whose stubborn refusal to surrender led the Red Army and the Soviet people to victory against Hitler's Germany in the Great Patriotic War (never mind that the USSR was a passive ally of the Third Reich up to 1941 - passive, that is, with the exception of Poland). But then, Vladimir Putin sometimes seems to have learned a thing or two from his predecessor (looking at the way the independent press has been treated in Russia in the past years, for example) and he did, after all, begin his career in the KGB …

It wasn't easy to find a musical accompaniment for this post. Pink Floyd's “Waiting for the Worms” somehow seems to suit.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Oh Well ...

Well, it’s finally over. Our company, represented by yours truly, completed our final shift with Luis at eight o’clock this morning (I’ve posted about this already here It finished as I was more than half afraid it would, in an atmosphere of icy, almost completely silent hostility, accompanied – if it’s not just my paranoid fantasy working overtime – by a few small, subtle attempts at half-hearted, insignificant sabotage (suction pump not plugged in, material not in its usual place, that sort of thing). The parents demonstratively did not say goodbye this morning. Oh well …

It didn’t really worry me. I hadn’t let myself be provoked, it was Saturday morning, the sun was shining and I was out. And I have the next four days free, my first shift with my new patient is on Wednesday. So, with a light heart, I drove home, stopping on the way to buy fresh breakfast rolls. Breakfast, check my mails, have a look at a few of the papers on-line and then to bed.

When I come off the night-shift I try not to sleep for too long, three to four hours at most. If a bit brutal, it’s the best way I’ve found to kick my body and brain back to a normal day/night pattern. Admittedly, I’m not at my scintillating best after such an action but I’ve got nothing planned for today so I figured I could spend it just pottering around, hanging out, chilling … call it what you will. Besides, it’s just a shame to spend too much of such a beautiful late summer/early autumn Saturday in bed.

Ninety minutes after falling asleep, I was wakened by the angry buzzing of a fucking chain-saw only a couple of metres from my bedroom window. All right, I didn’t want to sleep for too long, but I had planned for a bit more sleep than this! One of my neighbours had decided to use the fine weather to trim a tree in his garden. Although “trim” is a harmless description of what he’s actually done; he’s cut the thing back to within an inch of its life. I liked that tree! To be fair, it stands at the edge of a traffic junction, very close to his house and it probably had to be cut back for safety reasons. Oh well …

I got up.

The most weird and wonderful thing this week was what happened with the last essay I posted here, the one about Salvador Allende and September 11th. It was picked up by a friend of mine, Chris Jenkins, in Florida, a friend whom I have never met. The internet is truly amazing. Chris and I have known each other for a couple of years now and have in the course of this time discussed all sorts of issues, agreed and disagreed about any number of things. He’s an important member of the small group of people I’ve got to know online who I would truly describe as friends, even in a world in which – due to facebook and other social networks – the word has been the victim of colossal inflation. If you want to pimp your website, or, more seriously, generally improve your online presence, Chris is your man; just let me know and I’ll put you in touch with him.

Chris liked my essay and posted links on a couple of networks in which he is involved. As a result, in the past 48 hours, this blog has been clicked around 6,500 times. As I said, the internet is truly amazing. It’s almost certainly a one-off thing, having to do with the topicality of the subject, but it’s still very flattering while it lasts (and I will admit that there’s a tiny part of me that’s still waiting for the e-mail from The Huffington Post, inviting me to blog for them J…). Oh well ...

That chain-saw is still buzzing outside. Cherish the picture here, folks, that last bit of leafy crown is now gone and it looks like that tree has been sentenced to death. Oh well …

If you find this post somewhat strange, put it down to acute sleep-deprivation. Here’s Fleetwood Mac in their original formation with the legendary Peter Green and … what else … “Oh Well” …

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The other 9/11

As the ninth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack rolls around, accompanied by an infamous Koran-burning project, I was reminded recently that the fall of the Twin Towers is not the only horrible event which took place on September 11th.

At the beginning of September 1973, Salvador Allende had been president of Chile for nearly three years. A doctor by training, he was a cofounder of the Socialist Party of Chile in 1933, the same year he qualified as a doctor at the age of twenty-five and had spent his whole life as a left-wing politician, including periods as health minister and president of the Chilean senate. He was democratically elected president in 1970 and started to carry through a radical programme of nationalisation of industry and natural resources (particularly copper mines) and continued the process of the transfer of land from large landowners to the peasants begun by his Christian Democrat predecessor.

Allende was loved and supported by the little people of Chile, the poor, the peasants and the workers. He was opposed – obviously – by the rich, the powerful, the Catholic Church and, of course, the USA. Nixon and Kissinger, caught up as they were in Cold War block categories, regarded him simply as a communist and were convinced that he could not be allowed to remain in power. Following Allende’s election, Nixon ordered the CIA to depose him (the operation was called Project FUBELT). "Make the economy scream [in Chile to] prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him." (Documented order from Nixon to CIA boss, Richard Helms, September, 1970.) With CIA backing, the head of the Chilean military, General Schneider, who was against military intervention in politics, was assassinated. The provocation – designed to open the way for generals in favour of a coup d’état – backfired because the public and political reaction in Chile to the murder was an increase in support for Allende and a strengthening determination not to let constitutional politics and the rule of law be threatened.

The opposition of the Nixon administration to Allende remained steadfast, and there were various attempts to destabilise Chile, including a long-running truckers strike in 1972. The description of the strike as that being of truck-drivers is somewhat misleading, as it wasn’t so much the drivers (few of whom owned their trucks) who striked as the truck-owners. Henry Kissinger presented the US position clearly with the comment; "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves."

So, was Allende a communist? He was certainly strongly influenced by Marxism and was generally described as a Marxist. He admired Mao’s China and Ho Chi Min and was friendly with Fidel Castro. Politically he came to power as leader of a broad Popular Front movement, including communists, socialists and social democrats. When in power he vigorously pursued classic socialist/communist themes, such as nationalisation of the means of production and the precedence of the working class. But Allende had also been deeply influenced in his political formation by anarcho-syndicalist ideas and he was always a convinced democrat. He rejected the fundamentalist Leninist theses of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the primacy of the communist party and the need for the leadership of the socialist revolution to establish secure control over all the machinery of the state, particularly the military. Although the Soviets supported Allende, that support was less than whole-hearted, probably because of his unwillingness to use force against his opponents.

Something which, seen in terms of realpolitik, finally led to his downfall. The tension in Chile, fuelled massively by destabilising measures originating in the US, continued to grow. The “golpe” (coup) was increasingly seen by observers both within Chile and abroad during the summer of 1973 as ever more likely. A first putsch attempt in June failed. On September 11, 1973, the armed forces, under the leadership of General Augusto Pinochet, moved to take power in the country and depose Allende’s democratically elected government.

The president and his supporters took refuge in the presidential palace, La Moneda, which was attacked by armour and infantry and bombed by the air-force. With the palace in flames, Allende made a last emotional farewell speech by radio, telling the nation of the coup and his refusal to resign his elected office under threat, and his supporters surrendered. Allende himself (most sources today agree) committed suicide as the military stormed the building.

It appears that Pinochet’s coup was not directly instigated by the CIA, although they knew that it was coming. They didn’t have to – the numerous acts of destabilisation in the previous three years had come to their logical fruition. Forty eight years of democratic constitutionalism (a proud record for Latin America) ended. Pinochet’s junta ruled for 17 years. In the aftermath of the coup, around forty thousand people were impounded in the National Stadium and thousands were killed or disappeared. Many more were tortured.

Today, Chile is a democracy again, but many Chilean commentators observe that the country has yet to really deal with what happened under the junta – there are parallels here to Spain and the massive skeleton Franco left in the Hispanic closet. A marvellous exception is the great novel by Allende’s cousin, Isabel, The House of the Spirits.

So, this Saturday the press will be full of calls to remember the Twin Towers, and rightly so. But we can also think of September 11, 1973 and the bloody death of a dream of decency and dignity and all the horrors which followed.

“I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this gray and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again and free men will walk through them to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!”

(Salvador Allende, Final radio speech, September 11, 1973)

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Islam, Integration and the West

A new discussion over the integration of immigrants has broken out in Germany in recent days; set off by a book published by a social democrat member of the board of the Bundesbank (Germany’s central bank). In it, Thilo Sarrazin argues that Germany is facing major problems because of immigration, in particular because of Muslim immigrants. They are not interested in integration, they form a counter-culture which has no interest in accepting the values of the country in which they live, are interested in taking as much as they can while giving as little as possible and are going to outbreed the Germans.

Sarrazin’s arguments are badly researched and many of them are just plain wrong – for example, his thesis that intelligence is genetically determined, more, that this genetic determination has a racial basis. He has been roundly condemned by the whole political and public establishment, it looks like the German president, Christian Wulff is going to fire him from the board of the bank (something that’s legally complicated) and the social democrats (SPD) are getting ready to throw him out of the party.

There’s one problem with the whole affair. Opinion polls reveal that somewhere between a third and a half of all Germans agree substantially with the man, or at least feel that his opinions don’t warrant him being sacked. Obviously Sarrazin has touched a nerve among ordinary Germans. This is one of the things which makes established politicians so nervous about him and which has caused near unanimity to break out between all the main political parties. The shadow of the swastika is long indeed.

So, is Germany experiencing a reawakening of Nazi sympathies? I don’t think so. Uneasiness about immigrants with an Islamic background is widespread throughout Western Europe; in December last year the Swiss approved by referendum a prohibition of minarets, France has banned the hijab in schools and hospitals, and the party of the Dutch populist, Geert Wilders, running on a radical anti-Islam programme won over 15% of the vote in the recent general election, becoming the third biggest party in the Netherlands.

So what we are seeing is a general European phenomenon, rather than a resurgence of Nazism in Germany. And, if I am to be honest, spiting my deeply held liberal principles, there’s a part of me that understands it, dare I say, even sympathises with it.

Remscheid, the town in which I live, has around 15% non-Germans, by far the largest group being Turkish and this figure does not include the large number of second and third-generation Turks who have German passports. There is a sizable area of the town frequently called “Little Anatolia,” where the proportion is much higher, and walking the main streets you sometimes have the feeling that every second woman is wearing a long coat and a headscarf.

I don’t think that Germany has a general problem with the integration of immigrants. The repeated waves of Gastarbeiter since the late fifties, who came to work and stayed to live from countries like Italy, Spain, Greece, former Yugoslavia, Portugal, have largely fitted into German society, the second and third generations mostly feeling completely at home here. The last wave of immigrants, those claiming some kind of German ancestry, from Eastern Europe and the former USSR in the 80s and 90s is also – with a few exceptions – finding its place within society. Many Turkish immigrants have also integrated themselves into the wider German society; Lower Saxony recently got its first government minister (a woman at that) with a Turkish background, and Cem Ösdemir, the son of Turkish immigrants, is the chairman of the Green Party. Such examples, as well as the thousands of lawyers, journalists, engineers, businesspeople, etc., make a nonsense of Sarrazin’s racial intelligence theories.

But there is also a large group of Turkish (and, to a lesser extent, Arab) immigrants who are not integrated and my view is that much of this has to do with cultural factors, where Islamic identity seems to play a large part. Most of these come from areas in Eastern Anatolia where the culture is deeply traditional, conservative and patriarchal. Arranged marriages are common in this group, frequently involving a spouse from the native village back in the homeland.

This can, and often does have worrying consequences. Young men, who have grown up in Germany, are married by their families to younger women, who come to Germany without any knowledge of or preparation for life in a very different, complex, western society. They don’t speak the language and are completely dependent on others for survival. Their children grow up in households where little or no German is spoken and the main child-rearer knows nothing of the culture in which they all live. The children start school and are immediately at a disadvantage because they don’t speak or understand the language well and their mothers are unable to help them with homework – are, indeed, frequently unaware of the problems which are growing. The kids perform badly at school, have increasingly meagre prospects in our competitive societies and, by the time they are teenagers, already have the feeling that they are losers. And this, in their view, is the fault of the host society, which discriminates against them, which offers opportunities but then says that they are excluded from them. And so a pool of angry young men forms, full of wounded pride, machismo and inferiority complexes – fertile ground for extremist Islamicist recruiting agents. Remember the recurring riots in the Paris suburbs? The three Al Qaeda members convicted in London last year in relation to the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot all grew up in the UK.

This is only one description of the many mechanisms behind alienation and failed integration for, as Oscar Wilde once commented, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.” In fact, this is one of the major problems in most of the public discussions concerning Islam and integration, the subject is complex and many-layered, with failures, prejudices and misunderstandings on both sides. In this respect, simplified and simplistic sound-bite discussions such as those sparked off by Sarrazin are – at the very least – counterproductive.

But I have stated that part of me even sympathises with some of the critical popularising theses being bandied around with relation to Islam, immigration and integration, and I feel the need to explain this. There are aspects of Islamic teaching, or at least the cultures with an Islamic background, many of whose immigrant representatives claim are Islamic teachings, which I find both personally offensive and incompatible with basic values of western societies – values such as secularism, pluralism, separation of church/mosque and state, equality, respect for the positions of others, the rights of women. There is a difference between a grudging acceptance of secular values in society in which one is a minority and the positive affirmation that the separation of religion and state is superior to systems regulated by Sharia – including societies in which Muslims form the majority. I find it offensive as a man to be told that a woman should cover herself in swathes and layers of clothing and veils so as not to arouse my baser instincts. I do not think that it is right for a first-grade boy to tell his teacher that she has no right to tell him to do anything because she is only a woman and I do not like the fact that children are being brought up with such attitudes in thousands of families in the society in which I live and whose values I cherish. I find it reprehensible that teenagers are married off to others who they do not know because their fathers order it. I have little sympathy with attitudes which do not place a high priority on obtaining basic competence in the language of the country in which one lives. I actively dislike a religious teaching which denies basic rights to non-believers (apart from some exceptions for Jews and Christians, the other “peoples of the book” – and what is my position, as an “apostate” ex-Christian in such a world-view?).

Western society poses a major challenge for Islam. But that challenge is not to the existence of Islam as such, but rather to develop an enlightened, sophisticated, modern view of itself as part of the contemporary world, in confident, secure dialogue with society; contributing to its richness but also learning from its diversity and insights. This process is not easy for any religion; although the Enlightenment (the intellectual source for most of the agreed values of modern western society) originated within Christian culture, the Christian religions have themselves had major difficulties in finding their place within pluralist, secular systems – the Catholic Church needing around 200 years before finally making general peace with “liberal” views of society with the publication of Gaudium et Spes, “The Constitution on the Chruch in the Modern World” as part of the Vatican II process in the 1960s (and there are not a few voices, within both Protestant and Catholic fundamentalism which continue to reject secular values).

If people with an Islamic cultural background are to find an enduring comfortable place within societies which are predominantly non-Muslim, then there is an urgent need for an enlightened, moderate, open interpretation of Islamic teaching, which can represent them and enter into dialogue with their host societies, which can claim authority and the high moral ground in speaking for Islam and not leave this position free for simplistic, fearful, aggressive fundamentalism. There is a challenge to western society to critically examine itself with relation to questions like tolerance, prejudice and openness to others – but this is a continual challenge to open societies everywhere with respect to all sorts of issues; the challenge to self-examination and continuous critical dialogue. But the challenge to Islam is just as great – to show that it can be a part of complex modern society, to positively affirm tolerance, multiplicity and the other Enlightenment values and find justification for them within its own religious context. And to take on and defeat in argument and debate the simplistic, simple-minded fundamentalists who claim to represent the teaching of Muhammad and the Muslim traditions. A moderate, open expression of Islam which speaks for, and is seen to speak for the vast majority of Muslims.

Sarrazin continues to make waves in Germany. In a poll published today, 18% of Germans said that they would vote for a new right-wing populist party led by him (such a party, fortunately, does not yet exist). This tendency to simplistic, slogan-driven, right-wing populism is worrying. It has broken out in many European countries, including the Netherlands and the UK in their most recent general elections and can be seen as the European expression of the Tea Party movement in the USA. We need them all about as much as we need a repeat of 9/11. And if the majority of decent people world-wide don’t resist their siren calls, promising easy solutions appealing to our baser nature, we’ll get both. Or worse.


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